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Frank "Poncho" Sampedro on Playing with Neil Young

January 30, 2014
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Crazy Horse guitarist Frank Sampedro and his cohorts bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina have been bandmates with Neil Young for nearly four decades, but not exactly in a linear fashion, as they have always had to sit out for long stretches while Young went about his business pursuing other musical interests. In fact, the trio was out to pasture for nine years following the Greenville album and tour before being summoned to pound out their signature steamroller grooves on Young’s 2012 album, Psychedelic Pill [Reprise].The long hiatus seemed to have little effect on Sampedro and crew, however, who seem to have an almost feral ability to emerge from hibernation and pick up where they left off when Young comes calling.

“It’s amazing how we just plug in our amps and start playing again,” says Sampedro. “We don’t have to try and get a sound— it’s just there because that’s the way we play. A lot of good energy went into Americana [also released in 2012], but on that album we were playing tunes that we’ve heard all our lives and we weren’t jamming. The songs on Psychedelic Pill are more emotional and they got to our hearts, so we really put ourselves into them. Of course, we’re playing them better now live than we did on the recordings, but that’s always the case, right?”

How much rehearsing did you do before recording these songs?

We never rehearse, though we might play a song halfway through and stop if we have any questions about the arrangement or something. When we got together this time, we started off by playing “Drifting Back”—and we played it for 26 minutes. It was a first take, and it has its flaws, but when I asked Neil if we should cut a couple of parts out, he said, “If we do that, how will they know how we got from here to there?”

So he’s not that concerned about performance gaffes if the vibe is happening?

In the past he would get on us about it, but in these last sessions he let a lot of things go. I think he’s learned to just let them go, because when you make an issue about something it has a tendency to stick around and repeat itself. Nobody wants to make a mistake, it just happens. If you don’t make an issue out of it there’s no anxiety—you just get back into the music and the mistakes disappear.

Did Neil give you any specific direction for how he wanted this album to sound?

No. Once we get the feel going on a song, he might say, “Yeah, that’s how it goes,” but that’s about it. I think as a songwriter he always imagines how the finished product will sound, but he’s told me over the years that one of the hardest things for him to accept when playing with a group is that it’s not going to be what he thought it was in his head.

Do sessions with Neil tend to be spontaneous events?

They can be. One time when we were working on Americana, Neil was showing us a song, and all of a sudden we started getting a nice sound on it. I was just sitting on a couch and someone put a mic in front of my guitar, Neil stepped up to his microphone, and it was done. It just happened, and fortunately the recording guys were on it. This time, though, our engineer, John Hanlon, went to great pains to get all the gear set up so we could really use it. That made a difference, because a lot of times things are happening so fast that it just gets thrown together.

In the liner notes it says that the tracking was done using an all-tube signal path.

Yes, and that’s really important. When you’re using tube amps and tube recording gear the sound is just amazing. It’s not what you typically get these days, because too much of the sound is missing. I have a hard time listening to music now because it’s all just mids and highs. There’s no depth and it’s just kind of fl at sounding. We recorded on 2" tape and it was saturated to the max. When I heard the tracks played back I thought they sounded incredible.

Are there certain cues you need to be aware of when playing with Neil?

I just try to support him and go where he goes. When he switches pickups I might start using the side of my pick to create a slightly different sound. Or, I’ll play triads if he’s playing big power chords. We’ve been together so long we just do these things automatically. Like on “Walk Like a Giant,” we came out of solos at the same time and we were playing almost identical licks. Neil always has great material, but something special happens when we jam. It’s a lot of fun.

What gear did you use on this album?

I had a 1956 Fender Deluxe, and I played through the Mic channel. The guitar I’ve been using for years is a 1952 Les Paul. It’s one of the prototypes. Actually I have two of them. Just through blind luck one day all of our gear was on its way to Europe and Neil wanted to rehearse, so he told the guys to dig out some equipment for us. The guy handed me this guitar and it was another gold-top Les Paul prototype, but with a Bigsby on it. So Neil gave it to me and now I have two of them. Neil never used it because it had some problems. Whoever put the Bigsby on it missed by an eighth of an inch, so it was hard to keep in tune and it sounded terrible. But I got that all straightened out. The one I use most, though, is my original, which sounds a little hotter to me.

You use the same amp live too, right?

Yes. I have two of them but I keep one at home. I use one of Neil’s Deluxes for a backup on the road, but so far I haven’t needed it.

Do you rely on the monitors to hear it onstage?

I try not to. I prefer to just to stand close to the amp. When we do a sound check we try not to use the monitors so that we can get a good sound happening in the middle of the stage. If we’ve got that going on we can make some music. When everything starts getting louder and Neil’s turning up and I’m turning up, pretty soon you’re hitting the guitar really hard and just playing by numbers.

Are you ever concerned about taking your vintage gear on the road?

No. My guitar is all beat up, but I like playing it and it never goes out of tune. Funny, though, I have a pre-war Martin that I want to sell because I don’t want to take it anywhere— not even to the studio. What good is it sitting in a closet in Hawaii? Maybe if someone else had it they would play it.

How did your early musical experiences prepare you for the gig with Neil?

Actually, I hadn’t been in a band for a while and was working at the post office when I first met Neil. We just jammed and were passing the guitar around, and I had no idea we would be in the studio the next day. All of a sudden I realized that this is a different thing—we’re on a mission here! But going back even farther, Neil and I have been talking about our experiences as kids—like 15 or so—and they were very similar. We used to play at all the high school dances, and we carried our own gear. All the guys plugged into one amp, and if someone broke a string we just played that way. I had a lot of experience from all the crash-and-burn situations you get into, and that really helped me when I made it to the top. So, I felt pretty much at home once we got to the stage with Neil. The studio was different, though—I was always a little more uncomfortable there.

Was it ever hard to accept that working with Neil would be so sporadic?

Well, we have always understood that a lot of his songs don’t fit the Crazy Horse genre. Some of them need a lot of instrumentation, and we’re not good at that, so he uses other players. Crazy Horse doesn’t do a whole lot without Neil, and over the years I’ve decided it’s better that we don’t. A weird way of saying it is we’re just a tool on Neil’s shelf. When he needs to get the power saw out, here we are. He picks it up, plugs it in, and it’s running pretty good.

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