“When I joined Crazy Horse and we started playing, it became obvious to me that this band was much funkier than all the other bands I’d been in,” Neil Young told biographer Jimmy McDonough in Shakey. “And I noticed that some of the musicians I’d played with in the other bands didn’t think these guys were very good. Yet I liked them. Even more, as a matter of fact. I was having a really good fuckin’ time playing with them. Where else could I go and play my guitar for fuckin’ seven minutes, sing a verse and play another five-minute solo? Not in Crosby Stills, Nash & Young. But even more than that, it was a simple thing — everybody just wanted to make the music and nothin’ else mattered.”
It’s been more than 50 years since Neil got together with Crazy Horse, but still — nothin’ else matters. Young has just released the Rick Rubin-produced World Record, his third album with the band in as many years. The Horse has weathered some changes in recent years, with multi-instrumentalist Nils Lofgren stepping in for longtime guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, who retired to Hawaii recently. But the heart of the group remains the same as it was back in ’69: drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot, who together have provided the elemental rhythmic bedrock that Neil has relied on for all these years.
“Billy’s the reason why Crazy Horse is great,” Young said of Talbot. “His bass playing is fuckin’ heartfelt and big. The notes are huge.”
Aquarium Drunkard caught up with Talbot from his South Dakota home to get the lowdown on the Horse’s past, present and future.
Aquarium Drunkard: I’ve been listening to World Record and thinking how good the Crazy Horse background vocals sound. Could you take me back to the early days, even before Crazy Horse? Danny & The Memories … you were a vocal group, right?
Billy Talbot: Right! The video of us on YouTube is really a good one — where we’re doing that [sings] “Na na na na” … I love that. That was on this system called Scopitone. They recorded us and made that little film or whatever it is. It’s very interesting because my wife, who was living in New Jersey at the time with her late husband, went into this bar and there was this Scopitone machine. And that one particular song of ours was being played, you know? And there her future husband is, and she had no idea. But they watched it and liked it. She told me about it years later.
I liked Danny & The Memories. We loved singing together. We sang in alleys, on the street. We did everything we could to get together and sing and do that harmony kinda thing. I loved the Skyliners. All those vocal groups back in those days. We were late coming onto the scene back then, but it was the kind of music we all were into — me, Ralph [Molina], Danny [Whitten] and our friend Ben Rocco.
To this day, we still love doing harmony. And so does Neil! As it turned out when we got together with him, he loved doing harmony parts. We always liked that. We came from that place. Somehow, Neil from Canada, and Ralph and I from the New York area and Danny Whitten from Georgia and Ohio, we all came together in our 20s and we fit together. And it kept going through the years.
AD: The Rockets started up eventually — you guys were an LA band on the Sunset Strip, right in the thick of that scene.
Billy Talbot: Yeah, we played the Whisky and a bunch of other places. The Rockets. We had Bobby Notkoff playing electric violin and the Whitsell brothers and Ralph, Danny and me. It was just … not “just” … it was beautiful. There were soaring moments in the music. Bobby passed in 2018 — he was an incredible musician.
We did a show at the Shrine Auditorium, there were some other bands playing with us. I want to say they went on to become quite famous …
AD: That was the show I was going to ask about — I’ve always looked at this poster for the Rockets, Sly & The Family Stone, Paul Butterfield and the Velvet Underground and just thought, “This is one of the greatest concerts of the 1960s!”
Billy Talbot: That’s right [laughs]! I remember that we had a little plan when we were up there. At the end, we would all walk off the stage at different times. The music would keep going until it was just the drummer, still going. Just Ralph would be left onstage. But Ralph didn’t like that [laughs]! He didn’t like being left up there alone, so he got off the drums right away. It was just a little thing we had planned that we thought would be cool. It didn’t work, but that’s par for the course. I remember that, of all things.
AD: And then at some point you encountered Neil Young — do you remember your first meeting with Neil?
Billy Talbot: I was living in Laurel Canyon, and I heard about Neil. He was living up there in the Canyon as well in a certain location. So, I went up to see him, see how he was doing. He told me, “Oh we just recorded this thing with the Springfield and my guitar has this amazing tone!” This one tone, he was so proud of that at this one moment. So, he played that for me, and we had a great time.
Pretty soon, he came out to see us at the Rockets headquarters, which was this house we had in Lauren Canyon. We hung out. And then he came back. And then he came back again. Pretty soon, we played some music together, all of us in the living room. Just acoustic at the start. One thing led to another and before you know it, we’re recording Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
AD: It happened pretty fast.
Billy Talbot: That’s Neil’s way, usually. He makes up his mind to do something, he wants to do it as soon as possible.
AD: What do you think drew him to the Rockets?
Billy Talbot: I’m not sure, we just had something he liked. He came and sat in with us at the Whisky once. Bobby Notkoff sat out that part. He was up in the balcony listening to us. We were all playing and having fun, and then Neil wanted to do some more. He called us up to his place and he said, “Maybe just you and Danny and Ralph can come up here and we can get something going?” That was really where it started.
AD: I’m always curious about those early days onstage – there are no live recordings of the band in 1969, as far as I can find.
Billy Talbot: We played a lot. Not a lot was recorded, though. It’s hard to remember back then [laughs]. How’s your memory? How old are you?
AD: I’m 43.
Billy Talbot: Just imagine if you were being asked about something that happened 60 years ago [laughs]. There are just different eras, what we were doing in our 20s and 30s, our 40s and 50s … now we’re in our 70s! It’s kind of a decade system we’re on here.
AD: Well, let’s get to some more recent history! These past three Crazy Horse records have Nils Lofgren back into the band, even though he obviously goes way back with you guys. How does he change Crazy Horse?
Billy Talbot: Well, he’s a very versatile musician. He’s got a lot of energy. Good energy. He’s thoughtful. He just wants to add to the mix. Neil is gonna play acoustic or he’s gonna play electric or he’s gonna play the piano or whatever. And Nils will figure out the best thing to add. He plays all these different instruments. It’s just a matter of finding the right one to blend in with us, to help it sound like it should.
AD: How’s it different from when Poncho was in the band?
Billy Talbot: Poncho is a real “earth” sign. Actually, he’s not an “earth” sign, but he’s a real earthy guy [laughs]. He’s grounded. He plays great rhythm guitar parts that are just strong. We had a good thing going with Poncho and I and Ralph for years. We really miss him. But he needed to retire, and he did. I’m happy for him.
AD: And how about Ralph? You two have been this team for so long now — what is it that you love the most about playing with him?
Billy Talbot: He’s like my brother. He is my brother. He’s like water that comes into the music but he’s [still] so solid. He feels it and he adds that feeling to the music. And it’s beautiful. He sings incredibly well, too.
AD: You guys still sound so great together. On World Record, you brought in Rick Rubin to make a record with the Horse — what effect did he have?
Billy Talbot: Rick is very organized. He has his own studio in Malibu called Shangri-La, which used to be a place where The Band lived. He’s made it a real artistic environment. It’s all white on the walls, all white in the halls, all white on the floor. And it was a great place to record. He had this great engineer, Ryan Hewitt, who he brought in from Nashville. They’ve been working at Shangri-La together for the past couple years. They had a great relationship.
Rick helped us kind of in the same way that David Briggs helped us years before. He would make sure everything got recorded in the proper way when it needed to be recorded. When we were ready to play it, they were ready to record us. And that’s important, having all those elements come together at the right time. Rick’s good at that.
AD: How prepared are you before you go into the studio? Does Neil send you songs, demos, ideas beforehand?
Billy Talbot: Yeah, he sent me altogether eight or nine songs. He would send me a little bit this week, a little bit next week. He’d only send me two verses and a chorus, or something like that, and tell me, “There’s more to it than just this, but this is what’s essential.” I’d just be able to learn the changes and know what’s coming. That was really helpful in the recording of the songs.
AD: Are lyrics important to you at that stage?
Billy Talbot: I pay attention to the lyrics. At the start, though, more than anything, I’m interested in the feel for the bass. Then, once I understand the feel, I have time to get into the song as far as the lyrics are concerned. But Neil’s always interesting. To say the least. So, I don’t worry too much about that. And I like to be surprised and brought along by Neil’s words, into the song.
AD: As usual, Neil’s got some darker subject on this one, but as a whole I got the sense that World Record is ultimately optimistic. Or maybe “optimistic” isn’t exactly the right word.
Billy Talbot: Optimistic is a good word.
AD: Do you share that optimism?
Billy Talbot: Yes, I do. I share that in life. I know that we don’t have a choice. Either we hop on the bandwagon and get into it, or you slip on down and get depressed about the whole thing. There’s enough to be depressed about. But there’s plenty to be optimistic about. This is life and we don’t have all the answers.
AD: Do you have a favorite tune on the new one?
Billy Talbot: I like them all. I really like “The Long Day Before” and “Walkin’ On The Road (To The Future).” I love “Chevrolet.” I’m so glad we did that. It’s 15 minutes long and it’s such a beautiful journey. That was about the third time we tried playing it. We finally all understood it, we played it, and it was great. That was it.
AD: It’s great to have another long Crazy Horse epic. At the same time, I feel like it’s a little different from the others. It’s unique.
Billy Talbot: As far as that’s concerned, it’s amazing — from “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down By The River” to “Chevrolet.” They’re all great Crazy Horse jams, but they’re unique, each one of them. How do you do that? We don’t answer that question because what we do … is just do it! You find yourself in the middle of “Chevrolet” just choogling along. You’re going through hills and valleys and over creeks and rivers. You’re moved through it for 15 minutes. We don’t question it. We’re just amazed. We find ourselves enjoying it afterwards.
AD: With “Chevrolet,” did you know beforehand that it was going to develop into this big, long thing?
Billy Talbot: We knew it was going to go that way, that it was going to be something to enjoy and jam on. We didn’t have any idea of how long it would be or how short it would be, or if we’d ever get it right. We can’t put that kind of pressure on something like that. You don’t want to know it that well, right? You want to be doing it without knowing it. That’s better. When you know it too well, it’s not going to become what it is, if that makes sense. It won’t be as enjoyable for the listener. And we won’t even enjoy it. We probably won’t like it at all.
AD: “Chevrolet” brings me to my next question, because I would love to hear Crazy Horse play it live. Is that something that’ll happen? I know Neil is hesitant about taking everyone back on the road.
Billy Talbot: It’s not that, it’s the audiences. We don’t feel great about bringing 10,000 people into a hall and have them all get sick because they wanted to come see us play. That’s a terrible thing to have happen. That’s the main reason that we haven’t been playing. We’re [waiting] until we do feel comfortable with all of it. That’s when we’ll be playing again.
AD: Makes sense. Selfishly, for me, you guys should come out to Colorado and play Red Rocks again — a big outdoor space.
Billy Talbot: Yeah. A nice outdoor place. We love Red Rocks. We love it there in Colorado. You’re lucky you live there. But I love South Dakota, as well. We’re almost neighbors [laughs].
AD: What keeps you busy out there when you’re not recording with Neil?
Billy Talbot: I play with the Billy Talbot Band — the same band for the last 20 years or more. Last year, the guys came out here to my place and we recorded. It turned out really well. We have a release coming out soon — All Roads Lead Home. It’s going to have Nils, Ralph and I contributing three songs each. We recorded separately during this pandemic, but we’re bringing them together. And Neil has put a song on it, too. So, it’s got the four of us. It’ll hopefully be out in March on the Neil Young Archives. All Roads Lead Home …