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Interview: Stephen Stills Reflects on His Youth, Box Set and CSNY Reunion

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Stephen Stills by Charley Gallay

Stephen Stills by Charley Gallay

By Brian Ives 

Stephen Stills‘ various projects in 2013 had him spending a bit of time in the past, but also living very much in the present. He released and promoted (reluctantly, it seemed) his career-spanning box set Carry On. Not a guy to dwell on his past too much, his bandmate Graham Nash produced the collection along with Joel Bernstein (they also produced Nash’s box set Reflections, as well as David Crosby‘s Voyage).

But in 2013 he also formed a new band — the Rides — who released their debut album and played several dates across the country. He also reunited with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young for two shows at Young’s annual Bridge School Benefit concerts.

Radio.com spoke to him about the box, the Rides and, well, we tried to ask about that Crosby, Stills & Nash album that they had been working on with Rick Rubin.

So, Graham Nash co-produced the box set for you. How did that work? Did he email you mp3s? 
Mp3s are an abomination, they had to bring it to me with speakers. I couldn’t listen to the whole thing at once, and neither did they, really. I don’t know that any of us listened to all five and a half hours at once. It would be like going from New York to Montreal, put [the box set] on, and by the time you finish the trip you might be done. But I couldn’t leave out any of it. They would bring like 20 songs at a time, and I would have to go through three or four alternative takes. I produced most of the original records, whatever the credits [said], I was very generous with [the credits] in the initial phases [of my career], but I pretty much ran the show. They did the lion’s share of the work on the project.

Did you enjoy the process of going through your old music?
I don’t ever want to have to do that again. There’s probably 2 more discs that can be mined out of what we have, but more than four discs is excessive.  Plus,  the record company cheaps-out and won’t pay you.

Stephen Stills Carry On provided photo

(provided photo)

You didn’t use the usual rock critic types to write liner notes. 
I forbade the participation of any rock journalists. Michael Garcia, we learned blues together, I was in my early teens, he was about 18 months older than me, he went into a career in government service. He managed me for a while when he first got back from Vietnam. We’ve remained friends all our lives. He’s a marvelous writer. (New York Times writer) Dr. Levitan, I didn’t know he was going to go so deep into it (with his essay). He’s a highly respected neurologist, psychologist, audiologist. He has a book called This Is Your Brain on Music: (The Science of a Human Obsession). It’s a little dense to start with, but you’ve got to keep going, it’ll explain a lot of things to you. Unfortunately, the decision was made — from above my pay grade, apparently — that the wonderful 600 word essay  that (Boston Globe sportswriter) Dan Shaughnessy would have to be dropped. But the booklet (is so thick) it falls out of the box. Such is the fickle finger of fate!

The earliest track on the box set is “Travelin’,” which you made at age 17 while living in Costa Rica. What did you think when you heard that song?
Oh my god, I was in shock! The song is kind of silly, but it’s all I knew, about moving from one place to the next. “Lord” is used more as an adjective than in a religious way. But the thing that shocked me was that my finger picking style emerged almost completely whole while I was in Costa Rica. There was nothing to do at night after homework except get in the bathroom — it had nice tiling — and play acoustic guitar.

Your family moved a lot when you were young. How did that affect your world view? 
Going to Central America at that age, it opened my brain up. But it also cost me my rock band.  I would have been a much better electric rock player, much earlier! I didn’t get any good (on electric guitar) until I was 50! But it was a great mind opening experience. I will admit to rather minding a few times when we had to move yet again.

But it must have changed the way you saw the world. 
That, and having a history professor as an aunt. Who is rather revered at Southern Illinois University. My first experience with real history was: I happened to be at the farm-house where she retired to, and I went into the attic and she had every copy of Time magazine since its inception, and this was in the ’50s. I read all about World War II through that. The writing was really good back then.  My grandfather was a school teacher, he taught kindergarten through 12th grade in one room in the middle of southern Illinois.  The Cracker Barrel at the general store is not a metaphor for me. It literally existed down the road. I would go there with my grandpa on Sunday, they’d talk about what had happened that week with his friends. He was a very liberal Roosevelt kind of guy.  Very well read, he read all the classics. (Also,) I love reading, that probably has as much to do with it as the moving around. The thing about today is that it’s OK to stay in one spot.  (The information) can all get into your living room now. But you have to be picky about what you let in.
There’s a lot of vile garbage out there. (coughs) Fox News!

So you named the box set after the famous CSNY song. 
For lack of a better name, quite frankly. There was a British saying from the war, “stay calm and carry on.”  That’s where I got the title, “Carry on then, don’t make a big fuss about yourself.” That’s sort of my attitude about this.  I don’t want to make too much a fuss about this.  I’m not going to be parading around in a boa, that’s not me.

There’s a number of people who are in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame twice, but you must be the only person who was inducted twice in one night [in 1997, both the Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills & Nash were inducted]. You seemed uncomfortable with all of the attention that night. 
I must say, it was the fact that Neil [Young] didn’t show up, I had a lot of balls in the air, put it that way. I didn’t quite understand why Neil declined to come. Nobody else gets away with this! It’s always astonished me.  That’s why the Buffalo Springfield tour probably shan’t be repeated, there was a lot of waiting involved, and that got expensive. For me.

Well, that led to you getting back with David and Graham, and they changed their Crosby/Nash tour to a Crosby Stills & Nash tour. 
I was never more relieved than on the first day of rehearsals for that tour. “Can I have my job back?”

One thing I learned from doing my research around this box set is that you started out as a drummer. Why did you switch to guitar? 
You can have a nicer car if you don’t have to worry about drums.  They’re a pain in the neck! That was part of it. The other part was that I rather fell in love with Chuck Berry, and learning to play guitar to Jimmy Reed and all these old blues records, Muddy [Waters], Elmore James, that’s what me and [Michael] Garcia were practicing to.  We would play along to these wonderful blues records.

So, how hard is it to be Stephen Stills’ drummer, since you’re a former drummer? 
It ain’t for sissies.  You’ve got to have a pocket.

Do you still play drums ever? 
Some of my fascinates went by the wayside with the passage of time. I quit playing drums because I couldn’t divide myself like you’ve got to be able to do to play.  There’s one bit where I’m playing drums on the box set, but even that required a bit of a Pro Tools “tummy tuck.”

So what are your favorite parts of the box set? 
I can’t even go there. I’m not gonna review myself.

OK, so let’s talk about your new group, the Rides, with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and blues keyboardist Barry Goldberg. How did you hook up with Kenny Wayne? 
We wrote some blues songs with Barry Goldberg, and I had known Kenny Wayne for about a decade. To me, he was the blond kid who was friends with  [Indianapolis Colts owner] Jim [Irsay], I never got his whole name because my hearing is devastatingly bad.  So my manager Elliott told me John Mayer can’t [participate in a new band] because he was having problems with his voice, so he said, how about Kenny Wayne Shepherd? I had no idea who he is – I’m pushing 70, I’m clueless.

But I’m in a casino I turn around and there’s an eight story billboard that says “Appearing next weekend Kenny Wayne Shepherd” and I went “Oh, that Kenny Wayne Shepherd!” He’s such a graceful kind guy and one of the most considerate people in show business. The record, we did in seven days, and on the eighth day we planned the mixes.  It just flew by.  He brought along this drummer Chris Layton [formerly of Stevie Ray Vaughan's Double Trouble], he was like a dream drummer. I brought the bass player, Kevin McCormick from CSN.  It was a marriage made in heaven. Everything was first take or two or three.

So, are you working on the CSNY box set?
No: I had to say, you guys take this one.  I can’t relive those days. Lets say, Pro Tools was born to do this.

Is there anything you can tell me about the CSN album that was being discussed for a while that Rick Rubin was supposed to produce? 
No. No! I’m not gonna elaborate on it! And it’s nothing against Rick Rubin.

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