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

Posted in Features on October 26th, 2012 by H.P. Taskmaster

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.

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Wino Wednesday: Exclusive Track Premiere of “Nothing” from Townes Van Zandt Tribute 3-Way Split with Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till

Posted in audiObelisk on May 30th, 2012 by H.P. Taskmaster

Happy Wino Wednesday
Come June 12, the good souls at Neurot Recordings will release a three-way split CD tribute to Townes Van Zandt that features none other than Scott “Wino” Weinrich alongside Neurosis vocalist/guitarists Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till. The Nashville singer-songwriter’s melancholic minimalism has had an impact on all three players’ solo outings, perhaps least of all Wino‘s Adrift, though given that he added a version of “Highway Kind” from Van Zandt‘s 1972 album High, Low and in Between, one imagines that will change when he does his next acoustic album. When Wino toured with Scott Kelly in early 2011 in support of Adrift, the two covered Van Zandt both individually and together (Kelly does a version of “Tecumseh Valley” here, which he played on that tour as well), and I seem to recall Wino crediting Kelly with having introduced him to Van Zandt‘s work in the first place.

So the ties are there both between Wino and the material and Wino and these players. Von Till‘s own excellent solo acoustic work derives heavily from Van Zandt‘s and he covered “Spider” on his 2008 offering, A Grave is a Grim Horse, so couple that with Kelly being a bandmate of Wino‘s in Shrinebuilder, and all three of them having performed Van Zandt material in the past, and a release like Songs of Townes Van Zandt seems almost inevitable, something like the culmination — or at very least the solidifying — on an appreciation that has played out for several years already. The song “Nothing” appeared as “Nothin'” on 1971’s Delta Momma Blues and subsequently on the posthumously-released Absolutely Nothing, and has a haunting melody as delivered by Wino that more than earns the ‘g’ on the end of the word.

I’m honored today to premiere “Nothing” from Songs of Townes Van Zandt as performed by Wino. You’ll find it on the player below, followed by some context from Neurot about the release. Please enjoy and have a happy Wino Wednesday:

Here is the Music Player. You need to installl flash player to show this cool thing!

Townes Van Zandt never reached significant fame during his lifetime. Although highly respected by his peers and other songwriters, the mood and atmosphere of his music, coupled with his sometimes dark and sarcastic nature, was not suitable for the commercial country-industry of Nashville.

Van Zandt’s songs did, however, reach popularity in his day through artists such as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris. Within his circle of outsider singer-songwriters, he was adored, though ultimately depression and alcoholism overshadowed his life. Van Zandt’s friend, singer Steve Earle, has been quoted as saying, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”

Van Zandt passed away in 1997, and the fact that artists as diverse as Robert Plant, Mudhoney, Norah Jones, Lyle Lovett and Dylan himself have kept his songs alive and vital is a testament to the influence and impact of his music.

So now do Steve Von Till, Scott Kelly and Wino stand and sing his tribute, each focusing on the essence of Van Zandt’s music and lyrics in his own personal way. The result is a great homage, whose intensity lies in fragility and elementary human truths. Van Zandt’s brokenhearted love songs and gloom-ridden tales are most deserving of this tribute and praise.

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U.S. Christmas, Minsk and Harvestman Meet the Master of the Universe

Posted in Reviews on May 14th, 2010 by H.P. Taskmaster

If you’re wondering what might motivate three of thinky-thinky metal’s most luminous outfits – Steve Von Till’s Harvestman, Minsk and U.S. Christmas – to come together and put out a three-way split of 11 Hawkwind covers, the answer seems blindingly obvious: They all really like Hawkwind. Duh.

And with good reason, since that British band, who last year celebrated their 40th anniversary, are more or less the foundation on which multiple generations of space rock have been built and have had an unprecedented, unequaled influence on sonic psychedelia. Hell, I can’t even get through a space rock review without mentioning Hawkwind at least once. Why would Harvestman, Minsk and U.S. Christmas want to tribute to Hawkwind? Maybe the more appropriate question is “What took so long?”

What makes Neurot’s Hawkwind Triad unique, at least in a “Hey, we did something different” kind of way, is that the 11 tracks – divided four, four and three to U.S. Christmas, Harvestman and Minsk, respectively – aren’t divided by band. The Hawkwind Triad opens with U.S. Christmas, then follows with Harvestman, then Minsk, and so on, with no band ever having two tracks in a row (and Minsk bowing out after track seven) until the end of the album. The idea is that it should flow like a record instead of a three-way split, and it works in some spots better than others. But since they’re presenting the tracks in such a way as to mesh the three groups, I thought it might be fun to break them back up for a band-by-band review (the “prick” impulse strikes again). Observe:

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Harvestman Interview with Steve Von Till: Lashing the Dark

Posted in Features on September 1st, 2009 by H.P. Taskmaster

In the woods.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.

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Listening to Harvestman in the Dark

Posted in Reviews on July 17th, 2009 by H.P. Taskmaster

Hey ladies, who wants to go to the big antler pagan woods thing? Yeah, I thought so.If the creative purpose behind Neurosis is a distillation and that of the solo material guitarist/vocalist Steve Von Till releases under his own name is a reverential composition, then the noise-laden drone and effects of Harvestman can really only be a deconstruction. Though the songs on the second Harvestman outing, In a Dark Tongue, aren’t completely obliterated — elemental, often simple melodies remain in many of the tracks, delivered via acoustic or electric guitar — the rye is well lashed and it is plain to see the experimental vision is the driving force of the project. Armed with a home studio, The Crow’s Nest, Von Till is free to fill out these songs with multiple layers and sounds, balancing the creation and destruction against each other.

Don’t be mistaken, this isn’t outwardly violent music. The closest Harvestman comes to straightforward songwriting is probably the 13-minute “By Wind and Sun,” and though Von Till is joined by what’s essentially a full band behind him, the brand of “heaviness” the song presents is more like a Tee Pee Records-style psychedelic drone jam than anything as crushing as Neurosis. Not a complaint. Of the many experiments on In a Dark Tongue, most seem to be setting instrumentation and loops and modulations and manipulations in opposing positions, and with the hypnotic repetition of “By Wind and Sun,” everything becomes intertwined. At the same time, the contrast in “Karlsteine” between the Appalachian dulcimer and the noises and guitar wails that eventually eat it alive is a big part of what makes the song such an interesting listen.

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