Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Billy Talbot: On the Road to Spearfish ... The Complete Interview

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

Monday, August 12, 2013

Coming Soon: Billy Talbot in Conversation

Less than one month after sitting down with Stephen Stills, I had the opportunity to speak with Crazy Horse bassist/vocalist Billy Talbot about the release of his latest solo effort, On the Road to Spearfish, as well as life on the road with Neil Young. Look for the interview in the October issue of Long Island Pulse. The full transcript will appear in a later Island Zone Update ... Enjoy the rest of the summer!


photo by Eleanor Stills
Stepping into a modestly large suite of an Upper East Side hotel, I come face to face with the only artist ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice in the same year. In 1997, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Stills accepted his nominations into the prestigious pantheon for his pivotal roles in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash. The Springfield, which also included Neil Young, Richie Furay, and Jim Messina among its members, revealed Stills as a musical genius. His eclectic blend of folk, rock, blues, jazz, country, and Latin is unique in the musical universe, and his influence upon popular music cannot be underestimated. Crosby, Stills and Nash has become an American institution of sorts, with anthems such as “Carry On”, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, “Love the One You’re With”, and “Southern Cross” permanently woven into America’s cultural tapestry.

Now, I’m not one of those guys whose handshake is more of a bone-crushing display of strength, but it’s no cold and clammy claw either … just your normal, average, hey-how-you-doing-nice-to-meet-you variety. Time stops as I realize that the man whose hand I’m shaking is wincing in pain. “Hey, it’s not a contest!” he says through clenched teeth, leaving me absolutely mortified and at a complete loss for words. (Stills has carpal tunnel in his right hand, which he later explains.)

With that inauspicious start, Stephen Stills and I sit down and begin one of the few interviews granted for the release of Carry On, a 4-CD boxed set featuring 82 songs, including the essential recordings, live cuts, new mixes, and 25 previously unreleased tracks, spanning 50 years of a career that can only be termed extraordinary. From his earliest recording at age 17 to a live version of Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” from CSN in 2012, a lifetime of creativity is anthologized with loving care and exquisite production with the help of Graham Nash and long-time friend and CSNY archivist Joel Bernstein. We spend the next half hour or so covering as much ground as time and memory allowed.

Stephen Stills: [Laughter] You can tell I’ve been doing this all day. I get really acerbic by the end of the day!

Roy Abrams: I know that you really don’t like doing interviews …

SS: No, I detest it, pretty much. [Smiles] I mean, it goes to the question of why you started playing an instrument in the first place, because talking wasn’t quite enough. And to analyze it and talk to somebody after the fact seems … I don’t know, I thought Miles Davis was just great. He always scared everybody so bad nobody ever talked to him, and that sounds great to me! [Laughter]

RA: Regarding the process of compiling the tracks included in the boxed set, what was it like to revisit the earliest songs, the alternate takes, and the unreleased material?

SS:  I gave a lot of that to Graham [Nash] to do. Graham is the one who said, “Me and Joel [Bernstein] will do your boxed set. I said well, you’ll do it with me, but if you want to go and pick some of the work, go ahead, because I was facing a room the size of this [sweeps his arm around the hotel suite] completely full of two-inch tapes, so and somebody had to go through all the awful stuff and the “before-we-learned-it” stuff and find the gems. So they did the first rounds. I basically kept myself at a very distant mode so when they were prepared to bring me a set of choices, I would really listen to it. I wouldn’t even listen to the whole thing; whatever my first decision was, that was it. “No, let’s use the record. No, that was a great alternate take. And those were all those mixes that we did on the night we cut them, and I sat down at the console and did them myself … I was very generous with giving other people producer credit but make no mistake about it; virtually every song I ever did was my own [production]. I didn’t easily put myself in the hands of others.

RA: On the CSN 2012 DVD, you referenced three pivotal experiences from your youth that left an indelible mark upon your muse: seeing the nighttime Zulu parades in New Orleans the night before Mardi Gras when you were six, being surrounded by salsa music when you were a teenager, and the discovery of old blues music with your best friend.

SS: There’s a little piece of [that] in everything I do. All those blues records that we sat around listening to, we learned to play to Jimmy Reed, which is where everyone should learn to play lead, and I found that I had that in common with my British guitar master idols; they all learned to Jimmy Reed, because that was the first thing you could play, and it taught you how to keep a groove.

RA: You were recognized and hailed as a musical genius by the late Ralph J. Gleason of Rolling Stone through your work with Buffalo Springfield. How did accolades of that nature affect you at that point in your career?

SS: I’m curious as to why Jann Wenner has forgotten that! [Laughter] The first column that Ralph Gleason wrote about me was before Rolling Stone existed and he wrote a half page about the Buffalo Springfield, and he knew exactly what we were doing. My mother got [the article] and she saved it for me. That’s why I can’t remember what month it came out, because I didn’t read it till months later. I went back to visit my mother in Palo Alto, and she had kept it. I wish I could find it in the archives, because it was like, “Buddy! That’s what I’m trying to do!” My confidence just soared. You have to remember, I was really bashful except when we were at our business. But I was socially just completely inept and it just gave my confidence a tremendous boost.

RA: Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun was another pivotal figure in your career who championed your work with Buffalo Springfield and CSN in the early days. What are your memories of him?

SS: He came into the studio, and I just hit it off with the guy immediately because he was the guy who would get in the car and go down and search for the musicians. If you want to have a record company, that’s what you did. Go find them, record them, and fight to sell them, and pay them. But getting money out of him was like pulling blood from a stone. But that’s another story—it’s the businessman in all of them.

RA: Regarding the success of CSN and CSNY and the impact that both groups had upon popular music and culture, did you see it coming?

SS: One could only hope, but when the reality of it hit, I ran like a scalded cat. I went back to the racetrack and started galloping horses, just for something else to do, to get away from all those people who were so obsequious. It was a little teeny version of what the Beatles went through, but it was weird; everybody was weird. Joni Mitchell wrote a great line about it in "Both Sides Now" ... you have to look at the lyric, but it’s about that moment when you look over and you’re famous and your friends aren’t.

RA: Any particularly memorable musical experiences from your solo career?

SS:  Well, working with a horn section took me back to my school band days, and I actually started paying attention to the written music and working with the London Symphony guys on “To a Flame” and [producer] Arif Mardin, and how he drew that arrangement out of me by about ten minutes into it he realized that he wasn’t going to write a note; it was all in here [points to his head] and he made it his business to draw it out of me. I’d say, “You finish that line,” and he’d say, “No, you finish that line. It goes this far, now what? He was such a gentleman and so kind and it was like composing and going to music school at the same time. I got a year’s worth of musical training out of that for the three hours that we spent devising that arrangement that was played by the London Symphony guys. That was a great moment in my career.

RA: Manassas, your legendary band with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman, is very near and dear to many people—

SS: Only arcane music freaks! They have a whole Stephen Stills section [in their private collection]. I get letters from people that are quite odd. Who is it out there that gets this stuff? It’s greatly appreciated, I must say.

RA: Watching live performances of Manassas, one can see that the band meant a great deal to you as well.

SS: Well, until it didn’t! It became too unwieldy because there were so many guys. Al Perkins was the key behind it and Chris [Hillman], but Al’s the first steel player that I met who knows how to take his hands off the strings. He actually had a double neck with a little velvet rest to put his wrists, and then he could stop playing for entire sections where it wasn’t called for, and it allowed the whole [song] to become more of an orchestra.

RA: CSN’s performance at Westbury last June was fantastic, and you seemed to be having a tremendous amount of fun onstage. At one point, you referred to the revolving stage and suggested to David and Graham that you rename yourselves the Lazy Susan Band!

SS: We detested [the revolving stage], but it was the greatest show of the tour! [My attitude] came from sitting around on my ass waiting for Neil [Young] to get the Buffalo Springfield together and having my financial house almost fall apart and so I just got my head cleared and said, “I’m really delighted to be here!” Something about the commitment that Graham had made to making the boxed set and … we got nicer to each other.

RA: The last time we talked [in 1994], you described how you felt about making music with David and Graham, saying, “The noise that we make when we open our mouths is a gift from God.” Do you have anything to add to that statement, or does that still sum it up for you?

SS: That’s true! That was true from the moment it happened in Cass Elliott’s house. I mean, it’s a combination of neurological accidents, I mean, Graham’s North of England Celtic thing with my little gravelly whatever the fuck it is and David’s Glenn Yarbrough smoothie sort of California crooner thing that all just sort of worked together instantaneously.

RA: Beginning with “For What It’s Worth”, you’ve always been politically outspoken. What are your thoughts on the current political climate?

SS: It’s like the Tower of Babel; it’s hard to believe this shit. They make this ridiculous device of the filibuster as it’s now being implemented where you have to stand up there and talk until you have to pee in your pants! Piss in a cup under the desk and keep talking! Fuck you! You can’t hold up the business of the country just because … we don’t have any judges, all these appointees aren’t getting made because they don’t like him [Obama] because they’re still fucking racists. They’re pigs, they’re fucking morons, they’re useless, and they’re an embarrassment to the promise of public service.

RA: What’s your take on America’s youth culture today compared with that of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s?

SS: It’s in transition right now. They think Facebook is it, but they’re getting somewhere, they’re beginning to find their own groove, and that’s hopeful to me. There’s a nasty streak of political incorrectness that kind of irritates me; like, I was in a hurry trying to get to the airport, and this guy’s on a bicycle, and he stays in the middle of the road when we’re behind him on a hill, and we can’t pass him because it’s dangerous, and he does that, and you could see that he’s doing it on purpose. I eat meat, I think everybody should be able to smoke pot, and I don’t believe in censorship, and I’m also in the Bill Maher school, I believe that religion is a neurological disorder … but I’m not an atheist. I believe in God, there’s something.

RA: From a guitarist’s perspective, can you talk more about the creative process and how it feels to be at the top of your game, after 50 years?

SS:  Well, if you’re Rick Rubin, you spend a couple of weeks putting [guitar parts] down as overdubs. If you’re me, you can do it all day. You know when you start, and you know how long [until] it’s going to end, and you let it tell you, and your guitar and you become alive, and then you look at the band and say “We’re coming down now.” As a jazz musician, that’s how you play, that’s how it’s done. It hasn’t changed in a hundred years.

RA: After decades of performing, how do you keep the “fun factor” intact?

SS: Keep changing the arrangement! People [may] think it’s odd if they don’t listen and then it annoys them, but if they actually listen, they find something new and fresh in it. [Regarding performing], don’t you know that when you’re on, you’re on, and when you’re off, you’re off? When you’re on, you’re on, and you walk on and there are people there and they paid money to come and see you, so get your shit together! Quit fucking around! I’ve seen a film of me drinking onstage and abusing the privilege, and believe me, that only happened for a couple of years and I never did it again in my life and you do the best [you can] and if it sounds good, and you’re really connecting, you bring it. It’s when you find your 99 mph fastball, you find the slot, and you can throw breaking shit, and you’ve got your whole bag, your arm comes alive, and there you go! And when it finally dies, you know when to take a hike! I’m almost there, but only because it hurts. I’ve got carpal tunnel [in my right hand] and this is all getting withered. [Wraps his left hand around his right wrist] I couldn’t put my hand around my wrist like that ten years ago.

RA: The coming year is looking to be a big one for you as the legendary 1974 CSNY concert at Wembley Stadium is being readied for release on CD and DVD. Recently, Graham Nash alluded to a possible CSNY tour to follow. Care to comment?

SS: Man plans, God laughs!

RA: Final question … can you talk about your thoughts on the legacy of Stephen Stills?

SS: No! I’m not going to review myself! No, I’m a job creator—I’m not going to do your job for you! I just know that it was really fun to do, and I’m not done yet. There’ll be probably two more discs of archival stuff.  Beyond that, I don’t know. We’ll see what the future brings! Right now, as soon as I get finished talking to you guys, if I ever do before I slit my wrists ... [Points to his head, laughing] Melted brie! You didn’t used to have to do this; you put your stuff out, and they bought it like hotcakes, and you never talked to anybody.

©2013 Roy Abrams
Note: an edited version of this interview appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Long Island Pulse

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Coming Soon! Stephen Stills in Conversation ... full transcript!

Summer is unofficially here, I'm officially married as of May 25, and the July Music & Art issue of LI Pulse will be out soon, featuring an interview with Stephen Stills, conducted in NYC on April 22.
Stills has recently released Carry On, a 4-CD boxed collection spanning five decades and five hours, containing the musical record of a true genius. I've interviewed David Crosby and Graham Nash numerous times over the past twenty years for CSN, CSNY, Crosby-Nash, CPR, and solo ventures ... but encounters with Stills have been far fewer. Our last conversation took place in 1995 after a triumphant solo performance at the legendary NYC club Tramps. Stills had just mesmerized a packed house with a set that featured an acoustic medley of songs from Manassas (which moved Atlantic Records mogul Ahmet Ertegun, sitting two tables away from me, to tears)  and concluded with a blistering version of Crosby's "Long Time Gone." That night, Stills and I spent a good twenty minutes shooting the breeze at the after-show party. Clear-eyed, sober, and articulate as hell, he was curious to hear my opinion of the show. Mentioning the Manassas medley and "Long Time Gone" as particular highlights, Stills nodded his head, showing both appreciation and agreement in one movement. I've seen CSN (and Y) in every possible permutation from 1977 through the present, and have to say that the combination of having seen Stills onstage with CSN last June at Westbury and the experience of immersing myself in the 4-CD collection for the past several weeks has elevated my respect for this artist to a new high level. Look for the interview in LI Pulse next month . The Island Zone Update will feature the full transcript within a few weeks.

- Roy Abrams
  Long Island, NY