Nils Lofgren joined Neil Young’s band at the age of 17 to record After the Gold Rush. It became one of the most acclaimed albums of Young’s career. Nils subsequently formed his own band, Grin, before going on to join Young in Crazy Horse in 1972. He joined Bruce Springstein’s E Street Band in 1984. While Nils has since toured the world with many other big name bands, he also enjoys performing his own material, and recently finished recording his latest album, Sacred Weapon.
Honest Tune contributing editor Fred Adams spoke with Nils recently from his home in Scottsdale, AZ, just as he was preparing to leave for a tour of Europe. The multi-instrumentalist discussed, amongst other things, his new CD, John Madden, Branford Marsalis, Derek Trucks, life both on and off the road, and a web site that he sees as a vehicle for bringing more attention to his vast body of work.
An excerpt of this interview will be featured in the Winter '06 issue of Honest Tune.
Honest Tune: So Nils, tell me what has you up and working so early in the morning?
Nils Lofgren: Well, I’m on the road a lot, and on the road, it’s the exact opposite. I can’t calm down after the show, so I’m up very late at night . But for some reason, when I’m home, I love daytime. I’ve got two dogs and two cats, a great wife and son and he gets up at 7AM to get ready for school, so in general I’m still trying to be a homebody. I end up hitting the hay pretty early and I just wake up with the sun.
HT: Most of musician friends don’t seem to be able turn that road switch off when they get home.
NL: I guess (it’s easier) with a family and pets. And I’ve got a place that’s really nice, an old adobe home made in Scottsdale in 1935. Things are breaking and springing leaks, and I’m trying to keep the coyotes from killing our two dogs and two cats – I’ve got a very adventurous day, you know.
HT: I just received Sacred Weapon yesterday. It’s gotten three plays in 24 hours, so I must really like it.
NL: Thanks. I worked really hard on it. I did do a lot more writing than one record and had 25-30 songs that I felt good about. I really took my time after the last tour with the E. Street band and just kind of got situated at home. After a long year and a half on the road I just started writing anything and everything that came out. I didn’t edit myself, I wrote a lot of corny country songs I wouldn’t even play for you, a little embarrassing actually. But what happened was, instead of being the professional writer where nothing is ever good enough and I wind up getting frustrated and I start over-editing, I just tried to be the writer as a hobby and just get in the writing groove.
Sure enough, after trying not to be too analytical about it, I started writing some things that liked. It was fun because I haven’t had a record company in 12 years. Part of that freedom is to be able to just make a record that explores my schizophrenia, not in a bad way, but I grew up loving old country, rock, funk, blues, Motown, Stax. I’m just kind of a melting pot of things, so nothing is forced. But on the other side of the coin, as I found songs I felt really good about without being burdened by thoughts of “oh, this one’s gentle,” “this one’s rough,” “this one’s a little country,” “you can’t put them all those on one record.” That’s one of the nice things about not having a company, no one’s telling me what I can’t do, and I figure if I just staying involved with songs I’m excited about, that’s the best place to start to try to do something the audience might enjoy.
I’m real happy about having Big Daddy as a distributor. They are getting the record in some shops, and having Macro Management help us with promotion. It’s a little overwhelming, because I grew up with record companies. But I’m getting used to the new frontier, without that kind of help. I’ve also got a website (www.nilslofgren.com ), just trying to build a new audience without the traditional record companies help. I just posted a free download of an old demo, and my first guitar lesson, and an hour lesson you can download and take totally online.
HT: Are you talking about the “Wonderful World” demo, that’s great?
NL: Yeah, the old Sam Cooke song. I made that demo 8 or 9 years ago, when I was dating my wife. It’s one of my favorite old songs and I thought I’d just sing it for her and make a demo. Then I thought, you know, I have all these outtakes too, from the new record, and some other songs I really like that just didn’t make the record. Getting used to this whole new technology, Macro Management helped me with a MySpace page. My guitar tech, and sound man and production manager, Roy is great with computers, and everyone is helping me with something I know nothing to bring back daylight to my music. I’m not looking for a record deal, the industry is crazy to me. So I am excited, after 38 years on the road, to have a new record I’m proud of and to be able to sing and play and just try and build it into something bigger. It’s exciting just to be alive and well, and I feel like I’ve got something new to say, so I am going to go sing and play.
HT: You mentioned your website. I noticed the Nils Lofgren Guitar School link, but did not have the chance to check it out.
NL: People have been asking me for decades to give them guitar lessons, which I did briefly as a teenager. So I got a camera and set it up in my home studio. I know nothing about technology, so it’s just a primitive. I just sat there for an hour and I took this piece, “Keith Don’t Go,” which was a song I wrote about Keith Richards for a solo album in ’75.
I’ve got a fairly good presentation on the acoustic guitar of the song with quite a bit of finger picking and harmonics so I just very casually talked people through, slowed things WAY down, and tried to share some of my techniques. I play with a thumb pick and I stink with a flat pick, but I picked one up just to try and show people to play with a flat pick. It’s just more about a feeling, than specific notes.
So that was my first lesson, and it’s on the website now. It’s just $15.00 for the hour lesson which is half of what most teachers here in town charge. I keep meaning to do more, (a new one) every month or two. I’m hoping once I get off the road to stockpile some lessons and (use them to) kind of grass roots show people what I’m doing, slow it down, and try and zoom into my hands a little. Everyone who has sampled it all seem to be favorable, so I’m going to keep doing it just to show what I know.
I get a lot of the young kids that got dragged to my shows when they were 8 or 9 and just wanted to go home that are now 14 and are asking me questions about my foot pedals and saying things like “Hey, what was that like, doing the After the Gold Rush album with Neil Young?” They are taking a new interest (in older rock-n-roll), so I thought, if I started some doing real grass roots stuff, sitting around, shooting the breeze talking about playing and my approach, for an hour at a clip, that maybe people would take interest in it, and I could build some fans that way too.
HT: Let’s get back to the new album. Do you have any favorite tracks?
NL: As a fan, it certainly made a special song extraordinary to have Willie Nelson do a duet with me on “In Your Hand.” That was just a real special tune to begin with … it was Christmas Eve, and I was writing it for my wife and I realized I better finish it or go to K-mart and buy some lousy gift that I was never going to live down. So that was a great track to me, and Willie Nelson manager, Mark Rothbaum, was kind enough to ask Willie to listen to it. Fortunately he liked it and was open to doing a duet with me.
I still get a kick out of hearing Willie Nelson’s voice singing my song. It isn’t because it’s the best song, I am really proud of all of them. There is something to each one that really is special to me, and I couldn’t pick one, but if you made me, I’d pick “In Your Hands.”
I really feel great about all the songs. “Frankie Hang On,” which was of inspired by my wife Amy finding a soldier that had been injured in Iraq to help out last Christmas, is another unusual story. We got to know him and his wife a bit. The story is an extension of their journey, where the soldier wants to go back to war and the wife wanting him to stay home. I used my imagination a bit, but I do know a lot of people, especially back in the Vietnam days in the 60’s when I was a teenager. I’d see characters like the one in this song who basically would tell you that they hate war, but after a tour of duty they are addicted to the fear and violence and they keep going back, and it’s a struggle. Plus, it was special to me to have David Crosby and Graham Nash sing on it. Of course, that was right up their alley,
I am a fan of Martin Sexton and saw him do a show in town and my wife Amy said, “Hey, why don’t you get him to sing on your record?.” It really wasn’t my intent to get all these special guests, but it really made the record a lot more colorful and diverse and more soulful to have all these other great voices helping me out.
HT: Diversity seems to be a theme that runs throughout the record.
NL: That wasn’t my intent, it was just a natural thing. It wasn’t forced, I just worked on songs I was most engaged with. My greatest influence and mentor, David Briggs, who was Neil Young’s producer, took me under his wing in the early days in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I had a song I wrote about David, called “Mr. Hardcore,” which he was. I finally got the right music for it, a kind of a biography of David Briggs from my perspective. He was a huge influence and mentor for my band Grin and myself, and helped me out at an early age… Tonight’s the Night, After the Gold Rush, the first Crazy Horse album without Neil Young. He was a huge inspiration, cheerleader, advisor, big brother type friend that we were very sad when he passed away a number of years ago. We all miss him very much, so I was glad to finally find some music I thought fit David’s personality.
It was an interesting concept. Way back in the Grin days, we had a second album and we realized that we had so many songs, and half of them were gentle and half were sort of rough. So we had a rockin’ side and a dreamy side, back in the days of LPs. What happened was I felt really attached to all of these songs and my manager suggested, as we were working on running words, that people kind of like the gentleness of my voice in my acoustic shows as fans get older. So we thought, “jeez, there’s all these cool kind of funk things rock things, we don’t want to alienate people who liked my gentler voice.”
So we decided to use the schizophrenia to our advantage and to start with something gentle, go a little rougher, then back to gentle. That way, we didn’t lose anyone that maybe wanted to hear just something gentle because of all the rough songs. They aren’t that rough, they are all very melodic, but there are some things that, if you are in a peaceful mode, are going to jar. So we decided, at least for the first half of the record to literally shift left to right and try not to lose anyone that before we lost after two or three harder rocking songs. We thought we’d give them one every other song and try and keep them engaged, so that by mid record when it starts to pick up and stay a little bit more on the rockin side, they already had the flow of the melody and aren’t going to be put off. You know, “Mr. Hardcore” and “Nobody There” are two of the most aggressive tracks and, at that point, because I still think there is a lot being said. I wanted to try and keep people engaged who were looking to hear my gentler voice. So that was the theme of this yin and yang right out the gate with this running order.
HT: “Mr. Hardcore” is definitely one of my favorite tracks on the album. You do some really strong guitar work on that one…
NL: Thanks so much, it was fun. Another instrument I had been playing with the E Street Band and I never brought into my own studio was the big baritone guitar, which is basically a guitar that is strung with deeper strings so it’s kind of a cross between a bass and a guitar, with deeper darker sound. I actually wrote “Mr. Hardcore” and “You Are Not There,” which is about a ghetto child, on the Bari and was able to use them in the tracking so it’s got this deeper, gnarlier sound which was cool.
HT: You play many different instruments on the album. Was the planned?
NL: The last two tours with Bruce and the E Street Band, we were lucky to get Steve (Van Zandt) back in the band. We think that is a huge step towards being the best band we’ve ever been but Patty and I joined 22 years ago. But we certainly don’t need four guitar players, so, I started learning some pedal steel and some bottle neck, Dobro, and lap steel. Even though I’m a beginner I’ve gotten these new sounds I really like, which was exciting.
“Your Woman” was just a blues exercise that turned into a tongue in cheek song about some jerk men, and everyone liked it, so there are a lot of new things that I was able to bring to this record that kept me engaged, because I struggle with patience in the studio. I love the live environment , I love being in front of an audience, because they give you and energy and keep you in the moment like no one else can, especially myself.
So we took our time in the studio, I had some friends helping me, and tried to just keep it organic and fun. Even though you do have to be critical yourself and craft songs into records, it was one of the more enjoyable projects I’ve ever done and I really felt good about the whole thing, especially since I’d had a chance to do so much writing and just kind of stick to the songs I felt most emotionally attached to as the recording process continued.
HT: My favorite track on the album is definitely “Fat Girls Dance.”
NL: That’s a bizarre song. I usually try to be very clear in my lyrics, but that one I could not imagine anyone figuring it out. The seed (of the song) came from the movie Bruce Almighty, with Morgan Freeman playing God. I took that concept and pretended I was the character in the song …you wind up with this enormous power of God, and the character comes on at the homecoming dance of the planet and, much like our planet today, everyone is screwing up, especially the people in power. This character metaphorically explains to everyone, “I’m going to screw with everyone in a violent way until the fat girls dance – meaning the poor, the hungry, the starving, the disenfranchised, the people prejudiced against the crippled, until those people get on the floor and the dance in light and love I’m going to screw with all you people with the power and the arrogance and the stuffy noses.”
It was just one of those inspired songs; I cannot explain it, that came out of nowhere. I looked at it and I said, "no one is going to understand it;" every verse was a vignette that had personal meaning to me. I took my gut instincts, and it seemed beautiful to me. So I decided not to mess with it and try and make it clearer. Of course, inevitably, some people take it the wrong way, they think I may be poking fun at fat women, which I am not, but that is what the song’s about and I’m not sure anyone has figured that out on their own.
It was just one of those obscure lyrics that was so right in my head and heart that I just decided not to try and clear it up for anyone. I wasn’t intentionally trying to be vague but I realize it’s a long jump into understanding clearly, so I am happy to explain it.
HT: Tell me about the tribute to Walter Payton?
NL: Do you remember the All-Madden teams? I was doing music for John Madden’s teams for 10 years in the 90’s. There’s a record called Tough Stuff, the best of the All-Madden Team Band, which has a ton of all that old music on it. Since I did it for so long and it was such a great honor to work with Madden and you don’t really hear the music because they are talking over it (when the show was broadcast), so I asked them for permission to put it out as an instrumental record.
(Madden) had asked me to write a tribute to Walter one year. They were going to honor Walter on the show (and the song was written for that purpose) but they decided to use “Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole (instead). I love Walter Payton. I love football, but there are so many great players and there aren’t that many great, exceptional players off the field. I was born in Chicago, left there when I was 8 and moved to DC so I am a big Redskins fan, but coming from Chicago, I always had a special place for the Bears and I always followed Walter’s career so it was fun to have all this raw footage, just sit there with a guitar and come up with the song “Tried and True,” just kind of a inspirational piece about an inspirational man.
(“Tried and True”) was used as a bonus track on the Madden instrumental album, but almost no one ever heard it and my manager Anson pleaded with me to get it on a record. Sadly, after we lost Walter, I just took my manager’s pleads to heart and felt this was a good record to share the song more officially and try and turn people on to what was an inspired song. As a fan I am sure you can imagine me sitting there with a guitar in my hand and watching all this raw footage they would send me. It was really a treat for me and an unusual project to be involved with for so many years.
HT: I thought it fit really well within the context of the disc.
NL: Yeah, I’m a very unreligious person, but a deeply spiritual person by nature, especially as I get older. By accident, in this unedited writing jag, I came up with a folk spiritual “Comfort Your Love Brings” and had a rock spiritual, “Come a Day,” pop out, so there is a lot of reflective, spiritual feeling throughout the record. When I wrote “Tried and True,” I was grateful to have an individual like that to be inspired by. Not just as a person, but happening to be a kid who grew up playing football and loving it as a sport, it made it easier to come up with something that I thought was fairly special.
HT: Are you planning to tour much in support of the disc?
NL: I’ve been touring all year. I did a month with a band in the East, but you know I can’t really take bands out of the Northeast. I cannot tell you how many times in my life I’ve gone and done a wonderful two month tour and lost my entire savings. I have a wife and son, and paying to play music is not something that is appropriate right now for me. I am happy to work for free occasionally, but it would be irresponsible to lose my life savings to play rock-n-roll at this point.
I love playing with a band, but I have a very wonderful small following. My dream is the same, without a record company, my goal is to build back up into something where I can start playing theaters all over the country with a great band and sound and lights and do a beautiful show and control the environment for the audience. That’s what I am working towards and that will be dream I will have my whole life. Maybe I am being naïve, but I feel like I have a talent I didn’t ask for and I am grateful for that, and if I keep working hard at it you never know. With technology exploding and with all the different things going on, if I just keep my eyes and my heart open, I think I might keep getting better at what I do.
But, because I have a new record I’ve been on the road all year. I just did some shows in Vegas and Nevada City and Reno, solo acoustic shows. I’ve got a couple shows in Germany coming up, then I am going to California, then back to England. It’s very grass roots and off the grid but we post the dates on the website. I’ve been gone from home more than I have been home this year and that will continue. I am just planning shows and spreading the word, at least solo acoustic. At the end of the night I sit at a table and sign CD’s for people and chat with them and that usually ends up being almost an hour, so that is very hands on, back to basics where I started – one on one with the audience, playing little clubs, and trying to spread the word and keep the people that are familiar with me engaged and see that I am doing something that I think is special and try and find some new fans along the way too.
HT: Have you performed acoustically much in your career?
NL: I started (performing acoustically) in the early 80’s with my brother Tommy as an acoustic duo. At first we really didn’t like it and it was kind of like a fish out of water but that was in the early 80’s – it’s been a long time. I’ve never done it by myself until this year. It is a bit of a challenge in such a very intimate environment. People tend to like to see you under that kind of focus and pressure stripped down to the basics. Of course, I’m not going to sit there and flail away like I do on “Mr. Hardcore.” I rearrange it acoustically, but I’ve got that riff on the baritone and I tone it down and try and make it more intimate, find a voice to highlight the words without shouting them so much. I am pretty good at tailoring a song to work in an acoustic format, but I won’t force it.
I also sit down at the piano during an acoustic show. I played the accordion classically for ten years as a kid, and that is the ONLY reason I was able to play piano on After the Gold Rush. I wasn’t a piano player, but I had some accordion experience so Neil wanted me to figure out some simple piano parts, which I did. I sit down at my own show and play some piano too – I try to make it a special night with the audience, whether I am with a band or by myself.
HT: Of all the big projects you’ve been associated with over the years, is there anything you can name as a favorite.
NL: I love being in great bands. I’m very comfortable being in other bands, but it has to be an extraordinary situation. With Ringo’s All Star Bands, Neil’s bands and Bruce, I’ve had that opportunity. My point is, at that level, when something is that good, I cannot really pick one over the other. Things in common with those bands: I’ve been able to be myself, I’ve been able to really embrace NOT being a leader. It is really refreshing for me after being a band leader for 38 years to take a break from that role because it’s an enormous amount of non-musical issues and to play with Ringo, Neil or Bruce. Patty Scialfa took an incredible band out on the road with her for a few weeks last year and Steve Jordan, a great friend, was her musical director. I really embrace not being the boss or leader and I embrace musically, not having to play every solo and to have the chance plays all these different instruments, with cool rhythms and not to have in my own career. So, it would be impossible to pick one over the other, because they are all so great.
HT: How about albums, any favorites of yours?
NL: Just because of the unusual nature of it, Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night. Neil wanted people to know what the music is, even when the band doesn’t know what the music is – performing live music, as they are learning it, with there is no overdubs, there are no fixes, the very exposed, naked passionate side of a musician working on something he is unfamiliar with, but engaged by.
That was an incredible record to be a part of. I’m glad to be able to pick one overall experience because I sang a lot, I played piano, guitar (acoustic and electric), and it was a kind of concept record that brought my favorite environment, which is live, into the recording studio. It was kind of the rule of thumb, and the basis of the whole project, which made it very unusual.
Some people can not handle the roughness (of the album), but that was Neil. Even Ralphie (Ralph Molina, drummer) and I were like, “Let’s re-sing this, now I know the words,” and Neil would say, “But you were into it,” and I would say, “Yeah, I was into it, but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” He would say, “Yeah, but that’s what I am trying to show people.” So it is hard to take for some people, but in the spirit of what he was doing, if you get it, it is a very emotional and exposed raw-nerve record. It was an honor to participate in something like that.
We’d get together at about six in the evening at a studio or rehearsal hall and we’d pull up a remote truck to our rehearsal room wire everything up. We’d shoot pool and commiserate about our two lost friends, Danny Whitten, who had overdosed, and Bruce Barry, who’s the character in the song “Tonight’s the Night.” (Bruce) was a roadie who died out on the road. We weren’t all depressed, but we were somber. We just hung out, and shot pool and just were kind of a family, until about midnight, then we’d just jam out to these mini sets that we were learning as we recorded them. David Briggs was the producer, and things went right to tape, no fixes, and then we got these performances that Neil felt represented live these songs but in this kind of new, unstructured, play-as-you-go thing.
HT: That’s very interesting, I’ve never heard that story before. I notice that you also played with Branford Marsalis on one of my favorite jazz discs of all time, “Buckshot LeFonque.”
NL: Branford and I got to be friends on the Amnesty International tour. We played ball over the world together. He’s a great basketball player, a great athlete. We got to be good buddies. He actually asked me to play on that record and I said, “Branford, I cannot play jazz.” He‘s one of those cool musicians who, even though he’s an extraordinary jazz musician, is kind of like a history professor of music, and playing it. He gave me a beginning jazz tape, with eight or nine things to give me an introduction to the classics. When he called me I was afraid, and told him, “Branford, I don’t want to let you down. I cannot really play jazz.” He said, “I’ve got some things I think you can do.”
I’ll never forget. I was working on the “Caged Bird Sings” group, trying to find some licks to play, and I was really struggling and felt bad. So I asked Branford to leave me alone for awhile because I was embarrassed and after a couple of hours he could tell I was struggling. Then, as only a guy with his kind of knowledge could do, he said “Look, you’re making harder than it needs to be. Just pretend you’re playing the blues and you’re going from B-flat to F-7,”or something like that, I forget the exact chords.
He said, “Just think like that, and your normal way of playing ought to fit.” And it was like a magic. I am the kind of person that, I believe, no matter what it is, if you leave me alone long enough, I will find five notes that work and then find something that feels right. If it’s a complex jazz piece I may need a week alone, but I was sitting here making something pretty simple more complicated than it needed to be because of my initial intimidation and hesitation about my abilities as a jazz musician, which is something I am not. But Branford always felt like he heard that kind of improv in my playing and sure enough he gave me a roadmap, which was like a key to the kingdom. The next thing I knew, it more like playing the melodic blues and he found some really nice phrases and pieces that he was able to stick in there and bring up right where I played them, and of course, to have the great poet Maya Angelieu reading over your playing; it was just a very special project, and I was really grateful for the help Branford offered. He is just a genius musician, and it was a treat to watch him play with Sting on the Amnesty tour in 1988, and then he’d run out and play Twist and Shout with the E Street Band…it was cool. That was probably my favorite tour because I got to travel with Sting and Peter Gabriel’s bands, who are two of my favorites, and we went all around the world and I was there at every show watching those guys that are kind of like musical heroes to me. To see them every night was just spectacular.
HT: Who are some of your favorites to listen to?
NL: I got a real hodgepodge of…it’s kind of between British Invasion, Stax, Motown, and the old Blues like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters type stuff. I’ve got these tapes I take with me that have the oldest stuff, Bonnie Raitt, all the great obscure singles – Annie Lennox, Sting, Gabriel, a lot of the old classic rock stuff, Benny King, “Stand By Me,” a real mix of all those things. There is a great new artist named Martin Sexton. He’s not new, but he’s another grass roots guy who is doing it without a big record company and he’s fabulous.
I’ve got the “Caged Bird Sings” on a tape somewhere around here but it’s usually tapes that I’ve made at home. I don’t have an iPod yet, I am just learning how to burn CD’s and get with the times. Last tour I had a friggin’ cassette player out there, so I’m moving slow, but I like to have low level music in these dingy dressing rooms with a hodgepodge of all that stuff. Jonny Lang is another one of the great young artists. He’s been around a long time already and he’s a great player, but it’s his singing that impresses me most.
And real stuff, like the old Motown with Marvin Gaye and the Supremes; the Beatles and the Stones, of course. That’s the greatest stuff in history. There is beautiful music being made currently, there’s a lot of bad stuff and good stuff, and you just find out about it through your friends, or you find it, fall in love with it and add it to your collection.
HT: Who are some of your favorite of the younger generation of musicians?
NL: Derek Trucks is one of my favorites. I think that Derek is just a brilliant player. In fact I was just with my buddy Steve Jordan, who’s playing drums with Eric Clapton and he was raving about Derek’s job out there.
My band Grin got to open for the Allman Brothers in the 60’s. He’s kind of like, in a way, it’s not like he’s…and I say Duane Allman and mean NO disrespect, I mean Derek has his own sound, his own thing. But, he’s taken that slide bottleneck thing to a new level…in the spirit of Duane Allman he’s made it his own.
HT: That’s all the questions I have today, Nils. Is there anything you’d like to add in summary?
NL: Just that I am grateful; extremely grateful for the fans that I have. I would like to direct people to the website (www.nilslofgren.com ), and let them know I am looking for feedback. There’s a free chartroom, and I’m just looking to stay in touch through the website. I can just promise that I am as excited about music as I have ever been, and I am getting out singing and playing.
I am open to suggestions, this whole new frontier and I am happy to get feedback and explore it and the best way to do that is the website. I don’t respond to every comment, but I do read every one. Every few weeks I let people know what I am up to. If there is an issue that people are debating about, then I will try and weigh in on it and clarify every once in a while where I stand on issues. It’s a good way to get feedback from me and to weigh in on anything regarding my music.