Q&A: Crazy Horse’s Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro on 37 Years With Neil Young
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.
There definitely is something about the sound of you four playing together. I’ve heard “Cinnamon Girl” by countless bands, but nobody does it like you guys.
It’s the truth. I mean even when I see CSNY do it, they do a pretty good version but it’s still not the same … Let me ask you something. Do you think Neil is going to go out with Crosby, Stills and Nash again?
He’s a hard guy to predict, but they haven’t toured Europe with Neil since the early 1970s. They’d make a killing over there. But who knows?
Well I always say, “Neil doesn’t turn corners, he ricochets around them. So you just have to hold on to your hat.” [Laughs] But a lot of the solo acoustic stuff he did is really tasty stuff.
It’s amazing. I think he’s best either solo acoustic, or playing with you guys … the Buffalo Springfield situation was a bummer. Richie Furay said they were going to do 30 dates. But things change when it comes to Neil.
Yeah. All my friends are calling now because of these tour announcements. They’re going, “Can we see you here?” And I’m going, “That’s in October. I kind of don’t feel like saying anything till I have a ticket in my hand.”
But the shows are already on sale. He can’t back out now.
One thing you have to take into consideration, and I hate to say this, but our age … we’re older. Any one of us could trip and hit our head on the stairwell or something.
True … Well, try and be careful.
I’m trying to. Since I started thinking about being careful, I squished my finger on a workout bench. And then I cut myself. I go, “Poncho just don’t think about anything and everything will be cool.”
It has to be a little frustrating that Neil has so much control over your life.
Well, that’s one thing that’s a little bit different with me than the other two guys from Crazy Horse. Early on, I had my heart broken. We were supposed to go on a big tour and do all this stuff. I think this was 1976. And he ended up going out with Stills-Young Band. And that tour he bailed on, too. We were ready to go. We had our own record almost finished and it was gonna be coming out, and were gonna be doing a tour with his record, our record. It was gonna be a big deal, and then it was just over. I got a call from [Neil’s manager] Elliot [Roberts] saying, “Neil’s going out with Stephen. Good luck. Bye.” [Laughs] I was heartbroken. But I just went out that day and started hitting up my friends and got some work. I just always never waited, I always got another job. I always tried to find something to do.
But Billy and Ralph…
They really do wait and anticipate. I think it drives them nuts. But even working at the Tonight Show was something I thought maybe would last one or two years, maybe three. I remember when Kevin was playing behind Branford Marsalis when he joined the Tonight Show. Neither one of us had a gig that lasted over three months. So there we were; we were kinda waiting for it to fold, but three years in, we kind of realized we were gonna be here for a while. And we ended up calling it the golden handcuff gig. Because you wanna leave, but the money’s so good you just can’t.
Tell me more about the follow-up to Americana that you guys are working on.
That’s a pretty exciting record. It’s really us, and it’s no covers, and we’re jamming and having a lot of fun. So I can hardly wait for that one to be done and come out.
Were the songs just written there in the studio?
That first one I told you about earlier, he kind of had a little sketch of it in his head. After we recorded it, he filled in the sketch. And the next ones, I think he was a little more diligent. Before we played them, he had it more organized and he actually had a structure for us to follow. Some of them start off with just a jam. And then all of a sudden, he starts singing. It’s like, “Wow, this is a song.”
What’s it like recording without David Briggs? Has that been a big change? [Young’s longtime producer, David Briggs, died in 1995.]
Andy, man, you’re pulling stuff out of me! I was holding this back. I don’t know if I should say this, but the new record – not Americana – whatever they’re calling this new record … I think that David will be proud of it. It’s really more along the lines of something we would have done with David.
Once David was gone, I felt like we kind of lost our compass a little bit. We had the sound and we had the big machine, and we could play anything and play pretty good, but we weren’t putting any great records together. I mean, Broken Arrow was okay. It wasn’t like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere or Rust Never Sleeps or Ragged Glory.
Do you think that was because Neil and David were so close, and David wasn’t afraid to challenge Neil and really push him?
Definitely. I can remember nights where we’d be playing and thinking, “We’re playing our asses off,” and then David would come in and go, “Gee, that’s pretty good if you want to have people hear you noodling.” [Laughs] Or he’d say to Neil, “I guess you’re tired tonight. Maybe you should try to sing the vocals some other time.”
Are there people in Neil’s life now that can do that?
When I’m playing and everything, I don’t really have it together to make comments like that because I’m so lost in what we’re doing. It’s hard being a producer. All of us tried to take on a little bit of David’s job. But we sucked at it. We’re musicians. We’re not producers. We can’t hear the overall picture like he could. He had a deep-seated rock & roll heart, and he never let us get away with anything.
Do you know of any plans for this upcoming tour? What kind of set are you going to do?
No. In fact, on Monday I’m heading to the ranch there, and we’re gonna start working on what’s going to happen with the show and dig up some old songs and mix in these new ones, and see what we can get going.
The 2003-2004 tour was mostly Greendale. Do you think this one will be more focused on the catalog?
Here’s what I hope. And as you know, I don’t really know any more than you, really. But I hope that we play a few songs from Americana, maybe a couple of things from the next album and then some of the hits, or not hits. However you want to look at it. [Laughs]
I guess lots of those songs weren’t hit singles, but a song like “Powderfinger” is still a classic that everybody wants to hear.
Sometimes I think about that. I love playing “Powderfinger,” man. I just wonder, “How many times do people really wanna hear this?” You know?
I think quite a few.
Oh yeah. My god, definitely.
Well, that’s good to know. Because sometimes I just go, “Are we just repeating ourselves until someone tells us to stop?”
No, no, no. People live for that stuff.
That’s funny. I was looking at a list of songs last night. I was going like, “Damn, if we play one of the future songs, it’s like 20 minutes long, and then we play “Hurricane” … we’re at 40 minutes. Then we do “Fuckin’ Up” or “Cortez the Killer,” and there’s room for maybe four of five shorter tunes.
I don’t know long the shows are going to be. But I really enjoyed the Ragged Glory tour, where we got to play three hours and we really got to just let it hang out.
David Crosby once said you guys were horrible musicians, and you should all be be put to sleep.
I actually like David.
But he says you should be put to death!
On the last CSNY tour, they played L.A. I went down there after work and they were soundchecking. The minute Crosby saw me, he said, “Oh shit, Poncho’s here! There goes my job!” [Laughs] I felt good about that. [Laughs]
I don’t know what David was doing back then when he said that. He may have just been talking shit. He’s really a nice cat.
The story goes that when you guys cut “Cortez the Killer,” the board went down and you lost the entire last verse. Is that true?
Yeah. True. Check it out. What David Briggs did …We didn’t know the power went out. In the room we were playing we had power, but where he was recording, in the control room, they lost power. When they got power back up and running, David ran the tape back and listened to right where he lost us and kept listening to us playing, and then he punched and started the tape back in right in time with where we where. [Laughs] So that verse is gone.
I don’t know if I should tell this, but we were there … It was a sunny day at Zuma Beach, and this guy came by, and I smoked angel dust with this guy, and then Neil came up and said, “Let’s try this song.” We never played it, and I was like, “Oh, shit.”
If you listen to the first recording, I thought the second chord was the first chord. Neil was emphasizing the first one, I was emphasizing the second one. [Laughs]. But you know, it goes around in a circle, so it doesn’t really matter too much.
Tell me more about the next Crazy Horse record.
It has the most in common with Ragged Glory. You know, songs like “Love and Only Love.”It was such a change from Americana. It was refreshing. We cut it in the same place that we cut American Stars ‘n Bars, in the living room at the white house.
A lot of Neil’s bandmates get irked when he changes his mind about something. I get the sense that he just can’t force himself to do something he doesn’t feel like doing.
I think he gets a little burnt out with whatever he’s doing, and then he’ll come up with something new to do, and at that point, everything else that he’s ever done disappears and he becomes 100% into it. I remember when he was doing this rockabilly thing, and I go, “You’ve got to be kidding.” And he says, “No man, this shit is unreal. I could play with this band forever. We could play anything.” He believes that 100%, until the day it’s over.
Well, thank God he decided it was time for Crazy Horse again.
The only thing I was worried about was our age. How many more years do we have?
If I told you a year ago that you were coming up on a year with two Crazy Horse albums and this tour, you probably wouldn’t have believed me.
I would say, “Let’s wait and see.” Right now, today, I’m telling you October’s far away.
But the August shows are in two months.
Yeah, I think we got those going on.
I guess you’ve learned to never count on anything until it happens.
I think if we get started we’ll keep going, but it just … I don’t mean to jinx anything, but you just never know what’s going to happen, like I said. I could fall down the stairs. Billy could twist his wrist opening a door. So many little things could happen that you don’t think of. But theoretically, yes, we’re going out and we’re gonna do the whole tour, but over the years, I just learned to hold my breath and not count on anything too much until we’re ready to go.