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Our SXSW conversation with Neil Young about ‘Paradox,’ his archives and more

Peter Blackstock

“Paradox,” premiering at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Paramount Theater as part of the South by Southwest Film Festival, is described in the fest’s program guide as a “far-fetched, whimsical western tale of music and love.” Directed by Daryl Hannah, the film features Neil Young as well as Lukas and Micah Nelson, sons of Willie and fixtures in Promise of the Real, Young’s backing band of the past few years. Their music — a mix of newly-written songs, instrumental film-score material and excerpts of classics from Young’s past — is central to the tone and theme of the film.

Young isn’t performing at SXSW, but he’s here to help promote the film, and he granted a few interviews yesterday. We sat down with him for about 20 minutes Wednesday afternoon to discuss ‘Paradox,’ his impressive new Neil Young Archives website, his relationship with Lukas and Micah, and more.

American-Statesman/Austin360: How did you assemble the material for the film?

Neil Young: The instrumental passages we did were all written for this film. Three songs — “Peace Trail” and “Pocahontas” and the long instrumental of “Cowgirl” (1969’s “Cowgirl in the Sand”), those are old songs obviously, although “Peace Trail” is only a year old. “Diggin’ in the Dirt” we wrote that for this, Lukas and Micah and I. And of course Willie’s song “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” sung by Lukas, is maybe the highlight, a classic. It’s like these two guys (Lukas and Micah) are American treasures, both of them. They’re continuing on the work their dad has done so well for so many years. It’s a beautiful thing.

You must have known them since they were little kids. At one point did you realize, hey, these guys might be good for my band?

The first time I remember thinking that is, Willie and I were standing onstage at Farm Aid in Milwaukee, maybe eight years ago, something like that. Lukas was playing, and it was just the (Promise of the Real) trio, and it was amazing. It was just stunningly great. And I was just standing there with Willie and saying, “You must feel great about this, to see those guys out there.” It’s just always felt good to see them. Now I’m playing with them, and they’re fantastic. It’s like they know: They’re in the river, they know the flow. They inherently know, and they have no fear. All those guys in that band, nobody has any fear. They’re not concerned with anything more than music. They know nothing to be scared of; they’re not trying to prove anything.

Lukas has said that his priority is playing with you, but he’s getting really good on his own and had a big record last year. How do you balance the needs of your band with your desire to encourage his own work?

I want him to do everything that he wants to do. And as soon as I’m ready to go out and play a tour, I’m hopeful that they’ll be ready to go, too. Right now I haven’t got the new music that I need to go out and play a tour, a Neil Young tour. I need to have a bunch of new songs, because it gives me something to get my teeth into. And then the (older) songs will hang off of them. And they hang on for dear life, those songs. But I can’t do it without the new songsm so I have to wait for the new songs to come.

You’ve done music-and-film projects before. Was “Paradox” different?

It’s just a continuation of music. We made the music that we felt like making. We knew we had a couple of scenes that we should create some themes for, and so we did them. In one case, we borrowed heavily from one of my existing songs to make a new musical track, and make an instrumental out of one of my old melodies. Another couple of songs are jam songs where we just went with the flow; we didn’t think about it much. Everything was so much fun. I mean, the drumming on one of those —is insane. Tato (Melgar) and Anthony (LoGerfo) had all these drums, the’re all banging away in the studio, and we’re just going nuts. On another one, I took my harp and I said (to the band), “You play the melody to ‘Love and Only Love,’ and I’ll play my harp and feed back through my amp.” And everybody just keep playing, and we’ll just keep playing that for a long time. We had a great time; it was fun.

Your new streaming archives site comes with a 10-minute video that explains how it all works.. How many years have you been working on this?

Well, it started off with an old frined of mine named Larry Johnson who passed maybe five years ago. We started in 1990, building it, and we put out “Archives Volume 1” on Blu-Ray, because I wanted it to have high-res. I wanted the music to be everything it could be, and I didn’t wan’t to put out my history unless the music sounded good. I hate what the music sounds like today on the internet, and I don’t like what people have to listen to. It’s been dummied down for no reason. So I wanted to prove to the world that you could have great-sounding music on the computer, and you could connect it up to speakers and it’d be like God. And we’ve done that. It’s the best-sounding streaming site in the world. There’s no one else doing what we’re doing. So our technology is really earth-shattering in that respect. I’m very proud of that.

The archives has been an incredible journey for me. I’ts nice to have an organized place to put everything I’ve done, so that people can find it and refer to it or whatever. … It’s like my whole life: If I like something and I do a good job on it, there’s always enough people who are going to like it so that I can keep on going and do something else. And that’s the way I look at the archives; it’s just a culmination of all of that. We worked on it for a long time to make it as great as it is. I’m particularly happy with the sound quality. There’s no magic to it, it’s just technology. It’s just using technology from this century instead of the last one.

How many people did it take to build it? Like a couple dozen?

Not that many. We’ve moved from place to place. We have a house in San Francisco, a tech house, that had done a lot of the development. But we’ve been on this for many years, developing the look and feel of it. It’s a big time machine for music, and for anything.

In the instructional video, you show some images of an old album cover and you remark about “when we had room for art” on album covers. But now you have infinite room online.

Yeah. And you can listen and move around, and look at different things while you’re listening. And the site is only improving. We’re still doing things to the site that make it more immersive. We also are missing about 75 percent of the content on the info cards that’s available. We have many more things to put in, and loading it takes time. That’s the hard part. So we’re a little slow on that right now, and I’m trying to get all that together. We’re getting some interns, and we’re getting a little office space, so we’ll be loading up all those info cards and stuff. It’s like every credit for every song. Everybody who worked on it: the engineers, the studio, the maintenance people, the musicians who were there, the people who dropped in to do things, the producer, the engineers. Everything’s there, plus the lyrics, the credits for the publishing — everything associated with the music is there.

The credits are really important; it’s good to have that because they’re disappearing on the web.

Yeah metatdata is a joke. I mean, I don’t know who they thought they were fooling. You know, Silicon Valley is a bunch of crap.

Other artists reach a point int their lives when they donate their archives to libraries or historical collections. But you want to keep it in house. Why is that?

I want the poeple to keep it. I want everybody to have it. And when we start our subscription thing, we’re still going to have a lot of free music you can listen to. My top albums of the day, top ten streaming albums, will be available for free. Everything that you can do now, they’ll be able to do. It’s just that there’s another 40 or 50 albums, and all the information associated with them, all the videos associated with everything — the movies, the books, everything is there. And then for whatever it amounts to be — which, we figured out it’s going to be 20 percent of a normal subscription streaming — that’s what you’ll pay for this. Because it’s just me, it’s not all the artists in the world, so we don’t expect everybody to pay that. But if we can do that and get enough people — we want more people and less money. The smaller the amount that people pay, the more people are going to pay it. But we want something that’s really worth it, where they really feel like they’re getting a great deal. And people who can’t afford to do anything or just don’t know, we can still show them the difference between what great sound is and what they’ve got today, so they have a window into the possibilities to look at. That’s the mission.

If I’m listening through my laptop, it can only get so much better because of these crappy speakers. Is it still noticeably better?

Actually, much better. Oh yeah. And I realize computers are compromises. They can only play back CD quality at the best. They interpolate everything down and play back shit. They’re not playback devices. But it’s still, coming out of the little speakers in a Mac, the high-res noticeably sounds better. And we have a switch; you can listen to what you’ve got now, and you can, you spend a little time listening to a song that you like, and then listen to it the other way. Switch back and forth a few times; it’s like night and day. And as soon as you realize it, you go, “How the hell is Neil — how are they doing that? How come they can do it, and Spotify can’t do it?”

You were at SXSW in 2014 talking about your Pono high-quality music player. How has that gone?

Well, it ended up dying because streaming came in, and downloads are out. Ant that’s cool. I’m just talking about quality. And now I’m streaming quality, because I found the technology. We didn’t know where it was at that point. If I could have, I would have used streaming at that point and opened up a streaming service. But I knew my archives was really the way. The more I looked at it, I said, “You know, if I just do this for myself and make an example of it, it may be better than trying to sell people stuff.” Just let them have it; they can see it. The mission is for people to understand that music could be a lot better sounding, everywhere in the world, than it is right now. There’s no reason why it can’t be. Well, there is one reason: record companies. They charge too much for the high-res. They don’t make anything off of it because they’ve priced it out of existence, so nobody buys it. So if they made it all the same price, and the people had the choise of whether to have high-res or low-res, go ahead, make your choice. That’s all I’m asking for: Give people a choice.

Anything else on the horizon for you?

I’m writing a little bit. I’m writing a book; I’ve got a book coming out. It’s a novel. So I’ve written it, and it’s my first novel. I’m kind of excited about it.