Robbie Robertson: Once Were Brothers

February 12, 2020
Robbie Robertson: Once Were Brothers

Photo by Don Dixon

After an eight-year break, Robbie Robertson returns with a new solo set inspired by the underworld, The Irishman and,
in a very direct way, The Band.

By Mike Greenhaus

Robbie Robertson remembers when Martin Scorsese first entered his orbit. It was 1973 and Jonathan Taplin, who had served as the tour manager for The Band and their occasional collaborator, Bob Dylan, gave his notice.

“He came to me and said, ‘I’m going to go now and produce movies,’ and I was like, ‘Bless your heart.’” Robertson says with a hearty laugh. “Then, he went on to produce movies.” Taplin ended up serving as a producer on Mean Streets, one of Scorsese’s early feature films, and, when The Band guitarist and songwriter was looking for someone to document his ensemble’s official swan song in 1976, the rising filmmaker felt like an obvious choice.

“We started working together through The Last Waltz,” Robertson recalls. “He really appreciated The Band’s music and I thought he would be the best one to direct that movie. I might have been right.”

Robertson and Scorsese bonded instantly while working on the movie, even sharing a house for a time, beginning a lifelong creative partnership that has led to The Band guitarist working on the music for such Scorsese classics as Raging Bull, The Color of Money and Casino.

On this overcast November afternoon, Robertson is in New York for a screening of another project that he and Scorsese are involved in, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band—a new documentary based on the guitarist’s autobiography Testimony. The film traces the Canadian musician’s journey from his early years, through his time with Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks, Dylan and, eventually, his simply named, genre-defining ensemble, in riveting detail. It’s one of several releases he’s currently promoting, across several different mediums, including Scorsese’s latest opus, The Irishman, a Band retrospective and his first solo album in eight years, Sinematic.

“As I started to write some songs, The Irishman came along,” Robertson says. “So I’m working on this over here and that’s happening over there. Then they say, ‘We want to make a documentary based on Testimony’ and then, the record company asks me to put together a 50th anniversary set for The Band. All of these sparks are flying all around. I’ve never had an experience like this before now—everything started to inspire everything else”

At the moment, Robertson’s holding court in a back booth at Bar Pleiades, a swanky cocktail lounge located in The Surrey hotel on New York’s Upper East Side, after making a quick trip to Arthur Avenue for some Italian food. All across the city, stores have started to replace their Halloween decorations with holiday flair and there’s a palpable, home-cooked Thanksgiving feeling in the air. It’s a time of year that—ever since Robertson staged that hootenanny goodbye—has also been associated with The Band, and almost every major music market in the country is staging some sort of Last Waltz celebration. Robertson’s even lent his name to one touring revue featuring Warren Haynes, Don Was, John Medeski, Lukas Nelson and others and agreed to take the stage during a marquee date in Nashville.

“I’m just paying respect to these people that are paying respect to the legacy of The Last Waltz,” he says of his decision to play a concert for the first time in six years. “There’s an amazing crop of talent doing this, so I thought that the least I can do is show up and help celebrate with them.”

Wearing a blazer and nursing a white wine spritzer, Robertson could easily be mistaken for an A&R executive or talent scout, roles that he feels suit him. Like most of his recent solo albums, Sinematic is stacked with a number of guests, including Van Morrison, Glen Hansard, Citizen Cope, Derek Trucks, Doyle Bramhall II and rising stars like Bahamas and J.S. Ondara.

“The recording sessions felt more like a hang—we were just having a good time,” Ondara says. “He was very open about letting me explore and find what the song needed from me. I have watched The Last Waltz more times than I can remember. It was a great honor to receive the call—I found The Band’s music around the same time I found Dylan’s. Their records were a pivotal part of my musical bedrock.”

And, despite spending most of his career looking firmly forward and flourishing in a scene that feels worlds away from Woodstock, Robertson has also decided to use his new album to look back on The Band’s musical brotherhood.

“I love the idea of involving everything rather than trying to keep this separate from that,” he says. “It’s all one big happy family.”

Your latest album, Sinematic, was partially inspired by your years working in the film world and shares some songs with The Irishman. When did you notice a direct crossover between those concurrent projects?

I was working on the movie while I was working on the album. When I sit down to write a song, I don’t like to know where I’m going. That feeling of something just coming out of the air is exciting. It wasn’t a clever idea: One day, when I sat down with my guitar, I couldn’t help but write about The Irishman, and I started writing “I Hear You Paint Houses.” And all these ideas started coming together.

And then my buddy, Van Morrison, came to town. He asked me what I was working on and I said, “I’m doing a thing with Marty. I just started writing this song and it’s based on the book.” He was like, “Interesting subject matter.” I didn’t know what else to do but say, “Do you want to sing on it?” That’s the first thing on the album and the last thing on the album, “Remembrance,” is used at the end of The Irishman. The way Marty used it is quite beautiful and haunting.

All these ideas started sparking each other and I decided to take that ride. That made me write songs like “Shanghai Blues” and “Street Serenade,” which have this gritty, underworld street element to them. I usually think, “I’m working on this over here and that over there,” and the respectful thing to do is to give everything its individual attention. You never say, “I’m just going to mix them together. Who cares?”

At this point, Martin Scorsese is probably your longest running and most consistent collaborator. What has been the key to your successful partnership?

One of the reasons Marty feels comfortable with us working together is that, for the most part, he’s not looking for the obvious formula treatment. I’m not a traditional movie-music person, so I don’t think about film scores very much. In his movies, you can’t imagine the big orchestra swooping up. As both of us have said before, we have great respect for these fantastic film composers, but for the most part, we are looking for a rebellious attitude in the filmmaking and in the process. And he knows I don’t read or write music, so it’s not going to be the obvious treatment.

Both The Irishman and some of the songs on Sinematic explore the underworld, and several members on your father’s side of the family were Jewish gangsters. Did you draw from your own experiences when working on those selections?

You write about what you know and what you feel. That part of my heritage just seeps out. It looks familiar to me and, right or wrong, I can write about it with a certain authenticity. It comes naturally; these ideas seep in there and I welcome them. [In a similar way], on this record, “Walk in Beauty Way” is an American-Indian thing—[a nod to] my mother’s side of the family.

I never met my [biological father]—he got killed. When I was 13, my mother introduced me to that side of the family. They pulled me in and made me feel like I was part of this family, and I liked the way that felt. And I liked them. When I first met them, I didn’t know anything about the illegal side of their world, although my father was a card counter before people knew what a card counter was.

When I was involved with the family, they had these very traditional Jewish businesses. My uncle was in diamonds and in furs. At first, it was odd to them that I was interested in music but, later on, they started to understand it because of the connection to show business.

It must have been an eye-opening experience to meet an entire side of your family in your early teens, let alone to eventually learn that they were involved in illegal activity.

[In this family], the father didn’t work; the mother worked. He just prayed and had discussions with other Jewish intellectuals, and that was their way of life. People like that don’t have to work—they are this very special person. He rarely even spoke English. The mother, in the early days, raised the family and put food on the table. She was a bootlegger so they grew up in a world where a little shadiness was OK.

I was fascinated by their business—I was fascinated by their traditions, all of it. Over time, my uncle got more and more involved in the underworld. He was thinking in terms of what the Bronfman family did in Montreal. They smuggled during prohibition and, when that was over, they went legitimate. So he thought, “You get some money, then you go legitimate.” But he got in deeper and became the Meyer Lansky of Canada. It was fascinating, though things in that world usually turn on you.

I was grateful that I had that experience with my heritage and upbringing, in terms of my learning and growing. Very early in my career—when I was with Ronnie Hawkins—we played everywhere from the South all the way up to Canada. There were a lot of thieves in that world and in the audience. We were on Roulette Records and Morris Levy, the head of the label, was a famous underworld character. So it was everywhere.

In addition to Van Morrison, a number of other familiar faces contributed to Sinematic. Did you set out to make another “all-star” record?

I think of it as good casting. Some of the ideas were subconscious— I’m working on The Irishman and then, the next thing I know, I’m doing a song with Van Morrison, who is an Irishman. Then, I’m doing a song with Glen Hansard, another Irishman. You think, “This is either a coincidence or divine intervention.”

In some cases, I just wanted to work with people who raise the bar—Pino Palladino and Chris Dave. I worked with Derek Trucks, who is probably the best slide guitar player in the world—he is just absolutely remarkable and a fantastic guy, too. Doyle, Derek and I were three of Paul Allen’s favorite guitar players. [Allen, who co-founded Microsoft, owned the Seattle Seahawks and was a musician in his own right, died in late 2018.] I was doing a tribute to him after he passed away and I thought, “I should do this with Derek and Doyle.” It just made sense—we were all friends with him and had all been to football games and different things with him.

My daughter, Alexandra, works with Universal and turned me on to J.S. Ondara. I heard him and went, “That’s a sound.” I needed some vocals and would see Citizen Cope in the studio and asked him to sing on a few things. Then, there’s this Canadian group Bahamas. They did a bunch of background vocals for me and, once again, I just thought to myself: “It’s good to ask things.”

I also worked with an old friend of mine, Howie B. It’s such an unusual thing that he and I hit it off years ago. He’s this Jewish, underground DJ from Glasgow, Scotland, but has this musicality that I’m just drawn to. There’s no perfect rhyme or reason, but it all seemed to make sense at the time.

Sinematic also shares some DNA with Once Were Brothers, a new documentary based on your memoir, Testimony. At what point, while working on all these overlapping projects, did you write that film’s title song, which is direct nod to The Band?

I just got inspired because they were making the documentary and, one day, I sat down to write a song and came up with “Once Were Brothers.” I was also putting together the 50th-anniversary collection for The Band. Again, with all these things swirling around, I was feeling that something was missing—that brotherhood with The Band. And that’s what came out. I played it for the people making the documentary and they said, “That’s right in the middle of the heartbeat of what we’re trying to do, and we would even like to call the documentary Once Were Brothers.”

Creatively, you are someone who rarely looks in the rearview mirror. What ultimately pushed you to write Testimony?

A lot of people have said to me, “What a story, what a journey—you really should write about this.” And there were writers that came to me and said, “I would like to write your biography.” I thought, “I’ll just talk and you do all the work.” [Laughs.] I tried that [approach], but when they’d send me what they were writing, I’d just think, “That doesn’t sound real to me. There’s something wrong with this.” And then I’d shut it down and somebody else would come to me and say, “They just didn’t know what they were doing, but I can do this.” Eventually, I just thought, “Damnit, I’m going to have to do this myself.” Writing Testimony was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life because it takes so much to get the rhythm of the stories and the pacing to work. I had to really clear the deck. I’ve worked on a couple of Marty’s movies in the meantime, but I didn’t want to make an album. I needed to do it right.

I needed to be in the zone, but I can’t just go into the zone. I needed to be in a place, a frame of mind. It’s a real process. I laugh to myself sometimes, though, when people say they wrote their own book. They didn’t write their book. They talked into somebody’s tape recorder. There’s a difference—like when somebody is singing their own song and when they’re singing somebody else’s song. I just came at it from the inside and, now, I’m writing volume two, of three, of my memoir—and holy moly. I just picked up where I left off. So far, this process has been very different than the process from before. Before, I was like, “Here’s what happened,” and I’m just talking about this crazy, incredible journey. And for this one, it’s a different poetry, a different rhythm, but I’m getting there in the discovery of it.

Photo by Elliot Landy

Before The Band, the five of you had already played with Ronnie Hawkins and Dylan for years, as well as on your own. While working on Testimony, were you able to pinpoint the moment The Band started to develop its own, independent language?

Once, I had this dream that I wanted to find a sanctuary—a place for the brothers. We found this ugly pink house and I was like, “That’s it!” And in the basement of that house, putting together this thing, is where this mythology came to life.

The Band was unique, especially for the time, in that you had several lead singers, but no traditional frontperson. As the group’s primary composer, did you write each song with a specific singer in mind?

I wrote them for specific characters. Sometimes the song would lead me, but at some point in there, I would be like, “Rick [Danko] has to sing this.” It isn’t about, “Maybe Richard [Manuel] could…” I knew because I knew their instruments better than anybody in the world.

Though you grew up in Canada, many of the classic characters in your songs were inspired by the American South, where Ronnie and Levon Helm grew up, as well as the stories they told you and experiences you had as a young musician touring that region.

To me, that’s where most of the music grew out of the ground. I was like, “What’s going on down there? How could this area, in the Mississippi Delta, have this much amazing music coming out of it? How is it possible—from Johnny Cash to Muddy Waters, from Elvis Presley to Bo Diddley to Chuck Berry—that everyone is from there? From where I was in Canada, that really seemed like the holy land of rock-and-roll. So, when I went there, I was going to church.

There is a great scene in the documentary that discusses the time that Eric Clapton came to Woodstock, N.Y., during the height of the psychedelic era, and asked to jam with The Band. You tell him you don’t jam because, at that point, you were already more interested in songwriting. Of course, The Band’s music ends of changing Clapton’s entire musical approach.

That’s because, early on in the guitar-playing world, I’d already gone through that [approach] with Ronnie—with The Hawks, with Bob Dylan. I’d been there and, at one time, it was fresh and unexpected. All of a sudden, I look up and everybody is doing this. And I thought, “Well, it’s time for me to go deeper inside and start looking at these subtleties and do something that is so minimal yet so much. How do I do that?” That was just a new frontier, a new adventure that I wanted to embrace.

The Band were also the rare group to embrace their heritage at a time when youth culture was about rebelling and breaking from the past. Did it feel like the ultimate non-conformist move to include pictures of your actual family members on Music From Big Pink’s inner gatefold?

The family thing was the origin of that brotherhood. It was noticeable in the music—in the culture—of that period that there was this burning anger toward parents and people of a certain age group. I didn’t think, “We’ve gotta go on a march about this.” It was just a warm thing to do, to include them. That’s just where we were coming from. It wasn’t to make a big statement. It made us feel good.

It was a very particular time in music, in the culture, with what was going on in the world and in the country. The part that we were playing in that was, to us, extremely authentic. We were celebrating music that we had inside us. It had nothing to do with the outside world. Nobody was trying to do what we were doing. Nobody was making a record in a pool house. If you were going to make a record, you just went into a recording studio. But that’s not our atmosphere; that’s not our world. If we could just go inside our own world, or own brotherhood—our own family thing—and do the truest thing that we could do, we knew this would be the result. Again, this was partially a fantasy of mine, but I wanted to make it real. And we did. And going back to this music—hearing some of these outtakes [on The Band anniversary set]—I felt that all over again. It gave me great joy.

When we came out and played at Woodstock, the audience went into the twilight zone. It had nothing to do with everybody wanting to rock—to get crazy, to get down and dirty. This was about levitation. Woodstock was one of our first performances [as The Band] and we played in front of 500,000 people. So, it was the twilight zone for us too. [Laughs.]

I’m sure stepping out on a stage of that size, without Ronnie or Dylan, made the five of you rely on each other in a whole new way.

That’s true. And it was like coming out and revealing something, in a way—a music, a sound. What we were doing sounded nothing like we did with Ronnie, nothing like what we did with The Hawks, nothing like what we did with Dylan. It was a whole different flavor. And, to be able to do that in front of half a million people was just different. It was unique and I was proud that it was just us, on our own wavelength.

It was the equivalent of going out there and playing hymns. At first, the audience was like, “Wait, what?” And then everybody went to this Zen place in the music. We came, we did it and we left.

You have only performed live a handful of times during the past few decades. Do you ever miss being onstage?

No, I did it. I started so young—and I just did it a lot. I played in just about every circumstance imaginable. I’m just drawn to things that I can discover. I discovered that I’d already been there.

After [the concert filmed for] The Last Waltz, I didn’t want to go on the road because a lot of my friends were dying on the road. It became an unwelcoming place, and when I went out on the road with my brothers, bad stuff happened. So I thought, “I want to get out of the way of this.”

When listening back to recordings from The Last Waltz era or thinking about that period of time while working on your memoir, can you hear the brotherhood breaking apart?

I don’t go there. I’m doing it in gratitude. In gratitude, I don’t really find room to think about negativities. I listen to something and it sounds beautiful to me, and I think, “Wow.” I celebrate that. That’s my drift on it.

Despite your years apart, you were able to visit Levon, and hold his hand, in the hospital shortly before he passed. Were you aware of how sick he was?

I thought he was recovering from his throat cancer. I thought he was doing good, and then it came back. It came back hard and fast, and they called me and told me he was in the hospital. They didn’t think he was going to make it and I thought, “Oh, my god.” I just went there—I wanted to see him, I wanted to be with him. I wanted to think about the amazing shit that we did together.

Are you still in contact with Garth Hudson?

Garth is a very secluded person. He lives in his own world, and he’s had some health issues, too. I check in with him every once in a while. Sometimes we go to different things regarding The Band together. He could, very well, be semi-retired.

You used the phrase “creative casting” when describing the guests on your new album. What excites you about the next generation of rising stars?

Music, now, doesn’t play a part [in popular culture] like it did some years ago, but I’m not Mr. Nostalgia. I do recognize that, being a part of a time when music was the voice of the generation, it played a deep part in the culture. It brought people together. But there’s still great stuff going on.

I enjoy the experimenting and the ideas of Bon Iver. Phosphorescent is interesting, too. There’s always great music, and I’m just a curious person. I’m always collecting; I’m always gathering. I mentioned to Bruce Hornsby, at one point, that I liked Justin [Vernon]’s work—they work together sometimes. I like Dawes and their music. They were doing some background vocals for me, and then I said, “Oh, jeez, I gotta go play on this TV show,” and they were like, “Well, we could do that.” So I thought, what can be wrong with that?

I just made a comment about Billie Eilish. I went to the Saturday Night Live opening—Lorne Michaels is a good friend of mine—and Billie is just terrific. This thing she does with her brother is special. But, now, music plays a different purpose. A lot of music is very good, but it’s not meant to tell a story. It’s not meant to make you part of anything, with anybody. It’s a lot of people talking about who they’re not fucking, and I don’t really care who is fucking who. So that music goes in one ear and out the other for me. But it’s still done well. Some of it is done really well, across the whole span of musicality— whether it’s country music, hip-hop or pop music. Kendrick Lamar is terrific. It’s refreshing to me.

This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.