Interview by Dan Hyman
Tim Robbins has crawled through feces before, while making his escape toward freedom in Shawshank Redemption. But that was fiction. The past few years, however, were not.
“I had a rough period,” says the 52-year-old actor, noting the collapse of a movie he was putting together, as well as a set of forgettable roles in films like Catch a Fire, The Lucky Ones, and City of Ember. Even worse, in December 2009 his high-profile marriage to actress Susan Sarandon — his wife of 22 years and the mother of his three children — ended in divorce.
Music, however, came to Robbins' aid. Really, it had been there all along; his parents were musicians, after all, his father a member of 60's folk group The Highwaymen. And Robbins himself had dabbled in music in the past, most notably opening for Pearl Jam on John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. Like the failed Democrat, however, Robbins didn't have too much to say at the time.
But now, thanks to all of his angst, Robbins has finally achieved audible salvation in the form of his eponymous debut album — a nine-track set of rustic folk numbers accompanied by the Rogue Gallery Band. (For my money, it recalls vintage Springsteen by way of Leonard Cohen.) He's also touring behind the release, and performs at the Largo this Thursday and Friday. We caught up with him on the phone at his Seattle stop.
Given that you grew up around music and have long been passionate about it, why didn't you release anything before?
I had the opportunity in the past to do it, offers for albums. The first time being in '92 when Bob Roberts came out. I just felt at the time I didn't really have a complete being–didn't feel like I had enough to say. Growing up with parents who are both musicians, you kind of develop a real respect for the whole process of what it is to make music. You get the idea early on that you should have something to say. Coming home from school, seeing dad over music composition paper, working on an oratorium, the degree of commitment that he had towards it. When the opportunity was presented to me, it just seemed disingenuous for me to jump right in. I kept writing songs and I kept doing real small projects here and there in music, but didn't really feel I had enough passion for it. Plus, I had a career in the movies and writing, directing and acting, and I had a family that I was raising.
So what changed?
I had a rough period where I was trying to put a movie together, Wall Street was falling apart, the movie industry seemed kind of neurotic. So I went home and I put down some music in a recording studio–just put it down for documentation. 15 songs. A couple months after that, I ran into my friend, [producer] Hal Wilner, and he asked me what I was doing in music these days. I told him about this little demo I'd made and he said, “Well I'd like to hear it.” He listened to it and said “Listen, I think there's an album in here. In fact I think I have the perfect band for you. We're gonna be playing in three weeks in the UK in a series of concerts if you want to join in those concerts, sing a couple songs a night. We have two days off so we could go into a studio in London with these guys and see if anything happens.”
You had the wherewithal to recognize your own talent, but needed that extra push to embrace it.
It was really [Wilner's] enthusiasm and the synchronicity of him having this band put together that got album made. I don't know that I would have gone and pursued it on my own. It just seemed that Hal had a plan for me so I went with it. This is not an album I could have made earlier in my life.
What did you parents teach you about music? Did they encourage you to pursue acting over their own line of work?
When I was young I wanted to go to performing arts high school in Manhattan. And that was one line (my parents) did draw. They said they didn't want us children to be professionally trained children. They felt that we needed an education and that oftentimes the education you receive can inform who you are as an artist. I'm glad they did that because I found that oftentimes courses I took in psychology and anthropology really informed my idea of human behavior more than an acting course could have. But, all that said, they provided us a great example, that of course you don't realize till much later, that music or a creative endeavor is a legitimate way to pursue your life. That is pretty rare. Not a lot of people are lucky enough to have parents that live their life with that example. That's it's okay if you want to try to make your living being creative.
You've got full-grown kids of your own now. What do they think of Dad, the heartthrob musician with panties being thrown at him on stage?
I'm trying not to be a rock star. [Laughing]. My kids are okay with it. My son Miles is a great musician. His band is going to be opening up for us on the East Coast leg of the tour. One of the traditions of folk music is that the son carries on the story of the father or the son carries on the stories of the grandfather. A couple years ago I was invited to do this Pete Seeger tribute at Madison Square Garden. It was so great to be included in that. They invited me to sing “Michael Row The Boat Ashore,” which is a song my dad's group had a big hit with. It was gonna be with the McGarrigle sisters and Rufus and Martha Wainwright. And when they asked me, I said “Could I ask my son to come along and sing a verse?” And without thinking anything, they said yes because that's kind of the tradition– you bring your son with you. So many folk musicians have done it. In fact, Rufus and Martha are sons of Loudon. So I said to Miles, you know, we've been invited to do this Pete Seeger tribute. And he said “Oh cool”–'cause we had done this Woody Guthrie tribute a few months earlier at Webster Hall–“where's it gonna be?” And I said, Madison Square Garden. And he said “Are you out of your fucking mind?”
But obviously someone talked some sense into him.
I said “Miles, you really like to be on that stage, no matter how big or how small it is, your grandfather sang that song on stages throughout the United States. If anyone has the right to sing it, you have the right to sing it. And so he came to rehearsal and he sang beautifully and Rufus and Martha came up to him and Dave Navarro came up and said “Miles, you really should do this.” That gave him the confidence to do it. I was really proud of him.
What will you remember about the two days in a London studio that resulted in your debut album?
That's a slice of time with great musicians. I went into the studio and played [the Rogues Gallery Band] the songs on my guitar. And I had talked to Hal about the kind of instruments I'd [like to] hear. There's a hurdy-gurdy there, and the harmonium and some woodwinds. Everything that you hear on the album is pretty much live. We did a couple overdubs in New York. We did the trumpets on “Lighting Calls” and we did a couple background vocals with Joan as Police Woman, but that's all we really added. Every time we tried to think about substituting any kind of striving to fix something, it just felt right. It's immediate and personal and imperfect.
Imperfect? I take it then that you're of the mindset that studio work is a bit stifling to creativity?
I'm not a fan of perfection in any kind of art. I think one of the things that makes the live experience so interesting is that anything can happen. Particularly live, when you hear a drum track that's been programmed, it just feels…
Like you're being cheated?
You're being cheated of a personal experience.
Acting is allowing oneself to be put in a vulnerable position, but perhaps nothing opens a person up to criticism like songwriting.
Certainly the musicians I admire are the ones that are able to relate raw emotional honest truth. I'm the same way with actors. Actors that just have the courage to rip themselves open and show what's there at the rawest stage [appeal to me].
How is songwriting different than acting in that “all-revealing” respect?
Songwriting is even more personal because you're not interpreting someone else's words or someone else's story. And even though when you write a song there is metaphor, it's not a literal experience. It's not reportage. It's taking an experience you've had and applying hopefully some poetic structure to it, letting your imagination fill in the gaps and try to figure out a way to tell that story in as honest a way as possible. But it is personal. It is, to some degree, laying yourself bare.