Neurosis are one of metal’s most fearsomely original groups – an act who, in the words of guitarist/vocalist Steve Von Till, have consistently sought “new ways to be heavy”.
Beginning life in 1985 as a hardcore punk band, the Oakland, CA-based outfit’s bold progress saw them become poster-boys for atmospheric sludge, before arriving at a complex, crushing doom metal sound informed by dark ambient and industrial musics. As they prepare to release their first album in five years, Honor Found In Decay, and play a string of UK live dates, FACT’s Robin Jahdi spoke to Von Till about the five-piece’s unique dynamic, recording with Steve Albini and locking horns with Godflesh.
“The most important thing is that time stands still.”
Since Given to the Rising, it’s been five years – the longest period of time between Neurosis albums. I know that you’ve been doing lots of different projects, so was it an intentional break, or did you just not get round to doing a new Neurosis album til now?
“In one way, and this may sound strange, but it really doesn’t seem like it’s been very long, maybe because we’ve been together 27 years, and it just seemed like the natural length of time it took for the material to get together. There’s no intentional break. We live quite far from each other. In order for us to get together, there’s airplanes involved, you know? And we all have day jobs and families and busy schedules. But outside of that, Neurosis is our absolute priority, music-wise. But I think since Given to the Rising we played a lot more concerts than we had in the seven or eight years before that record; we got out a bit more. So I think our time together was spent getting out, rather than channelling the music for the first few years since Given to the Rising.
“That being said, some of the seeds for this album started out way back when that last album was in its final stages. Some of the things that hadn’t quite taken shape yet, we said, ‘we’ll burn down the structure and revisit it’. A couple of tracks go back to that time. A couple of the tracks we were playing live last year, and a couple others were in between. The rest of it came toward the end of the process. We have no set method of working: we didn’t ever say, ‘ok, now we’re working on the new record’; it’s just kind of chaos and as it happens. We feel more directed by the music than the other way around. And when the time was right, when the seeds were starting to take shape, we thought, ‘ok, now we can see this is getting close, and we can make a conscious decision on finishing, and get it to the point where we’re ready to book studio time’.
“Some of them share. Sometimes, depending on how the songs take shape, one of us will take the lead lyrically. But on this record also, I think most songs on this record, we alternate within songs as well.”
Ah, right. That threw me. I’ve been listening to Neurosis since 1997 and thought ‘oh yeah, I can spot the voice’, but clearly I was being a bit lazy. I notice that Dave [Edwardson, bassist and one-time vocalist] doesn’t really seem to be doing any vocals.
“The music hasn’t called for it. I don’t know what to say about that. He’s got a pretty unique thing that… happens. I guess when it’s needed, we know it’s there.”
So when someone does the lead vocal, is that who does the riff, or are the riffs you and Scott together?
“Again, there’s a lot of different ways that things happen. I mean sometimes ideas will originate in the rehearsal studio: we’ll do whatever we have to do to prepare for the gig, and the rest of the time we’ll just throw out some ideas and work on them. We usually record our rehearsals and take them away, back to our houses or home studios or what have you, and meditate on them, and different people will pick up on different stuff and bring different elements into it, and we’ll send each other ideas. Scott and I will get together at my house and riff and record it, and send it down to the other guys, the other guys’ll come up and visit, and we’ll take the ideas to the next step.
“None of us are smart or talented enough to create this music on our own.”
“Ultimately, it takes us all being in the same room for a period of time, and that’s probably also why it takes so long, finding that time. Some ideas will come from a guitar riff, but the only way it becomes natural, organic or whole is through the whole group process. Again, there’s no specific method, there’s just a knowledge and a faith that we all have to put it through as a group. It’s so much bigger than us as individuals. None of us are smart or talented enough to create this music on our own. It definitely is the magic of the process, everybody’s contribution, that takes it to the level where Neurosis becomes itself and becomes something bigger than us.”
“I don’t think anybody wants to feel like they’re locked down into anything, but for me, and why I’m perfectly content to have him record our albums is because, one, is his methodology. He’s got so much experience recording thousands and thousands of records. And his attitude is he doesn’t care about anybody’s music. I mean, I think maybe he enjoys recording us, and maybe he likes our music, but that’s beside the point. The point is that he doesn’t have any opinions about how anyone’s music should be. He only wants to catch it in an organic, pure and pleasing-sounding manner.
“For us to be able to get the time to record a record… you hear about bands spending sometimes months to make records. I mean, what the fuck are they doing, you know? We have our songs written and ready in the rehearsal studio. We don’t have any studio tricks. People hear our music and they think it’s really complex and layered, but that’s the way we sound. Anyone who’s seen us live knows that all that’s on the record happens with the odd… on some records there’s maybe been a guest musician for a song or two, but on this record every sound you hear is coming from guitars, the bass, the drums or the keyboard. And we play live as a band. We play in the rehearsal studio. So we want to be able to record an album in a week. We don’t wanna fuck around, that’s all we got.
“There’s no tricks, there’s no gimmicks, it’s true recording. The way it was with Zeppelin or Sabbath or any of your favourite records from the ’70s. None of this nitpick computer bullshit.”
“And I know, inherently, with a hundred per cent trust, that Jason’s drums are gonna sound like him beating the shit out of the drums in a nice-sounding room, because that’s exactly what it is, and that’s exactly what Steve does. He catches that. My amp is gonna sound like you’ve got your head stuck up against my cabinet. That’s the way it should be, nothing getting in the way of it. There’s no tricks, there’s no gimmicks, it’s true recording. The way it was with Zeppelin or Sabbath or any of your favourite records from the ’70s. None of this nitpick computer bullshit, where people one at a time in the control room add their parts. It’s complete bullshit. I couldn’t stand making a record that way. It’d be horrible. So we record live. Of course, we put the vocals on second because we sing better if we’re not focused on getting a good [guitar] take and singing at the same time. But we record the instruments, we record the vocals and mix that fucker. And he allows us to do it. I don’t need to go into the control room to see if it sounds okay. I know it sounds exactly how it sounded coming out of the amp.”
I remember seeing an interview with Albini where he praised you for having everything totally ready and demoed by the time you step into his studio, so it seems you’re on the same wavelength.
“It’s too expensive, messing around in recording studios, not knowing what you’re doing, you know? And I think it would be frustrating, writing in the recording studio! That only goes back to the multi-million recording processes of the cocaine-driven late ’70s, early ’80s, and that just has to be…pointless. And our greatest resource is time.”