Q&A: Crazy Horse's Frank 'Poncho' Sampedro on 37 Years With Neil Young

'Neil doesn’t turn corners – he ricochets around them. So you just have to hold on to your hat'

Frank Sampedro, Billy Talbot, Neil Young, and Ralph Molina of Crazy Horse perform at the MusiCares Person of the Year Tribute to Paul McCartney in Los Angeles.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
June 14, 2012 12:15 PM ET

Crazy Horse guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro has learned one basic thing from working with Neil Young for 37 years: never count on anything happening until it actually happens. "I remember one time I showed up for a warm-up show in San Francisco," Poncho says.  "I got there and everybody was sitting on their road cases. They said, "Pack your shit, it's over." I said, "What do you mean? This is a joke, right?" They said, "No. Neil cut his finger making a ham sandwich." And we were done. Just done."

Hopefully this year's Neil Young and Crazy Horse project goes a lot more smoothly. Earlier this month, the group released Americana, a collection of folk standards re-imagined as if they had been written by Neil and the Horse. Another record is already in the can, and they hit the road in August for their first tour in over eight years. We spoke with Poncho about the new albums, what to expect from the tour and that time he recorded "Cortez the Killer" while high on angel dust.

Where are you calling from?
Hawaii. I'm living here full time. If it wasn't for Neil and his music, I'd never want to leave.

But you worked for Jay Leno until pretty recently, right?
Yeah. Eighteen years. I worked as an assistant to Kevin Eubanks and the band.

What exactly did you do?
Everything. I booked the band. I took care of all their endorsements, 
everything Kevin needed for the show, all the meetings with the executives … Kevin never saw anybody without them seeing me first. I feel that I did a good job for Kevin and have a lot of love and respect for the guy. We'll be friends forever. 

Did everyone there know about your other life in Crazy Horse?
Oh, yeah. In fact, I played on the show once when I was working there.

So you left the show when Kevin moved on from the show?
Yeah … I had no idea I could make it in that world. At the beginning it was kind of rough, but then I learned the ropes and I did really well there. But in the end I was consumed with NBC and the never-ending shows. It was just a little too much for me. I'm so happy just to have all the time to myself now.

The Greendale tour ended in March of 2004. Did you have even a vague sense of what the future held for Crazy Horse, or was Neil just like, "Bye, guys. I'll see you when I see you?"
Yeah, it's like, "Bye, guys. See you." During that time, I was living in L.A., Ralph lived in Central California and Billy lived in San Francisco. But a couple of times a month, Billy would drive me to Ralph's place and we'd play. And Neil came and played with us a few times. But we just keep waiting.

This was really the longest wait ever.
It seems like it. I almost forgot about it … In one way, you wanna say that Neil's unpredictable – but when you look at it, he ran the gamut and then came back to us. 

Did you ever worry he was done with you guys forever?
No. I always thought we'd play again. I think Neil was just really saving it. 

I guess if he did it too often, it would stop seeming special.
Well, yeah, that's the thing. One of my pet peeves with Crazy Horse is that Billy and Ralph always wanna make a record and get another guy and do this and that. And I just think that diminishes what we have with Neil. We have a special thing going. And I think it's historical now.

It's so funny. Here in the States, we go out and we get a good response, but when we go to Europe, it's like we're the last rock & roll band standing from the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury days in  '69, '70, that era. And we go there and we get a huge response, man. People really, really come out to see us.

How does Neil tell you it's time for a new project? Is there some sort of Bat Signal? The Crazy Horse Signal?
It's funny. You just hear it through the grapevine, really … He has a house not too far from me. He doesn't stay here, but he comes a few times a year and I get to see him and we hang out a little and talk about what he's doing.  And then finally we get a call. It's either he calls Billy or Ralph and then we all email each other. Or he'll call me. I hate being the messenger. 

Tell me what it was like the first time the four of you got into a room for these new projects.
I was really ready to play. I didn't know what to expect. I was sitting on the plane flying to San Francisco, and I said, "Shit, what can I do? What can I do?" And I had my iPod and I decided to watch Year of the Horse just to kind of get the vibe going. So I was watching that and I was going, "Jesus! I hope these guys don't think I'm still gonna be jumping around and yelling and screaming!" And then we got there and one of us started playing "Clementine" or something like that, and I went cuckoo. It's just surprised me what the energy of the music does to all of us. We really have a connection.

I love the new arrangements of those folk songs.
These were some songs that Neil played like when he was 14, 15, doing the acoustic solo thing in Toronto and different places like Winnipeg. Just playing in coffee houses. And these were just some of the things that he did before he had all his own material going. 

I kept telling them, "My mom used to sing me these to me when I was sitting on her knee and I don't remember these verses." I thought "Clementine" was a happy-go-lucky song. It's crazy, man, that song is deep. 

How long did the entire recording process take?
We got together every full moon in September, October, November, December. I think we finished it in January or February. Each trip was about five to seven days, for about six months.

So you're flying back and forth from Hawaii to San Francisco based around the moon schedule?
Yeah, every full moon. [Laughs] It's crazy, man. But then the energy from the moon … sometimes we start playing and we just can't stop.  We don't really listen back to a lot of things. And Neil will come in the next day and say, "Oh, we got two yesterday. Oh, we got this done, we have to work on them now." But we just keep playing.

How much of the album came from just jamming?
That's funny that you ask that, because by the end of the album, we played all these songs like "Gallows Pole," and I never knew until the next day that it was a Led Zeppelin cover. At the end of the session, I go, "Neil, this is all fun and everything and we're having a good time. But it sure would be nice if we did something we're really known for, like jam." And he says, "You know, I don't have a jam song. It might be good to have a jam song." I said, "Just pick any two chords and let's go." We started playing and he had a song with two chords, and I think it lasted almost 30 minutes. And that was the beginning of another record that we're working on. 

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