Billy Talbot is best known as the bass guitarist for Crazy Horse, and that’s just fine by him. Crazy Horse has been his life, on and off, for over four decades and right now it’s on again. “It’s what I’ve been up to for the last year,” he tells TVD.
There’s this reverent irreverence and energetic authenticity that makes Crazy Horse so compelling not only to Neil Young fans, but to rock and roll fans in general. That same spirit pervades On the Road to Spearfish, Talbot’s second solo album (released on May 21) after 2004’s Alive in the Spirit World.
As I start my questions about the new album, he interrupts me and asks if I’ve ever seen him play with Crazy Horse. When I tell him I did when I profiled Everest while they were opening for Neil Young and Crazy Horse late last year, he immediately wants to know what I thought of the shows. Talbot is proud of his work with his legendary band—so proud that it doesn’t seem to bother him that he won’t be touring to support On the Road to Spearfish until Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Alchemy tour comes to an end later this summer. That’s just what happens when Crazy Horse is on again.
Spearfish is an eclectic and ethereal album that mixes acoustic ambiance with electrified rock and roll. The songs tell stories that feel very personal, and the recording itself is equally intimate. Listen closely and you’ll feel like you’re in the studio with Talbot and his band: you hear the lift off a piano’s sustain pedal, the creaking of chairs, the breaths and strums that make this album sound as expansive as the prairies that inspired it. Reviews have been mixed, but even that inspires Talbot. “One guy said that he wished he had four arms to give it two more thumbs down!” he says with a laugh. “It gave me an idea for new song about a guy with two extra arms and all the damage he could do.”
I had a fun conversation with Billy on the eve of his departure for Berlin—the first show of the European leg of the Alchemy tour. He talks at length about his songwriting process and the crack band he recorded with on the record, the first records he remembers buying, and gives sage advice to his younger self.
I read somewhere that you don’t like to do interviews, so I hope to make this as painless as possible.
Did you get a chance to listen to On The Road to Spearfish?
Yes, I did. And I did what the booklet said and read it along with the songs. One of the things that struck me immediately was that many of the songs on On the Road to Spearfish have very transient themes to them—there’s lots of travel and movement and people leaving and big open spaces. As a guy from New York, did you expect the Great Plains to capture your creativity they way they have?
It seems like I’ve been headin’ in that direction all my life. I didn’t expect it to hit me the way it did; I didn’t expect to be writing songs about it or thinking about it in that way. But, that’s what happened! I love going to the Great Plains, the prairie, I love the whole idea of it. I was fascinated by the thought of a sea of grass. But I didn’t put it together—that it would be in the Dakotas. When I went out there, it just was “in the now” and it struck me, and then I was writing about it without thinking about it. Things just added up in such a way and culminated in ways that made it be what it is. I didn’t know it was all of that until I was done.
It sounds like it was a really pure creative process for you.
Well, you know, as far as I’m concerned it was. I don’t know about anybody else and how they go through stuff. But it was pretty… it was a lot of fun. We drove out—my wife and I—to our place [in South Dakota]. I remember her being upstairs in the bedroom with the window open, the screen on it, and I got up early and was out there on the deck with my Martin guitar, pounding out “On the Road to Spearfish” and singing it to her when she was in the window. Basically, all I had was the chorus and the chord changes and the melody—I still had to write all the words. That’s usually the way it happens. I remember that being the beginning of the whole process.
The other songs came out of consequence from doing different things. We had visitor, the rookie in the band— Ryan James Holzer—came to the ranch one weekend and I played him “Big Rain.” I had these choruses… that day, him and I and one of the ranch hands drove out deep across the prairie, not even on roads, and came to this windmill and this river. That night, we had the words to “Big Rain” all written out. I’d said, “I think I have the bridge—I think it should go like this,” and I sang it a little bit and played some chord changes. The next morning, we had written the words to “The Bridge.” When I went home, I called [Ryan] out to join the band, and that’s how THAT happened!
“Cold Wind” is another song written when I was in this little town, and it was gray and getting to be Fall, and I had visions of the town in winter—people huddled in their houses and things going on that are darker than they appear. These songs are organic things that happen to you that you either act on or they slip away.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the romance of that part of the country, but getting underneath that and exploring the darker side of small town life—did that affect the way you wrote the rest of the songs from that point forward?
Well, no; once I’d written “Cold Wind”—not that that stuff doesn’t happen—when I’d written “Cold Wind” it kind of did enough for me on that level, about the undercurrents of a small town. Then we had “Big Raid” and “On the Road to Spearfish” and then I wrote “The Herd,” and “The Herd” is another whole thing. But then there was “Miller Drive” which is about another small town, too—and a brothel! The economy’s really gone south, but the brothel’s still happening. It might be the only thing happening in the town, keeping it alive. It was the only other thing that’s that dark on the record; “Cold Wind” is either about a father being abusive to a daughter or a husband to a wife, depending on how you interpret it.
There’s always creative license in songwriting, but is there a song in particular that’s most personal to you on this album?
The most personal one is “Empty Stadium.” The rest of it is not as personal as it is different feelings that I got when I was first out there [in the Dakotas]—my first impressions. “Empty Stadium” is… you could be anywhere and feel alone, so alone that you feel like you’re in an empty stadium—which is really alone—in a big, big place and all kinds of stuff is happening outside of it, but nothing is happening in there except you being there. That’s my own personal take on how it feels for me to be feeling that alone on the planet.
That’s really heavy.
Is it? [Laughs] It’s okay, doll!
Speaking of stadiums, you’re going to be out on the road with Neil Young and the rest of Crazy Horse in a couple of days…
Yeah, I’m leaving tomorrow!
Are you going to get any touring of your own to support On The Road to Spearfish?
Well, there’s nothing planned right now along those lines. I’m concentrating on and thinking of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. That’s what I’m up to now, and that’s what I’ve been up to for the last year. We’re going to be playing in Berlin on Saturday night, which is Saturday morning here. So, in not too long from now I’ll be up on stage… a bunch of German people will be out there and we’ll be playing “Love and Only Love” and various other songs that you heard a lot of.
I’m glad that you appreciate my effort with On The Road to Spearfish.
I do. I got a killer pair of headphones and have been enjoying the hell out of it for the last few days.
Great. How did you like the booklet?
Very cool! It reminded me very much of the kind of thing you’d find with a vinyl record, with lots of great artwork and the lyrics and photos of the band. It gives you the full experience.
Well, right now on BillyTalbot.com you can watch the full movie of the recording sessions—live recordings of the sessions. There’s no lip syncing; you can see it all happen and feel it. A lot of those photos come from the actual footage of the movie. It’s pretty good sound, too. Also on our site, if you have Safari or Chrome, you can listen to it in 2496—that’s really cool—with your good headphones, you can really hear it.
You’re obviously a big proponent of high-definition recording, and I understand that you used vintage gear on the album as well. With the proliferation of all things digital, do you think people will once again appreciate high quality sound?
I don’t know. I know I do—I really do. I appreciate that. We have really great instruments in the band—with Neil Young and Crazy Horse and The Billy Talbot Band—we have really great-sounding old amps, tube amps, and really great tube mics. They’re the kind of mics that people have been using for fifty, sixty years for recording and still are the best ones.
Between getting and recording a good sound, and not playing these songs more than once or twice ever, especially when we’re recording… they feel fresh and organic and real. It’s this real feel that makes me feel good as a writer; I can sing the song the way I want to. Everything being like that is what helps to create that thing that you hear. That’s what I was going for, except that not many people go for it as strongly as I was going for it—uncompromisingly going for it.
But I knew that was what I wanted to do, so I set it all up. It wasn’t something that was a hassle or hard to do or anything like that. It was just set up properly so we could just do it like that. “Cold Wind” was recorded at 2:40am; “Big Rain” was recorded at 1:00am. The mood of it, playing it for the first time at that time of the night, just being really quiet… all the guys had been having a really good time and we weren’t ready to record. And then, all of a sudden, it got to be that time we were ready to record, consequently, and then we did. The mood was right, the guys were ready to play it. It’s not perfect; there are some mistakes in there… but not really!
That element of imperfection is so removed from music today.
Yeah, well, they’re not after what I was after. They’re after something else. I don’t care what everybody or anybody else is doing. It’s not that I’m even against it, it’s not that I’m rebelling against it or anything, it’s just… I have to do what I have to do to get the feeling of the songs. When I play “Cold Wind” on the piano by myself, it’s not any different than I played it with the band—especially if I’m really into it by myself… it’s one of those magical moments.
That’s what I wanted to capture with the band as well. In order to do that, you can’t be playing the song over and over again, trying to get it tighter and tighter. You have to bring the guys to a point where they know the song well enough without having played it at all, practically. We discovered the arrangement [of “Cold Wind”] a couple of weeks before in a rehearsal for the album. As soon as we started playing it, we only got about halfway through before I said, “That’s it! That’s the way it goes! That’s the way we’re doin’ it! Everybody remember what instruments they’re playing and what we’re doing!” [Laughs] When it came time, we conjured it up again and mastered it.
Out of curiosity, do you remember the first record that you bought?
I remember a lot from when I was a kid from listening to the radio. But as far as buying records, I never had any money to buy a record. But later on, when I was out in California in my early 20s, I remember buying a few records. I remember buying The Pretenders and I remember buying a John Lennon record. I remember buying Sgt. Pepper’s; I remember buying East-West by Paul Butterfield Blues Band and I remember buying Howlin’ Wolf’s Moanin’ in the Moonlight. I remember buying the Quintette du Hot Club de France record with Django Rheinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. I remember stuff like that—Lightnin’ Hopkins, I think I bought one record of his. And I loved Rubber Soul by The Beatles.
Then I stopped buying records and was just interested in making music and playing music. I hardly ever listened to anything anymore. My roots were blues and bluegrass and country and rock and roll, of course. I never wanted to play any traditional music, I just wanted to be able to write really good rock and roll songs. I wasn’t even thinking about it, but I liked certain kinds of music and as soon as I got old enough I bought a bunch of bluegrass and a bunch of city blues. Then I would go through that era, and so on and so forth.
But then I was more interested in playing and hearing what we were recording—our own stuff. Just being involved in what I was doing more than what anybody else was doing.
I have just one other question to ask you–
I remember you now! I remember when you came in with Joel right outside the dressing room door in that hallway in New Jersey, out there at that casino!
That’s right! And when Dominic was taking the picture of you guys with Everest, I was standing on your side of the stage, next to the piano.
That’s right! Of course! You were going back to LA or something like that. I forget what the story was.
That’s awesome that you remembered that. It was an amazing experience for me.
I’m so glad you enjoyed it.
For my last question: It’s my birthday tomorrow. If you could go back in time and tell your younger self something, what would you tell him?
Relax, mainly. Don’t worry about it so much. Take it easy, let it happen more. Pay more attention. Listen better. Listen, listen, listen to what other people are saying before you say anything. Relax, slow down, not worry. It’s gonna happen—whatever it is, especially if you do due diligence and work on things without worrying. Try and keep perspective. Just relax and slow down and have patience and use your wisdom.
Now, that’s just for me. I don’t know how it works for you! [Laughs]
I think that’s good advice all-round!
That’s what I try do to with the music, too, in a way.