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