The inspiration for the name of the band Promise of the Real comes from the Neil Young song “Walk On”, specifically the line “Some get stoned, some get strange / Sooner or later, it all gets real”. Well, “sooner or later” is here, in the sense that Promise of the Real played with Young on his latest album The Monsanto Years, and is now on tour with him.
On their own, Promise of the Real – led by singer/guitarist Lukas Nelson, who is the son of country music legend Willie Nelson – has been creating buzz since their first album came out in 2010, and a new album is on the way in a few months. This interview with Lukas was for a preview article for the Neil Young / Promise of the Real concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl on 10/10/15. It was done by phone on 10/1/15. (Jim Eckenrode photo)
Jeff Moehlis: Can you tell us a little bit about how the upcoming show will play out? I’ve read that for previous shows on this tour Neil starts with an acoustic set, then it gets heavier and heavier.
Lukas Nelson: That’s it, that’s how it’s been. You can’t say for sure how it’s going to be, because things can change, but that’s how the tour was laid out. He would come out acoustic for a little bit, do basically my favorite songs in the world, and then we come and join him later, and then we do another bunch of my favorite songs in the world. So it’s all pretty great.
JM: What’s been a highlight so far of the tour?
LN: I’ve got to say that there’s been a few highlights, but Vermont was beautiful. Vermont was one of the best shows. And then the Wayhome Festival in Ontario. You know, that’s where Neil’s from, and so he just had such a great fanbase there. We must’ve played for 40,000 – young people, it was like a mosh pit out there. It was so much fun.
JM: How did you get the gig playing with Neil?
LN: Neil and I have been friends forever. He’s been family. But we hadn’t really gotten close until Farm Aid 2010. I think we did a Neil cover in our set, and he came up to us and said, “Hey, I like that!” And then we started keeping in touch. We greatly admire him, and he just said, “One day we should jam.” And then when we jammed we really had fun, and so we just kept jamming.
LN: It was awesome! We were in Oxnard, California, at the Teatro. It’s a great little theater. My dad did a record with Daniel Lanois there. I think Bob Dylan did a record there at that studio with Daniel. Lanois used it a lot. It’s a great place. It’s near Ventura, so we’d go surfing every morning. We’d go surf and then go play with Neil – it was perfect! It was the dream, man [laughs]. It is the dream.
JM: Did he give you guys much guidance on what he was looking for, or was it more organic?
LN: There were probably 7 or 8 songs at first, and they were just acoustic. So we put our own spin on his songs, the Monsanto songs. That’s kind of how it came together. We just started messing with that music, and it really flowed well. It really didn’t need much deliberation, we just kind of did it. Most of those takes you hear are the first or second take.
JM: The album has a pretty strong social/political message. Is that something that you feel passionate about also?
LN: Yes. I mean, the rabbit hole goes a lot deeper I think than any of us really realize with this stuff. I’m not necessarily against genetically modifying anything. I’m for stem cell research. I’m totally for the advancement of science.
But it really is a difficult situation that you get in, when you have a company like Monsanto controlling the food supply. It becomes a scary prospect for me. I don’t think they have our best interests in mind. I don’t think that they would hesitate to put something else in the food, and not let us know. And because of the clauses that they’ve passed, and the ordinances that they’ve passed in all these different states, the wording in these bills that they’ve put together allow them to put other things in and not tell us. The food labelling law that’s put in place means you can put other things similar to GMO’s, or whatever, or they can come up with something brand new – maybe it isn’t tested as well or whatever. They put that in the food, and nobody gets to know. A company like this is not going to get regulated.
This company funds most of the research done on these things. These studies show that it’s safe, but then you get a bunch of scientists that start talking, will say, “I actually had a study, but they wouldn’t let me publish it.” Or, they started a defamation campaign against these people. It’s all smiles, like “We’re trying to feed the world.” And it’s all bullshit. I really am passionate about it.
People don’t realize it. They just don’t know. And that’s the scary part. It’s a great prospect, to use science to feed the world. But to what end? Are we just going to keep growing? Are we just going to keep populating this planet? We’ve already got a population problem, and when you increase food production you increase the population. If you start growing food in all of these places where food can’t even grow normally, but because it’s genetically modified… We don’t know what you’re going to do to the ecosystem, because it hasn’t been tested. We’ve only had modern science for about 300 years, and 300 years in the lifespan of an ecosystem is nothing.
I’m against messing with Mother Nature. Call me a hippie, whatever, I just think it’s been around a lot longer than we have, but for some reason we have the capability to really destroy it. I think that’s a shame if we do.
JM: People have talked about how Promise of the Real is bringing a Crazy Horse vibe to Neil’s music. What’s your take on that? Do you feel that also?
LN: Crazy Horse, no. I think we’re different from Crazy Horse. I think Crazy Horse the best band to see Neil with, probably. Of course. But we have a lot of versatility as a band, and we love working with each other. It’s a challenge every time. We can do any style of what Neil does, whereas in the past he’d have to go play with the Stray Gators, or go play with somebody else to go do a different type of music. We can do all of it, and I think that’s why he really likes playing with us. And we can really do it convincingly, too. It’s not like we’re just going through the motions.
Because I grew up listening to Neil’s music, the whole span of Neil’s music. I like rock ‘n’ roll, hard rock, I like grunge, but I also like the soft stuff, too. To be able to do both is really cool, because we’re going out there and giving a really dynamic show. I think that’s really important.
JM: Are you willing to go on record and say what your favorite Neil Young song is?
LN: Right now, my favorite Neil Young song is “Birds”, the Crazy Horse version. [sings] “When you see me fly away without you”. It’s a beautiful song.
JM: I also have to ask, because we all love your father’s music – do you have a favorite Willie Nelson song?
LN: I don’t have a favorite of all time, but right now, “I Just Dropped By” is my favorite. That one or “Happiness Lives Next Door”.
JM: What was it like growing up as Willie Nelson’s son?
LN: You’re going to have to give me a little more specificity for that question.
JM: Sure, let me ask it this way. You’ve gone into music also. Did you find it a little intimidating when you consider his body of work, or do you find it to be more inspiring?
LN: It’s more inspiring for sure. He’s my best friend, and I look up to him as a mentor to me. So it’s definitely an inspiring thing.
JM: What inspired you to pursue a career in music?
LN: Music just captured me, man. I started young, messing around, playing, maybe to just get closer to my dad. Then I just fell in love with it myself. That was a long time ago.
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
LN: Just focus on the music. Don’t focus on anything else. Don’t focus on being famous, don’t focus on Twitter or Instagram. Don’t do anything like that until you are confident that you are the best you can be, at that moment. You always get better and better and better and better. As soon as you start getting people interested in what you’re doing, that means you’re doing it right. So just keep doing it. Focus on the thing you’re doing, not the reactions around you. You know, focus on the music, focus on honing your skills. Focus, focus, focus. That’s the most important thing.
You have to just put your mind to it, and just keep doing it every single day, and don’t stop. Ten hours a day. Just don’t have a life. Just do this. Because you basically have to sacrifice at least four or five years of your life. You have to give music all of yourself. And then it will take you and give you an incredible life, you know. It’ll take you and let you travel around the world, and you’ll meet all these great people, and you’ll have the life that you want. You just have to focus on doing the actual work first.
JM: What are your plans for the near future? Maybe something else with Neil in the works? And you have your own band which is doing great stuff.
LN: We’ve got a record coming out with my band, and the announcement is tomorrow or something. We’ve been working with this record label called Royal Potato, and I think we’re trying to get it out in February. So we’ve got a definite plan. Everything is basically signed, ready to go. We’re thinking February is our release. There’ll be an official announcement either later today or tomorrow.
JM: I get the impression that it’s hard to make long-term plans with Neil. Is there anything in the works with him, or who knows?
LN: Neil and the band – we will be playing together hopefully forever. We’ll do our own things, we’ll go in and out, but we’re friends. We play music together because we love it, first and foremost. It might not be that he tours with us forever, but we’ll always be playing with him, we’ll always be hanging with him. He’s our family. It’s not just business with Neil. We love him.
JM: Where are you speaking to me from?
LN: I’m in Missoula, Montana, and we’re just getting ready to go do soundcheck, and we have a show tonight.