Neil Young and Crazy Horse close the Austin City Limits Music Festival’s Bud Light stage at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s recent “Americana” reconfigures several standards (“Oh Susannah,” “This Land Is Your Land”) as well as relatively obscure traditional songs (“Wayfarin’ Stranger”). The band quickly follows the covers collection with all new originals on the forthcoming double disc “Psychedelic Pill” (due Oct. 30).
We caught up with founding guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro as he recovered recently from the latest Farm Aid. “Farm Aid was wild as usual,” Sampedro says. “There are so many bands there. I was on stage and seeing all the trucks and all the gear going back and forth, I was like, ‘It’s amazing this can happen.’”
Austin360: Explain how ‘Psychedelic Pill’ took shape.
Poncho Sampedro: We had just finished “Americana” and at the end, Neil was saying, “I think we’re done. I think we got it.” I said, “Well, Neil, we’re famous for jamming and we didn’t jam yet.” He was like, “It’d be good to have a jam song on there, but I don’t really have one right now.” I said, “Well, pick two chords and let’s go!” (He laughs.) That didn’t happen, but next time we got together, we just started playing and that ended up being (the “Psychedelic Pill” opening track) “Driftin’ Back,” which is 26 minutes long.
Did that song just stretch out in the studio?
When we first get together after not playing for a long time, we always have a jam and it’s really great and it never gets recorded and nobody hears it, not even us. This time it happened! Granted, when I listen to it, I wish Neil would have cut a couple places out here or there, but Neil doesn’t do that. It’s just a miracle to me that it actually happened. Neil’s singing in the mike but we couldn’t really hear and I don’t think he really had everything formulated in his head. We weren’t hearing it and didn’t know what it was about, but we just kept playing. When you listen to that song, you go, “Where am I?” (He laughs.)
Is ‘Psychedelic Pill’ a concept record like (Young and Crazy Horse’s 2003 album) ‘Greendale’?
No, I don’t believe so, but I do think a lot of the songs that Neil wrote were very emotional songs. That suits Crazy Horse. We really got to put our hearts into this, and that’s why some of the songs have longer jams. We really meant everything we played. We enjoyed it and Neil wrote some really great songs. I’m so proud of this record, I can’t tell you. I think everybody else will like it. I hope.
How does this album represent your evolution as a guitarist?
Does it? (He laughs.) I always feel like I’m struggling as a guitar player. I’m not a schooled musician and I don’t really know that much about music on a technical level. I think Neil somehow has these emotional tunes and all the other stuff in our head goes away and somehow emotionally, spiritually, all four of our souls connect. A big light goes on and we just follow it. Neil’s not leading and I’m not leading. No one’s making anything happen. It’s just happening. That’s the beauty of it. We can get to that spot over and over again. These songs with the longer jams are what and who we are.
How did you learn to play the guitar?
When I was 11, I saw this kid from my neighborhood walking down the street holding a guitar. I said, “Where’d you get that?” He said, “I’m taking lessons.” I said, “But your dad bought you a guitar?” He said, “No, if you take lessons with me, we get a cheaper price. Two guys can take it at once. We only have to pay a buck 65 and they give you the guitars.” “I’m in!” (He laughs.) That’s how it all started and it’s never stopped since. I love it.
What’s Neil’s greatest asset as a guitarist?
It’s hard to say. He has a feel that I always describe as it seems to me that he plays solos backward. I don’t know exactly what that means, but that’s the only way I know how to describe it. No one else plays backward. Everyone else is playing the same stuff forward. It’s interesting. His sense of melody and being able to linger on notes really lets people absorb the feeling coming from this music.
Exactly how much improv is there in the live show?
Guess the answer’s in your laugh.
(He laughs.) It’s all improv! It’s always improv. There’s no pat solo. There’s no counting bars. There’s none of that. It’s different every night. I think that’s the beauty of our band. If you come to see us, we play the same songs but it’s never gonna be the same. I think the songs are just a catalyst to get us to the jam.
Describe Neil Young as a friend.
Wow. He’s really an amazing person. I can’t believe that at our age now and this time in our life, I’ve slowed down and am not doing much, but Neil’s amazing. He has so many projects going on and he’s alert and on top of all of them and it’s really cool to be around him. There are so many positive things happening. When Neil walks in the room, everything picks up. Everything changes. Things get better. He’s truly a special person. As a friend, if you have a problem or need to talk about something, Neil’s there.
He’s frequently called ‘mercurial.’ True?
You never know what he’s gonna come up with, but I don’t know what “mercurial” means, really. (He laughs.)
Given to changing quickly, changing your mind …
Oh yeah. I always say Neil doesn’t turn corners. He ricochets around them. That’s the way he is. Just so everyone knows, every one of these projects that he does – records, whatever it is, inventions – no matter what it is, at that moment, he has forgotten everything else and he’s 100 percent into it, 100 percent believing it. He eats, sleeps and drinks that moment. It’s not a show or a fad. He’s deeply in it. If you try to say, “Neil, come on …” He just looks at you like you’re crazy. He’s in there. It’s real. He really digs in.
Neil recently said that he stopped drinking and smoking pot a year ago. For you, do drugs and alcohol help or hinder your creative process?
Well, at one point in my life, for 15 years I got completely sober. Now, I’ll have a drink or smoke some pot. I just think that different people go through different stages and there are times in your life where – when you get high for 10, 20 years in a row – after a while you start wondering, “What am I really like if I’m straight? Who is the real Poncho? Who is the real Neil Young?” It creeps into your head and you want to give it a chance and see what’s going on.
When I (got sober), it was amazing to me. I loved getting straight and it was a blast. Now, I’m retired basically and said, “Yeah, I think I can take a hit now and then and have a drink and it’s not a big deal.” Unfortunately, when people get heavily addicted to things, they seem to spiral into oblivion and that’s not what anybody wants to do.
Do you wish Crazy Horse was a more full-time gig so you wouldn’t be semi-retired?
No. No. I’m unlike the other two members, (bassist) Billy (Talbot) and (drummer) Ralph (Molina). They always would love to do Crazy Horse albums and Crazy Horse projects and at first I did, too, but as time went by, I got the feeling that that would take away from what we have with Neil. It’s really a special thing. I think the lapses just make it more exciting for all of us. It makes it that much more a gem than just a coin (laughs).
This year’s obviously been a busy one for you guys. What was the greatest challenge in interpreting the songs on ‘Americana’?
You know, somehow it didn’t feel like we were doing covers. These were songs my mother sang to me when I was sitting on her knee. I loved them. I used to jump around and sing them. It was really exciting and it was the first time we recorded in nine years, so just plugging in and playing was, “Holy cow, that sounds just like us. We don’t have to try to sound like us. We are us.”
That was all really fun, but at the same time I think “Psychedelic Pill” is holding our hearts and soul and that’s what makes the difference between that and “Americana.” On “Americana,” I’m really embarrassed about my low vocal part on “Get a Job.” It was so much fun and I volunteered for it and I wanted it and I was so into it and now I listen to it and go, “Why did I raise my hand?” (He laughs.) We’re not a cover band, but we did a good job and Neil had great arrangements and just made it fun to get those out there.
Did you consciously stick closely to the original melodies?
Well, you know, it’s pretty hard to change “Oh Susannah.” (He laughs.)
“(She’ll Be) Comin’ ’Round the Mountain.” I don’t know what the point of (changing the melody) would be. I think the arrangement he came up with using minor chords, made it feel a little bit more like us, a little bit more exciting for us. I think we really cooked on those songs.
You said you didn’t realize you were playing the Zeppelin song ‘Gallows Poll’ while recording, right?
No, I didn’t! You’re right. When we played it the way we played it, I never got it. Three days later, I heard the title “Gallows Poll” and I went, “Was that the same one as Zeppelin? Wow!” That sounds so different, but that was one of my favorite ones on that record. I like “High Flyin’ Bird” and “Gallows Poll.” “The Wayfarin’ Stranger,” I had no idea what that was about and I don’t ever really remember playing it, but when I listen to it, it touches me.
What do you look forward to about playing the Austin City Limits festival?
Well, first of all, I have a personal reason. I’m in New York right now because my son’s been living here for about six years. He’s a musician also. He’s moving to Austin next week, so I get to hang with him and he’ll get to see us play. So, that’s my own personal reason.
I enjoy Austin. I like the way the town’s set up for music and how it supports musicians. There are a lot of places for people to play there and hone their craft and become better musicians and learn what the industry is about. There’s no place like it in the United States, so I’m excited to go there. It’ll be fun to play Austin and put a big hoof print on it.
How much of ‘Psychedelic Pill’ do you plan to play at the festival?
All of it except two songs (laughs). I think the only ones we won’t play are “Driftin’ Back” and “She’s Always Dancing.” If we play “Driftin’ Back” and extended that, I think the show would be over.
What’s your most memorable show with Crazy Horse?
Not really a memorable show music-wise, but you remember the one where it rained and flooded almost to the foot of the stage and people were standing on their seats and the power went out. I think for me, Ragged Glory was the most memorable tour. We often played three hours or more and we really got to express ourselves and leave everything on the stage every show. I loved that.
Do you ever get tired of playing the classics like ‘Powderfinger’ or ‘Cortez the Killer’?
Never. In fact, I think that “Powderfinger” is being reborn. We haven’t played it in so long and we’re still finding it again. It’s not great yet, but it’s pretty good. I’ll tell you, our first show (on this tour) in Albuquerque, it was the second song and I get to sing the vocal part in it. When I walked up to the mike, nothing came out of my mouth. I was so overwhelmed with adrenaline and excitement and being there live and playing for all these people for the first time in nine years, I couldn’t even sing. It blew my mind!