Exclusive: award-winning actor Tim Robbins gives Channel 4 News access to his studio as he rehearses ahead of his first concert on his European tour.
It is a brave actor, who, with Oscar acclaim for his day job, announces he is going to try his hand at music for a while.
Tim Robbins, who plays the first gig of a European tour tonight, says he waited until “I dropped my last child off to start university”, before he could finally hit the road with his folk-inspired music. And he knows what the immediate question might be. When you have delivered so many good turns at the movies, why risk new scrutiny with a foray into music?
Robbins not only won an Academy Award for his acting in Mystic River, he also wrote and directed Dead Man Walking, helping both Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon deliver Oscar-winning performances. And then there is his acclaimed role in The Shawshank Redemption, and the Best Actor trophies he won at the Golden Globes and Cannes for his performance in The Player.
From an early age, music was everywhere. When I was just seven I went on a mini-tour with my dad – and my brother is a brilliant guitarist who became a composer and he did scores for my movies. Tim Robbins
But Robbins, who allowed Channel 4 News into the studios as he rehearsed with his band, the “Rogues Gallery”, just shrugs as he explains he is actually just following in a family tradition, by going out to play music.
New York past
Growing up in New York, he used to watch his dad, Gil Robbins, play in the in 1960s folk group The Highwaymen, and his mum was in the New York Choral Society.
His older brother David arranged the soundtracks for several of Robbins’s films, including Dead Man Walking and the political satire, Bob Roberts. And both his sisters are musical.
“From an early age, music was everywhere. When I was just seven I went on a mini-tour with my dad – and my brother is a brilliant guitarist who became a composer and he did scores for my movies.”
It didn’t feel right to try and play music till now. It felt disingenuous when I first became famous, and the opportunity presented itself to take that fame and try to turn it into me being a rock and roll star. Tim Robbins
Robbins himself sang in Bob Roberts, the 1992 film he wrote and directed, where he plays a right-wing folk singer who croons his way to power with songs about the work-shy.
He says that – when the film company wanted to release the songs from the film as an album – as a Democrat himself, he demurred, not wanting the satirical numbers to be heard outside of the film.
“It didn’t feel right to try and play music till now. It felt disingenuous when I first became famous, and the opportunity presented itself to take that fame and try to turn it into me being a rock and roll star. And with Bob Roberts, I just didn’t want to hear songs out of context, and it just didn’t seem right there either. And since then I have just been busy writing, directing and acting, and didn’t have time to do this.”
But he always had a big hand in the music in his films. During preparations for Dead Man Walking – about a prisoner on death row and the nun who urges him to repent to find salvation – Robbins got a message to Johnny Cash, asking him to write a song for the film, which the singer did, and the two became friends.
‘Low key’ tour
Robbins says he knows everything from his filmic career will mean little when he takes to the stage. So he wants this tour to be low-key, as befitting a novice at playing for paying audiences. Infused with folk and Celtic traditions he cites influences from Woody Guthrie to The Pogues.
After he plays Paris tonight, he will head to Dublin, before coming to play a UK tour, taking in London, Nottingham, Glasgow and Brighton. He and his band are playing small venues, with capacities of no more than 500.
“That’s more appropriate, for someone starting out”, he says, “and it’ll be more fun that way.”
Of course he is not the first. Many actors have bands. Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves have all plumped for playing in a traditional rock or indie band outfit. Bruce Willis plays the harmonica in his blues band.
I have seen three out of four of those actor bands (Russell Crowe being the omission there). And I have to say that you cannot ever forget that they are actors first and foremost.
But Tim Robbins is surrounding himself with such a smorgasbord of instruments – from harmonicas, accordions, pianos and double basses to electric guitars and a mandolin, played by a band of seven – that if anyone can cajole the audience into partially forgetting that they are more famous for their day job, then it might just be him.