The Band

Audio files
Video clips
Tape archive
Related artists
Chat Room
What's New?

Interview with Robbie Robertson, May 14, 2002

Questions by Jody Denberg

From KGSR FM - Radio Austin.


Copyright © 2002, 2003 Emmis Austin Radio Broadcasting Company, Lp. All Rights Reserved.

Q 107.1 KGSR. South-by-Southwest in full swing. And you know it's begun when the keynote speech has happened. And with me right now is, gosh, a man I could describe in may different ways, the legendary leader of The Band, a man with a renowned solo career, a person who's now working for Dreamworks Records in a capacity that we'll find out about, a filmmaker and I guess a speechmaker now. Robbie Robertson's here with us. Thank you for taking the time, Robbie, to come by.
A Oh, thank you for inviting me.

Jody Denberg and Robbie Robertson, Austin, TX, May 2002

Q I didn't get to make it to the keynote speech this morning, so what did you have to say to the folks?
A Way too much. Yeah, I had to divulge a few secrets. It was -- this is the first time that I'd been to SXSW. And this keynote speaker business and I'm not really like a keynote speaker guy. But there was some things that I thought it would just be nice to share with the people there and to talk about, just because we're all in the same boat in a certain way. And so I told some stories. You know, about the journey, really. About the whole journey that music takes you on and all of us have been taking on that journey, just different avenues that we all went down. And so we talked a lot about that and just about what's going on now and what's going on in the business these days and everything. And I don't know, just trying to give it all a positive slant.

Q Well, that's good, because we can use some positivity in these days of uncertainty in - in the music business alone. And speaking about the journey, you've been on the path in many different ways. But what is your current position at Dreamworks Records? What are you doing over there?
A I'm a music executive. I'm a creative executive there. A few years ago, David Geffen and Mo Ostin, who -- you know, David Geffen is one of the partners in the whole company. Mo Austin is an old friend of mine. Mo Austin ran Warner Bros. Records at its height, you know, and is one of the nicest and well-respected people, ever, in the whole record industry. And David is, unquestionably, one of the smartest ever in the whole record industry. And they both came to me and said, "We're really trying to build a very, very special company here. And we want it to be artist-oriented. We believe in nurturing talent and building talent and regardless of what is happening out there in the street these days, we just…we believe in that and we want that to be felt out there. And we'd love for you to come and help us build this company." Because it's the first full company that's like a movie company and -- with animation and television and music, all of that. It's the first one, you know, on the level of, you know, these companies that have been around forever, probably in 60 years. And I love the independent spirit of it, especially in these times when conglomerates and one company eating up other companies and swallowing other companies and firing a bunch of people. I really like the attitude of this place that they were coming from. And then being old, dear friends of mine made it very comfortable. And I always like new, interesting challenges to further the journey.
So anyway, I said, "Let's try this out." And they made it so positive. They said, you know, you can do whatever you want. Just help us do this in a really special way. So, you know, I thought, yeah, let me check this out. And it's been fantastic.

Q Well, one thing, it has been fantastic, but we haven't heard new music from you since you've taken this position.
A I know. It's been a bit of a distraction in that area. But you know, I've made quite a bit of music over the years. And I'm probably going to make quite a bit more. I'm in the process right now of just putting my thoughts together for doing some new music. And you know, I just did some things. I put together some things for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. They had a whole segment of the show that they were paying tribute to, you know, the Native American culture, the origins of this whole country. And I thought that was really lovely that they wanted to do that. And they said, "We're going to do something really, really special with this. And we would like to use some of your music in this and we would like you to perform some of it." So they did. They used a piece of mine and that's when they did the whole Indian ceremonial thing out there that they did. And then I performed a song and then I performed another song, too, which was the finale of the whole Native American segment, too. So that was a real honor to be involved with something like that.

Q Well, that's good. So you haven't lost the thread of being involved in the music personally. I know you're also involved in other people's careers at Dreamworks, but you know, having you continue to make music, I think, is an important thing. And I know one project that's also taking up a lot of your time and one of the major reasons you're here in Austin for SXSW is the reissue of "The Last Waltz", one of the greatest rock and roll concert films ever, one of the great live albums of rock and roll. And Robbie Robertson is here with us. Robbie Robertson of The Band fame.
And Robbie, I thought, let's just play the folks one of these songs that you've dusted off. One of the things you've done with "The Last Waltz" -- and we'll talk about it in depth in a moment, but you re-mixed the music?
A I went back to the original masters and all the music that was originally in this, mixed it all over again from scratch. Just because with today's technology and everything, you can bring people closer into what was actually happening there and into the music. So we mixed this -- the original record, plus 24 bonus tracks on this. It is now a four-CD box set that has 54 tracks on it. And there was a lot of things in there that I'd never heard before. So this was like really wonderful to have the opportunity to do this and to do it really right. It sounds -- it just sounds extraordinary now. I'm so happy with that. And we also did the same thing with the movie and for the DVD that's going to be coming out as well.

(song: Up On Cripple Creek )

Q 107.1, KGSR. Up on Cripple Creek, that version on the soon-to-be-released, four-CD box set edition of "The Last Waltz". And the leader of The Band and so much more, Robbie Robertson is here with us this afternoon, after giving the keynote speech this morning. You are actually screening this newly, re-mastered edition of the film, "The Last Waltz". That screening is tomorrow night?
A Yeah, it's tomorrow night at the Paramount at 7:30. And I have to tell you, I'm very excited about this because the premier of it is going to be at the Ziegfield Theater on April the 10th. So this is like a sneak of it. This is the first time I have seen the movie in the new, restored version of it, with complete Surround Sound. This is the very first time, so it's pretty great that its here in Austin and during SXSW.

Q When you made "The Last Waltz", you worked with a gentleman named Martin Scorsese. What was it about his work, up to that point, that wanted you to work with him on this project?
A I could tell that he had a very special knack for music. He had worked on the Woodstock film. The way that he used music in his films, to me, it was above and beyond what I could see other filmmakers were doing. And I was somewhat sensitive to that, too, of just how music was used in films. I was always fascinated by that. And so when it came time to figure out who would be "the man" that could figure out how to get this on film and capture this whole thing, he was my first choice, and actually, my only choice. And I was really happy that he did it. And obviously, he's made, you know, what's been called, even after all these years, the greatest rock movie ever made. So that's pretty great.

Q Was it Thanksgiving 1976; is that --
A Yeah, that's when the concert part of it was shot. And then we did things on the soundstage and the interviews, stories of the road, you know, we did that sometime in '77. And he was making a movie -- another movie, when he did "The Last Waltz". So he had to finish that. And that's why it didn't actually come out until the beginning of '78.

Q So somewhere in there, it's sort of the 25th anniversary between '76 and '78.
A Exactly, it is.

Q The new version of "The Last Waltz", you said that you took the musical part and pretty much re-mixed it from scratch. The original version was a two-CD set. This is four CDs. And there's all sorts of music on here. I mean, on the original set, I think we got a song from Neil Young, a song from Van Morrison. But I'm looking on here. And I wasn't aware Neil did a couple of songs, Joni did three.
A Bob Dylan did more.

Q Was there just one show, was it two shows?
A One show.

Q So where -- all this stuff had existed, but wasn't used the first time around?
A Right. Well, for a few reasons. Back then, when it originally came out, when it came out on vinyl, it was a three-vinyl disc set. And that, at the time, was considered very lengthy. And people were like, oh, my God, three records. And so there was all this other music that was part of the experience that we just couldn't share with the people back then. And for the movie -- obviously, a movie is a movie and you cut a movie according to what feels right and what's, you know, good for the audience and good for the film. So there was so much of it that wasn't until now. We weren't able to even share this with people. So, you know, I'm really happy about people being able to be closer to the actual experience.

Q Yeah, because there's two songs by Muddy Waters on here, Bobby Charles is now included. Just amazing. I'm looking at an advance copy of this four-CD box set of The Last Waltz, which comes out April 16th.
You have to kind of take it back to square one for the CD version. What about for the movie itself? Is it essentially the movie as it originally was, just with improved sound or is there extra material in it as well?
A Well, the movie has been -- the print of it, what they can do now with prints. So it's been restored or whatever they do. And it makes it just look that much more beautiful. But the difference, when I was working on mixing this and I could hear the original sound of the movie and then they would switch to what it is now and it's just night and day. The experience is so much more, like actually being there. And this concert -- "The Last Waltz" experience, it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things. All those people have never -- you know, it's been 25 years. There's been nothing like this ever since that.

Q I read Bill Graham's book, which, I guess, came out shortly after his death. He was working on it. And he tells the story that it was difficult to get Mr. Dylan to agree to be filmed and it went kind of back and forth. Do you remember what was going on with that situation?
A Yeah, I remember some of what was going on with that. Bob was making a movie himself at that time called "Renaldo and Clara." And he was really concerned, like, what am I doing here? It's like I'm shooting myself in the foot. I'm trying to make this movie and have people come and see that and I'm doing this thing in this other movie, which has a chance of overshadowing that. So just on a level of him trying to figure out whether it was just a foolish mistake for him to do that, that's what we were dealing with that. But what we said was, "Well, go ahead and finish your movie, release it and we'll just wait." And we did.

Q And thankfully, you rolled the cameras while he was up there.
A Yeah.

Q I mean, just from a rock and roll standpoint, has Bob Dylan ever looked cooler than when he came out with those ringlets and that hat on and that jacket when he came on for The Last Waltz? I mean, that was the - that was the deal.
A Yeah, I know. It was almost like a religious experience, just the way that he happened to look in the movie and the way that he performed.

Q We're talking with Robbie Robertson about the re-issue of The Last Waltz, both the music and the film, which will be coming out on DVD May 7th. The limited theatrical run of the film begins April 5th. But tomorrow night, you have the screening at the Paramount. So do you -- as today, where you kind of winged it being the keynote speaker, are you going to come out before the film and say a few words?
A I'm going to introduce the film, yeah. I'll say something, just to let the audience know, you know, what's going on there.

Q You could write a book, Robbie.
A I know that.

Q Some have been written, as you know.
A Some of it we don't want to tell.

Q Well, we heard a moment ago from The Last Waltz, Up on Cripple Creek. That was Levon Helm on vocals?
A Yes.

Q And now we're going to hear The Shape I'm In. And this is Rick --
A This is Richard Manuel.

Q Richard Manuel. The late Richard Manuel on vocals. And then we'll come back and talk to the much-alive and thriving Robbie Robertson on 107.1, KGSR. From The Last Waltz, Richard Manuel on the vocals, The Shape I'm In.

( song: The Shape I'm In )

Q 107.1, KGSR. The late Richard Manuel on vocals. The band from The Last Waltz, The Shape I'm In. "The Last Waltz" is being screened tomorrow night at the Paramount Theater. And Robbie Robertson, who was so central to this, I mean, do you have the title of director with Martin on this or is he --
A No, I produced it.

Q Okay. And Robbie is here with us and gave the keynote speech this morning and re-mixed and re-mastered and added all this extra music to the box set. And the film is going to be in the theaters. That's going to be fun. You were talking about, I guess you said, the Ziegfield. Seeing it up there on the big screen --
A Yeah. The Ziegfield is one of the great old movie palaces. In San Francisco, they're showing it at the Castro, which is, in the whole country, one of the greatest movie palaces there is, too. So it's going to major cities all over the country. That's really nice. And the record comes out, you know, the middle of April. And then the beginning of May, I think May the 7th, the DVD is released. And there's some extra footage on that from "The Last Waltz" that nobody's ever seen before. Scorsese and I, we do commentary on the thing and try to tell people some of the stuff that was going on behind the scenes that nobody knows about.

Q The Last Waltz, Thanksgiving 1976. This was your farewell. This was your farewell to the road, farewell to "The Band." A band that had played with Bob Dylan, most of the members. A band that has one of the greatest catalogues in rock and roll history, which you just revitalized. I want to get to that. Let's talk about that for a second. All The Band's records, the original records, were re-released over the -- I guess about a year ago. Bonus tracks. Were you involved in that process?
A Yeah. They got all the original tapes, went back and very carefully re-mastered it and found a bunch of lost tapes that had been missing for years and years. And I thought they were going - you know, I had no hope of ever discovering these again. And these people at Capitol Records, bless their heart, they went out there and they found all these things. So I was involved in just helping them make the choices of what to use on this and in the re-mastering. And they did an excellent job in that.

Q And what I was getting to beforehand was, The Last Waltz was your farewell. It was saying good-bye to the road and The Band. But then in the early '80s, the other members of the band decided that they wanted to get back out there. And in talking to them, they were saying, well, it was Robbie who really wanted to end it all. You know, we've reconsidered and we kind of want to go back out there. How did you feel about that?
A Oh, I felt fine with it. You know, I didn't want to stand in the way of them just playing music and the creative process or earning a living, any of that. So you know, they did that with my blessing. I just didn't want to do it anymore.

Q And you really haven't. Your solo records, you didn't really tour behind in any conventional --
A I don't -- The Last Waltz, you know, I said, "I'm not going to do this anymore." And I didn't want to just -- I didn't want to lie. So I haven't.

Q So when we see you like that rare time you were on Saturday Night Live around the time of the Storyville record or if we see you on stage with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it's a pretty rare occurrence?
A Yeah, I don't come out there too often.

Q Sadly, over the years, Rick Danko from The Band, Richard Manuel, they've both passed. And your relationship with Levon has seemed contentious, at least from what we read in the press. The Band is one of the greatest experiences of rock and roll. How do you keep it positive in your heart with all the bitter-sweetness that's followed?
A Well, you know, it's tremendously saddening and tragic, you know, to lose Richard and Rick, for sure. And as far as Levon or Garth, you know, these are -- you know, we grew up together. These are my brothers. And I love them dearly. I don't have any of these problems, you know. I think the world of them. I just don't want to necessarily work together, you know, like we were. And I've worked with Garth over the years, you know, on solo projects I was doing, film things. The same thing with Rick and with Richard. So on my part, there's no bitterness. There's no nothing. You know, it's all fine with me.

Q It is so great to hear this music anew, because I told you when I listened to The Last Waltz, I was thinking, are these the same versions of these song, because of the way you've re-mixed it, I'm hearing things that I've never heard before.
A That was the idea. That was the idea, to just bring you that much closer to the music. And you know, what we can do now in the technology is just -- you can. You can listen to this and hear things that were just never audible before. And this was one of these things, too, that I really felt like, this has to be done absolutely the best it can, once and for all. For the movie, for the record, for the DVD, for all of that. You know, it is a very special piece of music history. And I just wanted to be so respectful of that and get it right.

Q Well, it is definitive. And I want to remind everyone, April 5th -- do you know some of the cities on April 5th when the limited theatrical run begins?
A I think that the cities are like -- it opens in San Francisco on, I think, the 5th. But the New York premier is on the April the 10th. And then it opens in Los Angeles on the 12th. And I believe also in Boston and Chicago and Philly and San Diego and Seattle and DC.

Q And Austin gets theirs tomorrow night.
A Yes, sir.

Q Any other plans for you? SXSW is going on. You got that keynote speech out of the way. You have the premier tomorrow night. But do you have any other SXSW plans?
A I have a lot of other SXSW plans. Well, tonight, there's a secret show tonight of a Dreamworks group that -- you know, that I signed, called East Mountain South. They're playing at the Clay Pit tonight at 1:00. Then they're doing an ASCAP showcase on Saturday at 5:00. This group, this music just gives you chills. It is Americana. And seeing what happened with Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, with the Grammys and everything, you think, that's really good that something like this could be acknowledged in the climate of the way music is these days. Very special to see that happen. This is not Bluegrass music. But it is of that kind of soul of Americana that is so special. And I'm really proud to be a part of this. So they're playing tonight and on Saturday. I'm really looking forward to that.

Q And are you doing any kind of panels or any of that stuff or you're pretty much --
A I'm doing a panel tomorrow with Ben Fong-Torres, the renowned Rolling Stone writer from years ago. He's also portrayed in "Almost Famous", which is a true thing. So I'm doing a panel tomorrow with him on "The Last Waltz". And I'm doing a lot of other press things while I'm here, because this is literally, the launching of this whole Last Waltz experience. And for the idea that a lot of younger people that have never experienced that can - to now be able to share that with them is pretty great.

Q Well, I must thank you, not only for being here today, but I don't know what it's like for you to know that in our hearts and consciousness the music and the words that you put together with The Band and after that, you know, it's just -- it's part of our everyday being for a lot of us. It's part of who we are and how we see the world.
A Oh, that's lovely. I appreciate that.

Q Thanks, Robbie. Thanks for coming by.
A Thank you.

Q And we're going to leave everyone with one of your best, the song called It Makes No Difference.
A Thanks.

Q And I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you where that line came about about the stampeding cattle that rattle the wall. Where did that come from?
A That's just an imagination run amuck. I don't know.

Q Let's run with it. We heard Levon sing, we heard Mr. Manuel sing. And this is a Rick Danko vocal, right?
A Right.

Q Robbie Robertson, thank you.
A Thank you.

Q The band, 107.1, KGSR, from The Last Waltz. See the screening tomorrow night at the Paramount Theater.

(song: It Makes No Difference )

(End of interview.)

[History] [Members] [Library] [Discography] [Videography] [Filmography] [Pictures] [Audio Files] [Video Clips] [Tape Archive] [Concerts] [Related Artists] [Merchandise] [Guestbook] [Chat Room] [Search] [What's New?] [Main Page]