Steve Von Till Interview: “Neurosis is air and water to our souls”

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neurosis interview

We get in depth with the post metal legend about Neurosis’ new album Fire Within Fires, Irish revolutionary Bobby Sands, and what drives the band after thirty years.

Post metal pioneers Neurosis formed in December 1985. Which means that the band is only six months younger than I am. In the intervening thirty one years, the group has gone from being hardcore upstarts to creating a entirely new genre of metal, they’ve collaborated with Jarboe, started their own record label and become as wonderful a living embodiment of the punk/DIY ethos as Fugazi.

Over the last year, the band embarked on a short tour to celebrate their time together with sets focusing on songs from throughout their career in tribute to the loyalty and passion of their fans. Never ones to sit still, they also released their eleventh studio album Fires With Fires. Their most concise and focused studio release in over two decades, the album sees the quintet continue to refine and perfect their unique aesthetic.

We got guitarist and vocalist with the group Steve Von Till on the phone to talk about the nature of the universe, checking out Ogham stones in farmers’ yards in Ireland, and the fire that drives the band after 30 years.

Overblown: How has Neurosis progressed between Honor Found In Decay and Fires Within Fires?

Steve Von Till: We’re right in the middle of that storm. I don’t know if we can be that objective about it. The way we look at it is that the path of evolution that we lucked upon and that we can recognise in hindsight is one that is spiraling into the true nature of what we’re supposed to be. Each time around we get closer and closer to the sound that is the true spirit of Neurosis. We definitely always challenge ourselves to push beyond where we’ve gone in the past. I would say Fires Within Fires is the most evolved version of Neurosis that we can be at this time.

O: This year marks the 30th anniversary of the band. Was it important for the band to release a new album this year as well as doing the retrospective shows etc?

SVT: It all just kind of happened. There was no grand plan. Our 30th anniversary was technically in the middle of December 2015. Earlier in the year, we had had the thought to do some 30th anniversary concerts and to do a rare glimpse backwards for the fans. Normally we’re so self centred and driven on this forward evolution that we don’t really care what anyone else thinks. We care and acknowledge and have gratitude that people like our weird self centred music but it is not what drives us. But we did want to celebrate our 30th anniversary by going back in the catalogue, trying to find some songs that would work, and trying to acknowledge each phase of our band.

We originally planned those shows to be in December, but we got together… We live quite far apart and don’t rehearse often. We realised we had a weekend in February in 2015 when we’d all be free. We decided to not book any shows and just get together and see what would happen. By the end of the weekend, it was really only two nights because we all had to get back to work on Monday, we were all packing up and Scott and I realised we had an entire album’s worth of material. It wasn’t polished but we had the skeleton of Fires Within Fires. We immediately postponed our anniversary concerts until March and decided to spend our actual anniversary in the studio doing what we love to do most which is to make records.

O: The title of the new record. Fires Within Fires. To me it sounds like something from Dante’s Inferno and the nine circles of hell. What is the meaning for the band?

SVT: We don’t really have one. I can tell you how it came about. We had the record recorded, mastered, we had the artwork complete except for the damn album title. We couldn’t find it in the lyrics or the song titles and everything was waiting on the title. One day David Edwardson, our bass player, said he’d been reading The Crucible and came across this line that included the phrase ‘fires within fires’. It was a completely different context. It was in the context of witch trials and the gossip of the people in the town. Evil doings within gossips and evil doings within gossip.

That is not the context we like to see the title. I like to see it more as the fractal nature of the universe and how the microcosm and the macrocosm are the same if looked at from a certain perspective. It also seemed to stand for the fire that drives us. That energy that is within us that has kept us going for thirty years.

O: It is interesting that you talk about the fire that keeps the band going. Obviously, your music is very intense. How do you think you manage to keep it fresh?

SVT: I think it just goes back to a refusal to…

O: To be content?

SVT: Well, I don’t know if that’s a refusal or an inability to find it (laughs). Contentment would be nice on a certain level within one’s mind. That doesn’t seem to be on the cards though. Having this outlet for those types of energies within our bodies and minds… It is very necessary for us to stay sane as human beings. We treasure this, I think, in a different way than some people look at it. We do this because we feel we have to or a certain part of us would die.

O: Like a compulsion?

SVT: Like a compulsion and a need. It’s more like you need to fucking breathe. Neurosis is like air and water to our souls. Psyche and well being would definitely perish if we did not have this outlet. What keeps it fresh is that we honour that spirit we have been lucky enough to tap into by not resting on our laurels.

O: You joined the band in 1989, I was wondering the anniversary shows at the moment do you ever think about what your life might be like if you hadn’t joined the band?

SVT: I wouldn’t even be able to picture it because that is my entire adult life. I was nineteen. I don’t think any of us could possibly know what our lives would be like without this band. It has completely shaped who we are as men, the people we’ve met. It’s the time machine paradox. You changed one little thing and the whole world changes. Well, Neurosis is a big thing (laughs). You change that and you change most of our social interactions for our adult lives. So, I have no idea.

O: I was talking to my friend Con about you and the band the other day, and he suggested that your approach in your solo material is kind of like the reverse of Bob Dylan going electric. He was wondering do the fans have difficulty with your solo work or is it largely embraced?

SVT: I wouldn’t say it’s largely embraced. I don’t hear anything negative but it is quite a small percentage of people who are willing to follow into the forays of song writer music. I think it was the late nineties that I found I was writing songs that had no home because they weren’t for Neurosis or for our experimental band, Tribes of Neurot. They were just these very simple songs sung in a room late at night when everyone else was asleep. I never thought I would be so egotistical as to release an album under my own name. But the songs were there so I dove in. I’m grateful that people are willing to give it a shot and take in these songs.

O: You might be able to tell from my accent that I’m Irish.

SVT: You don’t say (laughs).

O: I know that around 2010 you worked with an Irish group called Melodica Deathship on their song ‘1803’. I know you’re very interested in ancestry and history. The lyrics in that song are from a poem by an Irish revolutionary called Bobby Sands and deal with Irish criminals being deported to Australia. I was wondering were you aware of the significance of the lyrics when you got involved in the project.

SVT: First of all, one of the guys from Melodica Deathship, Tim Ording, is one of my best friends in the world. We went to high school together and he was around when we were discovering punk rock. Extremely formative years. I’d crash at his house, and borrow records and go record shopping. Go to all kinds of gigs. So when he graduated high school, he went travelling around Europe and got to Ireland and never came back.

O: I don’t blame him.

SVT: (Laughs) So obviously there’s that connection. With regard to loving history, my main thing is pre-history. I am a fan of those things that are ancient. In the late 90’s I spent three weeks in a car driving all around Ireland visiting dolmens, stone circles, chamber tombs. I had this duffel bag full of heavy fucking hard back books with all these references to Ogham stones in farmer’s yards. There I was driving around the island, knocking on doors asking if I could go look at their stone in their cow field. I don’t know why I’m drawn to such things. I’ve done the same in Germany. The megalith builders are fascinating to me. For such a quote primitive quote culture, there’s nothing primitive about those monuments. They’re complex and speak of a complex civilisation. With our Roman centric education it often gets belittled. I think ancient Europe had wisdom to share that would be useful to us now.

That being said, did I know what the lyrics were about on that song? I did not know they were Bobby Sands’ although I have read some of Bobby Sands’ writings and have read a lot about the hunger strikers. When I hear some of my American friends going crazy about politics sometimes I find it crazy how ignorant people are of the Troubles in Ireland and how heavy that was for people. That’s not to take a particular side of something. I mean, you go to Belfast and you have these different sides of the coin but if you look back the bigger powers and the bigger machines that be fucked everyone. Divide and conquer. The whole thing is fucked.

On a humanitarian level, the fact that these men were willing to starve themselves to death over being considered political prisoners in their own country is an epic tale.

O: It’s like a folk tale.

SVT: Yeah, and that’s fucking modern times. Modern day Western Europe. People think that crazy shit happens in these other third world countries but not only are they ignoring the ghettos here in America maybe they’re ignoring the history of the land of their ancestors.

O: What advice would you give to a band starting up now?

SVT: I don’t have any words of wisdom for coming up today because I feel like a dinosaur in today’s age. I would say the number one thing is you have to make the music you feel driven to make inside you. If you feel driven to make music, you make it . Whether anyone else cares or not shouldn’t matter. Of course, ego strokes are nice, playing gigs in front of people is nice and that’s what everybody dreams about when they’re air guitaring in their bedroom. You got to just make it because you have a passion for it.

And don’t give it up. People think they have to give it up because they have a family or when they have a regular job. We have all those things. You just find time and find a place inside yourself where you can express yourself. Grab an instrument. Buy some art supplies. I don’t know what but express yourself. Find some kind of way to connect with the spirit of this world that speaks to the higher nature of humanity. Do it for the sake of doing it. It would evolve us as a species. Stay true to yourself and don’t expect anyone to give you anything or do anything for you.

Find your own way.

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  • Bodycage

    Top notch interview, many thanks. Steve seems a very genuine person.

    • Jamie Coughlan

      He’s a gent. Delighted you enjoyed the interview!

      • Bodycage

        I did!