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.”
Now, you mentioned that on this record every sound is made by the band. Now, I understand that because I’ve seen you a couple of times before. But at the same time, I was listening to it, and thinking, “is that a guest instrumentalist, or is it Noah [Landis keyboardist], or what?”
“It’s all Noah, yeah, it’s all Noah. If it didn’t come from a guitar…there are some pretty crazy guitar tones on this one that you might not pick out, but for the most part? Every crazy sound you hear on this – if you think something was a string, or something was a reed or something was a bagpipe, I guarantee it wasn’t. I guarantee it was Noah finding some sort of organic sound source, twisting and manipulating the sample until he created something that’s very different than the original. I’m pretty sure that with a few exceptions, you wouldn’t be able to pick out the original source. But he moulds these things. They’re not just samples that are triggered as he plays. He moulds them into things that he can play like an instrument. He’s not content to push a button and have something just happen. He wants to play it, you know? He wants to grasp the notes and the melody, and he spent a lot of time making some really amazing sounds for this record. Many of my favourite moments are when his sounds rise over the top of the wall of sound and kinda take over and bring it to some new emotional place. I think he did above and beyond on this record with the samples.”
“We’ll just get older and wiser and find new ways to do it. Find new ways to be heavy.”
My favourite song on the new record is ‘All is Found… in Time’. Most of the songs have what I call the stately Neurosis sound: massive, very serious, beautiful at times, brutal at others. But this song has a level of aggression of a different kind that I don’t get from the other songs. I wonder if there was a different process in terms of writing it?
“Hmm. You know, it’s hard to say. That was one that definite had some older seeds in it, one that was threatening to take shape with the last record. But it just didn’t; we never got to the point where we thought it was right. We had to keep re-approaching it. I don’t know if there was a different approach, other than that it spent longer in the oven. This one, compared to others, is pretty complex. Some of parts were really last-moment, I think. And maybe it starts with an urgency the other songs don’t start with. Instead of building up with an intro, or easing you into it, it just comes out of the gate right away with noise and furious drumming. But again, the process is so chaotic and so intuitive and so not cerebral, it’s hard to see how it came out that way, other than that it did.”
‘Casting of the Ages’ is one of the longer songs on album, but is definitely structurally simpler. Because it’s got that gentle opening with Scott doing the vocals. Then a massive riff comes in, about two minutes in. And it evolves a bit. But for the most part it seems that riff is the skeleton of the song. And it’s quite trancey. By the end of it, you lose track of time.
“I appreciate your comments and the depth of your listening. It’s hard for me to join in because of being part of this mysterious process. I can only speak to how it feels, not how it comes out. But we have always been intrigued with one-riff songs. And we’ve done it several times throughout the years, where there’s one kind of progression, the way it morphs, flips on itself or changes keeps it interesting. But again, it’s not really cerebral. It feels right. So thinking back on that and the more acoustic approach to it and the heavy riffs, I’ve never really thought about it: they do have a similar cadence. But that has to be. The most important thing for us, and this speaks to every song, is flow, and emotional impact. You never want to catch yourself stopping and thinking during it. And the flow is something we’ve gotten better with over time, having things move from one place to another place seamlessly in a way that never interrupts the trance, never interrupts the emotional impact of everything.”
“Whether it be the simplicity of ‘Casting of the Ages’ where we move from one thing to one thing, but it takes a lot of time; or whether it’s something with a lot of parts, such as ‘All is Found.. in Time’. The most important thing is that time stands still. You know the flow and emotion is working if time doesn’t matter. Oftentimes, when we’re putting together our setlist and we’re looking at song times, it’s always completely baffling to me. Sometimes the ones that feel very short to me are, like eleven minutes. What? And then the ones that seem epic and huge and have so many things to say are five and a half, six minutes. I can’t explain that, other than we’ve been given this gift that, if conditions are right for the listener or for the creator, time can stand still. Or you just lose yourself during the music. And I can’t speak for the listener, but I know that for us people lucky enough to be able to channel this stuff, we definitely lose ourselves in it.”
“From the most personal trials and tribulations and trying to make sense of the world for ourselves as individuals, to what it’s been like for the whole of humanity – it’s epic shit to be dealing with.”
I was thinking about the progression of the band through the years. Through the 90s, once you hit Souls At Zero (1992), it seemed to be getting more vicious, up until Through Silver in Blood (1996), and when you started working with Steve Albini, you were getting more melodic through Sovereign (2000), A Sun That Never Sets (2001) and The Eye of Every Storm (2004). Then when you got to Given to the Rising, there was a return to heaviness. So I’m just wondering if there was anything intentional about the sound of this record, or of any of them?
“No. Not with any of them. I think all of it is just evidence of spiralling towards a centre, you know? Even lyrically and emotionally, you’ll see there are recurring themes and imagery in our music, but never repeated the same way. It’s more about just the depth and breadth and heaviness of what we’re dealing with, with this music. From the most personal trials and tribulations and trying to make sense of the world for ourselves as individuals, to bringing it back to the whole, and what it’s been like for the whole of humanity. It’s epic shit to be dealing with. So these energies of contrasting the dark and the light, the quiet and the noise, the melody and the harmonies… all those things will always happen. We’ll just get older and wiser and find new ways to do it. Find new ways to be heavy. We find new ways to juxtapose the light and the dark. There is never a conscious decision to do anything.
“I remember the feelings of after Through Silver in Blood, that one was just… we were young and we were growing, and I look back at some of that music, and I’m quite proud of all of it, but at the same time there’s a lot of immaturity and angst and crazy shit that went into that stuff, or at least our approach to it. When we go back and we think, ‘can we try to play this one live?’, we just end up laughing at ourselves, at how ignorant that was. We know people hold these records in high esteem, but we have moved so far beyond them. And there may be an aggressive nature, but the aggressive nature of that time has nothing on the aggression we’re capable of as we’re older. We just choose to deal it out in more subtle ways. If we need the aggression, we know it can come out, completely out of control. If we need the big heavy riff, we know that that’s always there. It’s traversing all these landscapes and interesting places in between the light and the dark, and in between the soft and the explosive, that’s been the most interesting part of the journey.
“And also we realised with that one that we didn’t want to… playing those songs live, hundreds and hundreds of times, was fucking brutal. That energy was just nasty. We didn’t wanna do that for the rest of our lives. I think Times of Grace (1999) signals the crawling through that Through Silver in Blood period, the muck and the mire, just musically and as a band, all the things we dealt with at those times, things in our lives and in our business… it was a crazy time. And to be able to come out of that whole and stronger, and with hope for the future, that Times of Grace came about. That was, ‘okay, this is where we’ve been, we’ve survived that, we crawled through the tunnels of hell, now we’re gonna stand on top of the mountain and go back to the battle with more wisdom’, you know? Back to the war for our souls with this music, with more understanding and a more balanced position. And that set the tone for everything after that. And each record in its own way sets the tone for the next one. Given to the Rising would never have existed without The Eye of Every Storm. And Honor Found in Decay wouldn’t exist without Given to the Rising. Each one fertilises the soil for the next one to take shape, and all that we can ever be sure of is that it’ll constantly change and evolve and morph and never stagnate. If we stop evolving, we die.”
“All that we can ever be sure of is that it’ll constantly change and evolve and morph and never stagnate. If we stop evolving, we die.”
You’ve got a gig coming up with Godflesh at the Forum on 2 December. How did that come about? Or, more pertinently, how did it take so long to happen?
“[laughs] That’s the bigger question! That’s one of those concerts where, for me as a fan, that gig should have fucking happened in… I don’t know. The early ’90s!”
Yeah, it could have happened in ’92 when they were doing Pure and you were doing Souls At Zero. Or in 1996 when they released Songs of Love and Hate and you had Through Silver in Blood.
“Musically, throughout the atmosphere, we crossed paths, but I think Justin [Broadrick, of Godflesh] was ahead of it back then, and it didn’t seem like an obvious thing until looking back. An obvious connection. I mean, we’ve loved Godflesh since the first recordings, and of course Streetcleaner (1989) came out and that was a game changer for everybody. That forever changed heavy music. I mean, how many people slowed it down and started down-tuning after that? Not to mention for us, loving the punk and metal aesthetics, but also the more oddball stuff like the drum machine stuff of Big Black, Steve Albini’s old band, and Throbbing Gristle even, bringing out some of these strange textural elements to it to create this apocalyptic fucking… who knows what? And Justin’s just a great guy who’s created such a varied approach to making music. And we have crossed paths a bit. Early on in our label (Neurot Recordings), we released Vitriol, one of Ben Green’s [the other half of Godflesh] projects, which was just these shamanic force recordings. We released a Final record on our label. We’ve always felt a strong connection with Justin and his music, and we met a couple of times, had great conversation, and I think we’ve just been circling each other. All things happen for a reason, and I think we were supposed to play London together in December. I’m looking forward to it immensely.”