“Ragged inspiration!” Nils Lofgren on Neil Young with Crazy Horse

The guitarist takes us inside Colorado - Neil Young's first album in seven years with Crazy Horse

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It hopefully won’t have escaped your notice that there’s a new Neil Young album out this week – his first with Crazy Horse since Psychedelic Pill in 2012. I wrote a pretty in-depth review of the album in our November issue, but here’s also the Q&A I conducted with Nils Lofgren about his return to the Horse. Some interesting nuggets, I think, not least the slightly weird logistics about this new album’s origins…

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How is it, being back with Crazy Horse?
They’re probably my oldest musical family – Crazy Horse. 50 years ago in May, I walked in on them at the Cellar Door. We made friends. I made the first definitive Crazy Horse album with Danny Whitten, with Jack Nitzsche producing. It was an amazing thing and have had some great chapters ever since. And here we are!

When was the idea of Crazy Horse recording a new album first mooted?
This February, we did two shows in Winnipeg. We had what we called the Polar Vortex – the whole country was being slammed with ice and snow. Ralphie and I went to Billy’s house in South Dakota, really in the middle of nowhere, we rehearsed for a few days without Neil. Neil isn’t a big fan of rehearsal. He knows his songs! Then we got on a crazy, 13-hour bus journey from South Dakota to Winnipeg. All the shows were rocking and fun, but that last show in Winnipeg, to me became more of a band than we’d been. It had a special feel. So that’s when I think Neil started writing. A couple of weeks before I was going to start touring my own record Blue With Lou, Neil called and said, “I’m writing songs. Can I send you a few? I know you’re got your own record and tour, but any chance you come up to Colorado for a couple of weeks and start recording?” That was my first exposure to the idea of a new album. Neil kept sending these primitive demos to my email in batches of twos and threes. He said, “Just get a little familiar with them. Don’t get too inside them. We like things to involve.” It’s like Tonight’s The Night – if you catch people a little off guard without too much preparation you get a more emotional tape.

Tell us about the studio.
It was this mountain top studio that was scrambling to get ready for us. There was a room with oxygen tanks, because of the altitude. Amy, my wife, and I got there three days early to get acclimatised. We jumped into it with all the craziness and technical glitches and got used to playing as live as we could, without all the baffles and everyone in iso-booths. We chipped away and got 11 or 12 songs recorded. At the last minute, we had a listening party at Neil and Daryl’s, which was beautiful. It was a Sunday night. We drove down the mountain – there was snow, ice, hail and rain, terrible roads – to get to Cortez. When we left, we all felt really good about it. Neil was off to Europe to play festival shows with Promise Of The Real; he thought maybe we’d get back together in August and do some more recording. Then, as the weeks went by, he did some serious listening and figured he had a record he felt great about already. We didn’t need to keep going at it.

Reading John Hanlon’s posts on NYA, it seems that Neil was working on a solo album originally. Then it morphed into a Crazy Horse album. Is this your understanding, too?
I was not aware of that. I don’t know if he did some solo recording with John. I know he played a couple of the songs at the shows in Winnipeg – he played a 20-minute set before he brought Crazy Horse out. I remember how “Green is Blue” deeply affected me. I didn’t realise I’d be recording it with Crazy Horse months later!

How did the sessions unfold?
The main goal was to play live and record live but hear each other. We set up in the room, with all the amps bleeding into each other, but with some sense of limiting the bleeding. I’d move my amp back a bit into the room, maybe we’d put a baffle by it but not enclose it. Then it was a question of moving round the drum kit so Neil could hear me and I could hear him. But you don’t want the amps blaring into the vocal mics louder than the vocal either. So it was more a logistical thing. Last time I did a record like that was Tonight’s The Night. Even when we did Trans in the early ’80s, in Hawaii, sometimes we had to use headphones.

How did Neil manage the sessions?
There were a handful of songs where Neil and I would look at each other and he’d say, “Maybe I’ll be on acoustic.” I’d go, “You want me on piano?” We did than on “Think Of Me”. Then there were some other songs where I’d like Neil was getting an acoustic and I’d have a lap steel or an accordion. Or he’d say, “Why don’t we try rough Crazy Horse approach with two electrics?” Some of the songs came out that way, like “Rainbow Of Colors”.

“She Showed Me Love” is a classic Horse jam.
That was one where we got to an arrangement of the song – which we barely knew – and then all followed Neil into this jam. We just didn’t stop! I thought we were just getting used to the groove of the song. But 13 minutes later, there we were. It was a bunch of old friends reconnecting and rediscovering what they’ve always had.

Neil had a pretty rough start to the year, with the fire in Malibu and then losing Pegi. Has this Crazy Horse album been therapeutic?
Oh, sure. I love Pegi, I love Neil, I have such a long history with them. Just such a heartbreaking thing. And all the stuff he’s gone through with his own health, that I just felt that he wanted to play it all – he kept going out and singing and letting the music, which I believe is the planet’s sacred weapon, work through him and help him and his family. For all of us, too – we get older, we all got stuff going on. It was very therapeutic and healing – the ragged inspiration of it, playing with old friends and creating something new. It won’t bring anyone back, but it reminds you their spirits are with you and they want you to carry on.

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The December 2019 issue of Uncut is on sale from October 17, and available to order online now – with Bob Dylan on the cover and an exclusive unreleased Dylan track on our free CD. Elsewhere in the issue, there’s Robert Smith, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Pink Floyd, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Prince, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Lynne, Booker T, Tindersticks and much more.

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