Rock ‘n’ roll bands don’t get any more quintessentially American than Neil Young’s longtime collaborative soul mate, Crazy Horse. What does the drum chair demand in this famously off-the-cuff combo? Guts, intuition, and a taste for spontaneity.
“I don’t like new cymbals or new shoes,” Ralph Molina says. “They’re not me. It feels like I’m sucking a lemon—you know how you pucker when you eat a lemon? New shoes are too clean, like new cymbals. I go by sound.”
As Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s drummer for more than forty years, Molina has operated “by sound” and not much else. When the band records, there are no rehearsals, and no charts are handed out. Young blasts his trademark distorted guitar squeal, and Molina, guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, and bassist Billy Talbot fall in with remarkably little fuss, relying on the unspoken psychic connection that has made Crazy Horse the go-to symbol for any group of rockers seeking the holy grail of playing like one mind, one body. Molina’s ramshackle, raw, from-the-heart drumming is the perfect foil to Young’s metal-scraping scrawl.
This year’s Americana is Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s fifteenth proper release, and it stands strong among classic albums like 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (featuring the iconic “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down by the River,” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”), 1975’s Zuma (“Cortez the Killer”), 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps (“My My, Hey Hey,” “Powderfinger”), and 1990’s Ragged Glory (“Mansion on the Hill”). In addition, Crazy Horse’s band members, alone and as a unit, have appeared on several other Young records, contributing to further hits including “Like a Hurricane” and “Lotta Love.” And the group has released five additional studio albums without Neil. This latest chapter in Young’s ceaselessly prolific career interprets the American songbook—of sorts—with the band riffing madly through such classics as “Oh Susannah,” “Clementine,” and “This Land Is Your Land.” MD caught up with Ralph Molina as the group prepared for its current U.S. tour, which includes stops at Red Rocks, the Hollywood Bowl, and Madison Square Garden.
MD: How do you usually create a drum part with Neil Young & Crazy Horse?
Ralph: The process we’ve had for years is that Neil will start playing, and everybody will join in with him. That’s how we record with Neil. We don’t have parts. I hate parts. I like to be spontaneous.
MD: Once an album is done and you’re on the road, do you repeat your recorded drum parts?
Ralph: Never. I’m better live than on the recordings. When we record we really don’t know the song yet. We’re just feeling where Neil is going with it, and we go along. But when we play live I let it all hang out. It’s like being an actor. In the studio we nail it within one or two takes. When you go on stage you have one shot. You just go for it. Like when we play “Like a Hurricane” or “Cortez the Killer,” it’s never the same. We always play differently. I like to call it jazz-rock because it’s spontaneous; it’s not a part. Some songs, like “Cinnamon Girl,” stay closer to the original. When we play that [sings the famous guitar riff] the drum part stays the same. But when Neil plays “Cortez” or “Hurricane” or “Danger Bird,” we can take it out.
MD: Is it frustrating to record a song without knowing it?
Ralph: We’ve been doing this for a long time with Neil. So we know what we’re getting into. When you get it on the first or second take, the feel is there. When you play it ten times, you have a part and it’s structured. When you’re playing free and not thinking, you’re really playing and feeling. That’s what the songs are about. When I’m playing live with Neil, my head is down—but I know exactly when to look up. I can feel it, and when I do look up, Neil’s going to the same place I’m going. He’s a feel player and I am too, so we feel it together.
MD: You have Neil’s guitar in your monitor. How would you describe his style?
Ralph: You have the chops players—“poseurs,” I call them. Neil’s rhythm guitar playing goes everywhere. He’s not like those guitar players that play patterns. He plays with a lot of air and a lot of emotion. When he plays rhythm it’s not stock rhythm, bar after bar. It’s so soulful. It’s all from his heart. It’s not easy to predict his next move. It’s not a steady rhythm, but when Neil plays it’s all passion, all emotion.
MD: If he changes constantly as a guitarist, how are you changing as a drummer?
Ralph: I’m keeping the groove, but it’s not like a three-minute song and this is the groove and I stay there. I can be spontaneous and just play along with Neil. And it works.
MD: Do you record to a click?
Ralph: No, we tried that years ago in New York. Neil was the first one to pull the plug on that. You’re following a click; you’re not playing with feeling. I’m playing with headphones and I’m trying to play a fill with the click track? Screw this. We kept the headphones on, but as soon as Neil ripped his off, we ripped ours off too.
MD: What drummers do you like?
Ralph: I like Neil Peart. He has chops, but he doesn’t sound like a studio drummer. And Dave Grohl, he plays with passion.
I grew up singing doo-wop in New York City. I never thought about drummers or that I would be playing drums. I always thought I would be singing. But the group I was in, Danny and the Memories, convinced me to play drums. Then we became the Rockets [the band that Young renamed Crazy Horse and tapped for his second album as a leader]. I had more rhythm than the other guys. I began playing paradiddles on cardboard boxes. Then I evolved from there.
MD: Tell me about your drum tuning. It’s flat and direct and no frills, which mirrors your drumming.
Ralph: I tune the drums by ear, the way I hear them. I have a drum tech who tunes at soundcheck, and then I’ll retune them if they sound too high. I like drums to sound low. It fits what we do. I don’t like tight heads on my toms. I do keep the snare tight because I want that snap, but I also want that bottom end. If I tune it too loose I don’t get the crack.
MD: Would it be an intimidating experience to sit in with Neil Young & Crazy Horse?
Ralph: It might be intimidating to sit next to me. But not playing with Neil.
MD: But playing with Neil with no idea of what he’s going to do next would seem extremely difficult.
Ralph: I don’t think about that. When we used to play clubs with Neil years ago, Stephen Stills would follow Neil around with his drummer, Dallas Taylor. Dallas sat in. He just played. He just had fun. Neil is great to play with.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
MD: What drumset are you playing on Americana?
Ralph: Usually I play my 1960s Ludwig set, but Neil asked Johnny Craviotto to build a custom set, so I played that with my old Ludwig snare on the album. I’ll take both sets on tour. I like my old K Zildjian cymbals. I use thin 16″ crash cymbals for hi-hats; they sound great. I don’t know why they sound better than 14s. But they’re warm sounding, and they cut through. When Dave Grohl played on the Queens of the Stone Age album [Songs for the Deaf], I loved that crash he was using, and I asked him about it. He said it was an old cymbal he found in the studio. Old cymbals can sound great.”