There is little to be said about Neurosis that hasn’t already been said in a thousand ways and a dozen languages. Depending on who you ask, they are either one of the most important bands in heavy music or the most important and even after three decades, their spirit of sonic evolution shows no sign of abatement. With their 11th studio album Fires Within Fires proving to be as striking and uniquely affecting as anything they have ever produced, we spoke to vocalist/guitarist Steve Von Till about the spiritual blaze that burns within this most singular entity.
You’ve been working on the 30th anniversary shows lately. How do you feel about the band, looking back over those three decades?
The overwhelming feeling I have of all of it is just having a sense of gratitude that I’ve been able to spend my entire adult life in this band, with these guys, finding such an individual sound that has meant so much to our lives and our psychological wellbeing; finding such a positive way to express those types of emotions and to be a part of something that feels so essential to who we are, so important to our view of the world; to be a part of this music.
Both your live performances and your recorded works seem very immersive, all-consuming – how much of a physical toll does this take on you?
The live shows definitely take a toll. We’re not young anymore and we always wanted to make sure that we physically embody the spirit of the music and sometimes that’s pretty intense. It is definitely hard on the body that way, but I don’t really see any way around that. That’s what the music demands and that’s what we have to do to make sure that it’s purely flowing through us in an honest manner – to just surrender to it and become the music.
What about emotionally? Does it take a lot out of you or do you find that it gives more back?
Well, for sure it gives back. That energy is around us and inside of us and if you didn’t have a positive expression for it, what other ways would that energy manifest? Probably not good. I think for sure it saves our lives over and over again.
You’ve announced that your London shows are to be with Earth, Discharge and Subhumans supporting over the two days. What do those bands mean to Neurosis?
We’ve been talking about it and the 15 and 16-year old selves of us would never have imagined that we’d be playing with Discharge and Subhumans, let alone asking them to support us at a London show. That was beyond our wildest imaginations at that point, being able to play with people that were important to us as a band in the beginning, that were an inspiration. The sound of Discharge and Subhumans albums were fucking mindblowing at the time, and I think still are – they have their certain way that they changed music forever for us. Earth is a more contemporary band for us but still, the idea of bringing drone to heavy music, which we know now has had a huge reverberations through lots of different bands and artists, was hugely important and we’ve always had a lot of respect for the music that Dylan has made in all the various incarnations of Earth. We’re just really proud that they’re willing to share the stage with us in London for the other night.
Mike Sheidt from YOB once stated of your importance and influence that “there is before Neurosis and there is after Neurosis”. How do you feel taking on the same role that the likes of Discharge once took on for you?
It’s hard to be objective about that because it’s something other people tell us. I don’t think that we would necessarily say so on our own, that would be extremely egocentric or some kind of bullshit so I think we just take it in our stride and are grateful that people find our music to be important to them and that other people get similar things out of it that we get out of it. It’s awesome and if we have an influence on anyone I would hope that it would be like how other bands influenced us to be passionate, to never give up and to find your own, original self-expression.
You tried with those shows to bring in as much from your entire career as possible. You don’t typically go back to those first two albums so how was it revisiting that material and trying to rehearse those songs?
The very old stuff was definitely difficult. We’re just not in the same physical space or headspace that some of that was and we’ve evolved so far past it that even though we have respect for every step that we’ve taken, because everything we’ve done has made it who we are, some of it, to be honest with you, was like, “Oh, we can’t even play it; that’s too stupid, we don’t want to play it!” [laughs] We would never make those same decisions without knowing how we’ve evolved so it was educational in a way, but I’m glad we only had to do that for those 30th anniversary gigs in San Francisco and Roadburn, and now we get to bury those dead songs and move on. Some of those songs have life but definitely nothing off the first two records. There’s some moments off Enemy Of The Sun, Souls At Zero and Through Silver In Blood that can still rear their heads once in a while and have a little bit of life. but the really old shit? That belongs in its time and place.
What was it that you felt clicked with Souls At Zero as it really did mark a transition point for Neurosis?
I think it was when we blew the door open. We had these ideas in our heads earlier on. Even though it’s considered just a hardcore album, Pain Of Mind – I hadn’t joined yet but I spent a lot of time listening to it – I always felt had these hints towards something more psychedelic and more sinister. Then, when we did Word As Law, it just felt like growing pains in a lot of ways – we’re hearing these things but we didn’t know how to find them. We had no idea how to find it and then I think we just found a way to distil the energy we were longing for, to distil the emotions and to really get closer in there and that, with the addition of keyboards and samples – especially with the sampler; it made any sound in the universe possible to be turned into an instrument – was the gateway we needed to push through that door, sonically.
Did you find a difference in atmosphere or meaning with the retrospective shows in comparison with those which would usually be meant to promote an album?
I don’t think we ever necessarily feel that our concerts are to promote an album, as far as that goes. A concert is a unique experience every time and it is just to take whatever is inspiring us out into the live environment, but the 30th anniversary shows were different in the sense that the amount of respect and gratitude from us, and from the audience, just mutually looking at this time period and going, “Holy shit.” At least from our perspective, saying “How lucky are we to be here right now doing this and to have found all of these sounds, and to have other people give a shit about our strange music.” Our strange music, that saves our lives, has also helped other people out and has meaning for them. It was a pretty special and profound experience and I think in our guts we knew it would be that way and that’s why we decided to do it and do a rare look back. It was in gratitude and thanks to the audience because we don’t really do that. We’re very self-centred in Neurosis’ music, we just do it the way we want to do it and don’t give a shit, but it was a time when we really just wanted to be thankful and appreciative.
“It’s not about concepts, or the intellect; get the ego out, get the brain out of the way and let the heart and the soul flow. Every time we get together we learn to get more of our own way.”
There often seems, in your music, a battle between the cerebral and the instinctive. Is there a struggle to maintain that balance?
I think we’ve been leaning more and more toward the instinctual. What we’ve learned slowly, and what I can say in hindsight, is the cerebral side is extremely weak and any idea you can come up with in your mind is actually completely inferior and pathetic – and I’m only talking with regards to Neurosis’s music, not anyone else’s art – but with our sound, it really has to be instinctual. It’s all about flow, it’s all about energy. It’s not about concepts, or the intellect; get the ego out, get the brain out of the way and let the heart and the soul flow. Every time we get together we learn to get more of our own way. You can hear it – Souls At Zero, you can hear the brain ticking and that’s why there’s all these things that stop the flow. You have more ideas than need to be in there whereas with the new record, it starts and it flows through in a very seamless way. There are times when a hammer has to come down and crush everything but it’s all within this flow. It never feels glued in or stuck on.
Moving on to Fires Within Fires, which is an absolutely staggering record, how did the writing and recording of this come on? You guys have a reputation for working very quickly in the studio.
It was a pretty natural record to make. We had nothing we were working on and we just decided to put a weekend aside in February 2015. A couple of us got together the weekend before, just to get some basic ideas, create some basic seeds just to have some things to jam on to see what would happen, and by the end of the weekend that we all spent together – it was really only a matter of hours – the entire skeleton of the album seemed to take shape. We put it on the shelf until November because we had studio time booked for December; we just knew it would be fine. We trust the process. We knew that if we had a few days in November and a few in December, by the time we got in the studio we would be ready and that’s the fastest it’s ever happened for us. It really just showed itself to us.
Have things changed much over the years in your ways of working with Steve (Albini)?
No, we really learned from him in the first couple of records we made that all we need to do is show up in Chicago with our equipment, set it up and start playing; he’ll start rolling tape and in a few days we’re done.
Was there any conscious direction for the album?
No, again going back to that idea of getting out of the head, not letting the intellect influence that. Our only conscious desire is to constantly evolve and constantly move to new place that is inspiring for us to play and explore sonically. I think we achieved a lot
of sonic territory with this record and a lot of new places we were able to take some of what we do.
Given your intuitive approach, how do you marry that musically and lyrically? Does one come more readily?
I think words are harder because words are always the last thing we come up with. The music comes first, finding the natural flow of the music, and then we spend a lot of time trying to decipher what the voices are that we hear hiding inside the music.
The artwork for Fires Within Fires is very striking – there’s a strong symbolist presence in there. How did that come about and what exactly is its meaning?
I’m not going to give you a meaning because we didn’t discuss one. It was definitely a collaborative effort with Thomas Hooper, the artist, who is fucking incredible. Basically, we gave him the energy of the album, what it would be, and he’s been aware of us and been a fan of us for a long time so he knows what our previous artwork was. We both just knew that we wanted to take it somewhere new, and that it was going to be a hand-painted piece of art – it wasn’t going to be a digital layout. He started sketching and drawing things, and we would react, and it would go back and forth, fine-tuning different things. The images that came across in the beginning were the sphere, the planetary red sphere, and the key and solar mandalas, the human heart and the tree – a lot of these things took a lot of different forms and shapes until they finally came to the point where we could see what the package would look like and then he just dove in and hand-painted every single panel – even the logos and record label logos. It was just a really rewarding experience.
Although it’s been around for a while now, just how much freedom has self-releasing on Neurot given you?
It’s what we’ve always wanted, or at least I wanted. When I was a kid, I always liked the model of SST, Dischord, Touch And Go – having a community of independent artists that treat each other with respect and are outside of the music industry as a whole and not trying to mimic the music industry, so for us it’s important. It kind of goes back to those old-world values of honour and respect – buying the art from the artist and buying the craft from the craftsman.
Given the vast sonic spectrum they cover, what do you look for in the bands that you sign to Neurot?
It really just comes down to a couple of things and that is, do we feel some sort of kinship with them as people; do we feel a kinship with the music, with regards to being original, honest and emotionally intense in some sort of way. That’s about it. We want to release emotional, original music that moves us with people that are decent human beings.
Going back a bit, but are there any plans for the reinstatement of Tribes Of Neurot? What are your memories of the experiments you did with that project?
That was a really great time that we had, experimenting with that. That’s just taken a back seat mostly because we don’t live near each other and that stuff is most rewarding when you have time to sit around and create these abstract soundscapes live, together and in the moment, whereas all of the time that we see each other now is spent mostly playing Neurosis concerts and then, once every few years, making new music. We barely even find time to rehearse – we barely rehearse for tours or anything. I wouldn’t say that it won’t happen again, it just hasn’t been at the top of our list of things to do in a few years but definitely, that kind of exploration of sonic territory had positive influences on Neurosis because, as you explore your instruments and electronics in different ways, you find new and interesting methods of manufacturing sounds. We’ve definitely utilised those methods in Neurosis for sure.
In terms of self-exploration, you have always had a steady output with your solo material, as has other members of the band. How much have you been able to take away from that process and put into Neurosis?
Tons. Right off the bat, just as far as using melody and having confidence in my voice with something besides just yelling all the time I think has been huge and I think Scott would say the same thing. I think we both found a lot more confidence in our voices and therefore we have a much wider range of expression, which is actually more appropriate to the range and different landscapes that Neurosis creates sonically. In the past, we would really struggle with what to do with quiet parts and the beautiful parts and now I think we have a wider depth of field, vocally, with how to approach those things.
Given that I’ve recently undertaken the same change, has moving from the city to a more rural locale changed your perspective? I’ve found it can be quite isolating.
Definitely do not feel isolation, I feel much more connected to the earth. In the cities, I always felt isolated from nature and the cities are so full of busybusybusy. Sometimes it’s very creative and interesting and a large percentage of the time it’s just people being busy. To be able to stop and breathe and to be with the seasons and the weather to me is more important. In the city, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, but out in the mountains if two feet of snow comes, that changes how your day is gonna go and you just have to be a part of that. For me, it’s been priceless – for my peace of mind and my state of mind – to have space. What’s most important in life? You fucking die in minutes without air so having good air should be important; you die within days without water so having clean water should be important, and then you move on from there. For me, it’s all about that – the clean mountain air and water, the solitude of the trees. There’s plenty of city around if I need to get to it. Within a matter of hours I can be right in the middle of all the bullshit if I want to but it helps me a lot.