Behind the Scenes of Neil Young's New Protest Album 'The Monsanto Years'

"It feels like we've been jamming forever," says Willie Nelson's son, Micah

Willie Nelson's sons Lukas and Micah appear on Neil Young's new album 'The Monsanto Years.' Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty

Last September, just before he took the stage at Farm Aid, Neil Young was hanging out on his tour bus with Willie Nelson's sons Micah and Lukas. Out of nowhere, he asked if they wanted to come out and join him on "Rockin' In The Free World" at the end of his set. "We were like, 'Fuck yeah, dude,'" says Micah. "It felt great, like we'd been jamming together forever."

Lukas and Micah both play guitar and have their own bands. Lukas, 26, fronts Promise of the Real, while Micah, 25, plays with Insects vs Robots and occasionally plays solo under the name Particle Kid. They have known Young as far back as they can remember. "He's 'Uncle Neil,'" Micah tells Rolling Stone. "But until a couple of Farm Aids ago, we never had a chance to just hang out and get a vibe from each other. At the same time, I feel like I've always known him forever through his music because it's so honest."

In the fall of 2007, Lukas met his future Promise of the Real bandmate Anthony Logerfo when they both caught Young's show at Nokia Live in Los Angeles. "After the show, we went back to his place and went surfing in the night with a bunch of his buddies," says Lukas. "I got stung by a stingray, and that night I had to sleep on his couch with my foot in a bucket of hot water to neutralize the [venom] protein. He brought me this huge pile of weed and I knew we'd be best friends after that."

They called their new band, which features Logerfo on drums, Tato Melgar on percussion and Corey McCormick on bass, Promise of the Real after Young's line, "Some get stoned, some get strange, but sooner or later it all gets real" from 1974's "Walk On." "We listened to Neil Young every day when we started the band," says Lukas. "And 'Walk On' has always been one of my favorite songs."

"Monsanto is the poster child for the problems we're having with the corporate government," Young recently said.

Two weeks after last year's Farm Aid, Young and Nelson headlined the Harvest the Hope concert in Neligh, Nebraska to protest the proposed Keystone Pipeline. "We were playing as my father's band that night," says Lukas. "And Neil called us onto his bus and worked out a few songs he wanted to play with us. All of us just had a blast."

The Bridge School Benefit came about weeks later, and once again Young called out Micah, Lukas and Promise of the Real to back him on a few songs. "We didn't know that was going to happen," says Lukas. "But we brought our instruments just in case he wanted us to join him. It went really well, but after that we didn't talk for a while."

Sometime in December, an e-mail arrived from Young. "He was like, 'Hey, I wrote a bunch of new songs," says Micah. "I want you guys to come do the record with me. Love, Neil." They were stunned beyond belief. "I was so stoked," says Lukas. "I can't even describe how elated I was."

The weeks passed and no plans came into place, but on January 7th, Rolling Stone asked Young about his next album at the International Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "'I'm working on another album now that I'm going to be doing with Willie Nelson's sons," he said. It's called The Monsanto Years. It's an upbeat review of the situation." The album is set for release in June, but at the time, this was news to more people than just Young fans. "That's how we knew it was real," says Micah. "With Neil, we've learned not to expect anything until it's actually happening. Once it's in print in the press and he said it, that was the moment where we knew it was for real."

Not long afterwards, Young got in touch and said he wanted to cut the album at the historic Teatro theater in Oxnard, California, the exact spot where Willie Nelson recorded his 1998 LP Teatro with producer Daniel Lanois. Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real had concert dates on the books, but they cancelled them so they could get begin right away. (Micah isn't in Promise of the Real, though Lukas said he's an "honorary member" for the duration of this project.)

Work began in January. "The first week, Neil wasn't even there," says Micah. "He was nice enough to tell us to go in and warm up the studio and record a couple of our own songs and get a feel for the place. He sent this CD with raw versions of the record; just him and his acoustic guitar just running through the changes and singing. We took that and that was pretty much all the only instruction manual that we had for the whole thing."

Young's longtime producer/engineer John Hanlon was on hand to oversee the process. "He would always tell us, 'Hey, don't learn the songs too well,'" says Micah. "'Run them once a day just so you know the changes, but it stays fresh and spontaneous. You want to be able to make all the right fuck-ups.' Neil is all about that perfect imperfection, which I can really dig. It kept it fresh."

"My favorite thing is when [Neil] hits what I call the 'cosmic hurricane black hole tornado button'," says Micah.

Young showed up the second week with a brand new song called "People Want To Hear About Love." "None of us had ever heard it before," says Micah. "He plugged in and we started jamming it, and that's the first song we wound up recording. We got a finished version within three takes."

The band set up on the Teatro stage like they were playing an actual concert, without headphones or even a vocal booth. "That gave it this immediacy that kept it really fun and flowing and constantly inspiring," says Micah. "There wasn't a lot of sitting around and figuring out what to do. It was kind of like, 'Go, go, go' and capture it."

The days quickly settled into a comfortable routine. "Anthony and I would go surfing in the morning at Silver Lake or up in Ventura," says Lukas. "We'd get into the studio around noon and work until 7 p.m. Then we'd get some Mexican food afterwards. Basically, it was a blast."

Much like Young's 2006 LP Living With War and his 2009 album Fork in the Road, The Monsanto Years is a concept album about a subject close to Young's heart. In this case, he's railing against the agrochemical company Monsanto. "I don't really have anything against the human beings working at Monsanto," he said during a recent appearance at the IFC Center in New York. "But Monsanto is the poster child for the problems we're having with the corporate government."

Lucas and Micah are completely on board with the cause. "Nobody likes Monsanto," Lukas says. "Nobody wants GMOs in their food, or at least they want to know if they're in there so they can say, 'No' if they want. I'm really proud to be on this side of history with Neil."

"Nobody likes Monsanto," Lukas says. "Nobody wants GMOs in their food, or at least they want to know if they're in there so they can say, 'No' if they want."

"I want a cup of coffee, but I don't want a GMO," Young sings on The Monsanto Years song "Rock Starbucks." "I love to start my day off without helping Monsanto/Monsanto, let our farmers grow what they want to grow/From the fields of Nebraska from the banks of the Ohio/Farmers won't be free to grow what they want to grow/If corporate control takes over the American farm/ with fascist politicians and chemical giants walking arm in arm."

The first week Nelson's sons spent with Young in the studio involved playing each song three times. "Once we did a few takes of something, we wouldn't keep beating a dead horse if we had reached the peak of it," says Micah. "Honestly, even if it hadn't reached the peak, we'd move on and try a different song." The next week was spent playing the album in sequence over and over. "Some of the tracks sounded like totally different songs by that point," says Micah. "There's a different energy when you're just playing them back to back without going back and thinking about them." Micah estimates that three of the nine songs on the album came from this latter period of recording.

Cameras were rolling through much of this process for a movie, also called The Monsanto Years, about the making of the album. A rough cut was screened at the IFC Center on April 22nd as part of their Bernard Shakey Film Retrospective. Much of the film shows them recording the songs at Teatro, but there's also goofy scenes of Young and the Nelson brothers dressed up like farmers and Monsanto executives. "There was one day where Neil dressed up like a judge with a giant wig and glasses," says Micah. "He's banging on Anthony's drums with his gavel. Playing the guitar while he did that was one of the most psychedelic moments of my life."

The group finished the album in a mere six weeks. "Capturing the music is actually the quick part," says Micah. "What takes longer is the meticulous process of editing, mixing and cleaning things up.  We aren't using Auto-Tune or things like that. It's about getting the levels and the compression right."

They also spent some time at Teatro jamming on material from Young's vast catalog. "We did about 40 of his songs," says Michah. "We knew most of them, but sometimes Neil would show us little hidden things. He'd say, 'This one was in D modal tuning, so that's how you get that.' He wouldn't tell us exactly how to play it, but he'd say something like, 'Hey Micah, listen to Jack Nitzsche's original piano part on 'Words.' Get to know that one, then do your own thing.'"

Other songs they rehearsed include "Expecting To Fly," "Cortez The Killer," "Homegrown," "Country Home," "Mansion On The Hill," "Walk On" and electric versions of "Goin' Back" and "Tell My Why." They even did the On The Beach deep cut "Vampire Blues," which Young has only played a single time, back in 1974. "We kind of kicked into that one hanging out at the studio and just recorded it," says Micah. "It's pretty wicked. We got a really good version of that one. The vibe is really strung out and raw. Neil was talking about maybe putting out a record of those raw jams that we had on his old songs. Some of them are really fun."

The group reconvened at Teatro in early April to shoot some more scenes for the movie and run through more classics from Young's catalog. "I remember Neil saying, 'There has to be some sense of immediacy about this,'" says Micah. "'The only way we're going to really be able to test how we can perform live together with this stuff is if we perform a show.'"

Trying to keep things on the down low, Lukas began e-mailing and calling bars he knew in the area. "We didn't want to go out into the lion's den, especially with these new songs," says Micah. "We know that a lot of the powers that be are going to try and bury it if they can. We wanted to tap into the communities that are feeling the brunt of what the record is about; farm towns and places that get it. Not big scenes with a lot of big press and big corporations that things like that coming in and making a big deal out of the shows."

Lukas and Promise of the Real had played shows at the SLO Brewing Company in San Luis Obispo, California. "I told them we wanted to do some new material and not advertise it in any way," says Lukas. "If we played to 20 people, that's all good. We didn't care. They only found out about an hour before the show that Neil was going to be there. There was a line around the block and since people tweeted about it, it sold out. People were super into it. It was an epic show."

The band played all nine new songs from the album, along with classics like "Down By The River," "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," Love and Only Love, "Roll Another Number" and "Country Home," which opened the first set and closed out the second one. "Every time we mentioned Monsanto in one of the songs, the crowd just screamed and cheered and yelled and pumped their fists," says Micah. "It was an amazing feeling."

There are 13 shows booked this July at amphitheaters all across North America, all of which seat about about 50 times as many people as the SLO Brewing Company. The band has no idea if the tour will be extended beyond July. "There's really no saying, honestly," says Micah.  "Neil could call me up right now and say, 'We're doing a show in Iraq tomorrow' or something and we'd be like, 'Okay! Here we go.' Neil always keeps you on your toes.'"

All in all, this whole experience has been like a dream for Micah and Lukas. "I can imagine most guitarists at one point in their life put on a Neil record and just rocked out in their room, pretending like they were jamming out onstage with him," says Micah. "Now it's happening in front of you. I don't even know if there's a word for it. My favorite thing is when he hits what I call the 'cosmic hurricane black hole tornado button.' He hits this button on the Whizzer and it's like suddenly just a bajillion tons of cosmic sludge are hurled into a wormhole and they're blasting out of his amp into my back. It's pretty much the most dreamy, surreal shit ever."