Crazy Horse guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro has played in Neil Young’s band for 37 years dating back to the 1975 album Zuma. Sampedro replaced original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who recorded the iconic Young album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and parts of After the Gold Rush before dying from an overdose. Sampedro’s playing was markedly different from Whitten’s, helping Young create a durable style that has influenced generations of rock bands and encouraged Young to bare his soul in his songwriting. Young was dealing with writer’s block when he set out last year to tell his story in an autobiography, the just-released Waging Heavy Peace. The process of examining his past opened Young up and he went into the studio to record two remarkable albums with Crazy Horse — Americana, dramatic rearrangements of folk music standards based on some of the earliest performances Young recalls playing in Canada; and the sprawling, autobiographical Psychedelic Pill, an album that is likely to take its place beside some of the best Crazy Horse work. Young and Crazy Horse recently headlined the Global Poverty Project concert in New York’s Central Park, topping a bill with the Black Keys and Foo Fighters. The show closed with all the bands joining Young and Crazy Horse onstage to play “Keep On Rockin’ In the Free World.” Sampedro spoke with OffBeat shortly after the performance.
You played “F!*#In’ Up” from Ragged Glory at Central Park. That is my single favorite Neil Young song. Everybody makes mistakes and it’s liberating that Neil wrote such a great song about it. You can sing along and laugh at your foibles.
There was a period where Neil would start saying, “I remember the day I was lookin’ in the mirror, just lookin’ in the mirror, and my father said to me, ‘Son, you’re just a fuck up.’” We’ve all had days like that. You’d be working on something and all of a sudden you’ve busted dad’s tools or whatever.
Ragged Glory is a great record. You guys have made a bunch of ‘em, but I particularly liked that one.
I enjoyed that tour. We played three hours every night. We were able to just play until we felt we’d left everything on stage. Some of these events now, I wish we had more time to play.
That was the tour with Sonic Youth and Social Distortion. I love Sonic Youth and I think they were influenced by you. Did you get to talk with Thurston Moore about that?
I talked with Thurston a bunch. Thurston is such a music historian; he talked about this kind of music and that kind of music. After a while it bugs me because I don’t see music in categories like that. I finally asked him, “What kind of band are we?” He said, “You’re just a motherfucking rock ’n’ roll band.” When we started we were playing folk music, and then all of a sudden we were playing rock, and then we were playing punk rock, and then we were the godfathers of grunge. But that’s all names that you guys put on us.
Your ability to look at it all as music is part of your singular genius. You guys appeal to people who don’t like rock made after 1982, yet you also appeal to people who don’t like rock made before 1982. Not sure anyone else on the touring circuit can say that.
It amazes me when I look out into the crowd and I can see someone younger than one of my kids singing the words. I can see his lips moving. I don’t even know all the words to “Powderfinger,” a song I’ve played a million times, and here’s this young kid singing along. I always felt that music is something that should bring people together. When I first got in the band in ’75, you could turn on the radio and hear a rock tune, then a gospel tune, folk music, bluegrass, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Bob Dylan, and Aretha Franklin all in one station. That’s gone. They use music now to separate people: “I’m a hip-hop guy,” “I’m a blues guy,” “I’m a jazz guy,” “I hate rock ’n’ roll.” In my vision that’s not what music is. Music should be something that we can all hear and enjoy with each other no matter what it is instead of being separated like it is today.
In New Orleans it’s kinda like that. We’ve got a radio station, WWOZ, that mixes genres effectively. And a lot of musicians cross genres. One day they’ll be playing traditional jazz, the next day garage rock.
There’s a lot of great music there — rock and jazz and blues and gospel. You’re right, that’s one of the places it still lives. Playing different kinds of music gives you a chance to express a different part of yourself. I don’t think any person is just all one thing, I hope we’re a little more complex than that.
Will you be playing anything specific to New Orleans? I know Neil is a fan of the city’s music.
We might talk in the dressing room about “We’ll start with this” or something, but Neil can call out any song he wants. He’s really good at catching a feel for what’s going on. The worst thing about it is we’re restricted by time so you can’t really play all the things you want to. We’re really excited about this new record, all of us. Americana was a great record and it was a lot of fun to record, but it was songs that my mother sang to me. It didn’t really catch my heart and soul like these new songs on Psychedelic Pill. We really became emotionally involved in that material. We really wanted to play these songs. There are a lot of songs that we’d like to play but there’s just not enough time. One time we were walking on stage — I had just joined the band — and Neil said, “Let’s play ‘Last Trip to Tulsa.’” I love that song and I’ve listened to it many times but I’d never played it with him. I said, “Listen, I don’t know that song.” He said, “Oh, Poncho, it’s just D-A-G, just keep playing that.” And of course there’s like 20 other chords in it. So you just follow along. Neil will do whatever he feels like doing and I think that’s part of what keep us fresh and keeps up on our toes.
I’m impressed by both records. Americana kind of stunned me because I know these songs from childhood but I’ve never heard them played like this.
We recorded “Gallows Pole,” right? It was really cool, playing these weird kind of jazz chords, and Neil was playing this crazy solo. Three days later, I heard the title, and it was like, “Is that the same song Led Zeppelin did?” Let me turn into the interviewer for a second. What was your first thought at the end of “Drifting Back”?
I felt like I was in a dream, mesmerized.
We played it once, then we played it again at the rehearsal, then I listened to the playback with Neil, like five times. Every time, at the end of that tune, I was like, “Where am I?” You kind of wish it wouldn’t stop. It’s a funny thing, it’s like this trance you get into. I’m glad you said that, because that happens to me, I don’t really understand it. I wondered how that works as an opener.
Well, especially after you read Neil’s book, because it’s about the book, or riffing off the book. It’s like the book put him in the state of mind to write these songs.
He was writing the book at the same time. One of the interviewers asked me, “What’s it like Neil being straight?” All I can say is, he’s got the book going, he’s got a ton of music going, he’s got his sound project, the Pono Digital Music Service. He’s got his electric car LincVolt going, he’s got movies coming out. He has two records. He’s got all this energy, he’s working on all these projects, he’s got a big smile on his face, and I think that transferred to us, it’s like everything’s possible. I’m so happy with this record. Americana could have been our last album, and I’m not saying this is our last album, but I would have been kind of bummed out if it ended with Americana. Having this record Psychedelic Pill, I am thrilled, I feel as thrilled as when Zuma came out, my first record with Crazy Horse, I feel the same way about this record.
How far apart were Americana and Psychedelic Pill made?
We ended Americana and Neil said, “Well I don’t have anything else to record now.” We were getting together every full moon to record and I said, “Neil, we’re kind of famous for jamming, we don’t have a jam here.” Neil said, “Yeah, you’re right, maybe we should have a jam song on this record, but I don’t really have one.” The next time we got together he was playing these two chords and singing into the mic but we couldn’t really hear the words; I guess he was still working on them. We played for 26 minutes and it ends up being “Drifting Back.” We do that every time. When we first get together, we have a jam but it’s never been recorded because the equipment isn’t set up yet. But since we’d just finished Americana and everything was in place, they got it, and it’s thrilling that everybody gets to hear it including us because we never got to hear the other jams either. There are a couple of sections where I flub or Neil flubs and I said, “Maybe we should cut them out,” but Neil said, “How would people know how we got from one place to the other? That’s part of the journey.” I think the big part of Neil’s greatness is that he sees the whole picture. Most people would cut those flubs out, but Neil sees it as art. It’s not a song, it’s not a retail product, he looks at it like it’s a painting. Why would you take those two yellow orange strokes out?
“Twisted Road” and “Walk Like a Giant” also kind of go down those paths. “Twisted Road” is not so long on the record but you do lay out on that live.
And “Ramada Inn,” when I heard that playback I cried. It’s a subject [long-term relationships] that we’ve all been through. It’s so melodic and spooky. I think that song will live a long time.
“Walk Like A Giant” looks back on the idealism of the late ’60s and early ’70s. That expression of optimism was cut off at the knees over the years. There’s a sense that Neil is saying that there’s no reason to stop trying.
There are still things that need to be addressed and need to be done. If you don’t have hope, what do you have?
In the book when it comes to reuniting Crazy Horse, Neil writes, “I’m going to talk to Poncho and see if he’s in.” Is there really a question of whether you’re in or out when he comes to you with a new idea?
I grew up in Detroit in a kind of rough neighborhood. All my life I’ve been struggling, gone through three or four terrible relationships, gotten divorced. I worked on the Tonight Show for two and a half years, which was an insane corporate grind. Thank god Kevin Eubanks was there, another guitar player I could relate to. After going through all that now, I retired. Here I am in Hawaii and I met this woman who really just accepts me for me. I don’t have a lot of money and I don’t spend a lot of money but we get by on what I have and I’ve never been happier in my life. When Neil comes and asks, “Do you want to go on the road?” Of course I want to play with the band and I want to do all that, but I had a fear of losing what I have there. It was a decision I had to think about. You’re the first person that asked me that and that’s an honest answer. Part of me wants to stay there. She asked, “Why should you go?” Well, I’m in the band. I gotta go.
You’ve been with this group for 37 years….
And I’m still considered the new guy…
The way you and Neil play together, you’ve created a sound that’s very much your own and really defines what Crazy Horse is.
A lot of bands can play two chords and maybe it sucks but with us our hearts get so into it, and we go deeper and deeper. Two chords don’t bother us at all because we have big hearts and big spirits, and we’ll play until you stop us.
You play some interesting things. You might be playing a chord sequence then you’ll play a drone sequence, just working a single note and letting that build. Sometimes the way you play it sounds like your tone is kind of melting.
I might be lazy but I can go with one thing for a while. To me, if it doesn’t sound bad, it’s good. I’m not that structured. Neil might say, “You were playing different chords,” and I didn’t even notice because it sounded right.
Neil keeps talking in the book about Crazy Horse. “Any ride on the Horse must not have a destination” is one of the things he says.
Anyone else would say, “Dude, you gotta play the chords.” Neil just looks over at me and smiles. After Farm Aid we were on the bus. We were laughing, it was one of the best times we’ve had in years, we were making fun of each other, and we said, “Where does Neil fit in with all this?” Billy says, “Neil just jumps on this Crazy Horse and rides it wherever it goes.”
He calls it the vehicle that gets him in touch with the muse. You can see that on Psychedelic Pill. This is raw stuff pulled straight from the heart.
Americana was cool, but the songs he wrote touched us all so emotionally, I love this record. It reminds me of how I felt when I heard “Cortez [the Killer]” or “Hurricane” for the first time.
One last question. This was a nine-year break for Crazy Horse. One of these times it’s going to be the last time you do this. Does this feel like it might be the last go-round for the band?
I don’t know if it feels like the last go-round but I’m telling myself in my head, enjoy this as much as I can because it might be the last go-round. At our age, and of course so many people who’ve been around us are now missing, you just don’t know. I could get up right now from this chair, trip over the bed and hit my head on the corner of that table over there and it would be over, because I do lose my balance every now and then. I don’t think it’s the last tour because we don’t have anything left in us, but there are other circumstances that might make that happen. I’m treating it like it might be the last because I want to enjoy it and have as much fun as I possibly can while I can. When all those guys came on stage for “Rockin’ in the Free World,” at Central Park, I’m still high from that. You might think you’ve done everything but you haven’t. There’s still more to do. I don’t know if I’m prepared for it, but I want to be and I’m open to it.