When Neil Young and Crazy Horse recorded their album Colorado at Studio in the Clouds, near the Canadian rocker's home in Telluride, over eleven days last April, they didn't rely on partitions or isolation booths. Instead, they played together in the same room, and rarely with headphones.
“We wanted to just play like a bar band in a room,” says guitarist Nils Lofgren from his home in Phoenix.
This configuration of Crazy Horse included Young, longtime bassist Billy Talbot, drummer Ralph Molina and Lofgren, who’s worked with Young on and off for the past five decades and was brought in last year to fill in for longtime, now-retired guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro.
Lofgren, who’s also been a part of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band since 1984 and released Blue With Lou (which includes six songs co-written with Lou Reed) in April, says working that way in Telluride lent a raw quality and an immediacy to the tracks.
Recording live as a band is something Young has done for years, including on the ’70s albums After the Gold Rush and Tonight’s the Night, both of which Lofgren played on. For such recordings, Young doesn't want bandmembers to learn the songs and work out parts ahead of time; he doesn't want anyone overthinking the music.
“If you don’t rehearse and just dive into it, you get people kind of meandering, playing off each other and not repeating the same parts. That always makes for more emotion,” Lofgren explains. “And [it's] inspired, because you’re kind of discovering the song with each other as you’re recording it.
“It’s almost better to leave it as raw as possible and have people discover it as you did — as a song," the guitarist continues. "Rather than craft it for weeks into some different thing, you let people hear how it was when you first got a great take, discovering the song, and Neil sang the hell out of it, and bang, you’re done.”
The recording process for Colorado was chronicled in the recently released film Mountaintop. While the documentary shows Young and Crazy Horse making their first new album in seven years without a whole lot of effort, it also documents a few bumps in the road: Young loses his temper; the band is plagued by sonic feedback from using a PA instead of headphones; and producer John Hanlon suffers from a poison-oak rash on his hand.
Despite those few obstacles, the band captured magic on the album's tracks. While most of the project is recorded live, the group added some vocal harmonies afterward, with all four members singing into the same microphone. That mode of recording was used on the thirteen-minute epic “She Showed Me Love,” which sounds like classic Crazy Horse, with Young and Lofgren’s distorted Gibson Les Pauls leading the charge.
The nostalgic "Olden Days," in which Young sings "Where did all the people go?/Why did they fade away from me?/They meant so much to me and now I know/That they're here to stay in my heart," started off as a haunting acoustic demo. Young and Lofgren had considered playing it with the same instrumentation they used in the early ’90s on MTV Unplugged, with Young playing acoustic and Lofgren playing accordion. Instead they opted for a heavier version with two electric guitars.
“That kind of set the template early: Whenever possible, let’s keep the classic Crazy Horse configuration," explains Lofgren. "Not to force it, but if a song would work that way, we wanted to try that first. ‘Olden Days’ early on kind of set the template. Yeah, let’s go a little rougher, more electric and rawer whenever we can.”
While there’s plenty of the classic Crazy Horse twin electric guitar approach on the album, a few tracks are a bit more subdued, like ‘Green Is Blue,” “I Do” and “Eternity.” The latter includes the percussion of Lofgren’s tap dancing, something he’d taken up when he got his hips replaced after too much basketball and too many stage antics.
"It was a priceless look on the engineer’s face, because usually you don’t have Neil telling him to dial in the tap dancer for the session,” Lofgren says. “I thought it was hilarious. It took me fifty years to get a tap-dancing credit on a Neil Young record, but it was worth the wait.”
Since they were recording 9,000 feet above sea level at Studio in the Clouds, there were oxygen canisters around the studio, and the bandmates took the occasional hit. Lofgren, who’s been going to Telluride for the past fifteen years with his wife, Amy, was familiar with the dangers of high altitude.
“Neil was kind enough to have giant oxygen tanks in all our rooms and plenty of spring water,” Lofgren says. “Amy and I knew from experience that you can get really ill if you’re not careful with the altitude.”
With the studio high on a mountain with incredible vistas, the band would usually take a break to watch the sun set and the moon come up. They wrapped up the sessions after eleven days, with the intention of recording more in August.
“But as Neil listened, he felt like he had a record he was proud of,” Lofgren says. “And I agree. It’s really cool to be part of. After fifty years with these dear friends and musicians, to take some new music and turn it into a record and get it released is a very great adventure, and I was honored to be a part of it.”