Neurosis’ Steve Von Till: “We Want To Sound Like The Entire Breadth And Depth Of The Human Experience”
It’s now 30 years since Steve Von Till joined Neurosis. The Oakland band had already built a reputation on the back of their live shows and 1987’s Pain Of Mind debut, but when Steve assumed joint vocal and guitar duties with founder Scott Kelly at the end of that decade, they took their first tentative steps away from the Bay Area punk scene and into a brave new world of sound.
Harnessing influences from across the spectrum of underground music, albums like Souls At Zero, Enemy Of The Sun and Through Silver In Blood established Neurosis as one of the most original and forward-thinking outfits of the 1990s. By the millennium, their influence on newer bands had become undeniable, most notably in the post-metal scene that coalesced around their original sonic blueprint.
A humble man who works as an elementary school teacher, Steve remains remarkably grounded for someone whose music has had such a lasting effect on the landscape of heavy music. There is, however, no hiding the passion with which he discusses his creative endeavours, whether his solo projects or the mystery and might of Neurosis.
Are people surprised that members of Neurosis still have to hold down day jobs?
“No, that’s just how life is. It’s more surprising that people would expect that you can make a living off strange, underground music (laughs)? We’ve been more than fortunate to gain a certain popularity and respect, but it would become much less special, and it would compromise the art somewhat, to try to turn it into something fiscal as opposed to [being] a spiritual catharsis.”
Did you grow up in Oakland?
“I’ve actually never lived in Oakland! I grew up in San Jose, California, about an hour south. I particularly liked going up to Oakland and Berkeley and the East Bay and seeing a lot of shows. Actually, Neurosis was one of my favourite bands at that time. So when I was 19 and they were looking for a replacement second guitarist before their second album, I was extremely honoured to be able to bring my ideas to what they were doing.”
What do you remember about the first show you played with Neurosis?
“The first concert was a free outdoor show in Berkeley. This was a time when there was a lot of conflict between racist skinheads and the East Bay punks, and there was definitely an altercation that went down. I can’t remember all the details but it was pretty intense, and needless to say, the punks won. I think there were some fisticuffs (laughs)!”
It’s funny looking back at that scene and seeing that you played with people like Green Day at Gilman Street. Do you think you’ll ever play a show with them again?
“Well, we did do a festival with them in Sweden, but that’s kind of different. Looking back on that time, in many ways it was so much more open-minded as these things were forming. Things hadn’t gone to their separate corners. You’d go to shows and it would be way more diverse. It could be NOFX or Green Day, it could be some art performance or spoken word, could be a classic ’70s punk band, could be a rockabilly band – it was all over the map and it wasn’t so pigeonholed.”
We were going to ask if you missed those mixed bills, but then you’re playing something like Supersonic which is varied in a different way.
“Yeah, I really like that diversity of sound. That’s part of what we enjoy about some of those really big festivals in Europe that we get to play sometimes. If music is about communication and about reaching people through some sort of emotional honesty and authenticity, you need to have opportunities where you’re not just playing to your captive audience; where you have the chance for some young person to walk by unsuspecting, that didn’t know they were looking for that until they stumbled into it. That’s how we all initially discovered whatever got us to start collecting records and dive into music.”
So when you joined Neurosis, that was around the same time that the sound started to shift from hardcore punk to something that was more experimental. Was that your influence or was the band collectively heading in that direction anyway?
“I think it was collective. Each of us brings something unique to the table, and I think what we were able to zero in on was a desire to push away from the trappings of just slashing away at traditional barre chords, and finding ways to have it sound larger than it was. On our second album (The Word As Law), the one we recorded shortly after I joined, we were grasping for something that we didn’t know how to reach. I don’t think we were really able to come into ourselves until the third album (Souls At Zero), when we realised that what we really wanted to sound like was the entire breadth and depth of the human experience, what it was like to be the monkey that was given the gift and the curse of self-reflection. Also what it means to be thinking and feeling human beings in this world, of what our relationships are to each other, to ourselves, to our minds, to our hearts, to nature. The entire ramifications of the evolution of our species.
“We started hearing sounds in our mind that were beyond what guitars and bass and drums could do. Lately I’ve been realising that it was not only our love for industrial music like Throbbing Gristle and Coil, but also things like Public Enemy’s use of the sampler that really opened our eyes. Like, ‘Holy shit, this music sounds like riots are happening in the streets right now!’ (laughs) Explosions can be instruments. We also learned how to make our guitars heavier, how to simplify our riffing – the power of channelling all of your intent into a single note. And slowing it down, learning how to breathe, learning when to bring the hammer down and when to let it rest. All of those things began that whole evolutionary path which we’re still on, and still exploring. We’re still finding what we think is our true essence.”
It’s interesting that industrial music was a big influence, because your music sounds quite elemental, quite of the natural world. Is that something that you consciously channel?
“Yeah, nothing is more powerful than Mother Nature. Nothing is more powerful than the wind, or the lightning, or the waves of the ocean, or fire and ice. All of that is super-elemental. We’ve very specifically channelled those energies and tried to find ways to represent them sonically.”
You’re a tremendously influential band. Were you aware at a certain point that there were bands coming through that were indebted to the sound you’d created?
“That’s the highest form of a compliment. I mean, it’s a cliche and everybody says it, but it’s true. This music is a very self-centred activity. The audience is not ever a part of the equation in the creation; it’s not friendly music, it’s not made to give anybody any pleasure. It’s strictly our own, unique, strange way of finding some deeper self-expression while also channelling something greater than ourselves and surrendering to this muse that is the spirit of Neurosis and drives everything that we do.”
Having said that, it isn’t music written with the audience in mind, your gigs have a certain communal aspect that is important.
“Yeah, I would agree with that, but we don’t really interact with an audience. We don’t speak or really engage. I think part of that comes from the fact that it is difficult music. It’s not difficult in that it’s always sonically disruptive or anything, but it’s not feel-good, party music. At our concerts, hundreds of people have solitary experiences with this intense music, including us. We have our collective experience, we also have our individual experiences, the way each of us is feeling while that music is moving through us. But I guess that is powerful, when you bring hundreds of people into the same room for what is normally a personal, private experience, and to really just surrender to that sound, as opposed to a party type situation or whatever.”
It would be pretty weird if you or Scott started trying to get the crowd to sing along.
“(Laughs) Yeah. That would sound interesting!”
What is your process for writing songs for your solo work, and how is it different from writing for Neurosis?
“Well, Neurosis is very much a collective effort. There’s a million different ways a song can start. It can start with a guitar riff, a concept, a jam, a sample, a rhythm, sometimes something half-formed, sometimes just a series of disparate riffs in the same key looking for a home. It’s about trusting the process for all five of us, to bring our strengths, to challenge our weaknesses and to push each other. With the solo work under my own name, that’s songwriting. That’s where I’m trying to find my own unique folk music that comes from a lifetime of listening to Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Jim Croce, and just trying to craft little private moments that are uniquely my own and not part of a deep experience. This is the sound I want to make when the world is quiet enough for me to explore this. It’s a blend of poetry and guitar accompaniment, piano, wherever the inspiration comes from.”
What about your Harvestman project?
“That’s something totally different. It’s very much everything I can’t do in those other projects, thrown into a grinder. It really is an expression of my love for psychedelic music, home recording, lo-fi, tape loops, synthesisers, textural electric guitar, ambient music, meditating on sacred spaces. Although it’s not musically apparent in the style necessarily, as an approach I’ve always loved dub, in the sense that whatever the basic tracks were that went to the multi-track tape, that’s not the performance. The performance is the mix, and turning the whole studio into a living being.”
People look at Neurosis and see a bunch of serious dudes playing serious music. Is there a goofy side to the band that people don’t get to see?
“Of course. I mean, we’re dead serious about this music, that’s pretty clear. But we laugh and joke, and whenever you stick 5-10 guys together on a bus for extended periods of time, things degrade into comic bullshit pretty quick (laughs). Nor do I think we take ourselves too seriously – I mean, the music is dead serious, but ourselves, not so much. We were gifted with this incredible music, but I don’t think any of us feel that we were natural born performers. We’re not one hundred per cent comfortable being entertainers; we like to keep to ourselves and let the music speak for itself. We don’t see ourselves as any sort of celebrity or anything of that nature, we’re just regular guys with jobs who get to do this amazing thing on the side where we come together and deliver this intense music. [It] has been incredibly important to our own lives and our own mental survival, and trying to find meaning in a world full of distraction.”
Do you still think of Neurosis as being a punk rock band at heart?
“I do! I still hang on to the original meaning as I saw it, which was never about a style of music – it was about a movement outside of the commercial mainstream, outside of the club scene, outside of radio, outside of regular record labels. It was a movement of people who just had something different to say and something different to express. All of the people I knew growing up; you were either in a band, or you did a fanzine, or you tried to start a record label, or you tried to get a radio spot on a community or college radio station. Clubs weren’t booking this kind of stuff, so you were getting together with friends and putting on house parties or renting warehouse space and putting on gigs. It was all about providing something different and doing something as a community, and I took a lot of lessons from that. In my own mythology, in how I see myself and where I think Neurosis fit, it stems from being a product of that environment, and that’ll never leave us. It’s in our blood.”
The remastered version of Neurosis’ 2003 collaboration album with Jarboe will be released on August 2 via Neurot Recordings. The band are currently on tour in Europe, playing in Birmingham, UK on July 19 and London on July 20.
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