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Tuesday, April 04, 2023

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Crazy Horse's Ralph Molina - Getting the magic, the passion, and playing till the end

 Nils Lofgren, Billy Talbot, Neil Young & Ralph Molina 
Credit Joey Martinez


Ralph Molina: Getting the magic, the passion, and playing till the end

In a TW exclusive interview, the drummer of Crazy Horse, Neil Young’s legendary band, talks to Robert Broadfoot of Neil Young Unreleased -NYU about being there, “in the pocket”.


It would not be a misnomer to call Ralph Molina the dark horse of the Crazy Horse stable. He talks rarely in public. Interviews with him are few and far between, and mostly to be found in specialist music blogs and ‘drummer’ magazines rather than mainstream music press. It has something to do with the way he is: unbelievably warm-hearted, polite and charming, but at the same time a very very modest guy, never putting himself front of stage. Jimmy McDonough, author of the Neil Young biography “Shakey”, quoted Ralph’s band companion Nils Lofgren: “Ralph is the deadpan guy… never gets excited. He lowballs everything.” I guess that comes from being a drummer. Ringo was like that. But Ralph is actually very passionate. He just lowballs it.


He came to songwriting “late”. His only project as a solo artist was the album “Love & Inspiration”, released in 2019. However, with the current release of “All Roads Lead Home”, an album whose existence is best ascribed to the exceptional circumstances of the Corona epidemic and the impact of lockdown on artists and musicians, Ralph Molina the solo artist now has another outing doing his own thing. This new joint-venture album by Molina Talbot Lofgren Young is the result of four musicians putting their own music down at a time when getting together with each other was not an option. It is a hybrid album, with the three members of Crazy Horse each contributing three songs they produced separately, and Neil Young contributing a different solo version of a song they had all recorded together as a band on the album “Barn”. As it says on the back of the album: “Friends with deep bonds, though at times on different paths, found that All Roads Lead Home.”


Jimmy McDonough also quotes Neil’s very own personal description of the Crazy Horse drummer: “Ralph? The greatest drummer in the world. What can I say. Number one… For my music, he’s fuckin’ great.” Ralph himself would never dream of claiming to be anything remotely like a number one. As he says himself, he is a team player. What is important to Ralph is fitting in right there “in the pocket”. He knows instinctively what Neil needs and how important it is to hold it all together. And that’s what makes him number one, certainly as far as Neil is concerned, and Neil is a better judge than most.


Born in Puerto Rico, Ralph grew up in New York under the Brooklyn Bridge. Too late to think about being a Dodgers fan, he went for the Yankees, and to this day sports a Yankee cap on stage. At fifteen he was singing doo-wop with a group in Florida until a cousin summoned him to California to join a new vocal group called Danny & The Memories. He can tell you the rest himself. But first I asked him about his new songs.


Q: Tell us about the new album “All Roads Lead Home”, the latest Crazy Horse project with Nils, Billy Talbot and Neil. How did it come to be and how was it realized in terms of organization?


Ralph Molina: Billy and I had spoken a lot before about doing our own album and about a year ago or so we decided to go ahead and actually do it. I called Nils and asked him if he’d be willing to add three songs to the project, and he agreed wholeheartedly. And then I talked to the big guy [Neil Young] and asked him if he’d add a song. He agreed and sent us a solo version of “Song Of The Seasons” that we had already done as Neil Young and Crazy Horse on the album Barn. He had recorded it back in his home town Omemee during the Corona shut down. We had also recorded our own songs during the pandemic, and we worked on them separately, but we were thinking of them all the time as Crazy Horse. And although we worked on them separately, we felt that Nils suggestion for the title. “All Roads Lead Home”, seemed to be just right for what we were doing. Crazy Horse is our home.


What about your own contribution to the album? Take us through the three songs.


I arranged “It’s Magical” with a guy called Marco Valerio Cecilia, the lead guitar player of Francesco Lucarelli’s band from Rome called The Rawstars. Marco and I together have arranged about eight different songs of mine. “Look Through The Eyes Of Your Heart” is a song I wrote together with my buddy Anthony Crawford, who as you know has also played with Neil a lot. The Rawstars played on that song too and I asked their drummer, a guy called Marco Molino, to listen to a track on Neil’s Colorado album called “Shut It Down”. I wanted him listen to the tom toms I had played on it, which is why the drums sound the way they do. I also got Marco Cecilia to play some raunchy guitar and lead work, and he, Francesco and I arranged it all. On the third song, “Just For You”, Marco Cecilia played the piano, beautifully I must say, and I wanted a sax to play the solo, so I got Dave Becker out here in California and he played it beautifully. Marco added strings during the solo, and that was it, my three songs.


You’ve been pretty busy with Neil in the recording studio (and the barn!) these last few years. Touring is a different matter though. After the major Alchemy tours back in 2012-2014, the Horse has only played the five Fresno/Bakersfield dates in 2018 and a couple of isolated Canadian shows in 2019. Are you up for a big long Crazy Horse tour sometime soon? Physically too?


Of course I’m ready for a long tour, both physically and mentally, whenever Neil decides to give the go ahead. And glory be to God, I’ve been blessed to be able to do what I do. He’s kept me strong in every way. Physically, touring does not actually take anything out of me, not one bit. I’m as ready as I ever was.

Neil Young w/ Crazy Horse
Credit Warner Records

You came pretty late to drumming. How old were you when you got your first kit? You sound very accomplished on the The Rockets album, presumably after only a year or so playing? What was the learning curve like in those earliest days?


As you know, I had just been singing in a doo-wop group and I was working out in Florida at the time. When the Beatles started to get known, playing their own instruments, I got a call from my cousin Lou Bisbol to come out to LA. Danny [Whitten] already played guitar, and he asked Billy to play bass and me to play drums. I had never played drums in my life LOL, but that’s how it started! My first recollection of drums was playing cardboard boxes, with a spaghetti strainer as a hi-hat and I was 22! It was just me, Danny and Billy at the time. I really have no idea at all what it sounded like but that’s the beauty of being young. You just don’t care! I think it was our roadie, Willie B. Hinds, who first got me a small set of drums. Then we got three other guys to play with us, the Whitsell brothers George and Leon on guitars, and Bobby Notkoff on violin. And so The Rockets were born. We originally just played small gigs around Hollywood, but then we got a break and in August 1968 played our biggest gig so far at the Whisky A Go Go on Sunset Strip. That was when we asked the big guy [Neil] to sit in with us. By the time the first Rockets album came out, I guess I had been playing drums for about a year or so. The rest I guess is pretty much history. Neil wanted a band so Danny, me and Billy left the Rockets and became Crazy Horse.


What makes a good rock ‘n roll band drummer? Do you have a philosophy of drumming? What are the essentials? Do you have any idols?


The essentials are a drum kit LOL, that’s all I ever needed! I guess the absolutely most important thing about being a good rock drummer is keeping time and being right there in the pocket. Me, I just try and play what I feel is the best for each song. I like to improvise a lot... you can start a song and I’ll just jump in! I don’t really have any other drummers as my idols but I love Dave Grohl and Neil Peart for example. My favorite guitar player is of course the big guy, Neil, because of his passion. He doesn’t pose, he’s not a ‘supposer’. It’s all feel, every note means something.


What is your “go to” kit when playing with Neil? Can you give some details? What about your newer Craviotto kit? How did that come about?


I never really got into the technicalities of what cymbals are best etc. etc. In the early years, I just had one ride cymbal and one crash, that was it. The drums I have mostly used with Neil were my Blue Pearl Ludwig set which I bought back in 1969, I think. I used them on practically all our tours, until I believe the Psychedelic Pill album. Neil had gotten a Craviotto set from Johnny Craviotto, the drummer from his 1977 Ducks band who had in the meantime set up his own drum manufacture. I still had my Ludwig set up, but Neil asked me if I would play the Craviotto kit, and I said no problem. I am an easygoing kind of guy! I’ve used the Craviotto set on our last 3 albums together, and also on our latest tours. I generally use 18-inch crash cymbals and a 20-inch ride. And then I use two 18-inch crashes as hi hats. But it’s my snare, a clear Ludwig snare, which is most important, as it is with most drummers. It sounds great, as does the Craviotto snare. I’m actually not too particular about what I use as far as my Ludwig set goes. It’s just got to feel comfortable. Like I said, I’m not into sizes, shapes or model numbers. 


It turns out you are still a crooner at heart. I guess it’s the Danny & The Memories pedigree! Am I right that your solo album “Love & Inspiration” from 2019 has been your only solo project, or is it the only one that made it to release?


I guess I am a bit of a crooner still! I just love to sing. I started writing late in life, and yes, “Love & Inspiration” was my first and only solo album, at least until the new songs on “All Roads Lead Home”. I have always been more interested in being a team player. All my time so far has been spent in helping other people’s songs. I have no regrets, I’ve always been a team player.


You once said in an interview: “I love playing when I don't know the song. [Neil] knows I hate listening to tapes, and rehearsing a song because when it's time to record, all you have is a part, no magic.” Do you ever get specific input from Neil when you are working up a song or does he really leave it up to you entirely?


Sure, there are times when Neil might say “Why don’t you maybe try it this way?” I’m not an egoist, I’ll try anything. But most of the time he leaves it up to me. If you know a song too well, or get a cassette in advance to start preparing for a session, you tend to focus on working out a part. And all of a sudden, you’re just playing the part, there’s no magic any more, no passion. At least that’s the way it is with me. I’ve loved working on the recent albums with Neil. We’re even more raw now than we were. I guess it’s a mind thing. In the early years, as in the first Crazy Horse album with Jack [Nitzsche] and Nils, we would rehearse almost every day, it was really tight. I didn’t mind that at all, in fact I loved it at the time. But now I really love to improvise, like in jazz… just improvise. That’s why Neil loves to record live. He will start playing a song, and we just jump in. We get the feel… heart… magic… passion that way…

Crazy Horse 
Credit Warner Records

Exactly 50 years ago you were dealing with Danny Whitten’s passing. After Danny’s death, Neil went on his troublesome Time Fades Away tour with the resurrected Stray Gators. And then came the double whammy of Bruce Berry’s death followed by the legendary Tonight’s The Night sessions, the Roxy shows and the equally legendary Tonight’s The Night tour. What memories will you never forget of that time? What places do you still like to go back to in your mind?


Needless to say, Danny’s and Bruce’s deaths were heart breaking… bless their souls. First thing I remember is where we recorded Tonight’s The Night, at Bruce’s brother’s rehearsal studio in Hollywood, the S.I.R. studio. We would shoot pool, and just walk around. The thing was, we all somehow got the mood at the same time, usually around midnight, and we all just walked to our instruments and began to play. The mood we had was light but at the same time dark, it was as one. The album with those great songs was magical. Then the shows at the Roxy, where Elliot Roberts [Neil’s manager] was one of the owners... those shows were magical too. Neil, Billy, Ben [Keith], Nils and myself, were just one unit. The songs made it possible to play… passionately. They were the very first shows played at the Roxy.


Tell us a little about your life at home without giving any secrets away. How do you live day to day? Can you sum up your philosophy of life? What are the principles that guide you?


At home, I’m with my family. Family, as always, is the most important. I write, I pay my taxes, I garden, I watch sports, I take walks. I guess I live like anyone else. On the road, after a show, I toss and turn, thinking how we can play better, sing better. My philosophy, my principles? I was raised to be fair, no more no less. I try my best to be kind to all. I believe that to hate anything or anyone, is not hating anything nor anyone, you’re simply hurting yourself. So I don’t hate. I don’t step on anyone’s toes. I wish that people who preach about love would stop using it as just a word. True love is in our hearts. So don’t just say it, show it. I live like it’s my last day. 


And what’s next on the Ralph Molina “To Do” list? Do you ever think about retiring completely? Do you ever think about writing a book? Any big round birthday wishes for June?


I may, God willing, write a book but I don’t mix music with family. The only wish I would have is to stay healthy, and that my loved ones, all my friends, my musical cohorts, all stay healthy too. Retire completely? Never! I’ve been blessed to be able to do what I do, and that’s what I’ll do. I’ll play till the end.

© Robert Broadfoot: Neil Young Unreleased - NYU 2023

All Roads Lead Home 
by Molina, Talbot, Lofgren & Young
 (Click photo to enlarge)


ALL ROADS LEAD HOME is released on the new NYA label, catalogue #09362486951, on vinyl and CD via The Greedy Hand Store at Neil Young Archives (NYA)and music retailers everywhere. It is also available on hi-res audio at Neil Young Archives and most DSPs.

Track list
1. RAIN - Billy Talbot

2. YOU WILL NEVER KNOW - Nils Lofgren

3. IT’S MAGICAL - Ralph Molina


5. CHERISH - Billy Talbot

6. FILL MY CUP - Nils Lofgren


8. THE HUNTER - Billy Talbot

9. GO WITH ME - Nils Lofgren

10. JUST FOR YOU - Ralph Molina


Also, see First Impressions: All Roads Lead Home by Molina, Talbot, Lofgren & Young | The Old Grey Cat

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At 4/04/2023 05:27:00 PM, Blogger bob g said...

Very cool! Thanks for sharing.

At 4/04/2023 06:12:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

Thanks for interview Robert! Nice to hear from Ralph. Here's hoping all of The Horse play to the end.

No fading for The Horse.


At 4/05/2023 05:22:00 AM, Blogger Dionys said...

Numbers on the site: This upcoming June when Nils Lofgren and Ralph Molina will be celebrating their birthdays, the present Crazy Horse line-up with all members taken together will be 300 years old. The age average of the third best garage band in the world then will be 75 years, a little less than the three original surviving members of the Rolling Stones (sadly without their late drummer Charles Watts, Esq.), who currently reach an even more astounding 77,3 years. A typical Neil Young and Crazy Horse concert experience with a dad bringing his kids would go well with Napoleon's famous pyramids of Gizeh speech: "Centuries look down upon you..." :-)

At 4/05/2023 09:30:00 AM, Blogger thrasher said...

@ Dionys - impressive stats. The Horse ... for the ages.


At 4/06/2023 02:42:00 PM, Blogger Abner Snopes said...

Ralph Molina has often taken the great opportunity not to speak.

At 4/15/2023 01:57:00 PM, Blogger mrtew said...

Wow I would have never guessed that the drummer would be the best singer and musician in the band (latter day Neil included). His songs sound great! I'm gonna try his solo album!


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