To call Steve Von Till or any of the other human components making up Neurosis a genius at this point is moot. Monday comes after Sunday and these dudes are brilliant; that’s just the way it goes. Nonetheless, among the myriad solo projects, contributions and bands the members are involved with, Von Till‘s experimental Harvestman output stands alone in its blend of complex textures and willful bucking of structure. 2005′s Lashing the Rye established the project as an outlet free from creative boundaries, and 2009′s In a Dark Tongue (both on Neurot) thwarts expectation by including psychedelic jamming amidst the rich, droning tones.
He was in the car when I called him over the weekend and warned that he might have to interrupt the interview at any moment on account of, as he put it, “Kids and dogs,” but we nonetheless forged ahead and I was given the chance to pick his brain as regards his processes, techniques, how his home studio affects composition and — solely because I couldn’t resist asking — what it was like for Neurosis to play with Heaven and Hell in Seattle. As ever, the guitarist/vocalist was cordial and accommodating, and the resulting Q&A is available for reading after the jump. Please enjoy.
How is In a Dark Tongue different from Lashing the Rye in your mind?
Well, the first one was sort of like my first solo album. I didn?t have a project in mind, I just had a collection of recordings from over the years of strange stuff that wasn?t Neurosis, wasn?t Tribes of Neurot, wasn?t Steve Von Till songwriting stuff. After a while it took shape and I realized there was a body of work there that was leaning more towards a guitar-based home-recorded psychedelic tribute to European folk songs and folklore and Celtic and Germanic mythology, taking all the things I was interested in and filtering it through traditional filters but coming up with something (laughs) very unorthodox as far as a tribute to traditional music might go. While it looks towards European folklore and folk songs and folk music, it also looks towards what I like about what I think is modern Celtic and Germanic folk music: the krautrock, the space rock, the psychedelic music of the free festivals in England and the folk rock revival of the ?70s. How those things inspire me, putting it through my own filter of using my home studio as an instrument to create these strange pieces of music.
I wanted to ask you about the home studio. How has that process evolved for you, taking this record into consideration and the last solo album, in terms of writing and composing there and using that space, like you said?
Well, I definitely have built a more proper studio in the sense that I have more space and more proper gear to do things better. I think I?ve become a better engineer, so in some ways my tonality is getting better, but I?m still a total amateur, so it still has a home-recorded feel. My gear collection has grown (laughs), which for me, anytime there?s a new piece that has new sonic possibilities, it?s time to dive in and try it. I get inspired by the sounds things make. I?m a total hack of a guitar player, so if I get a new guitar pedal or amp or a new microphone to mic it up, it?s different things to try. Oftentimes I?ll play with it and it?ll inspire me to play a certain way. You sit down, play with a different guitar, it?s gonna inspire you to do different things. It?s been much more reacting to that as well, and on this recent piece too, there were some collaborations I did at friends? houses. ?Hey, we got a bunch of guys just jamming psychedelic music out in the hills, do you want to come jam?? and I said, ?Cool, but can I record it?? That became kind of a collaborative process. There wasn?t really much collaboration on the first one. A small bit. Mostly accidental from people who had no idea they were collaborating with me, it was just sitting around on tape that I ended up using. This time there were some definite jam sessions which turned into pieces. I took them back and manipulated them. I like the dub perspective of it doesn?t matter what originally went to tape, you?re free to change it into anything you want in the mixing stage and use that as your base. Me and Alex Hall [Grails] had collaborated; we had my friend Al Cisneros from Om come in and play bass one day. That was still back before I had a proper studio. This new record kind of crosses both studios, the one I had when I lived in the city and the one I have out here in the country. I don?t know. It?s very liberating to have my own place with quality stuff that I can go to and turn stuff on and see if something happens, which for Harvestman, it?s very improvised. There?s not a whole lot of writing or planning that goes into any of it.
Have you found that living out in the country itself affects what you?re writing?
I don?t know? I don?t know. I still live a similar life, I just get a lot more peace of mind and stuff. I suppose it must, but I?m too close to that to know how it might.
Even on the collaborative tracks, like ?By Wind and Sun,? there?s a solitary feeling in the music. Do you think something too well produced would lose that?
I don?t think the quality of production would necessarily affect the music. Even though I?ve become a better engineer, and even though these are better high fidelity sounds — I once heard someone call it, ?Hi-fi lo-fi? — you have a high-quality recording of a lo-fi source. If you?re into strange distortions and messed up sounds, it doesn?t matter what you record them on. You can record them on a four-track in your bedroom or you can record them in Steve Albini?s studio and it?s still going to be a lo-fi source. If your source is the way you want it, the quality of production, as it gets better, can really only enhance the listening experience. I like all of it. I like lo-fi recordings and hi-fi recordings and whatnot, but I really do appreciate high-fidelity reproductions and whatnot. I really do appreciate high-fidelity reproduction of what the artist had originally in mind, which oftentimes in my case might be the most screwed up and lo-fi guitar part you can try to find (laughs). I don?t think I?m the kind of person who would ever let the production get in the way of the vibe. It?s just not in my nature.
Can you talk a little about how the Harvestman identity has evolved since Lashing the Rye? I was fortunate enough to catch your set at Roadburn, and it seems like Harvestman has taken on a personality aside from all your other projects. What do you feel Harvestman expresses separate from the others?
I think essentially the fact that it?s entirely based on as many strange sounds as I can get out of a guitar as possible in a relatively free structure. It?s just the way that I play guitar. It?s not a way I play guitar on my solo stuff, it?s not a way I play guitar in Neurosis. It?s just all over the place. I love synthesizers, I love dub studio tricks. It?s just all that stuff. I have gone out and performed live now. I did Roadburn and the year before, I had done three shows with Alex Hall in Europe and we did a set which was half solo stuff, half Harvestman and for Roadburn, I evolved that into playing by myself and using loopers and delays and my entire guitar spaceship craziness and mixed it up and alternated Harvestman material with solo material. I?m actually really liking that idea. With so many different projects — it?s nothing I?m saying I?m committed to, it?s something I?m bouncing around in my head — I?m wondering if there?s a way to merge those two, at least for a while, because that kind of works and makes sense, taking the solo songwriting stuff but approaching the musical angle of it from the Harvestman perspective and weaving back and forth. I can see it making a strong album and be a basis for performance, which is a lot more dynamic and a lot more sonic possibilities, whether to use an acoustic guitar or the psychedelic angle. Since I don?t get a chance to play either one of those things very much, it allows me to, if I?m gonna go out and play a gig like Roadburn, which might be my only show of the whole year I do, it allows me to get both of those out. Harvestman?s open to different interpretation at any time. It?s open to change. It?s my freest spirit.
You could put out a record where it?s Harvestman with Steve Von Till. No one would see it coming.
(Laughs) I can?t say the thought hasn?t crossed my mind.
About Roadburn, what was that like for you? I know from my end, just watching the bands, it was more like a celebration than a concert.
It was a complete overload. All those friends from all over the world, and trying to even just say hi to them all from backstage, then trying to see my friends who weren?t playing outside, being the organizers as well as performing three sets in two days — it was totally overwhelming. I was in a constant state of busyness and we didn?t get a lot of opportunity to enjoy the performances because we were so busy, but the vibe was very emotional. It was very cool and I agree, it felt more like a celebration than a concert. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. What a privilege it was to host that thing. How many people get a chance to do that? Not very many. It was pretty amazing.
What are you working on next?
I just kind of take it as it goes. They?re all always happening. Neurosis is kind of feeling the waters to see if we?re ready to start diving in. There?s a lot of seeds planted there. Working on that stuff. There?s some Harvestman pieces in skeletal forms, just raw stuff to start working from. There?s Tribes of Neurot stuff partially formed. I don?t know. Lot of good stuff.
You know next year is 25 years of Neurosis.
Yup. That?s true. We thought about it, but you can?t push things just because of some number. Things have to happen organically for us. Life first. Neurosis is our privileged and dedicated hobby. It?s our life and the core of our life, but we all have extremely busy lives surrounding it. Our jobs and our families, just trying to make ends meet like everybody else. We?ll just take it as it comes and hopefully something happens.
One last thing. Neurosis recently played with Heaven and Hell. How was that show?
We had done that first Ozzfest, when there was the first Sabbath reunion with Ozzy, so we had seen Geezer and Iommi do their thing 30 nights in a row, and that was going back to rock school, man. With that version of Sabbath, those first five albums are incredible, but there?s certain things that are different about it in the modern time, which in the Dio version, you have somebody that?s still on top of their game vocally. Those albums are a totally different era of Sabbath. Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules and Live Evil were extremely important records for heavy music. I had actually flown back to the Bay Area from Idaho to watch Heaven and Hell open for Priest last year, and it was sick. They were so kickass and Ronnie James Dio is one of the best rock singers ever. He?s got so much energy and he?s still got a great voice and he seems very sincere. Very humble for a rock star. It was just great to watch them, and to get the chance to play with them in Seattle was awesome, although the vibe of the thing wasn?t the best. We did the whole thing just so we could stand in the hallway and hope to have them say hello, and they did. That?s all we needed. Playing at seven o?clock in a half-empty conference center is not exactly our forte (laughs), but we played hard, played well, and we got to watch them, and it was good.
Tags: Gods, Harvestman, Idaho, Neurosis, Neurot, Steve Von Till