Interview : Steve von Till, NEUROSIS/HARVESTMAN

Mind Over Metal Interviews Steve Von Till of Neurosis

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Mind Over Metal: We’ve got Steve Von Till on the line right now of Neurosis. Steve, thanks for joining us on ‘Mind Over Metal’ today.

Steve Von Till: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Mind Over Metal: So the first thing I want to talk to you about, Steve, is the live Roadburn album that Neurosis just released. Why did you guys want to do an official document of this show?

Steve Von Till: Well, you know it kind of happened almost by accident. We didn’t set out to do a live record. There were, in fact, very few nice quality live recordings of us over the years, and several years ago we had released a couple of the better sounding ones. It had been a while since we’d done that and we thought that the era of live performance we had just completed (Given to the Rising timeframe)…we were playing really well and it just so happened that the Roadburn folks basically record every set that gets played at Roadburn and have it broadcast on a Dutch radio station. They have it multitracked and then mix it after, post it online, stream it. We were impressed by the quality of what they did and just kind of shelved the idea for a couple of years. Then last year at some point, we were like “Hey, what about throwing out that live Roadburn set?” It’s been a while since we’ve put a live document out there and that one was pretty intense. It’s not just that is was a good recording. It’s the vibe of that entire festival. It’s unlike any other festival. It’s not your typical commercially-sponsored cluster…

Mind Over Metal: Is that the quality that Roadburn has especially – that it’s lacking in commercial tie-ins? What is it about the nature of Roadburn that makes it so special?

Steve Von Till: It’s the people. The people that organize it love music. They basically make their dream list….they are all hardcore music fans and they make their dream list of who they want to see.

Mind Over Metal: So it’s not bottom line minded, basically.

Steve Von Till: Yeah, they go after it. They work with a restricted budget and they pull it off. It’s in a normal sized venue. This isn’t some open air giant thing. It’s in a venue the size that a band like us would normally play, and there’s two other rooms in the venue where smaller bands would normally play. This is a venue where people would go to for normal rock gigs. The people at the club also…all the people there are extremely gracious, professional and super confident. They want to do their best and have the best time for the bands and the audience. Roadburn is also special because you’ve got 3 or 4 days of bands all day…you’ve got a lot of bands in town, and the line between the bands and the audience is very grey.

Mind Over Metal: There’s not this Ivory Tower-ness to it. It’s very much down to earth. Everyone interacts…

Steve Von Till: Yeah. It’s wide open. Everyone’s hanging out in the street, hanging out in the venue. It’s just a wonderful time. Very special…and so the fact that we got a good audio document of this amazing time with these great people…and another thing about the recording too is it’s not a powerslide recording. We got the multitracks from them and Dave, our bass player and Noah, our keyboardist…Noah is also an independent engineer. They remixed it and really tried to make it the best representation it could be of our show, and it’s warts and all. It’s raw. There’s mistakes. There’s bad notes, but it has the energy.

Mind Over Metal: And that also adds to the charm of it as well. You’re not going to get a flawless live recording, and you don’t necessarily want that anyways. You know, you want it to be quality. You want it to be good and that’s what it sounds like it is. I have a question about the artwork especially. This is something I’ve just noticed as of late for some reason, and I’m actually saying this in lieu of the fact that I’m playing tracks from your album A Grave Is A Grim Horse. There’s some horse imagery on Given to the Rising. There’s horse imagery on the Roadburn album courtesy of Josh Graham. I’ve actually gotten a couple of albums from Relapse now, a band Mose Giganticus who have an album called Gift Horse. There’s another band called Horseback and I’m thinking “Where is all this horse stuff coming from?” For you, what do you think it is about their imagery and their symbolism that lends to the dark and the heavy?

Steve Von Till: Well, I can only speak from the Neurosis perspective. The imagery for “Given To The Rising” was taken from some pretty incredible and famous statues in Budapest, Hungary…Heroes Square which has these pictures of warrior kings, warrior chieftains of long ago with these intense battle ready horses with antlers strapped to their faces…it’s an image that always stuck in my mind since the first time I’d seen it. I’m always interested in European history and folklore. When Josh had independently come across the idea to use that, I was kind of blown away because we a kind of synchronicity, independently coming across something I had really liked but never thought of using it for album art.

Mind Over Metal: That’s beautiful.

Steve Von Till: So we flew him over there and he photographed that stuff, as well as other things in the area. In his own unique, craftsman kind of way he put them in his own landscape…took these statues out of their city environments and put them in a landscape that lent itself to the music. It had an epic and vast, open nature to it. The Live at Roadburn artwork is carrying on with “Okay, this happened during the era of Given To The Rising so let’s tie the artwork in. Let’s use some similar imagery, some imagery from the same time to represent that this is a period of the Neurosis legacy and using that to tie it all together.” A bigger question, why do you think so many people would use the image of the horse? The first thing that came to mind is what the Native Americans used to call them when the Spanish first brought horses to North America:  “Hell Hounds”. They were like dogs that they had never seen before; these incredible, powerful beasts and man has an intense relationship with them.

Mind Over Metal: Just so I’m understanding – I feel like I should know this but I don’t – when horses were first brought to North America, the Native Americans called them “Hell Hounds”?

Steve von Till: Can’t quote me on that, but it’s something I remember. I may be combining things, but I think so. Can’t be 100 percent sure…my album title A Grave Is A Grim Horse…that goes back to an ancient Germanic or Scandinavian way of using a horse metaphorically. People would sacrifice themselves…or people would sleep out on the mound of an ancient dead relative or chieftain to gain wisdom. To gain insight. To go into the darkness…confronting something scary to gain wisdom. They would equate those types of journeys to riding a horse.

Mind Over Metal: That’s interesting. And actually the track from that album “Willow Tree” just ended, which reminds me I wanted to ask you a couple questions that sort of relate to my girlfriend Willow. She actually started teaching this past week. I wanted to ask you about your own teaching career. She teaches middle school. You teach elementary school. Correct?

Steve von Till: Yes. In fact, I’m in my classroom right now getting ready for the first day on Tuesday.

Mind Over Metal: Are you serious? Ok…I was going to ask if you were in your compound in Spirit Lake but you’re actually in the school right now?

Steve von Till: Yeah.

Mind Over Metal: Do the kids know or do the parents know? Are they fans or your music or Neurosis? Maybe some of the mellower stuff?

Steve von Till: Yeah, I keep it pretty low key. People know I make music and I travel sometimes but I don’t think…Some people do. There are some folks from this community who work with us and for us, and of course we have friends that get into it. For the most part it’s just where we live and work like anybody else. Most people don’t understand the scope…most people aren’t even aware of the vast nature of independent music. A lot of people don’t have a grasp of how that exists. They only see things from the…we’re not near a big city where there’s a big nightclub scene or anything like that, you know? Rock concerts or stadium affairs.

Mind Over Metal: No concept of basement shows or anything like that.

Steve von Till: Yeah. People know and understand it. Of course students find out and google it and all that and they think it’s cool.

Mind Over Metal: Where do the parallels for you lie between music and teaching. Are there any lessons you’ve learned from one world that you’ve applied to the other?

Steve von Till: For me it’s about passion. I mean, my heroes were not only musicians but warriors and poets and teachers. I mean you’ve got the advancement of civilization…the carrying of the torch of knowledge to the next generation and the helping people…you know, music is a personal self expression but you have the bi-product of having it inspire other people. Music for me…I’m a huge music fan obviously. Music for me carries me through at difficult times in my life. I’ve got those albums that saved me over and over again. If my music can do that for people that’s cool but I think teaching is similar because you know, you inspire kids in different ways. Some you inspire by the academics. Some you inspire by the comments between the academics and just by the fact that you give a…care.

Mind Over Metal: (Laughs) Thank you for censoring yourself there! I could feel it almost coming out…I warned Steve before coming on to try to censor himself. That was very nice. Thank you! What are some albums that you can come back to any time, listen to in almost any circumstance, that “saved you”, as you said?

Steve Von Till: There’s so many, man. I was staring at my record collection the other day…I don’t know, man. I don’t know if I can even encapsulate it to a top 5. I always fall back on Hendrix’s psych ballads, you know…some of the ones that always come around

Mind Over Metal: For me personally, I’m a music director too. I listen to hundreds of albums a year. Sometimes I’ll go 6 or 8 months without listening to Black Sabbath and then I’ll just go on a binge, and then it’s like “Oh my God, I love this band with every fibre of my being!”

Steve Von Til: I was about to say that…and it depends on the mood too. Like early Motorhead, like pre-Ace of Spades Motorhead…sometimes I just need to get on the highway, step on the gas and crank that until the speakers are about to completely fall out of the dashboard, you know? Different ones at different times. Things that make you scream while you’re driving, and things that help you go to sleep with peace of mind.

Mind Over Metal: I want to ask you something else about finding parallels. Something actually, once again that my girl Willow helped me discover. She discovered for herself growing up that she would often listen to really heavy music and bluegrass and the older she got, she would be able to listen to both without batting an eyelash and then as I started to listen to it, I saw parallels. There’s lots of adherence to darkness and death, a high emphasis on technical ability and soloing. Now I see the parallels that you’ve drawn yourself with the darkness with your self titled solo projects and with Harvest Man. I was wondering if there’s any kind of parallels you can draw between folk music and heavy music?

Steve Von Till: For me, it’s about finding that small amount of music that moves me. I mean, I can’t say that I like metal music because actually, you start throwing metal records at me and I’ll probably think most of them are crap. I love heavy music but I love that very small percentage that moves me. The stuff I think “That’s original. I believe what these guys are saying to me. That’s not a put on. I can feel it. You know.”

Bluegrass is the same way. I mean, there’s the Bluegrass that they play in the favourites and they play in the crowds and then there’s the stuff that goes deep. I came to bluegrass music through a long route. I had to get into music form other cultures…going from metal and punk to psychedelic garage stuff and finding what inspires that and digging deeper and finally ending up in the Celtic and Scottish, Irish ballads and Middle Eastern music. Then you end up coming back to your own country and discovering the darker sides of country and bluegrass and where the Scottish ballads came to the Appalachians…you know? Soaked in corn whiskey instead of potato and you get a different…but it’s all about purging the darkness through a positive outlet. I mean, what if we didn’t have this metal music. In Neurosis, we talk about that all the time – “What if we didn’t have this music to put this energy into? This energy is inside us and all around us. What would it be doing to our lives if we didn’t have a positive outlet?”

Mind Over Metal: That’s really interesting and actually brings me to my next point too and that’s “Why is it important to you guys to have additional projects? Scott’s done stuff with Shrinebuilder and he’s got Combat Music Radio and you’ve got your solo work. And uou pretty much run Neurot with your wife, right?

Steve Von Till: I run it myself, yeah.

Mind Over Metal: You run it yourself now?

Steve Von Till: Divorced and yeah, I run it myself and with a few awesome girls who help me out.

Mind Over Metal: I’ve got some old information here. I’m sorry if I was drudging up some bad blood there.

Steve Von Till: Cool. Not public knowledge. Yeah.

Mind Over Metal: ..And Josh too for that matter with A Storm of Light and all the work that he does. So why is important for you guys to diversify the way that you do?

Steve Von Till: Once we found the well of inspiration, the thing that truly drove us, the thing we wanted to dedicate our lives to…it seems too big and too infinite to encapsulate all into one band. I mean, Neurosis is a driven force and it’s a unique thing that kind of just exists out there in nature almost like an element of weather like lightning or thunder, and for some reason when the 6 of us get together or the 5 of us get together, we just find a way to tap into it. It’s a unique combination of us individually and collectively filtering the inspiration. We can’t take individual credit for it but we get inspired by it and we have all these other influences tugging at us at all times. For me the side projects came about almost accidentally. I’ve always had the home recording setup and my studio’s turned into almost a legitimate project studio now, but even back when I just had a cassette 4-track or a reel to reel 8-track…at some point I realized “Hey, I have this entire body of work. This isn’t Neurosis. This is my own private music that I record when the family goes to bed at night. What is this?”

Mind Over Metal: So you had to discover for yourself what this music was? It was kind of coming forth, but you had to identify it as separate from what you had already established as the music that you were creating?

Steve Von Till: Yeah. That’s how my first solo record came about and several years later the Harvestman came about the same way. I had this strange body of work with this kind of experimental psychedelic guitar that was somehow paying homage to European folk music and folklore and mythology. It seemed crazy at the time but I said “This stuff all kind of fits together. What is this? This is different.”

Mind Over Metal: How do you distinguish between Harvestman versus your self titled projects?

Steve Von Till: The self titled stuff is very lyrical, and it’s actually trying to…and it’s trying to…it’s challenging for me because with Neurosis we don’t like songs. We do these epic movements of sound, so to actually craft a song it’s real challenge. I’ve been doing this other thing my whole adult life! It’s trying to step into the world of people I admire and go for it…tie a melody and a lyric together from my own unique perspective. I always think of them of harvest songs. They’re like songs that always remind me of Fall time. Introspective time…the spirit world and the earthly world are coming together. It’s also the twilight time after everybody’s gone to bed or before dawn when I can be in my own headspace and it’s not part of a group project. How I distinguish that from Harvestman is…Harvestman is about plugging in my guitar spaceship and seeing where it goes. It’s just psychedelic effects and sounds, and getting off on that home recorded psychedelia. What youcan do with strange recordings….Pretty different animals. What I’m thinking about now is combining both projects because if I get an opportunity to go play I think “Should I go do Harvestman or do Steve Von Till?” I don’t know what to do so I started doing a set where I go in and out of both. I get in my guitar spaceship and I do my spacejams and noise and textural guitar landscapes and I break it down into a mellow, dark folk song and then back into space. I’m letting them influence each other in a live performance setting as opposed to the recorded versions and I’m really enjoying that.

Mind Over Metal: That’s really interesting actually. Is there a synthesis that you find wholly different or will that become something in the future do you think?

Steve Von Till: I don’t know. I’d have to see how it goes. The solo music is more “Ok, this is me with an acoustic guitar”, and then I’d try to get some vintage instruments on top, and Harvestman is all about, you know, the delays and tape machines and vintage synthesizers and all that…and now I’m wondering if I can combine those two ideas.

Mind Over Metal: That sounds pretty cool, Steve. I would like to hear that actually. I also want to ask you – What are the advantages of doing things DIY? The pros and the cons. What have you learned from working with the band and working as a solo artist?

Steve Von Till: Well, to me the advantage is a philosophical one. It’s looking back to I guess any arts and crafts movement. We originally got the inspiration because we grew up out of the DIY punk scene and we took with us the value of doing it yourself. We’ve been on other independent labels and nobody ever tried to control our output, but it seems like whenever someone else is speaking for you, you always run the danger of getting your message diluted.

Mind Over Metal: A compromise, yeah. Definitely.

Steve Von Till: You know, even if the people have the best of intentions and come from a similar scene…I believe you should get the art from the artist.

Mind Over Metal: It’s not the A & R guys form of expression. It’s your form of expression. Otherwise, you’re trying to mold it into something other than what it was intended to be initially.

Steve Von Till: Yeah and it just makes sense. Especially the way the world is doing…I like being part of something…I wouldn’t say local because we’re international but it has that same vibe of getting it straight from the source. It also allows us to help other people the way folks helped us along the way. We can meet some kindred spirits who are working hard and making things happen for themselves and struggling and their music is intense and honest and moves us…we can feel a kindred spiritual thread in what they’re doing. Maybe we can help them out…help them get the word out too like people did for us back in the day.

Mind Over Metal: Absolutely. As long as you’re bringing that up, I just want to thank you personally for helping out Made Out Of Babies and getting them going. Oh my God, I love that band.

Steve Von Till: Yeah…creepy!

Mind Over Metal: Julie Christmas, she is terrifying. I love Julie Christmas so much. I have a secret crush on the crazy ones…(laughs) How is she in person though? I shouldn’t jump to any conclusion. I haven’t met her. On a personal level what is she like? Is she intense? Reserved? Boisterous?

Steve Von Till: We’ve only met in public settings for the most part. She’s stayed at our house one time. She’s great. People are people, you know. If you’re all hanging out at a club things are one thing and if you’re at home having a barbeque with the kids things are something else, you know? Pretty much everybody we’ve worked with have been, you know…good people.

Mind Over Metal: Cordial. Well, we’re winding down here, Steve. I’ve got one more question for you that I want to ask in the spirit of one of my favourite interviewers of all time, Space Ghost. When you are Harvestman I want to know what your superpowers are. Can you scythe really well? Are you able to bale at an astronomical rate?

Steve Von Till: I harvest stars.

Mind Over Metal: You harvest stars? That can’t possibly be easy. You must have a giant net of some kind I’m guessing.

Steve Von Till: An intergalactic space scythe.

Mind Over Metal: I want an intergalactic space scythe…but only one of us can wield it properly and I think that is Mr Steve Von Till. Thanks again, Steve for joining us today on ‘Mind Over Metal’ and answering our many questions and having this great conversation. We appreciate it.

Steve Von Till: Right on man. I appreciate your time and helping us get the word out and spreading the word on heavy music. Keep it up

Mind Over Metal: Well, that’s what I do at Mind Over Metal. If you want more information you can go to vontill.org and also neurosis.com and you can read this interview online at MindOverMetal.org.

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