RALPH MOLINA/CRAZY HORSE
Photo © Corrina Jones
Interview by John Wisniewski & Jason Gross
"Ragged Glory" was a 1990 album title but also seemed like a fitting description for a great band. For over fifty years, Crazy Horse has been the band that Neil Young keeps coming back to, making some of his greatest work and some of the most classic 'classic rock' since then. Starting out as doo-wop combo Danny and the Memories and later morphing into garage rockers the Rockets and then Crazy Horse, drummer Ralph Molina, bassist Billy Talbolt and guitarist Danny Whitten crafted a powerful, no frills roar behind Young, beginning with 1969's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and parts of 1970's After the Gold Rush (mini revelation- CH's wonderful harmonies grew out of their vocal group years). As Young hit fame and then strange byways, the Horse recorded a few albums of their own albums, though Whitten died of an overdose in 1972. With guitarist Frank 'Poncho' Sampedro, Horse was reborn as Young's backing band in 1975, recording on and off with him in an incredible run of albums (including Rust Never Sleeps), right up to 2019's Colorado, though Sampedro retired in 2014, replaced by Gold Rush alumni Nils Lofgren, who also had a storied solo career, not to mention being an E Street band member. That same year, Molina also put out his own solo album, the sweet and sweeping Love & Inspiration, which is available on Bandcamp.
Oh, and did we mention that the Horse will be featured on another live album coming out in February, documenting the 'Ragged Glory' tour (appropriately titled Way Down In the Rust Bucket)? And yes, he talks about that too below.
Through all of Young's rollercoaster career, Molina has been one of the few constants. And having created decades of amazing, timeless music, Molina has been an important part of musical history. While Young (whom he refers to as 'the big guy') has done his share of interviews, the Crazy Horse mainstay hasn't been heard from nearly enough. So, in the words of James Brown, it's time to give the drummer some.
Thanks go out Joe Yanosik for helping with questions too.
PSF: Before you started in any band, who were the performers that you loved when you were young?
RM: Being raised in the Lower East Side of New York, I grew up loving the doo-wop groups of those times. It's why I love to sing. The Jesters, the Paragons. The Marvelettes. So many.
PSF: How did you first start playing drums?
RM: I came out to Cali from Florida after my cousin Lou. He knew I was singing with some guys in Florida and he knew I sang the high parts. He was here in Cali, with Danny and Billy as Danny and the Memories, doing doo-wop. When the Beatles came out, 4 guys playing instruments and singing... it was time to change. Danny played guitar at the time, I guess me, having the most rhythm, he said, 'Billy you should learn the bass.' Billy played some guitar. And Danny looks at me and says, 'Ralph, you should play the drums.' 'What?' I asked. 'I've never played drums in my life.' So I did. A cardboard box, for snare, spaghetti strainer for hi-hat, that was it. LOL. Someone, can't remember who, bought me a small kit. It was hilarious, but here we are. It worked. I realized, 'hey ok, it's a feel thing.' From Danny and the Memories to the Rockets (which we became around '65) to Crazy Horse. The good thing is, we were, and still are, as Neil is, feel players- heart and passion. But take a listen to At Crooked Lake- we played great on it. With Neil, he doesn't play straight rhythm- it's more open, airy. Not easy to play with, so I play the song.
PSF: Before Crazy Horse, there was the Rockets and the band's 1968 album. What would you say about that record now?
RM: I'd say I'm happy we did it. That was our very first experience recording an album. [We were] kids recording. We had Barry Goldberg producing it. Busted our cherry. We practiced for that one in Billy's garage, hence [we were a] garage band.
PSF: How did Crazy Horse form?
RM: Neil would come out to (Billy Talbot's) house in Laurel Canyon, after he left the [Buffalo] Springfield, and play acoustic with us and talk. After we became the Rockets, we were going to play the Whiskey in Hollywood. We asked him to come sit in with us, which he did. We then formed into Crazy Horse and recorded Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
PSF: What was it like to be in Crazy horse in the early days?
RM: They were young days. Lots of playing in clubs. Great friendship. We felt, Danny and I, that as the big guy went up the ladder, we, the Horse, would also rise. That was a bummer- we were too young to realize that was one reason Danny went the way he did. We weren't, or till this day, are not.
PSF: What do you mean by that?
RM: We didn't climb as we thought we would, and still haven't really. We never have, nor do we do consider ourselves a backup band.
PSF: Could you talk about the recording of Everybody Knows This is Nowhere?
RM: The sessions went free and easy, like they are to this day. No rehearsals. Neil walks in with a song, then we jump in. We get it in one, two takes. After that, the feel, heart and emotion are lost. Any more takes, and now you're just playing a part. They were at Neil's house in Topanga. When you're young, there are no politics, nothing to get in the way. We just had fun playing- no thinking, just playing.
PSF: Leaving aside the tragic nature of his death, what kind of memories do you have of Danny Whitten that you would want people to know about?
RM: Danny was a talented, kind soul. There was a time when I didn't have my rent and Danny came to my apartment and didn't say a word- he took my hand and placed $100 in it. I've never forgotten that kind gesture. He, with his talent, hated being in the background. He had more than just being a sideman to offer. He once said, "if I'm ever in a fight, I want you, Ralph, with me." Miss him.
PSF: As Neil would go through different phases or styles, did you ever find it jarring or would you just go with the flow?
RM: Neil going through phases, styles. That's his style. Heck no- not jarring to me. Yes, I go with the flow. I speak up when I speak up when I have to. I find it exciting. Keeps playing from being boring.
PSF: How do you speak up in terms of the band?
RM: By that I mean, when I have to stick up for a band member, a tech, etc., I do. The big guy likes and knows, my head is not up his arse. I speak up musically, and in defense. If he accepts my input musically, that's great. If not, that's great too.
PSF: Neil once characterized Crazy Horse as something that shouldn't get too fancy- he said something like 'you don't spook the Horse.' Do you agree?
RM: I agree. The way we play, which is by feel, passion. We don't like to be stared at. We get into a zone. Me, I tell my drum techs two things- never let me see you staring at me, and if you need to get drum heads etc., don't ask me, just get them. On stage, we really don't look at each other much. We just feel.
The Santa Monica Flyers pose for Tonight's the Night: Nils Lofgren, Billy, Neil (smiling in back), Ben Keith, Ralph in the shadows
PSF: Some of the mid '70's albums seemed to go to pretty dark places. Did you feel like these might have been cathartic experiences?
RM: LOL. Cathartic? No sir. They're just songs. I don't label anything- we just play. Tonight's the Night- now there was an album I loved to play on, because of the songs, the meaning.
Crazy Horse at the time of their self-titled 1971 album: Danny Whitten, Jack Nitzsche, Billy Talbolt, Ralph
PSF: Let's talk about the Crazy Horse albums themselves. Could you talk about how the first self-titled 1971 album came together? How did Loose and At Crooked Lake come together so quickly in '72, right after that? Why did you decide to do Crazy Moon several years after that?
RM: Well, the first Crazy Horse album just happened. I mean, we had the core- Danny, Billy, and I- and we had Nils and Jack [Nitzsche]. We just all agreed to do our solo album. It wasn't easy because of Danny's situation [unstability], but we did it, and we're very proud of it. We couldn't tour- I think if we had been able to, who knows what may have happened?
After Danny passed, Billy and I already knew [guitarist] George Whitsell from the Rockets. Then we met [keyboardist] John Blanton, whom I miss to this day, big teddy bear, and [guitarist] Greg Leroy. Billy and I just thought as a band- that's what I meant about how we're not a backup band. We got together and we cut the Loose album.
We were on tour in Fla., and we had a get together in one room at a hotel. I met Rick Curtis [banjo, guitar]. He and I were on the balcony and he played me his songs. I thought they were great, and he sang great. I asked him to come out to Cali., which he did, and he brought his brother Michael [organ] along. I thought he'd come out alone, but it worked out. So Billy, me and Greg Leroy, along with Rick and Michael, we decided to cut an album, At Crooked lake. We named it after an actual place we stayed at while playing some shows. It is, besides our first Horse album, my favorite, both playing and singing wise.
Crazy Moon, just happened. We were not with Neil at that time, and Poncho had a studio in his house, so why not?
Crazy Horse at the time of the 1975 album Zuma: Ralph, Billy, Poncho, Neil
PSF: When Poncho jointed the Horse in the '70's, how did that change the dynamic of the band?
RM: When we let Poncho in the band, after Danny passed, what he brought was a power thing, being from Detroit.
PSF: How was working on Rust Never Sleeps?
RM: Loud, but awesome. Neil- " Ralph, get bigger drums." That's when the big guy got his amp setup. Lucky I was behind those amps. LOL. Great group of songs. Having awesome fun with friends. Got to really rock out on this one. Our sound was going into the grunge sound then. The big guy's solos were awesome. That's when we started going into the zone musically.
PSF: As the archival material has been coming out more and more in the last several years, when you listen to it, does it make you reassess any of the older work? If so, what material and in what way?
RM: No, I don't reassess anything. I don't listen to any of the archival stuff.
PSF: Do you sometimes wonder when Neil will reactivate Horse after he's done solo albums or work with other bands and wonder why it takes a while sometimes?
RM: In the early years, I questioned his playing with others. But then I realized, what he does with the Horse is special. He knows it, we know it. No others take him where we take him, into a zone where he gets the chance to really dig down inside himself and play his magical leads. We get into a zone when we play, because he knows, 'better keep up.' We're a passionate band. I knew when he'd call, and we became fine with that- every couple of years, or after a year. He'd be ready to jam and get passionate. The only problem we had was, even though they're his songs, him playing what we call our anthems- "Cortez," "Dangerbird," "Hurricane,"- no one, no one will ever play those like we play them. No one. It's like prostitution, if you know what I mean. Other than that, no problem.
PSF: Do you have any particular song that you like to play live?
RM: It's those anthems [mentioned above]. These are not straight ahead songs. These are songs that we can get to another world, so to speak. We get to improvise on these and Neil gets to really play with passion, as do we.
PSF: Do you have a favorite Neil Young album?
RM: I don't have a favorite, but Tonight's the Night, Weld, Zuma, Life, Ragged Glory. Loved them all. Re*act*or too.
PSF: Were there any particular records you played on that were difficult to complete or easy to do?
RM: I loved playing on Tonight's the Night. It meant something. All of them were easy, never arduous. The way we record, he comes in with a song, puts on his guitar, and we just jump in, most of the time. That's where you get the feel, the magic. Me, I love playing when I don't know the song. He knows I hate listening to tapes, and rehearsing a song because when it's time to record, all you have is a part, no magic. We like to get a song in one or two takes. After that, we're now thinking, and just playing parts. We all feel the same way.
PSF: Though I rarely remember seeing a writing credit for you on a Neil/CH album, what kind of suggestions have you given him otherwise for songs?
RM: Just suggestions on grooves, feel. Like maybe adding a tambourine, etc. Musical things.
PSF: You've done some sessions with Neil outside of Crazy Horse- Trans, Chrome Dreams II for instance. What do you notice is different when working with him outside of Crazy Horse?
RM: Nothing at all, except for the fact, I get to play with Bruce Palmer, whom I loved, Joe Lala, whom I also loved. When I first met Joe, it was like we knew each other forever. Chrome Dreams and of course with Nils again on Trans. New songs, and the classics.
PSF: Which live album do you think really captures CH as its best?
RM: I think all of them. Live Rust. We're much better live.
PSF: What kind of equipment (drums, sticks) do you like to use?
RM: I have an old Ludwig set that I've used on many recordings and tours. It's like wearing a comfortable old shirt. Last couple tours, I used Craviotto [drums]- the Ducks' drummer [Johnny Craviotto] began building them. Neil asked if I'd use them and I said 'fine.' But I prefer my Ludwigs. I started with Promark [drumsticks], 5b sticks, down to 7a Promark. Now I use cool rods. While recording Greendale, I was using sticks, and I was so much louder than Neil and Billy for those songs, I picked up a pair of [Promark] Cool rods, and the feel and blend was aces. I hit hard enough on my drums, with touch of course, that I've used them the last couple of tours.
PSF: After playing with him also for so many years, how would you describe the way that you and Billy Talbot create the right groove/rhythm for each Crazy Horse song?
RM: We don't create it, we just feel it. With the songs, we know where Neil is going. We hold or pull at times. Me, I play the song. Billy too. I think of the meaning, the feel. And I, we, try to add our passion to the songs. We feel our way- the groove, the beat. If you're playing the song, the groove will be there.
PSF: Could you talk about making the latest studio album, Colorado? What was the feeling during the sessions?
RM: The latest, that was with me, Billy and Nils. The feeling was great. Having Nils's playing was great. Nils has always been a huge part of Crazy Horse, on our 1st Crazy Horse album (1971) as well as After the Gold Rush and Tonight's the Night. it was in Telluride Colorado. Had to have oxygen- high altitude. Very happy, friendly sessions. Went really smooth. Great songs to play on.
PSF: With Nils playing with the band again, how has that changed the dynamic that time?
RM: As you know, Nils has always been a huge part of the Horse. Nils being more musical than Poncho, he brings what we had with Danny- more like our early music.
PSF: How do you relate to Neil on a personal (non-musical) level?
RM: We have a great non-musical relationship. We stay in touch often. It's all about music. We're more than friends, more like brothers.
PSF: Any fun(ny) Neil stories to share? The best I've heard is when he rowed Graham Nash to a lake/pond on his property, with barns on each side blasting out music, and Neil yelling "I want to hear more left barn!"
RM: Of course, but you'll have to read my book. There are too many.
PSF: So, you have a book coming out?
RM: Not 'til after I'm through playing.
PSF: Nowadays, who would you say are some of your all-time favorite artists?
RM: I'm into songs. Personally like Elton John, ballads. Songs that hit you in the face, easy to relate. But I never had favorites. Music genres, yes. As far as drummers, I like Neil Peart, David Grohl. Of course, the big guy is awesome.
Crazy Horse in its Ragged Glory days: Neil, Poncho, horsie, Billy, Ralph
PSF: It was just announced that a live album is coming out in February called Way Down in the Rust Bucket. Any thoughts on that particular show that was recorded for the album?
RM: That album was recorded during what we called 'the bar, club tour.' We were really grooving, getting ready to go out on the Ragged Glory tour. I remember Neil calling me, excited as crap- 'Ralph, you've got to hear these tracks, shows we found, it's the real shit man.' Me, I don't get excited, LOL. He said he was so happy that he had, I think he said, 8 cameras filming the show. He said we did 3 sets that night. I never thought we did 3 sets, but we did. It was from the Catalyst, a bar, club near San Francisco. But I've got to say, it was great. After those shows, we were all hot and ready to go on our tour. From what I remember, we were having too much fun. But I must say, 'great call, Neil,' to record that particular show. I guess he felt it would be a magical night. It was.
PSF: Post COVID, do you anticipate Crazy Horse touring again? Would it be with Nils?
RM: Yes I do, and yes with Nils.
PSF: What was Crazy Horse's greatest moment?
RM: Playing in the zone, for our fans. Nothing greater than that.
Photo © Corrina Jones
See Ralph Molina's website at http://www.ralphmolina.net/
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