My interview with Tim Robbins was always going to be a peculiar one. The actor-turned singer was in Japan for a week of concerts at the Blue Note Tokyo, supporting his 2010 album Tim Robbins & The Rogues Gallery Band, but I was warned beforehand not to mention any of his movies – a tough ask considering that the Oscar winner has been part of the Hollywood furniture for more than two decades – and it was politely suggested that he’d only want to talk about his music. No Susan Sarandon, then. I duly set about studying the man’s only album, and the music that might have inspired it.
I needn’t have been so meticulous. Tim Robbins is a walking encyclopaedia of musical minutiae (seriously, next time you find yourself in a lift with him, ask him about punk, folk, lo-fi…you get the impression he commits it all to memory like words from a script). And so I sat with him for 30 learned minutes, bouncing between family memories (his father was an admired folk singer) and his experiences of fame (‘It’s all in your head’), hearing about how he won’t be ‘going Indonesian’ on his next album, and the Robbins secret to ‘living free’. A wide-ranging interview, then, to say the least, and possibly his first since 1994 (I’m kinda proud to say) not to use the word ‘Shawkshank’…
Your father was a folk singer heavily involved in the The Gaslight [a Greenwich Village folk club that served as a breeding ground for the likes of Joni Mitchell, Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan]. Presumably you grew up with that kind of music around you?
Immersed in it. Immersed in music from the very start. It was what provided the first creative inspiration in my life. There was no television, we didn’t go to the movies that much. Music was really where it was happening. We didn’t have much money but we had a stereo, a turntable and vinyl coming into the house.
What are the earliest songs you can recall hearing?
Well, one of them I do in our set, called ‘Buckeye Jim’. It’s from a Burl Ives record of children’s songs. Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk, early Weavers, Peter Paul & Mary… dad’s group, The Highwaymen…
Were these people who were actually in and out the house?
Yeah. Dad had an act with Tom Paxton for a while, so he was a friend. Various people floated through. Dad hung out with a lot of them at The Kettle of Fish, next to The Gaslight. There was a whole scene there.
Were your own political views influenced by this kind of scene? I’m thinking of the kind of socialist politics that Woody Guthrie and similar folk artists espoused…
Socialist? Really? Certainly Woody Guthrie is the root of a lot of the folk revival. He and Huddie Ledbetter [Lead Belly], and The Weavers. Pete Seeger certainly had a lot to do with that. When he was blacklisted, he took his banjo on the road and went from town to town playing his songs. When he showed up in a town without his band, without The Weavers, he’d tell his audience ‘I need your help’, and he’d involve them in singing a lot of the songs that he’d brought along. Joan Baez said somewhere that the first time she realised she could be a folk singer was when she was at a Pete Seeger concert, singing along. Pete opened up her voice.
I always viewed folk music as something that was telling stories from generations ago, and carrying them on to a new time. It included sea shanties and work songs from the fields in the South. Certainly labour songs were part of that, as were songs about veterans from the civil war and WWI. Those traditions of storytelling were part of what folk music was about. I wouldn’t say that’s socialist. I’d say that’s community-based music.
Is it this kind of music that you tend to listen to when you’re around the house today?
Well, you know, I’ve gone through many phases! It was originally folk music, then of course I went through rock’n’roll, Motown, punk… But what do I listen to now? I listen to Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons, Flaming Lips – all stuff that my kids have turned me onto. This great band called Neutral Milk Hotel…
Were there artists that you saw in concert in those formative years who you’d think, ‘I wanna be just like that?’
Not really, no. I think it was more listening to the music… I never really wanted to be like anybody. I think I could say that I was influenced by a certain kind of songwriter: Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Springsteen… that kind of idea that they could take you into a world and within four and a half minutes your imagination was opened up.
That storytelling is key to your album…
It’s key to the album and it’s also key to my whole career. When I was putting together the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, the people that I reached out to were the people that had influenced me and the way I write and approach storytelling in the cinematic realm, and also in the plays I’ve written. The kinds of stories that I’ve wanted to tell from very, very early on, in the theatre and movies, were the stories that were influenced by those kind of songwriters. In fact, I’d say I was influenced more by songwriters than I was by dramatists.
The songs on your album are songs that you’ve been writing all your life, am I right?
One of them is old, written in 1985, called ‘Dreams’. One of them was written in 1999, and the rest were written in the last five years. All of these songs were written on the road, in hotel rooms. [Laughs] They were based on experiences I’d just had with people who were in bars or on sets, people that’d come up and tell you their story. It happens when you’re famous. If you’re open to it, and you’re not closed off, people will tell you things that they might not tell anyone else. I believe it’s a kind of a blessing to be able to hear the raw story.
Presumably then you’re someone who will go into a bar and allow people to approach you?
I never avoid contact. I never accepted the idea that it made me special to be famous. I never accepted the idea that I had to have body guards or be protected – I just thought that was a horrible way to live a life. So, from the very start, I just went out into it and dealt with it as I would. Sometimes it’s a little uncomfortable, most of the time it’s fine.
So you don’t find yourself having to wear disguises?
No! Why would you wear a disguise? I think people like that draw more attention to themselves, and they get more and more distant. I remember running into a friend of mine who was a friend before we were both famous, and she became pretty famous and I remember seeing her at an awards show, and she was surrounded by people who were pushy. I thought, ‘What the fuck?’ I said, ‘When was the last time you were on the subway?’ She said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t go on the subway!’ I said, ‘Trust me, you can go on the subway!’ It’s all in your head, you know? If you walk down the street with people around you, people will notice who you are. If you walk down the street by yourself, a few people will notice, but you’re not going to draw trouble to yourself. I guarantee it, no matter how famous you are. And I’ve tested it out with super famous friends of mine [laughs], in Manhattan, walking down the street.
I suppose people just assume it isn’t you.
No, they see you and they say, ‘Hey! I like your stuff!’ You know? That’s all they wanna say. They don’t wanna bite your flesh or anything! [Laughs] They are who they are. Some of them get a little crazy, but it’s just out of joy. It’s a positive thing.
You said before that you were influenced by punk. That doesn’t come across much on the album. Who were you listening to back then?
The Pogues, The Clash, The Sex Pistols first, of course. I remember ’77 as being a seminal year. There was the first Talking Heads album, the first Elvis Costello album, Lou Reed’s Street Hassle, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones… they all kind of burst out in that year. Although Elvis and Talking Heads weren’t punk, it was a fresh way of listening to music. It was a necessary, liberating year, because up until then it’d been all this terrible disco and Bee Gees… though I have to admit I did like some of the Bee Gees’ songs. But they were the better end of it. There was an awful lot of bad. It needed to be done. Music needed to get grounded in saying something again.
So I became a fan [of punk] in ’77, and I kept listening and by the time I got to Los Angeles in ’79, I started listening to a lot of LA bands that were coming out around then – X, Fear, Black Flag – all based in the idea that music is important, you know? It’s not frivolous. It’s one of the reasons that I waited a long time before I recorded. I got a lot of offers in ’92. I did a satire called Bob Roberts, and I played and sang in that and co-wrote the songs with my brother. I got a lot of offers that year. It was the year that I won a bunch of stuff – Best Actor at Cannes, Golden Globe award – it was a kind of ‘World is Your Oyster’ kind of year. Anything you want, laid out in front of you. One of the things was, ‘Do you wanna make an album?’ and I was like, no, I don’t think so because I don’t really have anything to say and I don’t want to do a cover album, and I came home too many times from school to see my dad hunkered over music composition paper, writing out eight, quarter, sixteenth notes. I had too much respect for the process. If you wanna do music, it’s got to be something you care about, and there’s got to be something you want to say. It’s not something you take lightly. It’s not karaoke!
You’ve had this album out since autumn 2010, and you’ve taken it on the road… are you going back into the studio again, or is acting still your main career?
Well I’m going to do a movie in the fall, but I do want to get back into the studio. I’ve been trying some new songs out on the road. I feel much more confident now. Even the songs on the first album feel so much more rounded.
Is the new stuff you’re working on in a similar vein? You’re not attempting to break new Tim Robbins ground?
Sure, I wanna break new ground, but I’m not going to go all atonal or go Indonesian on the next album, although I love that music! Who knows what might happen.
When you set about making this album, was there never a nagging thought about actors who’ve tried to make the leap to becoming singers in the past?
No, that nagging thought was from ’92. I had seen how other people had done it, and I thought that was just disrespectful.
Do you think that leap has ever been made successfully?
I think Zoe Deschanel made a nice album with She and Him. I like Tom Waits’ acting. I think certain people can do the crossover well. And I certainly don’t believe that because you are an actor you should not do it. It’s just a matter of how you approach it, and why you’re doing it.
You know, I’ve been judged so much in my life that I don’t feel I wanna judge people. If you’re following a passion and it’s making you happy, just do it. There are so many people in life that tell you not to do things… from a very early age, by the way. I was remembering this the other day, being seven or eight years old, clowning around on the New York City streets. Prototypically in a bunch of kids there’s going to be the one that laughed at what you did and encouraged you, and there’s always gonna be one meathead who says, ‘Hey, you’re not funny. What are you, a clown?’ Someone trying to belittle you for stepping out of your little box, and that never changes. There’s always going to be someone who’ll belittle you for stepping out of your box, no matter what your box is, whether you’re supposed to be a comedic actor, as it was when I first became famous, or whether your box is… ‘Ok, yeah, we’ll let you be a writer and director, too, but don’t try and be a theatre director now.’ Ultimately these people are people who don’t do anything themselves, so why do we even listen? Probably the easiest thing to say is, ‘Don’t give up your day job’. Fuck you! [Laughs] You have a day job. I’m living free!
This article was originally published on Time Out Tokyo