Crazy Horse guitarist discusses reuniting with (the suddenly straight) Neil Young
If you haven’t seen Neil Young play with Crazy Horse, you simply haven’t seen Neil Young. The garage rock band that has backed him off and on since 1969 takes the classic rocker to another level. Young and Crazy Horse returned earlier this year with Americana, their first studio effort in almost a decade. And later this month they’ll issue Psychedelic Pill, an album that, as its title implies, features extended garage rock jams We recently interviewed Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampredo via phone from a Windsor, Ontario tour stop to find out what it is about Crazy Horse that brings out the best in Young. While we did the interview as a shorter feature for a weekly paper, Poncho had more to say and you can read it here.
How have the shows been going?
We’ve been out for ten days and stayed in New York most of the time. We played Farm Aid and played the Global Citizens Fight for Poverty. They were benefits and festivals, so we only got to play like 40 minutes I’m excited to start playing a full show and all our own music . . . once we start touring, no one will be coming on stage after us. We’ll have our stuff set up in the right places and it won’t sound like shit.
What’s it been like working with Neil Young again after a long hiatus?
It’s been more fun than ever. Other interviewers have asked what its like working him now that he’s straight. I can’t say that getting high made it worse, and I don’t know what drove him to get straight. Whatever it is that happened, everything is really positive. He has a book coming out, movies coming out and records coming out. He has a big smile on his face. He’s working really hard all the time. Everything is moving in a positive direction. It all trickles down so when you listen to Americana and Psychedelic Pill, you can hear that we are having a good time.
Are you better prepared now to work with him than you were 37 years ago?
I don’t really prepare, I hate to say it. If I start thinking about anything like that, I’m in trouble. After working on The Tonight Show and working as an assistant to Kevin Eubanks and taking care of business, I got to see these intense jazz players who practice six hours in a day. I don’t think I ever practiced six hours in a month. I started practicing and I do have better control of my guitar now. We played five shows in August. Up until the other night, I’m just playing straight up rhythm. I just play straight up rhythm and get a big groove and let Neil ride the wave. All that stuff is really cool but it’s not that important. That’s like saying “look at me” instead of driving the song through the roof.
What’s on the set list?
It’s all of Psychedelic Pill, except two songs, “Driftin’ Back” and “She’s Always Dancing” I think “Driftin’ Back” is left off because it would be one third of our allotted time. That song was originally 26 minutes and Neil called me and said, “I want you to come over. We’re going to this studio and I got another verse and we’ll do it acoustic and put it on the front of it.” I was like “We’re going to make it longer?” Then, he tells me he wanted to use it for the opener. I was going, “The opener?” We played that song once and that was our first recording. That was our first jam in nine years, and we listened to the playback, and I listened to it twice and at the end of each time, I’m sitting there, going, “Where am I?”
You haven’t been a proponent of recording a Crazy Horse album without Neil. Talk about why.
In the beginning, we made a couple of records and they weren’t received very well. I’m sure the other guys don’t want to hear this. But me being a little more realistic, I figure I could write a song tonight and I couldn’t write a song tomorrow but nobody really cares. I don’t touch people with my songs. [Drummer] Ralph [Molina] was the best writer of the three of us. The thing we have with Neil is a diamond in the rough. It’s this really beautiful thing that’s really special and if we keep trying to do Crazy Horse stuff that isn’t up to snuff, it will deteriorate what we have with Neil. Emotionally, it breaks my heart to put all my stuff out there and only sell ten copies. I just thought, “Wait a minute. If you’re a millionaire, do you buy lottery tickets?” No. We’re rockers in this great rock band with Neil Young. Do we really have to do something else? Even though Neil doesn’t use us that much, in a lot ways that’s a blessing in disguise. We play with this great guy and make great records and then we get years off when we can do whatever we want to do. [Bassist] Billy [Talbot] and Ralph want to make music all the time. I told them they could find someone to replace me but I can’t do that. It breaks my heart.
Can you talk about first meeting Neil Young in the ’70s. What did you have in common with him?
I was such an idiot. I was playing with Billy and Ralph and I never met Neil and he called them to Chess Records in Chicago. They brought me along. We were hanging out for a half day. We’re going to Neil’s room and [guitarist] Ben Keith was there. Neil was eyeing me down. I was trying to roll a joint. I kept handing my guitar to Ben and he said I should play. I did not have a clue that the next day we would be in the studio playing these same songs. I wasn’t in that world at the time. I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t recognize it and I was just a naïve junkie sitting there thinking, “I’m playing with Neil Young. Cool.” That’s what it was like the first time. Everything went to shit and we didn’t get anything out of the recording session. I felt bad and I thought we should go talk to him. I go up there and knock on the door. I said, “Yo man, I just want to talk to you. These guys brought me in and I feel like I’m holding you guys back.” He put his arm around me and he said I’ve heard this before and we have something going on. He said, “It ain’t happening now but we’ll be good together again.” I didn’t know what the fuck that meant either. I thought, “Does he want my stash?”
Talk about your interest in computer technology and recording.
On the Rusted Out Garage tour, he hired this guy Bryan Bell to come in and take care of it. I hooked up with him and he taught me all this stuff and became good friends. He set up this midi rig there at The Tonight Show and he wanted to move on and came to stay at my house and told me I could take the gig. In the end, I’m happy I took it. Meeting Kevin Eubanks and all the jazz cats opened me up to different things in music. I realized that maybe I should practice once in awhile.
I always hear critics who complain that you guys aren’t very good musicians. What’s your response to that critique?
Well, you know, we’re technically not that good of musicians. As far as our heart goes, that’s different. You can go Berklee and get some musicians and give them two chords and see how bored they get. You give us two chords and we won’t stop playing until you make us. It’ll get bigger and softer and crazy and almost like you won’t complete the second chord. Every emotion in our body will come through. It doesn’t mean were good musicians, but we’re good at expressing our feelings. That’s the other side of the coin. We’re not machines either.
After these two albums, will Crazy Horse back Young on his next album?
It’s funny. We did Americana and then this record and things were so slamming, it was insane. He played back “Ramada Inn” and “Walk Like a Giant.” Those were the first two I heard. I cried during “Ramada Inn” and “Walk Like a Giant” blew my mind. I said, “Why should we stop now? Let’s do a third record now.” He just said, “Poncho, you can’t get greedy.” There’s a guy who has a good vision of the future. I’m a minute-to-minute guy and really don’t know what’s going on. But if you invite me to the party, I’ll come and have a good time.
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