Robbie Robertson: The Band Man Plays On

By Wilhelm Murg April 4, 2011

Robbie Robertson was born in 1943, which meant he was learning to play guitar when the rock-and-roll revolution changed popular music forever. It certainly changed Robertson’s life; as a teenager he played in a few different bands, gigging around his home town of Toronto, and by 1960 he was on the road as the full-time lead guitarist in Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band The Hawks. By 1964, the Hawks split off to do their own thing; in September 1965 they were enlisted as Bob Dylan’s backing band on his controversial “electric” tour, and in 1967 the Hawks rechristened themselves The Band.

In 1968, The Band released their debut album, Music from Big Pink, which featured the classic Robertson song “The Weight,” used in the film Easy Rider. At a time when many popular acts were exploring far-out psychedelic music, The Band was revisiting the roots of rock with a blend of gospel, blues, country, and early rock ‘n roll. The Band’s eponymous second album featured two more of Robertson’s now classic songs, “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The Band released six more albums, and one live album with Bob Dylan, before they decided to call it quits. Their final concert, at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, was a star-studded evening that yielded a triple album and the Martin Scorsese-directed film The Last Waltz.

Since The Band’s breakup, Robertson has had a distinguished career as a producer, soundtrack composer, actor, and as a solo artist. On Tuesday, April 5, Robertson releases his fifth solo album, his first in over a decade, How to Become Clairvoyant, which features an all-star lineup of guests, including Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and Trent Reznor.

Indian Country Today Media Network: You first learned to play guitar at the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation—how did that come about?

Robbie Robertson: I went back and forth between Six Nations and Toronto while I was growing up. Around the time I was eight it really sunk into me that everybody in my family at Six Nations could play a musical instrument, or sang or danced. It wasn’t like there was a lot of entertainment coming to the reserve, so everybody had to make their own entertainment. I didn’t want to feel left out and I thought the guitar looked good, so I started asking people about it—my uncles, cousins, aunts, anyone who played. Some of my relatives said, “Come on, put your finger here and then you do this.” This was before my hand could fit around the neck of the guitar, but something happened to me in this process that made me feel strongly about wanting to pursue it. My parents got me a little guitar out of a catalog. It had pictures of cowboys on it. There were no Indians on that guitar—it was one of those Gene Autry things. By the time I was 11 my hand was a little bit bigger and shortly after that it struck me that I could do this better than they could.

When did rock music come into the equation for you?

On Tuesday there was no rock and roll. On Wednesday, it was, “Where did all of these people come from?” All of the sudden there’s Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry. When rock and roll came along it was the first music revolution, and I definitely wanted to be part of that revolution. By the time I was twelve I was playing guitar pretty good. By the time I was 16 years old I was on the road playing for a living, and traveling all over the country.

Why did it take you 10 years to get the new album out?

After I did Music for the Native Americans and Contact From the Underworld of Redboy, I felt very strongly that we should put together the most amazing celebration of the Native people of North America that the world has ever imagined and hold it in the biggest tipi in the world. I went to the head of Cirque du Soleil, Guy Laliberté and told him what I wanted to do and he loved the idea. But I found out I couldn’t make a deal with them because it was like “If you come into my sandbox that means that we own everything,” and I thought, That’s not fair. I even joked with them. I said, “Well, here we go, let’s fuck the Indians again.” In addition, what they do is so circus-oriented that I got uncomfortable with some of the ideas we had floating around. I thought, This is not a circus. I’m talking about a ceremony that is so extraordinary that you have never been allowed behind this curtain before. Now I’m working on it with Michael Cole, who did huge tours with U2, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. He does a lot of Broadway—he’s currently doing Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. This is a vision of a powerful Indian mythology that needs to be brought to life. It is so powerful that when people come out of this show, they will all feel like they’re Indians. It’s very ambitious, I know, but I’m going to do my best to see if it can be done.

So that delayed the album?

It didn’t delay the album, because I wasn’t working on an album. I was working on many other things—I was an executive at DreamWorks, I was doing music for a bunch of movies, I just made a deal with Abrams to do a book for young readers on the story of Hiawatha and the Peacemaker. I’ve also just made a deal to write my autobiography, so there’s a lot on my plate and I operate like that. I make a record when I feel I have something strong in mind to do in a record.

What made you bring in Trent Reznor for his contribution?

Because I have such a strong cinematic connection in my music-making, I was casting people to play different parts. I was casting Tom Morello [of Rage Against the Machine] to play the part in the song “Axman.” I was casting [pedal steel guitarist] Robert Randolph to play with me. I started with Eric Clapton and I thought about what other guitar players I wanted to work with. On the song “Madam X” I was trying to figure out how to combine a very traditional thematic idea with something urgently modern. I thought no one could do this better than Trent Reznor, so it was just good casting on my part.

In your solo career you sing on all your albums; why did you only sing on a handful of songs with The Band?

Because I wanted that to be a balanced situation, and for me to write the songs, play the guitar, play the guitar solos and sing the songs as well, it would have made things unbalanced. One reason we were called “The Band” was because it was a real band, where everybody played an extremely important part in it. I liked that, in that group, I could cast which singer I wanted to use on which song; and I knew who could tell the story I was trying to tell really well with their sound. It was like having a workshop of artists that I could call upon for different things.

When do you think your next solo album is coming out?

I don’t know. I’m just trying to stay in the moment. I’m just trying to do what I do today really well. Making this album was one of the most enjoyable musical experiences I ever had, so I do have a thrust for more of this. If I had my way, all I would do for the next couple of years would be to write songs for a new album and write my autobiography, but I have many other things I’m working on. So I’m just going to have to see how it all rolls out.

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