Neurosis Interview with Steve Von Till
We are very pleased to offer Blow The Scene readers around the world an in-depth, exclusive interview with Steve Von Till, guitarist and vocalist of influential post-metal band Neurosis. This interview comes as Neurosis’s tenth studio album, Honor Found in Decay is being honored on countless year-end lists as one of 2012’s most important albums as the band embarks on numerous highly notable performances around the globe. The independently released album has drawn a groundswell of buzz, being the band’s first studio full-length in over five years, punctuating a prolific 27-year history as a band. In this interview, Steve Von Till gives us an inside look into into the writing and recording processes behind Honor Found In Decay, his solo projects, teaching the next generation of inspired musicians, the evolution of Neurosis’s sound, plans for 2013, and much more.
Without further ado, lets hear from Steve Von Till.
Joshua: Greetings and thank you kindly for taking time with Blow The Scene readers from around the world. Let’s get things rolling by having you introduce yourself and declare your on-stage weapon of choice with renowned and influential post-metal band, Neurosis.
Steve Von Till: I’m Steve Von Till, I do vocals and guitar with Neurosis.
Joshua: Honor Found in Decay is your first studio full-length in over five years. When did the first distant rumblings for the album begin and what did the initial writing process for the album look like?
Steve Von Till: We don’t have a process or set method of doing things. Some of the seeds go right back to very tail of the Given to the Rising sessions where we had some seeds of ideas we hadn’t flushed out, or weren’t ready, or didn’t fully form or reveal themselves to us.
It began right as the last one ended, which is pretty usual for us. So those five years may seem like a long time for a lot of people. We’ve been together 27 years, it doesn’t really feel like it’s been that long. Maybe time moves differently for us now, it’s accelerating so much that years can pass by and you don’t even realize it. Most of the things that get in the way of us being able to be more timely in a traditional sense is that we don’t live anywhere near each other. We’re spread out all over the Western United States. Going to band practice involves getting time off of work and and booking an airplane flight. So it’s not that easy. We spent a lot of our time after Given to the Rising playing out. When we can get time away from work and away from our families, we spend it playing out. We went to Europe a couple times. We did more shows in the States than we had done in a long time. While we don’t tour in the traditional sense per se, we did get out there many a weekend and do that instead of wortking on the new stuff. And even once the new stuff was formed well over a year ago, it took us over six months to be able to find a week together to go record it. That’s just the way life works for us.
As far as the process goes- it’s complete chaos.
This music demands things from ourselves, it’s not a cerebral process. We never sit down and go ‘Ok guys, now we’re writing a record.’ It’s more like things demand a turn, things demand attention and they rise to the surface and bubble up. We work on it on different ways- We work on it in turns, we work on it all together.. Most of it usually originates from all of us together in a room, then we’ll record it and all take it home to our home studios and meditate on our parts. We’ll get together in smaller groups of twos or threes when we’re available and hash stuff out and bring it back up to the group. It doesn’t ever fully form until it’s gone through the process of everybody’s filter and then coming to life in the room with everybody there.
It’s way bigger than us as individuals. It’s more of a tapping into something environmental than songwriting.
Joshua: With well over a decade of working with renowned engineer Steve Albini- Was it a given you guys would return to him for Honor Found In Decay- Were there any other possibilities that were thrown around?
Steve Von Till: For me personally, I don’t see a reason to go to anyone else. He is the best damn engineer in the world, I believe. He’s very traditional, there’s no tricks, there’s no fix it later. There’s only an extremely high fidelity approach towards capturing a natural performance in a room.
We set up as a band, we don’t have time to fuck around. We got to record, mix a record in week, week n’ half tops. We’re doing final tracks within hours of setting up. I don’t want to have to go to the control room and see if my tone is right, I’ve already spent the last twenty-some years making my guitar tone the way I want it. I just need it caught, captured in a pleasing form.. and in him, I have total trust. I don’t have to go into the control room and check.
We set up as a band-even all the samples, all the keyboards, and all the layers people think we must orchestrate so complexly or tweak out on in the studio.. No- They are played live right there. We put it to tape, we add the vocals after so we can play guitar better, but it’s basically- We record live as a band, dump the vocals on and mix that fucker. There’s no technical bullshit.
It’s all just like our favorite albums of the 70’s. Sabbath, and Zeppelin, and Deep Purple, they didn’t fuck around.
Joshua: I know you enjoy crafting your own instruments to harness a vast array of trademark sounds- Anything new you put together for the recording or subsequent touring around Honor Found In Decay?
Steve Von Till: As far as crafting our instruments- The one who does that the most is Noah, the rest of us are playing more traditional instruments..guitars and bass. Where as Noah’s approach to keyboards and more specifically to using samplers not as many people imagine, as triggering some sound, ‘oh here’s an explosion,’ or something else. He digs into finding his own organic sources, whether it be from the rehearsal studio or captured somewhere else. He twists and morphs them like a wizard into these really organic, playable things. You might even be able to tell where the instrument originated- Maybe it comes from a string or reed of some sort, but he crafts them into things he can really play expressively with the band. I feel like he has really gone above and beyond on Honor Found In Decay, creating these really epic sounds that are not just part of the music but take it somewhere else completely and bring it to a whole new level. Some of my favorite parts of this record are where his parts rise up out of the wall of sound and take over.
Joshua: How much time do you guys spend during the recording process (I’m sure you demo before you go in) but do you listen to the way the recordings are coming along and change anything on the fly? I’m interested to know- And does Noah work all of this stuff in live too? And what type of equipment is he using while you are recording?
Steve Von Till: Ya, he plays all his stuff live. All the instruments are done as a live take. With the rare exception of, maybe I want to fuck around and do a guitar overdub just for fun. But it’s literally like one or two, like ‘Oh, I didn’t get the feedback I wanted right there. Maybe I can go back and get some fucking crazier feedback.’
Noah plugs in, depending on the sounds, usually he’s crafted them well enough, he’s just going in direct from his gear right to the tape. If something feels like it needs air, we’ll blast it through some amplifiers.
He’s got most of his stuff dialed the way he wants it in advance and it just sounds perfect going straight on to the tape.
Joshua: I know you personally maintain a very prolific outpouring of material with both your solo work and Tribes of Neurot and this all apart from your work in Neurosis. Do you consciously approach your work for Neurosis with a different mindset. In other words- Do you want you mark with Neurosis to vary greatly from your solo work?
Steve Von Till: They are completely different animals. Like I said before, Neurosis is not personal. It’s personal expression in a way, but it’s bigger than us. Some ideas, or lyrical ideas, or riff ideas come from an individual, but it’s a freakn’ driven beast that is infinitely far beyond what any of us can do individually. It’s hard for us to even take credit for it because it’s beyond us and we feel lucky to just have found it.
What Neurosis opened up for us was this infinite realm of inspiration and Neurosis is the core of all of it.
Our entire adult lives have been in this band. Nothing in our musical lives can be completely divorced from Neurosis, at least I don’t believe so. There can be quite a different approach. When I first discovered that I wanted to make solo music, it was because I had some home recording gear..
When the world was asleep and the rooms were quiet and I was hiding in my own little corner with an acoustic guitar, i was rolling tape and coming up with ideas that didn’t belong in Neurosis that were more of a personal expression and became a challenge. Neurosis have these epic, grand movements of music that follow no traditional arranging or approach and that’s what we grew up doing. So in a lot of ways, we don’t have a lot of traditional chops.
For me to write a song, for me to concisely write a song in some sort of arrangement that resembles a normal folk song, was quite a challenge. To put myself out there without the backup of my brothers making all this racket and noise was a bit nerve wracking and totally out of the comfort zone.. To have my voice out there. But what it did do, it confronted weakness and it used this nerve-wracking feeling to build a new strength. I think Scott would feel the same way- We built a lot of confidence in our voices and a wider range of expression that we in turn brought back to Neurosis. That helped us vocally approach a lot of the new music we were coming up with, where as, just being screamers wouldn’t have been as appropriate.
Joshua: When you guys decide on an art layout for an album- Is that thematic element along with vocal motifs something you plan out before crafting the music? Or do you allow the music to dictate that direction?
Steve Von Till: The music pretty much dictates that direction. There might be a few lyrical themes, but because it is not cerebral, it’s really gut level. It’s heart and soul music not head music. Any sort of intellectual idea of theme would pale in comparison to what will rise to the top and take over and demand attention. We’ve really learned to surrender to that over the years and I think the music drives the emotion, much more than the other way around.
Joshua: And what was the direct path that lead to name of this latest work- Honor Found In Decay?
Steve Von Till: We were listening to this music and starting to brainstorm what we wanted the artwork to look like and we had this symbol idea. We were talking to Josh (our resident artist) about how we wanted to approach it. We knew we didn’t want anything illustrated, we knew didn’t want any Photoshop or manipulation bullshit, we wanted everything to be in camera. So it started with this simple totem of the three arrows, which actually was first a symbol that we used a long time ago and somebody had brought back the idea of using it. It represents the whole is greater than the individual, the unity within a group creates more stability and more strength, which is definitely true of Neurosis, where we are after all these years.
So a friend of ours who had booked some solo shows for Scott [Kelly] and I in Slovakia, who is also an archaeologist, had gifted us these arrowheads, which are actually thousands of years old. They are the real deal. We had Josh work them into the symbol. From there we just brainstormed that they were part of a totem spiritual offering by somebody who’s been obsessing and meditating in very small claustrophobic space. Obsessing on writings and photographs, obsessing on spiritual work, obviously isolated but also feeling that despite this isolation and this kind of intense meditation or obsession, you’re not sure who it is, you’re not sure why they’re there, all you see is the evidence they’ve been there and something is going on. Then there’s this communication equipment and the artwork that brings the paradox of even though this person is completely isolated, completely obsessing and completely dedicated to their own path, they feel the need to communicate it outside of themselves. They feel the need to broadcast it, which also represents what we do. We have this intense personal expression that doesn’t require any sort of outside ego strokes or doesn’t pander to any audience, critics, or anything besides the fact that we feel we need to make this music in order to be human. But then there is this strange desire to communicate it, it’s not so personal that we leave it in the closet. We feel the need to put it out there.
From that point on we just kept spiraling out there and the title was the last thing that came. It’s rare for us to have a title that doesn’t come from the lyrics. The title came more from an abstract thought process of finding the right words that can be interpreted on enough levels to work with the art and the music.
Joshua: You personally have a unique vantage point being both a musician and a teacher. One of the things I think a lot of us in the music world notice, is the passion for musicianship and the arts is becoming less and less a focus of today’s youth. First of all- Would you consider that a fair assessment? And how do you- not just with your students but in everyday life- What do you do to aid the spark of artistic curiosity in the up-and-comers?
Steve Von Till: You know that’s hard to say because I look at how it came about when I was growing up and it was such a different thing. Punk rock was such a liberating thing at that time, we didn’t have the Internet. So much of the world was very different. To have this kind of weird underground independent music scene that didn’t rely on anything..Now it’s different. There are clubs that cater to our music, a lot of them [laughs]. Magazines, the fact that I’m even sitting here doing interviews. It used to be one guy in each city doing a photocopied fanzine with a couple interviews of bands. Maybe a few bands had some records out on some very small independent label that put out some ads in these zines. Everything was mailorder. Then you play living rooms, or masonic halls, or wherever people could put on a gig. You didn’t have to be proficient at your instrument and you didn’t have to be fucking Randy Rhoads [laughs ] to go fucking play out. You just had to have the desire to do it and the passion to do it.
Where we came from was an alternative to the rule, so the mainstream of society of that time wasn’t inspired either. They were all a bunch of imitators, shit cover bands were the bands playing the clubs. So now things are imitated, I agree that that spark sometimes seems to be missing, but at the same time, things are so different.. But the mainstream is still dictated by the media. People still think these television shows have something to do with the way the musical expression works. Really comes down to- If you’re inspired, you’re going to find it. If you’re brain’s not killed or destroyed, you’re going to find it, you’re going to find your mode of expression. And I think that’s not dead. The recognition of it is so diluted with the sea of mediocrity and imitation and the overwhelming amount of media. The amount of media that floods in over our computers is just so fucking overwhelming that it’s hard to pick it out.
There was a time (and I forget the era because I’m bad with time) when guitar music was in danger. There was a time when hip-hop and dance music and everything else was the name of the game. And guitar music was on it’s way out bigtime. Probably similar to the way people felt when punk rock first came out, disco was the name of the game. Part of when we were struggling in the early 90’s, it was the other shit, techno shit, and dj-driven shit. All that is still in fashion but the thing is- Guitar music never went away. I see a lot of kids going and buying guitars for Christmas. Most of them don’t give it more than a couple weeks, but there’s always that one. There’s always that one that is going to go and sit with it and be like “Alright I’m not as good as that guy, but I got something I need to say.’
Joshua: Right on. To switch gears back into Neurosis directly- What do you guys have on your plate as we head into 2013?
Steve Von Till: Record release at the Fox Theater, which is a beautiful theater in Oakland, going to be playing with Voivod and YOB which should be fucking sick, couple weeks after that we are flying to London, and we’re playing all four parties curated by Shellac (Steve Albini’s band). Then the next day playing with Godflesh in London, another freakin awesome gig.
Joshua: That will be incredible
Steve Von Till: Then I think we are going to slowly kick off some choice areas and cities on the weekends after Christmas. Between Christmas and March we are going to try to hit at least every region, so people can travel and meet us somewhere. Chicago, New York, Atlanta.. West Coast..So we are at least going to try and hit some major spots in the US and hopefully by next summer we’ll be able to take a couple weeks together and go hit some European cities as well.
Joshua: Awesome. Very cool. I would like to just take a minute and thank you for taking this time with our readers and the magazine today and just want to close out by saying we here at Blow The Scene are big Neurosis fans, we’re stoked to have the opportunity to catch up with you. Any final thoughts as we close out?
Steve Von Till: No man, just thank you for your attention and interesting questions and good conversation and helping us get the word out. We’re an independent band with our own DIY label and every bit that people help out- it should be us thanking you for introducing your readers to our stuff, so we appreciate it.
Interview by Blow The Scene Editor-in-Chief, Joshua T. Cohen.
Official Neurosis website
Official Steve Von Till website
Neurosis on Facebook
Scott Kelly photo by Blow The Scene Senior Staff Photographer, Dante Torrieri, taken from our Exclusive Scott Kelly solo photo gallery from earlier in 2012 with special guest John Baizley (Baroness)
NEUROSIS Honor Found In Decay Live Actions:
12/29/2012 The Masquerade – Atlanta, GA w/ Rwake, USX, Primate
12/30/2012 The Metro – Chicago, IL w/ Bloodiest, The Atlas Moth
1/04/2013 Fonda Theatre – Los Angeles, CA w/ Savage Republic, Ides of Gemini
1/05/2013 Showbox at the Market – Seattle, WA w/ Tragedy, Black Breath, Stoneburner
1/19/2013 Brooklyn Masonic Temple – Brooklyn, NY
1/20/2013 Union Transfer – Philadelphia, PA (TICKETS)
2/16/2013 Summit Music Hall – Denver, CO
2/17/2013 Emo’s East – Austin, TX
6/21/2013 Hellfest – Clisson, France