Nils Lofgren Discusses 'Colorado,' His Reunion with Neil Young and Crazy Horse

Nils Lofgren graced Crazy Horse's self-titled debut album in 1971. Now he's back playing guitar, pump organ and even tap shoes on 'Colorado,' the group's beautifully evocative new album.
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Neil Young and Crazy Horse perform at the British Summer Time Festival in Hyde Park, London, England, July 12, 2014. (Note that it actually says “Earth” on Neil’s shirt.)

Neil Young and Crazy Horse perform at the British Summer Time Festival in Hyde Park, London, England, July 12, 2014. (Note that it actually says “Earth” on Neil’s shirt.)

Colorado is the first album from Neil Young with Crazy Horse in seven years, and the first to feature Nils Lofgren in nearly a half century. It’s a majestic-sounding collection that bursts with the raw, unbridled energy Young has always spurred from his thoroughbred garage band. 

Following the departure of guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro in 2014, Young brought Lofgren back into the paddock, along with bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina, for a reunion that has defied the test of time.

According to Lofgren, the reunited Crazy Horse sparked a burst of new songs from Young that land on everything from environmentalism to his recent marriage to Daryl Hannah to even some musings about the band itself. 

Throughout it all, the production quality of this live-in-the-studio release (which was recorded in the ski-resort town of Telluride, Colorado) is stellar and reflective of Young’s reportedly single most passionate pursuit: “Bringing high-quality audio back to music lovers, who have been forced to settle for compressed, digital files that rob songs of their original warmth.” 

This past September, Young and Phil Baker even released a book on the subject, called To Feel the Music: A Songwriter’s Mission to Save High Quality Audio (BenBella Books).

In addition, a visual companion to Colorado - titled Mountaintop - will be simultaneously released. The video documents the recording process and offers some candid views of the way Young works in the studio, making it a must-see for fans of the man and his music.

As Lofgren tells it, the new album had its origins in a series of commemorative shows Neil Young with Crazy Horse (as the act now bills itself) performed at the Roxy in 2018. The West Hollywood music venue is where the group made its debut in 1973 during the first three days the club was open. 

“In 2018, Neil did the Roxy commemorative shows with Crazy Horse, and then we played five other theaters in California as well as a couple of shows in Winnipeg,” Lofgren explains. “We’d been hot and cold for all of the performances, but finally, on the last one, we had a flying vibe that felt like we were becoming a really special band again. I think that led to Neil getting inspired and kind of unexpectedly starting to write a lot of songs for the band.”

Was it surprising to find yourself in an album project with Crazy Horse after so long?

Yes. Right before my own solo tour started for my new album, Blue with Lou, Neil called me and said, “I’m writing all these songs. Can you get up to Telluride for two weeks and do some recording before you jump into your own thing?” And, all of a sudden, here we are. We had the singer, we had the songs and we had a studio. It was a beautiful thing.

How did Neil introduce the new tunes?

He would send us these great rough demos, sometimes two and three at a time, and he’d say, “Here comes number six, or here comes number nine.” When he got to number 11, he said, “Hey I think we’ve got an album. When can we start?” And, much like all of the albums we’ve made - especially [1975’s] Tonight’s the Night, which was a total anti-production record - we were learning the songs as we recorded them. The whole point was to get some raw, live performances before we really even knew the songs that well.

Lofgren and Young perform at MusiCares Person of the Year Honoring Bruce Springsteen, at the Los Angeles Convention Center, February 8, 2013.

Lofgren and Young perform at MusiCares Person of the Year Honoring Bruce Springsteen, at the Los Angeles Convention Center, February 8, 2013.

So he wasn’t specific about what he wanted you to play?

No. He told us to get familiar with the songs but not to work out any parts. When we got together, there was really no rehearsal. It was more like, “How do we play with no headphones?” and “How can we see and hear each other?” 

We played with a PA in the room, and a lot of times when we got loud, we had trouble hearing Neil’s vocal, or the PA would feed back. That bogged us down here and there, as you’ll see in the film, but we finally found some speakers that allowed him to get the level he needed to sing.

With a PA in the studio, the leakage into the recording mics must have been tremendous. Was that intentional?

Yes, that’s part of the sound. Neil was going for final vocals all the time, and almost always he was in the room singing live through the PA. Since I wasn’t singing lead, I had the freedom to walk around until I got the right balance. 

There were only four of us, so it wasn’t that big of a jigsaw puzzle. The goal was to really get off playing and not just get a performance that Neil could build on.

What guitars did you bring to the sessions?

I brought a selection that I knew would be good for Neil. One was my gold-top ’52 Les Paul. Way back on the Trans tour in the ’80s, Neil asked me to put a Bigsby on it, just to kind of simulate the Les Paul he calls Old Black. Larry Cragg [Young’s guitar tech] did the installation, and it’s got a great sound. 

My other go-to guitar was this old Gretsch Black Falcon that I also used a lot on the Trans tour. I knew it would be something I’d have to break out. So those were the main guitars, although I also brought my Strat, lap-steel, bottleneck guitars and some other things.

(from left) Billy Talbot, Young, Lofgren and Ralph Molina.

(from left) Billy Talbot, Young, Lofgren and Ralph Molina.

“Green Is Blue” has some beautiful clean tones. Is that you playing those parts?

Yes, with Neil on piano. That is such a haunting and gorgeous piece about climate change, and it’s one of my favorites ever by Neil. I used the Black Falcon and turned the amp way down. Having the wang bar also gave it a little more of an ethereal vibe.

What amps did you have in the studio?

I just used my Fuchs 1x12 combo. It has the warmth of the Fenders that I love, like the Super Reverb and the Hot Rod Deville, and there’s a nice boost feature on it that’s not really like overdrive, but it makes everything a little richer and more saturated. Once I got it set up, I only used the volume and treble knobs. It needed very little bass and middle because I was pushing it really hard and that saturation makes the bottom more present.

There’s a lot of really heavy guitar on songs like “Olden Days,” “Help Me Lose My Mind” and “Shut It Down.” How did you determine that those tunes would get the classic Crazy Horse grunge treatment?

I think it started when we were working on “Olden Days.” Neil initially had a little isolation booth, with the door open so we could see him, and he was going to play it on acoustic. I said I was hearing an accordion, too, and Neil thought that was a good idea. But when I went to get my accordion, Neil was pacing around like he was still thinking, and then he said, “You know, we’re making a Crazy Horse record, so why don’t we start with the electrics?” 

That kind of set the template for the record. Neil had his classic amp rig in the studio, which looks like a city. I think there’s five or six different amps, and, of course, he had the Whizzer [a foot-controllable motorized device] that turns the knobs on his Deluxe. At some point early on, we also decided to bypass all our effects and just go direct into the amps and see how those two raw sounds would work.

The Whizzer would enable him to morph easily between cleaner and dirtier tones, but how did you accomplish that?

Except for something gentle, like “Green Is Blue,” I kept my amp driven pretty harshly and just manipulated the dynamics with my right hand. I’d play with less attack when I needed to back off, and when the song picked up, I’d lean into it with the thumb pick. 

There’s a real harshness with the thumb pick, however, so no matter how gently you use it, there’s always a percussiveness to the sound. However, because it’s so thick, the strings don’t splat out when you lean into them. I can hit them pretty aggressively and they still have a nice rich tone.

“She Showed Me Love” has this great extended section with Neil playing lead. Did that happen spontaneously?

Yes. Late one night we decided to dial in that song and come in fresh the next morning and go after it. When we went to play it, we wound up doing a 13-minute jam. Everyone was playing a thematic thing and the pocket was feeling great, and we just didn’t want to stop. 

That was really us getting to a place where we kind of forgot about being in a studio. It felt more like we were teenage kids getting into a deep groove with each other and not wanting it to stop. There aren’t many studio sessions where you’ll happily play a 13-minute take, but if Neil’s singing or playing lead, you just back him. It doesn’t matter how many bars it is.

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Were there any places where you felt like cutting in on a solo?

Not really. On that song or, say, “Milky Way,” I would just do subtle fingerpicking things that are like themes inside the rhythms. This was all about getting the songs down for the record. If, hopefully, we get out on tour, then there might be room and time for me to start stretching out. But at this point, if we’ve got a deep pocket going, I just try to do little melodic notations to keep the vibe of the rhythm section intact.

Were there any overdubs on this record?

Basically, no, although the four of us got into a vocal style where it would be Billy down low and Ralphie up high with his beautiful falsetto, and I would double Neil. And then Neil might sing one of the other parts, too. So we had those three-part harmonies going and, of course, that would be an overdub. But other than that, everything was pretty much live.

You also played piano and pump organ on a couple of tracks.

I jumped on the old After the Gold Rush upright piano for “Think of Me,” and I played pump organ - the one Neil always has on stage - on “I Do.”

Over dinner at Neil and Daryl’s house one evening, we were talking about the demos, and the song “Eternity” came up. It’s a beautiful, touching song with a lot of hope in it, and when I first heard where it gets to the clickity-clack train sound, I just instantly started tapping on the floor of my kitchen. 

I told Neil that I’d picked up tap dancing as a hobby after getting my hips replaced two years ago - too much basketball and backflips onstage. I wasn’t suggesting anything, but the next day in the studio [co-producer] John Hanlon and the engineers asked Neil what we were starting on, and he goes, “We’re going to do ‘Eternity,’ and Nils is going to be on the tap board.”

Now this is a track where Neil got a great piano and vocal take on one of his shows, and he didn’t want to re-sing it. So he played the vibes, Billy and Ralphie were live on bass and drums - and they nailed it without a click track - and I’m on tap board, which is basically a large piece of plywood with a pickup on the bottom of it that goes through some foot pedals. That’s how we cut the song, and it was just an immediate thing inspired by a dinner conversation.

It certainly reveals Neil’s penchant for doing the unexpected! Overall, how do you think he felt about getting the band together again to make this record?

Well, after we got a great track on “I Do,” we were in there listening to our harmonies, and when it got to the line that goes “Thanks for making all this happen again, we’re going to do it just like we did back then,” Neil said, “You know, I’m talking about this and us, and thanks for making all this happen again.”

I just saw it as a beautiful love song and was kind of startled by that. But we’re all so grateful to be able to do this again 50 years on, because we’ve lost so many friends in bands and family over the years. That the four of us are here and get to record all these songs is rare stuff.

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