Horse Sense: Billy Talbot on Energy, Emotion, and Free Expression with Neil Young

April 17, 2013
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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.

INFO

LISTEN

Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill [Warner Bros., 2012], Americana [Warner Bros., 2012]; Billy Talbot Band, On the Road to Spearfish [Vapor, 2013]

EQUIP

Basses 1966 Fender Precision Bass with a ’68 Fender Telecaster Bass neck, Washburn AB-20 acoustic bass guitar
Strings Dean Markley Half Rounds (.050–.105)
Rig Early-’60s Fender Showman head through matching blonde tweed 1x15 cabinet
Effects Custom DI/ amp splitter built by Sal Trentino

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