An Interview with Steve Von Till from Neurosis: Between Meditation And Obsession

This week, the West Coast’s foremost heavy innovators, Neurosis, will release their 10th full-length, Honor Found In Decay, through their own Neurot Recordings imprint. It is the first record they’ve done in five years, and though rife with the juxtaposition between ambience and sonically crushing tones that’s helped make Neurosis among the most influential heavy bands of their generation, it also continues their seemingly unbending progressive will. As raw and emotional as their material is, no two Neurosis albums ever fall into the trap of saying the same thing, musically or lyrically, and though they’ve recorded with Steve Albini in Chicago’s Electrical Audio since 1999, their processes aren’t quite as clean-cut as one might think.

Guitarist/vocalist Steve Von Till—joined in the band by guitarist/vocalist Scott Kelly, bassist Dave Edwardson, keyboardist/sampler Noah Landis, drummer Jason Roeder and visual artist Josh Graham—explains some of Neurosis’ drives below:

With a five-year split between records, when did you actually start writing for Honor Found in Decay?

Some of the seeds of the pieces could go back to the tail end of the Given To The Rising period. We don’t really ever… We’re a chaos process. We don’t really have a determined time where we go, “Okay, now we’re writing a new album.” We’re always thinking of music and throwing ideas around, and it’s just how they take shape that changes and is never the same. But it’s always in mind. There’s not a set moment where we decide, “Okay, now we’re writing.”

Some of these pieces definitely have their roots from five years ago, and they just hadn’t taken shape or revealed themselves, so we kept tearing them apart and rebuilding them until they took shape, and others over the last couple years. In a lot of the interviews I’ve been doing, people ask why such a long time, and from one perspective, it doesn’t feel that long to us, actually. I don’t know if time is moving different because we’re older and we’ve been together 27 years. It doesn’t seem like that long ago when we were releasing Given To The Rising, so maybe time is speeding up.

But, for us, our greatest limitation is time together. We live pretty far apart from each other. We all work dayjobs and have families, and finding the same periods of time to work on music is sparse and limited. We chose to use a lot of that time after Given To The Rising to travel and play concerts, and play shows—more than we had in the seven years previous. That ate up a lot of the time, and after we even had the material together, it was six months before we could find a week in the same place together to be able to record it.

How often are you guys actually in the same room?

Couple times a year.

Is that mostly for shows? Is there any writing done together?

Oh yeah. Before we could record, we had to be together. We wanted to make sure it was ready, so we got together for two weekends in a row. Some people were together for the whole week and those of us far away came in on the weekends, and we did some travel sessions just for writing, and some travel sessions just rehearsing. Rehearsing for gigs usually only takes running through the set once. Then we have the rest of the day or the weekend to shoot ideas around.

I wanted to ask about “Bleeding The Pigs.” The middle track, it stood out to me. How did that one come together?

The part of it that came together for that song was the entire intro section, the entire piece before it starts moving, and moving in a more cyclical manner. The whole intro came almost as its own piece, and I just remember that it was channeling something pretty dark and disturbing in that beginning, that really gave the rest of it—which had been sitting around for a while—meaning. It gave it a contrast which gave it life, I think.

So it was two separate pieces?

Kind of. The second two-thirds of it had existed as its own piece, almost, that we were not happy with because it just wasn’t complete. And then there was this kind of revelation as to this way of building to it, this way of giving it a place and a time and an emotional backdrop that made sense.

That’s the way things happen sometimes. You have no idea how they’re gonna work out and some things never do work out. Some things just disappear and weren’t meant to be. Other things find new ways of rising out of the ashes.

Has there been any change to recording with Steve Albini? Is how that happens all ritual at this point? Is it different each time?

It’s pretty ritual. It’s pretty no-nonsense. That’s why we’ve been repeating it. Before we started recording with him, we honestly didn’t have a lot of experience in the studio. We’d had mixed experiences of different types and learning the ropes, and we fell victim to a lot of what… Musicians get stupid ideas about how they should be making records, I think. About the actual production and creation of the recording. But think of what they spend all their time doing: rehearsing as a band in a room together to sound killer. So that is really the way that it should be recorded, I think.

There are some styles of music that benefit from studio fuckery, and I love using the studio as an instrument for bizarre shit like Harvestman or Tribes Of Neurot and just destroying a sound source for the sake of something else, but with Neurosis, we spend a lot of time to make sure that the songs are good and that we know we’ve been working on our tones for a long time, we like our tones. Jason’s an incredible drummer with an incredible drum sound. Noah’s stuff is played live exactly as we play it on the record, and all the layers are there all the time. It’s not this weird studio craft, so we really just want to set up in a room and play and get it done. We don’t want to tweak around.

You hear these stories of bands recording an album, and it’s a dude sitting on a couch with a guitar in his hand putting down his parts, and it’s complete bullshit, I think.

Get in the fucking room and play your fucking shit. Be a band. That’s how our favorite records from the ‘70s were done. You’ve got a band, play it together. Sure, nothing wrong with some creative overdubs, if you want to. We tend not to, maybe one or two.

With Steve Albini, we know we can set up our stuff and start doing final tracks within hours. We don’t even have to go in the control room and check. We know that because of his extreme experience with his studio and his gear—literally there’s no replacement for doing thousands of albums—literally, thousands of albums—I know my guitar is going to sound like my guitar when I go in there. It’s going to sound light a high-fidelity analog recording of my guitar. And it’s the same with everybody.

It’s going to sound like us playing in a killer room, a killer-sounding room. Our instruments in a nice-sounding room. We bust it out, we put the vocals on, we mix the thing. There’s not a lot of tricks, there’s no gimmicks, there’s no fixing stuff later. There’s none of that.

How long were you actually in there?

This time it was a luxurious and expansive 10 days. Given To The Rising we did in six. This one at 10, it felt pretty luxurious. But we couldn’t actually all be together for a week, so we decided that we were just gonna break it up into two chunks and track at a mellow pace for the first session and just go mix it for the second one. 10 days we could actually do things like have a dinner break or whatever.

About the artwork. Did you guys give Josh any direction, or did he just make the cover happen?

That definitely came from a group discussion. One thing we all wanted to do, once we started talking about it, we didn’t want any Photoshop manipulation. We wanted things to be in-camera. If we were gonna use photos, we wanted it to be all natural, all captured in-camera with natural lighting. No Photoshop shit. It’s just way too done. And it started from the symbol, a symbol that wound up being created with actual arrows. That was a symbol that was bounced around.

Scott presented it from a book of symbols he had. I remembered we already used it on a Tribes Of Neurot flyer probably in ’97, and basically, the three arrows bound together, it looks quite runic. We’re not sure of the origin, but its meaning is gleaned as the strength of the whole is greater than the individual. The unity will bring about greater strength. Obviously that’s true with our band, and so we thought it would be a good, simple, image that we could approach a million different ways for the coming years centered around this record.

And we started talking about the photographs themselves, and we remembered that a friend of ours who booked some solo shows for Scott and I in Slovakia is also an archeologist, and he had gifted both Scott and I separately some actual, archeological arrowheads, which were thousands of years old from that area. So we instantly thought, “Okay, we can bind these onto shafts and bind them together to form this symbol,” and having actual artifacts, even though it’s impossible to say whether the energy will transfer through a photograph, we felt better knowing it was real, that they actually are ancient pieces.

We started brainstorming: What do we want? We want a space, an environment. We didn’t want to speak to what it was going to be, except that someone was obviously living and occupying this isolated space, where they were obsessing on writings and photographs, or meditating on them, it’s a fine line, you’re not sure. Writing their own. Our lyrics were actually transferred onto pieces of paper torn out of old books, antique books, to kind be present in the photograph as part of the natural environment of the space. So this person’s obviously obsessing, they’re meditating, they’re giving their own spiritual offerings.

There’s also painted elk jawbones holding up the arrows, and ashes of burnt offerings, but you’re not sure what all this is. The only thing you are sure of is it’s an intensely personal, almost claustrophobic space where this person is going through the gamut of emotional release or transformation, or obsession, or meditation. Despite the isolation, they obviously need to communicate with the outside world, which is emphasized by the vintage communication equipment in there as well.

So you have this strange irony, which is kind of the irony of our band—I don’t know if “irony” is the right word—we’ll have to just ask Roget later. This is intensely personal music to us. This is our self-expression. We really don’t allow any outside influence to sway us one way or another, whether it be the expectations of fans, or the industry—even though we’re completely outside of the industry, people do seem to bow to the expectations of underground music, for whatever reason I can’t understand—the expectations of anything. The expectations of business, of finance. The expectations of our past work.

We can’t let any of that influence the fact that this is our personal self-expression. This is the way that we cope with being human beings in this world and our way of trying to find something real and meaningful. It really doesn’t matter whether anybody likes it or not. Now, the juxtaposition there is that obviously we have some desire or need or drive to put it in public. We don’t just make it for ourselves, make our own recording and take it home. We do throw it out there in the public, and so despite the fact that we are having this intensely personal experience with our music, we feel this drive to throw it out there in the music.

I think that’s kind of reflected into it as well, and I think that whole vibe of obsession, or meditation, or offerings, with the writings and the photographs and the electronics, and the spiritual totems, and the way the photographs are taken, and the way it doesn’t tell an exact story, it just hints at things—I think it’s a perfect visual space for people to trip on while they’re listening to the album.

Kind of in the classic album sense, where you’re listening to the album and you’re reading the lyrics and you’re looking at the nice big gatefold, you know? Obviously most people’ll be doing this on a CD booklet or no booklet at all, listening to shitty mp3s, but that’s beside the point.

They can get the hi-res jpeg and be good to go.

(Laughs) Yeah… It’s virtually the real thing.


Neurosis’ Honor Found In Decay is available now on Neurot Recordings. More info at