Being one of the frontmen of Neurosis, Steve Von Till’s influence as a musician is immediately overwhelming when it comes to our musical grounds. However, speaking to him is a soothing experience, much like his solo work. It is precisely his last record, “A Life Unto Itself”, that serves as a backdrop to this conversation, where we get to know some of his influences and get a glimpse of how he sees the world around him and in what way did European folklore shape his work.
“A Life Unto Itself” is your first solo record since 2008. It seems to me that your acoustic output has evolved drastically over the years, something that comes to light when listening to the new songs side by side with something from “A Crow Flies” for example. Have you made a conscious decision over the years to explore this or that facet, or has it been more of a reflection of what your inspiration at the time leads you to write?
It wasn’t really a conscious decision, it just kind of flows out differently over time. When I began this solo project so many years back I didn’t even know I was doing one, it was sort of the result of having home recording equipment and realizing I had a body of material that didn’t fit anything else: these simple, quiet songs I recorded in the middle of the city when there were few bits of quiet time living in a crowded place. This morphed over the following three albums into more of an exercise in expressing myself in a way that is uniquely my own and things I can’t express within the driven beast that is Neurosis. As far as the writing itself, I don’t have a process, I don’t have a set time or way of doing these things, they just kind of happen as they happen. Some of these ideas are quite old, back to after the last record, and some came right at the very end while we were finishing the record. I guess that each time I learn a little bit more about songwriting, because these are more songs, unlike other music I make which isn’t really songs, you know? [laughs] So it is a challenge to write things that are more simple and concise and yet still have an originality and an emotional power for me. The only conscious thing this time was that I did want to use some of what I had learned in my Harvestman project with textural approach to guitars, to use some of those ideas as some of the textures that go with the music.
So more from a technical point of view then?
More from a textural point of view actually, kind of how I want to treat the sounds, not being afraid of taking the acoustic guitar and putting it through an amplifier and fuck it up through some pedals. Just because it’s a nice, clean sounding, beautiful acoustic guitar doesn’t mean I can’t screw with it.
Between “A Grave Is A Grim Horse” and the new record you released “Songs Of Townes Van Zandt” with Scott Kelly and Wino. Maybe having listened to it a lot in the meantime is a bias, but when the first song of the new record, “In Your Wings”, came out, the first thought that popped into my head was that the Townes Van Zandt influence seemed clearer here than ever before.
I’m not sure. Of course he’s a huge influence on me and my songwriting for sure but I think there’s so many influences and that’s one amongst everything I’ve ever heard. So while he does have a special place for me, I think it’s a pretty different approach. In some ways I feel that I’ve been covering his songs for a long time, since I recorded my third solo record, and I’m not really sure, but I don’t think it was a big conscious decision.
It seems that quite a few people discovered Townes Van Zandt either through the record or through past interviews given by you and Scott. Being one amongst many and one that many didn’t know of before at that, are there others that you’d put on the same footing?
Many you’ve probably heard of. Townes Van Zandt is really not even that obscure over here. I realize that in Europe, specially within our scene of music, he may be pretty unheard of, but when you look at it and you see the people who have played his songs, fucking Willie Nelson played Townes Van Zandt songs [laughs] so it’s not that obscure. It’s Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash,Waylon Jennings and the whole outlaw country classics like Hank Williams, going all the way back to early country.
Guys like Merle Haggard and so on, I guess.
Yeah, it’s really not that obscure and there are plenty of other people. I’ve always been a big fan of Gillian Welch who’s contemporary, she’s doing stuff now, probably of a similar age that I am. She took a lot of what was happening in bluegrass music and kind of distilled into her own original songwriting. I love classic bluegrass music like The Stanley Brothers and Doc Watson, acoustic blues like Robert Johnson. There’s the Celtic folk revival of the late 60’s and early 70’s, Christy Moore, The Dubliners, there’s so much. Sandy Denny, the woman who sang on “Battle Of Evermore”, the Led Zeppelin song, her solo records and her records with Fairport Convention in England in the early 70’s to me were extremely influential and mind blowing. There’s so much to it, there’s a whole world of sounds out there and so much of it is moving and touching and you kind of just let it all absorb and you try to find something that’s your own and doesn’t sound like any of it.
In the press release for the new record you give an example regarding making a life decision upon hearing a «raven’s call» and you mention «folklore and history» becoming «ways of seeing the world». Can you elaborate a bit on what you mean by folk becoming such an important aspect to you?
We all have our ways of walking the world and the things we think about and the way we exist. There are certain patterns in my own life that I’ve always been drawn to, paying attention to the shapes the branches of the trees are making or the way that certain sounds in the environment seem to acknowledge my own thinking. I know it’s just me, the way I’m viewing my universe and it’s hard to describe, that’s why I try to let the music describe these things for me, but a simple act like when you’re sitting and thinking to yourself and you come to an internal decision about anything, anything you need to be doing in your life, and you look up and that happens to be the moment, you see a falcon dive and catch its prey. To me that’s an affirmation – that was the right decision, here I go do it. To me that happens all the time and it’s just a synchronicity probably, it’s because I pay attention to it. I think that humanity looking to the natural world to give itself meaning is kind of an ancient practice. I just prefer to see everyday work, everyday things, even the simple things, as important, as having consequences that echo through time. If you look at other cultures, tribal cultures, primal cultures, indigenous cultures all around world, they don’t divorce their everyday activities of planting food, harvesting food, taking care of their animals, even washing – you know, simple everyday things we take for granted in the modern world – to them it all has a meaning, it all has a prayer and a song. To me it’s just a way of trying to bring a more spiritual significance to everyday things.
When it comes to folklore, are you mostly drawn to American folklore?
I’m interested in folklore from all over the world, I probably more interested in European folklore to be honest.
So it played a role as big. if not bigger, than American folk in inspiring the writing of lyrics for the record?
When you’re saying folk are you saying music?
Not really, more on the side of old stories and legends.
Yeah. I’m definitely more inspired by folklore from all around the world than I am American. For me, the discovery of folklore and legends and myths was a way of connecting with the ways of outside of just America. The history of American folklore and the American west is very interesting, but it’s quite short, at least for white people. I am fascinated for sure by the hundreds and hundreds of tribes of indigenous people that lived here, and their stories of creations, nature and whatnot, but the ones that have always spoke to me are the Celtic folklore of Ireland, Scotland and the British Isles, as well as the Norse folklore and the Germanic folklore of the continent, as well as the Slavic folklore from more eastern parts of Europe. I think it’s all completely fascinating and the stories echo from a time when people were more connected to the Earth, wherever they came from, where matters of spirit and science and the natural world all seemed to be in more of a harmony and less disjointed – again, when things had meaning.
Those things influenced me but what I am writing about on this record is my life, this is an extremely personal and emotionally heavy record. None of the things I’ve written about are things that are made up or things that are telling a story of anybody else. This record, more than any other record, is a deep looking back on my entire life up to this point. I didn’t really realized that until I’d finished putting down just the acoustic guitar and the vocals. I had to drive six hours out to Seattle to work with Randall on that and when I was driving home, those six hours by myself across Washington state, it really just hit me really heavy that exactly what this was, was this reflection upon everything that I am, everything I had done, all the good, all the bad, everything. A look back at the whole journey so far and what I can learn from it to move forward from this point, accepting it as it is, accepting it as a life, that sometimes there is no rhyme or reason, that there are patterns, but whatever meaning you give to it, it is, it just is on its own and it is its own meaning.
Then you’d say that the folklore gave you more of an aesthetic for you to write about your own life?
What the folklore gives me is metaphors and images, because I don’t feel like spilling my guts out in a literal sense as I do consider myself a private person, nor do I think the messy details of anybody’s life are that interesting. [laughs] It is more about finding the emotions behind the events and being able to write about them in a way that gives myself a veil of privacy but still puts me out there completely exposed. You can listen to it and you can know what I was feeling exactly and relate it to your own life and how you felt in similar situations while sparing the details.
«I think that the reason why anybody even gives a shit about my solo music is because of Neurosis.»
With such a personal approach to these songs, does it make it harder to play them live?
I don’t perform out a lot with my solo material, so each time is still pretty terrifying. It’s very different than Neurosis where there’s this energy that’s driving the whole thing and you’ve got four other brothers next to you and a mountain of noise to just disappear into. It is definitely nerve wracking, having it all just be right there and so quiet and depending on each note. I definitely get nervous as hell doing it.
As time goes by do you think it is something you’ll be doing more often?
I look forward to do it. The thing is, it has to work with life and I have a job, I have a family. With a full-time job plus running our label, being a husband and a father, and there’s Neurosis. I try to make it so that as much of my time of as possible when I get free from my job I spend on Neurosis. I really enjoy it and look forward to it, because it’s a challenge and I do like confronting challenges like that, trying to broadening my perspective and not get too stuck in doing things one way.
When you started playing live as a solo artist, I’m guessing most of the crowd was made up of Neurosis fans. Has this changed as your solo career has progressed?
I think that the reason why anybody even gives a shit about my solo music is because of Neurosis. I think it’s people looking for the same thing, looking for something honest, something emotional, and something pure. It’s two different ends of that spectrum, but it’s similar in its honesty if I can say that. I don’t know, as we get older there may be some people that prefer to listen to something more quiet in a world that’s full of noise anyway. I just know that withoutNeurosis then none of that would exist.
Looking back at your early days with Neurosis, would you’ve ever seen yourself doing something like this later on?
[laughs] No, not at all. When I first joined Neurosis we were all teenagers. A lot of evolution had to happen and come around. When we started we couldn’t have imagined “Souls At Zero”, we couldn’t have imagined having keyboards. We were just angry punks with heavy metal guitars and a psychedelic perspective, we didn’t know where it was gonna take us.
While you couldn’t see yourself doing this, was the music that later influenced you in this path already present in your life?
I think it’s something that has been present since I was a kid listening to music and listening to the music around me. It just took a while for it to sink in and come back around.
With your solo and band output being, as you described, in two different ends of the spectrum, are there elements that go with you from one side to the other through your explorations?
I think everything we do must influence everything else we do because we learn from it. Scott and I have both said multiple times that having the solo music, making this quiet acoustic music and putting our voices out there in that kind of way really gave us a lot more confidence in using our voices in Neurosis. We’ve always had a large dynamic range of quiet and trippy parts mixed with this heavy destructive parts, but we didn’t always know how to approach it vocally. I think gaining some confidence on our voices, accepting them for what they are and using them in a more expressive manner is something we definitely brought back to Neurosis. As well as anytime you do something like Harvestman or Tribes Of Neurot, where you’re using instruments to create different types of sounds and textures, and you’re not confined into this kind of rock format of riffing or whatever, all of it just gives us opportunities to learn how to do more interesting sounds and textures and again, to bring what we learn back into Neurosis, to keep things inspired, keep things fresh, and always find new approaches and ways to be heavy, emotional and expressive.
Just to wrap it up, can you tell us a bit about any forthcoming plans, not only for Neurosis, but also for Harvestman or even Tribes Of Neurot?
Well, there’s no plans for Tribes right now. Harvestman is a thing that I record here in my home studio and there’s so much material always happening. I easily have a record of material waiting to be finished right now, I’m waiting for the inspiration of the direction I wanna go in mixing it, all the paint is out there, I just want to find a fresh approach to mix it, but there’s definitely a Harvestman record coming. With Neurosis, this is our thirtieth anniversary this December and we are actually planning on getting in the studio and spending our thirtieth anniversary in the studio.