Tours, Serenity and Beat Poetry: Inside the Legacy of Neurosis with Steve Von Till

This piece is taken from our fifth print issue, available here

“Expect nothing, give everything,” the words of Neurosis guitarist, vocalist, and lyricist Steve Von Till when asked what wisdom he would give to those looking to dedicate their life to music. He’s well placed to advise. Since joining the Californian post-metal progenitors in 1989 (four years after their founding) he has spent thirty years creating some of the most important and influential music in the history of rock’n’roll. 

But did he and his bandmates ever expect to still be making music together three decades on? “We knew it was a lifetime commitment. I don’t know if we ever contemplated the future other than that we would continue to push our limits sonically,” he explains. “We were just teenage punk rockers and we had no idea what the external parts of music would have for us, we just knew that together we were committed to expressing ourselves with this sound. But we knew we were committed to evolving and going further than we could possibly imagine at that time. Not with any sort of popularity or renown in mind, just sound.” 

Exploration of sound was the only long term goal that the band could imagine; they simply wanted to follow in the footsteps of those who inspired them. “We just wanted to follow the lessons we learned from our heroes and that was to find your own voice, and to do it with passion. Our own voice is extremely difficult, and not very friendly – it’s not very easy listening. Even in moments when it is beautiful and melodic, taking it as a whole, it’s difficult music, it’s very much something that requires attention from the listener that people don’t always want to give.” When asked if he believes Neurosis to be influential, to have earned their place on the pedestal they’re so often put upon, Von Till is characteristically humble. “The fact that anybody else actually likes our strange intense music is sometimes mind blowing to me,” he says. “And of course a great honour if people have found it to be inspirational. And I hope that we would be inspirational in the same ways that our heroes were and that it inspires other people to find a creative voice.”

Thirty years may not seem like a long tenure when bands like Black Sabbath, The Rolling Stones and King Crimson are still touring (in one form or another) whilst knocking on half a century, but Von Till has a take that puts Neurosis’ longevity into firm perspective. “I was tripping out on that aspect the other day in that ‘when did rock ‘n’ roll officially start?’ What’s the start date of people playing electric guitars? I want to say it’s ‘50s. If it’s been around for sixty-something years then we’ve existed for more than half the life of rock’n’roll. And that’s weird.” 

It’s an idea that seems to be shared among the band. “A few years ago Jason [Roeder, drums] sent a random email, and he’s not the most talkative man, but he sent an email out of nowhere that said ‘we are officially older now than Black Sabbath were when we toured with them’. And we looked at that, because we thought of them as super old by that time – they’d already been broken up and reborn a couple of times. So we looked up their birth dates and sure enough we were older than they were when we were touring with them. And that didn’t make any sense, it didn’t even seem right.” Von Till believes that their origins in the hardcore punk scene may explain their durability: “Maybe that’s an influence of the DIY punk movement. Just people doing it for different reasons and not expecting fame and fortune, so when people are around longer they’ll just naturally have more of an influence on other people.”

In a society where attention spans are dwindling, where culture itself is geared around disposability, and novelty is valued above origination, does Von Till believe we’ve seen the end of what he deems ‘lifers’ – bands who endure? “It’s hard to say because we grew up in a very specific time,” he begins. “And people will never have that same moment that we had. So I assume there are new generations of people getting turned on to it. There are still young people coming out to shows, I mean our audience is definitely older, but there are young heavy bands out there still doing it. For example; Full Of Hell. They’re seemingly very young dudes, and they exist in the same extended scene that we exist in, and you can tell right from the gate that those guys are lifers. I think it will never end.”

Perhaps one of the biggest factors in Neurosis’ enduring presence and stature is their continuing commitment to touring, evidenced by their string of European and American tour dates arranged throughout 2019. Their attitude to live shows and international dates is firmly rooted in their younger DIY punk days, and getting older hasn’t taken the shine off life on the road. “Honestly, at this point in my life I look forward to it immensely, like it’s almost a vacation.” Von Till explains. “Even though it’s hard travel, who the hell gets to do that? I get to go on a bus with my friends… even the fact we have a bus instead of a van now, y’know?” he laughs. “To get to go to almost twenty cities in Europe, it’s incredible. We don’t live near each other so one thing we don’t do is rehearse. We’ve done several tours in the last five or six years where we haven’t rehearsed at all. But this time, because we’re getting older and have had a couple of sketchy moments on our first shows the last few years, we’re going to do one full day of rehearsal in Italy.”

The physical distance between the band members isn’t the only potential logistical complication when it comes to bringing their music to fans – each of them is involved in a slew of side and solo projects, with Von Till himself putting out solo work under his own name and the Harvestman moniker, as well as his career as a school teacher. Nevertheless, the band remains their priority. “Neurosis is always number one,” the guitarist tells us. “The core of everything we’ve done our entire adult life and the reason we even have these other projects is because of Neurosis. It is the priority. But if we’re free to do other things when other people are busy, then yeah, we like to express ourselves in other ways. It’s more difficult to find time where we all have the same time off from our other commitments. We have jobs and families and other projects so finding a time where it all works together is the difficult part. Everything else I consider a blessing, even if it was in a van, I just love getting out there and making this music. In hindsight it’s a real blessing that we’ve found this really original sound to be able to tap into.”

The support lined up with their European tour dates is the stuff of niche metal dreams; Portland’s psych-doom darlings YOB, San Franciscan riff machines Kowloon Walled City, and for two UK dates industrial icons Godflesh. “We absolutely want to make things as awesome as possible for ourselves. We want to tour with people that we like, that we enjoy, that we want to hear every night, that we enjoy hanging around with,” says Steve of their approach to arranging support. “YOB and Kowloon Walled City have both put out records on Neurot Recordings, our own label, and they’re all friends. And so that just sounds like an awesome time. And Godflesh, we’ve been harassing them for years just because we love them so much. They’re just great people to be around. Being around about the same amount of time, they had a huge impact on heavy music, I know that they changed it for us. When [1989’s] Streetcleaner came out we still hadn’t quite found our bigger, apocalyptic sound. And hearing Streetcleaner was a motherfucker, it was like ‘holy shit where did this come from?’ They were a huge influence and we’ll always be grateful to them for finding their original voice and inspiring us as well.” 

With over thirty years and eleven full-length’s worth of material to select from, building a headlining setlist may seem like a daunting task, but for Von Till and Neurosis it seems to be almost as simple as sticking to the cliché ‘out with the old, in with the new’. “It’s definitely heavy on newer material, almost always. Most of the old songs feel like they have a lifespan, and most of them are pretty dead,” Von Till admits. “After our 30th anniversary tour we bought back a couple from Souls At Zero, Enemy Of The Sun and Through Silver In Blood that stuck around for a minute. But after playing them a few dozen more times it was ‘alright, let’s bury those. Let’s put those back in the grave where they belong’. I don’t know if we’ll be dipping back any further than Times Of Grace in this run. Dipping back ten years should be enough… wait, twenty! Twenty years. Sorry, lost a decade there,” he laughs.

Inevitably when a band and their music reach a level of acclaim and respect, fans will gravitate towards particular songs that become favourites, that they feel “must” be played to have had the full experience of having seen a band, that it would be simple heresy not to include in a set. Does Steve feel like there are tracks fans expect Neurosis to play night in night out, to risk disappointment if they don’t include them? For lack of a closer example, their ‘Ace Of Spades’? “I wish we had an ‘Ace Of Spades’! We don’t ever consider the audience in what we want to play,” Von Till says, before going on to describe what for other bands would seem like an aloof admission. “It’s definitely not fan-based music, it’s super self-centred and super personal. The thought behind it being that we want it to be authentic, and if we don’t feel inspired to play anything then it wouldn’t be authentic. We all heard how Lemmy felt about having to play fucking ‘Ace Of Spades’ all the time. But he was a true entertainer and an old school rock’n’roller and he’d always deliver. We’re not that nice. For us to be authentic we have to be able to feel it and to lose ourselves in it, otherwise it’s disingenuous, and I think our fans know that about our music and appreciate that.”

Interestingly for a band so adamant to relentlessly move forward, to constantly evolve and expand their sonic horizon, the last few years have seen CD and vinyl reissues of their first two records, Pain Of Mind and The Word As Law. What was the reasoning behind these reissues of their earliest material? “Mostly just to honour our past and our history and where we came from,” Von Till clarifies. “Of course the resurgence in vinyl and love for vinyl – as a record collector I really get into that – and to make things available for people who might have missed out on those back in the day. Because, shit, those were a long fucking time ago and haven’t been on vinyl for a long time.” 

So, for Von Till, Is there a sense that their older works hold up to the lofty standards of the latter day? “They don’t hold up to later Neurosis. We honestly feel like our best record is Fires Within Fires, and perhaps our best music is still ahead of us. I like those records and I feel grateful for them but just like Souls At Zero or Enemy Of The Sun or Through Silver In Blood I feel that they’re representative of a time for us. And we want to keep evolving and growing and never to be a retro rehash.”

Although their abilities to weave world-striding riffs as well as delicate, fragile melodies and expanded instrumentation into expansive and seamless sonic terrain is what has won them such veneration, Neurosis’ lyrics are as considered and individualist as their music. Richly symbolic, with an air of beat poetry and naked literary weight in their seeming inscrutability, the band utilise this inimitable style only after the music is written. “The music always comes first,” Von Till tells us. “So a lot of times you’re hearing the music and listening to it over and over again and you’re listening for… it’s like trying to hear voices in the wind, you hear voices through the trees and it’s a case of ‘what is that saying? The songs will occasionally have a specific meditation, but we never feel like exposing our personal lives literally. Everything is always cloaked in metaphor – everything is always hidden. We use a lot of nature as a metaphor for the human experience, which may be a trap by this point, we’re pretty stuck in it. But what’s vaster than the ocean or space, what’s more solid than stone or rock, what’s more visceral than sweat and blood? So we keep coming back around to these ideas, and what we’ve always done is contemplated the human experience and what it’s like to be thinking, feeling human beings in this world of confusion and distraction.”

For a band with a constant hunger to move forward, to develop and renew using their years-honed tools, inevitably the question of ‘when’ is asked – when can we expect new music? Three years have passed since the band released Fires Within Fires, and conventional expectation is of an album cycle that lasts two to three years. But Neurosis are not a conventional band, and they will be held to no rule but their own, as Von Till expands on: “We don’t put any sort of time frame on what we do. After our 30th anniversary shows, which we actually postponed because Fires Within Fires just came out of nowhere and kind of presented itself to us over the course of two weekends, we did get together after that whole year transpired. We did our 30th anniversary shows, we released Fires Within Fires, we played all these great shows, and then we did get together over the winter near my house in a small cabin in the snow and we jammed, wondering if we would be gifted another record from the universe automatically, and that didn’t happen. We got some interesting sonic landscapes but we didn’t get any meat and potatoes. We haven’t really been together creatively since then, all our time together has been playing shows. We don’t have any specific plans or timelines nor do we feel any pressure to make any other than when it feels like it’s boiling over, then we’ll release it.” One can take solace in an open-ended wait using Von Till’s own words; expect nothing, and hopefully in time, we will be given everything. 

Words: Jay Hampshire

Header design: Callum Jeanes

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