Interview: Steve Von Till
I always hope that I grow and progress and push the boundaries of stuff. I never want to be in a rut or I always want to be able to, you know, move past whatever self-imposed limitations I might have.
Steve Von Till has just released his new solo album No Wilderness Deep Enough and it’s a majestic price of work that sits proudly in his vast catalogue of music. Gavin Brown had the pleasure of catching up with Steve again to hear all about the record and the creative process that went into it, as well as discussing his book of poetry and lyrics that accompany the release of the album. They also talk about what else he has been working on, the importance of Supersonic Festival and his appearance at this years virtual event and the status of Neurosis at the present time in another fascinating chat with Steve.
E&D: You have just released your new solo album, No Wilderness Deep Enough. Last time I talked to you, You had a few ideas about it, but how did the creation and the recording process go for the album?
Steve: Well, it was a pretty organic evolution. It wasn’t a preconceived album that was written and then planned out and recorded. It very much took shape almost accidentally. It began in a hallucinatory state. My wife’s family’s home is in Germany, where her family has been living in the same home site for over five hundred years, so I always feel like there’s a certain density to it, to the air there. The relationship between the humans and the land is different than anything I’ve ever known, and I think that’s because I was in this hallucinatory, jetlag sanity, I couldn’t sleep at all. In her childhood bedroom, I had a little electronic set up and I just started. I wasn’t planning to do anything. I was just killing time. I was recording some simple piano chord progressions, and over the next week, I never found any sleep, but I kept revisiting these sounds every night, adding some Mellotron strings and maybe French horn samples, but I still never thought I was creating anything.
I was just messing around and recording the results. That’s how a lot of Harvestman stuff might take shape for example, but when I got home over the next several months, I kept revisiting them and even though they were very simple chord progressions and very simple chords, I’m no piano player. these are two or three finger chords, they seem to be harmonically complex enough to suggest things, and so I started adding some analogs, synthesizers, some Moog and Korg and started filtering some of the digital sources through my analog gear and my home studio here, and it started to kind of take shape. By the following winter, it took the exact shape it’s in now minus the analog recordings that I would flush it out with later. There were no vocals, so I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t feel like it was Harvestman, because Harvestman usually has something to do with some low five sources or post out first out guitars or it was definitely psychedelic, but it was, you know, it, it felt like an ambient record with neoclassical leanings of which I have no composer, but it accidentally appeared was so what can I say there, there was, you know. And so I ran it by my friend Randall Dunn who engineered and produced my last record. And I said, man, I think I accidentally recorded an ambient album. I would like to go into a studio and replace the piano with, with a real piano and maybe get a cello player to bring some life into some of the synthesizer strings and, replace my digital French horn samples with real French horn. I think it’d be a beautiful piece, and he went away for a couple of days and said, yeah, I think you’re right, we should do that but you should also sing on it and making your next solo record. I did not agree with him. I thought that was the wrong way to go about it. I didn’t think that this beautiful music needed my my limited voice ruining it, but I respect his opinion enough and it was winter time and on a break from work, so I investigated his idea and set up a microphone in my living room and every morning, I built a fire at the woodstove, grabbed my cup of coffee, my notebook and my pen and I approached the microphone and just started singing on top of the songs. By the end of the week, I had it all figured out and I called him back and told him he was absolutely right, let’s book time, so he had recruited somebody in New York to do the cello bits and the French horn. Then, we only had three days together in Portland last June , 2019 before I had to head out on tour and I redid all the piano parts, did all the vocals properly and we mixed it all in just a few days, so I never felt like I was working on it. I felt like it just happened.
E&D: Is that a way that you would work again with your solo albums or do you think this was like a special thing that just happened?
Steve: All of it’s a learning process and I think my whole life has been learning to follow the muse. I mean, I’ve learned that lesson in other ways before, like whatever preconceived idea I might have in my mind usually doesn’t work out. It’s when I surrender to that, gut-level where the good stuff happens. The stuff where you don’t feel like you’re creating it, you’re just behind the curtain, or you’re able to dip your hands into that well where music, art, poetry and language come from, for a moment.
E&D: How was it working with Randall as a producer and what did he bring to the record?
Steve: Well, the songs were pretty finished, but his creativity came with the other players to realize the vision, what I had already put down and sculpting it into something a little more spacious, knowing what microphone and signal chain is going to work with my voice without us having to experiment or mess around. If he heard something lacking like, you don’t have any low end energy in the song. It needs something to carry the bottom. He would just walk over to the mode. He had played record and put down his own part, and it always feels effortless. It feels like we’re just hanging out and talking, having fun and having deep conversations about life. He encourages confidence in my vocal takes, which is important. It’s just a pleasure. I consider him a friend and then a good human being. He brings a lot of technical expertise and an experimental mindset, but also knows how to get to the end quickly, which when you don’t have infinite budgets of time or money, it’s important.
E&D: ‘Dreams Of Trees’ is a majestic way to kick off the record. Was that always the song you chose to commence with the album with?
Steve: I think I might’ve had a different one initially. But that one, I think in my original sequence, before we had finished it I forget which one might’ve come first, but the way that those strings enter, I just felt like, Oh man, that’s too beautiful. That has to be the entry point because you instantly know that you’re in for something different than what I’ve done before.
E&D: Did you always want to do something different than from your previous solo records?
Steve: I always hope that I grow and progress and push the boundaries of stuff. I never want to be in a rut or I always want to be able to move past whatever self-imposed limitations I might have, whether they come from a, you know, self doubt or expectations of self or whatever, whatever limitations I may put on where I see my art existing and there’s a big get electronic influence throughout the record.
E&D: Has electronic music been an influence on your solo work and throughout your career with Neurosis?
Steve: I mean, I’ve been listening to electronic music forever, yeah. My Brian Eno records and my Tangerine Dream records have been constant companions my entire adult life, so it’s something that I’ve always listened to. I continue to listen to it. I probably listen to electronic music more than I listened to what most people would consider the heavy music genre we get thrown into most of the time. If I’m in the mood for heavy metal, I’d probably just go back to my trusted Mötorhead records, as opposed to anything new I might be unfamiliar with or impatient with. neoclassical, ambient music, electronic music, psychedelic music, dub are all things that are heavily spun on my turntables.
E&D: What would you say was the biggest influence on this record would be?
Steve: Surrendering to the creative force and not thinking, just getting the brain out of the deal.
E&D: You’ve also released a book with your poetry and lyrics as well. Did you always want to do that in conjunction with the solo album or did it just turn out that way?
Steve: It just sort of evolved, you know. I’ve been writing poetry just for myself, my entire adult life, but it just lived and died in my journals and I never really worked on it or edited it. It mostly became just journals upon journals, a fodder for lyrics. When i’m in my music writing, it’s always been music first and lyrics last. The words have to serve the music in my style. Other people think differently and do differently, but the only way I’ve ever been able to do it, is the words have to serve the song. They have to have a certain rhythm, they have to have a certain energy. They have to have to hang on a certain vowel sound, so sometimes it’s like trying to translate voices in the wind, like, what am I hearing here? Some lines come from that, but then other lines come from, just tearing through old poems or old writings or phrases or word banks looking for stuff that makes sense, that has the right sound and then make some sort of sense with the line before it. They become almost like collages, you know? But with poetry, it’s got to own the page. It has to just sit there and have no musical backdrop to give it a frame of reference, and that’s to say it wants to say right there with your word choices in your line breaks in the space it occupies on paper. When I was writing those lyrics for No Wilderness, I stole two lines from a poem ‘We Have The Sea And We’ll Always Have The Sky’, and I felt really guilty about stealing them because I looked at the poem, I took them from and it definitely completed the song. It was exactly what I needed to sing. It sounded great seeing those words, but I looked at the poem I took them from a that’s a shame, cause that was a good poem. That was one of my better things I’ve written and it stands on its own, and now it’s worthless without it’s two lines.
E&D: What would you do with that? Would you go back to that poem and, and rework it?
Steve: I made the decision. I’m going to let it stand and I’m going to let it live in a poem and a song, maybe that’s okay. Again, though, nobody ever sees my poem, so what’s the big deal. So at that moment, I decided I’m going to sit and I’m going to write, I’m gonna write some poems with the explicit intent of not butchering them in the future for lyrics. I’m just going to let them be what they’re going to be, and I didn’t know what I would do with it. Maybe I would go to a copy store and make some Chatbooks for friends, I kind of sat and wrote every day for a little while last year, once I had 22 of them, plus the one I stole the lines from to make 23, I said, first of all, it’s a great number, and second of all, none of them have titles, so they feel like they’re a body of work. I thought, maybe if I combine them. I’ve got nobody in the literary world has any knowledge of me and I think that’s a cutthroat world to jump into. I thought, if I just tie this together with my collected lyrics of the last 20 years and make that connection between in here’s what lyrics are and here’s what poems are for me, and maybe put it out at the same time as the record, maybe I’ll have a built in audience for it and maybe it’ll make an impact. It just kind of snowballed from there into this beautiful hardback thing. I got a friend of mine, Duncan Barlow, who publishes for Astra at the university of South Dakota. I called him up, asking him for advice on where to get books printed. I was going to do it DIY, and he said, no, man, let me do it. I have distribution into bookshops and this is good. You should own this. you should be confident and put it out there properly. It just snowballed into this kind of perfect pairing of these two projects, which are very out of my box, at least from an outside perspective, and outside my comfort zone from a confidence perspective. It just felt like, this is how I need to grow as an artist right now, and as a person who is 50 years old. If I’m not going to own that, I write poetry now then when am I going to own it. I can also make a beautiful record and pull something more emotive and expressive out of my voice than I ever have before. So it’s kinda like, it’s all my voice, right? The music is my voice. My words are my voice. And so it’s like a little bit more, I’m putting it all out there.
E&D: How does it feel looking back at all the lyrics, since they’ve done in a written down form?
Steve: I think I’ve become a better writer over the last 20 years. It definitely depends on what mindset I have. I mean, it’s hard for me to look at my own work and not be a critical asshole. Just constantly put myself down and have the self doubt and imposter syndrome to start raging, like, Oh, you use that word again, maybe you should get a different dictionary with different words in it, but obviously I lean heavy on natural metaphor and at times that can feel in my critical mind, very cliche, but I can’t help it. That where my mind goes to express the things that I’m trying not to get in my own way so much and just step back and honour that creative spirit by acknowledging that the things that come forth have value. It takes work and it’s not like everything that comes through has value, but it’s that if you do the work and you provide yourself with an environment to let those accidents happen or to let the creative spirit flow through you to have the proper intent when editing and working on stuff and letting things become what they need to become without the ego and without the other stuff. I’m trying to learn to trust that process, you know?
E&D: Do you find writing poetry as much of a therapeutic process as writing lyrics?
Steve: Yeah, I feel like writing lyrics in some way is more stressful because like I said earlier, if the music exists first, you’ve got all these parameters that the lyrics have to fit. A line can only live within a certain temple within a certain mood within a certain frame where you’re constrained by time. You’re constrained by the way you decided how they have to sound, so there’s a lot of constraints and a lot of times you will make a decision that sacrifices the meaning of the words for the sound of the words, but poetry for me is more therapeutic maybe because it doesn’t have those trappings of having to obey the sound, and maybe what I have learned in the process of editing the poems for the book and making sure that I liked my work choices was that I do have a rhythm and I do have a style. I do have that which I think is uniquely my own. It’s been informed by the way I write lyrics. That’s always been the case.
E&D: Who are your biggest influences when it comes to poetry?
Steve: Oh, shit. I mean, there’s a ton, growing up as a young man, who doesn’t go into the William Blake territory but in the last several years, I’ve read a lot of Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet. I don’t think he’s an influence but I enjoy his poems. He has a unique way of making the mundane things more interesting. I think Sylvia Plath is a big influence and the native poet, John Trudle, who is not very celebrated. He was an American Indian movement activist and I’ve been listening to him since I was a teenager. I always loved his words. I liked the American transcendentalists a lot. Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the guys that were kind of the first, when the industrial revolution was in full swing and the cities were growing, they were kind of the first ones. I think we shouldn’t lose our connection to nature, and that connection to nature has something to do with our spirit as human beings. I’ve always taken inspiration from that. More modern poets I love, oh man. I was just reading them this morning, Jim Harrison, and Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, of course. There’s a guy I just bought a book from Third Man Records, Jack White’s label have a book division called Third Man Books, and they put out a sample of this one book called Ascend Ascend by Janaka Stucky and it’s it’s ecstatic. It’s mind-blowingly good. It’s like a trance state and in a series of poems.
E&D: You were part of the Sofasonic, the Supersonic Online festival. How did it feel to be part of it and to read your poetry as part of the festival?
Steve: Well, it was an absolute honor to be asked. I think they’ve curated a really unique festival and they keep it small and realistic. We talk about diversity and in the arts and in the underground music, but a lot of times to me it ends up feeling samey, like, oh, this festival is just like that one over there. All the same bands are here but I think Supersonic do it very uniquely. They’re finding the kind of cutting edge, weird stuff from all angles of underground, independent music, and also tie it together with their local community in a way that feels very meaningful, it’s definitely local. It’s definitely Birmingham. It definitely is where they come from, but also part of the global world. All the people inspired by the DIY punk we grew up with are still going out there looking for the weirdest, most inspired art forms we can find and celebrating them together, so to be asked to be a part of that was great. I had a huge learning curve of having to teach myself about how to use cameras and video cameras and to be able to pull that one off from the distance. It’s good to keep an old brand learning new tricks once in a while.
E&D: And you have fond memories of your time at the festival last year with Neurosis?
Steve: What a day you know! We rolled into town from, I don’t know where we were coming from but we set up as usual and on the break from soundcheck, got to run across the street to the museum where the Black Sabbath exhibition was and got to see that great thing. The same folks at the Home Of Metal in Birmingham getting the art world to take Black Sabbath seriously was incredible move, because you think of the impact since 1969, that that band has had artistically around the world. It’s incredible, and so to see that celebration of them in a proper art museum was fantastic. I had to hurry back to soundcheck and on my way out, I almost broke into tears because I looked to my left and I saw that just on the other wall of the Black Sabbath museum, where we were, The Staffordshire Hoard was on display, and I wouldn’t be able to make it before the museum closed back over there. I’ve heard so much about it, but I had to console myself with a couple of ciders and meat pies in a proper English pub and had a great evening. I mean, shit, where else would you want to watch Godflesh, then you get to perform in Birmingham Town Hall, this beautiful theatre that Zeppelin and Elton John performed in back in the day with that huge pipe organ. Then, of course, our bus broke down so we were stranded there for the night with no hotels or anywhere to go. The other venue was in a warehouse and we slept on the floor of the warehouse throughout the night but it was it memorable, you know, watching the sun come up through the warehouse windows and having loud ass pigeons reminding you that you have a headache, but it was all great! It was all love and support and interest the underground.
E&D: It’s definitely a festival that you’ll come back to when things get back to normal?
Steve: Any day, any day. Yeah.
E&D: Finally, what else have you been working on recently and are there any plans for a new Neurosis album at all at the moment?
Steve: Well, most of my work in the last couple of months, since I also run our record label, a lot of the lot of the day to day for that. I’m an elementary school teacher by trade, so from March to June, when the school year ended, it was trying to transfer my students and I into an electronic world, and when you live in the rural area, in the country, where not everybody has access to internet, not every family has devices to try to get 28 families of nine year olds online and engaged was a challenge. I was working 16 hours a day every day to try to find online content that didn’t suck and how to make it, giving everybody my personal phone number, and on the phone, the family’s troubleshooting their technology. It was a mess, and so after the school year ended, it was strictly jumping in to promoting this record and doing all the work it takes to oversee the manufacturing, the distribution, the promotion and things like today, sitting here and having this good conversation with you. It’s mostly been that, there’s been some Harvestman records I’ve been working on, they actually were in progress before this took over. It’s a series of 12 inches with dub versions of certain tracks, and then compiled all so maybe I will do a compact disc later, but it’s a trilogy, that’s coming along well. Neurosis is just on the down-low since we got home last summer. Our plan was to do some downtime anyway and the world exploded, so nothing’s going on and but yeah, with myself, I can’t sit still. There’s always something cooking.
E&D: Thanks a lot for talking to us again Steve, always a pleasure and hopefully we will see you again on stage when things get back to some sort of normality again.
Steve: Yeah. I hope so, man. I hope so. And yeah. Thanks for your time too Gavin and the thoughtful questions, always appreciated.