Neil Young’s Moonlit Sessions

Oct 1, 2012 9:00 AM, Mix, By Barbara Schultz



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From left: Drummer Ralph Molina, guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampdero, Neil Young, and bass player Billy Talbot.

From left: Drummer Ralph Molina, guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampdero, Neil Young, and bass player Billy Talbot.

But even if he had been prepped about the Americana sessions, it would have been hard for the producer/engineer to envision Young and Crazy Horse’s gorgeous and brutal interpretations of chestnuts like “Oh Susannah,” “Clementine” and “Jesus’ Chariot (She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain).” The screaming guitars, the thunderous drums, Young’s plaintive voice… on songs we all sang in grade school. It’s unsettling, in a good way.

The Americana sessions took place in those full-moon weeks, October through December 2011. By December, Hanlon was recording some overdubs for the record, including children’s choir sessions at EastWest Studios (Hollywood). After Christmas, he began mixing Americana on the Neve 8078 in Redwood Digital. Then in January, he was asked to be ready for more recording. Full-moon weeks during the next few months would see the band tracking songs with massive instrumental jams that would be edited down into brand-new songs—though some were edited more than others.

The first track on the album, “Drifting Back,” for example, started as a 32-minute take. “That performance happened on a Saturday,” Hanlon recalls. “I got up early Sunday morning and called Neil and said, ‘I think you have something here,’ and went over and played it for him on a CD. We mapped all this stuff out in terms of structure—identifiable choruses and verses and B sections—while listening to these parts on a little blaster, sitting in the entranceway of his home, and marveled at what he had.”

“Drifting Back” got edited down for the release, but only by about six minutes. There are also a couple of 16-plus-minute songs on the album, as well as several more concise tunes. The nine tracks on Pill fill two discs; they’re very different in shape and intent from Americana, and sonically somewhat different as well.

“There were important differences between the Americana sessions and the Psychedelic Pill sessions,” Hanlon says. “On Americana, Billy Talbot had a Daking direct box that had gain available in it; we were using that as a preamp to his Showman bass amp. With that DI, even when no gain was selected on the pot on the front, it still affected the sound, and it was a pleasant sound. On Psychedelic Pill, he switched to a Sal Trentino active direct box.

“Another change was, Neil stopped using the amp setup he’d had; he went to a modified ’50s Tweed Deluxe with 6L6 tubes and an old Magnatone—the same setup he uses with Crazy Horse on the road. The SPL being thrown into that living room studio was probably 10 to 15 dB louder than what I was dealing with on Americana.”

The sounds that were laid down for Psychedelic Pill are probably closer to what fans will expect from Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But for Hanlon’s part, he’s happy never knowing what to expect from Young—happy with the way the “white house” functioned as a studio; even happy with the limitations imposed by 8-track.

“To me, some of the greatest records are the ones done with the fewest amount of microphones,” Hanlon says. “The sound I like is orchestral. A classical engineer reading this might cringe, but I approach Neil Young and Crazy Horse orchestrally. Musicians playing live together—what a concept.”

Barbara Schultz is a contributing editor to Mix.

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