Debbie Kruger
Writer FREELANCE CSNY2K Interview transcript
Interview with Graham Nash

November 1999
via email

© Debbie Kruger

When Henry first mentioned to you that I wanted to do an interview, you replied that after all these years there is no question left unanswered, nothing new to say. If you are making new music and embarking on a major tour, there must be new things to say and, importantly, a new audience to say those things to and introduce your catalog to. Can you comment?

There are always new things to experience, internalize then write about. This process is ongoing with me. It never stops. The opportunity to reach new audiences with all of the music that we have made is thrilling.

What happened to CSN’s long relationship with Atlantic? Is the Reprise release based on Neil’s relationship with them?

The relationship with Atlantic Records was always a personal one. Our friend and mentor, Ahmet Ertegun, was our main contact at Atlantic and our relationship was based on mutual respect. He is a fine musician, singer and producer. However, during the last few years as Ahmet got older, he had less and less to do with the daily running of the company. After the lukewarm promotion of our last couple of records we felt nobody at the company really understood us and cared about us. They seemed to be following the usual game of ‘throwing’ stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. In days past, record companies were committed to working a band over several singles not just giving up if the first single did not set the charts on fire. We felt abandoned and we left Atlantic Records after almost 30 years with them.

I’d like to talk about the Neil factor. I found it intriguing that in 1969, with the first CSN album in the can, and all the excitement leading up to its release — the knowledge that what the three of you had was precious and rare — that you would so readily invite a fourth principal into the fold and turn the unit into CSNY, before CSN had really shown itself to the world. Now, 30 years later, a similar thing has happened. Can you talk about the chemistry with Neil, and why you are so ready to change the mix, change the course of events?

In 1969 when CSN had finished the album, we knew that we would be going on the road. Stephen, as a great lead guitarist, needed someone to ‘play off’, to inspire him to play better. Neither David nor I were that person. We play good rhythm guitar but ‘lead’ guitar is something different altogether. We decided that we would ask Neil to come along and join the band. At first I was a little reticent to have this happen. I thought that we had a complete ‘band’ and a wonderful vocal blend.

I spent one morning at breakfast with Neil on Bleeker Street in New York City and when we were finished I was completely sold on Neil joining. He was incredibly funny and very committed to music. He wanted to be a full member of the band with equal billing etc. This made sense to me and so we became CSNY.

Neil’s effect on the band was immediate and very fulfilling. He adds a certain edge to the sound and, of course, he is an incredible musician. We became a better band because of the inclusion of Neil Young.

The harmonies on the album definitely have a different texture to past CSN and CSNY recordings. I like one of your comments in the official bio, about the edge that Neil’s singing brings, about how “Neil’s not into perfect – he’s into making you feel.” Can you elaborate on that?

Neil always prefers earlier takes of songs. He believes, as we all do, that after 6 or 7 performances of any song that you begin to perform it rather than feel it. We would rather have ‘feeling’ than perfection.

Having financed the record yourselves to avoid the pressures of commercial considerations, the project has now become a major music event — “CSNY2K” — so that, like it or not, there will be expectations and considerations. Neil has said that you can never live up to the myth that surrounds you as a unit, so you try to please yourselves. But obviously you want those big crowds to like what you’re doing. So after all these years, does any self-doubt still creep in?

There is absolutely no doubt that we will be ready for the tour. We are excited about the music, past and present and future, and are really looking forward to playing.

On the subject of financing your own record and pleasing yourselves, there is something I want to ask you, which comes from a discussion I had with Jimmy Pankow and Robert Lamm of Chicago, earlier this year, when I interviewed them. We were talking about musical and artistic freedom versus commercial considerations, and the compromises that they as a band have had to make to stay viable in today’s market. And I cited CSNY as an example of a group who could record as they wished and not have to worry about interference by record companies or managers. Jimmy Pankow’s response was to tell me a story about a track on your new album – which may or may not have ended up on the record – for which he and Lee and Walter were asked (by Stephen) to contribute a horn section, and at the 11th hour the plug was pulled on the session because some “powers that be” said it wouldn’t sound like CSN or CSNY. Is that what happened?

The session with our friends in Chicago was cancelled because the music, in all our opinions, would not have fit with the rest of the album. If you listen, you will be able to tell.

Were there ever things you tried on these songs that were a bit left-field and which you ended up dropping because they didn’t conform to an accepted CSNY “sound”?

No kind of music is CSN or CSNY; it’s just what we do as a band. There is no accepted CSNY sound. It’s just what sounds good to us coming out of the speakers.

David seems to be at a new artistic peak and has another outlet in CPR that obviously has inspired him musically and emotionally. What did that bring to the table when you all went into the studio?

Being in a different band always brings great musical experiences to be able to draw on. David being in CPR only made CSNY music stronger because David was stronger.

What have been the changing influences on your work in recent years? Does your photography and your Nash Editions business infuse the music you’re writing and playing? Is there a connection between your visual art and your sonic art?

There is a great correlation between music and images. Whenever I look at an image such as “Moonrise over Hernandez” by Ansel Adams, I hear the violins in the clouds. I sense the cellos in the shadow areas. It’s a very symphonic image to me. The recording of 'Teach' was somewhat influenced by a Diane Arbus image called "Boy in Central Park with Hand-grenade" but generally my writing is influenced by living, by absorbing everything that happens to me and my actions.

Did you have any sense at the time of writing “Teach Your Children” or “Our House” that such simple musical truths would or could resonate over so many decades?

When I wrote “Our house” and “Teach your children” I was just writing for myself. The first song being a love song for Joni in one sense and a love story for every woman in another sense. The second song was a message for my future self should I have had any children, which of course I did. I wasn’t thinking of the longevity of any of my songs but I am extremely pleased with the lasting effect they both seem to enjoy.

Did you know there has been a TV show here in Australia for some years called “Our House” that used your song as its theme? It's a lifestyle/home improvement program. It seems to have stopped using the song this year – I wondered if you had anything to do with that.

I had nothing to do with the TV show using “Our House”

You’ve all talked a lot about “looking forward” as opposed to looking back. Yet every time CSN plays a show there’s a lot of classic material in there, to please the fans and to show new audiences what your legacy is. Surely that’s not just an obligation but a pride in your heritage?

We certainly recognize that our fans came to the show expecting to hear their favorite songs so the ‘dance’ of what to perform is a delicate one. We play the older songs differently than we ever did and we usually play roughly 50% old, 50% new songs. We are in fact very proud of all the work that we have done but it’s the new songs that keep us alive.

Yet the band’s history is told and re-told in books – Dave Zimmer’s authorized biography is coming out in a new edition next year – Henry’s photographs are exhibited, you’ve been interviewed for his CD-Rom, and probably his DVD, and you seem to pop up on all sorts of documentaries about the ‘60s… So there’s a legendary aspect to your history as a group and your individual histories as musicians. Is that constricting to you? Do you ever wish the pictures and stories of you and Joni Mitchell, for instance, would go away?

One can’t deny what has happened to us in the past. The secret is to enjoy and be proud of the music we’ve created and the people with whom we have been linked. It’s all a long chain of involvement in the world and we are proud to be yet another link in this chain.

You and Jackson Browne often write on similar themes. You’ve worked on projects together and sung together a lot, but have you ever collaborated as writers?

Jackson and I have never written songs together. I find it somewhat difficult to write with other people although it has happened occasionally.

Your work on benefits and fundraising is well known, from No Nukes through to the Nicolette Larson Memorial Benefit. I unfortunately was not in LA for that but heard many reports, and I spoke to Russ Kunkel about it a number of times, too. You’ve been co-producing the album of that concert with Russ – where is that up to? Can you talk to me about the emotional quality of the music on it? Did that experience work its way into your writing?

When our friend , and Russ’s wife, Nicolette Larson died, we decided to put on 2 concerts at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. All of Nickys’ friends wanted to add and take part in the music. CSN, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, The Section, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Dan Fogelberg, Michael Ruff, Paul Gurian, Emmlou Harris, Robert Hayes, Peter Max, Little Feat, Joe Walsh and Jimmy Buffett all gave their best and the record will be released in the new year.

Are there any artists today whom you admire and are inspired by? What do you think it says about the business today that a group such as Venice, which very much follows in the musical tradition of CSN, has not achieved major recognition at a national and international level?

It’s impossible to know why some people don’t get the recognition that they deserve, Venice is a good example. People like Beck and Shawn Colvin are some of the people I listen to lately.

Are you taking much notice of the reviews of the Looking Forward album? How would you respond to the LA Times review that said the record “demonstrates anew that old hippies don’t burn or fade away, they just turn insufferably preachy”?

If I read or listened to critics of our music I’d have been discouraged a long time ago. The only ‘review’ I recognize is the fans leaving our concerts feeling great.

The mood of optimism is very strong with CSNY right now and there has been talk about another album, based on the fact that you already have a surplus of music in the can. Would this be the first time the four of you have felt collectively positive about looking ahead together? Is there a good chance we might see CSNY here in Australia towards the end of 2000?

We will take it one album at a time. Yes, we have other tracks in the can but we’ll see. There is every hope that we will be touring the rest of the world in 2000. But, as I said, we’ll take it one song, one concert at a time.

© Debbie Kruger
No part of this interview may be reproduced or transmitted in any form
without prior written permission.

Debbie with Graham Nash in LA
Graham Nash and Debbie, 1997
Photo by Henry Diltz

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