The music of Neurosis is more like a full-on psychosis. It reduces your brain to a disconnected miasma of primal fears and basest instinct. Unlike the “apocalyptic” tag they’re occasionally branded with, Neurosis are so very personal and introspective. Their music is closer to the emotional intensity of a close friend slashing their wrists than any cosmic occurrence.
The Neurosis collective are based in Oakland, CA, and have been unleashing their enveloping coils of anguish on listeners for about 15 years now. From their earlier hardcore roots on Pain Of Mind and Word As Law to their more mature and intense Souls At Zero and Enemy of the Sun, Neurosis have been carving a discography as deep as it is wide. Times Of Grace saw them moving into more subtle (like tapping with a sledgehammer as opposed to swinging it) territory. Some of the pieces stood by virtue of their melody alone. Concurrent to the release of the Through Silver in Blood, a new, more experimental side exerted itself by name of Tribes of Neurot. They’ve realized a few recordings under that name, including Silver Blood Transmission, Grace, and God of the Center. Most recently for Neurosis has been Sovereign, a CD with both music and “psychedelic multimedia environments.” I spoke to Steve Von Till, guitarist and author of a solo album titled As the Crow Flies on the bands own Neurot Recordings label.
I saw on the press release for Sovereign that the multimedia environments were called psychedelic. It seemed odd at the time, but I thought about it for a while, and it made more sense because psychedelia is all about the mind, and I dunno, it seems like you guys are probing the “inner recesses of the mind.” So, how does psychedelia fit into your sound?
Well, like you said, it is a more psychological approach to music or art, and I think that is what we do, it is delving in, it is a lot like… you know, I don’t think psychedelia was ever the fluff and colorful flowers that it was associated with. It is more, like you said, a journey, like you said, into the mind, and is an experience, whether it be a mind-altering substance experience, or a musical or artistic experience. For us, that defines a lot of our approach to music, in that it’s very primal, it comes from the gut, it is not very cerebral, it’s not very pre-thought, it’s not very “heady,” but it is very deep within the mind. It is very image- or archetype-oriented in image or lyrically, within the contexts of the environments it creates.
Well, you sort of answered my next question. I see two ways of approaching creating art. There are people who look outside to other art and create art within a certain context. And then there are some people who really look deep within themselves, deep inside to… I don’t know, express themselves.
Yeah, we definitely ride both of those in a way. We try not to imitate, and we try to be original, but the fact that we are using, in some ways, such a mundane art form as a heavy rock band, we are always in certain confines. But we enjoy those confines. We do find other ways to explore our concepts more the other way, opening ourselves free, up from the gut. I do believe that is where all our inspiration comes from initially, whether we transfer it into experimental sound exploration, stranger, more experimental forms of music, or whether we take the inspiration from that type of activity and apply it to our own version of rock music. So, I think they both apply. But, not in the sense that we ever try to fit in a genre, or try to mimic anything we see in rock n’ roll or any of the million types of ways people try to define rock n’ roll these days.
Do you think your Tribes Of Neurot project is more free to explore different things?
Inherently it is. There’s no rules, there’s not rehearsal, no planning, with the exception of the Grace CD, which was specifically planned to follow the Times Of Grace album like a roadmap. Everything else has been free improvised, a one-time deal, both the performances and the recording. It could be one of us, it could be a few of us, it could be all of us. [Tribes of Neurot] is essentially boundary-free. I mean, we will go after certain concepts artistically and conceptually, but the music is always free-flowing.
When did you decide you needed a separate project like Tribes of Neurot?
About ’94-’95. When we realized that not only did we need it, but we already had it individually, when everyone was bringing ideas for the upcoming album, we had tapes and tapes and tapes of stuff we had done at home on four-tracks of really experimental music, collages and whatnot. That’s what turned into the first Tribes Of Neurot album. Then from there we’ve taken it as it is, like improvisational moody soundscapes, whether they be more electronic in origin or field recorded in origin in live performance, or combining all of them, or long-distance collaborations. We’re definitely headed more into the sound-art, and hopefully branching out into less[sigma] well, not less into just doing sound recordings, but we hope to get more into sound-installation kind of ideas. We’re really just exploring it as far as we can take it. What separates us from a lot of people doing artwork which could be considered rock n’ roll — or ambient or experimental or sound art or whatever — is that we have a spiritual continuity and a spiritual focus that drives all our art, that centralizes it all around a common theme.
I think it’s interesting that you guys have come to sound art from a totally different background than, say, the art school people.
Yeah, well, me too. Not that there’s not validity in that, but just that fact that [Tribes Of Neurot] isn’t preconceived. We really did discover it by accident. Of course, we’ve uncovered the histories of it because once you come across something, you want to find kindred spirits. If you’re a true music fan, the more you learn and experiment with music yourself, you always find that somebody has done it before. You uncover it; somebody turns you onto it that uncovers a whole new universe of music to explore. You can only hope that you’re doing something of meaning and interest and long-lasting and that has enough originality to be long-lasting and meaningful to people, reaching people on an emotional level. It’s neat to know that we can do something that has a history to it as long as — whether it be exploring drumming and learning the history of probably one of the most primitive of musics and instruments to the very primitive possibilities of sound recording. Once you realize… just the way we accidentally discovered how to make strange sounds on four-tracks and what not with things malfunctioning and having strange sounds. People were doing that with the very first recording techniques. Some of these experiments now date back to the very first recording mechanisms; people were doing very strange sound art. With painting, it’s all, you know, whatever, and we feel we have enough focus and inspiration to focus our lifetimes on becoming a part of that. Express our ideas through all mediums, including emerging ones.
When you play live, how do you try to sync the visual and the performance?
Well, the visuals are synced live by a person manipulating the slides and the films. He knows his reels well enough to[sigma] just like we develop sets, he develops routines and will know exactly when to be queued up to what part and when to use a certain reel of film, and when to use a loop, and textural stuff, and when to use specific imagery, and when to build some kind of slide collage to frame it all within. But it really is hand manipulated, timing the faders with the music, stopping and starting[sigma] all by hand.
Why’d you decide to do a multimedia section for your new CD?
We’ve never been able to express our visual side on CD before, and since we were going for a more concise audio statement, we finally had room on the disc. Rather than fill it up with more audio, we decided that we were going do CD-ROMs, since we saw them back in the early ’90s. But we never knew anybody that was capable of programming it and willing to do it for us. We finally ended up finding a guy who was willing to work with us in our budget and had had an artistic aesthetic similar enough to ours that we did not have to explain what we wanted. We gave him some rough ideas and some basic things. He went and did a rough draft of what you see there. We went in, tightened it up, and that was that.
So it was more of a collaborative thing.
Yeah, absolutely. We did not know how to program, so we relied on Eric Shira — who’s a really good artist in his own right — for getting into a lot of the technological media stuff, like a lot of the people in this area. It just worked really good. We really wanted to achieve something different. As a medium, the CD-ROM has such potential, and it’s already sort of old news. It’s been around a long time, but it never flew. People never really used it creatively, except for people who made some interesting games, but I don’t really know anything about that stuff. But with music CDs, it was always like “check out the video,” like with a simple splash screen and a bio,
This was just a nice beginning step, a nice introduction, and it also allowed us to put a link to the Web site, which links the new emerging medias of MP3s (which you get for free with the CD). It’s just crossing three different technological barriers, making that all the singular experience. Which is cool, because you have to go onto the Internet, onto our Web site, you have to listen to the audio CD, sit down with the Digipak and read the lyrics like you would have to with a normal album. Then you also have to experience the CD-ROM stuff, and we have hours of stuff to do there.
Has the Internet been beneficial to getting the word out and expanding your creative vision?
Definitely. It’s really helpful to us, because we’re an underground band with a dedicated following. It allows us to stay in touch via our Web site and e-mailing list. We’re able to reach a lot of people around the world a lot easier. A lot of people in other areas don’t get a chance to see us on tour, and aren’t able to get our music. Now we’re able to reach Korea as easily as we can reach Southern California. So it’s really good for us, especially building our own businesses, our simple mail order. But being organized, and having the Internet at least warrant being organized, and all the trouble it takes to be organized, and with our record label, it is really beneficial. Artistically, I can see doing a lot with it. But once again, since we don’t program and are quite busy with all the other aspects of everything, we haven’t pushed that to the limit. We’ve always envisioned a more artistic space, and I have seen some Web sites that really just blew my mind because they seemed to be for nothing except just to exist as a piece of art on the Internet.
Did you make a conscious decision to add more space, more dynamics to your music, at least on the last two albums?
That’s always our quest, to explore the power of dynamics. In a way, it’s a signature of our sound, but it’s always a thing to improve upon. The last couple albums in particular, after Through Silver in Blood, with Times Of Grace we really wanted to… less is more. We really wanted to learn that lesson. And we’re still learning it. More space, more air to breathe, let the music… it doesn’t always have to be a bulldozer, let it breathe, give it a breather, let the mellow stuff do its thing, let the beautiful stuff do its thing. You know, just making it a more full-blown picture, and actually creating heavier music by making it less. Through Through Silver in Blood, we were like, “how can we be the most gigantic, most destructive thing?” And I think that was as far as we wanted to go (laughs). It was just painful to play that live every night.
Yeah, I could imagine. Who do you choose to go onto Neurot Recordings?
Well, in a general sense, we’re putting bands that share a kindred spirit towards the making of music and the spirit of music. It has to be something aesthetically we all like, which means [it] definitely does not have to be heavy. That’s our first rule. We like heavy music, and we’re trying to find interesting heavy music for our label, but most of all, it just has to mean it. Whether it’s ambient music, folk music, trippy ethnic music, rock music, heavy music, whatever. It just has to be interesting, original, passionate. We’re kind of starting with friends — people we’ve known and respected for a long time. That’s what we’re putting our first year’s worth of recordings toward.
I think it’s cool that you go for the more emotional aspect, because it seems in sound art these days there’s definitely a more cerebral aspect. Instead of a more gut feeling, it’s more just analyzing shit.
Yeah, fuck that. Go read a book. It’s like with that kind of stuff, it’s more like the idea is better than the product. Like, you read some sound-art thing, and you go, “wow, that’s a great idea!” Hearing it, it’s like, “well, I’d rather go listen to Coil.” You know, I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Somebody’ll come in some kind of noise music accidentally from the sound art thing, and it’s nowhere near the… it’s not like you want to sit and listen to Merzbow all the time. But, if you want the extremity of white noise, creating a music and subtleties within an ocean of white noise, nobody does it better than he does. It’s like[sigma] I agree with you. There’s always an exception to every rule, though.
Who do you think is doing interesting work in that field?
Well, I don’t really follow it too much, but people turn me onto different stuff. Lately, I’ve really liked Phillip Jeck (turntablist who does huge pieces with hundreds of old record players).
He’s really good.
I recently picked up three different CDs, one called Surf on the Touch (http://www.touch.demon.co.uk/) label. It’s the emotional bits, and I think it’s just the sounds of those old turntables that have a really warm sound but turned into really mechanical sounds with scalpels and glue and tape or whatever the hell he uses.
With stuff like Christian Marclay, I don’t want more irony. I’d rather hear someone really doing it from the gut than making some commentary on something.
Yeah, yeah, it’s really just so subjective. I don’t know if this counts as sound art, but there’s a project called Oval[sigma]
Yeah, of course Oval’s sound art!
Yeah, well, since it’s installations now, I guess so. That stuff to me sounds very inspired and is emotional. But once again, we’re trying to put music in a box. I don’t know what all goes with what, because when I try to find sound-art, I have to go to the “experimental” section, the “ambient” section, the “indie” section, the “20th century composers section,” it’s retarded.
What prompted you to do the solo CD?
I had to. The music was just there. I never really intended to do it, but I’ve always had that kind of music in me, and I’ve never really[sigma] about ’95-’96, I really started to let it develop into things, in my house, for no reason. About ’96, I started putting it down on tape, and after a while it was just obvious. I didn’t know whether I would start a side project or invite people to play with me and do another project, and finally, it was like, “you know what, this is music I record late at night in my room at four in the morning, it’s my stuff, I guess I’ve got to release a solo album.” This music needs to get out, for whatever reason. So I went up and looked at all my hours worth of material and picked 40 minutes that I thought was most cohesive for an album and finished it, putting the finishing touches on. I’m glad I did, because now I’m into the idea, and the next thing I do will be more focused. I mean, it was all recorded off the cuff, too. As soon as I had an idea, I’d just put it down, and maybe I’d go back and refine the vocals later on, but the basis of the song was recorded the very night it was thought of.
Check http://www.neurosis.com for up to date information on the band.