Steve Von Till: “I’m still chasing some sort of sonic Holy Grail that I haven’t heard yet”

Photo: Bobby Cochran

Inspiration, history and mindless creation

The study of Megalithic culture feels somewhat removed from the more investigative and academic study of history in general. So little is known about the prehistoric monuments spread across our planet that deciphering their meaning is seemingly an almost futile endeavour. They do not represent a window into the past so much as they do a certain mystical atmosphere that seems to envelop these landmarks – a reminder of the innate connection we have with ancestors who we know so little about. One of the most noteworthy spots for Megalithic researchers and enthusiasts is Straße der Megalithkultur, a 330 kilometer route through Northwest Germany that spans 33 archaeological sites and 70 Neolithic Megalithic tombs.

It was in this region that the latest solo album from Steve Von Till began to take shape, during sleepless nights in which the energy of the landscape would flow through him and emerge as simple piano chords. Sat under a warm fluorescent glow in his wood-paneled home studio in Northern Idaho back in October, a row of guitars visible over one shoulder and a stack of amps over the other, the Neurosis stalwart explains how the inspiration for his fifth solo album, No Wilderness Deep Enough, came almost entirely by accident. “It started with a trip to my wife’s parents’ house,” he tells Astral Noize over a Skype call. “They live in North Germany about a half-hour outside of Bremen and their family has been on the exact same home site for over 500 years. Like the exact same spot.”

This new landscape gave Von Till a unique perspective on his home in the US. “Being a child of the American west, I’m used to things being younger as far as from a European perspective. Obviously, if you’re an indigenous person you have a different perspective, but the buildings and the houses here, especially on the west coast, are not that old, you know? But I was there, just looking out at the fields and thinking, ‘Man, people have been tilling that soil for so long.’ It’s the opposite of where I live here where these forests and mountains are young and wild, and there it’s very tamed, back to Megalithic times.

“I was suffering from a horrible case of jet lag, couldn’t sleep, and long story short, over that course of the week of visiting, I never found sleep but I kept waking up every night in a very hallucinatory state where I felt like the energy of that landscape was kind of just flowing through me. It began as just piano chords – nothing fancy, I’m not a piano player – some very simple resonant chords and throughout that week I heard suggested melodies in the simple harmonics of those chords and started adding mellotron strings and a little bit of French horn sample, but didn’t think I was making anything.”

Von Till likens this period of creation to mindlessly watching TV or reading: “I was just up, because I couldn’t sleep”. Nevertheless, after returning home he felt compelled to revisit these recordings, processing the sounds through his analogue gear, adding reverb, delay and synthesisers.

“I didn’t know what it was,” he admits. Though there were Megalithic inspirations similar to his last album under the Harvestman moniker, the music didn’t feel right for that project. “It felt like if I plugged in a fuzz guitar, started putting some psychedelic leads on top, that would be the wrong way to go. I never thought about singing on it. I thought maybe I was starting to create a different project. It was ambient music, with the kind of leaning towards some of the neo-classical stuff I really like, although I am no composer.”

Working alone, Von Till developed it more or less into its current form, lacking only one thing – vocals. It would take some pushing from Randall Dunn, the album’s engineer and producer, before Von Till agreed to add his own vocals to the mix. “He was right,” Von Till admits. “And now the record kind of speaks to his wisdom of the moment. It’s part of the process of surrendering to the muse, not getting in your own way, just letting things happen the way they’re meant to be as the universe points them out. Randall had to be the voice of the universe in that moment and steer me in the right direction.”

Nature and the Role of Metaphor

No Wilderness Deep Enough is an album that stands out amongst Von Till’s discography, but the hallmarks of his output are certainly still there. Whether it’s Neurosis, Harvestman or his solo work, he works best when filtering his musings on life through nature metaphors and imagery. It’s something that carries over into Von Till’s other release this year, his first book of poetry and lyrics – Harvestman: Collected Lyrics and Poems. The works inside reveal a deep-seated love of nature, but Von Till’s tone of voice does not posit him as an authoritative voice on our surroundings so much as an inquisitive spectator, and as someone longing for an understanding of the world. “Bleed the stars of their righteousness / Damn their condescending gaze” read the first lines of one poem, a piece that almost resents nature as something inherently important and timeless where humans are so fleeting and insignificant. Yet this poem is not so much an attack on nature as it is a reflection on self and the philosophical questions we can’t help but ask ourselves despite them having no clear answer.

“The way I feel most comfortable revealing what’s most private and most personal is by cloaking it in natural metaphor,” Von Till explains. “It allows me to zoom in to the very details of what’s going on in my mind and my heart, and be able to zoom it back out to the existential questions of how that relates to my place as I perceive it in the universe and on the planet, and how I see humanity as a whole, struggling with those same issues and with each other and our communities.”

Nature is by his own admission the songwriter’s greatest source of inspiration, but as the above poem suggests he is not someone who claims to know it better than anyone else. “As a younger man, I had a longing for some better connection, deeper connection, with the natural world, coming from the suburbs of city life,” he says. “And then, now that I live in it, I’m still longing for a deeper connection. I moved the bell curve over a little bit, you know?”

Von Till may still be yearning for an innate connection with the powerful but intangible spirit of nature, as the title of No Wilderness Deep Enough itself suggests, but basing himself in the woods of Northern Idaho has certainly had an influence on his creative output. In many ways, the record is as much a product of the places in which it was created, from Germany to America, as it is its creator’s mind. “I’ve lived here now fifteen years and I’m more in touch with natural cycles than I ever was in California which barely has any seasons,” says Von Till. “That has to have an influence, you know? Just the peace and quiet I’ve learned to have on trips into the mountains, and time in the lakes, by rivers. Nature has its own pace and I give myself a hectic pace by just having my hands in a lot of projects always, and a full-time job and a family and a lot of responsibilities, but living here has definitely taught me to breathe in that energy and to bring it into what I have to offer… Sometimes in a city you don’t get slowed down ever. Maybe a pandemic might be teaching people how to slow down for a minute, but so does 24 inches of snow overnight where you wake up and you can’t just leave the house *laughs*. You know? You’ve got to deal with snow first. Before you do anything else, you got to go deal with it, so I appreciate that. It teaches me lessons constantly.”

As an elementary teacher by day, it’s unsurprising that Von Till puts stock in the importance of learning, whether it be by book or by emerging ourselves in the world from which we originate and yet have grown distant. “On some levels, I think some of the greatest things we struggle with as individuals and as a species come from a disconnection from the natural world,” he begins. “We are animals. We are from earth. We are children of earth. We are born of the same matter, the same particles as everything else, even the stones and the mountains and the trees. And so, I think by having that kind of split informs some sort of, I don’t know, mass psychosis, I think, and maybe soul sickness.”

Creative mystery and the meaning of art

Despite lyrics that so vividly reflect the natural world, though, the specific inspirations behind Von Till’s work are often elusive, even for their creator. It is natural for the meaning of any piece of art to be subjective, but we often assume that there is some definitive reading locked away deep within the creator’s mind somewhere. For Von Till, this is often not the case. “It’s funny, because looking back on a lifetime of creativity, sometimes I don’t even know what the songs mean,” he admits. “A lot of times when I write, they can be as mysterious to me as they can be for anybody else, and I might know what certain lines are alluding to, but the words have to serve a song and the song requires certain sounds and certain rhythms and cadence and syllables. So, sometimes it’s just a matter of translating it like some sort of secret code into what sounds right and to what feels meaningful on a gut level, even if it may not be cerebral. But then they sometimes turn out to be sort of like acts of divination where you didn’t know what they meant, but it crystallises later on, after the fact. I could be on stage or I could be observing what’s happening in the world or happening in my life and go, ‘Oh, that’s what it’s about now. Whatever it was about then, this is what it’s about for me now.’ Or other times they still remain a complete mystery, and I’m okay with that as well as part of the magic of music and poetry.”

The notion of music taking on different meanings is especially apposite given the world into which No Wilderness Deep Enough was released, one plagued by environmental catastrophe, systemic inequality and major political upheavals, not to mention the Covid-19 pandemic. No album is released into a vacuum, but it must nevertheless feel strange for an artist to see their work viewed through a lens of current events. “Sometimes things just fall right into line… they take on a significance of the moment,” Von Till tells us. “And I don’t think you have any power or control over that as an artist. Once you put something out there in the world, you have to let it go and let it be what it’s going to be, and it has a life of its own out there. I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of music and art that is not abstract to the point of meaninglessness, but within its vagueness it provides an emotional bedrock and foundation for which the listener or reader can project their own experience and have a meaningful individual emotional response to what it means for them. And I know that’s how music affects me. Sometimes I love music that’s not even in a language I understand, but the words take on a significance for me even though I don’t know what they are. I feel it on some sort of intuitive level, so I guess that’s the way I would respond to that is, if people are finding meaning in it, I just hope that it’s a positive and inspirational one for them.”

There’s certainly a hopefulness to Von Till’s music, despite its often sombre nature. After all, the saddest music is often the most comforting and cathartic, both for the listener and the songwriter. “I never really have a cerebral sit-down with myself, where I plot how I want it to sound or how I want it to be,” he explains. “That’s just kind of the music that I make, and I don’t know why. I don’t think I could write a happy pop song if I tried. Not that there’s anything wrong with those. I just don’t think that’s in my wheelhouse. My life has been for the most part blessed with positive expressions and outlets for confronting all the negativity, internally and externally. But I’m just always drawn to the catharsis of mournful, or dark or whatever it is, some sort of compelling emotion that helps me transcend it and it is often quite sad, or mournful or in other projects, maybe the sound of a super bad trip *laughs* but I find that useful. It’s self-transformation. I find that helpful for self-growth.”

Photo: Bobby Cochran

Accidental innovation

All music is informed by its creators, but it’s clear that Von Till’s music is uniquely personal, inspired first and foremost by his thoughts, worries, goals and experiences. And musically too, of course, it is the culmination of his various influences. No Wilderness Deep Enough is perhaps his most out-there yet, comprising a unique amalgamation of ambient, neo-classical and gothic Americana. Put simply, it’s another experimental release in a career defined by experimental releases. It’s perhaps no wonder why Neurosis began their trajectory from hardcore punk to avant-garde sludge after Von Till joined in 1989. Interestingly, though, No Wilderness Deep Enough doesn’t seem to be an experiment in the sense that Von Till was trying specific new sounds with the intent of innovating – the songwriting process simply took the album to unique sonic realms. 

“In my younger years, I could hear the wheels turning a little bit more,” suggests Von Till. “I could hear the specific desire to do something intellectually. And I think in all projects it’s been a process of learning to let go and let the accidents happen. Just put an instrument in your hand and see what happens. And the more things go on, the more I cherish that creative time, because I have less and less of it. I look back on my younger years and think how much time I freaking wasted just screwing around. Whereas now, if I’ve got 20 minutes, I’m like, ‘Ooh, what can I do with those 20 minutes?’. Also, not being a trained musician and not really having any kind of classic chops of any sort, I’ve got no choice but to trace weird sounds, because that’s all I’ve got.”

Perhaps a lack of any kind of proper musical training or knowledge gives Von Till a strange (if perhaps ironically limited) sense of freedom, one unbound by traditional songwriting rules or genre boundaries. I can’t sit and play along to the Led Zeppelin catalogue,” he admits earnestly. “I’d have to have somebody show me how it goes. My fingers might not do that, because I’ve just done strange stuff my entire life.”

But despite any perceived limitations, Von Till’s inspirations do shine through. As he notes himself, he is able to channel the atmosphere of the music he listens to, if not always the exact sounds and techniques. “I don’t have the chops or the skills, but I listen to a lot of acoustic folk music,” he begins. “I listen to some old Americana, Celtic and European folk music, folk music of different cultures, and I don’t know how to make any of it, but I think in some ways through my limitations, I’m able to distill the energies of it into some sort of compelling kernel to build a soundscape on. So something might reference an Americana vibe or a western vibe or a folk music vibe or on this new one where there’s not a guitar anywhere near it, it references the fact that I’ve been listening to ambient music since I was young, since first hearing Tangerine Dream or Brian Eno or listening to a lot of minimalist composers growing up.”

In fact, the more experience Von Till garners, the less he feels the need to impress with his musicianship, and the more he begins to experiment with the way melody and dissonance and the space between sounds affects a composition. “Especially the older I get, less is more,” he tells us. “Not a whole lot of notes move… Certain sounds, I think, are just part of my DNA.” Much like nature, Von Till is yearning for some elusive goal that may not truly exist. “I’m chasing some sort of sonic Holy Grail that I haven’t heard yet, whether it’s buying records or making records.”

Like the Holy Grail, perhaps the real nobility is not in the final discovery but in the pursuit itself.

The true spirit of punk

There’s something to be said for the freeing nature of figuring music creation out yourself rather than being taught the “correct” way to approach music. In fact, this is arguably what the spirit of punk really is – the idea that quite literally anyone can be an artist if you have something to say. Von Till got his start in the DIY punk scene of California, in a genre that prides itself on going against the grain, but time has warped the meaning of punk. It’s now beset by fairly rigid genre boundaries and in some sets a reactionary worldview. Von Till maintains that this scene “100 percent inspired me,” but isn’t blind to the genre’s limitations. He owes much to the genre, but in a sense needed to transcend it to realise his full potential. 

“Without punk rock, I wouldn’t be here right now talking to you because I would have never had the courage to push music not being good enough,” he starts. “If it was reduced to what you were hearing in mainstream rock or heavy music or whatever, man, you know, I’m never going to be that good. And I’m not going to make it in that world. That’s a whole kind of insider thing, but punk rock was like, man, you just have to feel it and mean it. You just have to have conviction, and so, yeah, get a band. We all suck, but it doesn’t matter. Make noise. Make noise, but just with attitude and passion and make flyers and make fanzines, and start record labels, and book shows. Don’t wait for somebody else to give you anything.

“I mean, there were people that paved the way for us [in terms of touring, like] Black Flag and Minutemen. There were no clubs. There was not a club scene for music like Neurosis when we started. Clubs were like cover bands, bringing people in to drink beer. Then it was a notch from there up to professionals. And so, we were part of that second wave of people playing warehouses, or alternative spaces or bedrooms, or any place. And then it slowly started to emerge to have a more proper professional network, so to speak, of people that came up that way establishing a scene, and that’s the whole reason why I am doing everything I’m doing, you know? Putting out records by other bands that I love [through Neurot], because other people helped us do that. Like Mike Watt says, if you ever hear an interview by him – everything’s reduced to the flyer and the gig. Like, you could reduce life into those two *laughs* categories, and I love that analogy.”

Von Till speaks about his time in the punk scene fondly, and with admiration for the passion that people had, but he also notes that he and his bandmates did move beyond that, and not for commercial gain but for creativity’s sake. “We did eventually have to move on, because like you said, punk rock as the way other people interpreted it, ended up having rules and requirements and dress codes or sound requirements. It became quite shallow. But when we came up, it was quite broad. You’d have a crossover band playing with a ’77 punk-style band playing with a rockabilly-sounding band playing with a performance artist. It was all over the map, and I loved that quite a bit, and I still stand by that ethos, and so I will stand by that and say that on those terms, I am a punk rocker forever, as opposed to the kind of whatever scenester-type stuff might have come later.”

In the underground, creativity was never lost, but you have to wonder whether the DIY ethos in the sense that Von Till describes it has returned in a big way in recent years, with the Internet offering up new avenues for sharing and accessing music, and concert lineups across the world seemingly becoming more and more mixed as heavy music becomes less a defined genre encompassing various subsets and more an amorphous umbrella populated by all manner of weird and wonderful sounds. There will probably always be do-or-die metalheads who prefer to renounce all other music, but in recent years more and more have seemingly been looking to broaden their musical palette.

 “Festivals like Supersonic give me a lot of hope that you could still be really wide in the net that you cast towards creativity,” says Von Till. “And strangely enough, a lot of European pop music festivals seem to be quite broad as well. You go to a metal festival, you know exactly what to expect. I like when you have the opportunities for people from a lot of different backgrounds, and when different interests are put in a similar place, because as a fan, I never know when I might be hit by something I didn’t know was coming my way. We’ve found a lot of our most dedicated fans that way, just by putting us out there in strange environments and then having somebody come later like, ‘I’m not even a heavy music fan and I wasn’t expecting to find anything. I was just walking by and was drawn to it and was captivated.’ That’s beautiful, you know?”

Perhaps, then, punk should never have been thought of as a genre but as an ethos, a dedication to DIY creativity in any form. “I mean, Bob Dylan was punk rock, you know? He had these expectations put on him by the folk music scene and then went electric and blew everybody’s mind but pissed a lot of people off,” exclaims Von Till. “And probably William Blake did the same thing as a poet. He had to self-publish. Who was going to publish that crazy stuff? So, he had the skills to be his own kind of printing press and put those out as well. So, I guess, maybe the ethos of punk rock that we’re talking about just goes back to the old world ideas of the craftsman. You just go forge your own way in the world and you develop your craft and if you do something compelling, people will seek you out.”

Photo: Bobby Cochran

Old and new

It’s interesting that Von Till cites the notion of ancient craftsmen, considering his music takes on such a timeless, ruminative quality that utilises modern production techniques but seems especially interested in a mysterious past that we’ll probably never fully understand. That quality, flowing from his interest in nature and the Megalithic period, may lend his music a rustic charm and mystical allure, but as someone who exists here and now, Von Till’s music is inherently inspired by the world in which he exists. And that world is fractured. “We’re in the middle of some crazy times, pandemic, election times, civil unrest. It’s not pretty out there,” he states. “So I would just hope that some young people out there invent the next punk rock, you know? Our decadent society is quite fragile, but I mean, our music scene is perhaps more fragile, so this thing that everybody just kind of assumed was there is all of a sudden not there.”

At the time of talking, the US election had not yet happened, the vaccine was still a distant hope and 2020 still had several months to go. But things don’t seem all that much more hopeful even now that we’ve finally come to the end of this dire year. Many of the challenges we’ve faced this past year and in the decade before it will persist, but that’s not meant to be a pessimistic statement or even a brutally honest one, merely a reminder that we need to keep going and keep creating.

“I would like to think that every challenge provides some sort of opportunity for some new ideas,” says Von Till. “For myself, it’s been how can we use this technology, not only for me to do my day job as a teacher and make it compelling, but how can I maybe do something musical that’s different than what’s already happening? I’ve already been sick of iPhone-quality video *laughs* for a bit now. I’m not sure the world needs me to add to that… So I don’t know. Here’s a recording studio. Maybe I’ll maybe find some inspiration and ways to express the kind of existential dread that our country and our entire world is dealing with right now.”

No Wilderness Deep Enough and Harvestman: Collected Lyrics And Poems are both out now. Order here.

Words: George Parr

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