Steve Von Till interview (08/2020)
|With:||Steve Von Till|
|Conducted by:||RaduP (skype)|
Main article photo by James Rexroad
Neurosis is one of the greatest metal bands of all time, there's no way around that. Being around for so long and still managing to innovate their sound and keep a DIY attitude is a feat in itself. However that approach to music isn't relegated solely to their main band output, but also to anything from their side-project Tribes Of Neurot to solo projects of different members. Here we have guitarist/vocalist Steve Von Till, whose other projects like Harvestman and his solo output I've had in rotation lately (actually I was streaming them so I doubt anything was really rotating that visibly). We got a hold of the man to tell us about the creative process, both in terms of music and text, as well as how Bob Dylan is punk.
[i]No Wilderness Deep Enough
Radu: So how are you doing?
SVT: Pretty good, man. How about yourself?
Radu: Yeah, pretty good, except one of my cats puked on another one of my cats, so it was a great day.
SVT: (laughs from a safe distance)
Radu: I just reviewed your new record and I really liked it, to say the least.
SVT: Well, thank you.
Radu: So now let's talk about it for a bit. How did the music-making process change over the course of the years? I know you started working on it in somewhere Germany, trying some music software for recording, and then those were transposed on real instruments once you got back to Idaho. How is this process different than what it used to be back in the '80s?
SVT: Well… It's always been different. I don't think I've ever had a singular process or a specific way in which music, whether it was punk rock music or anything, comes into being - it always happens very differently for me. But what was different about this one as opposed to maybe a previous solo album is with previous solo albums I would usually write the songs, I would usually have a guitar in my hand and come up with a guitar figure and think of a way that I would sing on top of it and what the next part would be, but this entire process until the very end was largely accidental. I never thought I was creating a solo record until it was almost done.
I was in northern Germany, my wife's parents' property, where they've been for over 500 years in the same house site. We were visiting, just a family visit, and I had really bad jet lag, I couldn't sleep. I got up out of bed and I just started improvising with a simple electronic setup in the corner, just some very simple piano chords. I wasn't writing anything; I was just killing time, the way you might read a book or watch television, you know. If I was in my right mind, if I wasn't in that kind of out-of-consciousness, sleepless frame of mind, I might have dismissed these chord progressions as too simple and uninteresting, but because I didn't know what I was doing I recorded them anyway.
By the end of that week, I never slept, but I started adding other instruments to these simple progressions, some Mellotron strings, some French horn, just following these very simple suggested melodies, and each thing would suggest the next thing. And again, I didn't think I was making or creating anything; I was just doing it without thinking. When I got home, over the next several months, I kept opening the files and I still did not know what it was; I still did not have a plan, I definitely did not think this was a solo record, but just because that's how Harvestman music comes along - I just improvise in the studio - I just followed these sounds and I started adding some synthesizers, some Moog and some Korg, and processing some of the digital sources through my analog gear and masers and delays and filters, and kind of before I knew it, it started to take the shape that it is exactly to this day, minus a few changes. It became exactly the arrangement that it is now, minus the vocals and replacing the digital piano with a real piano, putting a little bit of cello in to complement the Mellotron strings and replacing my digital French horn with an actual French horn performance from a good player.
So I thought I had created an ambient record by accident. I didn't mean to do it; it just happened. I contacted my friend Randall Dunn, the engineer and producer who did my last solo record, and I told him, "Shit, I don't know what I'm gonna call it. It's not Harvestman, it's not Steve Von Till, but maybe I make ambient music now. Check this out. Can we book studio time and do those things I said, replace the piano and find a cello player and French horn player to give a little bit of organic breath to it", and he challenged me to sing on it and make it my next solo record. I did not think that was the way to go; I thought that my voice would ruin the beautiful music -
Radu: And it actually worked out for the better, I think.
SVT: Absolutely, yeah. The whole thing is a process of learning to get out of my own way and to trust, uh…
Radu: The process.
SVT: Yeah, to trust the process and trust myself, you know. Like a lot of people, I can let self-doubt or self-criticism or any sort of other things get in my way of doing what I'm supposed to do, and so Randall had to be the voice of the Muse in that moment and say, "Hey, man, no, sing on it." So I explored his idea; I spent an entire week in the winter of 2018-2019, when I was off of work and had some time and was home alone in the house buried in snow, I woke up every morning, built a fire in the wood stove, got my cup of coffee, my notebook, and my pen, and I sang on top of it, and by the end of the week I called Randall back and said, "Dude, you're right. Let's do it".
Radu: I don't think I would have minded an instrumental record, especially because this record, it clearly has another type of soundscape behind it than most of your usual records.
SVT: Yeah, agreed. Again, I didn't even think it was gonna be my record.
Radu: It doesn't have any guitars, right?
SVT: No, there's not a guitar on it, no.
Radu: Okay. It reminds me a lot of some recent Nick Cave stuff.
SVT: I could only dream of being that good, but I know what you mean. There's some similar moods, maybe.
Radu: Mhm. But it's not really something that I could say it sounds like something else. It sounds like - well, obviously, it sounds like you, because it's your voice, and the instrumentals sounds a bit like what could have been Harvestman, so it's like a blend of what used to be your previous solo work and your Harvestman project, but also something beyond that. It's great that at this point you're not just rehashing old ideas.
SVT: Yeah, life's too short for that.
Radu: And you did mention something about trusting the process and I did read a lot of interviews to make some research [Ed: This interview never actually happened and is an amalgam of several previous interviews that Steve Von Till has given.] and it seems that for you music doesn't come as something cerebral, that you think about it and you do it, but rather you become a vessel for something and inspiration comes and you create the music. Something like that, right?
SVT: Yeah, I mean, it's not that I don't have cerebral ideas sometimes, but what I've found is that when I follow the "brain" ideas, the "cerebral" ideas, they never work out and they always end up with just me beating my head against the wall and the idea was better than the execution, you know? Some people, that's their gift; they can do cerebral music. I don't have that gift. I can only do intuitive music. [Ed: Me, too. I can't brain do smart anything]
Radu: Yeah. But what I'm thinking of is I've read a lot of interviews with other people and they all seem to have this same idea of, like, it doesn't really feel like this music is something that they are actively writing, but they are passively - like they are a vessel of something else. So what I am asking is where does this music come from, and is it like you are fishing in the universe for music that already is there? [Ed: It's because you always interview people with the same tastes and David Lynch is the Akashic Librarian who channels music directly into their bloodstreams every time they stare at a sunset for too long.]
SVT: It's hard to say, you know. I really don't think it's the job of an artist or a musician or a poet to be able to explain where it comes from. I think the mystery and not knowing is part of the experience. I think that feeling of being a vessel, it feels like - if we really break down humanity, and we look at what are the highest forms of our evolution, what are the highest expressions that we've evolved to have, I would say that it is music and art and poetry. [Ed: Ya missed a spot there, bud] At some point in our evolution as a species, we decided that we had something more abstract to say than "I am hungry", "I need shelter", "I need to fuck". That's our animal nature, and at some point we decided we needed to grab our neighbor by the shoulder and say, "Hey, look at the stars! What are those? Where do they come from?"
Radu: Yeah, but it's ironic because most of the music is about sex anyway.
SVT: (laughs) Well, I'm not saying that we can divorce ourselves from our animal nature. It's combining that feral beast that we have and that we don't want to lose touch of, because I think it's important to be in touch with that as well, but we have these abstract things that we have to say and come up with these ideas, and I think that we wouldn't have the need for language if we didn't have these abstract concepts to talk about. Music and poetry and art are ways for us to say these abstract things that are deeper than language allows us to be. I don't know; it transcends it. Yeah, it feels sometimes like, like you said, fishing in the universe or maybe peeking behind the curtain or just stumbling into these ideas and all of a sudden finding yourself having an opportunity to drink from this well of inspiration, and I have no idea where it comes from. I just feel blessed that I get the opportunity to drink from there once in a while.
Radu: That's great, but I'm thinking what if in several years we find out where this inspiration is coming from, and then what copyright issues we could get with these Muses.
SVT: (laughs) Yeah, the artificial intelligence will decide that it was speaking for the Muse and it will sue us all, or just eliminate us all for our treachery.
Radu: And you mentioned that we are using language to explain all these abstract ideas, and you also released a book of poetry lately so maybe you have a lot more insight into this, and also as a lyric-writer. How hard is it when you cannot really find the right words to write what you want to mean, regardless of how much you want to express a certain idea, but there just aren't any words in our language, like the language is not enough to actually encapsulate what you want to mean?
SVT: Well, I guess that's when I feel lucky that I'm a musician and a poet and not a prose writer, because I think if you write prose or philosophy, then you have to find very specific, exacting language. Luckily, with poetry and song, you can dance around the idea and you don't have to find the exact word. You can approach it from multiple angles and just capture the essence of the emotion behind your search, and the searching and the failing itself can become the inspiration for the work.
[Ed: Boy, all this talk of tapping into the sublime is kind of making me feel down on the idea of my primary form of creative expression being a 250-500 word summary of some great work of art somebody else made. I need to take a minute to reconsider my whole life here.]
[Ed: I couldn't find myself. I'm back.]
Radu: How do you find it different, writing lyrics versus writing poetry?
SVT: Yeah, they are very different. I know there's lots of different ways people write songs, but for me, I've always written songs music first. It's always the sound first, much like on this new record, completely; I never even intended words to sit there. So you have this form of music and it has constraints: it has a key, it has a rhythm, it has a tempo, it has a mood, and so when writing lyrics the lyrics absolutely have to serve the song, they have to serve the music. I've never written words first. A lot of times I will listen to the song and try to hear what voices I hear in it, like is there anything suggested, like listening for voices in the wind or something, you know? "What is it saying, what is it saying?" Some words will come that way. Then other words will come from - I know the words have to have a certain rhythm, they have to have a certain cadence, or I have to hang on a certain vowel sound: [vowel sounds ensue] So I'll dig through my journals of poetry and - that's where all my poetry has lived my entire adult life. I've always written it, but it's lived and died in my personal journals. I never really worked on it seriously -
Radu: Until recently.
SVT: Yeah, but I would mostly just use it for fodder to go mining in for lyrics, and I'd go steal phrases, words, halves of lines, whole lines, anything that would serve what I'm looking for in a song. In a lot of ways, song lyrics would become, like, collages. It could have - one-third of the lines could come from translating the secret code of the sounds hidden within the song, one-third of the lyrics could be from journal entries over many different years, and another third could be different ideas suggested from the combination of those things, filling in the blanks. In a lot of ways, certain lines can be from poems about some completely different experience in life than the line before it, but it doesn't matter because they're put together in a way that the collage starts to take on a life of its own and take on a new meaning and the words are reframed by the surrounding words. Actually, it was the act of stealing two lines from one of my poems that, while writing the words for No Wilderness Deep Enough, I looked at the poem I stole the words from and I thought, "That's a shame; that was a good one. That poem was perfect, and now it's ruined". Not that I had any plans to share it; I didn't. I thought, "Oh man, I've ruined a perfectly good poem, but, boy, singing these lines sounds really good here".
So I decided that it was okay for these two lines to live in both places, and that maybe to honor the poem I would dedicate myself to writing every day for a little while, a group of poems with the intent of not butchering them for lyrics, letting them live their own life. So I sat and I wrote every day last year, like at small breaks at work or before school or before I left the house, and in a very short period of time I had this group of poems where - when I counted them, it was 22, plus if I kept the one I stole the lyrics from, that would be 23, which is, I don't know, just a great number, a prime number. And the fact that I didn't give any of them titles seemed to suggest that they were a body of work. So then, kind of like all of these events of this period in my life, I'm 50 years old, if I'm not gonna own the fact that I write poetry now, when am I ever gonna own it, so I'm going to work on these and edit them and make it into a thing. I thought maybe I would just go to the copy shop and make copies for friends, like a homemade fanzine or chat book or something, but then the more I thought about it, the more I thought that that connection between the lyrics and the poems and stealing the lines was kind of interesting and maybe I would have a built-in audience for my poetry if I introduced the idea to people that liked my music. So by collecting all of the lyrics of the past 20 years, putting it with the new poems, and releasing it at the same time as my new album, it's kind of just like all the same idea of "this is my voice right now". It's the most expressive I've ever sang, it's pulled things out of my voice I've never shown before, it's music I've never displayed before, poetry - all these new pathways opening up in front of me in creative expression as a kind of testament to that whole notion of getting out of my own way and letting the art speak for itself.
Radu: So now you're officially a poet.
SVT: Now I get to be officially a poet, yeah. (laughs)
Radu: But there's a certain, like, pretentious, high-brow thing to it. You're no longer just a musician. Everybody's a musician; now you're a poet.
SVT: Yeah, that's - and, believe me, coming from the world of punk rock and heavy music, the impostor syndrome of saying I'm a poet and the self-doubt, and not only that, but the part of me that is cynical, always the cynical punk rocker, goes, "Who the fuck are you to think you are a poet?"
Radu: (laughs insecurely)
SVT: That is ridiculous. Even saying the words, when I first started doing the project, "Oh, I'm releasing a book of poetry", you want to swallow it before it even comes out of your mouth so you don't get laughed at, or have people go, "Oh, God, now he's a poet…" You know? So, yeah, for sure, it's full of pretension.
Radu: But you have to twirl your mustache while you say it. "I am a poet now."
SVT: I just stroke my beard, yeah.
Photo by James Rexroad
Radu: Yeah, of course. Speaking about the beard, I have to ask: do you have some beard-keeping tips?
SVT: I don't do anything.
Radu: No? It's all natural?
SVT: Yep. Time, time.
Radu: Do you know how lucky you are? You look like a wizard.
SVT: (laughs) Yeah, well, some people might just say I look like a fuckin' garden gnome, so it goes both ways.
Radu: Well, now that you're saying it…
Radu: Anyway, speaking of wizards and gnomes, you know that the label "singer-songwriter" is often assigned to folk artists, people who make folk music, but, come to think of it, shouldn't it also apply to one-man black metal bands?
SVT: Well, even using those terms, you already narrowed it down to black metal, and it's like… Maybe it's being older, but for me, growing up, as a young man, of course I loved heavy metal, and then I discovered punk rock and then it was punk rock, and then all of a sudden the words meant something different, like even the word "hardcore" changed from what we were doing to something else, and then it became something very specific, like New York City hardcore - and "black metal," to me when I was growing up, was only a Venom album, you know, and "death metal" was a Possessed song, and then all of a sudden they're genres. There's more genres than I even can keep up with; I don't even know what they mean, like I honestly couldn't tell you the difference between what these things are. So I think really what you're saying is true; these words and these labels that we put on - even the labels that Neurosis has had to suffer over the years, "post-metal", "doom metal", "sludge metal", and we still think of ourselves as punks, so what does any of this mean? It's all meaningless garbage, you know?
Radu: Sorry to interrupt you, but I don't think The Eye Of Every Storm is a punk album.
SVT: Well, yeah, but to me, and where we came up with it, what punk rock meant was "fuck you, we do what we want, no rules", you know -
Radu: (cowed) Yeah… [Ed: Now it is Radu's turn to question his life's work as he ponders the illegitimacy of musical classifications.]
SVT: I think Bob Dylan is punk.
Radu: I cannot disagree with you there.
[Ed: No one can. Bob Dylan is more punk than punk.]
SVT: You watch that Don't Look Back movie of all those hippies trying to embrace him as the king of the hippie singer-songwriters, and he's a total punk rocker! He's cynical, he goes electric and tells them all to shove it up their ass, and, really, not to sound like a crappy fuckin' '70s song, but isn't it all just rock and roll? The electric guitar has still only been around basically since the 1950s; that's not very long. It's 70 years. All electric music, most recorded music, is in the last 70 years. I look at the amount - it's hard to separate it, because rock and roll is only 70 years old and Neurosis has been around since 1985, then we've been around for…
Radu: A lot.
SVT: Half of the life of rock and roll. [Ed: Steve, stop; you're freaking me out here.]
SVT: And if I look at just, like, how rock and roll changed from the year I was born, 1969, to when I was 20 years old, 1989, it's crazy the amount of change that happened in that period of time. So it's hard to say; I guess that whole idea of classification starts to become meaningless, because when I look at my record collection, I feel like it all belongs next to each other. I believe that my Godspeed You! Black Emperor record belongs next to my Bob Dylan record and next to my Low album and next to my Led Zeppelin record and next to my dub albums and the electronic albums. [Ed: As someone who organizes his collection alphabetically, I am disturbed by what I'm hearing.] I'm always looking for that 0.01% of any genre that I think is truly inspired and not copying.
Radu: Honestly, when I wrote this question, I was expecting a laugh and a "yeah", because I have other questions and I'm not sure how much time we have. (laughs)
SVT: (laughs) That's okay. Sorry, man.
Photo by Bobby Cochran
Radu: Yeah, why do you talk so much? I still have so many questions! (laughs) Okay, so you did a record with Wino and Scott [Kelly], a tribute record to Townes Van Zandt, which also got me back into his music as well. Why did you choose that specific singer-songwriter instead of Bob Dylan, for example?
SVT: Well, I had already covered Townes on one of my solo records, because he was an inspiration when I was looking to, once I had admitted to myself that I was making solo music, some of the American artists that were inspiring to me that weren't kind of shitty modern country, but who was doing the kind of true Americana music… Townes always seemed, like, just above the cut of the rest, a total outsider, emotionally very invested. You could tell his head was somewhere else. He wasn't singing "cry-in-your-beer" kind of songs; he was talking about the existential questions, like we have been. So I covered him on the same record I might have covered - if I've got my history right - uh… Nick Drake and, uh…
Radu: I wouldn't mind a Nick Drake cover album.
SVT: Uh… well, it's on one of my solo records, but, uh…
Radu: Well, let's not waste too much time. You covered somebody else.
SVT: Yeah, so I just think Townes represents that kind of outsider spirit of simple songs that go real deep and simple songs that can be as heavy as a heavy song, maybe heavier.
Radu: Mhm. Yeah, a lot of your projects, I saw that they have these sort of records with various other artists, tribute albums - like you did one for Hawkwind with Harvestman and, back in the day, one for Discharge with Neurosis.
SVT: And Joy Division with Neurosis as well.
Radu: Oh, yeah? I didn't know that. That makes sense. Neurosis is kind of like Discharge-meets-Joy Division. …meets a lot of other things. But yeah, back in the day, you did sound a lot different than you do now. But you weren't on the first Neurosis record, right?
SVT: No, nope. I joined for the second record, right before we did the second one.
Radu: Did it ever feel weird that you're not actually an original member?
SVT: Yeah, because first of all, Neurosis and Christ On Parade, which Noah, our keyboardist, was the singer and guitarist of, those were my two favorite local bands, and I had already been kind of pushing my own music into some directions that I thought was pretty complementary to what they were doing with regards to dissonant chords and being as interested in weird psychedelic music as we were and the hardcore music of the day, and so really it was just finding kindred spirits. Clearly, after joining, we quickly recorded the songs they had ready for The Word As Law and I contributed one song for it, and you can kind of hear the inklings of where we were headed, but then by the time we were able to spend a couple of years together and develop it, then we really found ourselves for Souls At Zero, and I think that's when we really became the beginnings of what we would become. Then over the next couple records and getting Noah in the band, then there I am in there with my peers, people that were in my favorite bands as a younger guy and we're making my favorite music now.
Radu: And back in the day, right before you joined Neurosis, you were in a band called Transgressor, right?
SVT: That was my first kind of thrash band in high school where we were just learning to play. We actually changed our name to Tribe Of Resistance.
Radu: Oh, I heard something with "Tribe" more recently with your music.
SVT: Yeah, that was leaning way more toward peace punk stuff; all the lyrics were political, but we were getting away from some of the more crossover stuff going on and getting more into what I loved about bands like Battalion Of Saints or Die Kreuzen mixed with some of the atmospherics of some of what I loved about some of the peace punk stuff, but again, you know, just teenagers trying to figure it out. Yeah, young.
Radu: Yeah, but you don't shred as you used to.
SVT: Well, time slows things down.
Radu: Yeah. Do you think there's ever a chance of hearing that demo tape again on something remastered or on some other format?
SVT: I don't think it's worth being out there.
Radu: I just looked it up on YouTube; I saw a bunch of comments - actually, three comments, but - people who were asking if this is ever going to show up on vinyl.
SVT: Yeah, you know, I just don't… I guess I like looking to the future more than I looking to the past. I have very limited time to be creative and to work on projects; I have a full-time job as an elementary school teacher, I'm a father, I'm a husband, I run our record label, Neurot Recordings, and have to take care of everything regarding that, and try to find some time to also have a life and to be creative, and so to spend time on something from 30-some years ago or even 10 years ago versus, like, "What am I doing next?" is very uninspiring. I don't really get caught up in nostalgia or any of that. I mean, obviously Neurosis has a legacy and part of Neurot Recordings is keeping that legacy of Neurosis going and trying to have things available and honor that legacy, but the true inspiration for small amounts of time has always been to the future. I think the best stuff I get to be a part of still lies ahead.
Radu: Yeah. Well, this is a bit of a bummer. I really liked "Cold Storage".
SVT: (laughs) Yeah, that was… It's…
Radu: That was your "hit"!
SVT: That was, like, 17-year-old, 16-year-old… yeah. No thank you.
Radu: Yeah, you could tell it was 16-year-old music, but…
SVT: We were trying hard.
Radu: Okay, so now that it seems I was supposed to start another interview five minutes ago [Ed: Coming soon to a theater near you!], but it seems like he isn't showing up. I sent him a message like with you an hour before, to see if everything is set up, so that means I have more time for the last questions.
Photo by Bobby Cochran
Radu: How was it like working with Jarboe?
SVT: Jarboe's a great singer. Obviously we were all great fans of Swans and everything that Swans did with her involved, and also everything since she left; I think it's one of the heaviest bands, the most intense bands, and the most challenging bands to ever exist. She had come to one of our concerts one time in the early '90s; she had heard one of our songs on the local community radio station and was really into it, so she contacted us and came to visit us when we played Atlanta and brought us some chili peppers that she had grown in her garden. We just had a great conversation, a great time, so we put that in the back of our minds and there was kind of a time where we were wanting to spread our wings and do a different kind of record and we thought having a female voice of somebody inspired like Jarboe, she really - I mean, even when you watch her sing, she is embodying the music. She becomes the music, she loses herself in it, and that's what we really relate to in her voice. And so we thought, "Wow, that might be an interesting way to approach something", to give our kind of approach to music a different voice. We also didn't work together in the studio. What we did is we -
Radu: It was long-distance, basically, right?
SVT: Yeah, right, yeah, and we really carved that music by putting up old master tapes of old Neurosis material and making drum loops, playing it backwards, slowing it down, chopping it up, really "creating" the music in the home studio instead of writing songs, just manipulating it, trying to use the studio as the instrument instead. That's why the songs are quite different; they have a unique perspective. It was kind of an experiment to see if that would work, so it was really improvising and us just in Noah's living room putting down ideas through whatever gear was sitting around, and we went into the studio a little bit like I said, we put up some of the old master tapes to grab drum loops off of, and just approached it differently. I think the result was interesting. And then we sent her the raw tracks and then she improvised a ton of vocals all over it and sent it back to us, and then we did one last editing session of chopping it into something that made sense. It was neat, because we didn't labor over writing. We more carved it out of this block of stone.
Radu: So it was a different creative process.
SVT: Yeah, it was a rewarding process for sure.
Radu: Do you think you will ever do a collaborative album again?
SVT: It's hard to say. Don't know.
Radu: Because you said that you met her in the early '90s. That was when she was still with Swans; I suppose you met Michael [Gira] as well?
SVT: Yeah, they came together, yep.
Radu: Do one with Michael, then. [Ed: This is how Radu pressures me to work, too.]
SVT: Yeah, I've spent time with him as well, hanging out. I have great respect for what he's done with Swans and Angels Of Light and his solo stuff.
Radu: It seems like the guy I'm supposed to be interviewing right now, he just wrote to me. Great. Do you have any questions for Incantation?
SVT: Ah… no, no, thanks, man. I appreciate it.
Radu: Okay. I'll have to stick to my own, then.
SVT: All right.
Radu: Okay. Thank you very much, and if you think it over, maybe you will do that Transgressor again.
SVT: (laughs) All right. Thank you. Take care.
Radu: See you.
Once again thanks to SSUS for transcribing the interview and gracing us with his snarky comments.
||Posted on 17.08.2020 by Doesn't matter that much to me if you agree with me, as long as you checked the album out.|
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