Scott Kelly Interview: Mapping the Road Home

Listening to Scott Kelly and the Road Home‘s The Forgiven Ghost in Me, it’s almost like Kelly — best known as the guitarist/vocalist of Neurosis — can’t escape the heavy. One doesn’t often think of folk-derived stripped-down singer-songwriterisms as being especially weighted, but even through lyrics about near-religious redemption and forgiveness, there’s a sense the spirit remains heavy. And more, the delivery remains heavy. Kelly, who is joined in The Road Home by guitarist/vocalist Greg Dale and Neurosis keyboardist Noah Landis and whose songcraft is at the core of the project, seems to just bleed the stuff.

Certainly the vast majority of his output over the last 25-plus years would bear that out, but more perhaps on The Forgiven Ghost in Me (review here) than ever before in Kelly‘s career, that sense of weight is given a counterbalance. Sure, tracks like “Within it Blood,” “We Let the Hell Come” and “The Field that Surrounds Me” — which features guests Josh Graham (A Storm of Light, also Neurosis‘ visuals) on guitar and Jason Roeder (Neurosis, Sleep) on drums — have darkened and foreboding atmospheres, but there’s an answer to them in “We Burn through the Night” and “A Spirit Redeemed to the Sun,” or even the title-track, “The Forgiven Ghost in Me.” One need only to look at the titles and find images of hell, blood, burning, the sun and fire, to get a sense of the penance that has been the price of even this partial redemption, but it’s there, anyway.

But more than this offsetting defeat and triumph, The Forgiven Ghost in Me is about the songs themselves. It is a gorgeous listen, reveling in its moodier moments but never quite letting go of its sullen melodicism. Flourishes of tape noise on the darker “Within it Blood” may seem on paper to work against, say, the deep breath that starts off the album before “A Spirit Redeemed to the Sun” begins, but in the actual listen, it’s fluid. Kelly is talking about the sharing of influences below when he posits that, “Music is a stream,” but you could just as easily apply that to the context of these songs and how he’s positioned them on the album.

In the interview that follows, Kelly discusses that positioning process, as well as his songwriting and what it was in these songs that seemed to warrant the input of Dale and Landis, as opposed to his 2008 outing, The Wake, which was directly a solo affair, and what separates Scott Kelly and the Road Home from his prior non-Neurosis collaboration with Landis in Blood and Time, and much more. Neurosis have a new album due for release in October called Honor Found in Decay (info here), but I wanted to focus this conversation more on The Forgiven Ghost in Me and the impact Kelly‘s solo work has had on a heavy underground that might not otherwise have so readily discovered the likes of Townes Van Zandt, to whom Kelly, Neurosis bandmate Steve Von Till and Shrinebuilder bandmate and acoustic tourmate Scott “Wino” Weinrich paid homage on the Songs of Townes Van Zandt three-way split (track stream here) just a few months back.

He was as brutally honest in conversation as he is in his songwriting, as regards his work, what goes into it from and through him, and the influence it’s had on others.

You’ll find the complete Q&A after the jump. Please enjoy.

When did you start writing the songs for The Forgiven Ghost in Me?

Um, I don’t know. A year and a half, two years ago, probably. I don’t really remember. I never really stop writing. I’m always kind of writing. There’s no… I never stop. Whenever I got done with The Wake, probably the next time I picked up a guitar is when stuff started happening. The whole record started coming together about a year ago or so.

When did you know that you wanted it to be more than just you solo?

I played the songs live solo, and for this record, I just felt like doing something different and something that would be… I felt like approaching it like two different worlds. I do hope to be able to perform this stuff live with the full band, but it’s not really a financial reality, or a fiscal reality, at this point. But it’s one of those things, if this record does okay, if people want to see it, then it’ll happen at some point. But I just try to treat it as a different entity.

Where did the name The Road Home come from?

Noah’s girlfriend came up with that. I just liked it. Thought it sounded perfect. I wanted to do something to make it clear that there was something different going on with this record and the previous ones. It wasn’t just me and a guitar. Didn’t feel right to just do that, because those guys really contributed a lot to it. Those guys need to be acknowledged for their work. They basically wrote their own parts. I wrote the songs and gave them the songs. I kind of oversaw it, but basically those guys felt the songs so much that there was no issue. They just came up with their own stuff?

Was working with Noah on this any different than when you did Blood and Time?

No. Me and Noah just work good together, man. We have forever. We worked together even before he was in Neurosis, him and I did a lot of stuff together. Before he joined Neurosis, we used to run tape loops between songs and stuff like that, and Noah and me, that was where we came up with them, because he had these sounds that he had collected and we would stay up all night and work on tapes and put these things together. We’ve been working together like that for 20 years. It’s easy. It’s good. It’s always fruitful. We always get a lot done.

How did Greg get involved?

Well, he’s Noah’s roommate. So he’s right there. But he’s a musician in his own right, and I just really like the guy. He’s a really good dude, and I knew that he would identify with the songs, and he did, and like I said, he just really felt the stuff and it came out of him naturally. He did some really memorable guitar parts on the record.

With the different layers of guitar, electric and acoustic, I was wondering whose parts were whose at some points.

The acoustic is mainly me. I did all the vocals and the straight, foundational acoustic guitar. The slide guitar is Greg. There’s a baritone electric guitar, and that’s all Noah. Aside from that, Greg does a little acoustic, Noah does a little bit of straight electric. And then, on “The Field that Surrounds Me,” Josh Graham does that delayed-out guitar, and Jason Roeder’s playing drums.

Was that planned out beforehand? How did that come together?

That was a recording that carried over from a compilation, benefit compilation, for the West Memphis Three, that was being organized about three years ago. Maybe two years ago. And we had put that song together for that, and then it never happened and I was gonna do a different version of that song for the record and then I just kind of remembered that we had that thing sitting there, and thought it would be a cool dynamic to have some drums on one of the songs. So that was basically how that came about.

I thought that song was pretty well placed where it was, too.

Yeah, me too. Me too. It totally made sense. Just throw it in there for a little bit… I wanted this record to have a lot more… I wanted to push the envelope on it more. I don’t know what I’ll do with the next one, I haven’t even gotten there yet, and at this point, like I said, live it’s still just doing the stripped-down, raw version of these songs, but, you know, hopefully down the road it’ll change.

Going along with that idea of going further with it, pushing boundaries, I was kind of thinking of this record more in terms of Blood and Time than your solo stuff. You’ve got Noah’s involvement, but the core of your songwriting is still there.

It’s definitely somewhere between the two for me. To me, it’s right in between. Blood and Time was more electric. There wasn’t much acoustic in it – some – but it was based more on electric guitars and more melodic vocal and stuff. This one’s definitely more acoustically based than Blood and Time was, and less percussion, less drums. But yeah, similar feel. I think Noah’s engineering on this record really showed through as well. It made a big difference in the sound and vibe of the record.

Tell me about reinterpreting songs as you go forward. “Remember Me” was a Blood and Time song that was on The Wake and “We Let the Hell Come,” from this record, was on the Shrinebuilder Live in Europe album.

Those are two different stories there. “Remember Me,” there was a couple reasons for putting it on The Wake. One was it just really fit the record. And I honestly felt like it was a good enough song that I wanted to do it twice. I felt really strongly about that song, and I felt like I could reinterpret it to more straight acoustic, and I thought that the lap steel addition would be a cooler version of it than the Blood and Time version. I wasn’t really satisfied with the Blood and Time version, is basically what it comes down to. “We Let the Hell Come,” the version that’s on the Road Home record, that’s the song. Shrinebuilder started playing it because we needed material. We didn’t have enough material for doing a headlining set, and Shrinebuilder was kind of instantly put into this headlining spot. But we really only had 40 minutes’ worth of music, so we had to take on a cover song and we took “We Let the Hell Come” and came up with our own version of it. It may or may not make it on the next Shrinebuilder – I don’t even know if there’ll be another Shrinebuilder record. But it’s probably the first song that I wrote, actually, after The Wake. I’m not sure if that’s actually true, but I think so.

Listening to the record, I thought of that song and “The Field that Surrounds Me” as anchors for their halves of the record. It’s a little darker, the electric guitar behind – it’s more foreboding. Can you talk about the structure of the album, placing the songs putting it all together once the material was recorded?

As far as actual musicianship and stuff like that goes, I’m not very adept. But I have my strengths. One of my strengths, one of the things I can do is I can kind of feel it out and figure out a flow of things. I don’t really have a way of explaining it, but if you give me eight songs, I can tell you what order they should be in, in order to paint the picture that’s in my head. So whatever that means. Somebody else could come up with a different combination, I’m sure it would probably work in a different sort of magic. But for me, there’s definitely an order to things, and you’ve kind of got to follow that. You have to set everything up. You have to kind of unveil things at the right time. You don’t put “The Field that Surrounds Me” first. That would be stupid. There’s obvious things like that, but there’s more subtlety too. Some songs feel good back to back. Others don’t. There’s more mechanical issues, such as where chords end and where the next song begins. Stuff like that. But yeah. I just kind of feel it out.

Was there something particular about “A Spirit Redeemed to the Sun” that made you want to start with that?

I thought it was a pretty unique song on the record, but I thought if it was like anything on the record, it was like “We Burn through the Night,” so I wanted them to be as far apart as possible. I also thought that there was this strangely shocking lyric at the beginning of the song. I just think it’s a good setup for the record. It kind of sounds like a hymn. It kind of reminds me of a couple other songs I’ve written over the years, “Sacred Heart” or something like that, where it’s kind of got this churchy vibe to it. It just seemed like the right one to me. Lead everything in.

I noticed in listening to the album is how in between the songs, or at the end of one song or the beginning of another, you can hear the breathing, you can hear the chair creaking. Those little details that I think a lot of people would take out, you leave in.

Yeah, we were very consciously leaving those in. It’s meant to be listened to like it was recorded, which is basically in a living room in a home in the middle of the woods. And that’s basically what we did. We wanted it to be intimate. There’s no perfection on that record. There’s nothing done to a click track or anything like that. It’s all free-floating and live. I think it was important for that to be documented as well.

You said you were writing all along, but was your songwriting process affected at all by your touring with Wino or the Townes Van Zandt project?

I’m sure it was. You’re always affected by everything. I mean, I’m deeply affected by Townes Van Zandt. I’ve been playing his songs for seven or eight years. Those three that are on the Townes Van Zandt record are the most recent ones that I’ve been playing, but to me, he’s the greatest songwriter I’ve ever heard. I find him to be deeply moving and absolutely what I wish I could be as a songwriter. I wish I could achieve what he has done.

What was the timing on your recording the Townes Van Zandt songs and doing The Forgiven Ghost in Me?

I recorded the Townes songs probably six months before I recorded The Forgiven Ghost in Me. At least four months before. I recorded The Forgiven Ghost in Me in December, so it wasn’t that long ago.

With the new Neurosis coming, you’ve got the Townes Van Zandt thing, this, and that. That’s quite a second half of the year, man.

Yeah, it’s a lot of stuff. It’s been good. Good to get it all out of me. Good to get it all out and have it out there. Of course, my output is spotty at best, so we’ll see when the next thing comes. I’ve already got a few songs brewing in me for another solo record, and we’ve got quite a bit of stuff to start with on a new Neurosis record and hopefully our lives will bring us a little bit easier paths so the next record won’t take five years. But who knows? It doesn’t matter. We’ll just do it when we do it.

I saw Nate Hall and Mike Scheidt when they did the acoustic tour together on the East Coast and they both covered Townes Van Zandt, and it seemed to be an influence as filtered through you. It seemed like there was a whole lot of people who heard of Swans through Neurosis. Do you have any sense of feeding others influences or any thoughts on that?

Ah, you know, it’s just a stream. Those guys have both influenced me, too. Music is just a stream. Any people that start claiming originality are full of shit, basically. It’s not about that. It’s about just furthering music. The more people that hear Townes Van Zandt, the better, so whatever it takes to do that, it’s good. It makes perfect sense that those guys would be fully into Townes Van Zandt. I think his music speaks for itself. Heavy music. People who’ve endured heavy lives who express themselves through music are going to be drawn to it. Mike in particular has been a real positive influence on me as a human being. He’s just an exceptional guy, so I just think it’s good, the more people that are out there doing this, the better. I don’t know if that answers your question, but it’s pretty much my thoughts on it.

It’s interesting to get your take, because you see Neurosis cited so often as an influence, and I think The Wake has inspired a lot of people who’ve gone this route since, but at the same time, in the couple times I’ve spoken to you before, you’ve always been really up front about citing your own influences. I remember talking to you for the last Neurosis record and asking you about influencing others and you said, “All I hear when I hear Neurosis is what inspired it,” Swans or whatever influence it might have been.

I’d give you the same answer today. I just think anybody who claims to be so original is full of shit or full of themselves. Definitely believing their own hype. And they’re not respecting the music either. That’s not showing respect to the sound itself, because that’s really the question. The real question is where the fuck does this come from and how come it comes through at all. To my knowledge, there’s no scientific understanding of where music comes from, why people hear it in their heads and decipher it through their hands and sound or their voices or whatever. I think that songs are ancient. Ancient. All of it is. And I think the deeper you get into it, the more you surrender yourself to it, the farther you go. A lot of musicians surrender to a depth that opens a lot of doors for other musicans. I think that is true and can be acknowledged, and I think we can be acknowledged for that. We certainly didn’t create some original sound, you know. We’re just a combination of things that seemed right to us.

Do you view your personal songwriting process as that kind of surrender?

Yeah, always. I view songwriting as total surrender. I have to in order to understand it, and I’m one of those guys that has to understand why. It doesn’t make sense to me. I have to come up with some way to define it, and that’s how I define it. Total surrender. That’s what brings these songs through.

But when you’re putting something together, there’s still a consciousness in it. There’s still a consciousness in your letting those songs come from you.

Well, it is. It’s coming through me, but I don’t know what that means. It just means it’s coming from me. I don’t think I get a cookie for that. In fact, it’s quite the opposite most of the time. It’s not necessarily what people would wish for. Oftentimes, it’s not the best place to be.

What do you mean?

I wish the songs that came through me were different songs, many times. I wish I didn’t channel what I do, because it pretty much sucks a lot of the time. It’s just difficult stuff. There’s some stuff on this record that’s actually different, and I was thankful for that. I have no explanation as to why it was different, but a couple songs came through me that were relatively – in the context of everything else I’ve ever written – they were light as hell. Other than the fact that some things have gotten better in my life. I’ve had some good people come into my life and some bad people leave my life, so that’s good. But in general, if you look over all the songs I’ve written over the last 25 years, and put that together with the method they’re written, I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s just not easy. It can be pretty taxing.

The kind of material you’re talking about here, the lighter material. That’s stuff like “A Spirit Redeemed to the Sun,” the title-track, “The Forgiven Ghost in Me?” A lighter mood?

A little bit. A little bit. I don’t even know that “lighter” is the word. It’s still heavy. It just doesn’t have quite the same drudgery to it.

Listening to “A Spirit Redeemed to the Sun,” it sounds almost relieved.

Yeah. Yeah, for sure. I agree. I’m at the best point of my life right now for the most part, so I think that shows in the record. But I still struggle a lot. I think that shows on the record too.

We already went down the list of things coming out this year, but between that and the looming specter of whether Shrinebuilder is going to happen or not, is it ever frustrating to be committed in one moment to one project or another? If you’re writing for Neurosis, are you ever thinking about doing something like this or vice versa?

Nah, it’s not frustrating at all. If the well goes dry, songs’ll stop coming it. But it just hasn’t. It’s endless, the shit that comes out of me. I pick up a guitar and I start writing songs. That’s just what happens. At this point, I need all these outlets just to keep my head right.

Scott Kelly’s website

Neurot Recordings

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One Response to “Scott Kelly Interview: Mapping the Road Home”

  1. goAt says:

    “I don’t even know if there’ll be another Shrinebuilder record.”


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