Ian Maleney recently spoke with Neurosis‘ Steve Von Till about running a label, the DIY scene, and the sometime harsh realities for the more mature man of recording and touring with an iconic underground metal band.
There are few bands that are as universally acclaimed in the metal underworld than Oakland doom merchants, Neurosis. Called “arguably the most influential band of the past two decades” by Terrorizer magazine, the band operate on a superstar status, albeit one that is deeply underground. From their early beginnings as a hardcore punk band, the band steadily grew into a darker, more measured sound, one that matched the intricate subtleties of modern art music with the utter heft of the most intense modern metal. After twenty-six years and nine studio albums, the six-piece continue to bring their inimitable brand of dark, psychedelic metal to fans all over the world. When they can get the time off work that is. “I teach in an elementary school. I love it, I’ve been doing it eleven years” explains guitarist Steve Von Till. Does that part of his life feel like a contrast to the intense noise he produces as a part of Neurosis? “I don’t know, it’s just my life. It doesn’t seem contrasting to me. My heroes have always been musicians and warriors and poets and authors and the people who led me to that knowledge were teachers so you know, it all totally relates to me. They teach me as much or more than I teach them.”
Fitting the Neurosis obligations around his own full-time job and those of the other five members is quite the challenge. “We don’t really tour normally. Since 1999, we haven’t toured in the way that we used to look at it, like get in a van be gone for months. We try to find to two weeks in the summer if we can, but we don’t all have the same types of jobs so it can be quite difficult. The past few years though we’ve found two weeks in the summer to get over to Europe because of the expense, so we don’t want to have to fly over for one gig if we can help it. Everything is closer when we get there too. In America we would never get in a van and tour like we used to because we can fly to a city on a weekend, play a Saturday night and go home.”
Von Till does still drive home the importance of getting out on the road, but as a man in his forties, he understands how necessary it is to work in moderation. “Touring has always been, I think, the fundamental aspect of any band, especially young bands,” he says, somewhat reticent to make the generalisation. “If people can’t see you, you’re not going to make it or break it on the internet. People need to see you. It’s hard to say because my experience is limited and my experience is Neurosis’ experience and that would really not be the same for everyone. For us, we just try and keep it in a special place where it’s in balance with the rest of our lives. We tour when we can, not because we feel we have to, when it makes sense with our families and our jobs. We’re not trying to play as often as we can in any place that’ll have us, we play where want to, when we want to play, with whom we want to play. That way it becomes more limited, it becomes something deeper and more treasured. For young bands coming up, they just have to get out there. I mean, on our first few tours it was living rooms and basements, some kids renting some kind of hall somewhere, a warehouse gig, whatever. You need to get where people live and get in peoples’ face so they can feel the energy and see it’s for real.”
Neurosis have long kept that energy and vitality close to heart by releasing their own records, as well as the records of many other out-there metal bands, on their own Neurot Recordings imprint. Von Till is the man in charge of that and his passion for the job is obvious. “It’s a labour of love man. For Neurosis it’s important that everything we put out and everything that we do, all of our labour now, should come as directly from the source as possible. Kind of getting back to an old school ideal of where you buy the art from the artist, you buy the craft from the craftsman. Growing up in the DIY punk rock scene that we hailed from, it’s a natural thing that everything should come directly from us. I mean, we’ve worked with some decent people over the years but it just makes more sense to have everything here. We can take responsibility for all of our own business ethics and having everything as pure as possible, which is the most important thing because ultimately this music is all we have. We don’t make a living from music, we don’t have any aspirations to be rockstars or any crap like that. This music, we have to make it, it’s necessary for the survival of our souls and our psychological well-being to make this music so the more pure format it can come in, the better. The other side to that of course, is that we’ve been able to use kind of our privileged position in underground music to afford to find other inspiring artists that we feel share a certain spiritual kinship with where we’re coming from and try to help get their music out there like people helped us out along the way.”
Of course, like any other label, there are difficulties springing up in new and unexpected places and the drive to continue faces more obstacles than ever. “It’s always a challenge, you know people don’t buy as many records as they used to, even in the underground scene. Everybody seems to want everything for free. Unfortunately, it’s not free to make stuff! Anybody can record something on their crappy laptop recording program and put out a piece of shit and give it away to their friends, but if you spend thousands of dollars going into a proper studio with a great engineer and try to make something that sounds really amazing by the high-fidelity standards we’ve gotten used to since the late sixties, it is a challenge! We have to just keep adapting and changing with the way things are, that’s just the way it is. I mean, yeah, there’s a bit of a vinyl renaissance going on but when all is said and done, people are listening to your beautiful recordings that you recorded on analog tape on a great studio with a great engineer as a crappy compressed MP3 on their shitty MP3 player with ear-buds instead of your classic, seventies hi-fi setup where if you had a stereo, it probably sounded pretty good.”
So how do you face into that kind of mentality, particularly coming from such a pure kind of place yourself? “Well the main thing is to, I guess, have some sort of hope that faith that in the underground music scene that people will support, that people will understand that they need to make decisions with their money, that their money speaks about the way things will be. It’s a powerful force that goes throughout the world, that has an ebb and flow. We just kind of hope that people will put money where their mouth is, so to speak, by going to see them live, buying the shirts or even just buy a digital download. Not everyone will, but maybe enough. Other than that, we try to get the word out, work with good PR people to get the press out there, work with good distributors to get it around the world and keep on the internet presence and mostly just try to let the music speak for itself. It’s definitely changed in the digital age but you have to adapt. It’s learning, talking to other labels, talking to other people doing it and seeing what works.”
Having released music by well-established bands like Isis and Red Sparowes as well as much smaller, niche acts, Neurot runs the gamut of style when it comes to the underground metal scene. How does Von Till maintain or solid identity for the label? “It’s all a wide variety of stuff but the common thread is that there’s a deeper spirit running through it. There has to be some unspoken spiritual thread in the music, some sort of drive, something that comes from the other.” Of course, few bands have personified that driven mentality as much as Neurosis themselves. How does a band keep that going after a quarter of a century together? “It’s natural,” he explains. “It flows, it’s a driven force. It definitely doesn’t come from our brains, we learned early on that it comes from surrendering to the power of the music and that the music just exists in nature. You just have to quiet yourself and surrender to it, just let it drive you, let it speak. We’re just lucky that this music likes to speak through us.”
Capturing that kind of natural expression so often proves difficult in practice, most obviously when it comes to getting it down on record. Does the studio environment, with it’s various technological distractions and increased interpersonal strain, affect the way the band make music? Apparently not. “We are lucky enough to be able to go play a few gigs and save our money and go record with Steve Albini in Chicago. The reason why we like to go there is because technology will not get in the way.” He explains it further, “I mean, the way we record, we do our homework. We get our songs ready in the rehearsal room, we don’t go work on it in the studio. We’re not Led Zeppelin, we can’t just go book studio time and hope a record will happen while we’re there. It’s like, I’ve got five days off work, how many do you got? Ok, this is how much we can afford, we’re going to go in there and bust it out, you’ve got to be ready. We did our last record, recorded it and mixed it in six days and that works for us, there’s no time dicking around. We don’t have to sit around for two days with some crappy engineer trying to get things to sound right or do some crazy edits in the computer or get into tweak world where people overthink shit. We just play. We set up live, we record the band playing and we’ll tack the vocals on afterward to get a great performance. We play as a band and record it and it’s pretty much done, do it old school. We like Steve because we don’t even have to go into the control room to know it sounds OK because we know our amps sound good, we’ve dialed those in over years and we just want it captured faithfully in a pleasing way. We know it’s going to sound killer when we get in there.” And, after four years without a new record, can fans look forward to something coming from the studio soon? “Well, we’ve got our songs together and there’s talk of trying to hit the studio at the very tail end of the year.” Looking at the energy this band clearly still have, that’s an exciting prospect indeed.
Neurosis play The Button Factory on July 25th. Tickets are €23.50 and are on sale now from tickets.ie.