Ralph Molina Dissects Two New Neil Young Projects

Ralph Molina

As if making up for lost time, Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina is back in the saddle with longtime bandleader Neil Young doing what he does best: easy-going grooves for two full-length (and very different) albums. In July there was Americana, a covers record of 19th century American folk songs. Psychedelic Pill, the band’s first new material in nine years, will be released on October 30. We caught up with Molina on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon at his property in California’s Central Coast to talk gear, hero worship – or lack thereof – and the Horse’s legacy.

Were you ever concerned that Americana’s rock versions of centuries-old folk music might come across as too irreverent?
We didn’t know what we were going to do as far as Americana. And then when we started going through the songs Neil wanted to do – you know he wrote the book [upcoming memoir Waging Heavy Peace] – and I guess he got into thinking about the past and things like that. I mean, before we started playing “Clementine,” I thought we were going to do them the old way, you know [sings] “Oh my darlin’‚ Oh my darlin.” [laughs] But once we started doing them, it was “All right! This is great!”

Both records were done at Young’s longtime studio?
When he called us and said we’re going do it at the White House, I go, “Great, that’s where we did American Stars And Bars [from 1977].” So we just slept and recorded there and it was great. It didn’t take very long, which amazed us. And then we just put vocals on, and the same thing with Psychedelic Pill. We’ll go up for four or five days and then come home. And then, maybe, while things are being mixed and edited or whatever, then we’ll go back up for another three or four days and listen, and then record something else. Psychedelic Pill’s going to be a double CD because of the song lengths. One song [“Psychedelic Pill”] I think it’s about 24 minutes. It’s great though. The way Neil plays his solos, it’s awesome.

Did Psychedelic Pill feel like new territory for you drum-wise?
No, not really. For “Psychedelic Pill,” [Neil] sat at the piano, and just started playing this rhythm and chords, and I sat on my drums, and I just started playing this groove. I must have played the groove with Neil for like an hour. Then the other guys just started playing with us we realized, you know, this is a great song.

So it’s just an open-ended jam, not separate takes?
Well, no, the thing is, with Neil the machine is going all the time because sometimes we’ll just walk in and start playing and we’ll capture this great groove. It might not have lyrics, but just play and play and play, and then Neil will put the lyrics on afterward. Or he might have a few lyrics. So as soon as we walk in, he wants the machines rolling. If you start jamming and you get something really meaningful and if it’s not recorded, it’s a drag.

Does Neil ever get involved in creating your drum parts?
He never really does that. Years ago sometimes he’d sit at my drums and go, “Try this.” So I just stand behind him with a little smile on my face. So what I always tell Neil – and that’s how we do it – it’s kind of like a team thing. He can tell me whatever he wants. If he goes, “Ralph, why don’t you try toms here?” I’ll do that, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I have arguments with Neil more than anyone else. The thing is afterward, we hug, and then it’s over. When you have a working relationship like that, it’s great.

I hear you don’t use drum sticks anymore, just rods.
I started using them on Greendale [from 2003]. It was me, Billy [Talbot, bass], and Neil and I was using sticks and Neil was playing really soft, and I’m like, “I’m so loud!”ƒSo I started using [Pro-Mark] Cool Rods and I’ve been playing them since. I don’t use sticks at all. I hit hard enough that it sounds fine. I use them live now and it sounds really good. The balance on them is really good.

You played the Outside Lands festival last week. How’d it go?
It went great. I don’t know if you saw the show, but the Foo Fighters were there. Yeah, it was Beck, the Foo Fighters, then we played. And we’ve played with the Foo Fighters and Beck before. Just going up there to play is exciting. You’re not thinking about [who’s on] the bill or anything, you know? You’re just out there and you’re playing … it’s awesome. We didn’t play any songs from Americana except during an encore we did “Jesus’ Chariot.”

Do you play a lot harder outside or in larger venues?
No, not at all. Neil calls me Arena Molina. We’ve done outdoor shows in Europe, but I like playing indoors because I like the slapback from the back of the hall. Neil and I, we love what we call “The Swim.” If you don’t have The Swim onstage, it sucks. He calls it a swim. You know, shhhhhhhhh. Where the cymbals just sound like air and Neil’s guitar is just floating and you’re really locked in and you go, “Oh yes!”

Your very first band was a doo-wop trio, Danny And The Memories. As rock started taking over, group leader Danny Whitten suggested you switch to drums. Did you have some pop records, just to have a drumming model?
No, no. I don’t ever imitate anyone. We were young, I didn’t think anything. I had some cardboard boxes, I had a spaghetti strainer I used as a hi-hat. It was just fun, you know? You just started playing. I don’t know how, but I got this set of drums – I think I had one tom. I guess I had music in me.

No drummers ever caught your ear throughout your career?
There are drummers that I like, but I never [emulated them]. Back then it was mostly singing, and I’m not one to listen to music. But as I got older, I loved the way Neil Peart played. And Bonham, of course. And Dave Grohl. But I never listened to their records or anything, it’s just in passing you hear it and you go, “Whoa!” But I was never influenced by any drummers.

Are you doing other projects besides Crazy Horse?
Billy [Talbot, bassist] and I recorded with this younger guy up in San Francisco for this band, Wolves. And it’s George Whitsell, who played with us in The Rockets [Molina’s pre—Crazy Horse band in the late ’60s.] and this guy Ryan. So we got together at my house before we did [Americana and Psychedelic Pill] with Neil. There’s like 14 songs being mixed now. So we keep busy doing stuff like that.

Is there anything you’d like to improve in your playing?
I think in my head that I’ve gotten better, but if there’s anything maybe just like a fill type of thing. If I’m driving around I just kind of hear things or if I listen to stuff I used to do … it’s kind of like when I’m on the road after the show I take [the memory of that night’s performance] to my room and I can’t sleep and I remember things I did and I go “I know I can do this better,” so I know what I’m going to do at the next show. I hear this fill now and I go, “Okay this is how I’m going to do it tomorrow.” So that’s how I get better: Just by myself and just knowing “Well, I did this yesterday. It felt good, but it wasn’t right.” Which is a drag sometimes because after a show you want to go to sleep.