Neil Young has a near-religious faith in the power of spontaneity, from the first-draft, one-take brilliance of his best songs to the jagged path of his career as a whole. His urgent, political, occasionally jarring (there are some heavily AutoTuned vocals and computer voices) new album, December 9th’s Peace Trail, pushes that ethos to the max.
“I would just get up in the morning,” says Young, who spent about a week recording the album with veteran drummer Jim Keltner and session bassist Paul Bushnell, “and pick up my guitar and whatever I did, that was it. I built a song right on that and just wrote about what was on my mind. I’ve done a lot of records, made a lot of songs, played a lot of guitars, so I just trust myself, you know. I figure if I can’t do it by now, why I am even bothering to try?”
The album is full of references to the battle he has joined over the Dakota Access Pipeline – he shouts out Dale “Happy” American Horse Jr., who was arrested for chaining himself to construction equipment – as well as to Young’s bemused suspicion of lives lived online. “I look at like what if I just dropped in here from outer space,” he says. “What would I think? Remember hula hoops? Everybody had a hula hoop. I don’t know if you remember that. It kinda reminds me of that with phones. Can you imagine that that’s gonna last really a long time? I don’t see it. I think something is gonna replace that.”
The entire interview with Young is available on the latest episode of our podcast, Rolling Stone Music Now. Listen and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Spotify and tune in next week for another episode.
Off the Road
Young was set to tour early next year, but scrapped those plans, and says he may end up taking the entire year off from the road. “I’ve got a lot to do without touring,” says Young, who’s working on a TV show about the cross-country journey of his electric car and writing another book (this one may be fiction). But primarily, he says, “I’m actually just focusing now on recordings for awhile.”
After giving up his ranch in the Santa Cruz mountains, Young now lives in Los Angeles, not far from Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La Studios in Malibu, where he’s welcome to pop in whenever. He’s already at work (“halfway done!”) on his first-ever studio album with his young backing band Promise of the Real, who have helped him revive some deep corners of his catalog in concert. “When the record’s done, we’ll put it out,” he says, dismissing the more typical approach of waiting a year or more between albums: “I don’t have time to wait that long.”
The Future of Pono
Young is hoping to pivot his high-res music company – which had been focused on its Toblerone-shaped player and a download store – toward a hi-res streaming service. “We’re pushing towards getting a presence in phones,” says Young (though iPhones’ internal chips are not currently compatible with higher-than-CD-quality sound). He’s working with a Singaporean company on a method to “maintain our quality level when we go to streaming.”
Crazy Horse and CSNY
Young hasn’t toured with Crazy Horse since 2014, but he insists the band “has a huge future,” and that bassist Billy Talbot has fully recovered from a stroke that forced him off the road. “Billy’s in great shape, he’s fine,” says Young, promising to work his way back to the band. “Crazy Horse has a cycle. If you look at Crazy Horse’s history and when Crazy Horse played and when they didn’t play, you can see that we’re still in the pocket.”
When he’s reminded that Crosby, Stills Nash and Young have a 50th anniversary coming up, he responds with savage sarcasm: “Oh, yeah, there’s a huge anniversary coming up. Huge. It’s terrific! I love it!” At the same time, he won’t rule out a reunion with that group, who last played together in 2013. “Anything is possible,” he says.
“Trump has a refreshing viewpoint for the downtrodden, for the people who have suffered under politics as usual,” says Young. “It’s up to him to show if he can satisfy all of the hopes that he’s created in these people. I wish him absolutely the best with that and on the other side of the coin, I hope he fails miserably with all of his bad ideas” – Young cites a proposed ban on Muslim immigration as one of them.
Trump is also a fan who’s attended Young’s concerts, and Young once met with him about possible funding for Pono. “I said, ‘Don, let’s make music great again,'” Young jokes. “I’m not suing him or anything. I won’t sue Don Trump. I won’t sue him for taking that.”
Watch five things you didn’t know about Neil Young.