In part two of Ross Baker’s chat with Steve Von Till, Steve discusses the impact he is trying to have shaping young minds, an update of a recent illness that struck the Neurosis family, and the status of the new, long-awaited album from his much respected and beloved band.
It should come as no surprise that Von Till is a teacher by trade considering his love of researching musical history. “I find myself inspired a lot by things children say. They have such inquisitive minds. It gives me hope for the future of the planet. You turn on the television and everything is so negative. It is like; “Good morning, the world is fucked!” you hear a lot about Terrorism and war and how corrupt the world is all the time. It’s important to remember that we have a choice. We can make a better world for our families.”
Speaking to Steve, you get a picture of the nature loving family man, a far cry from the rugged brute stalking the stage during Neurosis shows. While Steve may live in another state away from bandmate Scott Kelly, who resides over in Oregon, but when Scott’s wife Sarah, fell prey to a mysterious affliction which left her temporarily unable to walk or see Von Till rallied to his friend’s aid. “She has improved a lot thankfully. It’s been really hard for (The Kelly family) but we have all been there for them as much as we can. I saw Scott a couple of weeks ago and luckily she is getting the care that she needs. Scott is a warrior. He’s a great father and has not had the easiest life. I remember when I did my first solo shows. I was fucking terrified! I talked to Scott about it as he has done way more solo shows. He still gets nervous and shaky too. There is no volume to hide behind when it’s just you out there. I hope to do more solo shows this year. I am playing in London at the end of June and my wife is German so we want to do a few dates over there.”
That brings us to the subject of Neurosis itself. “We have the skeleton of the next record. Jason and Scott came down in February and we improvised some ideas. Steve Albini will be involved again. It’s our thirtieth anniversary so it’s important to make a great record. Making Neurosis music is instinctive. We are like a conduit for this beast.”
If you were to think of a single word to sum up the attitude of Steve Von Till, that word would be dedicated. The sun has yet to rise in his hometown of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and at 5am he is already on the telephone to Ghost Cult, for this interview before he has to wake his children up, take them to school and drive the eleven miles to the Elementary school where he works.
It is this dedication, which has seen him forge an uncompromising trail in music via the bombastic and awe-inspiring Neurosis, the rural psychedelia of Harvestman and his solo work, steeped in the rich traditions of Celtic music and American folk. Considering Von Till’s hectic schedule, it is unsurprising that there has been little time to record the follow-up to 2008’s A Grave Is A Grim Horse platter.
“Making music with Neurosis is not a cerebral event. It is us surrendering ourselves to this beast that drives us. The solo material is my strange way of trying to honour those artists that inspired me.It has to have a depth of expression I require from music otherwise it is pointless. It is a challenge to craft something quiet and concise.” Indeed in the last seven years, Steve has been all but idle with Neurosis touring more frequently than they have for some time, running the band’s label Neurot and of course having time for family life it’s easy to see why new offering A Life Unto Itself (Neurot) took such a time to appear. “I am so bad with time. It doesn’t feel linear to me!” Von Till chuckles. “I wanted to continue to use the traditional Americana aspects like fiddle and pedal steel that informs my work, but also to use some of the textures I have crafted with Harvestman. Some of the techniques where the guitar sounds like a synthesizer. Other than ‘Chasing Ghosts’ which was written on piano and ‘Night Of The Moon’ which I wrote on electric guitar, the focus remained acoustic guitar and vocals. It’s the sound of me picking up a guitar when everyone has gone to bed and just seeing what comes out!”
It’s not hard to imagine Steve sat alone, guitar in hand coaxing out riffs before taking these skeletal structures to be fleshed out in the recording studio. Clearly a labour of love, created with absolute autonomy, Steve talked about what it was like to seek outside help in the shape of dedicated engineer Randall Dunn. “We’d met each other a few times. I have a studio at home so I could do it myself, but I don’t enjoy engineering. I don’t want to be responsible for capturing a good vocal take. Randall has a much wider variety of acts he has worked with. Of course he has worked with Earth and Sunn0))) but does a lot of stuff outside of our scene. We had some great conversations and his studio is excellent. It has a lot of vibe with a big vintage console. It was great having someone to bounce ideas off and get feedback from. We did recorded everything in just two days then we got the additional musicians in and did the overdubs. He brought in Eyvind Kang, who is an amazing viola player and composer. He asked me for some key words and ideas of what I heard. I gave him a few comments of what I heard, like references to the environments places and energies, very abstract stuff, but he took that and added so much. Sometimes the Viola parts sound like animals or take a Celtic feel. He had such a great intuitive nature. This album is a collage that occupies several different stories and emotional territory. J. Kardong our pedal steel brought a lot too. Not just a typical Americana feel. They read my mind, when I drove the six-hour drive home back to Idaho they really hit me. I realised this record was a brooding retrospective on my entire life. It’s traversing the mystical, emotion and mundane all mixed together.”
A Life Unto Itself may be a slight departure sonically from his earlier solo work, the lyrical content once again references nature as a metaphor with words like ‘Blood’ ‘Earth’ and ‘Moon’ all reoccurring. Greatly inspired by his rural surroundings, Von Till recalls what made him pack up his family and wave his home of San Francisco, California goodbye. “It’s like living in a beehive! Everyone is so busy and working on their next project. After my first daughter was born I could only see the filth around me. Needles in the street and condoms in the gutter. I knew I needed out when I was stepping past homeless people every day carrying a baby and four bags of groceries! If I didn’t give myself some space I was just going to hate everything. It has always been part of my personality that needs to be connected to nature. Humanity has lost that connection. If you live in a city you have to make a huge effort to connect with it. Now I live out here I have to make the effort to get to a city to go to a museum or buy some records but how often do you do those things? Pretty rarely. My drive to work is eleven miles down a country road and when I get home I am surrounded by twelve acres of forest. We have weather too here whereas San Fran is always so hot. Here you have to get your firewood and plan for the winter. I feel more connected to nature out here when I am a part of it.”
Listening to ‘A Life Unto Itself’ you find yourself transported to rural landscapes via the influences ranging from Celtic music to Steve’s take on traditional Americana. Neurosis love of a diverse cross-section of artists from Joy Division to Amebix to Pink Floyd is well documented, but as Steve tells us, these genres held his attention from an early age also. “My dad listened to John Denver and some of the more pop orientated folk music. It hit me who one guy with a guitar could be so powerful. I loved putting speakers by my head and listening to it. Growing up a metalhead and getting into punk you’d have thought that folk music would be the last thing for me when I was 15 years old and pissed off but I went back to it later via psychedelic. I love Tibetan monks and throat singing. Anything from another culture. I am obsessed with European folk traditions, they are where bluegrass and country come from! I loved going on that voyage of discovery. It all comes in circles the way people find these sounds and make them their own. I love the way people like Townes Van Zant and Gillian Welch have distilled these old traditions into new forms.”
Steve Von Till of Neurosis has revealed the details of his new solo album, A Life Unto Itself, due out this May from the bands’ Neurot Recordings. In addition to music with his main group and related act Tribes of Neurot, Steve has release several solo albums and solo-act tours under his own name, and an alter-ego, Harvestman. Looking to expand his sound previously that focused on a stripped-down approach, A Life Unto Itself is said to be experimental and sonically diverse.
The title doesn’t quite say it all, but it says some of it: A Life Unto Itselfis as much the name of Steve Von Till‘s fourth solo album as it is the perfect description for the 25-plus years he’s spent forging, with his brothers, the incomparable musical force that is Neurosis—not to mention the numerous sonic tapestries he’s woven with Tribes Of Neurot and under his alter ego Harvestman. You can hear that rich musical history, and all the life experience that goes with it, on his new solo album A Life Unto Itself – and this album goes deeper still.
Where Steve Von Till’s previous solo recordings took on a more traditional approach with a respectful nod toward American and European folk music, A Life Unto Itself expands and ventures into compelling uncharted territory for its maker. Steve Von Till’s weathered, distinctive voice and sparse acoustic guitar provides a foundation, but a much wider variety of sonic textures are presented here. Bold and ambitious arrangements weave vintage synth, sublime strings, percussion, and electric guitars in and out of these unique and expansive songs as Steve Von Till’s raspy whisper dives deeply inward and speaks genuinely of visions, memories, and self-reflection in a way that feels both seasoned and exposed.