Neil Young's On a Roll: Q&A With Rock Icon and Jonathan Demme

Neil Young's On a Roll: Q&A With Rock Icon and Jonathan Demme

A film, an album, a tour, a memoir and, quite possibly, another album have Neil Young's 2012 calendar filled to the brim. His first album in nine years with Crazy Horse, "Americana," opened at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 this week, making it his highest charting album since "Harvest" hit No. 1 in 1972.

After playing Outside Lands in August, he starts a concert tour with Crazy Horse on Oct. 3 in Ontario, Canada that runs through Dec. 4. "We've rehearsed five songs from 'Americana' and we have some songs from our next record," Young says. "The rest of the songs will come from our records. Past, present and the future."

The day before the tour begins, Penguin Group imprint Blue Rider Press will release Young's book "Waging Heavy Peace." The film "Neil Young Journeys" hits theaters June 29 via Sony Pictures Classics. Having played the Toronto and Slamdance festivals, it has one last festival stop, June 18 and 19 at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Director Jonathan Demme filmed the final two performances of Young's 2011 solo tour for the 2010 album "Le Noise" for "Journeys" at Toronto's Massey Hall. It is the third Demme-Young film, following "Heart of Gold," shot at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium that was released in 2006 and "Neil Young Trunk Show," which was filmed at Philadelphia's Tower Theater during the Chrome Dreams II tour in 2007.

Demme and Young spoke about the film with Billboard last week.

How do you see this film fitting in with the other two?

Jonathan Demme: More than anything, it was a given that it had to be different in the way 'Trunk Show' was completely different from 'Heart of Gold.' The fact that it was Neil solo gave us a great step in that direction. It was good news, bad news. Bad news was that, different as those films are, they shared a strength and got a lot of power from seeing the way Neil and the other players interact. We don't have that cornerstone. The good news is that now we had Neil undistracted by any other instruments. It permitted him to immerse himself in the character of these songs in a way that couldn't be possible if you're also hearing other people play. That gave us our biggest, unavoidable distinction. The other thing was we experimented with taking this little road trip from the little town in north Ontario and see if that might provide us with something. It turned out that it provided us with a whole other story line that would make this different from the other two films and all other performance films, from what I can see.

What do you see as your role in the film, Neil?

Neil Young: The playing the songs was what I was involved in. The way it was framed and evolved was something that Jonathan and I talked about by doing this trip in the car. It's not like a normal show -- the show is like a play. It's a one-man, one-act play, but it's not like a concert where I would be spinning around doing whatever I wanted to do. Everything about this show was planned out like a play usually is. I knew what songs I was going to do. I knew where I would be walking, what instruments I would be playing., when they were going to come out and adjust the amplifier and bring out different guitars. I knew all of those things because that was the play.

What would you say were the approaches to 'Heart of Gold' and 'Trunk Show'?

NY: On our first concert film we stopped and reset the cameras and the stage and redid songs - we were making a movie about a performance. The whole first half of that movie was songs nobody had heard before (from "Prairie Wind"). The crowd was grooving on it and absorbing the concert. The second movie was a performance of me with the band. There was no resetting -- it was all spontaneous, the song list changed.

JD: We shot it like a documentary

NY: Three completely different approaches to doing a guy with a guitar.

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Jonathan, you have said, (the 23-minute version of) "No Hidden Path" was the centerpiece of "Trunk Show." Do you feel "Journeys" has a centerpiece?

JD: Without thinking about it, I feel like 'Hitchhiker' is a centerpiece and that's why it had to move to the end. I felt that in a certain way, performance wise for Neil, there's no coming back from 'Hitchhiker.' You're only allowed one more song after that.

When you say the mode was a play, there's definitely a build to this film that is play-like.

JD: We changed the order of the songs to suit our emotional journey, intercut with the car pieces. I didn't think we were going to do that. I think we have made a movie that is a worthy cinematic equivalent of an amazing live show. There was definitely a sense that there was an emotional narrative that was unfolding.

NY: In that sense it was my brother Bob who decided the order of the songs.

JD: That's true .

NY: My brother was the one who decided where we were going to go and how fast we were going to go and where to stop. Once he decided where the car was gonna go, that decided the order of the show.

You play the eight songs from "Le Noise" and eight songs from your catalog. "Ohio," "After the Goldrush," "Helpless" and "My, My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" are in the film along with a couple songs from the "Le Noise" sessions. How did you decide on which songs to include in the shows and the film?

NY: Those were decisions I made a year earlier. I did those because I sat down and wondered 'what songs do you want to play?' They were just ones I wanted to play.

JD: Were they a response to the 'Le Noise' songs?

NY: I think they were just the ones that rose up. They had to be compatible and in the line with the other ones so there's kind of a story.

JD: There's a great 'Cortez the Killer' we didn't put in the movie, but you know we couldn't stand any more intensity. Maybe that would have been the centerpiece.

NY: It was too much

JD: There's a great 'Cinnamon Girl' but we had 'Cinnamon Girl' in 'Trunk Show.' We didn't want to duplicate.

With a history of working to advance the quality of your recordings and the playback, is there anything being done so that this film is presented to your specifications?

NY: I understand Sony is equipping some of the theaters (with high-end) sound systems. There are two soundtracks for this - one at 48kz, which is the normal sound standard, and the other at 96, which is half way toward the top standard.

JD: We were the first to ever be presented in 96 at the Toronto Film Festival where they brought in a whole special system for us. Neil makes a big distinction between the 48 and the 96, but he hears the disparity much, much more than people like I would. Today, 48 sounds killer, but what we don't understand is if you get double the information, double the space, you're going to feel it more than ever before.

With a film, book, art show, new album and another in the works coming out, does it feel like you're busier than ever? Does everything get the proper amount of attention?

NY: It doesn't bother me because I didn't do them all at once. It's kind of a blitz I guess. It's better to get it out rather than hold onto it, because you hold onto it for too long. New things need to come out. Unless there's something wrong with them they should come out right away. I have plenty of old things that I am still holding onto.

JD: He's on a roll.