Interview: Phil Lee on how he finally saddled up with Crazy Horse

It’s taken a hell of a long time for Phil Lee to get in the saddle and corral his Crazy Horse buddies, Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot, into the studio to record an album with him. His online notes for his 2013 album ‘The Fall And Further Decline Of The Mighty King Of Love’ state, “This was to be the album I was going to make with Ralph and Billy of Crazy Horse. We had a couple of great rehearsals and could’ve done it if we had a mobile unit in Ralph’s garage. Logistics didn’t help as they live in California. I live in Nashville and we all have to work for a living, me on the road solo, them with that Canadian folk-rock singer who works ‘em steady and pays ‘em good. Phil Lee and The Horse He Rode In On at some point, will be made.” Five years on and Lee now lives in California, pretty close to Ralph Molina in fact (not a stalker by any means however) and presumably he just pestered the Horse until they gave in. Anyway, ‘Phil Lee and The Horse He Rode In On’ is now a reality, released on Lee’s own Palookaville Records a few weeks ago.

For those who don’t know of Phil Lee, he’s a bit of a hidden treasure in the Americana scene. Originally a drummer back in the sixties and early seventies (including a stint with The Flying Burrito Brothers), he took to long haul truck driving for many years and only launched his musical career in 1999, releasing a series of acclaimed albums while residing in Nashville. He’s got a wicked sense of humour and often goes under his self-proclaimed moniker, The Mighty King Of Love. He’s also an accomplished knife thrower. Comparisons to John Prine, Dave Alvin and even Dylan pepper his reviews but listening to his albums, he always seems to sound just like Phil Lee, a bit of a one off, a maverick who is happy to cross half the USA to play a show as long as he’s paid, fed and given a bed for a night. Americana UK had a chance to chat with Lee a few weeks ago and we kicked things off by asking  him about the lengthy wait for this album and what it was like to work with the legendary rhythm section.

Well, it’s taken like 30 years to get these guys in the studio with me. You remember those gigantic amplifiers Neil had on stage for his Rust tours? The company I worked for built those sets and I was hauling them from gig to gig. I also knew Larry Johnson since NY in the 70’s and he was the line producer on the Last Waltz and he also filmed much of Neil’s stuff so he introduced me to these guys and that’s how I first met Ralph and Billy. We’d always talked about making a record but we had to postpone it several times. Most recently, Ralph had some health issues, I mean he’s strong as a horse, but he had to take some time out but once we eventually got together it was plain sailing. First off we got the right studio. Ralph helped me find Painted Sky studio and although its taken like forever to get off the ground, once it started happening it was incredible. You know, Billy and Ralph never got the memo that they are rock stars, they’re the most affable hard working chaps. They come in a 10 o’clock and work like hell, take a lunch break and get back to it, they still have the enthusiasm of teenagers. They’ve been playing together since the early 60s so they’re like twins, I’ve only seen one blow up between them when they started to argue about some shit that went on in 1972 and they were like it happened yesterday! So, we got into the studio and cut the stuff in a week. Ralph and I had been playing together on and off but Billy had only got the demos so he wasn’t quite as up to speed as we were. But we kept it all simple and we were in the studio as I say for a week recording the songs with just the one guitar player and we’ve actually put some of those takes on the album as we didn’t think we could add anything to them.

And once you’d laid down those songs you opened your address book and called in some favours getting folk like Barry Goldberg and Bill Kirchen on board. Can you tell us about that?
Barry Goldberg. We met when I was really young and he produced a lot of my songwriter demos. As for Bill I’ve known him for years, we’ve played shows together and he’s a pal and he said he was available. I know a lot of people through my song writing and they all know I’m on the level. Aside from Bill we’ve got a couple of other guitars on the disc, Gurf Morlix, Richard Bennett and Jean King.  Jean’s from Minnesota but lives in Chicago and we worked in Hollywood in the seventies and 80’s. Back then when Neil threw a party at the end of a tour I’d set up the band and Jean would always be there to sing along with me. You make the phone calls and people will come.  There’s actually a sticker I’ve put on the record which says, “Steven Stills never actually appears on this record.” He was threatening for months to come in but he is a busy man so it didn’t work out. I don’t know how he feels about the sticker.

Maybe he’ll get the lawyers in.
They’ll need to queue up behind Pete Townshend’s lawyers once he hears the into to ‘Wake Up Crying’ but I say bring it on Pete, I’ll split the 30 bucks profit with you.

I was going to mention that one. It’s a great 1960’s mashup, opening like The Who and then going all Dylan like.
Yeah, part of the idea of the record was to have every great idea from the sixties on it. On ‘Wake Up Crying’ there’s a great little Monkees thread in the guitar, Richard Bennett did that and did the big flick guitar solo. We were just having fun. These guys have been playing since the sixties and sometimes one of them might even have been on the session of a song we were thinking about, so we know how to create that stuff. It is an album of original songs but we’re all essentially sixties guys and we didn’t keep that a big secret. There’s a couple of instances where we just got that feel. On ‘Turn To Stone’, Jake Berger did the guitar on that and I asked him just to play like the solo on ‘Time Is On My Side’ and so he just basically recreated that solo and it was perfect and sounded completely authentic, that old R’n’B vibe. I mean, getting back to Ralph and Billy, they were originally singing doo-wop. Check them out as out Danny & The Memories on YouTube. They’re in tuxedos, just singing along with Danny Whitten.

I read that you wanted to keep the album rough and ready and you’re quoted as saying, “It’s Crazy Horse, not Tidy Horse.”
Well, that’s engineers, particularly California engineers for you. We had a guy from Nashville who is a genius at recording, at going for a nice polished sound but to me the sound we were getting in the garage was us. They were saying, “You don’t want to sound like that!”  But that was our mantra- just don’t fucking fix it. So, maybe it’s a little out of tune here and there, that’s OK. Apart from when I got a lyric wrong and I’d redo that, we just played on. Really, after the basic tracks and with the guys we brought in we really could do anything we wanted with such an arsenal of experience and talent. But Billy had the best line, “Guys, no matter what we do it will always sound like us.” If we had to fix something, we did fix it but we didn’t clean it up. A good example is on ‘Alright Here’. We did it a few times but the best version is our first time playing it. We listened to it and we could have maybe done it better if we spent more time with it but it was getting cleaner and cleaner as we progressed so we went with the one that felt right. Neil Young actually heard one of the songs and just said, “You can fix that with ProTools!”

Aside from the 60s plundering you’ve got a great country song on the album, ‘Party Drawers’, which is pretty ribald.
You should have seen Molly Pasutti sing that. I love the way she did it. I was thinking originally of doing it like a Dolly Parton number but it eventually ended up more like a sassy Johnny Cash and June Carter number. I like the way it turned out, it was a lot of fun, one take and then let’s get the hell out. It’s short and sweet and anybody who likes country music will like this one.

So, having made your album with The Horse, are you taking them out on the road?
We’ve spoken about that and Ralph and Billy have said they’d like to play with me, along with Barry Goldberg. However, they are made guys of course and I don’t know if they would cope with playing in like a chip shop in Newcastle. I think they would love it but it would dawn on them at some point that they’re not going to get paid thousands of bucks for that gig. What they don’t want to do is play for like 20 people. Ralph, he’s always wondering how many people will come to my shows. He says we need to get at least 300 people and I say to him, “Well maybe around the eleventh gig we’ll have played to 300 people but not at the same time.” What I do is fascinating to them. I say I can’t rehearse this week because I got to play in Montana and they are like, “Wait, you’re playing in Montana, for how much?” “500 bucks” I say and they’re like, “Are you insane?” and I’m, “Well, I don’t need to pay for my plane fare and they’re going to feed me.” It’s an alternate universe for them.

And with that Phil went off to throw some knives at something but given his mischievous nature we thought we’d do some fact checking and managed to contact Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot by email for their take on the story. Here’s the discussion.

You’ve known Phil for several decades and he seems to have wanted to record with you for a long time. How did it all come together eventually?
Ralph Molina: I don’t know if Phil will concur, but he and I started jamming in my garage about 1and a half yrs ago…l loved the songs we were jamming on, and his vocal phrasing, I told him we should go and record these songs, before they got stale…and there you have our collaboration
Billy Talbot: I guess time has a way of doing that——bringing people together.

Phil has said that the record was packed full of sounds and memories of the sixties. Were there any particular records that you were thinking of when you were in the studio?
Ralph: No, wasn’t thinking about any other records, songs or eras…just recording Phil’s songs, that’s what we were in the studio for…no thinking allowed
Billy: Personally, I wasn’t thinking. I was just listening and playing.

Phil reminded us of your first band, Danny and The Memories. You were singing kind of doo-wop rock’n’roll back then and I was wondering what got you into the Rockets and then Crazy Horse?
Ralph:I was called to come to California by my cousin, who knew I was singing in Florida with a doo-wop group, he knew I sang falsetto. So I came out and began singing in Danny and the Memories and from there, when The Beatles came, Danny asked that I should play drums and Billy the bass. We got three other guys to play with us and we became The Rockets. Neil had just left the Springfield and used to hang out with us at Billy’s house where we would play in his garage in Laurel canyon. We were going, The Rockets, to play at the Whiskey A Go Go and we asked Neil to sit in with us. I guess he liked our sound and next thing we were recording ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ and we evolved into Crazy Horse.
Billy: It was a natural progression. We came from the east coast, both Ralph and I, and here we are on the west coast with this guy from Ohio, who was really born in Georgia. A real conglomeration. Phil could have just added to that. It would have been great then. It’s really great now. I just love the record—the way it turned out.

What’s the difference in recording with Neil Young and then Phil Lee?
Ralph: No difference. Phil is Phil, Neil is Neil. We record live and they both have the passion, feel and heart…
Billy: It’s like the difference from one day to another.

Have you given any thought to touring with Phil? What could we offer you to come to the UK with him?
Ralph: Phil knows we’re ready when he is. Pay? A million, make us an offer. Last thing though. We don’t play for 20 people and sandwiches. Thanks… Ralph.
Billy: I think that playing with Phil live would be really great. Especially if Barry could do it with us, and one of those great guitar players that Phil knows. Personally, I love playing in England.

Phil Lee picture by Will Mitchell, Phil Lee & The Horse picture by Michael Fleming.

Author: Paul Kerr

Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.

2 thoughts on “Interview: Phil Lee on how he finally saddled up with Crazy Horse”

  1. Excellent interview and write-up ~ everyone should treat themselves to some Phil Lee energy, he will not disappoint, he delivers the goods and you’ll leave the experience smiling and with a skip to your step…a lark, for sure!

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