Bear with me for a moment here, I’m about to talk to you about gardening. For the last three years, I’ve been renting a house in the pseudo-suburbs, a neighborhood not quite removed from the amenities of the city, but also far enough away that I’m not kept awake by, and this is true of my last place, my upstairs roommates coming home drunk and playing Guitar Hero until 6 in the morning. The point is that it’s quiet, and it’s also the first time in my 30-plus years that I’ve had a yard to maintain. As a teenager, I’d fake like I didn’t know how to work the lawnmower or do such a shitty job that my dad would do it for me. I did it so little that when I moved in here, and looked over my eighth of an acre, I didn’t know how I’d deal with it. I got a push mower — “It doesn’t hurt the environment like a gas one does, but it is harder to use,” my wife mandated — and got to work bending our yard to my will. And it turned out that working in my little yard — mowing, weeding, removing fallen sticks, putting down new grass in the spring, even planting a sunflower patch — became a meditative space for me.
The hours I spend in my yard from March until November each year are, with the exception of the eight hours I spend asleep each day — the only time I’m truly disconnected from points around all of this. When I’m on my knees in my yard, fighting a dandelion, I’m outside of myself, connected to a task that my people have been doing on Wisconsin’s turf since the latter quarter of the 19th century.
All of this to say, Lukas Nelson And The Promise Of The Real’s new album, Turn Off The News (Build A Garden), is the first album I’ve listened to since I became a guy with a yard that speaks to the reality we all face right now, that our devices and our attachment to our computers and our phones is making us more miserable, and that maybe the only control we can actually exert over the earth and our societal systems is by going into our backyards and growing tomatoes and potatoes and whatever else we can make the earth grow before us.
“We have more control on a local level than we allow ourselves to realize,” Nelson tells me from a quiet space backstage at the Topanga Days festival. “You can go out and help your local community thrive, and have more control over that than what Trump is Tweeting every day, or how our politicians on both sides are undermining us. If we got really organized on a local level, we could make the world more to everyone’s liking and that would lead to a domino effect. World change really begins at home.”
Nelson’s social consciousness comes to him as honestly as his dad Willie’s did, but is more filtered through the big ideas of the people who played in ’60s classic rock bands than fighting the man via the IRS and the DEA. Citing acts like the Beatles and Hendrix as his guideposts, he speaks to plainspoken themes on this record, from trying to live lightly and without stress (“Lotta Fun”), to why goodbyes feel unsatisfying in relationships (“Where Does Love Go”) and, well, simplifying your life (“Simple Life”). And it’s still not every day that you hear a lead single from an album that tries to convince you to build a community garden to learn more about your neighbors and maybe be “less hardened” and “more free.”
All that gels together in the Promise of the Real’s universe, where they’re the last band making heartland rock for people actually in the heartland. Turn Off The News is his band’s fifth studio LP, and second for the relaunched Fantasy Records. It arrives at a non-hyperbolic “big moment” for the band: They’re just a few months removed from an Oscar campaign that saw a movie they appeared in and wrote songs for — they’re Bradley Cooper’s band in A Star Is Born and wrote songs with him and Lady Gaga on the soundtrack — take home a tiny gold man. The spotlight has probably never been brighter, but the band is used to it; they’ve served as Neil Young’s backing band on tours of arenas and festivals for years now, and have been ready for a breakthrough for longer.
Turn Off The News feels like the record that the Promise of the Real have been working toward in their time as a band. It melds classic rock, country, tropical flourishes, boogie-woogie, and any other style of rock music you can think of into a blend that is all their own. I talked to the band on Memorial Day via phone, and we talked playing with Young, Information Action Ratio, and why they’re encouraging their fans to frequent their local farmers’ markets.
VMP: How does it feel to be this close to the album coming out? Is this the hard part now? Waiting for it to come out?
Lukas Nelson: We’re already out on tour, so the way I’m looking at it is that I’m just focusing on trying to do a good show and stay healthy. Back when we all agreed, “OK, the album is done,” that’s when I felt, “OK, great, whatever happens happens now.” However it gets received I’m not so worried about; I know we were all proud of it when we finished it, and that’s when it felt like I could let it go and focus on touring and play the stuff live. We’re getting a lot of feedback and response that people who’ve heard the record love it, and that’s really served to make our shows better, and give us more inspiration as we’re out here on the road. We’re continuing to rock with the knowledge of a job well done, so to speak.
VMP: It’s been two years since your last record, but obviously you guys have been insanely busy in the interim, with A Star Is Born, touring with Neil and making records with him. Does this feel, like, of a piece with this record, or do you have to get in a different headspace to make a “Lukas Nelson And The Promise Of The Real record”?
Anthony LoGerfo (drums): I think we always do our own thing, which is why we work with different people and projects. We just show up and do our thing.
LN: I think we all have a strong sense of focus. That carries over to whatever project we happen to be working on. We did A Star Is Born, but it was the Promise of the Real. We went in and recorded that music live, just the same way we do our records.
Corey McCormick (bass): Playing with Neil is different because we have to follow Neil. We’ve played so many gigs together with just us that when we play our shows it’s more locked in and mind-reading going on. When we play with Neil for a while on the road we get there with him.
LN: We just did four shows with Neil, and the last three might have been the best ever we’ve done with him.
CM: He likes to rehearse in front of people (group laughs). The first time we played with him was in front of 10,000 people with no rehearsal.
LN: We get into that telepathy with Neil too, it just takes a minute. It’s harder for me, because I have to switch roles from being the frontman to being a guitar player for Neil.
CM: When I play with Lukas, I know that when he throws a curveball, I know what that curveball looks like. With Neil, it could be anything at any moment. He could end the song right in the middle of the song. With us, I can play with my eyes closed, but as the bass player, I have to keep my eyes on Neil the whole time when we play with him.
AL: It feels like when we play with Neil, he knows where we’re going, and he wants to mess with us, so he throws us stuff if he feels us getting comfortable. He’s like our Yoda; he really knows what’s going on.
LN: Willie is Yoda, Neil is our Obi-Wan (group laughs).
How long did it take for this album to come together for you guys?
AM: We really went in guns blazing. We recorded 20 songs in like six days. And then we did some other recording, and did another 15 songs in between touring and everything else. The main challenge was really just wanting to put the 35 songs out right away, and pausing to figure out which ones go on this record. I think all of them will get released eventually.
This record really covers a lot of ground stylistically, and I think it’d be hard for someone to peg you guys completely to any one thing. It’s not really a country record, it’s not really a straight rock record. Is it an important thing for you guys to be a flexible unit like that?
AL: I don’t know if we set out to do that, it just sort of happened naturally.
LN: I don’t think that any of the artists I looked up to at least thought too much about what they were playing. They were just playing what they loved. And that’s really what we do. I don’t think it’s super hard to categorize us; I feel like we’re a rock ’n’ roll band. You listen to The White Album, every song is different. Look at the Beatles from Rubber Soul to Abbey Road. “Eleanor Rigby” feels nothing like “Come Together.” That doesn’t mean that they’re not a rock ’n’ roll band, you know? That era of music really spoke to me, and I’m really trying to carry that feeling on, not just musically, but spiritually. That approach of spreading love and peace is something that I’d really like to try to carry on and take inspiration from. There was a flowering of social consciousness that really happened then, and I feel like I’ve gravitated toward. It’s really songwriter rock ’n’ roll that we’re trying to make. It’s about the songs and the movements.
The social consciousness element is really prevalent in the title track here, obviously. That song really captures a feeling a lot of us are having, where we’re attached to our phones and our TVs, and you’re just overwhelmed and exhausted all the time. How did that song come to you? What did that feeling look like for you?
LN: I came to it because I’d go home, and get right on my device, and I just felt addicted to it. I couldn’t put my phone down. And then we’d be on the road, and there’d be CNN and FOX News everywhere we looked and screens everywhere, always. It started to remind me of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Have you read that?
LN: He talks about “talking walls” in there, and we literally have that right now. That book is how people are just eating pills and watching TV, and unfortunately Ray Bradbury’s prophecy is being fulfilled. And I just want to be part of that tribe of nomads in the woods that remembers all the books by memory and can pass them down. I’m hoping that the group of people who want to live like that is not small. I hope we can remember as a human civilization that we used to live more organically, that we learn and grow together, not apart in our devices. That might mean people have to give up their creature comforts; like maybe we don’t use fossil fuels anymore. Maybe it’s not the best to have a big pickup truck to make your balls look big and be macho. That feels like old news. [The song] is really a guide for how I want to live my life, I want to grow as a conscious person, and learn how to have a better presence in reality. But I think everyone can take that as a goal, to get back in touch with the earth.
And it’s not about being ignorant, or uninformed. It’s about being informed, but not letting yourself get weighed down by constant worrying and things you can’t really control. Speak out and be active in your local community as much as possible, just don’t get sucked into your device all the time.
LN: I always like to say, imagine you have galactic news on your TV. Not just the news of Earth, but of distant galaxies, and you got all of the news from everywhere. Now, imagine that there’s a super fleet of star destroyers travelling to destroy a planet we can never get to. That could be happening right now, we have no idea if that’s the case. But if we had galactic news, this would be a huge story, and we’d be freaking out. Your day would be ruined. You’d be freaking out about this thing you literally have no control over.
Have you ever heard of a book called Amusing Ourselves To Death? It’s basically what you outlined here: the writer says that the more information we get as news, the less likely we are able to act on any of it, which only serves to make us depressed, and makes news not actual information, but just another commodity. And that was just about TV news; he didn’t even know how bad that would get. The more you look at the news, the less you can do about it in a lot of cases.
LN: Yeah, and it really hit me when I was thinking about this that something like 99.9 percent of the news I can’t do a damn thing about. And not that I don’t want to be informed, but I don’t need to be constantly be glued to the TV or my device. I want to spend my life giving back, and I can’t do that if I’m anxious about some news I have no control over.
And you’re really encouraging your fans to do that with the Good News Garden thing you set up on your website, where you’re soliciting stories and things from the people coming to see you and buying your records.
LN: Yeah, we’re connecting with local Farmers' Markets everywhere we go, and making sure the fans that come to see us are being informed where they can buy their food locally. The idea is to cultivate a “garden,” if you will.
Yeah, that’s great. So, before we go, later this summer, your dad is going to be releasing his 90-something-th studio album. What’s an album in his catalog that you think is underrated?
LN: Oh man. I think Naked Willie. It’s an album that features some of his older songs in really stripped down versions. It showcases the songwriting and is really raw and amazing.
Andrew Winistorfer is Director of Music at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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