Frank "Poncho" Sampedro (©Barry Brecheisen/Invision/AP)
Frank Sampedro updates fans on Neil Young's hard-rocking band, twin new albums and epic tour
By Mark Brown
Special to MSN Music
There wasn't supposed to be even one Neil Young and Crazy Horse album this year, much less two. Yet here we are with "Americana"'s gonzo covers of traditional folk songs and the new double-disc "Psychedelic Pill," packed with the longest album jams of the band's career. Amid the frenzy of activity, Young found time to write his autobiography in time to publish weeks prior to the second full-length.
"Psychedelic Pill" picks up where 1990 guitar freak-out "Ragged Glory" left off. And the band dove right in, playing those new songs live to audiences before they were even released.
"It's good to see Neil smiling and laughing and having a good time. The fact that we got to play a lot of songs from 'Psychedelic Pill' was exciting for all of us," said longtime Crazy Horse guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro.
"'Americana' just wasn't one of my favorite records. I hope this doesn't come off wrong. I loved playing, it was a lot of fun, we had a great time. But this record, 'Psychedelic Pill,' has Neil writing the songs that we could put our hearts into. The other songs were more like covers. This album I'm so proud of and I'm so happy it's coming out," he said. It's the first collaboration with Crazy Horse in 12 years. In the downtime, Sampedro worked his day job with guitarist Kevin Eubanks on "The Tonight Show."
MSN Music: You guys seem to effortlessly fall back into the groove with Neil. The album and the live show pick up where "Ragged Glory" left off, even though that was decades ago.
Frank Sampedro: It's amazing. We get onstage and Neil's a great guitar player, but the rest of us, we're not really great, great musicians. But when we play together, something just happens. I don't know how it happens, we can't make it happen, but it does happen. We just lock in and play so far over our heads and have so much fun. It's crazy.
"Locked in" are the words. You're like a machine.
We can only be us [laughs]. It's funny. We were back together for the first time in a long time recording "Americana" and on first playback we just sound like us. We don't do anything to make that happen. Somehow our souls are connected. When we start playing, all this other crap in the world goes out of our heads. A big light goes on and we just play.
A lot of "Ragged Glory" songs would fit perfectly with the new songs. They sound like very quick sessions.
Wait a minute. Did you say that "Ragged Glory" were quick sessions? "Ragged Glory" was a different type of recording. Two or three times a day for a month we would play all the songs. No one was allowed to listen back to them. Not Neil. Nobody. We didn't know if we had a take or not. Nobody said anything.
Was that producer David Briggs' call?
Yeah, that was David's call. Keep us out of the control room. Keep playing, keep playing. At the end they had the insane job of listening to every take. We got some really great tracks that way. After a while we just forgot about recording. The reason "Farmer John" got on the record is I was just spent. Neil said to me, "Call one off," and I said, "I don't know what song we should start with. Why don't we do a song from your first band or something?" He just started playing "Farmer John." That was the first and only time we played it. Ended up on the record.
So then what were the "Psychedelic Pill" sessions like?
We finished "Americana" and just at the end, I said, "It's nice that we did this and it was cool, but it would be nice if we could jam." The one thing that we're known for -- we really didn't do that. Neil said, "Maybe there should be a song on there that's a jam -- I just don't know what it would be." I said, "Just pick any two chords and let's go!" [laughs] & We didn't have any plans [for another album] or even the name "Psychedelic Pill." But he had a song in mind, and that's when the 26-minute jam came on. It was just amazing. We just played and played and played. Neil had words in his head and he sang them into the mic -- we couldn't hear him that well. And I'm really proud that the take, "Driftin' Back," is the first time we jammed together after nine years.
"Ordinary People" used to be Neil's longest song, and "Driftin' Back" beats it by eight minutes.
Many times, after we haven't played for a while, we jam. ... This time it was captured on tape. I don't think every moment is great, but as the moments pass it gets into good things. Neil said, "I'm going to put it all out there." I said, "No, man, you should cut a couple of those parts out." [laughs]. But that's us, jamming for the first time after nine years, and everybody's gonna get to hear it. That's something I always wished for or dreamed we could do. It finally happened after all these years.
Do you see a difference in Neil's songwriting? He's really been looking back a lot, whether it's his "Archives" project, his autobiography or the new documentary, "Journeys." On this album, "Born in Ontario" and "Driftin' Back" seem to have a nostalgic bent.
I think you're right. We're just getting older. You get older and you can't do everything you used to be able to do. Your body is failing a little bit. You have more time to remember when this or that happened. You do reflect more. You're little wiser. You take more time to think about things. Everything isn't in such a big rush. That's how all that came about.
What does reuniting mean to you? Fans assume they'll get to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse every few years, then suddenly nine years pass.
All the times that we play with Neil, as things wind down and he moves on to other projects, you always wonder "When are we going to play again?" You never know. I had a few doubts, but in my heart I always knew we'd play together again. At the age we're all at I'm really happy we can play the way we do. Nothing has really changed musically, I don't think. What do you think?
"Ragged Glory" is still my favorite tour because it was so relentless. This is along the same lines.
It's very exciting. That first show in Albuquerque when I went up to the mic to sing the background part on "Powderfinger" -- which I can sing in my sleep -- nothing came out of my mouth. I was so high on adrenaline and excitement and everything else I couldn't even sing.
What do you think is the best Neil Young and Crazy Horse tour?
I really loved the Rust Never Sleeps tour, but looking back, we only did 18 or 19 shows. It blows my mind we didn't do that show for more people. But looking back, I like the Ragged Glory tour because we played for most of three hours. We played a lot of songs and were free to have long solos. We really got to express ourselves and lay it out there. ... This is how stupid I am: When "Rust Never Sleeps" came out, I thought it was the dumbest record we ever made. That it would never be a hit. I didn't get it at that moment, but as time went by, I really love it and all the songs. I guess I'm not a very good judge of what's good and bad. I'm a better player than an analyst.
After Neil's health scare, I think everyone wondered if he'd ever come back full-strength. You guys were definitely full-strength, and Neil was very playful onstage.
I always worried about Neil's health. I was fearful that if we did go out and play as hard as we're playing that something might happen to him. He's got so many projects going on now. He's very alert and into them. He has a lot of positive things happening in his life. That spills over into the music. We're just on a roll. We're happy we get to do this one more time.
I assume the next "Archives" release from Neil will get deep into the era where you were in the band.
Only he knows.
Well, now we know there are dozens of hours of "Ragged Glory" outtakes to be sorted through.
There's a record we did, "Toast," that's really good. There's a live double Bluenotes album that is really a big smash. It would be good to hear those get out. & I don't know how many [unreleased songs] he has, but at one point I tried to sit down and count them. I think I came up with 125 to 160 songs that aren't released. That I know about.
Mark Brown is a veteran music journalist who was pop critic for the Rocky Mountain News until its demise. He is also a contributor to MSN Music blogs Reverb and Scene & Heard.