Robbie Robertson Talks ‘The Irishman,’ Martin Scorsese, The Band, Woodstock and More

At the ripe young age of 76, it’s possible that Robbie Robertson — cofounder and main songwriter of The Band, director Martin Scorsese’s musical collaborator of more than four decades, and a hell of a guitar player as well — is busier than he’s ever been. Just the last few weeks have seen the release of his sixth solo album “Sinematic,” a documentary on The Band called “Once Were Brothers” that’s based on his 2016 autobiography “Testimony,” a reissue of group’s classic self-titled 1969 album that includes their previously unreleased set from the Woodstock festival, and, not least, tonight’s arrival on Netflix of “The Irishman,” the latest Scorsese film for which Robertson has done the music.

This burst of activity is in many ways a culmination of the Ontario-born Robertson’s entire career. Originally known as the Hawks, The Band spent several years backing blues singer Ronnie Hawkins and then Bob Dylan — at the peak of his near-hysterical mid-1960s fame — before beginning its own career in earnest in 1968. The galvanizing “Music From Big Pink” was an album so influential that it inspired the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and especially Elton John, and led Eric Clapton to visit them in an unfulfilled hope that they’d ask him to join. In the 40-plus years since the original incarnation of The Band played itself off with the 1976 “Last Waltz” concert and film, Robertson has released several solo albums, but primarily he’s plied a related path, working in just about every film-music role under the sun. His work, most prominently with Scorsese, ranges from “Raging Bull” and “Casino” to “The Color of Money” and of course “The Irishman.”

Amid all of his recent activity, Robertson sat down with Variety’s Jem Aswad at the magazine’s Music for Screens conference in Los Angeles last month and talked about all of the above, and more.

It’s no coincidence that your new album is called “Sinematic” — your songs have always been very cinematic and filled with characters and stories, from “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to the new album. Is that something you’ve always worked to do with your songwriting?
I think storytelling in my songwriting has been there since the very beginning. When I was a kid, I admired songs that took me into a world, and as I grew in music, movies just kept getting in the way — in the best sense of the word. I was torn between [the two worlds], and if I hadn’t got addicted to music so early on, I’m sure I would have ended up in movie land and been a screenwriter or a director. But with this parallel, very early on in my songwriting, I started reading movie scripts of classic films by directors, Ingmar Bergman, Kurosawa, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Orson Welles, and they very much inspired the songs I was writing. This cinematic connection has been there for a long, long time and it continues to grow.

You were the primary songwriter in The Band, you’ve been a solo artist for many years, you started off as a lead guitarist — when you’re doing music for film, that music is subservient to the director and the film itself. Is that a challenging role-change, to kind of have a boss?
Well, I didn’t very much think of it like that. I just thought of it as wanting to make a really meaningful contribution and try to find things that were not obvious, and that’s what I’ve been able to do over all these years of working with Marty. He has said to me many times when I’m working on his movies, “As long as it doesn’t sound like [traditional] movie music” — not because he doesn’t have great admiration for classic music scores, but he’s looking for something that twists things around and goes inside you in another way, and isn’t like, “Okay, these characters are running down the street, and the music’s gonna go ‘Boom-boom-boom-boom.’” And because I don’t do this in a traditional way — I don’t read or write music — when I’m working on the music for a movie, I communicate with the musicians in almost a poetic kind of way. I’m describing sounds and rhythms and feelings, where usually they’ve got a piece of paper in front of them that they’re following. So it’s just a different journey, a different discovery, a different experiment, and that’s what’s exciting about it.

You mentioned unorthodox choices: “The Irishman” opens with the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night,” one of the most romantic songs of the 1950s, playing while the camera pans around a nursing home. I mean, how did those two things go together?
Well, this is something that goes way back for Marty. He grew up in Little Italy in New York, and New York’s rock and roll is a lot of doo-wop and street-[corner] music, and he has a strong connection to that. So before even shooting “The Irishman,” he had said to me, there’s something about these characters — a lot of what they do happens in the still of the night. I said, oh, that’s a clue. And he chose songs in the film that that connect to certain periods, things that I would have never thought of, like he’s using some of Jackie Gleason’s orchestral music in it. This movie takes place over many decades, and at first you think, oh, if we use songs from those different decades, it kind of signals the time period you’re in. But then as I got deeper into it, I thought, That’s too obvious, that’s too easy. We’ve got to come in a different door on this. I had to find a sound, a rhythm, a timeless flavor that worked over all of these years and didn’t feel stuck in any decade. So I tried some things, and one of them turned out to be the theme from “The Irishman,” a song from my new record called “Remembrance” that’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before.

But also, because this movie is based on a book [by Charles Brandt] called “I Heard You Paint Houses” — that’s a mob expression, it’s about blood being splattered — and one day, because I was working on this movie and my album at the same time, I wrote a song with that title, telling a story about a character who is a hit man. My friend Van Morrison was in town and he said, what are you working on? I played him [a sketch of] this song, he liked it and he ended up singing on it. So all of these pieces connected together in a way that I’ve never experienced before.

A lot of your projects have overlapped over the past couple of years: There’s “The Irishman” and your 40-year relationship with Marty, and he co-produced The Band documentary; there’s your solo album and the reissue of The Band’s second album. Is it challenging working on all those things at once, especially when some involve your own history?
In the past, I thought, Okay, you keep this over here and put that over there so you don’t get confused — you have to focus on one project. But now, I had all of these things going on at the same time and I thought, Come on in. We’re just going to just mix all of these things together in the most beautiful way possible and not try to keep them separated and really embrace all of them. And so working on this [solo] record, I found that I was reflecting on periods of my brotherhood with The Band and I wrote the song “Once Were Brothers,” and when I played it for the people working on the film, they said, “This fits so well with what we’re doing,” and they even called the movie “Once Were Brothers,” so everything is all mixed together.

Do you ever get tired of revisiting The Band’s history? Sometimes when I ask artists about their early years they’re tired of talking about it, like “Can we please not? It’s too boring.” But you don’t seem to be.
Well, I don’t live in that space, but it is part of the journey, and it was a magnificent part of the journey. So I don’t have a feeling like, oh, I don’t want to go there. And maybe their journey wasn’t as fun as mine was! [Laughter]

Okay then, let’s talk about The Band’s early years. On those first albums, there’s a purity, an earthiness that was very anti everything else that was going on in the late 1960s. Was that intentional, and where did it come from? Was it a reaction against the chaos of the electric tours with Bob Dylan, where you guys were getting booed every night?
No, it didn’t come from that. As you know, The Band had been together for six years before we hooked up with Bob Dylan, and we had been out there on the Chitlin Circuit, all the way from the Deep South up to Canada, gathering music, woodshedding, honing our craft, really understanding music that wasn’t that obvious. We weren’t a group that thinking about, “How do we become stars?” That wasn’t our path. We wanted to go so deep into a musical place, so when we made [The Band’s classic 1968 debut] “Music From Big Pink,” we were drawing upon all of these elements and characters and stories and everything that we had gathered in all of these years. And for the songwriting, it gave me an opportunity to say, I’m going to share something with you that I’ve been storing up.

When our first album came out, people said, “What the hell? Where did this come from? This isn’t what’s happening!” But we didn’t know how not to do that. Nobody in the group ever said, “If everybody’s doing this, then why don’t we do that?” That was never, ever spoken about. We weren’t on a trendy mission, it was just the honesty in our music and in telling these stories. So to our surprise, when this music came out and it was gravitated to in that kind of way and influenced the direction of [rock] music — it even influenced the way musicians looked, which was weird because it was just the way we dressed, not a fashion statement. But the fact that those things were encouraged — we thought, “Well, maybe we’re right!”

Another interesting thing about the sort of purity of that period is the fact that “The Weight” is featured in a pivotal scene in “Easy Rider” but it’s not on the soundtrack, which sold millions of copies, and you also played Woodstock, but you’re not in the film or on the album. Why was that? I mean, that was millions of dollars left on the table.
We were talked into playing the Woodstock festival mainly by our manager, Albert Grossman [who also managed Dylan and Janis Joplin]. He said, “These are great guys, you’re the only group from Woodstock who’ll be in the movie, and they wanted to name the festival after it because of Bob Dylan and you,” which was strange in the beginning, because it was just a quaint little arts colony in Upstate New York. Albert loved the idea of turning this area of Woodstock and [nearby] Bearsville into a musical hub, and they were like, “We’re gonna have this festival, it’s about peace and love and unity and people coming together.” Nothing wrong with that, but the only catch for us was that we’d only played one job before as The Band — and now we’re about to play in front of 500,000 people.

So it’s the last night of the festival, we go on just as it gets dark, it’s perfect, ideal. But this crowd of a half a million people wants to get crazy — they’re covered in mud, they’ve been out there for three days, they’re ready to have the biggest party on the planet Earth. Well, we don’t think that we’re going to give them party music! So we go out and play, and it’s equivalent to people coming out and playing hymns. They jump up expecting “Let’s go crazy” music… and then they stopped jumping up and down, and everybody kind of like went into this trance. We played our set and came off laughing like, “That was like the Twilight Zone!” But because it was only our second job as The Band, Albert had told [the film crews], “Don’t film these guys” — they did anyway, but they had to film it from a distance away, so it didn’t have that intimacy and the excitement and everything [that the other acts in the film did]. And after that, Albert said, “We’re not going to participate in the movie or the soundtrack or anything else, we’re going to make our own movie one day.” It took a few years before we got to “The Last Waltz,” but we ended up following through on that.

And how come you weren’t on the soundtrack of “Easy Rider”? 
That was another Grossman thing, I don’t know.

Your son Sebastian works in film music as well. Do you guys work together much? And if you do, do you argue? Like [petulant teenager voice], “Dad, why do you always do that?”
[Laughing] No, it’s never like that. But there was a scene in “The Irishman,” and the music I had done for it didn’t quite work. And Sebastian and I had been messing around with this guitar thing I had done, and then he took it and did some things with it — his stuff and my stuff really blending together. So I took this piece of music and put it in that scene, Sebastian did some more work on it, and Marty said, “Boom! That’s great!” So that was an exceptional, unique experience.

Over 40-plus years working with Scorsese, what has made that relationship so special and so successful and so continually changing?
You know, it just is. I’m not sure, other than the fact that I so appreciate his work and I think he likes what I bring to the table, and we also have a very close friendship as well. But I believe that we both bring stuff that the other didn’t see coming. I’m already starting to work on the music for the next movie, and they don’t even start shooting until sometime in the spring — it’s that exciting.

Can you tell us quickly what it is?
Yeah. It’s a movie based on the book “Killers of the Flower Moon,” it’s a Native American story that takes place in the 1920s — it’s the last thing that you would expect Marty to be doing next, but oh boy, are we excited about this one. It’s completely different, challenging, and my mom is from the Mohawk Nation, so I’ve got a bit of an inside on this world.