Neurosis Interview with Steve Von Till: “We’re a Chaos Process”

Talking to Neurosis is always an educational experience. This time, in conversation with guitarist/vocalist Steve Von Till, I learned that the processes by which the band makes records — specifically, the process that resulted in their latest album, Honor Found in Decay (review here) — isn’t as clean as one might think. Von Till calls it a “chaos process,” and that’s as apt a descriptor as I can come up with going by his recounting of how it all works. Where my impulse in listening to songs like “We all Rage in Gold” and “Bleeding the Pigs” is to hear either Von Till or fellow guitarist/vocalist Scott Kelly (recent interview here) at the fore and assume that whoever’s taking the lead at the moment wrote that song or that part, that’s not necessarily the case. Von Till stresses the group, the collective, and in the end, the search for or the need to put a structural idea to it says more about the listener than the band, who apparently are compelled to no such thing.

Still, there are practical considerations. A Neurosis album doesn’t just happen to take shape out of some foggy ether — if it did, Honor Found in Decay probably would’ve followed much sooner on the heels of 2007’s Given to the Rising. It’s a gritty, emotional process and gritty, emotional music, but it takes a tremendous amount of back and forth to put together, and with members spread as far out as Idaho, Oregon and California’s Bay Area, it’s not like they can all get together in a rehearsal space three times a week and collaborate. Small groups meet, ideas are emailed back and forth, but when it comes to actually being in the same room at the same time, Von Till puts it bluntly: “Couple times a year.”

In that context, Honor Found in Decay is all the more striking. Of course, the full band — Von Till, Kelly, bassist Dave Edwardson, drummer Jason Roeder and keyboardist/sampler Noah Landis – came together to finalize the album’s seven component tracks before entering the studio with Steve Albini at the helm as engineer for the fifth time. But even so, as much as some acts agonize and argue over parts and what should go where and how many times, Neurosis in their 27th year as a band make the most of their limited hours and days together, resulting in material that’s not only characteristic of what they do or what their style is, but advances their aesthetic further, smoothing out the transitions and contrasts between heavy riffing and sparse ambience, allowing room for melodies to flourish in deconstructed atmospheres and a pervasive sense of darkness.

Von Till discusses it as well, but in that particularly, Landis is more integral to Honor Found in Decay than he’s ever been to a Neurosis album. Both Given to the Rising and its predecessor, 2004’s The Eye of Every Storm gave hints of the depths of Landis‘ contributions, but with the new record, his manipulations are every bit as essential as the guitars, bass or drums, and it’s important to understand that these things aren’t plotted in the sense of Kelly or Von Till stepping back and saying, “Alright, now we’re gonna do this with the sampler.” It’s what comes out of that chaos process, that collaboration with the whole band, it’s no different for Landis than it is for anyone else in Neurosis.

In the interview that follows, Von Till talks about putting the album together, from the songwriting to the concepts behind the Josh Graham cover art, the continued relationship with Albini, the contrast between the tension of pummeling churn and open musical spaces, the prospects for live shows in the coming months to support the record, his Harvestman and solo projects, the growth of the band’s label, Neurot Recordings, and much more.

The complete 4,400-word Q&A is after the jump. Please enjoy.

With a five-year split between records, when did you actually start writing for Honor Found in Decay?

Some of the seeds of the pieces could go back to the tail end of the Given to the Rising period. We don’t really ever… We’re a chaos process. We don’t really have a determined time where we go, “Okay, now we’re writing a new album.” We’re always thinking of music and throwing ideas around, and it’s just how they take shape that changes and is never the same. But it’s always in mind. There’s not a set moment where we decide, “Okay, now we’re writing.” Some of these pieces definitely have their roots from five years ago, and they just hadn’t taken shape or revealed themselves, so we kept tearing them apart and rebuilding them until they took shape, and others over the last couple years. In a lot of the interviews I’ve been doing, people ask why such a long time, and from one perspective, it doesn’t feel that long to us, actually. I don’t know if time is moving different because we’re older and we’ve been together 27 years. It doesn’t seem like that long ago when we were releasing Given to the Rising, so maybe time is speeding up. But, for us, our greatest limitation is time together. We live pretty far apart from each other. We all work dayjobs and have families, and finding the same periods of time to work on music is sparse and limited. We chose to use a lot of that time after Given to the Rising to travel and play concerts, and play shows – more than we had in the seven years previous. That ate up a lot of the time, and after we even had the material together, it was six months before we could find a week in the same place together to be able to record it.

Does everyone being so spread out effect how the songs come together, other than timing-wise?

Well, throughout our entire history, there’s always been one or two of us living quite far from the others. It’s really nothing new for us, and the process – like I said, we don’t have a set process – there’s no way that it comes together. It’s always changing. Obviously, the technology in the last few years has changed the way that we can communicate. We can meet each other when we’re rehearsing for some concerts and throw some ideas out there, and just kind of do a lo-fi recording of our rehearsal, and I’ll take it home and meditate on it, think about our individual contributions, and flow and arrangement and what works and what doesn’t, and communicate over the phone or via email and we can even overdub on stuff in our home studio gear and send it around, get feedback so that the next time we’re actually all in the same room, we’ve actually advanced all the ideas a couple levels, rather than just letting them set. We also get together in smaller groups, groups of two or three, and work on specific angles or specific parts or individual pieces, and take them back to the whole group and flesh them out. Nothing really reveals itself until we’re playing all together in a room and it becomes organic and naturally flowing. But we’ve been together so long, we have an intuitive nature of what each other is going to bring to the table, so we can advance things pretty far working in small groups before we all can get together again.

How often are you guys actually in the same room?

Couple times a year.

Is that mostly for shows? Is there any writing done together?

Oh yeah. Before we could record, we had to be together. We wanted to make sure it was ready, so we got together for two weekends in a row. Some people were together for the whole week and those of us far away came in on the weekends, and we did some travel sessions just for writing, and some travel sessions just rehearsing. Rehearsing for gigs usually only takes running through the set once. Then we have the rest of the day or the weekend to shoot ideas around.

That’s awesome, rehearsing for the gig is playing the set once through. I’m used to hearing, “Oh yeah, we rehearse seven hours and the set is 30 minutes.” I like your approach.

(Laughs) Yeah. Run through once, and if there’s any problem spots, you can visit it. But most of the time, we’ve done our homework and we’re ready.

Does being so far apart put a different kind of pressure on you to make the most of it when you’re together like that?

It definitely enhances how precious it is and how special it is. When you’re away from it so much and then you’re in a room with your brothers that you’ve shared a very unique life with and making music – especially music of this emotional content and release – it’s how we make sense of the world. It’s part of how we stay sane, or connected in some way with what is real and important.

And at the same time, being far apart, it’s kind of allowed you guys to flourish in your own processes, right? The solo stuff, Harvestman, that kind of thing in your home studio, separate from the band.

Yeah, well I think those things would happen regardless of geography. Those expressions, they just kind of demand their own release and expression. I think that would happen regardless. But it does offer new and exciting ways of looking at stuff. Looking back in time, you can look at how much time people waste fucking around. Where we’ve got half a day together, we need to make sure we make the best of it, don’t screw around with it, don’t waste it with petty bullshit.

Has working on your own affected how you write? Did you always write material separate from everyone and bring it to the band? I know you’re saying there’s not a set process, but in general, are you more comfortable writing on your own and contributing?

That’s hard to say, because the ideas aren’t fully developed by any individual ever. You can get a riff, or a series of riffs, or imagine a vibe, but you can’t predict the rhythmic content, the things beyond the guitars that will take shape, and the… None of the ideas that we ever come up with as individuals can even come close to resembling what they are like through the group process. Yeah, we can work on stuff independently and alone, as far as our individual contribution or the quality of some initial riffs, or the sequence and the flow, trying to channel the spirit of where our music comes from, but it really does take getting it all to the group and giving it life. Life isn’t breathed into it until the group process. It’s always kind of square and abstract before that.

You mentioned some of the songs were started around Given to the Rising. Which ones, if you remember?

Ah, I can’t remember. I mean, yeah, I can’t remember. It wasn’t entire pieces. It was pieces of pieces. Because they were destroyed and rebuilt. I think some of “Bleedings the Pigs” and “All is Found in Time” come from that era. A couple songs weren’t from that era, but took shape pretty completely a couple years back. We were actually playing those summer before last live – “At the Well” and “Raise the Dawn.” Those we were playing live last year, almost as they appear on the record. Pretty damn close.

I wanted to ask about “Bleeding the Pigs.” The middle track, it stood out to me. How did that one come together?

The part of it that came together for that song was the entire intro section, the entire piece before it starts moving, and moving in a more cyclical manner. The whole intro came almost as its own piece, and I just remember that it was channeling something pretty dark and disturbing in that beginning, that really gave the rest of it – which had been sitting around for a while – meaning. It gave it a contrast which gave it life, I think.

So it was two separate pieces?

Kind of. The second two-thirds of it had existed as its own piece, almost, that we were not happy with because it just wasn’t complete. And then there was this kind of revelation as to this way of building to it, this way of giving it a place and a time and an emotional backdrop that made sense. That’s the way things happen sometimes. You have no idea how they’re gonna work out and some things never do work out. Some things just disappear and weren’t meant to be. Other things find new ways of rising out of the ashes.

I think some of the most powerful moments on the album are those quieter, still, moments, to go along the lines of the movement you were talking about. I guess that contrast is what stood that song out to me, so it’s interesting you say the song wasn’t done until that part came about.

Yeah, and I would agree with you. I think some of my favorite parts on this record are the more subdued energy parts, whether they be kind of beautiful or haunting or whathaveyou. I think that’s something we’ve definitely improved with age. Obviously our strength is being able to crush with a riff, but we don’t want to have to rely on that. It seems cheap to come and only have one strength, so rather than rely on that, we use that to push into these new places, and one thing I think we have developed more over the years – we’ve always had whatever, quiet and subdued parts and juxtaposing noise and harmony and brutality with beauty – but I think we’ve integrated it now in a way that makes it more seamless and less jumpy and having a more organic flow. Part of that reason is because we’ve learned how to craft those parts and develop those parts in a more mature and enduring way. I think not only by developing more of a range of expressing ourselves vocally with those parts, but Noah’s ability with the sampler and the keyboard, to embellish those parts has just gone off the charts with this new record I think. I don’t think people even realize what they’re hearing half the time. They probably think there’s some other musician coming in and dumping a part in or something, but he takes these organic sounds which he captures from various sources – sometimes it’s the rehearsal room, things going on in the room, sometimes it’s other natural instruments – but he twists and morphs them into something where you would never recognize the original source. Not only that, but they’re not the typical kind of push-the-button-and-trigger-the-sample. He crafts them into instruments that he can play expressively and not just feel like a button-pusher. He’s an integral musician in the creation of the melodies and the textures. It’s pretty incredible, I think. Some of my favorite parts on the record are when his parts – not to get off-topic, but to follow that train of thought – when his parts come out of the wall of sound at the forefront and really take the riff to an entirely different place than it would’ve been without his sound. I’ve seen the funniest shit in reviews already, where people swear there’s bagpipes and some other shit on there [that was me, but I didn’t swear it. – ed.]. I know there’s no bagpipes on there (laughs). I can’t tell you where all the sounds originated from. I’m sure there’s some mutated strings and mutated reeds of some sort, but it doesn’t matter what they are. What they became was a new instrument, a new organic-feeling sound source.

It was “At the Well” with the bagpipes. Or not-bagpipes.

(Laughs) It was something.

Yeah, it certainly was. Has there been any change to recording with Steve Albini? Is how that happens all ritual at this point? Is it different each time?

It’s pretty ritual. It’s pretty no-nonsense. That’s why we’ve been repeating it. Before we started recording with him, we honestly didn’t have a lot of experience in the studio. We’d had mixed experiences of different types and learning the ropes, and we fell victim to a lot of what… Musicians get stupid ideas about how they should be making records, I think. About the actual production and creation of the recording. But think of what they spend all their time doing: rehearsing as a band in a room together to sound killer. So that is really the way that it should be recorded, I think. There are some styles of music that benefit from studio fuckery, and I love using the studio as an instrument for bizarre shit like Harvestman or Tribes of Neurot and just destroying a sound source for the sake of something else, but with Neurosis, we spend a lot of time to make sure that the songs are good and that we know we’ve been working on our tones for a long time, we like our tones. Jason’s an incredible drummer with an incredible drum sound. Noah’s stuff is played live exactly as we play it on the record, and all the layers are there all the time. It’s not this weird studio craft, so we really just want to set up in a room and play and get it done. We don’t want to tweak around. You hear these stories of bands recording an album, and it’s a dude sitting on a couch with a guitar in his hand putting down his parts, and it’s complete bullshit, I think. Get in the fucking room and play your fucking shit. Be a band. That’s how our favorite records from the ‘70s were done. You’ve got a band, play it together. Sure, nothing wrong with some creative overdubs, if you want to. We tend not to, maybe one or two. With Steve Albini, we know we can set up our stuff and start doing final tracks within hours. We don’t even have to go in the control room and check. We know that because of his extreme experience with his studio and his gear – literally there’s no replacement for doing thousands of albums – literally, thousands of albums – I know my guitar is going to sound like my guitar when I go in there. It’s going to sound light a high-fidelity analog recording of my guitar. And it’s the same with everybody. It’s going to sound like us playing in a killer room, a killer-sounding room. Our instruments in a nice-sounding room. We bust it out, we put the vocals on, we mix the thing. There’s not a lot of tricks, there’s no gimmicks, there’s no fixing stuff later. There’s none of that.

It’s a live band.

It’s a live band. Not only that, but I think it’s the highest-fidelity, the most pleasing-to-the-ear sound you can get, is a band playing together with the tones captured naturally and organically, and everything is as it is, with the warts and all. Some of my favorite – even moments from albums probably would never happen with modern recording techniques, because people would’ve perfected them and erased these little human things that I think are ear candy.

Like the drummer, yeah.

Or a strange burst of feedback. A wrong note that was just completely right. All of those things. A choked line. Things that have more human expression.

Was there anything different about this record than doing Given to the Rising? Anything specific you wanted to do in the studio that you remembered from last time or anything in particular you were trying to bring to this process?

No. I think the recording process is pretty straight. Pretty no-nonsense. We go in ready to do our thing, and he’s ready to capture it.

How long were you actually in there?

This time it was a luxurious and expansive 10 days. Given to the Rising we did in six. This one at 10, it felt pretty luxurious. But we couldn’t actually all be together for a week, so we decided that we were just gonna break it up into two chunks and track at a mellow pace for the first session and just go mix it for the second one. 10 days we could actually do things like have a dinner break or whatever.

About the artwork. Did you guys give Josh any direction, or did he just make the cover happen?

That definitely came from a group discussion. One thing we all wanted to do, once we started talking about it, we didn’t want any Photoshop manipulation. We wanted things to be in-camera. If we were gonna use photos, we wanted it to be all natural, all captured in-camera with natural lighting. No Photoshop shit. It’s just way too done. And it started from a symbol, a symbol that wound up being created with actual arrows. That was a symbol that was bounced around. Scott presented it from a book of symbols he had. I remembered we already used it on a Tribes of Neurot flyer probably in ’97, and basically, the three arrows bound together, it looks quite runic. We’re not sure of the origin, but its meaning is gleaned as the strength of the whole is greater than the individual. The unity will bring about greater strength. Obviously that’s true with our band, and so we thought it would be a good, simple, image that we could approach a million different ways for the coming years centered around this record. And we started talking about the photographs themselves, and we remembered that a friend of ours who booked some solo shows for Scott and I in Slovakia is also an archeologist, and he had gifted both Scott and I separately some actual, archeological arrowheads, which were thousands of years old from that area. So we instantly thought, “Okay, we can bind these onto shafts and bind them together to form this symbol,” and having actual artifacts, even though it’s impossible to say whether the energy will transfer through a photograph, we felt better knowing it was real, that they actually are ancient pieces. We started brainstorming. What do we want? We want a space, an environment. We didn’t want to speak to what it was going to be, except that someone was obviously living and occupying this isolated space, where they were obsessing on writings and photographs, or meditating on them, it’s a fine line, you’re not sure. Writing their own. Our lyrics were actually transferred onto pieces of paper torn out of old books, antique books, to kind be present in the photograph as part of the natural environment of the space. So this person’s obviously obsessing, they’re meditating, they’re giving their own spiritual offerings. There’s also painted elk jawbones holding up the arrows, and ashes of burnt offerings, but you’re not sure what all this is. The only thing you are sure of is it’s an intensely personal, almost claustrophobic space where this person is going through the gamut of emotional release or transformation, or obsession, or meditation. Despite the isolation, they obviously need to communicate with the outside world, which is emphasized by the vintage communication equipment in there as well. So you have this strange irony, which is kind of the irony of our band – I don’t know if “irony” is the right word – we’ll have to just ask Roget later. This is intensely personal music to us. This is our self-expression. We really don’t allow any outside influence to sway us one way or another, whether it be the expectations of fans, or the industry – even though we’re completely outside of the industry, people do seem to bow to the expectations of underground music, for whatever reason I can’t understand – the expectations of anything. The expectations of business, of finance. The expectations of our past work. We can’t let any of that influence the fact that this is our personal self-expression. This is the way that we cope with being human beings in this world and our way of trying to find something real and meaningful. It really doesn’t matter whether anybody likes it or not. Now, the juxtaposition there is that obviously we have some desire or need or drive to put it in public. We don’t just make it for ourselves, make our own recording and take it home. We do throw it out there in the public, and so despite the fact that we are having this intensely personal experience with our music, we feel this drive to throw it out there in the music. I think that’s kind of reflected into it as well, and I think that whole vibe of obsession, or meditation, or offerings, with the writings and the photographs and the electronics, and the spiritual totems, and the way the photographs are taken, and the way it doesn’t tell an exact story, it just hints at things – I think it’s a perfect visual space for people to trip on while they’re listening to the album. Kind of in the classic album sense, where you’re listening to the album and you’re reading the lyrics and you’re looking at the nice big gatefold, you know? Obviously most people’ll be doing this on a CD booklet or no booklet at all, listening to shitty mp3s, but that’s beside the point.

They can get the hi-res jpeg and be good to go.

(Laughs) Yeah… It’s virtually the real thing.

I know you’re doing Oakland and London, both killer shows, my god man. Are there any other plans for gigs in the foreseeable future?

We’re making plans. Nothing to announce, but we definitely want to – December, January and February, we’re going to try to hit at least six other cities in the United States, I think. We’re never getting in the tour bus and touring American and playing Salt Lake City on a Monday night ever again, but we will try to hit New York, Atlanta, Chicago, L.A., Portland or Seattle, maybe Philly, something like that. Denver. Just a few choice spots and maybe a couple we haven’t been to in a long time. It’s gonna be limited and then hopefully we’ll be able to do our usual of finding the same time off work int eh summer to be able to do a couple weeks [in Europe].

What about solo stuff? Will you do another Harvestman? Anything in the works for another solo album?

Yeah, I’ve been working on solo songs for probably the last year or so. They come together slow. I haven’t sat down and intensely worked on them or finished them up, but there’s definitely an album taking shape as well as some Harvestman material. I’ve even toyed with the idea of combining them somehow, but I won’t really know until I start putting them down. Right now I’m kind of keeping things in the pure song form. The solo pure songs are sitting on their own, and the experimental guitar weirdness is off and in its corner, but I did some shows where I combined the two and alternated the energy between those two projects. It was pretty satisfying, so I thought about trying to approach it that way, but I won’t know until I dig in.

In terms of how Neurot has grown, can you talk about what it means to be bringing in bands like Amenra and Ufomammut, and using the label as a way of exposing people to these bands and aligning these bands to that cause?

It’s been a big learning process. In the beginning, we only started this label for ourselves. We started it to make sure we had a home that wholly belonged to us. We had both positive and negative experiences on other labels, even in the independent world, and we learned from both. We just thought that maybe in the more traditional craftsman sense of things that buying the art directly from the artist is in some way a purity that lends itself to the purity that we hope comes across in the making of our music and the whole concept of this form of expression. We didn’t have any great resources when we began it. We definitely didn’t have any money. All we had was friends, and a reputation, and respect for what we had done and built ourselves musically. With the help of some friends and partners, we got rolling and we decided pretty early on that we’d like to share our privileged position of being people that have a bit of a captive audience, albeit small, it’s dedicated, and perhaps we could offer a platform to help other people’s music be heard outside of their own sphere, and that kind of goes back and works both ways. When we bring in other independent artists who’ve gone out there and worked to use their own teeth and clawed at the dirt to create their own unique niche or place in music, that we can introduce them to ours, and then ours’ll be introduced to theirs, and it just helps. It helps build this small network of people. We’ve tried to work mostly with people that we know or that we have some sort of relationship with, or that we think we’ll get along with, and we just keep it realistic and keep it very grassroots and very down to earth, and barebones, and try to get people’s music that we have an affinity for and feel some sort of unspoken connection to – we would refer to it as a spiritual thing with the music, but not everybody would – but people that are making honest, emotional, intense music of some sort. Style doesn’t matter. What matters more is the emotional content and being able to find killer bands like U.S. Christmas and Ufomammut and Amenra and people that we share some sort of common ground with, it’s just been great. We’ve developed a lot of friendships over the years, put out a lot of great music. For the most part, the relationships have all been great, and it’s been pretty rewarding. It’s a constant struggle to stay alive as a small business in this world of instant gratification and wanting everything for free, but I think by keeping it real and not digging a mountain of debt, we’ve managed to survive this far, so there you go.

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One Response to “Neurosis Interview with Steve Von Till: “We’re a Chaos Process””

  1. goAt says:

    BUSTED by the BAGPIPE POLICE!!! :)

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