Neil Young: Recording New Music And Releasing Old Music

Neil Young seems both world-weary and energized as he slides into a chair at the Four Seasons hotel in Austin, TX. And given a characteristic pile of projects on his plate, he has good reasons for both. At 72 the two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is certainly shy of retiring, with seemingly more going on at any one time than artists even a third of his age. This year already Young has dipped into his past for ROXY -- Tonight’s the Night Live from 1973, and he’s played a combination of solo shows and concerts with Promise of the Real and a reunited Crazy Horse. He also starred in Paradox, a movie written and directed by his current girlfriend Daryl Hannah, and created a soundtrack for it with Promise of the Real. Most importantly, he launched the Neil Young Archives online, sharing his entire catalog and a vast array of previously unreleased exclusive content––all, of course, in the high-resolution audio quality that he so favors and tried to extend to other artists, unsuccessfully, with his Pono service. It’s only a matter of time before Young has new music to share with us as well. As is his iconoclastic wont, it’s likely to come up quickly, and without much advance notice. But on this particular day the man has enough to be going on with, and to talk about...

Music Connection: Is there anything that accounts for this year’s spurt of work from you?
Neil Young: Y’know, it’s just...good. Just moving on. Just got a lot going on. I’m enjoying everything. It’s pretty healthy.

MC: Is that a cyclical thing for you? Do these kinds of periods come and go with any semblance of rhythm?
Young: Well, things are good right now because I’m with Daryl and we’re very happy and it’s kind of new beginning for me. I’m still in touch with my family and everything, the kids, so everything’s good. When you feel good things tend to come to you.

MC: Paradox brought you back into the movie world. How did that happen?
Young: We just talked about making a movie for a while, just for fun. And Promise of the Real is a bunch of characters and they’re down for anything and they’re all really good at what they do. It looked like an opportunity and Daryl had some ideas; she always wanted to do kind of a Western-style thing and we had a gig at Desert Trip (in 2016) and we started (the tour) in the Rockies and we had to get up there to acclimate for a week or so before we started playing at 9,000 feet. So we set up the tent there and did some rehearsing, and when we started setting everything up we said, “This is the ideal time to make the movie” and we could have some fun. Everybody’s gonna be here and we should do it right now. She started buying clothes for everybody and getting the costumes and she wrote the script and we just started going and shot the whole thing in four or five days.

MC: You’ve directed a lot of your previous film work yourself, as Bernard Shakey. What was it like to be directed this time?
Young: It wasn’t really that different because I have a lot of respect for Daryl. She knew what she wanted to do. She had a good direction, so there were no issues. I knew the movie was going to be fun and something I could believe in, so we just did it. I just followed the direction and followed the dots and we had a great time. And it was incredibly frugal; we made the film for pennies compared to any other film.

MC: It’s gotten a polarized reaction, which is often the story with your film work––and some of your music work, for that matter.
Young: You get any reaction to anything. People who have no idea what to expect, they’ll probably shoot it down ‘cause it’s not made by Cecil D. Eastwood or something. It’s not the best Western they were looking for. But we just wanted to have fun. We just made this movie for fun. It’s already a hit as far as we’re concerned.

MC: How did you approach the soundtrack for Paradox?
Young: I had just finished doing Peace Trail and recorded some more things and a couple of jams for instrumental passages for different things. Then I recorded a bunch of electric guitar stuff to go with the scenes, a la Dead Man. It was very much in the moment, not a lot of planning, which is how I like to work.

MC: Paradox brought you to the Netflix world. What do you make of that?
Young: It’s outside the box for me. Usually we try to go out and present our stuff and go to the people who we know are going to love it and it’s made for them, so we go and find ways to locate them and let them know it’s happening. This is not like that. It’s more like we’re on the world stage with Netflix. It’s like being on Facebook––anything can happen. It’s something that I’ve never done before and Daryl’s never done before, so the jury’s out. We’re still kind of coming to grips with what it is and what it means to be working on a “platform.”

MC: You’re certainly no stranger to that kind of concept, however.
Young: Well, I’m not so sure about all that stuff. I’m not a big believer in Facebook’s responsibility to the planet, their responsibility to humanity, Google’s responsibility to humanity. All those things, they’re weighing on my head, the way these algorithms treat the arts and the fact that there’s no algorithm to protect the arts or the rights of artists. There’s nothing that really addresses the values that I have, so I’m not overly impressed with the progress in big technology. I think they, largely working with the record companies, have ruined the sound of music.

MC: Which is something you’ve been crusading about for a long time now.
Young: The record companies are the stumbling block. Their prices for high-res music are too high. I’m trying to show them that they should have all music be the same price so people can access whatever they want and get whatever kind of music they want, and if they have the high-res music cost more it doesn’t serve anybody. There’s just a lot going on with that stuff that I’m not settled with.

MC: Do you feel like Pono made that case convincingly?
Young: It’s an ongoing search, and it’s really a mission. I don’t feel like it’s a battle; We’re really just trying to open up windows so people see what’s out there. We have a streaming service, the best-sounding streaming, on this site in the world. There’s no reason a hippie from Canada should have this fuckin’ site. I don’t have millions of dollars––it didn’t cost that much, by the way. But there’s no reason why all the music in the world can’t sound this way. The only reason is money; the record companies want three times as much for their high-res tracks as they do for the shit (MP3) tracks they’re selling. That’s stupid ‘cause a minimal fraction of their sales is high-res music. Why not just price it like MP3s and everything else and let people decide what they want, because they’d sell more music and people would have a chance to hear the real music.

The people who make the phones are ready for high-res with Firewire and the lightning cords and all that. The technology is there. It’s the 21st century. Spotify has two levels of quality. Apple has two levels of quality. If we have a good place and good bandwidth, you’re gonna hear high-res off your phone, off the computer, you’ll hear it off of anything, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t.

MC: The Archives site is getting rave reviews. Where else are you going with that?
Young: Our phone app is going to be ready in November or maybe October, maybe even September. And then people will be able to plug their earphones into their phones, into the bottom input and get high-res music on their phone. And anybody can do this. Spotify could do this. It doesn’t make any difference. They could serve their shit that they serve now AND high-res and people decide which one it is. It’s no big deal.

MC: You seem to feel a sense of mission to be a voice in that world, moving it forward––not just with the music but also with the essays you do online. It’s pretty provocative stuff sometimes.
Young: It’s essential for my audience to be in it. They like it, a lot of them, but we’re educating them, too. There’s going to be a lot of stuff out there, but we’re doing it so when you use Facebook to come into the (Archives) we’ll give you a chance to read an article about Facebook. We’ll give you a chance to read about what they did and how they did it and how it affects children and how it gets children hooked on pornography and all kinds of weird shit that’s happening because of Facebook and how they have no responsibility for what goes on in their own house. That’s not right. That’s not good. I think even Zuckerberg’s beginning to realize he’s got a monster on his hands. He’s created something that’s out of control. It’s not about politics. It’s not about the U.S. election. It’s bigger than that. It’s children’s minds.

MC: You’re going to be turning the Archives into a subscription site later this year. What all can we look forward to?
Young: There’s twelve unreleased albums, and almost half of them are finished studio albums that I didn’t put out, and we’ll be releasing those over time. There’s a lot of things, like movies, videos and albums that have never been seen or heard. A lot of my albums I did in the ‘90s and the late ‘80s have videos; we filmed everything as we did it and that’s never been seen by many people. We have all that, so we’ll be adding it to the experience. There’s a high percentage of our info cars that haven’t even been populated with stuff yet; well over two-thirds of them are not populated compared to what we have. We just don’t have the manpower to populate them, so that’s a process.

MC: Your career is littered with projects that never came out, probably moreso than any other artist. What’s that about?
Young: Usually it’s because I had something else I made right after it that I was into right then.
These albums are all finished records. There’s nothing that different from any other record I ever made inasmuch as the quality. It’s the same quality and the same guy. I’m doing the same thing. It’s just that I made too many, especially in the ‘70s. I made too many.

MC: Quantity...but over quality?
Young: I don’t think so. I just didn’t spend as much time making my records as other people. I don’t care about perfection; perfection to me is a great, soulful rendition of something. It’s not making every harmony part perfect. That’s something for somebody else with a lot of money, maybe if they made zillions of hit records they can do that, if that’s what they want to do. But for me we just made it so it had soul. We just wanted them to drip soul.

MC: Any specific releases we should look forward to from the Archives?
Young: I know the Alchemy album is gonna blow people’s minds, and I think Crazy Horse’s early days will. There’s an album called Garage, which is another Crazy Horse album, and a movie called Rusted which is a complete Crazy Horse concert like Rust Never Sleeps that’s never been shown. It was shown one night in the ‘80s. So we have all that stuff, and it’s interesting. Plus there’s at least two or three times as much stuff as that that I haven’t mentioned. There’s a lot of movies. There’s Muddy Track. There’s the Homegrown album, which is like the Stray Gators, who did Harvest with me. That’s another album I did and never put it out. I went and did something else.

MC: Does trolling through the past like that impact on what you’re doing now?
Young: I don’t know. It might––I mean, it should. When you look at my creative output I made Peace Trail last year and that was a real album, but it’s not a real album like other people would make. There’s not a lot of production in it. We played the songs and played them well and I delivered the vibe and that’s how we make a record. So I can make a record like that in very little time compared to what other people take. But I’ve always been like that. Harvest didn’t take very long to record, either.

MC: The Tonight’s The Night Live album is a very cool slice of your history.
Young: That’s a very interesting record and a very fine record. It has every bit of the vibe the Tonight’s The Night (studio) record had; it’s just a live version of that record. We know it a little better, plus you’re presenting it for people who are looking at you and you’re right there. Live records are always a little edgier, but that Tonight’s The Night original record is very edgy, so we weren’t missing an edge. I play better live than I do in the studio. That’s just the way it is.

MC: Those Tonight’s The Night shows were edgier, too, because it was all about that album, which was brand new at the time.
Young: We weren’t giving them anything they wanted, but it didn’t matter. That’s not why we’re here. We didn’t do it for that reason. I don’t really give a shit about that. I was doing that for me because I wanted to do it.

MC: Isn’t it risky to keep putting your fans through that, though?
Young: I’ve trained my audience. They know. I won’t go out unless I have something to do that I believe in doing and that I want to play and new songs I want to play that I think are relevant. That’s why I go out. If I don’t have any new song to play in front of people, they don’t see me very often.

MC: Is there any factor in particular that leads you to work with Crazy Horse or Promise of the Real?
Young: They’re both great. It’s really the material; the band I’m playing with will affect the material I write when I’m with that band. I’m only writing because of what’s in my head, so I don’t know who I’m going to play with. But they’re both great bands. Each one has its advantage over the other. It’s a very good situation to be in, and it’s a temporary situation ‘cause nothing’s gonna last forever. But I don’t want to wear it out, either.

MC: Speaking of bands, CSNY seems over and done with––or is it?
Young: I don’t know. I’d rather see Willie (Nelson), Bob (Dylan) and Neil, myself. That’s what I would want. I think that would be fantastic––but it’s just a dream of something I wouldn’t mind doing, there’s nothing going on. I just look at things I would like to do and things I don’t want to do, so I try to find the things I do want to do. I don’t like to go into a big barn with my name on it anymore. I don’t want to do that. It seems like I’ve done that to a point where there’s something that just stops me. But I do like playing music, and I like playing with people that I love.

MC: You’ve never been shy about politics. What’s your view of what’s going on here now?
Young: It’s a fuckin’ mess. This guy is bent on destroying the environment. He has absolutely no knowledge of what’s real. He’s decided because he doesn’t believe in science he can lead the country with no regard for science. All the environmental policies he’s changing and taking away, all the protections he’s taking away...Regardless of the tasteless shit he does, it’s not important compared to those things. I don’t know how America is sleeping through this.

MC: The last time you got pissed off like that we got the Living With War album. Think another one like that is coming?
Young: I don’t know. I’ll let you know as soon as I find out.

Contact Rick Gershon, rick.gershon@wbr.com