When you plan to write an article about Neil Young, you don’t expect Neil Young to also write an article about you. “I’m writing a story of today for the Times Contrarian right now,” he tells Rolling Stone, referring to the online newspaper he’s been updating on Neil Young Archives featuring unheard material going back to 1963.
Young is doing interviews all day, and has been darting to another room after each one to jot down his thoughts. “I write down my experience of the interview,” he says. “The whole day, all the interviews, who we talked about, as much as I can remember. Of course it’s getting to the end of the day, so I remember less and less. You can tell the flow of the day. It’s a journalistic exercise.”
But if Young’s career has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. That goes for Paradox, the new film written and directed by his partner Daryl Hannah, which premieres Thursday night at South by Southwest and hits Netflix on March 23rd. Young stars as the “Man in the Black Hat,” the leader of a band of outlaws that include his band, Promise of the Real, living off the land in a world where seeds have become the currency (Willie Nelson makes a cameo).
The story may be as out-there as Young’s bizarre 1982 album Trans, with excellent musical sequences that include Young fingerpicking “Pocahontas” and a wild Promise of the Real version of Young’s overlooked 2016 cut “Peace Trail.” Hannah says the film came together fast: before playing some shows in the Rockies in 2016, Young and Promise of the Real needed to spend a few days getting acclimated to the climate. “I knew they were gonna end up sitting around the campfire together playing songs and joking, but we didn’t wanna make a documentary,” she says. “They’re an incredibly playful group of guys so we just decided it would be fun to make a little movie and use the road crew and the guys in the band. We didn’t have any professional actors, no crew, no budget, and three days. Everything was unplanned it sort of just happened.”
Young is excited the film is finally coming out, though he seems well aware of its niche appeal. “We don’t expect everyone to like it,” he says. “We’re a little nervous because we’re on a platform and everybody’s gonna see it on the platform. It’s like Facebook – people are gonna scream at you, and throw tomatoes and talk about your sex life and everything. Who knows what they’re gonna do. We really don’t fit there, but we’re OK.”
What was your favorite moment making Paradox?
Shit, all of it was great. Some of the scenes that I did in the snow were fun. I had never been on a dogsled before. It seemed to come very naturally to me. Suddenly I’m on a dogsled and the dogs are going. I enjoyed that a lot and all the music scenes are great. I love the campfire scenes with the boys.
Some of the dialogue is really funny. There are one liners like “Love is like a fart: if you gotta force it, it’s probably shit.”
Darryl wrote all of that. She wrote the script. She went out to thrift stores and bought all the costumes. She did everything herself. She’s an amazing, professional moviemaker. She did all this for 125 grand.
You guys could’ve gone all out, but it’s almost better it’s not.
No, it is what it is. We wanted to. We have no illusions. It’s not Cecil B. DeMille or Eastwood. We don’t care about that shit. Let them make those movies. That’s great. That’s what they do and they do a good job of what they do. This is us. We are making this for our peeps. We’re not trying to impress anybody.
What did you learn working with Daryl on a professional level?
I have a lot of respect for Daryl. She’s a tireless worker. You’ve never see anyone work as hard as her. She knows all her fans aren’t gonna understand what it is and that worries her a little, but she loves art and she’s a true artist. Nobody could’ve made this film like she did. She put it all together.
There’s an incredible version of “Peace Trail” with Promise of the Real. You work at such a fast pace that it’s easy to overlook a great song like that.
It’s a nice version in the tent. That’s the first time Promise of the Real ever played it. They had heard the “Peace Trail” record when I recorded it with [drummer Jim] Keltner and [bassist] Paul Bushnell. He’s a great bass player. So we had a great time making that record. But the guys weren’t on it. They were on the road and I wanted to play. That’s when they realized – “Holy shit, when he wants to play, he’s gonna play no matter what.” Because that’s how I get so much done. I don’t wait. I just do it. I go, “This is a gift, I’m gonna accept it. I’m gonna use it and i’m gonna move on.” It’s too bad they weren’t there – it would’ve been a great record with them – but “Peace Trail” is a great record.
How does it feel to have the archives up and running?
It feels great. It’s a labor of love. For people to be able to hear it, and to have your magazine recognize the sound, it’s amazing. It has to be amazing because it’s the best digital sound in the world. That’s what we have. We just found a way for everybody to hear it. Spotify and Tidal haven’t figured it out yet, but we figured it out.
Well, I have a friend in Singapore who figured it out for me. [Laughs] But it’s really simple. It’s adaptive bitrate streaming. Spotify has two levels of streaming. Apple has a couple levels. Tidal’s upper levels are higher than everyone else’s. It’s almost CD quality. The whole thing there is based on 20th century technology where people were trying to compress files to save memory. We don’t have to do that anymore. That’s over. This is the 21st century. Those companies have two or three levels – we have 15,000 levels. So the music has 15,000 levels that it can play back on at any given time.
Do you have a staff that runs your archives? How does it work?
We have three or four people [in Los Angeles] that are the core people that do the whole thing. We need more people, though. We don’t have more money though. We’re gonna get some interns. [Laughs] We don’t have a room, so we gotta get a room. Everything costs money. But it’s gonna be fun.
What’s your role with it?
I’m on the phone with them 24/7 talking about different categories. Different things we’re doing; ways we’re gonna improve the service. The subscriptions are going to be great. There will still be a free level where you can hear my 10 best most popular streaming albums of the day for nothing.
When will you start charging?
We have to start charging by June because [that’s when] our deal ends. We made a deal for six months, free everything. Then the subscription starts, which is always the kiss of death because when people find out they have to pay for it… But our price is going to be so low, and we give them all my music in high-res and all the information and movies and videos and everything you get from the archives. We’ve only loaded about 25 percent of what we have.
Are there a few things that you hadn’t heard in a long time that jump out to you as great?
Broken Arrow [Crazy Horse’s 1996 album]. That’s a hell of a record. Some songs on there — “This Town.” I really love that record. There’s a great video Tim Pope made that I don’t think anybody’s really seen. “Scattered” is another one I really like. That’s the first record I made after my producer David Briggs died. So it means a lot to me. These records are all about what was happening at the time and i love having them there where I can dive in and check out different records for their tone. Zuma is a good one that I like. We also have Dume coming – from Point Dume. It’s another take on Zuma, which has six unreleased Zuma tracks, but slightly different. So there’s a lot of things coming.
I read you tape everything: every soundcheck, every show. Will you be able to see all of those on the timeline eventually?
Ultimately, live performances, I like to pick and choose, not just have them all there because some of them are better than others. There’s a vibe that comes and goes, so it’s up to the artist to figured that out. In today’s world, everything’s available. So I’m going, “This is what I’m making available.” This is not Facebook. This is when you come to my place. We’re gonna show it to you and you’re gonna hear it the best you’ve ever heard it, but you have to come here to do that. And that’s all that we ask.
It must be interesting to see all the work you’ve done, laid out in front of you in one place.
It’s pretty unbelievable, really. I try not to focus on it too much – it starts in 1963 and it’s 2018. I try to be mellow on that.
You don’t like to look back.
You have to for this. And it’s great. We have our crazy little charts and I’m Number One all the time. [Laughs] But “Aurora” and “The Sultan” [by the Squires] were in the Top Ten for the first couple weeks. Seeing those records I made with my high school band up there with Harvest, that was pretty cool. People call it a chart. Mostly me. I make it for myself. I have a lot of fun with the site.
“This not Facebook. This is when you come to my place. We’re gonna show it to you and you’re gonna hear it the best you’ve ever heard it.”
Do you have plans to how to roll this out?
That’s a challenge. We’re coming up with it. There’s gonna be two tiers. When you pay, it’s gonna be 20 percent of what you pay for any other service. It’s gonna be really low. You get everything in the archives in high-res. If you don’t [pay for] that, you still get my 10 most popular albums and browse through al the information.
Are you done with physical box sets at this point?
No…The record company really wants me to put out another one and we’ve prepared a Volume Two and it’s almost there. Unfortunately my art director Gary [Burden] died last week. He’s been with me for 50 years. Yeah, it’s sad. He was gonna do the book and the cover and all that. He was working on it. His wife Jenice is still here and she’s gonna help us finish it. You know, times are changing. We have to put it out with the compromised sound of a CD. It’s not gonna sound as good as the website, but you can take it with you. But you can stream it too on your phone. If you’ve got a good set of phones with a digital-analog converter built into the bones, you plug it into your lightning output and you’re gonna hear 24/192 right there.
Next month you’re releasing Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live from the legendary shows you played there in 1973. What do you feel listening back to it?
Well, I feel like I’m there. I remember the vibe. We felt very confident because we knew the songs really well. We’d been playing them for a month in the studio, just doing Tonight’s the Night every night, drinking until the middle of the night. We’d play the whole album then we would stop and have a drink and do it again. That’s how we got that vibe. That record was mostly done on one night, but you just have to wait for that moment and when it comes along you’re there. And you grab it, and that’s what you share with people, and then they get the cream of the crop.
It’s always painted as a very dark time, as you recorded that album after your guitarist Danny Whitten and your roadie Bruce Berry died within seven months of each other.
It’s like a wake. It’s a wake for these guys we lost to drugs. On the other hand wakes aren’t always dark. It’s the blues, you know? It makes you smile.
And you’re gonna keep playing with Promise of the Real this year.
Yeah. we’re doing Arroyo Seco [in Pasadena, California]. We’re playing Quebec. And we’re playing Farm Aid. That’s what I have figured out right now. I don’t have it in me to do another tour of barns, stadiums or anything like that right now. Maybe next year I’ll do that. I’ve got so many things to do with the archives. I’m working on that and I’m working on a book. I’m finishing a novel that I’m working on.
What is that?
It’s a novel called Canary. I have an agent in New York working with me on it right now. We’re just finishing it. It’s kind of a sci-fi thing about a guy who gets busted for a crime. He works for a power company and there’s corruption in the power company and he wants to expose it, so he figures out a way to expose it and shuts down the grid a couple of times. He gets busted for doing that, and the cops come and take him out of his office, put him in a van, drug him, and he goes to a hospital somewhere. Then he wakes up and he’s on a mission to pay his debt to society. That’s all he cares about. Then he puts on these glasses, and they broadcast everything that he sees and he goes into different places and interacts with the people there and he’s just a regular guy, but these people in this room downtown are watching everything he’s doing and listening to everything. He discovers the solar company he works for is a hoax. And they’re not really using solar. They’re using this shit – the guy who’s doing this has come up with a way to make bad fuel, the bad energy, this really ugly terrible stuff, and he’s figured out a way to genetically create these animals that shit that gives the energy to make the [fuel]. So he’s created this new species. But the species escapes. So it’s a fuckin’ mess. It’s a long story. So it’s a novel.
“When I retire, people will know, because I’ll be dead.”
A lot of other major artists have announced retirement tours lately.
I’m going out with Cher. Cher and I are doing a retirement tour. [Laughs] “Neil and Cher.” When I retire, people will know, because I’ll be dead. They’ll know, “He’s not coming back! He retired.” But I’m not gonna say, “I’m not coming back.” What kind of bullshit is that? I could go out and play if I felt like it, but I don’t feel like it. I’ve got a great band. I’ve got two great bands – I’ve got Promise of the Real and Crazy Horse. They’re both great bands and they’re different. But they both can play a lot of shit. Promise of the Real plays almost anything I can do. And they’re great. they got the energy, everything. Everybody on that stage has the vibe. There’s not one ounce of fear anywhere.
You wrote recently that the door is not closed on Crazy Horse.
Well, we have an incredible album that’s in the can that’s a recent album. Alchemy. Then we have a 2001 album, Toast. We have a 1969/70 album, early days, which is a lot of stuff nobody’s heard. So when I do go out, I have things to put out there. Right now, I’m not ready to tour right now. I have a funny feeling in my body that I listen to, and it just says no. It will say yes when it’s ready. I’m just listening to the muse, and the muse just says take a break.
Going back to the Roxy 1973 recording, how is the guy on that tape different from the guy you are now?
It’s a totally different guy. I don’t even know that guy. If we could talk to him, we could find out. But we can’t. You have to listen to the record to get that. Unfortunately there’s not much video of that time.
What would you tell that guy if you could talk to him?
I’d tell him, “You’re doing great, man. I like your suit.”
You guys were drinking a lot of tequila in the Tonight’s the Night era.
That was nuts. I don’t do that anymore.
Do you have any vices these days?
No, just weed. Uncle Neil’s Homegrown. Good stuff.
Does weed make you more creative?
I don’t know if it’s better or more, but it’s different. When you start smoking and you don’t wanna stop writing, that’s good. Anything you can do to make you create more, that’s a good thing. It takes your focus on what you’re doing. You might make some mistakes but it doesn’t matter – you can go back later and fix them. I wouldn’t stop to fix a mistake. I’d just keep on going. When you’re all done, glance at it, try to make it better, but don’t try to rethink it too much. Cause what came out of you is good.
A lot of people spend years on album.
Fuck. That’s not me.
The small Roxy shows came after a huge tour behind Time Fades Away, which was legendary for being pretty dark and challenging for the audience.
Yeah, it’s all in the past. It’s all there. The Roxy was funny. The Tonight’s the Night tour, they tried to bury when I was doing it. I’d just done Harvest. This was really, I’d only done one album after Harvest and then I did Tonight’s the Night. Time Fades Away was the only one I did and that was really not a really successful album compared to Harvest. Everybody was hoping I’d turn into John Denver. So that didn’t happen. I think John Denver’s great actually. Just there’s a lot different ways of doing what we do and I like to do ‘em my way.