From age 14, Billy Talbot has spent a lifetime immersed in all things musical. Beginning with a street-corner vocal group, the man best known for his work with Neil Young and Crazy Horse has recently released On the Road to Spearfish, a soulful/spiritual collection of songs that evoke the wide open spaces of the North American prairie in the same vein as The Band’s Music From Big Pink conjured up images of the American South. This is the second release from the Billy Talbot Band, whose members have forged a spiritual connection to both the songs and each other, resulting in an album that is a refreshing example of what can happen when people’s heads are in the right place at the right time.
Part One: June 22, 2013, Hotel Carlyle, NYC
Roy Abrams: For those who know you as the bass player for Crazy Horse, the new album will surely surprise, but more relevantly, blow them away. The album possesses an evocativeness of the North American prairie … Two reference albums come to mind: Neil Young’s Prairie Wind and The Band’s Music from Big Pink. Aficionados of the live recording process will be drawn to the album for its immediacy of both performance and production. Can we talk about the recording process of the album?
Billy Talbot: Well, I was going for the truth, the best feeling I could get from playing a song. If you play it too much, it’s ruined as far as that particular aspect of it (is concerned) – the freshness of human beings playing it for the first time. You cannot replace that; there is nothing you can do to overcome the fact that you’ve played the song too much. Play it live and capture it live – that’s the only way. In order to play a song for the first time and not screw it up, you’ve got to know the song. All the guys in the band, I managed to get it across to them what the song was about without us really playing it. For instance, with “On the Road to Spearfish” Ryan played it with us at this little festival. We played it for the second year in a row at the festival in this little town, and those were the only two times we played it. I waited for the night to be ready so that we could play it again in the studio with all the mics on. We got it on the first take. Everybody had listened to (the song) because both times it was recorded at this festival, live. The first time there was only four of us playing it, the second time there was six of us playing it. (The guitarist), on the second time, came up with this really cool intro, and I mentioned that to him, and then we started to play it in the studio and the machines weren’t running at the time, and (then) Erik came in and said, “I’m sorry I missed that!” So I just stopped and said, “OK, we’ll do this song again another time,” rather than trying to do it again right then. And we came back two weeks later; it was the right night, and we did it twice that night, but the first take was the take. That’s the story on that song!
On “Cold Wind” we got together about a month before the recording sessions to have a little rehearsal. We tried it and it totally felt wrong, so I suggested that Ryan and Erik play sax and trombone, and Matt played the harmonium organ, and I said, “Mark, maybe just play the mandolin, and I’ll play the piano, and then bass and drums." We started playing it, got about halfway through and I said, “That’s it! Everybody, remember what we were playing, it sounds great like that!” and we saved it for the recording. At 2:30 in the morning, if you saw the film, we’re playing that song. We had played it once before at about 2 in the morning, went through it, and it was pretty loose … a little too loose, probably, and I said, “We’re gonna do it one more time,” and we did. Right when I was saying that, Stephan, the drummer, goes, “Really, I can’t play much later than this!” Ryan heard him; he was in the other room with a sax, and I heard him go “Ohhhhhhhhhhh!” [Laughter] Then we played it, and it was pretty good. We went through the whole thing, and at the end of it I said, “Well … “ and I thought that we didn’t get it. I went home and after a few days I listened to it and said, “It’s not too bad” and then I didn’t listen to it for a week or two and then (realized) I really like this. I started singing this low harmony that went along with it, did that for a couple of weeks or months, because it was like six months before we overdubbed some harmonies. We were in the studio for about a month, but we were only in there like two days a week.
“Big Rain” was the one we did before “Cold Wind” … it was about 1 am when we did that one, and we did it once and that was it. It was a great take. That one was recorded on the last possible day of the last week. We did it on a Saturday, and then Matt couldn’t make it and he was going to play organ on it again, so we did it on Sunday and he wasn’t there, but he had played the organ on Saturday, so we used the organ from Saturday on Sunday and it worked. Mark Hanley played lap steel on that one. Erik Pearson played lap steel on “Empty Stadium”; I asked Ryan to play trombone on “Empty Stadium” and we got the trombonium! [Laughter] That was the harmonium and the trombone played together, and we heard that sound, along with the lap steel. Ralph (Molina, Crazy Horse’s drummer) called it the elephant sound [makes trumpeting elephant noise] which was pretty funny. Ralph Molina was making fun of “Empty Stadium” because of the trombonium. Mark Hanley played mandolin. He didn’t come up with the best mandolin (part) but I liked it, and Ralph (said), “That mandolin’s not very good. It could have been a lot better!” Yeah, if you overdub it and have him play it fifteen times, and get this sterile sounding “great” mandolin part that does nothing for the record.
RA: How did you get fortunate enough to find other musicians who understand the concept of space so well, the art of letting music breathe?
BT: Well, first of all, believe it or not, these guys really like me because of the way I do things. Matt Piucci is number one, and the other guys fall in line because of that. He says he’s learned so much from me, and I learned a lot from Neil (Young). I’m also very interested in recording, and very interested in technique, and sound, and mics; I have an idea of what I’m doing, you know, and on this record, since we don’t make records often, I really wanted to use everything that I knew about how to make a great record. I also listened to The Wind by Warren Zevon, and I was extremely touched by his songs, about that he was going to die, and what he was saying to his wife, the real feeling that was captured. I hadn’t heard anybody record with such true feeling before, except for Ray Charles on certain records he made back in the day.
RA: Any plans for live performances?
BT: Plans? I can’t even think about right now, because I’m dealing with Neil Young and Crazy Horse and having a great time doing that! When that comes to an end, I’m hoping for one of those illuminated moments when it all comes to me and I figure out how we could do it. Because the band is so versatile, we could play five, six, seven rocking songs, and we could also play about that many more acoustic with drums, like the record. We could build to that, but I’d like to play places where we could do all of those different things, but not for two hours, maybe for an hour and just really get intimate with the audience. Rock a few songs, get intimate with some other ones, have it be special. Right now, that seems like something we could do. The Billy Talbot Band – that would be great. I could see myself doing some shows with just a couple of us going out and playing in a small place.
RA: Has there ever been any conjecture about bring the Billy Talbot Band on the road with Neil and Crazy Horse?
BT: Never! And I would never do that! Neil would never like that. Even if he said he would do it, and we did do it, he wouldn’t like it. He’s just so intense that he would think that if anything wasn’t happening right, it’s because (I’m) playing with that other band. Instantly, he would go there, and he would probably be right! [Laughter]
RA: In Neil’s autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, he described your bass playing with three words: simplicity, soul, and aggression.
BT: Wow! I’m gonna hold that against him. No, I like that.
RA: Can you talk about your choice of vintage amps and vintage recording equipment?
BT: I use all the best mics, old Neumann mics from forty or fifty years ago. That’s still the best way to do that, with really great mics. Tube mics have the warmth. (I use) Neve mixing boards. We had two old Studers with sixteen-track heads. If you run them at 15 instead of 30, you get this fat sound. So we had one at 15 and one at 30 going, so consequently one tape machine would run out of tape while the other would still be going, which is kind of what happened on the song “God and Me” … you can hear us rewinding!
RA: Which was really cool!
BT: Yeah! We left it that way because we had no choice, and then it became really cool. [Laughter] That’s the way things that are really cool happen. So we went through tape into ProTools. So it goes on the recording head and out the playback head instantly into ProTools as well as recording digitally into ProTools at the same time. You look on the (computer) screen and the analog that you recorded is about this far [holds hands about an inch apart] behind the digital. So you pull it up and match it up exactly. Now what you have in digital you have in analog; you don’t need digital anymore. Now when you overdub anything, you use the same technique. So you can manipulate it and do all the things that you can do in the digital world, but you’ve got the sound from the tape. A lot of people know about this technique and do that, and it’s a cool thing.
RA: it’s a very refreshing album to listen to, when you compare it with so much of what’s coming out today.
BT: (Today’s music) has no feel, practically, and it’s hard to listen to because it makes you anxious because it’s so hard to hear. I consider that (to be) not music.
RA: I wanted to touch on your approach to songwriting. You’ve stated that sometimes when you’re angry, or upset with a particular situation, that you forget that you’re going to get a song out of it.
BT: Yeah, that’s when it’s cool! When a song comes up, and all of a sudden you get it, and it’s not even finished, and you go “Wow!! I forgot (that a song) would come out of this!” and you’re feeling better about whatever it is you’re going through now, because there’s a song.
RA: It’s cathartic –
BT: I guess that’s the word! It’s a good thing, it’s a good thing. And it’s a good thing that you get that, too, because if you just had it at the forefront of your brain, you’d probably go crazy, always waiting to go through troubles so you could have a song!” [Laughter]
RA: “Miller Place” is a really interesting song. From what I understand, that was an actual, totally instant creation?
BT: Total instant creation with all of us, in real time! Nobody gave up; it was so engrossing somehow. It started out like a little thing. Ryan was playing autoharp and harmonica; he gave me the first impetus after I started out with this thing, I said something; then he said something back on autoharp and harmonica. We were really set up (in the studio) to do “God and Me” and the irony of it is that we came up with this song about a brothel. Nobody gave up on it, we all just kept in there, and nobody said anything, and none of us knew that we actually did that when it was over. A couple of months later, Erik played it for me and said, “Listen to this! Listen to what we have! I hardly remember this happening!” I listened to it and went, “Wow, it’s great – and it’s already mixed,” … we barely had to touch it. It was a gift, a real gift.
RA: When I listen to music, I think that a when lot of real music fans listen to music, they prefer headphones. This way, you can actually hear what the artist is hearing, where they’re placing it, in terms of the subtlety.
BT: The only thing you miss, by the way, is the music going through the air. There’s another thing that happens when it travels from the speakers to your ears through the air that doesn’t happen with headphones, but I agree with you. With good headphones and a good system, you really hear stuff. When it’s coming through speakers, you hear all these different frequencies – highs, lows, all that stuff. Sometimes, with headphones, the highs are harder to process.
Part Two: June 25, 2013 – via phone call to Billy’s home in South Dakota
RA: We discussed Warren Zevon’s influence upon you as a songwriter.
BT: Warren didn’t have an influence on my songwriting. The real influence was on how important it is, and how there is this possibility in capturing real feelings and real emotions. That’s what his influence and his record The Wind had on me.
RA: Any other artists come to mind?
BT: Oh yeah! Growing up, I mean, Ray Charles, especially Ray Charles, as far as how much you can expose and how capable a person can be of showing another person with their music into their utmost feelings.
RA: Given your background in vocal harmonies, one of the things that struck me about the new album was just how exquisitely placed and arranged those harmonies were. Can you talk about your experiences with harmony arrangements?
BT: Well, I’ve always been into harmony and I have a deep respect for where harmony can be and where harmony should be and how they should be used and to integrate it in a song to help it come to life or have more interesting energy or color and help songs move along. When I hear a harmony part, I have to really know that it’s needed there, and when we put them on, sometimes we don’t use them all, because it only needs so much of it, and I try to capture things quickly without overanalyzing things ahead of time. With Neil Young and Crazy Horse, we always have some harmonies here and there, so all of that was going through me when I was working on On the Road to Spearfish. I was trying to use all of my smarts and wisdom and patience to deal with the songs and how we approach the songs and doing them for the first time, with instruments that aren’t usually played; (doing) everything I could to make the extraordinary feeling that I feel come to life in a recording.
RA: Can you talk about the production aspect of the recording process?
BT: Well, the preproduction aspect is minimal, because I don’t want to be playing the song. If you go to YouTube (and search) Billy Talbot, there are two songs that were recorded spontaneously in this music store; they were called One and Two, I’m singing “Big Rain” with the band and “Runnin’ Around” by myself with the acoustic guitar. It’s the only time we ever played that song. Ryan played harmonica.
RA: What advice would you have for someone just starting out in the field of audio engineering?
BT: Well, if you have one microphone, see how well it works. Don’t be afraid to go, “Oh, I see how inadequate it is, or how adequate it is, but I also see its limitations. Be real with what you think the quality is, but you have to do it scientifically. In other words, if you’re using a pretty inexpensive mic with a very inexpensive system of recording, then it’s going to be harder for you to know. When you get into school and you find out about different microphones, find out how good they are and the state of the art. Which are the most used microphones and what do they sound like? Knowing your equipment, its limitations and how good they are will really help you understand what you’ve got. Some of it might be because of the equipment, but it’s just like a guy who doesn’t know how to tune a guitar going, “I can’t play this thing!” … well, maybe because it’s out of tune and if it were in tune, you might be doing a lot better and wouldn’t get so discouraged. Sometimes you get discouraged because of the equipment you’re using, and so it’s good to know how good your equipment is.
Another thing is, things have to be musical if you’re going after music in the audio field. If a person is going to sing a song, saying “OK, sing now!” … if you get something that’s not too good, maybe that’s the reason. Let it be musical if you’re gonna record somebody. Let them record because it’s time to do it, they feel like doing it, they’re prepared to do it, have good equipment, let them do it, and that’s the end of it.
RA: What does Crazy Horse represent for you?
BT: Well, it’s real. When we’re onstage playing a song, we’re really playing it for real, right then. It’s always better than in the studio, because in the studio there’s no people, there’s no audience. Having an audience really gets the juices flowing for performers. It’s always better. That’s when ‘live” happens, it’s in the now, it’s real, and there’s no fooling anybody.
RA: Any particular memorable experiences with Crazy Horse?
BT: There’s been some been incredible moments for me. In 1976 we played in Paris in this really funky place. It stands out in my mind … I don’t remember exactly why it was so cool, but it at the beginning of us performing – Ralph and I, Pancho (Sampedro) and Neil. It was our first tour of Europe and we did this place in Paris and three or four or five of the songs were pretty outstanding to me at the time. We were offstage in the dressing room and somebody came in and said, “They won’t go away!” We had to come back out. I think that’s all one show … Mostly, the whole thing just is to me.
RA: What’s life on the road with Crazy Horse like?
BT: Well, it’s work! It’s focus; it’s regiment. At the end of one show, you have to come down from that and start preparing for the next show. And that’s what it’s like until you’re finished and then you go home and you get let out a breath! The time that it’s really fun is when we’re onstage together and we’re playing. That’s what it’s all about, what you’re doing all this preparation for; those two or three hours.
RA: Back to the live performance question … any chance of some shows from the Billy Talbot Band in the near future?
BT: When I’m playing with Neil Young and Crazy Horse, that gets all my attention and it takes all my attention, so I couldn’t be doing that at the same time. I can’t divide my attention like that. Both things would take all of my attention and there’s just one of me. I couldn’t do it. When we’re done with Neil Young and Crazy Horse, I hope to get it together and we can put the Billy Talbot Band together and go out and play some places and at least pay the expenses.
* * *
The Billy Talbot Band:
Billy Talbot: vocals, electric guitar, 6-string acoustic guitar
Matt Piucci:electric pump organ, electric guitar, acoustic piano
Stephan Junca: drums and percussion
Erik Pearson: banjo, strings, saxophone
Tommy Carns: bass, vocals
Ryan James Holzer: trombone, vocals, 12-string acoustic guitar, harmonica, autoharp
Mark Hanley: guitar, slide guitar, baritone acoustic mandolin, acoustic piano, vocals, organ, synthesizer
Jeff Chase: bass, guitar, and album illustrations
NOTE: Prior to publication of the original article, Neil Young and Crazy Horse cancelled the remainder of their tour due to guitarist Poncho Sampedero suffering a broken hand. There are still no plans for any Billy Talbot Band performances, but I will keep you posted!
©2013 Roy Abrams
Note: an edited version of this interview appeared in the October 2013 issue of Long Island Pulse
©2013 Roy Abrams
Note: an edited version of this interview appeared in the October 2013 issue of Long Island Pulse