A Voice Of The Wilderness: A conversation with Steve Von Till
There are certain artists that we feel we could listen to for hours on end, whether it be their life stories, musical adventures or creative thought process. One such individual is Steve Von Till. As a member of the legendary Neurosis, and with an equally marvelous solo career under his belt, Steve Von Till is no stranger to the exploration of themes that delve deep into esotericism, nature and mythology, as well as the inner evolution of ourselves and our connection with the world that surrounds us. His art, in whichever form it takes, has always and will always resonate with those that long for a deeper meaning of their own existence, a journey that, in Steve Von Till’s own words, “we are on together”.
Last time we spoke with Steve Von Till, we discussed the makings of his then brand-new record, No Wilderness Deep Enough, and how his love for poetry flourished into his first poetry book, aas well as his work as an elementary teacher and how it influenced him as an artist. This time around, we caught up with him right before he kicked off his European tour last July to talk about his musical beginnings, what it was like being invited to join Neurosis and founding Neurot Recordings, as well as how his love for nature and ancient mythology runs through everything he does artistically.
What was your first contact with music and what made you want to start playing?
I grew up in a pretty musical household, my parents always had a nice stereo and they listened to music a lot. And my father played guitar and sang, and had a guitar always around the house. I think he was in a group when he was in high school, it was kind of like Kingston Trio, these 50’s version of folk. Like these vocal groups with guitars, several voices and harmonies and whatnot. I was definitely around a lot of that and I always enjoyed listening to music on headphones; I loved when I discovered stereo and the difference between the left channel and the right channel. My dad listened to more singer-songwriter stuff like Jim Croce, John Denver, Kingston Trio and The Everly Brothers, that kind of stuff. And my mom listened to Beatles, early 70s rock; she liked a lot of what was on the kind of harder rock radio stations at the time. I had a little record player too and I would listen to some kids records I had, and take their records and listen to them. But then, when I got a proper stereo receiver with a cassette deck, I would start to tape songs I liked off rock radio. I knew the DJs I liked, and I would listen to a lot of AC/DC, Ted Nugent, Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix. And I think the first two records I owned were Smash Hits by Jimi Hendrix and The Very Best of Deep Purple; those two records together were mind-blowing. And of course, because I saw the record covers, and I’m probably eight, the record covers I saw in the store with the pictures of Kiss, I was drawn to those and got really heavily into Kiss as a young boy, you know? It had monsters, fire, smoke, explosions, all that. I was pretty heavily into that; I mean, Kiss’ Alive, Alive II, Destroyer and Love Gun, all that became pretty big. And musically, you know, I can’t stand behind most of that, but some of the early stuff, I can. Actually, I think their first record or two had some genuinely good hard rock songs.
But then, my mom and another mom took me and some other neighbourhood kids to see Kiss at the Cow Palace, in San Francisco, when we were nine, and just seeing the whole spectacle of the rock n’ roll show changed my life, you know? I wanted to rock, I wanted to make noise, but it all seemed pretty untouchable, the whole arena rock thing. I saw the Rolling Stones when I was eleven, and then after that, I started to go to concerts on my own. I saw Iron Maiden on their The Number of the Beast tour when I was twelve, you know, I started seeing a lot of stuff like that and getting into harder music than the radio was playing; Iron Maiden, Scorpions, other NWOBHM stuff. I lived in the suburbs, you know? I didn’t live in the middle of the city, I lived out in this area out of my own, I didn’t know a whole lot of people that were interested in this kind of music. But there was a weird TV show on late at Friday nights called Night Flight, and that really gave me an education because they would have this show called New Wave Theatre, which had punk bands and they would show underground films or weird art film like Brazil or Eraserhead, you know? And they would also show more extreme metal videos like Mötorhead, Tank and also punk videos. And so that kind of gave me the harder edge of punk before the thrash scene had quite happened, it was pretty informative, it really shaped my brain into what I thought was possible and what was interesting.
And from there, it was just getting old enough to meet other people and starting to go to punk shows, and realizing that rock n’ roll was not untouchable, that arena rock was only a very small portion of what was happening, that there were people organizing things in houses, in art galleries and in warehouses. There was a whole underground movement of people that were in bands, and they weren’t necessarily good musicians, they were just passionate about wanting to express themselves emotionally. There were people doing fanzines, there were people running record labels, people booking gigs, people making flyers, and I just loved all aspects of that kind of movement, that’s what really shaped me and made me start a band, start writing my own songs, start doing our own recordings, booking our own gigs, making our own flyers, you know? And I’m still doing all of those things. [laughs] Still doing it all myself, for the most part and I wouldn’t change any of it. You know, being a father of now adult kids and being a teacher, I really wish that all young people could find something to belong to like the DIY punk scene in the mid-80s, because it was a place for outsiders, misfits and people that didn’t conform, to gather, all in one place. And it wasn’t about styles of music, even that changed, you know? We used to play shows with such a wide variety of bands; it could be Neurosis, Green Day, Operation Ivy and some ’77-style rockabilly punk band, or performance artists, or video artists, you know? It was such a variety of people, the only thing that was in common was that it was underground and independent. Since that time, everything split into its own corner according to rules, definitions and genres, you know, much less inspiring.
“You know, being a father of now adult kids and being a teacher, I really wish that all young people could find something to belong to like the DIY punk scene in the mid-80s, because it was a place for outsiders, misfits and people that didn’t conform, to gather, all in one place.”
Was the guitar the first instrument you latched on to?
Yeah, for sure. I think I got my first guitar when I was nine, but I didn’t really take lessons, didn’t really latch on to it and I didn’t really want to learn from my dad because I didn’t like his style of music. Then I got a different guitar, when I was maybe twelve or thirteen, and started to learn a little bit more, but it wasn’t until I got into high school and I was in a class with a guy that was a really good guitar player, he was kind of one of those hard rock guys that wanted to learn how to do Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads solos, that kind of stuff. I could never be bothered to try to work that hard and figure out what seemed like gymnastics with your fingers, but he asked me if I would be his rhythm guitarist because he wanted to put a band together. And so, he showed me some simple bar chords and power chords, and I played the rhythm guitar in this kind of regular rock band, playing rock cover songs. It was the combination of just learning to do that and discovering punk at the same time, where I realized, “oh, I don’t have to learn to do what he’s doing, I’ve got this bar chord, I’ve got this power chord, I’m good”. [laughs] It’s all I need, I’m ready to go. I started experimenting with writing songs and started my own, kind of thrash metal band, probably when I was fifteen or sixteen, and we recorded a demo tape. We just tried to be as fast as we could, it was pretty ridiculous, but it was a great learning experience because those were the first songs where I wrote words, and as stupid as they were, at least I did it, it was step one.
And it just evolved from there, you know? I went away from the more thrash style and into kind of a more hardcore, a more variety of punk styles based more on the stuff I was listening to. I became quite more varied listening to a wider variety of stuff. When we were in a thrash band, I think we were called Transgressor, and then I didn’t want to do that anymore, so I broke it up. But the same three guys, we formed a kind of more political hardcore band called Tribe of Resistance. We recorded a 7’’ and I just wanted to start my own label then, but right as I got the copies of the 7’’, and I had these big plans to do a big, thick booklet full of all kinds of political information. I got overwhelmed with the project, put it down for a second, and then, I was invited to join Neurosis. I left those records in the closet and just moved on; I ended that project. Eventually, I gave those 7’’ away to a friend who had a punk record label, and we made simple covers and donated all the money to a Native American cause at the time. But yeah, I was already kind of experimenting before I joined Neurosis, with different types of guitar chords because I really loved Die Kreuzen and Voivod. Not that I could ever play guitar like that, but I liked that they were using different sounding chords, more like Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” chord, you know? Just these crazy, augmented shapes, and listening to a lot more psychedelic music, I wanted to fuse hardcore with some of the more emotive stuff of some earlier punk. At that time, the local bands I liked the most were Neurosis because they sounded almost like an English band in a lot of ways, and the same with Christ On Parade, which was Noah [Landis]’s band at the time, they reminded me of Subhumans, they were kind of like the American Subhumans. Music from the Bay Area was very unique at that time, it had such a weird musical history; there’s always been kind of a psychedelic element in the music from the Bay Area, even back to the 60s. So, when Neurosis asked me to join, that was like a dream come true because I would get to play with these guys who were inspiring me and I felt that they were kind of going in the same direction I wanted to go, and vice versa, and things went from there.
It’s interesting that you mention that shift in direction when you joined Neurosis, do you feel like that was your own influence on the band or was it a collective effort towards that new direction?
It was both, it definitely wasn’t primarily me, by any means; we were always a collective. I mean, when I joined, they already had most of The Word As Law written, and I came in time to contribute one song, “To What End?”, which talks about a lot of those different types of guitar voicings I was talking about. And then, when we finally had a chance to sit and talk about what we wanted to make after The World As Law process, we just realized that the way that we talk about music and what we want to sound like, this didn’t sound anything like that, you know? The Word As Law didn’t sound like what we wanted to sound like. Not that it’s bad, it’s just young guys trying to find themselves. And so, collectively, we realized we needed to… You know, I definitely remember saying our guitars needed to get heavier, the guitars needed to be bigger, they need to be more like Black Sabbath, you know? We needed to have a big, full guitar tone, not these thin, shitty tones we’ve been getting. And we’re talking about wanting to have these psychedelic elements and these heavy, apocalyptic elements, but we needed more sound. And so, we were very inspired by bands like Amebix, who integrated some keyboards into punk, and Killing Joke, who definitely used synthesizers, but also, Public Enemy and The Bomb Squad production using samples, which were pretty primitive at the time. But the fact that you could use any sound, an explosion, a car crash, a train, a gate closing, a door slamming, anything can become an instrument, you know, as well as being able to steal soundbites from the environment to reflect humanity back at itself.
I was also in college at the time studying Jungian psychology, learning about archetypes and how these kinds of things can affect people. So, we took all this information like the history of Bay Area psychedelia and what people were doing with sound art and the underground. There was a generation older than us, of the original industrial people, like Throbbing Gristle, and there was a Bay Area response to that as well, of people that were using noise and deconstructing sound. And so, taking that psychedelic Bay Area and the old school industrial, underground warehouse art scene, mixed with punk and some goth elements like Joy Division that we were into and the heavier guitars of Black Sabbath and Black Flag, and we just said, “okay, we’ve got to find a way to take all these things we love, boil it down into nothing and build something new out of these ideas”, and you can hear the beginnings of that on Souls At Zero. And I think that was definitely a direct result of not just me joining the band, but us having honest conversations about how to step up our game and sound like what we talk about sounding like. It took some experimentation; like, to me, Souls At Zero is not quite natural yet. I can hear the brains turning, I can hear the wheels turning, I hear the thought process, but it wasn’t until we toured that material that it became more natural and we realized we could use music to enter different realms of consciousness and trance states through repetition and intensity. I think Enemy Of The Sun is where we finally blew the gates wide open towards finding what we would become.
Was Tribes of Neurot also a result of that expansion and shift in direction in the sound of Neurosis?
Yeah, because we were experimenting so much to try and figure out what we wanted to integrate into Neurosis, but as different as Neurosis was to our peers, it was still fundamentally a rock band. You know, it has guitars, bass, drums, vocals, keys and samples, but they’re still songs, there’s still structure. And in just playing with the sound and manipulating sound, playing with percussion and rhythms, just by jamming we found that we needed to be free to make music that would create similar emotion without the structure, without the confines, you know? It could be one of us, two of us, three of us, all of us and some other people, but we could still go into those trance states, we could still go into these emotional places of sound without structured music. And I think, in order to keep Neurosis pure, still structured and interesting as a rock band, we needed to have Tribes of Neurot to be something separate.
Earlier you mentioned wanting to start your own label and Neurosis actually ended up founding Neurot Recordings in 1999. Where did the decision to create a record label for the band come from and how has the experience managing it been since then?
It goes back to that first record that I pressed; I always wanted to have a punk record label, you know? And when we moved from Alternative Tentacles to Relapse Records, I was still very inspired by Dischord, Touch and Go, SST Records, and learning from Alternative Tentacles and Relapse. And just the fact that we never felt like we fit in everywhere; when we were on the lookout, we were kind of the weirdos and never felt comfortable with being lumped in with metal so closely like we did on Relapse. I mean, Relapse is a great label with great people, and no regrets on any of the relationships with the labels I mentioned, all of them were extremely kind, generous and open, and I learned a lot from them all personally. But it just seemed to make sense that art should come from the artist, and for us to stay truly independent and be able to contribute in a bigger way, maybe it makes more sense to just have our own home. And instead of thinking short term, like, “oh, these people have these records and these people have those records of ours, and someone else is going to have our next record”, it just seemed to make sense to create a home where everything would live in one place.
Was it always your intention for Neurot to be a record label for other bands to be a part of as well?
Not originally, but that happened pretty quick. Initially, it was just going to be for us and then, as soon as we started doing the work, we realized there were a couple of bands that we really loved, that we wanted to create our own family; instead of having other record labels decide who our peers are, we would decide who our peers are, you know? And we like a lot of different types of music and most of it doesn’t sound anything like Neurosis. So, we wanted to kind of create our own world. Not everybody can start a label, you know? We didn’t have any money, but we had enough reputation to get a distributor, who would try to help us get records in stores. But we still had to put our own money into pressing the records, and there are some younger, smaller bands who can’t quite figure out how to do all the details themselves. And since someone helped us out when we were younger, we decided that we would do the same thing, we would help out artists that we felt a kinship with and that needed a label. Pretty early on, we put out Zeni Geva, Vágtázó Halottkémek, Isis and Oxbow, but we were doing mostly Tribes of Neurot releases; we did some really small, subscription-only pieces with a lot of original Tribes of Neurot material. We did that for three years with seasonal releases, twelve different releases. And I think my first solo record was NR006; one of the first non-Neurosis things we did was my first solo record, which kind of came about by accident, an interesting story in and of itself.
During your tenure in Neurosis, you have also been a part of a few other projects, one of them being Culper Ring, a group founded alongside Mason Jones and Kris Force. How did that project come about and what goals did you have for it initially?
That was a really brief moment. Mason Jones was a friend who helped Neurosis get some really good gigs early on, when we first got the keyboards and the samples, and wanted to kind of bust out of our usual shows. He got us a show with Pain Teens, who were a really cool noise rock band from Texas, and Zeni Geva from Japan, which is how we met them. We always just stayed in touch; he ran a label called Charnel House and he put out a lot of really interesting stuff like Crash Worship, and also had his own, kind of psychedelic space rock projects as well. So, we always talked about maybe just getting together and jamming. And I was in a band with Kris Force for a while called Amber Asylum, in which I played for a couple of years, played a lot of shows and did some early recordings with them. Kris is a great creative spirit, she is a great violin player and has a great voice, she contributed a lot to some Neurosis recordings later on. And I was always a great admirer of her music, it was really different, psychedelic and beautiful. So, it just made sense for the three of us to get together, and it was all home studio stuff, you know? I think we did one session, put it away for a while, and then, did another session and mixed it. It was not a lot of effort; I think we were all kind of tuned in to the same vibe at that time, so that was an interesting recording.
Apart from Neurosis and the various projects you collaborated with, you also have a quite prolific solo career. I remember that last time we spoke, you talked about having the chance of visiting Iceland because Neurosis was playing at a festival there, and how an iPhone snapshot of the landscape became the cover of No Wilderness Deep Enough. What I find amazing here is that your solo music draws inspiration from folklore, legends and nature, so the cover of the record feels like a natural thing to have happened. Where does the interest in exploring these themes come from?
It’s hard for me to answer that question because I don’t know how to separate that from the way I see, the way I exist in the universe. I mean, it’s the way I walk in the world; it’s a constant contemplation and words aren’t enough, that’s why I do it through music, you know? I’ve always had a deep melancholy and a longing for a deeper and more spiritual connection to things that are meaningful, and I really feel that humanity lost its way when our modern society separated from the Earth. And I think it has created a psychological breakdown amongst our species; that’s why we are disconnected from ourselves, from each other, from our own minds, and why we have so much mental illness, so much hatred, so much wanting to have power over other people, money, objects and things. It all stems from viewing ourselves as separate from nature, as separate from the Earth. Since I was a young man, I started to feel those things; I couldn’t express them, but it made me interested in older ideas. I don’t think there was ever a golden age where humans had it all figured out, definitely not, that would be fantasy. But there’s things we can learn from before the split from nature, and ideas and philosophies that we can look back to which are hidden in ancient mythologies of when people were connected to the Earth, like the pre-Christian world, before the world in which we saw nature as something to control and as something to dominate, instead of feeling that we were a part of it. And so, I think there are some ancient wisdoms there, hidden in these ancient things in our ancient past, that could maybe help guide us to a future. And that’s kind of always been an underlying theme; it runs through my lyrics in Neurosis, it runs through my solo lyrics, it runs through everything. All these ancient stories, these mythologies, these experiences of indigenous people and indigenous cultures around the world and here in North America, my own relationships with the land and with my own mind, and people, obviously; my own life is wrapped up in my lyrics and in my poetry. But again, I hide it in metaphor because I’m not comfortable in sharing my boring details which are the same as all of us. We all struggle, life is a challenge and a constant puzzle, and it’s really just always thinking about those things, and I don’t know if I have a poetic mind or what it is… I’ve studied a lot and read a lot, but I’m not a scholar; I can’t remember the facts and the details that have more of an intuitive, gut level idea of these philosophies and these different areas of… You said interest, but it’s not interest, it’s a way of walking in the world, I suppose.
“I think there are some ancient wisdoms there, hidden in these ancient things in our ancient past, that could maybe help guide us to a future. And that’s kind of always been an underlying theme; it runs through my lyrics in Neurosis, it runs through my solo lyrics, it runs through everything.”
You mentioned not being a scholar, but you are a school teacher as well as a musician. And so, I have to ask if you feel that exploring these themes and ideas in your music can serve as a learning experience for the listener, that the audience are your students and you are teaching them or talking to them about a particular subject?
No, I wouldn’t presume to think that I am any further along in the questions I am asking, the paths I am walking on or the ideas I am searching for than anyone else. I feel more like, if somebody is getting something out of my music, than it’s the same thing I’m looking for, it’s the same reason I’m making the music; I’m looking and I’m seeking connection. I’m looking for connection, I’m looking for meaning in a world that is full of so many meaningless distractions and so much meaningless bullshit. So, I’m just using it as a way to try to transcend the bullshit and connect with something real, to connect with spirit, to connect with land, to connect with Earth, to connect with the deeper parts of myself. As far as teaching anyone anything, no, other than maybe we are on this journey together, maybe we are all looking for this connection.
So, it’s more of a communal thing; it’s more about connecting with people that are also pondering about these questions, that are also looking for these answers themselves?
Well, but that’s maybe just an end result because the art itself is completely self-centered, and I don’t really think about anybody else when I make it, I make it for myself. It’s not that I don’t care what other people think or get out of it, it’s just that that doesn’t even come into play. I’m doing it for myself and I’m doing it for my own growth, my own self-centered reasons, but because those reasons I think are honest and authentic… I think doing art like this does make you vulnerable and it does put yourself out there in kind of an exposed way, and so, I think that does allow other people to feel maybe safe in investing their own feelings in. If you can create a place where we are all being emotionally vulnerable, where we are all flawed humans just searching, then maybe that’s where it becomes communal, but that’s the aftereffect, that’s the part I have no control over. I only have control over the sound of what I want to express, the songs that I want to write and the way I want to present it. After that, I have no power or control.
Speaking of your solo career, last time we spoke, you had just released No Wilderness Deep Enough, as well as your very first book of poetry. Three years later, how do you feel about both releases?
Still very proud of them both, I think they really pulled me into a different place. We discussed the whole process before, so I won’t do it again, but it really just kind of expanded my horizons, it gave me a broader palette of ideas to pursue and to use, you know? I could never recreate those conditions and make exactly that type of art again. That, plus I toured the whole thing last Summer in the US and I had never really done a huge tour like that with my solo stuff, I had just done a week here, two weeks there, a couple days here, mostly in Europe. So, it was really a challenge for me to stand in front of people and to play piano and sing, and not always have a guitar and to have other musicians figuring out this music with me. I’m just very grateful for the whole experience; in a lot of ways, it’s kind of back to the beginning of where I was in the early days of just trying to get a gig somewhere, just trying to be able to get an opportunity to express myself. You know, it used to be like, going to the copy shop and making flyers, and hanging them up around town, but now there’s these new ways in which you have to hang up flyers called social media. Working hard trying to get anybody at all in the door to come share the evening with us, you know? And I’m just grateful for the opportunity. I love challenging myself, I love putting myself in situations where I’m uncomfortable because that’s where I know that I’m growing, and I worked really hard to get my voice into shape to sing that often and overcome some problems I was having. And having the first book of poetry out, I’ve always written poetry and that book kind of came across by accident; it was just my thoughts of how I was stealing lines from poems that maybe needed their own life outside of being butchered for lyrics once in a while. And I’ve been writing a ton since then, I’ve filled up notebooks and notebooks, because now I know that that’s an avenue of expression available to me and it’s no longer some “I wonder if” situation, it’s an “I can do this” situation. So, now I know that I can write and publish poetry. So, I’ve been working hard on that and writing the next batch of songs for the next solo record, and all of it is uniquely inspired by the previous experience.
“I’ve been writing a ton since then, I’ve filled up notebooks and notebooks, because now I know that [poetry]’s an avenue of expression available to me, (…) So, I’ve been working hard on that and writing the next batch of songs for the next solo record, and all of it is uniquely inspired by the previous experience.”
Interview by Filipe Silva
Photo by Bobby Cochran, courtesy of Steve Von Till