Smoke Some Weed, Take a Walk, and Read This Interview With Neil Young
Sixty years into an iconic career, Young is still fighting back against the recording industry. In a rare interview, he talks to Noisey about art, algorithms, and the likelihood of music saving the world.
Illustration by Andrea Domanick
"They're beautiful," Neil Young says of the new melodies he's had rolling around his head lately. He's palm-drumming on his crossed legs in a suite at the Four Seasons in downtown Austin, Texas, his black shirt open wide enough to reveal a Third Man Records tee. "But all of the lyrics to the melodies are all profane. Everything's profanity, which I find to be very confusing." His blue eyes pierce through the air-conditioned space beneath his black trilby hat. All that cursing is about streaming platforms and algorithms, he says. Maybe cursing is the only potent language to articulate the blunt anger and frustration of living in 2018. That, and music. He's leaning towards doing it: "If I put out Profane, which would be the album title, and all these beautiful melodies just had swearing in them… I mean, that's pretty radical."
At 72, with nearly 40 studio albums and six decades cementing his legacy as a genius, renegade, and icon, Young is still trying to save the world. And he's furious that anyone might try to stop him from doing so. He's here to talk about Paradox—out on Netflix on March 23— a surreal new Western in which he stars as the mysterious Man in the Black Hat. But he's quickly on to talking about the Neil Young Archives, the remarkable online project that he launched last year. It's a strange and sprawling resource, housing every record that Young has ever released, all the way from The Squires' early surf songs through his solo folk mastery, past the infamous and fascinating Trans and Everybody's Rockin', right up to last year's lively, vital The Visitor. Everything is, of course, presented in master-quality audio. He's a famously passionate activist, campaigning against war and Monstanto and corruption and everything in between, but Young's most public battle over the past few years has been with the technology that stifles audio quality.
It's all a part of the same whole. Music, Young says, feeds the human spirit, and the mp3-quality audio that we hear on streaming services gives us only a fraction of that sustenance, if any. To understand Neil Young's relentless (but recently doomed) attempt to bring Pono to the masses, or his commitment to lossless audio in his archives, you have to see what Neil Young sees: a bunch of rich guys in suits are conspiring to screw you out of your God-given right to a soul. He'll keep fighting against that. How could he not?
Our conversation with Young moved rapidly and changed gears at a moment's notice. Read it below.
Noisey: You've recently gone back through your entire back catalog to create the Neil Young Archives. I wonder what it was like to return to all that and think of yourself as a younger man playing music, responding to a changing world.
Neil Young: You know, I don't think about it much. You'd think I'd think about it all the time by looking at the Archives, but really the Archives is just a chronicle, a platform to organize things that have already happened. All I'm really doing is now dealing with shit that I have, and putting it in place. Occasionally, I'll go round and get immersed in things that I've done and just... it's cool to be able to visit them. And it's really cool to be able to hear them, because I don't like to listen now because it sounds so bad. Music has suffered so much at the hands of big tech. Most of the listeners today don't even realize how deprived they are. They are getting music and they love music—that's good. But they're only getting five percent of the sound of the music—especially when you relate it to the classics from the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s. These new mp3 copies, whatever the Hell they are, I know they're five percent or less. If I was a painter and now we're looking at a bad sepia tone of the full color picture—that's disturbing. That's my fuel. That's why I drive forward with the audio technology.
I'm coming from the past, and I'm saying there's a door that could open or a window that could open. And you guys all who love music and love the whole scene and love everything about it might hear something and feel something that you've never had a chance to. That's my approach now. I go to the record companies and I say: "Why should you restrict access to the golden gates of music—to the crown jewels, these recordings, these ancient fucking recordings of great stuff by Frank Sinatra, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Glenn Miller, anything. Why should you restrict all of the quality of that to five percent of what it was when it was made? What's the advantage?"
How difficult is it for you, then, to feel optimism in your music and in your life when you have such a history of fighting against things like this?
Well, I'm very optimistic that the human spirit can overcome lots of things. I don't think that where we are now is a sign of where we're going. I think this is a low-point—the far end of the pendulum swing. It's not a good thing right now. But my biggest concern right now is not that the guy in charge has no balls and doesn't know how to say goodbye to people and he's a very poor model for our children. That really means a lot to me, but it doesn't mean anything to me compared to the damage he's doing to the environment. That is reckless. That bothers me.
This is all a very, very dark thing that's happening. And people are starting to feel it. I don't like people logging into me [the Archives] from Facebook. If they're going to log in from Facebook, I want to give them the option of reading something about Facebook when they arrive, so they know where they came from. And I still use Facebook because my users, my fans, people who want to know what we're doing, we tell them what we're doing. But you have to go to our place, and you don't have any of the rules, and we're not going to track you and use you. Once you leave that area, you're in a safe area, which is our place. So, we want people to know that we care about that. I mean, when you have algorithms that encourage children under 10 to be into porn...
It's so terrifying and dystopian. It's insane that that exists.
It's a misuse of the technology. Technology's meant to make life better. They bad guys now can use the tools the good guy uses, that were made for the good guy. But the bad guy's got them, and the people who make them are very, very, very wrong in saying it's not their responsibility. It is their responsibility, but they don't want to police. They don't want to be that which they put down. But you have to realize there's a responsibility with having power. So you have to be able to let people know what's going on. Let them know.
"The oxygen of art, the art we breathe, is going to save us."
Something needs to be created not for me, but for the art. What about the young artist who's trying to get started but has nowhere to go because there's no value, there's no value in the song, there's no way to put the song out and get anything back so that you might be able to buy an amp and buy a truck to take your band to another gig? You put out a great record and a lot of people heard it, but nobody got paid. That's like all the songs I ever made, everything I ever did, they pay me for my songs but nobody pays Crazy Horse, nobody pays the bands, nobody gets any royalties. The thing is, it's not about me and my guys, the older guys. It's about the people that we don't know, that I haven't met. It's the 10-year-old musician. Where the fuck are they going to get going? They can't. This is a grave situation for the arts. I don't want to be negative. We have to figure out a way to be positive about it.
What perhaps even more insidious is that art itself is starting to become commodified to the point that people won't be able to tell the difference. People will see it as an accessory rather than art that spiritually, existentially moves them.
That's a grave danger of the platforms.
Now we see art as capital.
It really is bad.
And as musicians become increasingly attached to these new platforms, maybe we're just going to see art get absorbed.
It's not going to happen. No. Don't worry about it.
What do you think's going to swing the pendulum the other way then?
The oxygen of art, the art we breathe, is going to save us. That when we can return the art to the form it was in in the first place—and I'm proving that the technology is there—there's no reason why all of these places couldn't sound as good as my site, other than the business of the record companies. Which I will solve. I will reveal it, and it will make a difference. It will happen. And if it doesn't, I'll die trying and someone else will do it.
"That's what made the '50s and '60s and '70s so great—people were immersed in the art because they could feel it. Now that's gone. And when we get that back, all of this other stuff will start to turn back to the good side."
It's going to happen. Because art won't die. You can't kill art. And art needs to breathe, so you need to give art all of its air, not just this much. Art's suffering right now. So if you let art breathe, everybody will breathe in the art. They'll breathe it too, and then we'll all get better. It'll all get better, because the art will sustain you. You're not getting the goodness out of the art because you can't hear it—it's only five percent of what was originally there. So what used to happen to my body when I used to listen to great records in my time, when I was totally turned on to music—that's not happening today. You're not getting it. That's what made the movement happen. That's what made the '50s and '60s and '70s so great—people were immersed in the art because they could feel it. Now that's gone. And when we get that back, all of this other stuff will start to turn back to the good side. They may not be as free as they were before, but I think the people that have been listening to music on the platforms could conceivably be much more free for breathing the art, for feeling, feeling it in their souls. That's what the art is all about, and these technologies are not allowing is to do this. That's the big crime.
There is the devil's advocate argument that a lot of this technology is democratizing access to listening. Which isn't to say musicians shouldn't get paid or that the quality shouldn't be up to what it used to. But everything from access to music-making technology... where does that fit in?
Well, if they can access this, they should be able to access quality. It should be the same price. There's no reason for it to cost more. And, really, it's going to be better for music. I'm just talking about music specifically. It's a dark thing, what we're talking about. But I don't think it's something that can't be overcome; I think it's something that can be overcome. People just need to hear it. They just need to hear that there's so much more there than what they're getting. That's why the 60s happened—because people felt it. It wasn't all that they went to concerts—they were listening to records. Records have everything.
A record is a universe of sound. Everything is there. It's a reflection of the original thing, like looking in a mirror, like looking at Mount Shasta reflected in Lake Shasta with no waves. It's a perfect reflection. That's what a record is. And digital—whether it's hi-res or lo-res, and especially lo-res—is just reconstituting what happened. It's not what happened. It's things that look like what happened, put together so they can be controlled. There's a lot of beauty to that technology, but unless you use it at the highest level, you don't get the beauty. So it's a lot cheaper than it was in the last century. In the 20th century, we needed to have it dumbed down because everybody needed to pay for memory. Now you don't have the challenge of memory. We have streaming. There's no memory involved.
I'm committed to this because this is what I grew up on. My life is built on art. It's built on music. And all of the things that are happening now with the platforms, it's a battle that needs to be solved and needs to be fought. It's a rambling epic now.
What are your thoughts on archives as a craft? Is it something we're going to see more because we have technology that better enables it? Or is it something that's going to make everything disposable, because everything's online?
That's what happens when you don't hear it—that feeling. Everything's disposable because we can get it online. Right now, you can't get it online. Right now, what you're getting doesn't make you feel like it isn't disposable. It makes you feel like it's wallpaper. So you can change your wall, put up a different wall—whatever. Paint it differently. Tomorrow, change another song, different feeling. It's all shit, doesn't matter. It gets a little depressing there, because it's not giving you anything. You play the song that everybody loved in 1975, sold millions of records, everybody's crazy about it. And you go, "Oh, this is just the same as everything else." That's because you're only getting so much to recognize what it is. You don't get enough to feel it. Feeling it is really, really important. And that's what I'm about; that's what this technology's about. Archiving is just putting it in order, and the platform for the archives and everything is just about organizing people's outputs, whether they write books, whether they're movie makers, whether you're studying the presidents of the United States.
Because it's been curated into playlists for cleaning your house.
Right. We need some new algorithms that respect art. That's what we need.
There's this quote from Jarvis Cocker. He said that that music has become more like a scented candle.
It's an electric scented candle. You have a little switch, and you turn it on and off. There's no pollution from it—it's very clean. It's a little bit disconcerting when you think about it. What you're doing at Noisey, you should keep doing it. It's a great thing. I'm not saying that what you're hearing is no good, that you're missing everything. Because people are into what they're doing. I'm saying that there's a window over here. Take a look through this window—see if you recognize or see anything that you haven't seen before, feel anything. Listen to this music for half an hour. Smoke some weed and listen to this. Do whatever you need to do. Have a beer, smoke some weed, take a walk, breathe some air, listen to it, see if it makes you feel different. It's better for your soul. Because there's nothing coming out of the platform that's good for your soul the way real quality is.