Neil Young sits on a couch in a boutique hotel in Austin, Texas, with a bright red bandage wrapped around his right wrist. “It’s OK,” he says. “I can still play.” Although Young has an album coming out — A Letter Home, including two songs with appearances by Jack White, and released on White’s Third Man label — he is in Texas to roll out Pono, his new line of high-end digital music players.
In the hotel courtyard, Pono CEO John Hamm was talking tech and demoing Pono prototypes for journalists, and the units sounded as excellent as advertised. (Important caveat: this impression was based on limited listening on a unit paired with $250 headphones, and involved no head-to-head comparison with other audio sources.) Pono players are scheduled to come out this fall, and cost $399; high-resolution digital albums (FLAC files) will be available on Pono’s online store for 15 to 25 dollars. Two days after Young announced the Pono kickstarter, where people could preorder a unit for $99 less, 8,000 people had pledged over $2.6 million.
“We blew by our stated goal,” Young says, “so we’re out of the woods. For the first couple of days.”
Are you a good businessman?
No. But I’m not in charge of the business. I’m just the mascot — the hood ornament.
Do you remember the first time you worked on a record that didn’t come out sounding the way you wanted?
Well, I love making music, and I love making great-sounding records. I check on the mastering of my LPs, making sure it sounds good — and when we got to the CD, that part went away, because there was no physical thing to deal with. There’s nothing wrong with digital: it’s a tool, it’s a way to do things. In 1982, I first got my 16-bit digital machines with Sony, and I used a lot of the digital master players to create things. But I noticed that if I went to digital, I lost the echo. After that, the ability to play loud went away — it was really loud, but whoa, it hurts. I never had it hurt before. And it went downhill from there, instead of getting better. That was devastating,
So I made the records analog for myself, and transferred them to digital. Part of me went backwards: as the resolution went up, I went backwards with the technology.
It’s ironic that you’re rolling out the high-tech Pono at the same time as A Letter Home, which you recorded on a 1947 Voice-o-Graph machine, an old-fashioned vinyl recording booth.
Yeah, we did the whole album on that. We’re going to get it out there. It’s an amazing time capsule. From nothing, to nowhere. No one knows why. [Laughs] It’s a good piece, a real nice piece. I look forward to people getting it, especially in light of what I’m doing now. It’s coming out pretty soon.
I was thinking about another time when you were dissatisfied with sound — there’s a story that you bought 200,000 copies of Comes a Time in 1978 and then destroyed them.
Oh, that was because it was a mastering error. The tape got damaged when it went through the airport or something. I had to go back and use a copy of the master — it was a copy, but it had better-sounding playback than the other one.
Did you take a shotgun to the albums?
No, no, I made a barn roof out of them. I used them as shingles.
What does success look like for Pono?
Success is more people finding out about good-sounding music and music choice, whether it’s Pono or some other company that decides to do the same thing and beats us because they’ve got millions and millions of dollars to work with — but we’re first.
What’s surprised you about Pono?
It’s been pretty predictable, because I’m a musician and I know how musicians feel about sound. The record companies made some bad choices and did not realize how big this tech [MP3s] was going to be. And when that happened, there was no alternative to the cheap sound. Smartphones can do anything, but they do it all at the same kind of level. It’s a little above a Fisher-Price level: it’s a toy stove. So if you want an MP3, and that’s what you can afford, and that’s what you like, and you really don’t think you want anything else, that’s fine. But now you have a chance to hear something else, that you didn’t before, unless you were an audiophile and you went through all these hoops to get it. We’re going to be able to play records back just like the artists made them — with absolutely no magic sauce, no DRM, no encoding, decoding, none of the things that screw with the sound and make it an intellectual property.
Are you an audiophile?
No, I’m a music-lover! I’m trying to bring consumer-level listening to the point it was in the Seventies.
Eric Clapton told us recently that he was surprised you could hear the difference between different audio sources after all these years of loud volume with Crazy Horse.
[Laughs] I’m Canadian. He’ll understand that. He’s next to Ginger Baker’s cymbals — he knows what can happen. No matter how bad your hearing is, or how much damage you have, what you do hear is what you hear. And if it’s good, it’s good, and if it’s bad, it’s bad. You still recognize it.
Do you think of yourself as a gearhead?
Absolutely. I’m a big car guy. I have a hybrid 1959 Lincoln — I drove it across the country without using any gasoline. Went up to the tar sands in Canada on the way and made good time there on the trip. I used a very clean fuel of the future, “freedom fuel”: cellulosic ethanol. That’s ethanol based on plants, made from the waste of food. We have a model for day-to-day transportation that could replace fossil fuels. There’s ultimately going to be a carbon tax, and we have to be ready for that. Cars have to be smart enough to burn different fuels. That’s all gearhead stuff — it’s all about machines that do things, like smart environmental impact sensors that can broadcast what your impact is, to your government, to you, everybody who needs to know about it so you can pay your debt to society.
You always got to pay for the damage you do. Pretty soon CO2’s going to be anti-American. Corporate America, with the loss of profits from climate change, are going to say, we’re going to have to reverse this: the CO2 has to come back from the sky into the ground. Farming practices are responsible for 50% of the CO2 in the air. That’s the biggest cause of climate change, worldwide: farming practices. And second is transportation.
All your interests ultimately converge.
Yeah, it’s all the same thing. Clean, quality, get back to what makes things work for people and what’s better for society.
What else do you have going on this year?
I got that record we talked about. I’m playing the Dolby Theater in L.A. in a couple of weeks for four nights. It’s a beautiful acoustic hall, so I’m playing there solo acoustic. Then I play Dallas a couple of weeks later, they have a beautiful concert hall there. Then I go up to Chicago, just solo acoustic. This summer I play with Crazy Horse and I do the Pono thing.
What’s the most Canadian thing about you?
That I care about Canada, and Canada’s environment. I care about the stewardship of the land, and I care about the First Nations people. And I care about hockey.