On The Road To Spearfish with Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot

Vapor Records

Vapor Records

No doubt the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of Billy Talbot’s name is the legendary catalog of work he and his bandmates in Crazy Horse have created over the years with Neil Young. The studio collaborations between Young and the Horse began with 1969’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere with the most recent offering being last year’s tripfest Psychedelic Pill. In the meantime, some of the epic live performances of Young’s career have also been with Crazy Horse – Frank “Pancho” Sampedro on guitar (who replaced original member Danny Whitten after his death in 1972), Ralph Molina on drums, and Talbot on bass.

What many people may not realize is that between outings with the Horse, Billy Talbot has created some great music of his own – with a hand-picked group of multi-talented musicians known as the Billy Talbot Band. Their most recent release is On The Road To Spearfish and it is as broad and expansive as the South Dakota prairie territory that Talbot and his wife call home.

Listening to Spearfish is like being hunkered down in a cabin with Talbot and company: the recording puts you dead-center in the music, be it the lonely ache of “Empty Stadium”, the turn-your-collar up drift of “Cold Wind”, the extended jam of the title track, or the wave-that-flag fist-pump of “Ring The Bell”. At the album’s core are Talbot’s real-as-hell-and-chock-full-of-soul vocals, along with his gritty, beautiful guitar work and piano playing.

Billy was kind enough to make time to talk with us from Norway during Crazy Horse’s current swing through Europe with Young. Sharing some of the precious quiet time between soundcheck and the evening’s gig, Billy spoke of capturing the “juice” of a song, the perfect sound of the “trombonium”, and his appreciation for the great group of players who traveled with him On The Road To Spearfish.

BR: Billy, one thing a lot of folks may not realize is that you’ve been playing with most of the musicians on this album for awhile now.

BT: That’s true – at least ten years, or more. We’re good friends.

That’s the vibe you get listening to the album. You’re all listening to each other and feeling what the other guys are feeling … some great formation flying with the tape rolling.

Well, thank you. I appreciate that Brian, I really do. These guys deserve all the credit that they can receive.

Did these tracks go down in a single session, or did you record over a period of time?

We basically recorded them over a few days. You can see the dates if you watch the video of the complete album which is available on my website. We couldn’t remove the date and time off one of the cameras that we used, so it actually shows when the recording was made.

So, just to clarify, viewers can watch an in-the-studio video of each song on the album as it was recorded?

That’s right: hi-def audio and Vimeo of everything as it was being done.

Oh, super – we’ll be sure to point folks to that. I wanted to ask you about Eric Haas, who co-produced On The Road To Spearfish with you, along with being part of the recording, mixing, and mastering. The music on this album feels so personal – the two of you had to be pretty close for Eric to capture what you were after.

That’s true. I was going after an intimate feeling … it’s my art, so to speak, and I wanted it to be intimate and loose – with the dynamics and liveness of a rock ‘n’ roll band. Even the songs like “Big Rain” and “Herd” … I wanted them to be acoustic without seeming so acoustic, you know?

Eric was intimately involved with me on all of the album. He developed a technique for recording – as well as setting up the cameras for the video – and did the editing. We worked on all of this together; he knew what I was going for. We’ve developed a way of doing stuff … getting the sound without a lot of EQ – using good mics instead of digital EQ, which we didn’t like at all.

You nailed it, Billy – capturing things like the beginning of the breath into a horn or the nuance of a pinkie flutter on a key. The tracks breathe … and you’re sitting on a stool right in the middle of it.

That’s what we were going for. We really wanted to catch that feeling – most of these things were the first take. We overdubbed a few harmonies, which you’ll see in the video. It really tells the story of the album and the musicians who made it.

Billy Talbot

Billy Talbot

You have some amazing multi-instrumentalists in the band.

Our saxophone player, Erik Pearson, also plays lap steel, banjo, and a little bit of piano on this record. Mark Hanley plays mandolin, along with some guitar, lap steel, organ, and other instruments. Ryan James Holder plays a lot of instruments: trombone, guitar, autoharp, organ, and harmonica. Matt Piucci is a great guitar player, but he plays the harmonium, too.

And if I was going to draw a parallel, I’d say bassist Tommy Carns and drummer Stephan Junca lock in the same way you and Ralph do in Crazy Horse. They pull it off on everything from jammed-out rockers to very subtle, spacey settings.

They’re a great combination. I consider “Ring The Bell” to be a great bass and drum part. You can really hear how well they play together.

Stephan Junca

Stephan Junca

When you spend a lot of time standing between Neil and Pancho, somebody has to take care of the bass – and you’re damn good at it in Crazy Horse. But you play a lot of guitar on Spearfish – you have your own thing going on; some really cool stuff.

Well, thank you – I appreciate it.

Did you have one main guitar and amp combo for the sessions?

I used a 1964 Stratocaster – it’s beautiful; a great guitar – on most of the tracks except where I’m playing acoustic guitar or piano. I played it through my old 1960s Fender Tremolux amp. On “On The Road To Spearfish” I used my 1968 Les Paul with that same amp.

How about if we run down through some specific songs?

Sure.

“Empty Stadium” is beautiful, but chock full of ache.

(sings) “Sometimes I feel like I’m all alone/In an empty stadium …” It’s that contrast between a stadium that’s full of people celebrating and having a great time and when it’s just big and empty. That’s life sometimes: everything is happening and you’re feeling so … so jolly, so to speak … and then the next hour you’re all alone again. That’s what I’m talking about – feeling those blues in a big, empty space when everything is gone. That’s what I was trying to say with that imagery.

The songs really speak for themselves; it’s hard for me to talk about their meanings … that’s why I wrote them. The feelings are best said in the songs – and for you as a listener, you can conjure up your own imagery.

That’s true: I think some of the best songs are open to interpretation and folks apply them to their world as they need to. Like the blues – a band-aid for whatever hurts that day in your life.

Yeah – you’re right. And I just hope that whenever people listen to this record, it’ll make them feel better about everything.

Ryan James Holder

Ryan James Holder

“Empty Stadium” is a great example of weaving instruments that you don’t often hear together: you have lap steel and a mandolin, waltzing with a trombone and a harmonium …

Which we call “trombonium” … (laughter) They blend together so well; it’s really great. That’s Matt and Ryan; Ryan’s the rookie in the band. When I found out that he played the trombone in middle school, we found one and bought it for him to play on the record. It had been years since he played, but he just did it, you know? He was a little shaky, but it was great.

Absolutely.

On “Cold Wind”, it’s like Miles Davis was playing the trombone. (laughs)

Yes! That whisper into the note.

Yeah.

“Runnin’ Around” – when I first heard that, I told my wife, “Billy’s got that old street corner cool going on.”

The harmonies.

And that groove; that snap-your-fingers groove, too.

Well, good. (laughter)

Matt Piucci

Matt Piucci

Great guitar sound on that one with you and Matt going at it.

Yeah – he played a Grestch with a wang bar through some really old amps and got some great sounds. I think it’s a Gretsch Tennessean.

Cool. On the next song, “Cold Wind” … that piano you’re playing sounds like you had to brush a layer of cigarette ashes off it before you played it: a funky old acoustic piano.

It is; it definitely is. In fact, it was a player piano once. It’s really cool – a great old piano. Ryan’s playing trombone and Erik is playing saxophone; he’s incredible on that.

I wanted to ask you about the arrangement on “Cold Wind”: at times it’s just wisps of sound – there’s a little bit of sax that blows through; some mando here; a bit of harmonium here …

I never practiced these songs a lot with the band, because I wanted to get the juice on the recordings. I was showing them that song and they were all trying different things. I said, “Let’s just try it with Matt on the harmonium … Mark, you play the mandolin … and let’s try it with the sax and trombone along with those guys …” Plus, the bass and drums – and I was on the piano. We wanted to see what would happen.

I stopped them about halfway through the song and said, “That’s it – everyone remember what you were doing, because that’s the way we’re going to play it.” It was just the way everybody responded to the instrumentation, playing together live. It just happened and we captured it.

Erik Pearson

Erik Pearson

Absolutely. A great performance and beautifully recorded, too – dry and immediate … if someone had scuffed his shoe on the floor you would’ve felt it.

I’m glad that you like it, Brian. That’s the kind of thing that inspires me to do more stuff.

One more thing I wanted to mention about “Cold Wind” is Tommy’s bass sound.

He’s playing my bass, as a matter of fact – my ‘66 Precision with a ‘68 Telecaster neck and my old Showman amp. It sounds great.

Oh, man … you could’ve told me it was a big ol’ upright mic’ed really well and I would’ve believed it.

Yeah, It’s a nice sound. A lot of it is just the way he’s playing it, you know?

Tommy Carns

Tommy Carns

The title track can’t help but invite Crazy Horse comparisons, but what folks really need to listen to is how everyone is layered in on the jams; there’s a squall of guitar which somehow morphs into a sax break … but about the time you’re getting your head around that, the harmonica picks up what the sax is saying and takes it from there. Who was playing traffic cop for the jam?

We discussed it a little bit beforehand. I said, “We’re going to play the solo: Matt, you take it on the guitar; and then Erik, you come in on the sax; and Ryan, you put down the trombone and come in on the harmonica …” And that’s what happened. That was the first take that you hear.

We did another take later on where Erik went out and played the piano while we were playing. We stole the piano off the second take and put it on the first. It’s just … painting a picture, you know? Just doing something with what we had. We didn’t do much manipulating on the record, but that piano was something we did do. The basic song is live, though; first take.

Click to watch On the Road to Spearfish from Billy Talbot on Vimeo.

My note from my initial listen while on the road was “Big, big pictures.”

For me, I always picture these five or six Native Americans on top of this butte having a conversation – and then they ride off across the prairie. When they come to another butte, they stop up on top of it and have another conversation … and then they ride off across the prairie again.

That’s how I picture that song. I’m just sharing that with you – test it out when you listen to it and see what you think. (laughs)

No, I hear you. Where I come from, the verses are like islands … and the jams are when you’re sailing across the ocean in-between the islands.

Yeah – there you go. (laughter)

Please click HERE to read the conclusion of my interview with Billy Talbot on Jambands.com

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