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Q&A: Neil Young Plots Retro-Tech Revolution With Pono, New Album ‘A Letter Home’

neil young, ponomusic, sxsw 2014, a letter home

Amidst the chaos of SXSW, Neil Young announced the arrival of his long-gestating PonoMusic, which Neil and CEO John Hamm insist isn’t really a device or a digital music service (although it happens to be both) but rather a movement — a 360-degree revolution (the word is used frequently) that will not only restore us to the pre-MP3 elysian days of hi-fi music-listening, but in doing so also save the entire music industry, right down to its clerical workers. If all of this sounds a little fuzzy, that’s because it kind of is: The only thing you can do right now is donate to the movement on Kickstarter, where the service has raised $3.1 million at press time, which is nearly four times its original goal. After listening to Neil’s keynote address on Tuesday, SPIN sat down with the rock legend in a suite at an out-of-the-way hotel in Austin. The following conversation has been edited slightly, but for the most part, in keeping with the spirit of Pono, we tried not to mess with it.

You’ve had a lot of people tell you that Pono’s not going to work or try to talk you out of it. What kind of excuses do they give you?
Those are people who don’t understand the way to make records — the way it’s done. There’s a lot of people that had opinions based on not knowing what they’re talking about. And then there’s a lot of people who just don’t think there’s a need for change. Because what’s working now is what’s happening. And there’s a lot of people that think the Silicon Valley way things are going is the way it’s going to be for a long time, and that these people know what they’re doing, and that everything’s going to be fine — it’s a lock, it’ll never change. I believe they’re all not perceptive.

What is Pono selling?
Pono is selling quality. Pono is selling truthfulness. It’s selling what the artist created. The magic is in the creation by the artist: the songwriting, the music, the choices made in the studio, how to record it. That’s what creates the magic. Nothing else needs to be done to it to make it sound good. You don’t need to have anything other than something to translate that into your ears. And the thing that puts it in your ears shouldn’t touch it. It should just deliver it. So it’s very simple. It’s the absence of gimmicks. The absence of extra stuff that’s not needed.

When the music medium predominantly switched to digital in the ’80s, you said that the artist community released a lot of crap. When you were recording records at that time do you think you made mistakes in your own personal process using the technology that was emerging?
Yes, I did. I made some mistakes. At the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s, I released a couple of records, maybe three or four, that were compromised because I thought, “Well that’s what’s going out.” I’d been going to analog masters all the time, and using analog all the way up to about ’88. But somewhere in the mid-’80s I switched to a digital multi-track. And then I started going to analog for my two-track stereo masters. And then I went to digital and went to 44.1 [sampling frequency] machines making CD masters. And I did that for a couple of records. And then I regret that because I can’t go anywhere else; those records are stuck there.

Which records are those?
Harvest Moon and Freedom. Those are the two big ones.

So that’s interesting, there are kind of holes in your catalogue.
The dark ages of the digital sound. But it was possible to escape that, and we did. We went back to analog and then we’d bump down to digital for the release — and it was a bummer, but we did it because that’s what people were buying and that’s the only way we could fulfill our contracts with the record companies. But we knew that we had in the vault stuff that was better than what we were putting out. So dealing with that mentally was really rough. Because we didn’t have to deal with that before the digital age. We put out what we made and everybody heard it. That’s why people used to listen to music. That’s why music moved a generation. Music is magic. But if you stifle it and you compress, you lose it. It doesn’t like that. Music needs air, like everything else.

I wanted to touch on that. We’re here at this festival and you see this whole new generation of kids and music is still magic to them.
It is, they’re listening to live music.

Even recorded music, they don’t know what they’re missing. They grew up in a world of digital.
That’s right, but they’re smart. They don’t know what they’re missing, but when they find out what they’re missing, they’re going to know it, and they’re not going to avoid thinking about it. They’re living in today and tomorrow, they’re not living in yesterday. So they’re not a problem. It’s not a problem to change them. It’s old people who think that it’s never going to change because it’s the status quo. If they don’t remember how great music was and they’ve given up the idea, or maybe they think they’ve lost their hearing because of what they’ve been listening to — it’s what they’re listening to that’s not there, it’s not that they can’t hear it.

When you think about recording new material today, do you think about it differently than you would five years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago?
I try to make records that sound great to me. I used technology since 1992, 1991. I always used analog masters that sound as great as I can make them sound and I use all the stuff that I think sounds the best. But for the last five years, I’ve also been running the digital masters at the same time. So that if I ever get to a point where I think they sound better I can use them. Then I started using digital masters that were off of the analog head, so they would get the analog sound but not get to the tape, then go to the digital. So you took out one step. So you didn’t get the saturation but you still got the analog sound. So there’s many little ways that things continue to evolve. And I’ve just stayed with it, and I just keep changing things. But I always try to make records that I love. Sometimes what I love is not what other people love, but that’s okay. It doesn’t matter. That’s why I’m still here.

Speaking of which, you have a new record coming out.
Well, A Letter Home [Young’s forthcoming album, recorded at Jack White’s Third Man Studios] is going to be very confusing to people because it is retro-tech.

What does that mean?
Retro-tech means recorded in a 1940s recording booth. A phone booth. It’s all acoustic with a harmonica inside a closed space, with one mic to vinyl.

Directly to vinyl?
Directly to vinyl.

That’s nutty.
It’s a funky old machine, it sounds like Jimmy Rogers or something.

Does that approach jive with Pono?
Well it’s a creative process. Pono can play it back as good as any digital playback. Whatever it is. So it can play this back and that’s it.

So you can make a lo-fi record but have a high resolution sound.
You can make a lo-fi, analog record, direct to vinyl, transfer it to 192, and you have a high res copy of a lo-fi vinyl record.

You have this great passion for Pono as well as these other projects: recording new music, the Bridge School benefits. How did you balance it all?
I just let everything happen. I’m writing some books. My second book is coming out next year. Coming out in September or October — Special Deluxe is the name of it. And then I’m writing another book right now, which is a science fiction book. I’m well into it, maybe 100 pages.

When do you like to write?
I write on airplanes and in hotels. It keeps me off the street.

What’s the science-fiction book about?


Do we have to wait?
It’s great. I think it’s better to wait. It’s crazy to talk about. Too fucking weird. But it’s great, I love it. I love writing sci-fi. I’m enjoying the hell out of it.

Well, thanks so much for talking to me.
Yeah, thanks. The folks at SPIN love music, so this is what it’s all about.

Yeah, we still do.
And even in duress, they still do. And you feel the duress, right?

I absolutely feel the duress.
Well, this is going to change that. If somebody wants to do a review of a record, they can do the conventional review and they can do the Pono review.

That’s interesting, I’m sure you remember in music reviews people used to talk about the sonic quality of the record. Now nobody does that.
Yeah, nobody does that. And the recordings don’t even have any credits anymore. They’ve been dehumanized. We’re bringing all of it back. It’s very important who played on it. The engineers’ names are very important. Everything about it is important, and we’re bringing all of that back. That’s what Pono’s mission is. It’s not just the music, it’s everything around the music. The culture that creates it, the ecosystem that made it happen, the arrangers, the directors, the producers, the engineers, the whole thing.