When Neil Young released his 36th studio album The Monsanto Years in 2015, it featured up-and-comers Promise Of The Real, who replaced long-time cohorts Crazy Horse. POTR are a band built around Lukas Nelson, that – when playing with Young – includes his younger brother Micah, both offspring of iconic American musician Willie Nelson.
To hear them on the aforementioned album and the 2016 live release Earth is an energising experience. But when G&B witnessed POTR live last year, it became clear these youngsters inject a new life force into the Canadian legend’s gloriously ragged, eternal music.
When the 20-something guitarists huddle onstage with Young, they form one pulsating musical heart. Visceral jams, searing solos and seismic riffing prove ‘Old Shakey’ is playing some of the finest live music of his long and monumental career.
The artistic alchemy is saturated with such kinetic energy that the emotionally charged gigs remain in the consciousness long after the shows are over. Besides classic cuts, Promise Of The Real dust off deep cuts such as Vampire Blues.
Speaking with Micah and Lukas separately, G&B finds both exceedingly grounded, grateful and artistically aspirational. Aside from mentions of Maui, Venice Beach and Austin, Texas (their former or current homesteads), the brothers exhibit no hint that they are scions of a multi-millionaire music superstar.
This is partly due to their mother, who, when Willie was touring, made sure both boys grew up without entitlement.Their rebellious salt-of-the-earth father also instilled solid values, yet Willie remains a trailblazer (not many octogenarians could pull off a single like his duet with Snoop Dog on Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die).
It was at a Farm Aid gig with their dad that ‘Uncle Neil’ first saw them play, invited them for a jam, and then to his Annual Bridge School Benefit Concert, before POTR (including drummer Anthony LoGerfo, bassist Corey McCormick and percussionist Tato Melgar) became his recording and live unit, all in the space of a few months in 2015.
Despite their musical pedigree, initially it must have been intimidating to be faced suddenly with playing to massive audiences. “It’s like big-wave surfing,” replies Lukas, munching on cherries backstage. “You train like an athlete to get to the point where you ride the wave, get into the barrel and it’s ‘do or die’ up there on stage. So I’m doing what I love and I’ve tried to prepare for this.”
Surprisingly, Micah is a bit of a newbie to guitar, having taken it up in his late teens (he’s now 26) after mastering both drums and harmonica as a child. “Maybe a little bit at first,” he concedes. “We are obviously huge fans.” Or perhaps super-fans, as the genesis of POTR began when LoGerfo met Lukas at a Neil Young concert several years ago. Micah adds: “Neil doesn’t want us to hold back musically, and we all were quickly absorbed into the fold with him. We look up to him with respect, but he never treated us like we were younger, he treats us as equals. He’s now our homie and he doesn’t act like he’s 71.”
Micah acknowledges the utter surrealism of being on the world’s stages unleashing a torrent of sound alongside a man who has been venerated for decades.
“It’s crazy! I don’t know what else to say except that it just happens up there. I don’t mean to say we’re amazing, but we just play by feel and sometimes I can’t even hear what’s happening, and then I’m playing by smell,” he laughs. “Last night, I couldn’t hear most of the show and yet I got through it, and to me, that’s the most exciting part of this: you can really feel there’s a band of humans communicating telepathically up there.
It could derail at any moment, it could crash and burn – and that’s exciting, and there’s a lot of happy accidents that way. Neil likes to invite the universe in, and there’s no holding back. So when you’re together in that moment, being as present as possible, you’re just along for the ride. But it’s definitely a dream-like scenario.”
Older brother Lukas concurs, to some degree. “I always hear myself, because I’m standing right next to my amp, so even if I can’t hear my monitors I can hear my amp. I’m also using visualisation, watching where Neil is on the neck. So if he’s low, I can go high so I won’t be duplicating him.”
Both Micah and Lukas state separately that with Young, not thinking when playing is the optimum mental state in order to allow the magic to happen. “Those no-thinking moments make for the greatest music, when your body takes over,” Lukas explains.
“There’s that inner voice criticising what you’re doing, so the key is to murder that guy in your head as soon as possible,”confides Micah. “Ideally, at every show there’s the moment we get out of our own way and we’re not really doing anything: we’re at the mercy of the the music happening, and then the music is bigger than us.
We’re holding on for dear life. Anyway, the goal is to be almost meditating. Some of the songs are essentially two chords with a long, void space where you can really lay back and not rush.
“It’s like shamanic, tribal drumming, but for guitarists, so you make the most of it, being in that place, you smell the flowers and don’t over-think what you’re playing. These songs are deceptively simple if they’re one or two chords repeated over and over, yet it can be complex, and with three guitars you can draw on the others – with three guitarists, less is more. You don’t always have to be playing something; the key is to be great or be gone.”
Until last year, Lukas was POTR’s lone guitarist, and his steepest learning curve has been playing with two others.
“I went from my sets, where I’m the only guitarist, to playing with Neil and Micah and have it be dynamic and clear, so that it’s not this muddied distortion of three guitars.
I feel like the journey of playing guitar starts from understanding how to play, to next learning what not to play and when not to play. That’s the side of the journey I’m trying to master: learning where the spaces fit between the notes. I’m listening constantly to what they’re playing, so that whatever I’m playing underneath really fits into the puzzle.”
Lukas clarifies that when playing alongside Young, parts are not allocated to strict lead and rhythm roles – rather, it’s a case of doing what works well: “It’s all about listening,” he says. “It’s kind of a process of elimination. So you can’t do what the other guys are doing, like with harmony singing, you sing different parts, not the same ones as the others, to complement their parts.”
Of the brothers, Lukas took up the guitar first and learnt much from his dad, as well as members of Willie’s band. “I had a lot of informal teachers,” he explains. “Nobody learns without outside influence. Then I got to play in my father’s band, which taught me so much.”
All the preparation helped Lukas to embed quickly with Neil, who changes his setlist virtually every night due largely to POTR, who like to encourage him to bring out old gems such as those from On The Beach… But is it true they had to learn 80 songs before hitting the road?
“I’ve lost count, as we’re always adding things to the set,” Lukas says. “But I already knew many of them, as we’ve been fans forever. And we love digging up rare tracks to play.” Any favourites? “I get a kick out of everything,” he says, “especially Rocking In The Free World and Tonight’sThe Night.”
POTR recorded Monsanto Years in Oxnard, southern California at the Teatro theatre, where their dad recorded Teatro in 1998. Besides Young’s relaxed vibe during the proceedings, the guys had a stimulating daily ritual; mornings were spent surfing off Oxnard Beach. “There’s nothing better than getting into the rhythm of the ocean, then going to play guitar to match that same rhythm,” says Lukas.
They initially convened at the historic Teatro sans Young, with only rough acoustic demos, and were encouraged to not overlearn the songs, so as to keep things fresh and spontaneous. The band set up on the stage instead of inside a studio to capture a raw, live vibe, having learnt the Monsanto demos “just enough so that we sounded raw and unpolished”. Nights after recording was done were spent dining on Mexican food.
On the beach
Did Neil surf? “No, but he does stand-up paddle surfing,” Lukas says. “That’s really good for the core. He’s in really good shape.” With Promise Of The Real having taken on the request to not over-prepare their parts, the songs were captured quickly – most were done within two or three takes.
Besides Willie’s Texan background, their mother Annie, with her Italian-American roots, left an impression on the brothers. Did she nurture their musicality despite not being a musician?
“I spent a lot of time with her,” Lukas replies, “because my dad was on the road, and when we’d travel to him we were like two little ducklings, following her. She listened to tonnes of old rock ’n’ roll and introduced me to Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan and all points between. With dad, I got introduced to the country world. So between them both, I got a great balance of rock and country. But honestly, my mom’s the reason I like to rock.”
“My mom is of Sicilian heritage and a huge music lover who played us everything,” adds Micah. “My brother and I also went through a Big Band phase, like Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman plus, from mom, lots of classic rock, Stax and Motown. I was also really into Mozart and Bach as a little kid.
Musically, she was everywhere… but her character was tough as she’s the granddaughter of (notorious mobster) Carlo Gambino. My grandma changed her name to Gambina when she came through Ellis Island, to disassociate from the Mafia. But I guess that left traces on her, in some respects.”
The pair grew up primarily in Hawaii which, Micah explains, helped them not feel different. “I think that was a smart move on my folks’ part, as my mom saw that Texas might be a bit difficult – because there, our dad is practically the president. In Hawaii, we could be more anonymous. I love Austin and my family and friends there. But in Maui, nobody gives a shit about celebrity. Not as many people have an agenda, it’s a good environment to raise a kid.”
Lukas started playing guitar at 10, while Micah, who began with harmonica, became a drumming prodigy by eight. After switching to guitar in his late teens, Micah discovered the Andean churango, which he uses with with his other band Insects Vs Robots.
“It’s a got a cinematic quality and has 10 strings,” he says. “I stumbled upon one in a little shop in Quito, Ecuador and had never heard one. I started playing it, jammed with it, figured out different chord shapes for the tuning I had it in… with its diatonic notes, it’s not the same notes as a guitar, with the low strings in the middle – it’s a very idiosyncratic instrument and it works with a lot of different things.
In my band, I play an electric one and I used to play an acoustic one, but we have a wide spectrum of sounds in that. It sounds like it comes from another dimension! I played it on Wolf Moon on The Monsanto Years.
During the tours with Young, Micah has been busily writing “an interactive album with a movie. It’s lo-fi, and we’re turning our studio in Venice, CA into a soundstage – so it’ll be an online viewing experience, part animated. I wrote the script and each song has different characters with part-animation.”
Meanwhile, Lukas plans to release new, original music with POTR this year. “I have 30 or 40 new tunes ready to release. It’s poignant and relevant, the lyrics and vocals, it’s all culminating in our own style, which is country-rock/folk. It’ll be a combination of acoustic and electric.
I’m looking forward to getting this out, because although I play different instruments and sing, I think my strength is songwriting. We’ve been working with John Alagía (John Mayer, Dave Matthews), who works at The Village studio, and we’re now putting on lap steel.”
The future looks bright, albeit rammed with lots of projects. “POTR want to do both Neil’s and our own stuff,” says Lukas. “There’s a lot happening in my life and I’m trying to go with the flow. My dad has said he wants me to be around a lot more, and he’s 83, so I will. Neil has said the same, and I’ll be there for them both. But I also want to build my artistry with my band.” The brothers are generous in their praise of each other.
Micah describes Lukas as an “incredibly gifted singer” and his “main guitar influence”, while Lukas enthuses: “My brother now prefers to play guitar, but he writes these masterpiece arrangements for his band and is one of the best drummers I know. I’m really proud of him learning the guitar and he does these amazing soundscapes. He’s also learning the piano, but Micah’s true genius is in his visual arts.”
We can’t end the interview without returning to a subject close to Lukas’ heart – his guitars. “My guitars are named after the woman that I’ll always love, no matter what,” he tells us. “So Christina, my red Strat, is named after the girl I was with for eight years, on and off. It’s a beautiful guitar.
I bought it when I was first with her. Now, I’m only playing Christina, plus Georgia (aka ‘The Spanish Inquisition’) – a ’56 Les Paul Junior. There’s another Strat, my first guitar, which my parents bought me, called Bonnie – named after my first girlfriend. So those are my three main guitars. As far as acoustics go, I just bought one in Nashville I call the Black Horse – it’s a Martin composite.”