Interview by Parisa Eshrati
I had the chance to speak with Steve Von Till on the phone before he headed out to Tucson for SWTF. We discussed spirituality in music, the Neurot Recordings label, his teaching career, and more.
We’re really excited for Neurosis to be playing Southwest Terror Fest in a few weeks. I’m not sure if this was the most recent time you guys were here, but in the early 90s you guys played in Tucson called the Downtown Performance Center (DPC) which actually just got torn down a month ago. Do you have any memories of that show or of Tucson in general?
What I remember about Tucson is that we had a connection with a great artist, Steve Eye, out there who made sculptures and masks. I don’t remember the last time we were out in Tucson though, but I just remember playing at his warehouse many years ago. We’re really excited for Southwest Terror Fest. Great lineup, great festival, and we’re looking back to being back in Tucson after all this time.
The SWTF show will be a mini-tour kick off before going to Colorado and then to Austin for the Housecore Horror Film Fest. With that in mind, what are some of your favorite horror movies?
You know, I don’t actually like horror movies! Not really. When I think of movies I choose to put on, it’s never a horror film. There are some that have impacted me, no one can’t forget the Exorcist. That’s a fucking dark, heavy intense movie but I’m not a horror fan.
You guys just toured in Australia for the first time this summer. Tell us a little about that experience and what it was like playing somewhere new.
It was great. There are people who have been listening to our music for a long time and never thought they’d have a chance to see us. We never had a chance to build an audience in Australia so it was a more subdued number than what we were used to, but everyone was super enthusiastic. People were really into it, and I don’t think people had any idea of what we sound like live because they had just listened to our records. It was good for us to see this kinda legendary place as well. Australia brings up a lot of mythology in your mind of what it must be like. We just went down there, did what we did and destroyed. I think we’ll be welcome back.
I always feel like desert environments are the perfect atmosphere for drone/heavy music, so perhaps people are more understanding of that kind of music. Do you notice any differences when playing in more open areas than in condensed cities?
I think once you get out of the cities like L.A. or N.Y., the experiences seem more genuine. I mean, NY is fucking intense in its own way. But when you get out of the trendy bullshit that those coastal cities have, I think you generally get a more genuine experience. Wherever there is a thriving artistic community is great, which of course ebbs and flows in different ages. We’ve had some of our best shows in strange, odd places. There was a time that where this small town in South Dakota was our favorite place to look forward to. Who would’ve thought? I think it’s more about where the energy is. Ultimately, we do the music for ourselves and create a catharsis and very little depends on anyone else. But is nicer if you are in a creative, cool environment.
You stated how “music exists in nature and we just tap into it”. Do you feel that the physical environment of where you are living or recording influences the atmosphere of the music you create?
I mean, it must. We channel our entire life experience into the music. We’re always in different locations and whatnot and that brings a lot to it, but we bring the whole human experience into it as well. It’s hard to say if the specific environment is the most direct influence on us. I think it must on some level, because everything we take in must influence us.
You’ve mentioned how making music is necessary for you all because it is your spirituality. In your perspective, what is spirituality and how can music be a vessel for that?
I think spirituality is a way that you connect with the unseen. It’s the part that can’t be explained from science yet, or maybe because science is divorced from the spiritual. It’s the soul, it’s the part of you that’s not just some biological, electrical sack of meat. Our connection with the subtle energies, the things that are emanating from the animals, plants, trees, and human beings, with the cosmic and with whatever people’s beliefs systems shape into these thought forms that take on lives of their own. I think music is the perfect conduit because it’s nonverbal and unbound, I mean some music is and it’s all legitimate.
For us, it’s more of…well, we don’t know where the fuck it comes from. It must come from a place that is spiritual because it is not a product of our brains. The fact that we’re able to channel these raw emotions and things that take us by surprise connect us with a deeper part of ourselves, connect us with each other, and with other people obviously, because other people connect with our music. With me personally, it has connected with me with the natural world better because, like I said, I think music is a natural force. To be tuned in it allows me to be tuned into other places as well and recognize what it means to actually listen or to pay attention or to breathe.
When you are on stage, you note that you become tranced out and like “you’re not even there”. Can you elaborate on that and describe what your mindset is on stage?
Well that’s always the idea, it’s not always like that. We wish! It only takes one fucking camera flash or one idiot to take you take your attention and snap you out of that awesome place where you were. I don’t know if it’s describable. The way to describe it is the sound. It’s not like a place or a guided meditation, you know? It’s just raw energy. You are the energy and the way to describe the energy is to listen to the music.
Now that recording time is slim since all the band members in Neurosis are spread out, does it change the dynamic of when you guys are finally all together? If so, how does it reflect in your music?
I think the ideas stayed pinned up longer in our current situation. Right now, we haven’t even begun the process but we’ve been talking about ideas for a while and we’re all starting to feel the energy boil over. Like “c’mon, when are gonna stop fucking playing shows and spend a weekend letting it flow?!” I think it has more of an urgent, explosive nature to it. At the same time, as you do this more and more, it’s more of something you don’t take for granted.
We appreciate the ability to come together and do this and we realize how much of a treasure it is to do this, that we have each other and we have found the sound and be able to channel this music. With that comes a kind of faith that when the time is right, it will always happen. We don’t worry if it’s going to happen – it will just happen. Sometimes it has to boil over, the timing has to be right and the stars have to be aligned. We’ll have to get time off and that kind of shit, but we will always be able to produce our most final, most evolved, most forward-moving sound and it will always be able to out-do our past efforts. When we were younger, we used to worry like “Ah, how are we gonna out-do that one?“ But now we realize it’s just the nature of this kind of music.
So let’s talk a bit more about the Neurot Recorings label. What are some projects from other bands that are currently undergoing that you’re really excited about? Or just any new releases in general?
The ones that just came out a few weeks ago are the new YOB and Ides of Gemini. Those are at the front of my mind right now. YOB is destroying everything right now which is just great. We have a pretty hefty schedule coming up next year. Tad, the legendary Tad Doyle of Seattle, his new project Brothers of the Sonic Cloth is going to be doing their first LP with us. Ufomammut is going in the studio from Italy and they’re fucking amazing. Oh man, there are like 5 things happening before summer. Scott is working on different stuff with different folks and I started recording my new solo record which I’m gonna mix in December, so that will see late next year release. I have a few other bands that we’re talking to and hoping it works out so there is a lot to look forward to.
What are some of your favorite vinyls in your record collection?
Damn, that’s a hard question. Just this week I got the re-mastered Led Zeppelin 3. It’s nice to hear that one. I haven’t heard that one in a while except for what you heard on classic rock radio. But yeah, jamming to a lot of that and Hi-Five and dub vinyl lately. For some reason I’m in a big dub phase. Some African Head Charge and King Tubby. Joy Division always seems to pop up more than most things.
Are you still working as an elementary school teacher?
Yes, I am.
What grade do you teach?
What do you think is one of the biggest takeaway points of your teaching experience so far?
It sounds so obvious and a total teacher thing to say, but just the fact that you are responsible for that roomful of kids to be there for them to not only deliver the public education curriculum, but their parents are trusting with you with the most beloved piece of themselves. You have a huge responsibility to make them feel welcome and cared for and safe, as well as trying to turn on their minds to something as well…exposing them to things like art, music, etc.
Do you have a favorite subject you teach?
Well having only moved to Idaho ten years ago and then teaching 4th grade in California, I like to teach about Idaho history which is the 4th grade social studies curriculum. It’s all about the Native tribes, Lewis and Clark and Idaho, that’s always kind of fun.
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All interviews posted before October 2015 were originally recorded for KAMP Student Radio.