1995 Guitar World Interview: Neil Young Discusses 'Mirror Ball' and Working with Pearl Jam
Here's an interview with Neil Young from the September 1995 issue of Guitar World. To see the Neil Young cover -- and all the GW covers from 1995 -- click here.
“People my age,” sings Neil Young on his latest album, Mirror Ball (Reprise), “they don’t do the things I do.”
At 49 – an age when so many veteran rockers put themselves on the summer tour greatest hits treadmill – Young is still rocking with a fury, opening new vistas in his amply celebrated 30-year, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career.
Mirror Ball is Young’s collaboration with Pearl Jam, an inevitable move, really, considering the creative kinship evident between the two since Pearl Jam emerged from Seattle in 1991. Pearl Jam’s staunch independence – TicketMaster battle and all – echoes Young’s. And the quintet’s thick, dynamic guitar attack owes more that a little to Young’s part-time band, Crazy Horse. Young, for his part, has willingly played the benevolent and supportive big brother/father figure for not only Pearl Jam, but also for any other modern rock denizens who acknowledge him as an influence. If Pete Townshend were writing this story, it would be titled “The Punks Meet the Godfather.”
“I was completely honored to be playing with him,” Mike McCready gushes about the four days Young and Pearl Jam spent recording Mirror Ball in Seattle, with Pearl Jam collaborator Brendan O’Brien producing and playing keyboards. “We’re enamored of him… and I’m honored he says he’s into us. I think he just likes where we’re coming from. He sees a lot of honesty in our music.”
Still, there’s a difference between being buds and rubbing elbows with your heroes and actually getting down to brass tacks in the studio. “Oh yeah,” McCready acknowledges. “We’d be jamming, and I’d look over and say to myself, ‘That’s Neil Young, and he’s playing leads. That’s the shit!’ I could only wish to be that good.
“I think he’s a genius. There’s a complexity to his playing, a complexity of emotions. He’ll sustain a note forever and it’ll sound amazing, whereas I’m used to playing a bunch of different leads. He made me look at how I play, and I’d like to eventually play like him. He always hits the right note. I don’t think it’s a thinking process for him; he just does it.”
Instinct, of course, is a Young strength; after all, less than a month transpired between the first germ of an idea for Mirror Ball, in mid-January, and the completion of the album during early February. Young doesn’t wait to act on a good idea, and working with Pearl Jam certainly counts as one. The nine songs they recorded together for Mirror Ball – there are two additional solos performances by Young – are the sound of pure collaboration. Young and Pearl Jam trade arrangement and polish for instinct and passion; the music truly conjures up the image of musicians standing in a circle, playing together.
And if the songs don’t make it clear enough, a few chunks of studio chatter left on the album reinforce the collegial looseness of the proceedings. “He’s really laid back,” McCready confirms. “We’d get together, do a couple, three takes of each song, then move on. It was very spontaneous.”
Of course, the Mirror Ball project begs the question of differences between Pearl Jam and Crazy Horse. One song, “Act of Love,” offers a case study. At the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony in January – where Young was inducted by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder – Crazy Horse’s performance of the song was big’ n’ brawny; this is, after all, a band that could make “Louie Louie” sound like a Wagnerian epic.
Meanwhile, the Pearl Jam take of the song on Mirror Ball is lean and spare. It grooves rather than blasts. It’s a swift, sneaky raptor to Crazy Horse’s wonderful brontosaurus.
Young has other projects in his viewfinder these days. He’s still – still – putting together the multi-volume career anthology that will appear, oh, maybe around the time Pearl Jam is inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. And he’s hoping for a roll-out later this year of the model train controls for the handicapped that he’s been developing with Lionel Trains Inc.
But as a creative meeting between two of rock’s hottest properties, Mirror Ball will undoubtedly be the most exciting achievement of Young’s year, and perhaps one of the watersheds of his career.
I guess it’s fair to say that Mirror Ball was made pretty quickly.
The album was recorded in four days. In fact, all of the songs except “Act of Love,” and “Song X” were written the day before they were recorded. We had to work really quickly because Pearl Jam was going to go out on the road. We had a chance to record, and it was going well – it sounded good – so we kept recording songs. I tried to get as many days as I could, and got four.
But you knew they’d be coming back.
I don’t believe in waiting till later if there’s a shot at doing it now. I started out with a couple of days and four songs. We ended up getting two more days and by then I was done.
There are a lot of artists who can’t get their guitar tuned in four sessions. Is this the fasted you’ve ever made an album?
I’ve made a few others this way over the years. But, yeah, this was a fast one.
How did the sessions come about?
Pearl Jam and I were playing at the pro-choice benefit up there in Washington D.C. [January 14-15]. Eddie had just inducted me into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in New York, where I played “Act of Love” with the guys from Crazy Horse. The Pearl Jam guys recorded the performance on a cassette player they had on their table, and they knew it by the next night. I said, “Why don’t we try it?” So we did it in Washington, and it was great. I said, “Maybe we ought to record it. It sounds good.” They were thinking the same thing.
So we set a date to go in and record. I wanted to have more than one song, so I came in with three other songs in hand.
Did you send them demos or call to talk about what you wanted to do?
No. Talking about it isn’t going to help you do it, anyway. The beauty of the thing is that hardly any talking had to happen at all. We all knew what we had to do. Everybody was together; I’d bring the song in and run it down, then everybody would play it. I don’t think we did more than five takes on anything.
You’ve also toured with Pearl Jam and jammed with them. There’s obviously a kinship there.
I think it’s respect. I think they’re doing a great job. They like what I’ve done in the past and the fact that I’m still doing it. We’re sympathetic. They’re definitely old souls – they’ve been around. Musically, there’s youthful energy, but without the sound of inexperience. And our musical styles are compatible – it’s like a big wall of sound with a lot of nuances in there.
Was that achieved purely on instinct?
Yeah. There was no talking, no arrangements. Everything was spontaneous. Everybody was listening to everybody else playing. They care for the song; they don’t think about riffing or anything, just playing. The songs would evolve, but usually by take four, they were done.
In that type of situation, is your role any different from what it is when you work with people you’ve played with for years? Did you have to conduct more?
No. I just play my guitar and sing. There was no direction. I just played my songs the way I would play them with anybody else. Actually, I played them like I was sure everything was going to be there. It was evident to me right away they were gonna be able to deliver the goods. They picked things up real well. I’m fortunate to have these great musicians – them and Crazy Horse – to play with. They’re great bands.
How is playing with Pearl Jam different from playing with Crazy Horse?
There’s more singing in Crazy Horse. But it’s hard to compare them. They’re different; they have different rhythms. Both are very sincere, very intense, very real and very raw. But they are different.
What did Eddie Vedder do at the sessions?
Not much. He just sang on “Peace and Love”; he sings the lyrics that he wrote. And he sang on “Act of Love.” I sang on a couple of his songs, which aren’t on the record; they’ve got ‘em in the can somewhere. They sound real good, too.
The album was produced by Brendan O’Brien, who is quite clearly their guy.
I chose to use their whole organization. They seemed to be running very well. They needed no prompting from anyone. I was just bringing the songs in and playing with them, so I used all their stuff. Why make is harder or more complicated? It was easier for them to adapt to me if I came in and left them alone. So that’s what I did.
So what did you bring with you?
Just my guitars, my organ and my amplifier. Actually, though, I only used one guitar on the record – Old Black, my ’52 Les Paul.
Pearl Jam and some of their contemporaries say that you’ve been a big influence on them. Does that strike a chord with you?
I don’t know. When I listen to this record, it’s sort of like a big new sound to me. It sounds more like a band than it does Neil Young. I mixed it like it’s a band, instead of having some big voice up front and a little band behind it.
How did you choose Mirror Ball as an album title?
Often, when I’m looking for a title, I’ll just search through all the lyrics on the album. “Mirror Ball” was a lyric from “Downtown”; it just sort of jumped out at me. This must be my mirror ball moment. [laughs]
Is “Downtown” about any place in particular?
No. It’s just a song. It came out of nowhere and just came through me.
You take on some pretty broad issues on the album, and there also seems to be a strong political subtext. Did this come from writing the songs in such a brief period of time, so close together?
I don’t know; I haven’t really thought about it. “What Happened Yesterday” and “Peace And Love” were written within a two-week period. And I guess “Throw Your Anger Down” and “Scenery” were written in the same 24-hour period.
All the lyrics come from the combinations of things that were going on in my life at the time they were written. I’ve got a pretty busy life. I do a lot of things off the beaten path. I travel around. I see things that kind of jerk me one way or another; sometimes I’m in a room full of businessmen and later that day I’m onstage with Pearl Jam. It’s a whirlwind.
“Ocean” seems like a particularly personal song.
It’s more like a flash, a whole bunch of sequences flying by. There’s no real linear quality; it’s just a bunch of pictures. The songs themselves just kind of spilled out.
So there was no temptation to really craft and polish these songs?
Nah. Somebody else can do that. I’ll tell ya, though, someone can make a big hit record out of “Downtown” – put horns and girls on it and go nuts, do the whole arrangement. It would sound great.
Do you hear those elements when you’re writing or recording the songs, and think what it might sound like with a big arrangement?
Yeah, I hear all those parts in my head, but I don’t want to bother to do all that.
So speed is the way to go for you?
Yeah. When you go for that, you get something. It’s like instant gratification. Then you go on to the next thing.
Do you ever, in hindsight, regret not spending more time with a particular song or album?
Not really. I have done records where I spent a lot of time arranging and producing. That was a long time ago. They’re not as much fun, and I don’t want to do that again.
If you want to hear that, you can go back to when I started, Buffalo Springfield and the early Neil Young records, like my first solo album. I tried doing very arranged things, with a whole bunch of work in the studio. It was great at the time, but I wouldn’t want to make a life out of that. Now what I like to do is sing and play.
How is Mirror Ball different from Sleeps with Angels for you?
It’s completely different subject matter, features different musicians, a different studio, different people. And a different time in my life. This one was done in a limited time with a very fast-moving, fast-learning band. It’s apples and oranges. I feel really good about both albums. Both are really strong, I think. And I think they each reflect the people playing on them.
Any idea where the next album will take you?
No, I can’t tell.
How do you feel about Pearl Jam’s battle with TicketMaster?
I think they’re doing the right thing. People need to know how much extra a ticket really costs. Not many other bands would take a chance like that. Actually, since they started doing that, we have joined them. We haven’t played any TicketMaster shows. We’ll see what happens with their lawsuit.
In the meantime, you’re going to tour Europe with Pearl Jam. What do you expect that to be like?
I think it’s gonna be a great time; pretty loose but really good. We played in Seattle a couple of nights ago and it was great.
Are they busy learning the Neil Young songbook?
Nah. We won’t do any of the old ones. We did do three old ones in the show the other night. We’ll get to know maybe 10 of them. The way it’ll work is they’ll do Eddie’s songs and then they’ll do my songs. Sometimes I sing some of Eddie’s songs, and sometimes he sings on my songs. There’s a long way that it could develop.
So it sounds like you expect this collaboration to continue.
I think so. We honestly don’t discuss any of that. We just play and let it happen. Whatever happens is fine. It’s a natural, musical thing, not a business thing. It doesn’t have to be worked out. It’s just real.
If you don’t talk about the music or the business side of things, what do you guys talk about when you’re together?
We talk about a lot of things that are happening in the world. We talk about Mike McCready sometimes; sometimes we talk about Eddie.
There were rumors that you were going to headline Lollapalooza. Then it was whispered that you demanded too much money and they turned you down. What’s the real story there?
I didn’t want to play. It certainly didn’t have to do with money; that was some P.R. guy’s good idea to cover their ass. It pissed me off when I read that; all of a sudden I read that I’d backed out because they wouldn’t give me enough money. That doesn’t sound like what happened to me.
Look, if I wanted to make a lot of money, I should have stayed with Lollapalooza; am I making a fortune sitting here on the phone with you? It had nothing to do with that. I had figured out a show I was going to do with them, some staging stuff I wanted to do. Then when we started really looking at it, I just sort of changed my mind and started feeling like I didn’t really want to do that. It wasn’t going to be me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was just something about it that wasn’t right, so I bowed out.
We were negotiating a contract, but the money was already settled on. That’s something that never really changed from the beginning. It wasn’t even an issue. But it started looking really bad for them when everybody pulled out after they’d already leaked who was gonna be in it. That’s not a good thing to have happen, but they shouldn’t have leaked it in the first place. Then there wouldn’t have been a problem.
What do you think about Lollapalooza as a concept?
It’s a great thing, a wonderful thing, a great show. I was excited about doing it at one time. But when I started recording with Pearl Jam, right away I could feel it would probably lead somewhere – and I didn’t think it was going to be Lollapalooza with Crazy Horse. Really, what if I came out with this album and was on the road with Crazy Horse? That wouldn’t be fair to anybody.
In a sense, I thought that me doing Lollapalooza would be like the final nail in its coffin. Some people would think, “Now they’re middle of the road. Neil’s with them. He does Farm Aid, for God’s sake!”