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Wild Fire: In Conversation with Steve Von Till

On the back of his new instrumental and spoken-word albums, we talk to the Neurosis guitarist.

In the modern day world, it’s clear that in order to sustain artistic relevance, a thirst for hard work is key.

That’s not an issue for Steve Von Till who, by definition, is a workaholic.

Spending years as the storm that blew in from hell, known as Neurosis, while Von Till has spent decades blasting audiences into orbit through the guise of the era-defining punk metal titan, he has explored other territories in a quest to portray his art.

Alongside Neurosis’ experimental offshoot, Tribes of Neurot, Von Till has carved out a stunning, if not modest, solo career, both as songwriter and poet. Where the former is concerned, Von Till has mastered the dark folk hybrid, which started in 2000 with his debut album, As the Crow Flies. Since, Von Till has steadily chipped away, releasing albums in-between his endeavours with Neurosis.

Von Till has been more guarded where his poetry is concerned, and it wasn’t until last year which saw the release of Harvestman: 23 Untitled Poems and Collected Lyrics, which was released in conjunction with finest solo offering yet in No Wilderness Deep Enough; an album lending itself to the neoclassical folk Von Till has always been immersed in.

On ‘Wilderness‘, however, he excavates a new depth of richness and grandeur.

No Wilderness Deep Enough contains a pure earthy grit. Thematically contaminated by dread and dark shadows of infinite mystery, sonically it’s like a sea of haunted dreams that are underpinned by otherworldly images. It’s the kind of journey that stirs up the same emotions when listening to Nick Cave & The Bad SeedsSkeleton Tree and Ghosteen, and Josh T. Pearson’s Last of the Country Gentlemen.

Which brings us to A Deep Voiceless Wilderness. The instrumental companion piece to No Wilderness Deep Enough.

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While some may see A Deep Voiceless Wilderness as an ‘off-cuts’ or ‘bonus’ album of sorts, with the power that No Wilderness Deep Enough possesses and radiates, A Deep Voiceless Wilderness is equally as illuminating, operating on a spiritual plane of its own. Truth be told, it’s actually quite frightening how different the two records are.

Alongside A Deep Voiceless Wilderness, Von Till released Harvestman 23: Untitled Poems – a spoken-word journey featuring four poems from last year’s collection, amid a backdrop of atmospheric splendour.

The two release alongside the poetry collections both in print and spoken-word stack up as some of the most absorbing pieces of art Von Till has produced, culminating in one of his most prolific creative periods. And it doesn’t stop here, with Von Till currently working on new music for Harvestmen – the project that he uses as an outlet to channel experimental, voyages of sound; namely of the psychedelic and ambient variety.

“It’s kind of a trilogy of 12 inches, where I specifically dug out at least one track on each one, so that there’s a regular version and a dubbed version of some kind of gooey, psychedelic home recorded madness,” says Von Till from his farm in Idaho when we spoke via Zoom at the beginning of June.

As well as the plethora of projects as a recording artist, Von Till also runs the venerable Neurot Recordings; the label which features his solo work and Neurosis’, and has released albums from Jarboe, YOB, Deafkids, Amenra, and many more. If that’s not enough, there’s also the small matter of Von Till‘s full-time job as an elementary school teacher.

The hard work never ends, but it’s clear that Von Till chooses this lifestyle and, indeed, thrives within it.

Steve Von Till - photo credit Bobby Cochran
Steve Von Till - (photo credit: Bobby Cochran)

Sun 13: Before releasing No Wilderness Deep Enough, did you envisage releasing A Deep Voiceless Wilderness or did the idea form afterwards?

Steve Von Till: “That’s actually the way I thought the album was going to be. When I composed the record, it was largely an accidental process, I kind of stumbled into this music. I didn’t really ever feel like I was writing it… I was first kind of, I think, channelling these emotions when I was reflecting on… I was in Germany at my wife’s parents house, and just kind of reflecting on this connection between people and their landscape, because they’ve been on the same house site for 500 years, which even by European standards, that’s fucking long time to be in one exact spot, you know, and the land is very cultivated. I mean, human beings have been cultivating that soil there for thousands of years. Very different than the kind of rural area here, which still has a little bit more things that are wild in it.

“Again, I really didn’t know I was doing it, I just wasn’t able to sleep. Typical jetlag situation and just stayed up until, the dawn hours, just putzing around on my little electronic setup. By the end of the week we were visiting there, I had these ideas that I’d recorded, didn’t think much of them, and brought them back to Idaho. Over the following months, I started opening up the sessions and, again, didn’t ever feel I was making a record or anything. I was just investigating the sound seeing where they were taking me.

“I started adding analogue synthesisers and treating some of the digital instruments with my filters and delays and really kind of built it up to almost exactly what it is within several months. And then I listened to it, and it seemed like a unique piece of work for me. I didn’t know what it was. Was I supposed to grab my electric guitar and put some psychedelic weird fuzz box shit on there and call it Harvestman? Or do I need a different band name ’cause this is an ambient record? Basically what I told myself is, ‘I think you accidentally composed an ambient record with some pretty heavy neoclassical leanings. And where does this fit into what you do?’ And I didn’t know that answer.

“When I contacted my friend, Randall Dunn, who had recorded my last solo record and said, ‘Hey, man, I think I wrote this really interesting piece of music. But I would like to go replace the digital piano with a nice sounding piano in a studio and maybe get a French horn player to replace my French horn samples, and maybe get a cello player to flesh out some of my Mellotron strings’. And he went away with that and listened to it for a few days and called me back and said, ‘Well, yeah, let’s do that. But also, you shouldn’t be a wimp, you should sing on it and make it your next solo record’, which I did not agree with. I thought that beautiful music did not need my horse croak.

“But I respected his opinion and it was intriguing to me. So by this time, it was my winter break from school, from work. I set up a microphone, my wife was back in Germany, I was alone here with the dogs, so I didn’t want to go out to the barn in my studio and leave all the animals alone all day, so I just set up a microphone in the living room here and every morning I came out with my cup of tea or coffee and my notebook and my pen and I improvised.

“By the end of the week, I had all the lyrics, I had all the vocal melodies and I told him he was right. But in the back of my mind, I still liked it without the voice. I don’t really enjoy hearing my own voice. I like writing songs, I like being creative, I like expressing myself, but once I’m done with a record, I’ve had enough time with it. But because I didn’t feel like I was ever labouring over this record, I don’t feel like I ever sat down and composed it on purpose. It feels like somebody else made in a lot of ways, and so I can listen to that, instrumentally.

“So when we were mixing No Wilderness Deep Enough, the final mix there, every time we finished a song, I said, ‘All right, mute the vocals and let’s do an ambient pass’. I didn’t know it would get a full release. I didn’t know if I would do it. I didn’t know what my plan was for it, like whether it would be a bonus, or whatever. But I just I knew before I left that studio, I wanted that opportunity to have those ambient instrumental versions of the songs.”

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S13: Listening to A Deep Voiceless Wilderness, it really does feel like it takes its own life path. There’s, like, a split-personality between the two.

SVT: “Yeah, I agree.”

S13: It has a Noirish cinematic vibe, which isn’t really captured on No Wilderness Deep Enough, and listening to it through its ambient state, it kind of gives a new dimension to No Wilderness Deep Enough. What are your thoughts on that?

SVT: “Yeah, I could definitely see that. I mean, the funny thing is, as much as I would have liked to have kind of done a completely different mix. The simple fact, I mean, it really is the exact same mix. It’s the exact same moment at the board. The only difference is muting those vocal tracks. It’s kind of amazing, the perspective that I could send, like an audio trick, it’s like… somehow things that were in the background come to the forefront, or things that will kind of pass unnoticed, because you’re…

(Pause)

“I mean, we’re human beings, we’re drawn to the human voice. So when my voice is in there, yeah, it’s getting your attention. I’m saying words, which are focusing your thoughts and narrowing your experience to my words, whereas without that human voice to interrupt and without those words to frame the experience, it’s got a much broader depth, I think, and the sounds that you might not pay attention to, because they’re further back in the mix or more subtle in the mix, your brain just doesn’t pay attention to them when there’s a voice there, then it really does become something different. I like them both a lot, but I find the instrumental one in a lot of ways more powerful.”

S13: In terms of Neurosis, you guys have basically had this partnership with Steve Albini for the last two decades. I feel like there’s a similar synergy with your solo work and Randall Dunn. Was he always going to be your go-to guy for these records?

SVT: “Yeah, for sure. I mean, I really enjoyed doing the last record, A Life Unto Itself. I really enjoyed the process of making [music] with him. One thing I don’t have is a lot of resources, time or money and he knows [that], so I’ve got to get these things done quick. I got to work with people that can get them done quick and know what I’m going for. And they know that I enjoy their company… I mean, part of my creative life is just being grateful for these opportunities and part of what I really enjoy is even if I’ll never earn the money back, I like pony-ing up the cash to go into a proper studio because I just love them. (laughs)

“I love being in those environments like inspiring spaces, where people have spent the extra time making the vibe cool, you know. These beautiful microphones and beautiful mixing desks and gear, it’s one of the things I really enjoy about being a musician. Randall‘s all about that, and about trying to find a way to make it accessible, and working quickly.

“He’s also great at taking care of a lot of the overdubs from a distance. We made the plan where I would come do the piano and the vocals and mix it, so we had to do all that in three days, the final piano replacements the vocal takes. Most of the bedrock tracks were the actual tracks from my home studio. We didn’t redo the synthesisers and the basic stuff, there was no reason to. But the cello and the French horn, he had arranged with a friend where he lives now in Brooklyn, New York, so they took my keyboard examples as a starting point and ran with it and did their thing. So by the time I got to Portland, where we did the mix at Flora Recording and Playback, it already sounded really lush. I like Randall‘s use of reverbs, he’s really classy with it. He’s not afraid to run reverbs into other reverbs, but without sounding heavy handed, somehow.” (laughs)

A Deep Voiceless Wilderness

S13: The Harvestman poetry collection was released in conjunction with both records, last year your book of poetry and then the spoken-word aspect of it alongside the A Deep Voiceless Wilderness. Do you see the two as somehow connected?

SVT: “Not initially. Again, like everything about this entire two year process is kind of just… not over-thinking and really the art of learning to get out of my own way. I mean, I was pretty insecure about No Wilderness Deep Enough. You know, it was really out there. For me, it was very different. It pulled very different things out of me vocally, emotionally a very broader range of expression, even though my voice is kind of trashed from all these years of being mean to my vocal cords.”

S13: Sounds pretty good to me.

SVT: (Laughs) “But, you know, still, like every artist, I’m my own worst critic, and I think part of the drive comes from a deep insecurity and nothing ever being good enough or worthy. Even the fact that it felt like I didn’t even write it made me feel like, ‘Well, I didn’t make it. It just kind of appeared!’

“So here’s how they’re related. In the process of writing the lyrics that one winter week, when Randall challenged me to sing on it, I sat with my notebook… I mean, I’ve written poetry my entire adult life, I just never had any plans to publish anything I had. In my mind I always just kind of reserved it as, ‘Those are my personal notebooks, which will either just die as kind of weird abstract journaling, or they’re kind of lyric fodder’. Like when I need to go mining for lyrics, I have these notebooks of phrases and lines and words and poems and different things that I can grab lines from as I need them to fit songs. Because songs and poems are very different.

“I always write music from the music, the music comes first. I never have the vocals in mind until the music is complete, and then I think what is the voice that is supposed to be in there? What is the sound? What is the rhythm? What is the cadence? What are the vowel sounds even that you’re supposed to be hanging on, like, ‘Is that an ahh part, or an A part’, you know?” (laughs).

“So I’ve always just kind of gone and taken these things from these poems. I was doing that, because I was trying to come up with this entire album worth of lyrics. I was grabbing some lines, and I grabbed one line. The line was, ‘We have the sea, and we’ll always have the sky’, and I took that from a poem. I believe it’s the first poem in the book and I felt totally guilty about stealing that line from that poem, because even though I had no plans to publish anything, that poem, the way it sat on the page looked perfect. I was like, ‘That was a good poem and now I’ve killed it by stealing the best line from it. So if I take that line out of the poem, the poem sucks’.

“But I guess that’s the price, I need lyrics, and I need them now, right?”

S13: Sure.

SVT: “But then I thought, in the back of my mind, well, maybe I should let it have a life as a poem and a song. That line, maybe it can live in both. In fact, if I felt that way about that poem, maybe I need to stare myself in the face a little bit and admit that I write poetry, and I enjoy it, and I think I have a unique voice with it, and maybe I should compose some poems with the intent of letting them be poems and not just lyric fodder and not just a place to go mining for words when I need them for songs. So I sat and I did that and they all came really quickly. Like, I have lots of other poems, but none of those are old. Those all came within a really, relatively very short period of time in a couple of months. And once I finished that twenty-third one, I said, ‘Wow, this is a body of work. And I think, it’s good enough that I should put it out there.’

“But again, I felt like… I’ve always had this punk rock cynical thing that says, ‘Who the fuck are you to think you’re good enough to put that out there? What, you woke up this morning and declared yourself a poet? Like, who the fuck are you to do that?’ Or, ‘Who the fuck are you to put out this beautiful record of this beautiful music, you’re not a composer? You know, you’re punk rock guitarist.’ (laughs)

“So the way that they’re related is that it’s all kind of confronting those feelings of not being good enough or not being worthy, and overcoming that negative-self talk, and learning to like… if I’m not going to stand up at 51 years of age and own the fact that I’m capable of making music like this and writing poetry, then when am I ever going to get on that horse? So all of it is kind of related in that way of stepping out of my comfort zone and going into these new territories, which is always a little terrifying. And then putting art out into the world where you have no control over what happens once you put it out there in the world and people are going to give you their feedback. It’s always a little bit terrifying.

“I did enjoy the irony of the fact that I was basically releasing the same record and the same book twice in different forms.”

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S13: (Laughs) Yeah. Total crossover.

STV: “Yeah, it all just seemed like that was the idea. That’s the way it was supposed to be, you know?”

S13: The first poem on the Harvestman collection on your spoken word album. There’s a line that jumped out at me. ‘The depths of darkness illuminate who we are’. I’ve always associated your solo work with existential dread, it feels like a constant theme.

SVT: (Laughs)“Yeah.”

S13: Do you see existentialism as a key influence to you as an artist?

STV: (Pause) “In the fact that the way in which I think I share those similar wonderings of the big picture. I’ve never been a student of existentialism, per se. I mean, whatever university psych courses and philosophy courses, I brushed into a lot of that type of stuff, but I don’t sit and read the existentialists, necessarily.

“But I think that whole idea of…. yeah, who are we? Why are we here? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What’s the point? What’s our connection? You know, what’s real and what’s illusion? What our modern society is? [It] seems so far upside down and backwards from what we should be as a species and what our potential is.”

Steve Von Till (photo credit: James Rexroad)

S13: I think No Wilderness Deep Enough is your best record because it’s your most revealing. For instance, something like Wild Iron. A song like that never loses its impact and still stirs up those same emotions. It has that emotional depth that I would associate with the last two Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds records and the latest work from Mount Eerie. It’s interesting when you say that you didn’t think you wrote it, like it was subconscious thing…

SVT: “Yeah, it really did manifest itself. I guess my part of it was that I was allowing myself the space and the freedom to keep going down those rabbit holes that didn’t feel like they belonged in my usual musical output. So it was very fulfilling and now I’m grateful for it, too, because it’s opened my eyes. Between No Wilderness Deep Enough and A Deep Voiceless Wilderness and the poetry book, I really have blown the pathways in front of me to be creative wide open again.

“I already look forward to seeing what happens next, and really kind of allowing all these things I’ve learned over the years that are my strengths and weaknesses, and trying to harness them into pieces of art that makes sense.”

S13: I’ve always been intrigued by your songwriting process, because you’ve got so many things going on. You’re a full-time teacher as well as an artist. How do you balance it all?

SVT: “It is frustrating from the creative person standpoint, because that’s the thing I have the time to do least. I mean, my kids are grown, so that’s gotten a little bit mellower. And I’m a husband, and I’m a homeowner, and, you know, a full-time teacher. I also run Neurot Recordings with some help out of our barn here.

“So I come home from work, then I’ve got to go to the office out there for a couple hours and pay bills, or talk about what’s going on, and what fires we put out there. Then I come and have dinner. Most of the time, I don’t have the energy at night anymore to force myself to go out there. So really, I try to make the most out of really small chunks of time. I try to really only follow those things that feel like they might come to fruition. I don’t follow the cerebral ideas necessarily, because I always feel like that just leads to banging my head against the wall, searching for something that was a mental idea, as opposed to just a gut level kind of expression in the moment. I guess it’s been working for me. In some ways, I feel like I’m more creative right now than I’ve ever been in my life, and I feel like the next stuff isn’t far behind.

“I mean, I’ve still been writing poems fairly frequently, and sometimes that’s just like, the minutes when I wake up and I sit down with my tea before I’ve got to start hurrying up and get out the door. I don’t know… I guess I’m lucky that I stumbled into the way to compose that I do, where I can be productive with short bursts of time, you know?”

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S13: How much do you think your surroundings and the landscape of Idaho influences your work?

SVT: “I think a lot. I think it gives me the space to breathe. I really need it as a tonic to my…

(Pause)

“Again, I could really go down negative about humanity in general. And actually being in the country doesn’t help that much, because you got a different style of people out here that sometimes it may get worse.”

S13: I grew up and lived in a smaller area, as well, so I know exactly what you mean. It’s twofold. Like, you can use it as an inspiration to just remove yourself from that. Or you can get upset about it, because people have different views to you. It’s kind of a balancing act.

SVT: “Yeah, for sure. But I do… I mean, every morning, that’s one of my rituals as I walk with the dogs, and we do a lap around our 12 acres, and I try to always just feel gratitude for being in a beautiful place. The trees and the earth and the plants and the flowers. Or, in the wintertime, even the snow and the different birds and the ravens that live here, all the different animals and being able to have those encounters.

“As opposed to growing up in the city, like now, it’d be like, it’s not unusual if I’m on a morning walk in the wintertime, and we’ll stumble into a moose and have to turn around and go back to the house. Like, ‘Oh, shit’. (laughs)

“It’s been huge for me to connect, because you can see it in my lyrics my whole life. In any of my projects, I’ve always had a longing for a connectedness to nature and a deeper one, and I still do. I don’t feel like I’ve found it. I’m a little bit closer, because now I have all four seasons, and I live in a place where, even though I still have a busy lifestyle, I brought all the busyness with me. I don’t have to travel to get into nature to relax, I just have to walk outside.”

A Deep Voiceless Wilderness, No Wilderness Deep Enough, and Havestman – 23 Untitled Poems are all out now via Neurot Recordings. Purchase from Bandcamp.

Harvestman: 23 Untitled Poems and Collected Lyrics is available from the Neurot Recordings website.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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