The "mathematical guitar genius" on his greatest work

In his 52-year career as songwriter, Band leader and, according to Bob Dylan, “mathematical guitar genius”, Robbie Robertson has played his part in the evolution of American music. Aged just 16, in 1959 he joined Ronnie Hawkins’ backing group. The Hawks later conspired with the newly electric Dylan, before becoming The Band, a polestar of US music. Since leaving The Band in ’76 Robertson has collaborated with Martin Scorsese and released five solo albums. At 67 he still embraces the mystery of creative exploration. “You don’t necessarily recognise these things as they’re happening,” he tells Uncut. “It’s always a discovery process.” Interview: Graeme Thomson. Originally published in Uncut’s April 2011 issue (Take 167).



The Bootleg Series Vol 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966, The ‘Royal Albert Hall’ Concert
(Columbia, 1998)
The most famous live bootleg in rock history was finally released in 1998, and captures Dylan & The Hawks in their ragged pomp at Manchester Free Trade Hall in ’66. Their music enrages folk purists, one of whom famously cries “Judas!” at Dylan…

ROBERTSON: Oh, I remember the “Judas” night, but we’d heard it all before. We’d toured the US, Canada, Australia, then all over Europe, so by the time we got to England we were hardened veterans of negativity. It was an interesting experience, to go all over the world and have thousands of people turn up to boo you – they’d throw stuff, too. I learned to play guitar without looking at my hands, because I had to watch out for flying objects. An extraordinary experiment in terror. At some point you think, ‘God, it’s only music.’ That night in Manchester we knew we were in the zone and we did something beautiful. After the show we’d listen on a little mono Nagra tape recorder and we’d say, “That’s not that bad!” We just had to barrel through, but there were times when you woke up screaming, “Maybe I’m wrong!” We’d pick up a newspaper and it would talk about how terrible the show was. We were in the middle of a musical revolution, and it was very challenging to believe in something when no-one else did.

The Basement Tapes
(Columbia, 1975)
Burnt out, Dylan retreats to Woodstock. The Band join him and in 1967 they start making strange, tipsy carnival music largely for their own pleasure. The widely bootlegged results are officially released in 1975.

We never thought that the public was ever going to hear any of this. It was specifically a songwriting thing, Bob wanted to put down songs for other people to record. We’d lay down a song and he’d say, “Oh, that would be a good one for Ferlin Husky,” or, “Ah, I dunno, maybe Ramblin’ Jack Elliott might be able to get into that.” It was a random, fun thing. There was no pressure or seriousness, and that enabled a certain freedom. Everything you ever learned about recording technique was completely disqualified. This was a basement in Bob’s house with cement walls, a cement floor, and a big metal furnace in the middle. I was always interested in the sound and vibe of a record as much as the song itself, so I experimented quite a bit in the basement. There was something rebellious about it. A lot of it was trial and error, but the results had a quality to it that has stayed with me ever since: it’s about not looking for the obvious, trying to find the right mistake. The Basement Tapes sound so much like it’s on the edge of disaster it makes you hold your breath sometimes.


Music From Big Pink
(Capitol, 1968)
The Band’s first record, named after the house three of them shared in West Saugerties, features classic Robertson originals such as “The Weight” alongside new Dylan originals. The result is a foundation stone of roots rock.

When it was time for The Band to make a record I wanted this place up in Woodstock where we could do something interesting. The sound of that location ended up being the sound of the record. In a studio you felt like you were going into somebody else’s situation – there was a big clock on the wall and you were part of their world. That’s backwards, isn’t it? It was about flipping that over on its head: “It’s our music, our record, shouldn’t this be our world?” Now everybody does it, but back then there was nobody making records in their house. Oh my God, it was a happy time! We just played music, chased girls and had extraordinary life experiences. We were young and foolish and didn’t have a care in the world, but that communal thing only works at a certain age. People in college have the same kind of experiences, a bunch of friends living and growing together and working on your craft 24 hours a day. On my first solo album, I went to Dublin to do some recording with U2 and they had a set-up in Adam [Clayton’s] living room. I went in and they said, “Look familiar?”

The Band
From the sepia cover photo featuring the five extravagantly hirsute musicians to the closing majesty of “King Harvest”, The Band’s second album mints a new, mythical strain of North American music, uniting the past and present. Robertson’s finest set of songs is perfectly rendered by a seamless unit who can apparently play and sing anything.

I was hired by Ronnie Hawkins to be in The Hawks at 16 because of two songs I wrote [“Hey Boba Lu” and “Someone Like You”] when I was 15, but everything at that time was written overnight and I was never happy with that process. On this record I finally felt like I could really concentrate on my writing, and when songs were written I could bring them to everyone and we would learn them at our own speed. Before, I never had that opportunity. It always seemed we were in someone’s way or making too much noise. The lyrics for songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “King Harvest” stemmed from my experience of going from my home in Canada directly to the Mississippi Delta to join Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks. This is where music just grew out of the ground and where all the music I loved came from, and I was right in the middle of it. I was so young, I was just a kid and it made such a huge impression on me that I wanted to write about it. I was so overwhelmed at that age by the South. It had a profound effect on me, going to the Holy Land of rock’n’roll, and it came out in my songwriting years later. I was storing up images and the sounds and places. When it was time to go into my trunk of ideas it was filled with that kind of stuff.

Musically, we’d been playing together for eight years before we made The Band. We’d been out there gathering musicality and experiencing amazing music from the Mississippi Delta to Canada, absorbing all these different elements, from mountain music to gospel, blues, jazz, classical and country. Everything. We had sprinklings from all of these influences and we finally just threw them all in a big pot and stirred it up. It was a new musical gumbo. You can’t over-think these things, but when you’re making music it’s good to think that something may have a timeless quality, and people tell me this album has. With The Band I was very much anti-trends. If something was “happening”, I would often lean in a different direction. You didn’t want to get caught up in the bandwagon – no pun intended!


Before The Flood
A punchy double live album documenting Dylan and The Band’s return to touring for the first time since 1966. Mostly recorded at Los Angeles Forum, it features eight songs performed by The Band as well as 10 tracks where they back Dylan.

It was the opposite of 1966. This time everyone was acting like, “No, no, we knew all along this was great.” Ha, isn’t it interesting? We didn’t change anything, the world changed. I had a really good time on that tour, it was more relaxed. At this point we knew people were going to embrace it and so there were different kinds of concerns. We were just trying to play the music as well as we could, there was nothing else at stake. Technology had changed: you could hear everything better, it wasn’t just a big wall of noise, and we were more adept at figuring out how to play the songs with more skill, so it came together in a different way. There was something very powerful about the way we played those songs with Bob – it was like a machine almost. In the early days we were just learning that, and although it had its own thing going it didn’t have quite the same combustion. We recorded a few dates and what’s on the album is just what we thought sounded the best.

Northern Lights – Southern Cross
Recorded at their new West Coast home base of Shangri-La, this has a strength and unity that belies the fact that The Band are beginning to fracture. It’s the last Band LP of new material and features two of Robertson’s most moving songs, “It Makes No Difference” and “Acadian Driftwood”.

Islands [1977] was outtakes and B-sides, really, just completing an obligation to the record company. Shangri-La was just another home-made studio situation. We lived near it in Malibu so it was convenient, especially if we were working late at night. We had privacy and it worked fine. It’s still there – Rick Rubin records a lot there. While we were making the album we were doing pretty good, but the writing was on the wall. The end was on the horizon. Things were drifting. It was becoming a little bit harder to coordinate what we needed to do, people came in late or wouldn’t show up, and it felt like the interest level in what we were doing was fading. And it continued to do so after that, which is when I decided I wanted to do The Last Waltz.


The Last Waltz
(Warner Bros, 1978)
A mighty document of The Band’s star-studded final concert on Thanksgiving Day 1976, the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s legendary concert film remains a high-water mark for live albums. Features crackling performances from Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young et al.

The show was pulled together in a brief period. It’s a miracle it happened the way it did, it took everything we had. The planets were aligned, because there were a million things that could’ve gone wrong but it was meant to be. Everyone played real good and rose to the occasion in an extraordinary way. Of course, one of the big things besides the talent on the screen was having Martin Scorsese supervising the movie. It set a barometer for a decent live music film. Afterwards I had to concentrate on the movie so [John Simon] did most of the LP mixing. A few years ago when they re-released The Last Waltz in 5.1 I went in and remixed the record and added 24 outtakes. It was vinyl in the old days and you couldn’t fit everything on. I did it all over again as I was never completely satisfied with it and now I am.

Robbie Robertson
(Geffen, 1987)
Aged 44, Robertson releases his first solo album, an atmospheric Southern stew with contributions from U2 and Peter Gabriel. It includes Robertson’s only UK hit single, “Somewhere Down The Crazy River”.

It wasn’t easy making that record – we were working with all kinds of different people and Daniel Lanois was working with U2, so he was back and forth. We had an interesting time on “Somewhere Down The Crazy River”. I wrote it on this funny Omnichord-like instrument, an electronic autoharp that Brian Eno liked. When I was working on the lyrics I just started telling a story to Daniel about experiences I’d had in the South, a whole New Orleans vibe, and he was like, “That’s it! Nobody is doing this!” It came out of nowhere in a way that was quite magical. I went over to Dublin and did some experimenting with U2 – we just went in, boom, boom, boom, and came up with “Sweet Fire Of Love”. After that I went to Bath and did a couple of things with Peter Gabriel. I returned to America with some really interesting music, but then it was about making everything come together.


How To Be Clairvoyant
(429, 2011)
His first solo album for over a decade features Eric Clapton, Trent Reznor and Tom Morello, as Robertson takes a more autobiographical view of his past…

The genesis of this record was Eric [Clapton] and I hanging out, telling stories and playing guitar, just seeing what was going to happen. We’re old friends. I came to London and called in Steve Winwood and for three weeks we recorded these 12 basic tracks. Eric was really supportive, and the decision was that I should finish this record and make it my own. Later I came back to it with a whole other vision, with other characters I wanted to work with: Angela McClusky, Tom Morello, Trent Reznor – all who do something extraordinary. It was brilliant casting! I didn’t realise until I was deep into the LP that I was doing something more personal than I’d done before. I always took the storyteller angle, but I’d never said: ‘Well, here’s what happened.’ There was an honesty I couldn’t deny. On “This Is Where I Get Off”, I’d never thought about talking about the break-up of The Band in a song before. It was beautiful to do that with Eric as he was very close to The Band’s music. It felt right.

The November 2016 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our cover story on The Specials, plus Bon Iver, Bob Weir, Shirley Collins, Conor Oberst, Peter Hook, Bad Company, Leonard Cohen, Muscle Shoals, Will Oldham, Oasis, Lou Reed, Otis Redding, Nina Simone, Frank Ocean, Michael Kiwanuka and more plus 140 reviews and our free 15-track CD

Uncut: the past, present and future of great music.



  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Page 2
  3. 3. Page 3
  4. 4. Page 4
  5. 5. Page 5
Page 1 of 5 - Show Full List