Tim Robbins Strikes New Chords

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Tim Robbins Strikes New Chords

The award-winning actor, director, screenwriter and political activist speaks about his new album

By ((Gary Graff. New York Times Syndicate))

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Published: Wed 24 Aug 2011, 10:05 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 6:58 AM

It was about three years ago that Robbins, best known as an award-winning actor, director, screenwriter and political activist, was involved in a film project that went south and unwittingly paved the way for his new album, Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band.

“The person who was financing the movie got in trouble with his wife,” Robbins recalls, “and his assets were seized and it kind of fell apart on me.”

It didn’t help that these events coincided with the breakup of Robbins’ 20-year-plus relationship with actress Susan Sarandon, with whom he has two sons.

“It was a dark period,” the 52-year-old Robbins says. “I was depressed about the movie falling apart. I went home from that experience with my tail between my legs, and home was changing too. I knew I had to do something. I had to find a project, do something I always wanted to do. That’s better than not doing anything. It could be as simple as just mending a fence or making a bookshelf, but it had to be something. So that was in my head.”

What Robbins chose to do was to take his guitar and a bunch of songs he had accumulated over the years – “Most of the songs on the album were written in hotel rooms,” he says – and record them in the studio he keeps in his New York home.

“I recorded 15 songs in a few days and didn’t think much of it,” Robbins says. “I went on to work on another screenplay and started slogging along with it.”

A couple of months later, however, Robbins ran into his friend Hal Wilner, the producer known for such all-star recording projects as Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill (1985) and Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005).

“He said, ‘What have you been doing?,”’ Robbins recalls. “Writing scripts.” Then he said, ‘No, what have you been doing musically?’ So I told him I had put some songs down, and he wanted to hear them. He called me a couple of days later and said, ‘I think there’s a really good album here. Are you free in a couple of weeks?’”

Wilner’s idea was that Robbins should join his Rogues Gallery band, which was about to tour Europe in support of its album Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys (2006). Robbins agreed to play with the group, and during a two-day break on the tour Wilner took the ensemble into London’s Strongroom Music Studios to record Robbins’ songs.

Robbins may be a novice in recording, but he’s hardly new to music – the CD packaging includes a photo of an eight-year-old Robbins holding a guitar in the kitchen of the Gaslight Cafe, a famed Greenwich Village coffeehouse/folk club managed by his father, Gilbert Robbins. Robbins’ parents had, in fact, met in the UCLA marching band, in which his father was a drum major and his mother, actress Mary Bledsoe, played flute. The elder Robbins went on to play in the folk group the Highwaymen in addition to managing the Gaslight.

“My desire to perform came from watching him,” Robbins says. “My first memory in life was seeing him up on stage and hearing him ask the thousand or so people in that audience to sing along – and hearing them sing along with my dad. It was intoxicating.”

Robbins would follow in his mother’s footsteps, making his professional acting debut with New York’s Theater for the New City at 12 and going on to UCLA Film School. Even when, after graduating in 1981, he helped start the Los Angeles-based Actors Gang collective theatre, however, music was still in his heart.

“I always carried a guitar with me and thought about doing something in music,” Robbins says. “But the acting opportunities started coming along, and it would have been foolish not to pursue them.” New York Times Syndicate

Musical inspiration

The nine songs on Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band have a more classic and even traditional Americana flavour, however, rootsy, richly composed and full of nuanced arrangements and detailed narratives.

It may seem unlikely that nine songs could be recorded in only two days, especially by a band and lead singer who had met only a short time before, but Robbins says that the process was surprisingly easy.

The songs all have particular stories, usually dramatic ones, behind them. Dreams is the first song Robbins ever wrote, “broke and in love” in 1985.

“It was late-night, drunken passion,” he recalls with a laugh. “My first heartbreak.”

The dark, bluesy Time to Kill was inspired by an encounter in Grand Junction, Colorado. Stopping at a local bar, Robbins met an Iraq-war veteran who carried unresolved, ambivalent feelings about the experience.

“He just started to spill,” Robbins recalls. “He needed to confess and ... express an emotion that he thought was inappropriate to express to the people who were close to him, because they considered him a hero, you know?

“I think he – and he’s not the first one – felt comfortable spilling this to me because I’m known to be against the war,” the actor adds. “But all those images in the song are pretty much from his mouth.”

As for Lightning Calls, Robbins was on location filming Catch a Fire (2006), a drama about anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, when a friend asked if he wanted to meet Nelson Mandela.

“So me and Mandela and my friend had lunch,” he continues, “and it was a great and beautiful experience to really talk with this man and ask him some of the questions that had been in my head about what he’d done, how he achieved that miracle in South Africa, the transition of power without violence – without rivers of blood, as he said.

“So, after I met Mr. Mandela, I got to my hotel room and wrote the song.”

He may or may not record a follow-up album, Robbins says, but performing music has become a part of his makeup, one that may even be more rewarding than acting.

“I have to say it’s way, way more fun doing live shows as a musician than as an actor,” Robbins says. “To play a song and have people sing along is really a transcendent experience that can’t be matched. And it’s certainly something that, with my father, has deep roots for me and meaning for me, and is a tradition and heritage I want to honour and keep going.

“I really feel blessed to be able to do that.”

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