Bury What’s Dead – An Interview With Steve Von Till Of Neurosis.

December 17, 2012 by Chris Grosso

Steve Von Till is best known as singer and guitarist for the atmospheric metal band Neurosis. Steve is also in Tribes Of Neurot, and records solo work under both his given name and the moniker Harvestman. His solo albums comprise of original songs and traditional folk arrangements, using minimalistic acoustic guitar and vocal styles. Outside his semi-professional role as a musician, he works as an elementary school teacher.

The following interview was conducted via phone on 12/12/12.

The Steve Von Till Interview

TIS: In a trailer for Neurosis’ recently released tenth studio album Honor Found In Decay, you said, “Our legacy can only be assured if we continually burn down the past and plant seeds in the ashes” which is a statement I find fitting for the album. For those yet to hear Honor Found In Decay, can you elaborate on that?

SVT: We don’t like to repeat the past. We don’t live on our past glories. We’re continuously unsatisfied. I mean, we’re proud of everything we’ve done but we’re always seeking something further. This whole thing is a journey and it’s never about any particular end result, it’s about the journey itself. The only intellectual construct we adhere to is the fact that we need to outdo our past efforts, so it’s always a matter of pushing the boundaries. We don’t rely solely on our strengths, which is obviously the heavy riff. We know how to bludgeon that to death, so we’ve spent decades exploring other territories and finding new ways to be heavy and new ways to integrate the things we love about music—harmony, dissonance, and the way they interplay, and distortion and beauty and how they intertwine. Then we try to weave it all together into some tapestry that becomes bigger than the simple sums of its parts, and becomes transcendent. We’re older, wiser, and we spiral closer to the core of what drives us, and that is—trying to find a pure expression of the unique emotional pallet of what Neurosis is supposed to be, in ways that are constantly vital to us today, as opposed to the past, and utilizing a philosophy of bury what’s dead.

TIS: Right on, and speaking of moving forward, you’ve recently, and respectively parted ways with visual artist Josh Graham after twelve years together. In a part of the bands statement regarding the split, it read, “The new process will begin at zero, allowing the music to speak for itself and lead us where it may.” Has there been any conversation within the band about what that direction may look like as things begin to evolve once again essentially from ground zero?

SVT: Not really. It’s all very new to us. Ground zero is right now. Our eyes are wide open and here right now, so we’re just enjoying not feeling bound to having a visual element until something new evolves naturally. We have no idea what that might be. When Neurosis started that, it was pretty unique for a band in our genre to have a visual element at all. It wasn’t the video and computer elements we have today. There was no internet and most people didn’t have home computers. We used 16mm slide projectors and built it into this crazy psychedelic texture thing behind us, which we didn’t really have much reference for, except maybe for psychedelic projections from the 60’s. There were a few bands that did some strange film loop stuff, like The Butthole Surfers, so there were some peers doing it and we spent a lot of years developing it. Josh helped us gracefully come into the video and computer age. Recently however, we feel that with everyone plugged into the screen all the time (which isn’t to say it’s a political thing, I mean we are too just as much as anybody else,) but it just seems like it isn’t bringing the evolution where we want it to go anymore at this point. Right now, we feel like we’ve taken it to its conclusion. We’re not writing off the fact that we may use projections in the future, it’d just have to be completely from scratch if we did. We don’t know if we will, or won’t, I mean, maybe we’ll find that the music itself is what we want to do and nothing else.

TIS: Well I’m excited to see which direction the music leads you guys for sure. So you recently played two UK shows, one of which was with Godflesh. How was that experience, and how was it performing without the visual element?

SVT:  It was great and felt really liberating. Prior to the UK, we played an All Tomorrow’s Parties show with Shellac. It was one of those venues that has a low clearance, so we would have been bitching about it after the show anyways. So it was nice to not have to worry about that, to just set the lights on low and fucking go man, deliver. I don’t think anyone who was there was missing anything. The forum with Godflesh was a huge venue and it was an honor to play with them. It’s a concert you can’t believe hasn’t happened over the past 25 years, but it was amazing to play with them and to play to such a huge international audience in the city of London, it was beautiful.

TIS: That sounds amazing. What was the set list like, mostly new stuff or are you guy’s still mixing it up?

SVT: We definitely mix it up. We played four songs of the new album at those shows and we’ll keep mixing it up at our upcoming shows. We don’t reach back too far too often. Occasionally we bring back one or two from the old days, if we’re feeling it, but a lot of times we’ll try an old one at rehearsal and it’s like, “Eh, it’s just not working” so we leave it alone. We’re still reaching back a little bit though and mixing it up. We don’t want to play the same set we did last summer which had just had a few new songs in it. So we’re mixing it up and keeping it interesting.

TIS: Cool, and besides four shows Neurosis currently has booked in Dec/Jan will there be more dates in the US throughout 2013 in support of the new album?

SVT: Well we can really only do a weekend here and there these days. We’re not able to get in a bus and travel the states anymore. We’re all so far spread out from one another and have day jobs and families so it doesn’t really work for us to do that anymore. It’s a treasured opportunity when we can all find the same time off together, but I’m sure we’ll do a few weekends together throughout the year. We are trying to celebrate this new record and at least get into each region so people can hopefully meet us part way and travel a bit.

TIS: Right on. So switching the Neurosis gears for a moment, The Songs of Townes Van Zandt album you did with Scott Kelly and Wino is absolutely fucking brilliant. Can you tell me about that project from its inception to completion? Whose idea it was, how you each decided what songs you’d record and so forth?

SVT: That was actually spearheaded by a friend of ours in Germany Ansgar Glade. He even started a label called My Proud Mountain in Europe specifically to put this record out. He’s a brother and has been on almost every tour we’ve done in Europe since we started over there. He even books our tours there and is a family member basically. The whole project started because he didn’t know much about American music, especially American Country or Folk, and he kind of discovered it through hanging out with us. He’ll also hang out with both Scott and I when we tour around and we’ve both done Townes songs on previous releases. So Ansgar felt really inspired discovering Townes stuff and realized there’s so many people around the world that have no idea, that aren’t in the know about him, so he wanted to celebrate it with the people who inspired him musically and introduced him to the stuff, which was an honor for us. He’s always been a huge Saint Vitus fan, and Wino fan, so he asked the three of us to do it. We threw out who wanted to do which songs and I don’t think there was any real arguments over it. We each tried to choose the songs we felt the most attached to and that we could put our own voices too.

TIS: Nice, and while I know it’s tough for your guys to connect and play shows even as Neurosis, is there any chance of a few dates with the three of you in support of the Townes album happening, or is it basically just a one off album release?

SVT: It was mostly just a one off, so probably not. Of course, Ansgar would love us to do that but the way it is right now, if Scott and I are lucky enough to connect in the same town at the same time, it’s going to be a Neurosis gig.

TIS: Sure, makes sense. So I’m curious about your personal experience while writing for your various musical endeavors and if it differs between Neurosis, Harvestman, the Townes Van Zandt tribute album, your solo stuff etc, or is it all just sort of grist for the mill for you?

SVT: The creative process in general is complete chaos, it just kinda comes and I don’t really understand it. Whenever I try to analyze it, or turn it into a process, it’s just like beating a head against the wall and that’s not the way creativity works for me. Harvestman is usually a result of me in my home studio plugging in crazy effects, getting completely wild sounds and letting crazy things happen. The solo stuff is more sitting around with an acoustic guitar in the living room, or by the fire, or during a little down time and coming up with actual things that resemble songs. Neurosis is a different animal entirely, which relies completely on a group effort. We all work on it independently and bring ideas to the table, but it’s not like we craft a whole Neurosis song from beginning to end like that. We can bring a riff, idea or a snippet with us, but it takes all of us to bring it to life, shape it, mold it, burn it down, rebuild it and let the music pretty much drive us, as opposed to the other way around. Often times it originates from the group jamming out on parts. Recording some stuff in the studio and then taking it home and working on it there, running ideas by another as we’re working on parts by talking on the phone, maybe getting together in small groups as the months go by and hacking away on it and finally, we bring it to life again when everyone is together. We round it out, make it human and bring it to earth.

TIS: Right on man. So in close, I wanted to address the iconic nature of Neurosis with you. The music, the imagery, the lyrics, it’s meant so much to so many people for so many years. Your fans have to be amongst the most loyal of any band, ever—what do you attribute that too, and why do you think people connect with Neurosis in such a passionate way?

SVT: You know, part of it is unspeakable. I think in so many ways we feel like we’re just extremely lucky to have stumbled across this music and sound and to have found one another to make it with, because it wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t. So to have found each other in this life in the first place, as friends and brothers, as colleagues, and making this music, it seems like it comes from a place that’s so much bigger than us, as individuals, or even as a group. It’s something bigger, something out there in the universe that demands our attention, and it’s demanding expression. I think through learning over time how valuable it is, we treat it with respect and honoring it. We try to keep it pure by not letting any external influences affect it, whether it be any sort of ego bullshit, or rock n’ roll industry crap, or business, or “dude, we want to make it,” any of that shit you see polluting the way people view music, and being in a band—we don’t do that. We keep it pure. We don’t let anybody else’s expectations influence us and we don’t let any external influences determine which way we want to go. We really just try to make it an original, emotional expression of something deep within ourselves and something deeply rooted in humanity in general. So I think by relating it as we do, the way we uniquely create musical, emotional landscapes, with lyrics that vaguely dance around emotional territory, around real life events and what it means to be human, it allows those who are willing too, to invest themselves into it. It allows them to put their own life experience into it so it can have an original meaning for them. Music doesn’t mean the same thing for you that it does for me, but we can all say that we have some emotional connection to it and that it means something to our lives. We all have those records from certain bands that come into our lives at certain times and saves our asses. Making this music does that for us, constantly, and I think because of the purity of it, that it does relate to “everyman” and “everywoman,” and the human experience as a whole. I think the people who are willing to invest themselves in this sort of music find something rewarding in it, they find something validating in it for their own life and that’s why people attach themselves to it so much.

TIS: Makes perfect sense, thanks for breaking it down like that. Thanks so much for your time Steve and I’m very much looking forward to seeing Neurosis in 2013.

SVT: Awesome brother. Thank you and take care.

Visit Steve Von Till Online Here

Visit Neurosis Online Here

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Chris Grosso is a writer, public speaker, mental health youth group facilitator, and author with Simon & Schuster. He also writes for Revolver Magazine, Fangoria, and has spoken at a bunch of fancy-schmancy festivals and conferences (as well as even more events that were significantly less than fancy-schmancy). Chris's podcast, The Indie Spiritualist, is hosted on Ram Dass's Be Here Now Network.