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1995 Guitar World Interview: Neil Young Discusses 'Mirror Ball' and Working with Pearl Jam

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.”

No Kidding.

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.

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