It’s impossible to heap too much hyperbole on a band like Neurosis. They were game-changers when Through Silver In Blood first crushed heads back in ’96 and they’re still as innovative, spiritual and utterly devastating in 2014. The Sleeping Shaman managed to grab some time with vocalists/guitarists Steve von Till and Scott Kelly before their headline slot at the inaugural Temples Festival to find out just why Neurosis shows are such a treasured rarity.
So how does it feel being part of the first ever Temples Festival?
Von Till: It seems really good. I went last night for a little bit and the vibe seemed really good for everybody – a nice dark and crusty festival with people being cool at it. You always worry about the first of anything but people seem pretty well-organised from our perspective at least.
You were the first band to be announced for this. How did that come about? Had this been in the works for a while with you guys?
Von Till: Yeah, it was quite a while ago that they reached out and it was just the way anything happens. Is it gonna work out, and it did.
Is it a bit more relaxed for you, as a lot of your friends and bands are playing today? A Storm of Light, Amenra, MGR…
Kelly: Well, it’s nice to have friends around for sure but when it comes to the gig it’s always the same. It’s never relaxed.
Is there much of a difference between doing festival shows like this?
Kelly: Yeah, a festival like this is nice because it’s kinda smaller. It’s not like we’re playing in the middle of the day at Roskilde or some shit like that. We’ve done that before and that’s a real weird experience because you don’t even know who you’re playing to. You’ve got, like, 8000 people, most of whom have never heard you, and it’s a real weird vibe but with this one, people are coming to this festival because they want to hear heavy music.
Von Till: And it’s the size of a place that we would play anyway.
Kelly: Yeah, if we were playing in Bristol we would have been playing in that main room anyway, right, so I think that’s gonna be real cool. I’m looking forward to it.
You’ve really cut back on your touring, maybe since around A Sun That Never Sets
Kelly: About ’98, I think we started really cutting back really seriously. ’99 or 2000.
Von Till: Yeah, right after Times of Grace, we did one big leg and then, that’s it. Fuck it.
What was it that prompted you to tone it back?
Von Till: Life was out of balance, being on the road so much. We found that in order to be out there 200 days a year, you’re going to forego having a regular job and feeding your family. You’re going to have to make a lot of compromises and the world that it takes to be involved in, that is not our world. We love being out there playing and it’s what we feel we were put here to do, but for us, this is a spiritual release and something that’s way too important to have it turned into being these weird… I don’t even know how to describe it.
Kelly: It’s like the grind, the machinery of it, you know? The machinery of the fucking music business, and all that crap. It’s like we were in this trap. We were either going to have to get into the cycle of ‘write an album, record an album, tour for two years, write an album, blah blah blah blah blah,’ and do the same thing over and over, which a lot of bands do, or… don’t. And we just didn’t want to because it never really fitted for us. We don’t really just snap off an album real quick, it takes its time and the music has always been so good to us, it’d be such a shame. I mean, music has literally been our path towards becoming better people, to understanding our world in a spiritual way, to seeing the fucking world. The music has brought so much to us. We just felt that it deserves way more respect and attention and, like Steve said, we were just totally out of balance – with our children, our wives – and it’s very difficult to keep a family together if you’re not home. I mean, it just doesn’t really work that way. I remember having a pretty clear conversation one day when we were all just, “Fuck this. Let’s just go home.” We figured it out later; just go home and start writing music, start our label, and that’s what we did. Then we started doing some shows, just one-offs, and I think that show that you saw (the 20th anniversary show at the London Astoria) was, what, 2007 or 2008? That was a few years into it.
Von Till: We’ve actually been playing more and more each year. For the past few years, we averaged, what, 25 a year…
Kelly: …which is about a tenth of what we used to play. But it’s good, and it feels good when we’re doing it.
Von Till: The right town with the right people and the right bands in the right situation, and not some bullshit we feel forced to do out of needing to be out there.
So do you take much more of a part now in customising these shows, as far as bands, or do you still get ones placed on you that just seem good at the time?
Kelly: Yeah, when we’re booking our own shows we have a lot to do with who’s on the bill as well. Like, we have everything to do with it, actually.
Von Till: Festivals, maybe a little bit less but this is a special festival where it’s too good anyway.
Kelly: Yeah, I was going to say the same thing. We would probably have picked the same bands they did.
How was your experience with this when you did Beyond the Pale?
Kelly: It was a huge pain in the ass!
Von Till: Two of them in San Francisco and we lost our asses in both of them. We’re really not promoters, but having the chance to do it at Roadburn, several years after – that was a dream come true. I mean, Roadburn’s a dream anyway but being able to curate a day was an honour, by far.
Kelly: It’s difficult, but we’re definitely not in a position to lose money anymore. We lost money for so long with this band and we lost so much money, I don’t even know how much, for years and years. It’s kind of the nature of it. You can’t control it. When you’re out there trying to make dates and tour and then we tried the festival. Yeah, they were great. I think the people who came were happy, there were great bands and some magical moments, but for the amount of time it took, which mainly was him (Steve), it was brutal.
Von Till: We’ll curate for someone else!
Kelly: Yeah, when we come in and use Roadburn’s infrastructure and just pick bands, that’s great. Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Both of you have your own projects but you still do normal tours with them. What’s the difference between them as far as how you view touring?
Kelly: Touring’s touring. For me or Mike (IX Williams) in Corrections House, it’s substantially easier to tour because with Neurosis or EyeHateGod, they’re more successful bands. Staying in nicer places and playing bigger rooms, with better PAs, and everything else is better, you know? So with Corrections House, we were playing to 100, 200 people a night, building the band from the start, from the ground up. Staying in shitty dive hotels, but we’ve done it. We’ve both, and Bruce (Lamont) and Sanford (Parker) too, we’ve toured plenty of times where you’re sleeping on people’s couches, and sleeping in vans, so it’s not like we’re not used to that, and like we’re not willing to go through it again to build up something that’s worth it. Touring’s just got a method to it. You kinda suck it up and move on. Get a shower where you can… hopefully.
Moving off on a bit of a tangent, I know that Townes Van Zandt is someone who meant quite a lot to both of you. How did you both come to be familiar with his work and what does he mean to you?
Von Till: Noah, right?
Kelly: No, I don’t think so.
Von Till: It is for me. Noah gave me a CD, right around ’99 or something like that, and said, “I think you’re gonna like this.” And I was stunned. I had no idea, and then I ended up marrying the biggest Townes Van Zandt fan in the world. My wife is so into Townes, it’s like she understands him on this whole other level. It’s really incredible. Anytime I’m picking out a Townes cover to do, I just ask her and she picks them out for me. “You can do this one.” I’ll be like, “Yeah, I think I’ll do this” and she’ll go, “No no no, you can do this one. Listen to this part,” and then she’ll point out these details.
Kelly: I think a friend of mine, who I was recording my solo stuff with, was, like, “Hey, you gotta hear this.” I’d also read about him, because I like to read books about inspired musicians and find out what inspired them, to put together my own musical history of what drives the spirit of being an original, and having original emotional expression, and his name kept popping up for a lot of people. What made me dismiss him right off the bat was, “Oh, he’s the ‘Pancho and Lefty’ guy” and then all of a sudden you hear ‘The Spider Song’ or something and you’re, like, “Oh! There’s something different going on with that guy.” This is way darker and deeper and barely even fits in with where they tried to make him fit in, really.
Von Till: Did you hear that record they put out? The Sunshine Boy record?
Von Till: Yeah, it came out about a year ago. You would like the last song, ‘Untitled’. It’s pretty fucking good. It’s got some stuff, like ‘T For Texas’ and songs that you’ve heard, some standards and stuff, but it’s a good performance.
Kelly: I actually did an interview with a guy in Germany. He was a Dutch reporter and I’m guessing he was 60 years old, this guy, and it was when I was touring for the Townes cover record, for the solo tour, so the interview was specifically about Townes. It turned out that he had actually interviewed Townes four times and I was just so interested in what he know of Townes that I didn’t really want to do the interview. He actually had some pretty profound experiences with the guy and he saw him play seven or eight times, and had one-on-one conversations with him. He gave me a lot of insight into Townes and what kind of person he was, beyond what you see in documentaries, what you can gleam from his words.
I was talking to Josh a little about this earlier today, but going way back, your early albums, and even stuff like Christ On Parade, were very influential in US punk but as far as punk was concerned, where were you all coming from in terms of influence?
Kelly: I was wide open. I had about two months where I only listened to US stuff and two months where I only listened to Finnish stuff. I was a kid! I only listened to Finnish hardcore, but we fucking listened to anything. I was lucky enough that I lived near a really good record store and it was a couple of older punks that worked there, so we would take the bus over to the record store, me and a couple of friends, and we were about 13 or 14. We’d walk in and they would just hand us records. “Here, you want this and this.” You know, Rudimentary Peni, whatever. Anything that was on Crass, we bought. In America, you don’t know the difference, so Crass records with Oi! The Album and The Rejects, The Exploited, GBH – all the good stuff. Just devouring anything that was happening here at the time, as well as Scotland, Ireland – anywhere in the UK, we were down with. German stuff too, but then we also had Black Flag, DOA and Circle Jerks and Fear, all of that happening right there.
You had mentioned earlier about what you typically read. What are you guys currently reading?
Von Till: I’m in the middle of some Viking-saga-that’s-not-a-real-saga. My wife read it in German in school and wanted me to read some, so I’m reading that simultaneously with A Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Kelly: I’ve never read that. Is it good?
Von Till: It is good, but I have to be in the right mood for it.
Kelly: I can’t believe I’ve never read it. I’ve walked by that book for my entire life.
Von Till: It’s so nerdy so you have to get into the zone. Stick with the sci-fi nerds for a bit. But it is really good, and I brought with me on this trip The Little Prince because it’s been ages since I’ve read that and I wanted something I could fit in my backpack. I always go back to mythology, that’s a good fallback. Cormac McCarthy, a favourite of both of ours, and I don’t think there’s any better writer in modern American English.
Kelly: Waiting for him to write another fucking book and stop writing screenplays, though. But of course, he’s gotta cash in at some point though. But I’m reading this Stephen King one called 11/22/63. It’s gonna be about the Kennedy assassination but I haven’t figured out where it’s going at this point; it hasn’t quite gotten there yet. I’ve read pretty much everything about the Kennedy assassination. Ever since I was a little kid. I lived in Dallas and kind of got obsessed about that whole conspiracy and I kind of lean towards conspiracy theories and shit like that. I’m trying to think of this other book I just read, and you guys probably know it, but it’s the book about the gorilla…
Von Till: Oh! It’s the name of the gorilla…
Kelly: Yeah. Ishmael! I just read that. I’ve read that about two or three times but it’s really fucking cool, man.
Von Till: It sounds ridiculous when you say it.
Kelly: Ishmael: beautiful, spiritual…yeah, Ishmael is such a great book. I hadn’t read that one in a while so I read that to centre myself.
Von Till: It’s been years since I read that one too.
I guess the last thing to ask is what you’re hoping for tonight.
Von Till: Just to leave it all out on the stage and deliver.
Kelly: Yeah, all we can hope for is the opportunity to do what we do.
Interviewed by: Dave Bowes