To this day we still don't feel like we belong to a genre. We've been around thirty years, we've seen genres and names come and go so many times that it seems pointless to try and define things the way we often feel reduced to.
There are many ways that you can describe Neurosis and one of the many is that they have always been one of the most forward thinking bands that have ever existed. They have just released their eleventh album Fires Within Fires, an album that definitely fits the description of forward thinking and it is a fine addition to such a stunning and influential body of work. The band are celebrating their thirtieth anniversary and in anticipation of their imminent celebratory shows in London, Gavin Brown caught up with Steve Von Till to talk about the new album, working with the legendary Steve Albini, the bands punk heritage, their early days in the Bay Area and what the future holds for Neurosis amongst other topics in a very informative chat. If you made it to one or both of the London dates, then count yourself very lucky as these gigs were undoubtedly special occasions and a celebration of one of the greatest bands ever.
(((o))): You have just released your excellent new album Fires Within Fires. How did the recording of the album go?
Steve: Extremely smooth. We recorded and mixed it in seven days and it felt like a luxurious amount of time. We’re always really prepared when we go into a studio and it’s pretty much how we’ve done all the recent ones with Steve Albini. We just go in, we show up, we set up our stuff, he puts microphones in front of it, we push play and record and we record an album.
(((o))): Having worked with Steve Albini so often going back to Times Of Grace, do you even consider anyone else and what is it that he brings to the powerful Neurosis sound?
Steve: I mean, you never know what the future holds, but what we like about Steve is he’s such a professional in a traditional sense of being a knowledgable engineer. He’s got more experience than anybody we know. He’s literally made thousands of records and he’s fast and efficient with the highest quality we could possibly ask for. It’s top of the line analogue recording like all of our favourite albums ever were always recorded. There’s not any sort of modern bullshit getting in the way. We just set up and play live and we’ve spent thirty years crafting our tone and we don’t want anyone to fuck it up! His main goal in his engineering life is to not fuck up your record and he would say that, like I don’t want to fuck up your record. There’s no fixing stuff later, there’s no special tricks. There’s just him catching a very high fidelity, very pleasing quality recording of what we sound like in a room.
(((o))): The new album seems even heavier than your last album Honor Found In Decay. Was it a conscious decision to make it heavier or did it just turn out that way when it came to write and record the album?
Steve: Yeah, there’s not much conscious that goes into what we do. We don’t have any sort of any philosophical or intellectual conversations of where we want the music to go. By this point in our career, we pretty much want just to trust the process and we know that the sound will evolve her ever it is supposed to evolve and that if we surrender to that higher ideal of letting it flow and letting the music take us instead of us take the music then we’ll consistently just evolve to new places and become, each time we do it hopefully, older, wiser and be the best version of ourselves that is possible.
(((o))): After thirty years, the new album sounds just as vital as you ever have. What inspired you to get stronger and stronger as a creative force?
Steve: Again, I think it just has to do with being forward thinking and never wanting to rest on our laurels, never looking back to any sort of heyday or any kind of crap like that. I think the moment it really started when we found ourselves and made a commitment to this band and to this music was a commitment to evolution and change and a commitment to embodying the spirit of the music and I think each time we get better at it. Each time we get closer and closer to that true spirit of Neurosis is supposed to be and it feels that the inspiration we’ve been lucky enough to tap into is fairly infinite so with that in mind we fully expect to die trying to find the sound is always elusive.
(((o))): You’re playing two shows in London next week, celebrating your thirtieth anniversary. You play with Earth and then Discharge and the Subhumans supporting you. Did you choose those bands specifically to support you?
Steve: Oh yeah! Haha, of course! Earth have been a very influential band in their own way and have been around a long time and really followed their own course of evolution, refusing to look backwards and constantly evolving and becoming the best possible version of what it is supposed to be and for the one night to have kind of a current peer so to speak and the other night with Discharge and the Subhumans. I mean they were incredibly influential on us in the early days and before we even started our band and so to be able to, we’re in our thirtieth year, honour such a wide spectrum of who we consider to be our peers just seems like the right thing to do and our fifteen year old selves are actually completely shitting bricks that we have Discharge and the Subhumans supporting us in London. We would never have been able to tell you that might ever happen when we were young guys.
(((o))): Will you be playing a different set for both of the nights in London?
(((o))): Thirty years is a long time to be playing music, let alone music that is as highly thought of and inspiring as the music of Neurosis. Is that why you wanted to celebrate with these thirtieth anniversary shows?
Steve: Yeah, I don’t know why thirty is bigger than twenty nine or thirty one, but it just seemed like this was the year in which we would just kind of acknowledge how grateful we are at having found each other and having found the sound and how lucky we are that anyone else even gives a shit and how lucky we are to have such a colourful history to look back upon and how lucky we are to still be making our most vital music. It’s been an important and busy year for us.
(((o))): Obviously, you’re doing these thirtieth anniversary shows, but you’ve got the new album as well. Will you be playing much new material as well when you play live?
Steve: Yeah, we’ll be playing most of the new record.
(((o))): You’re cited as an inspiration by so many bands. How does that feel?
Steve: Of course it’s an honor. It’s kind of hard to process when you’re in the middle of something because we’re just doing what we need to do for ourselves and it’s really self centred and it’s really kind of a strange, selfish form of self expression, so the fact that other people get inspiration from it is quite incredible. We have our heroes and we are music fans and die hard lifers when it comes to being music fans so we know what it feels like so the fact that anybody feels about us like that is kind of mindblowing at times you know. Of course I don’t think we let it inflate our egos or be one something like that because I feel that if someone really knows where we’re coming from, then the true inspiration that they’ll get is to find their own voice and to find their own form of expression and never give up and to just do it with. Everything that they’ve got because that’s the message that we received from our heritage.
(((o))): You did some thirtieth anniversary shows earlier this year in San Francisco and you played with Sleep & Vhol, Shellac & Alaric and Converge & Negative Approach. How did they go?
Steve: Those were fantastic. That was three wonderful nights, again it was kind of a combination of heroes like Negative Approach, family like Sleep and peers and friends like Shellac and Steve Albini. It’s hard to explain it in words, if I could explain it in words I’d be a better writer than I was a musician. We felt it in our heart, there was something very heavy and positive about it emotionally.
(((o))): The fact that you can play shows with Sleep one night and then Negative Approach the next speaks volumes about the range and power of the music of Neurosis. Did you always want to mix it up with a variation of different bands when you did these shows, as you’re doing in London too?
Steve: Absolutely, in fact we prefer that in general. To this day we still don’t feel like we belong to a genre. We’ve been around thirty years, we’ve seen genres and names come and go so many times that it seems pointless to try and define things the way we often feel reduced to. The times that we come from and the scene that we come from in the mid 80s DIY music scene, even though I think in some ways music is more open minded these days, I think shows we’re quite a bit more varied at that time. You could have a Bay Area thrash band, a hardcore band, you could have a traditional style punk rock ban, a rockabilly influenced band, a performance art film, all types of things would be happening at these concerts and it wasn’t so defined like it is now. Bands within a certain vibe or style and we’ve always preferred that, like mixing it up, really having it mixed up. A friend of mine sent me a flyer the other day of a show that we did with Chumbawumba and The Offspring and that was totally not weird for us to do at that time whereas now people would think that’s really unheard of. Us and Green Day used to play together a lot, we’d play with whoever. Everyone from Adolescents to Possessed, we didn’t give a shit! We’d just be where the open minded people are and it seemed to be the underground was really mixing it up at that time and we were lucky to be a part of that so I think that if we can put together bills that kind if reflect that, it feels a bit more genuine to who we are and where we come from.
(((o))): Coming from the Bay Area punk and hardcore scene and as you said, being fifteen years old and playing with Discharge and Subhumans is a dream come true for you. What was it about those bands and the likes of Amebix that appealed to you in the first place?
Steve: I think it was, first of all, the sound. I’m a sound junkie, from when I was a young kid, always searching for the most intense sound and we’d just always track it to where it came from. Discharge in particular were just a fucking wall, just a wall of noise and bridged the gap for me growing up with whatever heavy metal I could find, Motörhead or what have you and then discovering punk rock and just finding these bands that had sick guitars, sick heavy guitars and with extremely angry poetry that seemed to have more of a message in the words and then Subhumans, once you tune into their lyrics they seemed to be talking about what it’s like to be on the outside looking in at the world when it often doesn’t make sense to you, the distractions of conformity and mainstream consumer culture or expectations of whatever the straight world is known in the past. Subhumans’ sound was so, it had that aggression of punk rock and was deceptively simple, but it was actually not. From The Cradle To The Grave was such a fucking epic of combining so many different styles of music into this grand tale. It was like punk rocks version of progressive rock, but without the bullshit, just down to following an epic idea from beginning to end and that epic idea kind of dealt with socialisation and trying to be free, you know, freedom. I think it was the lyrics about the freedom to be who you are and to wave your freak flag and to expect nothing from the world and to just express yourself in the truest way you can
(((o))): Punk is such a varied term that musically encompasses everyone from The Exploited to Joy Division to Crass to Public Image. Would you still say that Neurosis have a punk outlook?
Steve: I would say so. If you’re defining it in terms of what we thought it was. Fuck you, we do what we want. We’re expressing ourselves in this way that we expect nothing from anybody and those bands you mentioned feel like a part of our heritage and we definitely feel like we come from that. Start a fanzine, start a record label, start a band, organise a gig, find your people, find the other people in your tribe that are outside of the mainstream. That’s kinda how we’ve lived the whole time. It just turned out that in the long run, those in charge of the name punk rock ended up wearing blinders. Like anything else, things start to change meaning or take on their own meaning but I think we definitely do still think of ourselves as punk rock for sure.
(((o))): What was the Bay Area punk and hardcore scene like when you were starting out?
Steve: Well, the gigs were like I mentioned. It was really mixed all over the place. There weren’t very many normal clubs. The Bay Area was better off than a lot of places in this country for sure. There were a few twenty one and over bars that would put on gigs, but there were underground warehouses. In fact Neurosis was started in a warehouse called the New Method warehouse where a bunch of guys lived and some punk families lived and they put on gigs and all kinds of great bands played there. Melvins, Corrosion Of Conformity when they first came to the Bay Area. Things were cross pollinating with art and industrial culture and both culture. The newly formed metal crossover stung going on, it was all mixing, all the time and of course there was Maximum Rock N Roll and the Gilman Street project that really just formed organisations in which to promote independent self expression totally outside of commerce or the music scene at large and it was a very inspiring time to be coming up.
(((o))): What about playing live after the shows in London. What are your plans for the rest of this year?
Steve: We’ve got some West Coast shows, we’re playing Portland later in November and LA, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver in December. Then we’re going to get together and do a writing session in late December out here in the snowy forests in North Idaho. February we head to Australia and New Zealand and we lay low until summertime and I think we’ve got a couple of festivals in Europe, not very much then an East Coast US tour and that gets up through about the next year.
(((o))): Will you be coming back to the UK in the new year at all? I know you don’t do any extensive touring around the world really anymore, but there’s a lot of people across the UK who’d love to see you play.
Steve: No, these two London shows are it so if they’re waiting, they’d better get their asses to London!
(((o))): Was there any specific reason that this became the case about the long tours?
Steve: Well, we don’t earn our living with music. We all have day jobs and families so we only play shows when we can all actually get time off work at the same time.
(((o))): Are you still working as a school teacher?
(((o))): Does it feel weird combining that with the band? Obviously it’s a necessity.
Steve: No, That’s just life. I don’t know what people expect to fit in with being in an alternative, strange extreme music band, I mean what else fits haha! Driving a truck or digging a ditch. Work is work and you hopefully find something that you’re passionate about. Teaching little ones to read and being inspired about learning and using their brains, to me fits right in with the fact that independent music has also saved my life and given me a quest of learning and something to always strive for and so to me it’s just my life, it’s not weird at all.
(((o))): Are your students aware of your musical career or are they a bit too young?
Steve: They’re nine years old so I don’t think they have any context. They know I make music, they know I’m going to be gone for two days next week because I’m going to England, but they have no context in to which my band fits I or anything, they just know I’m passionate about music.
(((o))): With such a vast back catalogue of music, how do you choose which songs you’ll be playing each night? I’ve been lucky enough to see the band live twice, in London when you played with Godflesh and at Temples Festival and both performances were immense, but both times the sets you played were different. You didn’t play ‘Eye’, which is one of my all time favourite songs and would still love to hear you play live!
Steve: It’s usually what we’re feeling most inspired by, when we’re creating a set, we really want something that flows, we think of it as a single piece of music and it has to have a natural ebb and flow from beginning to end. We get sick of songs, songs have a lifespan and if we don’t a hundred percent feel like playing something, then we feel it would be disingenuine to play it. We don’t want to ever feel like we’re going through the motions. We want to deliver what we’re feeling inspired by and what feels good and had life so right now because of the thirtieth anniversary shows we did at Roadburn and San Francisco, we’ve got a couple of old ones from the Souls At Zero and Enemy Of The Sun era that we feel have a little bit more life in them for a little while and do we can integrate those with the last several albums and we’re also going to be concentrating on the new stuff so it’s going to be a nice mix of most of our career and it’s trying to do two different sets that really hammer home something emotionally intense that leaves it all on the stage.
(((o))): Which song do you enjoy playing live the most?
Steve: That just depends day to day. Right now we’re going to enjoy playing these new songs off Fires Within Fires.
(((o))): You were well known for your stunning visuals in a live setting. Will you ever use them again and was it a decision you made when Josh Graham left to concentrate on A Storm Of Light?
Steve: Yeah, I don’t know if we’ll ever use them again, it’s hard to say, but the reason why we stopped was we just weren’t feeling it. We felt like that was going through the motions the last period when we were out with Josh and we talked with him a lot about it and we just thought we were done with it. When we had started doing visuals in 1991 it was all 16mm film projectors and slide projectors. It was all analogue, there were no home computers, nobody had a home computer. We had to go create slides and create film or beg, borrow and steal from other artists that we knew and find the people at art schools who had trippy films to give us loops of or what have you. We’d beg, borrow and steal some time at a video editing suite and steal stuff from news footage from art films or documentaries and then go and have it transferred to 16mm so we could project it. We met people who were doing that back in the sixties, the original psychedelic projections from the Bay Area and people who were doing more artsy film stuff like Throbbing Gristle and Crass and all those people who did use film. All that inspired us to really do this pretty unique thing and we had kind of combined this Jungian psychology of using archetypes that touched people on an emotional level, but using it at rapid fire and in a very psychedelic manner with the colours and the fades, also with an almost Charles Manson type philosophy of when he said “I’m just a reflection of you” and so we would reflect the worst of humanity back at itself, but in a way that felt shamanic, it felt psychedelic, it felt like a catharsis.
It was really intense, combining concentration camp footage with animal experimentation films with true psychedelic beautiful imagery and Kenneth Anger films, whatever we could find. Early film experimentalists like Maya Deren and really just combining all all of that into heres humanity and we felt it opened people up to our music going in deeper and to become a sensory overload, basically that was our goal. Before the multimedia was a common thing, we were multimedia in the sense that we were going to be as fucking loud as the PA could go, we would be as physically intense as our bodies would allow us to be and we would have this imagery of the most intense shit you’ve ever seen all compiled and shrunken down into an hour and forty five minutes and it was effective. Over the years, the world has changed and by the time we switched over to video with Josh Graham in about the year 2000, we switched over to a more cleaner output and not stealing media footage anymore, not stealing from films, but just creating our own stuff and it was very clean and very orchestrated and a very beautiful way of going along with the songs but then again society continued to change and at one point everybody had a home computer then theses super computers in our pockets called phones ended up being a constant barrage of video and audio. Now you can’t escape it. Now multimedia is your entire day, everywhere, wherever you are and it’s no longer artistically intense, it no longer feels artistically different or artistically even valid. It feels like in order to be artistically valid now, we need to turn off the TV and listen to some fucking music.
(((o))): When Neurosis released Through Silver In Blood you supported Pantera in massive arenas. How did it feel playing those big shows? It must have been a complete contrast to the more underground shows you were used to playing.
Steve: Yeah that was definitely true, but GWAR was the first band that took us out and that was kind of big clubs or small theatres and then Pantera took us out and it was minor league hockey arenas and the we ended up on the Ozzfest, which was fucking amphitheatres all over America. Those were very different, especially the arenas and the amphitheatres. That level of the music industry is definitely not where we come from and not where we belong, but it was interesting and entertaining to kind of flirt with that world and observe it from an anthropological point of view and we gained a lot of fans. People in general fucking hated us and didn’t like anything we were doing, but that’s probably true wherever you put us so no matter where we’ve ever been, we’re always hoping to connect with those few freaks in the corner who are looking for something deeper, something more real and something heavier on an emotional level and we found those people in all those different environments just like we found those people in our punk rock origins as well and I think we continue to find those people who really come across us unexpectedly. They’re not looking for it, it just hits them at the right time and in the right place.
(((o))): What’s the best tour that Neurosis have ever done?
Steve: I have no idea. There’s so many different ways of experiencing the world. Our last tour of Europe was just a blast, everything was smooth, we had no problems, no hiccups and everyone was comfortable in our bus and we played a lot of different places from Norway to Portugal. We continue to keep finding places that we haven’t been to, but at the same time there’s no taking away the experience of what it feels like to be nineteen and in a van driving all over this huge country of the United States playing people’s living rooms and basements so I think all of it is equally important and they’re all great experiences and experiences that we’re lucky to have, most people don’t get to have those type of experiences.
(((o))): Have you got any more plans to release any of the older Neurosis albums on vinyl?
Steve: We’ve resissued everything up to this point except for the first two, Pain Of Mind and The Word As Law, everything has been reissued in the last couple of years. I think before Honor Found In Decay, we started this whole reissue kind of thing, but we will do Pain Of Mind and The Word As Law sometime in the next year or so.
(((o))): Are there are any plans for another Tribes Of Neurot album?
Steve: No, not at the moment. We live so far apart and that really requires us to have some free time together to jam and find that space and plug in the electronics and follow it go wherever it takes us, but we live so far apart and our time is so precious that every day we’ve been together in the past nine or ten years has been either making a record or on tour.
(((o))): What if you could do a collaboration album like you did with Jarboe a few years ago, who would you ultimately like to collaborate with, if it was possible?
Steve: There’s do many possibilities out there in the world and ultimately it would have to be somebody who we share the same kind of spirit and intuitive nature of music with and those people are both rare and infinite so I would hesitate to say.
(((o))): Was that what it as like working with Jarboe and how did that whole experience come about?
Steve: Well she’s a real channel, she channels music in a way that’s quite impressive and very special and we had met her around the time of Enemy Of The Sun. We played Atlanta and she came to the show and she came backstage and brought us some chilli peppers from her garden and came out with Michael and she was just really impressed with the music she had heard on the radio, the college radio station played some of Enemy Of The Sun. We stayed in touch over the years, we always loved Swans and we love her voice and we love her passion for music and again her ability to physically and spiritually channel the song, she has a very unique ability to do that in a way that is genuine and few people do to that depth. We were kind of in a unique place where we felt like doing something weird just to shake stuff up and we had written a record in a very bizarre way and asked her if she wanted to be the vocal presence for it. We wrote and improvised our way through that one and it was a unique and special experience.
(((o))): After Neurosis finish this touring cycle, have you got any plans for a follow up solo record at the moment?
Steve: Well I’m always writing songs, but I’m not in a hurry. I kind of feel like my last one just came out. In my world, a year is nothing, so I’m always working in solo stuff and I do actually have a, now I think of it, I did just finish mixing down an album’s worth of material where I’m working with some psychedelic guitar improv strangeness so I’ll probably get that motivated and out to a mastering engineer soon and that’ll probably see the light of day next year.
(((o))): When you’ve done your Harvestman albums and your solo albums, how do you differentiate between the two sounds and vibes?
Steve: Solo records are voice and more about songs or about writing the interplay of my voice with words and guitars, songs that just stand on their own in sort of a traditional manner. I mean, I’m not versed in traditional songwriting, I don’t come from that tradition, but I’ve listened to it my whole life and so it’s my way of dabbling in the tradition of trying to craft a song whereas Harvestman is going into my home studio, turning on the electronics and the synthesisers, plugging it all in, in different kinds of ways and pushing play and record and seeing what happens. That’s more like meditating on stone circles with an electric guitar.
(((o))): What inspires your music, both with Neurosis and as a solo artist?
Steve: I think the drive to create. There’s just some unspeakable muse there, this desire, this fire. There’s something that wells up inside my body and in my belly and in my brain and my heart and my soul that needs to get out and I think if I didn’t do it, some part of myself would die so really what inspires it is survival.
(((o))): And finally, what had been the ultimate highlight in your career with Neurosis?
Steve: I’m hoping it’s still up ahead haha! I look back upon my entire adult life with fondness. The best part is all of it, the fact that I’ve spent my entire adult life with these other guys who I love as brothers, who just happen to find this really inspiring and unique sound and way of self expression and that because other people connect with it, it’s taken us on a lot of adventures and it’s been the only constant in our entire adult lives. Relationships have come and gone, children are born, people die, life has its ups and downs and trials and tribulations, but we’ve got this music.
(((o))): Thank you very much Steve, that’s been absolutely fantastic!
Steve: Thank you Gavin, appreciate it man. I love Echoes and Dust so keep up the good work!