JUNE 2011 By Greg Phillips
Robbie Robertson was there at the beginning of a revolution in music. He was there as part of Bob Dylan’s backing band when the folk singer went electric and polarised fans in the sixties. It was at that moment that rock n’ roll was longer just an excuse to dance. With Dylan going electric, now rock n’ roll had a voice and something to say. Robertson and the band went on to become The Band, one of the most influential rock bands in contemporary music history. Albums such as Music From Big Pink, The Band and Stage Fright are considered landmark records in the annals of rock. It all culminated in ‘The Last Waltz’ their final set of gigs, which was captured by filmmaker Martin Scorcese in a highly acclaimed movie. Main songwriter Robertson continued to gather accolades as a solo artist and for his involvement in the music for other Scorcese films. Now Robbie has just released a new album, How To Be Clairvoyant, a collaboration with Eric Clapton, with appearances by Steve Winwood, Tom Morello, Trent Reznor and Robert Randolph. It was with a degree of awe that AM’s Greg Phillips spoke to Robbie about the creation of his new solo album.
In press I’ve read, you have said that the album began with you and Eric playing around with ideas which you later developed. I’m trying to picture what happened in that room that first time. Do you play a lick and Eric follows and vice versa, or do you come to the room with some sketchy ideas to begin with?
It’s not a formula necessarily, but usually what happens, is that one or the other person will pick up a guitar. Then the other person will see what is happening and pick up a guitar. Then one of the two people may start to play something that comes to mind and if it sounds like it is going somewhere, then the other person joins in with it and you just see where that leads. This is not a process I do a lot of. This is a very particular thing to do with the music relationship that Eric and I have. When he reaches for something when he is working with me, it is something that in his library of music, and based on what I have done in my past, relates to me. It isn’t random and it isn’t like OK, I’m going to do something really crazy here and see if that makes any sense. With him there is something very respectful and musical, first of all, about the approach. So we are both saying to one another musically with our guitars, I’m open for wherever you wanna go. Sometimes a little spark comes or maybe one of us comes up with the very beginnings of an idea or something and it grows for there.
You’re known as great guitarist. You have Eric, Tom Morello and Robert Randolph on the album, and a song called ‘Axman’. Even though there’s a lot of guitar on the album, for the most part the guitars are mixed into a warm blend with everything else rather than being a focal point. Is that a fair comment and was that a conscious thing?
There’s a lot of guitar solos on this record. I don’t know. I will tell you what is going on, you know, behind the curtain with that one. I don’t want there to be guitar acrobatics on my records. I am not interested in that. That’s just somebody doing back flips. I am interested in the thing that can move me emotionally and cry in my head. I am looking for something else and god knows, with Robert Randolph and Eric Clapton and Tom Morello, I could have gone extremely in the other direction, but it was too obvious for me.
The song ‘He Don’t Live Here No More’ is about a period of time in your youth and I believe time spent with Martin Scorcese. You have given his films some great music. What does Martin offer you inspiration-wise?
Inspiration-wise, we have been working together since 1976. It is a great experience working with Marty. He asks me to help figure out things on lots of his movies or I score them or find music for. Whatever the occasion is, it is always a creative blast. It also has something to do with our friendship as well. In this record, that fact that I was reflecting on some periods which were pivotal life-changing periods. I was actually writing ‘He Don’t Live Here No More’ to Eric Clapton. I wrote that song directly to him and I was using in this story, experiences that Scorcese and I had to relate to it. It’s talking about nearly driving off the end of a cliff and stopping before you get there, and that things have to change. Eric is one of the most wonderful recovery stories that I have ever heard. The fact that Marty and I, and in fact everybody was living so decadently and so reckless, without even realising it at the time. The fact that all of us were able to come out of it the other side of that is something to reflect on and celebrate.
The track ‘This Is Where I Get Off’ is about The Band. You’re obviously reflecting on your past and I wanted to ask just a couple of Band related questions … The Band has left a great legacy not only of songs but the way you played … where the instrumentation would be off the beat, and the harmonies staggered and coming in late …
I like the way you describe that. I like the description of the harmonies staggered.
Well, it’s a sound which carries on today with so many bands. I’m wondering if that was that a naturally occuring thing or something that came out of playing with Dylan?
No that didn’t have anything to do with playing with Dylan. It had to do mostly with the songs I was writing. I knew that these songs needed a certain rawness for them to be really honest. I liked it when we would be doing harmonies and figuring out the harmonies if everyone didn’t come in together. Then I could hear everybody’s voice distinctly. Things get so tight and perfected, you know, like Crosby, Stills and Nash and Young or something like that. That’s not what I am looking for. I even have that on this record. I do a thing with Angela McCluskey, where I insisted she doesn’t sing with me, and it’s the same thing with the background singers on some of the other songs and with Eric Clapton’s background vocals too.
The 1966 tour and the judas comment period after Dylan had gone electric … What was was vibe like in the band room before heading out on stage each night? Did you need to reassure each other?
No. We got the joke very early on. What I was really interested in was playing the music really well and us being able to say we’re right and you’re wrong. That’s what my preoccupation was. Playing those songs really well was what I was looking for. The booing and people throwing stuff was a ritual. It happened every night. After a few nights, you get used to it. There’d be a joke sometimes, like OK guys get ready to duck. Let’s go!
Looking at some internet forums, there was one debate about whether you are a Tele player or Strat player. Do you actually have a preference?
When I started out, all the early years were Telecaster. then about half way through the time of The Band, I found a particular Stratocaster. It felt so good and so balanced. It was an old Stratocaster, it wasn’t a new one. I also had a Stratocaster too just before I joined Ronnie Hawkins for a short while but then I went to the Telecaster. We had to play long hours in rough joints and you didn’t want something heavy around your shoulder in those days, so the Telecaster was great. It was light and it didn’t break. Then I moved on to the Stratocaster. But just for your information, one of the stars of this new record How To Be Clairvoyant, is a guitar that I have. It’s a 1927 00045 gut string Martin, that Eric pulled off the wall of my studio and said … wow, look at this! He played it on three songs on the record and I played it on two.
I played the solo on ‘He Don’t Live Here No More’ on it. Now Martin has decided that they are going to start making this guitar again, just because we used it like we did on this record. It’s a very rare old guitar. It has a feel to it and … the sound … it turned out to be a star in the recording. We didn’t realise it but … we tried other acoustic guitars, but this was the one which spoke beautifully.
Because you don’t tour, I’m wondering what kind of project would bring you back to Australia? Does Marty need to make a movie here or something?
Ha, well that’s a good idea actually! I love Australia and I would love to come back and you’ve just planted a little seed for me. I’m gonna figure out some excuse to come to Australia.
So Robbie, what do you hope people get out of this album?
Of course I want them to become clairvoyant … but you got to listen to it a lot! If you do listen to it a lot, you’ll find that you do become clairvoyant.
How to Be A Clairvoyant is out now. A limited edition signed collector’s package featuring 10 bonus tracks, artwork by Richard Prince, Anton Corbijn and Ricky Jay, interactive DVD, vinyl, and lithographs can be ordered now. www.robbie-robertson.com