Nils Lofgren :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Multi-instrumentalist Nils Lofgren was welcomed back into the Crazy Horse fold a few years ago. But even though he jokingly calls himself “the young man of the band,” he’s not the new kid on the block. His history with Neil Young goes way back — five decades, in fact. As a teenager, he was drafted to play on the epochal After the Gold Rush sessions. From there, he worked closely with the Danny Whitten-era Horse on their self-titled 1970 debut. In between his own career, both with the band Grin and solo, plus a longstanding stint with Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, Lofgren has often collaborated with Young; Tonight’s the Night, Trans, and MTV Unplugged all bear the unmistakable imprint of his elegant, earthy playing.

The latest Neil Young & Crazy Horse record, Barn, was indeed recorded in a barn, high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Mostly captured live, it’s the band at its most elemental and warm, the sound of four old friends who still love making a racket together. Aquarium Drunkard hopped on Zoom with Lofgren recently to get his insight into what makes Young and the Horse tick, even after all these years. | t wilcox

Aquarium Drunkard: How familiar with these songs were you before the Barn sessions? Do you get demos from Neil?

Nils Lofgren: Well, at first, Neil said he had four songs. We thought this would be the first of two or three adventures like this, maybe recording in different locations, and then maybe we’d get a whole album. [But] Neil kept writing and we had nine songs all of a sudden. While we were there, he said, “Oh, I’m working on another one. Let me finish it tonight and we’ll cut it tomorrow. Maybe we’ll have a record down.” And bang, that’s what we did. “Human Race” — Neil came in with it and we started trying to figure out the arrangement and we kept changing our minds, including Neil. Then he finally said, “I don’t know, just follow me.” And we got it.

[Before the sessions], he sent us a funky acoustic demo of “Song of the Seasons” and that was great. But as we got closer and closer, Billy and I were like, “Hey man, I hope we get those other demos.” Well, anyway, we arrived in in in Colorado with one demo [laughs].

I went out a day early to work with the crew to get set up, make sure the instruments work. Larry Cragg, a dear old friend, was doing us a favor to moonlight as a guitar tech. No one’s better than Larry getting all the instruments in tune, singing, and readjusted. And then we just got going. It was really a beautiful, primitive way of recording where there’s not that pristine headphone thing. Everything was messy and bleeding into each other ’cause we’re actually out in this dusty barn. It wasn’t sealed so the wind would be howling through, and it got a little chilly at night.

We didn’t learn any of the songs very well. We were learning as we went along. That was reminiscent of Tonight’s The Night — an intentional anti-production record, which was the aim of Neil and [producer] David Briggs, rest his soul. You don’t know the songs too well. As soon as Neil gets a vocal performance, you’re done, and you can’t change a thing. Ralphie and I used to always want to re-sing our harmony parts, because we were singing while we were learning the songs. But you lose something that way sometimes. With Barn, we were all on a little funky stage in a barn. I got a kick out of the fact that not once during the recording did we ever put on a pair of headphones. It was just so raw and fresh and fun.

AD: You’ve obviously done many records with Neil, but so many of them have been in unusual recording situations. Like, After the Gold Rush was mostly recorded in a house, right, and Tonight’s the Night was made at a rehearsal studio?

Nils Lofgren: Yeah, [Gold Rush] was in a house up in Topanga Canyon. We did it in a tiny room just under the sun deck up top. That’s where I first encountered the Gold Rush upright — this beautiful funky piano that’s been dragged all over the world for 50 years. We used it on Barn. Back then, Neil and David Briggs asked me to play piano. I warned them I was not a professional piano player. But because of my accordion days — 10 years of classical accordion studies — I could come up with some simple parts. And Ralphie, of course, you couldn’t find a more solid, committed simple drummer. It left a lot of space. On bass, Greg Reeves was from the James Jamerson school. Busy is not the right word for him — [he was] colorful, a lot of movement. Greg brought with him a deep pocket. And then of course that left a lot of space up top for Neil. And it just worked out great.

AD: You’ve played with Billy and Ralph for decades. What is it about them that they do that no one else can do? Obviously, there’s some kind of magic happening there. What’s it like playing with them?

Nils Lofgren: Musicians can try a lot of different approaches. But in Crazy Horse, we’re all asked to be ourselves. Billy and Ralph come in with great intent and great emotional content. They’re very deliberate and simple and allow space. It’s like when I play piano — I’m not a virtuoso. I’m grateful for a reputation as a guitar player. But honestly, I’m just playing a song. I’m a songwriter. I’m always listening to the singer, right? That’s my nature. Where can I fit in? That was always in place even before I met [Neil and Crazy Horse] when I was 18.

The plan back then was to make an album without Neil, featuring Crazy Horse and Danny Whitten. Danny was this great writer and singer. I joined the band and that was another brilliant experience. There were no click tracks. We went to the same rehearsal hall every day. Jack Nitzsche joined the band, too. He was wild producer, arranger, and good keyboardist. So, it was really neat to go into this funky rehearsal studio in Hollywood and just jam all day and work out these songs. I just have such a long history with Billy and Ralphie. It’s really wonderful.

AD: You mentioned David Briggs. He’s been gone for quite a while, but I feel like he’s still obviously. very much a part of the Crazy Horse process.

Nils Lofgren: David was such a hard ass about music. In the studio, you might be like, “Man, I’m tired today,” or “My dog’s missing” … David’s famous line was always: “Be great or be gone.” You know, Neil became quite successful, and David was the guy who, when these big executives came around, would always say, “Hey, sit down, shut up, and listen. We’re making music.” Most producers want to stay in good with these guys. He got right in their face. He didn’t care. They thought, “Oh my god, this guy’s a lunatic!” We all loved it.

He worked on my band Grin’s records. We were rookies who had never recorded [before] except for basement demos. He really worked with us and got the best out of us. David was so valuable, just an inspiring kind of mentor, a big brother. When we went on the road with Tonight’s the Night, David was there right there. When we took Trans on the road, David was there. When we did the MTV Unplugged show, David was there.

MTV Unplugged was a great moment. First, they tried to do MTV Unplugged with the Harvest Moon band in New York City, right? And Neil was very unhappy with it and refused to allow it out. A month or two later, I talked to Neil, and he said wanted to try the MTV Unplugged thing again in LA and he wanted me there. He said, “Look, just double me, so if I want to go off and play lead or if I want to just sing for a moment and not play, the theme will be there.” I was in heaven, you know.

So, we show up to rehearsal in LA and the incredible band that made Harvest Moon is there: Kenny Buttrey, Tim Drummond, Spooner Oldham, and Ben Keith. Ben was pretty on top of it, but the rhythm section didn’t remember their parts. After a while, Neil got pretty pissed off: “What the hell’s going on? You guys wrote the parts, you played on the record.” They’d say, “Just keep singing, it’ll come back to us.” Neil got tired of it. He said, “If you guys don’t have your shit together, I’m gonna go drink some tequila. You guys learn your parts.” I put down my guitar — I was ready to go have a drink! David said, “No, you’re staying.” I was kind of heartbroken. I wanted to go drink tequila with Neil and David.

So I said, “Look guys, I’m gonna sing every song on the list twice.” So, we did that and started to get it together. I had played some Bridge Benefit shows with them, so we all knew each other. Later, David Briggs told me that him and Neil came back and listened through the wall. “It’s not together yet — let’s go have another drink!” Anyway, I get to the gig early, I always like to get to gigs early. [Manager] Elliott [Roberts] comes up and says, “I want you to know you did a good job. Thanks for showing up prepared. But Neil is on the outskirts of town, still feeling weird about rehearsals. I want to warn you that he may show and do the entire show alone [laughs].” He was thinking about dismissing the entire band. I said, “We sounded good, right?” Elliott said, “I’m not telling you how it sounded, I’m telling you what might happen.” But we show up and we do the whole thing. Long story short, we got a beautiful MTV Unplugged recording out of it.  

AD: I think maybe you’re the only person who can answer this next question. You’ve worked a lot with Neil Young, and you’ve worked a lot with Bruce Springsteen. Looking at it from the outside, it seems like they might be completely opposite as bandleaders. Is that correct? 

Nils Lofgren: You know, actually, that’s incorrect. They are much more similar than you would imagine. Of course, they have a different sound. They’re both two of the greatest songwriters we’ve ever had. I’d say there’s similarity in the way that they are both very hands-off. They like to work with people that they don’t have direct a lot. Neither one gets in your face says, “Play this, play that.” On the contrary, a lot of times they won’t even make recommendations. Just play what you feel, right? So that’s a very enormous freedom. Personally, I like to work with musicians like that too. If I’m telling the drummer what to play, then we’re in trouble.

They’re both very similar in the sense they like to be surprised by good ideas. Yeah, they come in with a song, but not usually with a prerequisite everything that everyone’s playing. And I love that about it. They like immediacy. They don’t like to over rehearse. If there’s a difference, Neil may go a little further out on an extreme ledge like that, but it’s very, very subtle. You know, with Bruce every night we play a song from a sign in the crowd that we’ve never played before. We’re working on an arrangement and the key on the fly. Neil takes it a bit further. Like Tonight’s the Night — “Hey, I don’t even want you knowing the song too well.” As a musician who revels in that kind of freedom, that’s perfect.

AD: “Welcome Back” is one of my favorites on the new record — and it sounds very in keeping with that spontaneous thing you’re talking about, that sense of surprise. Was that an early take?

Nils Lofgren: Well, they were all early takes [laughs]! In this case, we played it a couple times through much more aggressively. And it was fine. But I think we took a little break in back and maybe the third time through, Neil started his singing in this kind of spooky, haunted, beatnik poetry kind of voice. And he never pulled it out from that. Ralphie sucked the groove way down and it became a very haunting intimate thing. And he never came out of that spooky mood. Then we started doing very, very simple interplay. I started doing a little lines around him and we started this nice spooky weave. He kept the vocal down in that spooky place, and eight minutes later we had this beautiful take. It’s funny, I remember Billy saying, “Well, we’ll have come back tomorrow to listen to the three takes.” Everyone else said, “NO!” We don’t have to listen to the others. We got it. I think it bodes well for getting out and playing and singing for people. I say that at 70 years old — I’m the young kid in the band [laughs].

AD: What do you think — will we see Crazy Horse onstage again soon?

Nils Lofgren: There’s still talk of getting on the road, but Neil’s very sensitive. He wrote a very beautiful, eloquent letter about [not playing] at this year’s Farm Aid, bowing out and honoring Willie and John Mellencamp. His point is, “I can’t ask people to gather when it’s unsafe.” He wants to play, he wants to tour. But not until it’s safe. The general gist of it is we’re still in a dangerous area because people are just — well, the amount of ignorance and stupidity out there is jarring, at the expense of the entire planet. Some people are out there playing and doing a decent job of it, but that’s a personal choice. The main thing is that Neil wants to tour, but he doesn’t feel like it’s safe right now. I respect that.

“Welcome Back,” for me, kind of deals with all of that. His narration and those nasty, damaged melodies he played really brought home the lyric in a way that none of the other takes did. There are these moments when the concept really hit me. Who we are and where we’re at as a human race. “Welcome back — it’s not the same!

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