Billy Talbot of Crazy Horse – Alive In The Spirit World (INTERVIEW)

There are many things that you might know about Billy Talbot. You might know him as an original member of Neil Young’s legendary band Crazy Horse. You might know him as the guy who formed a band called The Rockets with Ralph Molina and the late Danny Whitten. You might know him as the guy who played on that album that featured “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By the River,” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” Or, you just may know him as Neil Young’s scraggly bass player. In any case, what you may not know is that Talbot is finally going solo, with a band of his own.

Released on October 5th, Alive in the Spirit World is Talbot’s first of hopefully many more projects. Most of the songs feature the same rough quality of Crazy Horse tunes you might find on Neil Young and Crazy Horse albums Ragged Glory or Broken Arrow. The difference here is that Talbot is the leader of these songs; he uses his fragile voice and contributions of Matt Piucci, Jeff Chase, Stephan Junca, Erik Pearson, and Tommy Carns to deliver the songs that he originally wrote—and now they finally have a home.

If you’re wondering what a Billy Talbot song may sound like before purchasing the album, you’re in luck. Talbot has released a shorter version of “Security Girl” on his website, for you to enjoy. Meanwhile a longer version of “Security Girl” is now available on Amazon. Glide recently had a chance to talk to Billy about Alive in the Spirit World, the future of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and his experience on the road with Greendale.

Some of these songs have been floating around for quite a while. Why do you think now is a good time to finally release them on an album of your own?

Well, the answer first of all is that it took a while to record, to get to the position to record them the way I wanted to and have them be the way I wanted them to. I had some of the songs from earlier, but some were written just around that same time as the recording was done. And we got to record it in a barn, live, you know, a couple times a day and we would do a set. And we had all the instruments so we didn’t have to overdub anything. Different guys playing different stuff. And I just wanted it to be more casual than such a big thing as when you’re overdubbing things, you know, have it really work and have it happen. So that’s more or less what happened. Those songs, some of them were around but we didn’t have the opportunity to really record them the way I wanted to. And some got written in that previous year or two.

You mention the environment is key. I notice in a song like “Security Girl,” it can go on and on, you have that good vibe going. You need that certain recording environment to do that. Did a lot of the songs come out the way you wanted?

Yeah, basically. Yeah they did, I mean it’s always…in a creative process, you’re constantly revamping your plan to get to where you want to get to. But the important thing is to get to the vision. And I was definitely surprised in many ways, disappointed in some other ways, but in the overall I was definitely very pleased with the outcome.

Does songwriting come easy for you?

It does when I’m in…when it’s happening. You know, I can never force it.

Do songs usually come in batches?

Yeah. And it’s been happening like that for years and years. We’ve been recording some songs of mine occasionally here and there through the years and I was inspired to go on. And then, what happens with me is when the songs are coming through, I have to do it, I have no choice. And consequently I figured that I had to record my own record, using my own ideas as far as how to do it and so on.

Your own ideas, your own signature on this album—how does it feel to be at the front of a band, to finally have your own album, your own project?

Well, other than all the work it took, it felt pretty natural in a way. Well, I mean of course they are my songs. And I got it so that I could play them as if I were playing them alone. You know, the guys were playing with me in a way that made it so that it felt natural, everything I was doing was just not being impeded by anything. And so in that sense it felt natural to be doing it, to be responsible for the content and lead it.

I especially think the opening tune, “The Way Life Is,” comes off in a natural way. It has a free quality to it. It is a good way to open the album.

Yeah, it’s got a little refreshing intro…I guess it’s refreshing. Did you…a review in Glide was read to me. Did you write that?

No, I did not. Do you have a question about that?

Oh no, not at all—I kind of agree with him basically. You know, except that I think that there is, he said something about the observations in “The Way Life Is” … but that’s his opinion and I think that it could probably be viewed that way. To me it’s more emotional than that. I mean simplicity in lyrics…it depends on how much emotion is in there I guess.

What do you find to be the most emotional subjects that you write about?

Well, I don’t have a favorite one or the one I write about the most. I think introspective, like “Dreamer” comes pretty natural to me. But you know that’s…I think that basically what I wanted to do with this record was have a sound, a feeling…and the content of the lyrics to all have some kind of groove that puts them all together and makes it easier for somebody listening to it, to get into the music.

Does it help having a good rapport with your band (Matt Piucci, Jeff Chase, Stephan Junca, Erik Pearson, Tommy Carns) that helped you record this album?

Oh yeah, that’s all important. The guys that are doing it together up there on this ranch, where we were at in Mendocino, was really cool because it was kind of like camp or something. We were all there together and we would wake up and cook food together and eat and then go play a set and then do other stuff. Then we would have dinner, make dinner together, then eat and then go play the set again. And we did that every day for four days, so it was pretty organic. We didn’t dwell on one song, you know, we would just do them in order and after I reviewed the tapes—it took a while to filter through it all and figure out what we actually had.

Is this going to be the same band that will tour with you this fall?

Yeah, but I don’t know about the fall, that might have been a premature statement. But what I am hoping is that, the album is just coming out now—it’s an enhanced CD, too. There is a DVD that we made that they took one of the songs, from one of the same sessions we had the cameras going on a Sunday night and there is a three-song DVD that shows us doing it all live and it’s pretty good. Well, one of the songs is on the CD, if you put it in your computer you can see “Dreamer” being played and it’s all live.

That’s a great way to get your creative process to your fans. I know Crazy Horse and Neil Young did that with Greendale. It’s a good visual to have. Do you like that aspect of technology?

Well I think that it’s fine. We have the DVD and we’re going to try to put one of the other songs on the website—it’s an alternative version to “On The Horizon.” And it’s really good and it’s on the DVD, which we’re not selling right now. But we’re hoping to put that on the website, so at least you’ll have “Dreamer” from the CD and “On The Horizon,” the alternative version on the website. But we’re trying to find out about what’s that like to have it on there and for people to be able to download it.

People have a good nose for getting things these days online.

Yeah! (laughs)

As far as the tour goes, whenever that goes down, do you think you’ll play just the songs on the CD or maybe possibly any Crazy Horse songs?

No, we wouldn’t do any Crazy Horse songs. We might do some songs from Crazy Horse that we recorded on our own, without Neil. And I did a song that was on The Rockets’ album. There’s a couple of songs that Danny Whitten wrote that I might want to do.

Like “I Don’t Want to Talk About It?”

Exactly. And then I am writing new songs now.

Oh, really?

And I am feeling really good about the fact that the record is being released and stuff like that, so it is inspiring me to write some new songs. So I feel good about that—I’ve got about 5 or 6 new songs that I…I hadn’t done any writing for all the time that we were on the road doing Greendale—I was concentrating on that and then we made the deal for this record with Sanctuary, which was the end of the Greendale tour. And so, you know, now I am finally…we did some stuff, we went to a bunch of live, rock and roll stuff and Greendale stuff from the tour, so I got that all out of my system. And then the record’s coming out, so I started writing some new songs and I feel really good about them. And we’ll probably play some new songs from the album and maybe an old song or two. Maybe “Gone Dead Train.”

I was actually listening to that Crazy Horse CD last night, the one with “Gone Dead Train,” and without Neil in the picture, was that the best Crazy Horse has sounded, in your opinion?

Yeah, I think so. You know, we did five albums all together as Crazy Horse. I thought that the Left for Dead one was pretty good. I thought the one we did with Poncho (Sampedro), Crazy Moon, there were some really good things on there. I think Loose and Crooked Lake were the two weakest, in my opinion. But I thought that Left for Dead had a couple of strong things on it. I thought that Crazy Moon had a couple of strong things on it. But, you know, that’s what I’ve been doing all along, concentrating on the band thing. You know, Ralph (Molina) and I always…when we first started with Danny back in the days of local groups, we always thought of ourselves being creative musically as much as anything. But we’ve dedicated ourselves more to the band, the consciousness of the band and keeping it going. We didn’t do any of our material when we did the Loose or Crooked Lake. Even on the first album, with Danny and Jack (Nitzsche) and Nils (Lofgren), we stepped aside, instead of having too many writers. But we’ve always been doing these things—our own thing—all along. That’s why I decided to do this, at one point I decided, around 1997 we installed this studio in Mendocino in the barn and I did several projects before I did my own thing. But in the back of my mind was the idea to be doing my own thing.

It sounds like you are flexible, with your own thing and Crazy Horse. I know you also just did the extensive Greendale tour, like you mentioned. Did that take a lot out of you? Or—the whole concept of Greendale—was it keeping you guys young?

Yeah…yeah it was beautiful. And we also played for another hour and a half with all the rockin’ stuff that we have.

Yeah, I saw three shows, actually. And each show…I got a different feeling from each show. And when you came back out, like you said, you did the old Neil Young and Crazy Horse songs. How many great Crazy Horse songs are out there that are unreleased?

There’s a few unreleased songs. The archives are going to start coming out.

They are?

I think that they will get out there, that’s for sure. And then eventually we’ll all be dead and they’ll play everything! The stuff we didn’t want anybody to hear, no matter how much we try to make it so that won’t happen, I am sure that will still happen.

Do you think the archives…is that something you have been pushing for?

Well that’s Neil’s baby. He’s taking his time with it, but I think that it’s wrapping itself up right now and pretty soon a lot of that stuff will come out. We need to make a new record, I think soon. You know, a rockin’ one.

Neil and The Horse?

Yeah, I think that’s due after my album, Alive in the Spirit World.

Great. Well getting back to Alive in the Spirit World, a lot of the songs, there is a certain vibe throughout the album. A good vibe, good cohesiveness. I can tell that the recording was very important to you, at least the songs come off that way. Like I said, I especially like the opener and the jams on “Security Girl” and “Dreamer.” I think it is a well-rounded effort that your fans will enjoy. Your fans will see you as someone who is able to front a project like this. And overall, it seems like you had fun.

Right. Well that’s true, I was having fun, that’s for sure…still am! (laughs)

Well, that’s good. I enjoyed listening to it.

Well, good, I like the third song, “On the Horizon.” You know that whole first five songs including “Dreamer,” I think are really good, in my opinion. And then I think the last song, “Living in the Spirit World,” is a good one. I think they’re all good! I think it’s a whole thing and it’s something that you can listen to, and like you say, it has a vibe to it that keeps you there.

And your comfort level, with doing what you want to do, I think that is special. It’s something that people need to hear from you and I think that is important. And taking these songs on the road is a good idea. You know, a lot of people out on the road right now are playing politically-inspired shows. Do you think there should be a relationship between music and politics?

There always has been…maybe not politics, per se, that’s kind of…politics itself is kind of a low-life situation anyway. But as far as what people need and want and cry out for and what justice is and what truth is, what just deserves are, stuff like that, that’s always been a part of music. And that’s where it reaches out into politics—but not politics. It reaches out into people’s hearts. Music is another great way of communicating and so from doing music people can communicate these great ideas and ideals and truths and nobody can deny it when you’re touched by it and after you might talk about it and think about it and say all kinds of stuff, but at the moment that you’re touched by it, that’s what music through communication is.

Yeah, like you said, music fans want to be spoken to, they want to relate in many ways. And when someone is saying what is on their mind, it makes them feel better. And if you can do that, which I think you have done on many songs on your album, that’s the idea behind your project–to connect with as many people as possible, in my opinion.

Yeah, I wanted to…I feel like if it could feel really good to me, then it should feel really good to a lot of people because I think that’s part of my talent, is knowing when it’s feeling really good.

You mentioned about writing lyrics, that it comes and goes. How comfortable are you singing? With Neil Young and Crazy Horse you have a harmony role. Do enjoy being the main guy?

Yeah, I love it. I love being able to do it. You know, when I wrote these songs, they have a lot of meaning for me. I love being able to hear the band play with me and get that sound happening and that feeling happening and express the meaning of the songs through the vehicle. And I love that, I can’t get enough of it, I just wish I had been doing it more. Not really though, I mean I waited and bided my time, so to speak, you know, because I hate rejection! (laughs) But I’m just hoping that I’ll get away with it! (laughs again). Not really…I’m really thankful that I’m able to make music and not only through all these years but still and have it being released. To me, it’s a great honor.

I think it should be and the fun you’ve had with this, there should be more Billy Talbot Band albums in the future, I don’t see why not. Everybody you’ve worked with has been able to do what they have wanted to do.

Well, I hope people will like it well enough so that the record company will have some more faith in me.

Were there any artists that you were listening to that influenced the songs on this album?

Not influenced the record, I don’t think that I’ve listened to lately. I’m affected…I like hearing new things that really get me excited. My son, Billy Talbot, he has a band called Consafos. And he plays guitar and helps write. And a girl named Stephanie, she plays guitar and piano and she sings and they’re really good. And she also plays bass in Bright Eyes, from Omaha. There’s a whole scene there in Omaha, you know, and it’s really successful. And I have been hearing through him through years the new alternative stuff that most people don’t even get to hear. The independent scene that has developed—I’ve been hearing that for years. It just kept me younger and fresh to hear some good stuff being done that’s really raw, but still, they’re getting it across—the whole feeling of what they’re saying and it’s not commercialized wannabes, it’s just really happening no matter how talented or untalented they were, they were doing it. And for real. Not being all glittered out and trying to be something they’re not. And I’ve been hearing stuff like that for years, so that’s influenced me. And even though Neil Young and Crazy Horse has been like that for years, too, it’s good to hear these young bands come around, just not paying attention to all that stuff.

It helps keep your spirit alive, I imagine.

Yeah…yeah it helps. Exactly. Then I’ve been recording my son’s band and other bands, doing different things like that, too. It keeps me in it, fresh and new.

I would also think maybe playing the Bridge Concerts—that has to be pretty inspiring in itself.

Definitely. And Neil Young himself—working with him has been a real inspiration for me, you know, as far as everything is concerned.

And Neil’s life, his struggles in general.

Yeah, his life, his struggles, his productivity, his all—the way he expresses himself has definitely been an inspiration to me.

How many more albums do you think Neil and The Horse have in them?

Well at least one more! (laughs)

Has there been some talk about recording? I know you mentioned earlier that you need to get a rockin’ one going.

Well, no, I just think it’s time for that. We need to, particularly. I mean I think we’ve done a lot of stuff. And I think that if we didn’t do anything more it would still be cool. But I think that there is also in us, you know, more. And when we were playing the rockin’ part of the Greendale shows, a lot of them got really rockin’, and I think we’re set up for that.

I hope so. It’s great that you can still be inspired after playing music for all these years. I mean, you’ve been playing music for 40 years.

Well the thing is that we’ve never…either with Neil Young or on our own or anything—we’ve never been commercialized. So therefore, we didn’t have to…it didn’t bring us down. We never had to go out and feel that vibe of being commercialized and selling the product and you’ve gotta do this and you’ve gotta do that—over and over again.

Like with the Tonight’s the Night album, for instance.

Yeah. And that was free…it was being in the position to do that and having the willingness and wanting to do that and doing it. And then years later people patting you on the back for doing it, saying how much they love it. That all adds up and you just keep going and we’ve been way past all of that already and in to newer realms of people realizing the way you’ve been going—the integrity route, so to speak. Maybe a lot of it was luck at the beginning, but then you start realizing that integrity is very important and it’s important when you see things as the years go by and you see people come and go, and me, I observed one of the reasons for it, and usually it’s because you burn yourself out doing a lot of stuff you don’t want to do. That’s kind of rolling it into a nutshell.

No, it makes sense. You have to keep it fresh, even when you’re playing old, old songs live, but you have to have a certain spontaneity though?

You can’t just do that though. If you just did that it would make you nuts. Like this last time we had the whole Greendale thing—it was totally revitalizing. That made it natural for us to want to play some of the old songs at the end of the show like we did. Especially, playing the whole Greendale show to begin with—that was a big decision in itself—just doing that. But once we started doing it we realized how right the decision was.

Did that turn out the way you wanted, with the live show with the actors and such? I thought it was a success.

We were very happy with it. We wouldn’t have done it for so long if we didn’t like it. It was inspiring. The audience, the way they reacted was wonderful. At the beginning of the tour, the first five or six weeks, there was more confusion in the audience, depending on where we were. But when the record came out, after that, then in a couple places it was like they were waiting for us and really welcoming us with incredible energy. But it was really great when the record wasn’t out, too, because the reaction of the audiences. Some were shocked and some were in to it—all of it was really great. The whole thing was really a great artistic experience.

I thought people were, for the most part, open to what you decided to do. I imagine you are hoping for the same cooperation with Alive in the Spirit World.

Well, what I’m hoping for is just…I’m not expecting too much. I just want to be able to do this. I would love it if the critics like it and the reviewers give it good reviews and people like it and slowly it starts picking up more and more. I think that as a whole record, I think it’s really good because of the vibe, like you say, that it keeps in there. And you can listen to the whole thing, and it’s interesting, there’s a lot of different things—it doesn’t stay the same; it moves, yet it’s all connected. So, I’m hoping that people will like it as much as I like it. Some people do like that kind of thing, and people who have never heard that kind of thing will listen to it and say, “wow, this is pretty good.” That’s what I’m hoping for. I don’t expect it to sell millions or become a big star or anything because of it, but I am hoping that people that listen to it will like it and that they’ll tell other people about it. I think that’s a great goal! (laughs)

Well, I hope we can talk about another Billy Talbot album in a couple years or so.

Well, I hope so, to. I’m already starting to write it, so I’m going to do it no matter what.

Jason Gonulsen is a writer who lives in the St. Louis, MO area with his fiancé, Kelly, and dogs, Maggie and Tucker. He also takes concert photographs with his digital camera. Please view his photos at his website. You can e-mail him at [email protected]

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