NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE’S BILLY TALBOT POSSESSES A PROFOUND UNDERSTANDING
of how to pick up on a tune and make it flow. From the explosion of 1969’s “Cinnamon Girl”
on through “Hey Hey, My My” and into the present, Talbot has been Young’s rhythmic compass
and eternal energy source. NY&CH convened to record at Young’s house during full moons last
spring and summer. The sessions yielded Americana—a rough-and-tumble take on classic American
folk tunes—and Psychedelic Pill, a double-disc dose of time-honored songsmith built on
extensive improvised jams.
Talbot’s second solo release, On the Road to Spearfish, falls sonically and stylistically near
the Crazy Horse tree with additional instrumental ornamentation here and there. He leads his
own band on vocals and guitar or piano, so Talbot comprehends the bassist-serving-songwriter
scenario from both perspectives.
What does serving the songwriter mean to you?
It means adapting to the songwriter’s feel so completely
that he or she doesn’t notice any change when the band
plays the song. I take pride in making sure the songwriter
can sing the song as well or better than when he or she
does it alone. We try to make Neil feel as comfortable playing
a song on electric guitar with Crazy Horse as he did on
the original instrument, which might have been acoustic
guitar or piano. Sometimes a song takes on a whole new
feel with the band, but we try to respect its root.
What is at the heart of your bass style, and how do you
apply it to Crazy Horse?
My bass style is simply to keep the feel flowing. I don’t
like to make up things, per se. I like to let elements beyond
playing the changes and the groove come to me within the feel as the song progresses.
We don’t play R&B songs built on dominant bass lines; our songs are
all about the lyrics or the sincere expressiveness of Neil’s lead guitar, so mostly
my job is to play a lot of root notes with the main feel, and stay that way for
however long is required with energy. Capturing that magic is really important to
Crazy Horse, so we like to record a new song the first time we perform it.
Can you cite an example from Psychedelic Pill?
“Driftin’ Back” was the first real jam we’d played together in eight years. It’s
mostly Asus2 to Em for nearly a half an hour. You’ll hear us expound on the feel in
different ways during long instrumental sections. The important thing is when Neil
starts singing again the song isn’t in a completely different place.
How much direction does Neil offer?
He might offer suggestions, but Neil never tells
anybody what to play, and neither do I. When you
start telling someone what to do, you lose a dimension
of that person. You’re not letting them breathe,
so they’re not going to bring all of whatever they’ve
got to your song. The key is getting the right people.
Tommy Carns plays bass in my band, and he totally
gets it. I don’t have to say much to him at all.
What’s the most challenging aspect of serving Neil
and his songs?
The most challenging part is just being there. You
have to respect the moment when you’re recording a
new song, and that’s especially true with Crazy Horse
because the first take is usually the only take. You have
to be ready in your mind, heart, and spirit to work well
with the other players regardless of what any of you
are going through at that particular time. Feel is the
most important aspect of making music, and if the
fresher the feel is, the more likely you are to capture
people’s unique, unbridled energy. There’s a full moon
energy that affects everything on the planet including
people. We find it a good time to put something
down and leave it that way.
Can you shed some insight on your favorite Crazy Horse bass line?
“Cowgirl in the Sand” comes to mind because I had only been playing bass for
about six months when we recorded it. Normally, I would just follow the changes
along with the rhythm guitar because, well, why should you do anything more? If
you’re going to step out as a bass player, you’d better have something to say. I felt this
raw, emotional energy that I had to throw out there through those pentatonic runs
on “Cowgirl,” and it worked out great, even though it’s
not perfect by any means. Throughout the years I’ve
learned to play it much better, but putting that same
energy into the part each and every time onstage is
something you cannot fake.
What are your thoughts on Rick “The Bass Player”
Rosas, with whom Neil also has a long history?
Neil has mainly used Rick and people like him playing
acoustic-oriented songs like “Heart of Gold,” but
over the eight years prior to last year, Neil had Rick in
his band doing much of the same electric stuff we normally
do. I don’t think it’s as exciting as Crazy Horse,
but Rick plays the parts he should be playing. I like him
doing the country stuff because he comes up with great
parts and has great touch. Rick has developed a lot of
chops playing with people like Joe Walsh. I don’t play
much with other bands, and I don’t know much theory
beyond major and minor scales. The main thing I’ve
worked on is being able to hear the difference between
whole- and half-steps, and hitting the note that I want
to play. Ultimately, I’m more of a bass player/songwriter
kind of guy. I’m into following my own star.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse,
Psychedelic Pill [Warner Bros.,
2012], Americana [Warner
the Road to
Basses 1966 Fender
Precision Bass with a ’68
Fender Telecaster Bass
neck, Washburn AB-20
acoustic bass guitar
Strings Dean Markley Half
Rig Early-’60s Fender
blonde tweed 1x15
Effects Custom DI/
amp splitter built by