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‘World Record’ Was “A New Adventure” For Neil Young, Says Nils Lofgren
Joey Martinez

‘World Record’ Was “A New Adventure” For Neil Young, Says Nils Lofgren

Created like no other Neil Young album, ‘World Record’ found the rock icon ‘fishing more than usual’, guitarist Nils Logfren tells Dig!


Few musicians are able to get six decades into their career and still come up with new ways to challenge themselves. For Neil Young, however, raising the bar is part of the point of existence, and when he recorded his 43rd studio album, World Record, in 2022, he was in the middle of a burst of creativity spurred on by a recent reunion with his longtime backing band Crazy Horse. 2019’s Colorado marked the first Horse album in seven years, with guitarist Nils Lofgren, whose time with Young goes back to the After The Gold Rush sessions and the legendarily crowd-baiting Tonight’s The Night tour, taking over from a retired Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. With its follow-up, Barn, Young and the Horse recaptured the elemental magic of their best work together, and it’s this, Lofgren tells Dig!, that they brought to the sessions for World Record, along with a sonic palette Young had never before explored with the group.

Listen to ‘World Record’ here.

“We were playing live on the stage, no headphones, just like in a nightclub, in this draughty ancient barn up in the Colorado Rockies,” Lofgren says of the moment Young and Crazy Horse found their stride once again. In particular, while recording the Barn song Welcome Back, Young shifted gears without notice, and pulled Crazy Horse forward with a whole new momentum.

“We went through it once, and we were really hitting it hard,” Lofgren says of the group’s initial pass at the song. “And then all of a sudden, Neil just started the take you hear on the album. And everything got quieter; I think Ralph [Molina, drummer] picked up some brushes. It’s got this spooky, airy vibe – not unlike Tonight’s The Night. We didn’t belabour it. And we carried that into World Record.”

“He was fishing more than usual. This was a new adventure for him”

In a first for Neil Young, World Record’s songs were written on dictaphone, as Young took snowy walks with his dogs through the Rocky Mountains, whistling melodies into the recorder as if, he told The New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich, “each one came from a different spirit”. “He was fishing more than usual,” Lofgren says today. “This was a new adventure for him.”

Choosing to continue the adventure over 800 miles away, in Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio, in Malibu, Young admitted to his bandmates, “I’ve never written an album without an instrument. I don’t even know what instrument to play.” With no preconceived notions about how each song should be arranged, Young and Lofgren found the freedom to expand Crazy Horse’s sound beyond their trademark grungy rock-band format.

“There was that whole element of him figuring out what to do,” Lofgren tells Dig! “And as he jumped around instruments, I jumped around from keyboards to pump organ, Wurlitzer, lap steel, pedal steel. We had the After The Gold Rush upright piano, we had the Tonight’s The Night grand piano – all kinds of great instruments. And the first gut reaction I had, I’d go to that sound. It was just a question of what fit the song.”

Young himself manhandled the pump organ on The Wonder Won’t Wait, pulling abstracted lines from the wheezing instrument. Watching on, Lofgren alternated between striking thick guitar chords and poking around the edges with inquisitive motifs, as Young sang about the need to “stand outside yourself” and “take some time to live before you die”. “He was playing such funky, nasty lines,” Lofgren says of Young’s inspired performance. “I said to Neil, ‘For the album credit, it has to say “Neil ‘Funk Pump’ Young”’.” And he didn’t listen to me!”

Perhaps Young couldn’t hear Lofgren over the sound of a percussion part he’d recorded, gleefully kicking a bucket around the studio in his combat boots. When the band retired to their hotel for the night, Lofgren, who had taken up residence at Shangri-La, “ten seconds away from the studio, in my own little room”, listened to the track with engineer Ryan Hewitt, and decided he had his own unlikely footstomping part to add. “I picked up tap dancing as a hobby,” he reveals to Dig! “And I had a little piece of plywood with four little rubber dowels on the corners, so it’s elevated, and with a pickup underneath. We put it through a DI [direct inject] unit and through some foot pedals, and I ran it through two octave dividers. So instead of the ticky-tack high end, it had a deep, rich low end to it. And I put on my tap shoes, started dragging them over the surface, sounding like I was ripping some industrial thing to shreds. So every time Neil hit that big backbeat – bang, bang, bang – you’d hear this big tearing sound going into it.”

“We can play it again. But that’s going to be hard to beat”

With so many ideas being thrown about during sessions that could last up to ten hours a day, Hewitt and two assistants worked into the night “like librarians”, Lofgren says, keeping records of everything that was recorded, in case Young or Rubin wanted to pull something out for reassessment. “They were nice enough to give me time to work with them at night, to try some ideas in the theme of where Rick and Neil were taking the production,” the guitarist says.

I Walk With You (Earth Ringtone), another song attempted by Young on pump-organ, with Lofgren adding distinctive accordion accompaniment, was taken down an entirely different route once Young picked up his favoured guitar, a customised 1953 Les Paul nicknamed “Old Black”. After hearing Young’s trademark tones, Lofgren revealed a setup he’d yet to bring to any Neil Young session.

“I’d never played pedal steel with Neil, and I broke it out,” Lofgren says, before declaring himself “a beginner” compared to the late pedal-steel player Ben Keith, a regular Young collaborator going back to the Harvest album, and someone who remained, to Crazy Horse, “our hero and one of my favourite friends from all the years”.

“Neil came into my room and I had the pedal steel run through a little pedal that makes everything sound like a pipe organ,” Lofgren continues. “And I played him the sound, and he said, ‘You know what, you’ve got to get that over to the main studio.’” Finding space for the contraption among the instruments already littering the room, Lofgren plugged it into an overdriven amp, “so it had some saturation and some push, and it didn’t sound like a pedal steel at all. But it also wasn’t just another guitar. And the combination – after the bridge, Neil went off on this brief but haunted solo, and I thought, Man, that’s it. That’s the take.” Days later, when Young was considering a return to the accordion and pump organ arrangement, Lofgren had him listen to the duet between Old Black and the distorted pedal steel. “And when he heard it, he went, ‘Well, we can play it again. But that’s going to be hard to beat.’”

“It had less to do with being musicians and more to do with interacting with nasty sounds”

Elsewhere on World Record, Young put Old Black and the Horse to more recognisable use, recapturing the sound of albums such as 1990’s Ragged Glory, with chanted refrains and circuitous playing in which the four musicians lock together as a near-telepathic unit. “There’s some beautiful, melodic songs for people that like that side of Neil. And then there’s some very raunchy, aggressive stuff where I turned up my guitar to where it’s starting to feedback in my hands,” Lofgren says of the album.

For Break The Chain, Lofgren played slide guitar on his Fender Jazzmaster during a take Rick Rubin later told the band was “nasty and visceral. And it didn’t even sound like musicians who knew what they were doing.” “We just got this mood and vibe that had less to do with being musicians and more to do with interacting with some nasty sounds in our hands,” Lofgren notes.

It seems fitting that Rubin, who worked in the 80s with thrash-metal pioneers Slayer and, later, towards the end of the 2000s, helmed a run of raw, career-turnaround records for outlaw-country icon Johnny Cash, would eventually get the call to produce a Neil Young record. Working in tandem with Young himself, Rubin was perfectly placed to harness the sound of a runaway Horse in full cry, and was given the latitude to leave his own sonic fingerprints on what remains an unmistakably Neil Young record.

“Obviously, any misgivings Neil had, they worked it out in advance,” Lofgren explains today. “I think Rick had some great ideas that were different. And he reassured Neil that he was going to feel good about everything that wound up on the record. And I also think, once Neil got into the swing of it after a couple of days, he realised he could spend time on the job, just being a singer and guitar player. He didn’t always have to have the producer’s hat on… And it was great for all of us.”

With Young free to steer the sessions as a bandleader, for World Record’s penultimate song, Chevrolet, he took Crazy Horse on one of the lengthy trips that characterise many of the best Neil Young songs. Packing winding guitar lines and elliptical lyrics, Young, an early champion of electric cars, contemplates his long-term romance with vintage gas-guzzlers as he drifts through scenes of a life lived in large part on the road. Clocking in at 15 minutes, the song encapsulates the reflective tone of much of World Record, Young surveying the ecological havoc wrought upon the world while also giving thanks – and urging listeners to pay attention to – the riches Earth has to offer.

“I don’t think anyone knows how to be in the moment any better than Neil”

Reflecting on I Walk With You (Earth Ringtone), Lofgren sensed “haunted lyrics – kind of like a theme” from Young, who was 77 when World Record was released, on 18 November 2002. “I’m not speaking for Neil,” he clarifies, “But, you know, you’re walking with your loved one and soulmate through the wreckage of Armageddon, and still keeping your love strong in the midst of destruction and chaos; and love has a light and a value.”

In the weeks following World Record’s release, Young told Amanda Petrusich that retirement “doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility… You get to a point in life where things are happening everywhere around you, and your friends are going away and not coming back. Things change.”

As far as Lofgren sees it, change has been crucial to Young’s longevity. “He’s always looking back, forward, around, present,” says the guitarist, whose half-century relationship with Young has given him unique insight into one of the most inscrutable rock icons in history. “That’s my take on him. And that could be wrong. We’re all human beings. At times we’re focusing on tomorrow, today, yesterday…

“They say, if you spend all your time looking backwards, or looking forward, you’re going to piss all over today. So you’ve got to be in the moment. And I don’t think anyone knows how to be in the moment any better than Neil.”

Find out where Neil Young ranks among the best songwriters of all time.

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