The Internal World: An interview with Steve Von Till

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Steve Von Till lives a separate life from the apocalyptic metal he creates with Neurosis, the band he’s played in for more than three decades. In fact, he lives several. There’s also Steve Von Till, the folk singer/songwriter, who has released four albums of dusty Americana. And there’s Harvestman, his abstract, psychedelic drone-folk project that comprises some of the strangest, spaciest music he’s ever released.

There’s also Steve Von Till, the elementary school teacher, who’s been spending his time since quarantine began in the spring coordinating a virtual classroom in his rural Idaho community, which has proven to be a challenge for him, the students and families alike. Yet as all this is happening, Von Till has also been preparing the release of some new creative projects. His new album No Wilderness Deep Enough is out this week, and through this record Von Till opens up a new world of atmospheric and compositional exploration, layering piano, synths and horns in an ambient art-pop sound that resembles very little of his recorded work to date. Except for his heavy rasp of a voice, which listeners of Neurosis would recognize anywhere—an element suggested by engineer Randall Dunn, which Von Till initially objected to. “I didn’t think it needed my gnarled croak on top of it ruining this beautiful contemplative ambient music,” he says.

Von Till is also releasing another project, a book of lyrics and poetry titled Harvestman: 23 Untitled Poems and Collected Lyrics. The volume comprises a series of poems that he wrote over a year-long period, as well as lyrics from his solo recordings dating back to 1999. As he reflects on the decision to put out his poetry, he’s quick to point out how that might conflict with his reputation as a life-long performer in a metal and hardcore punk realm.

“Coming from the music background I come from, if you say, ‘hey man, I’m putting out a book of poetry,’ you choke on those words before you even get ‘em out. Like, are you serious? The impostor syndrome rages hard on that move. But that felt like part of the challenge. You do it, don’t dishonor the muse by not validating it. Whatever your personal self doubts are aside and follow the art, because the art’s always led you in the right direction.”

We spoke to Von Till about dealing with lockdown in a rural community, seeking inspiration from the natural world and tapping into the “infinite thing.”

Treble: How have things been for you in lockdown?

Steve Von Till: As an elementary school teacher, that was rough. It was probably the hardest as far as hours each day I’ve worked since I was a brand new teacher. Scrambling for resources, finding stuff that would be meaningful for kids that they would interact with, that we weren’t set up for, you know. Twenty-eight rural families—some didn’t have access to high speed internet or devices, so navigating that landscape and working with the school district to get everyone on board and try to make gains and keep everyone engaged—personally, it was tough. You can explain to adults why we need to quarantine, but I think it’s hard for kids to fathom. So, it was pretty intense. That being said, having chosen to live out here in the forest, I don’t think it was as difficult as it was for people in urban areas where you’re stacked on top of each other. We’re on 12 acres of forest and we can leave the house and walk around whenever we want.

Treble: Did any of this affect the release of No Wilderness Deep Enough?

SVT: No. All of that is just a perfect storm. I finished mixing it last summer. In fact, exactly a year ago pretty much, and it had initially just planned for it to start promoting it in the spring. Made touring plans, so…August seemed like a good time to put it out. Then everything happened and all those conversations happened, and I was already too deep in the planning and manufacturing stages. Plus, we didn’t know. Back in March, we didn’t know what we know now. Is this just for a month? Or what is this? It’s unknown territory. But if I waited until next year, I wouldn’t be inspired by this record, I’d move on to something else creatively. If you’re really paying attention to the world, yeah, shit seems crazy right now. And it is. But when is it not? It’s always fuckin’ apocalyptic for someone on this planet. So we just decided to push through. Maybe it’s the perfect time for introspective music for people to come to term with themselves and get comfortable outside of their busy, decadent lifestyles. It shows how fragile our lifestyle is in the western world. We think this is a right, but everything is so much a privilege and a delicate one at that. It doesn’t take much to mess that up.

This is what I’ve always sang about—what’s your relationship to your mind? What’s your relationship to your family, and the planet? And how do those things all interplay?

Treble: A lot of your music seems to reference nature or allude to it in some way. Do you have a strong connection to the natural world?

SVT: I try to. That’s why I moved here from the city. I’ve always felt this existential longing to the natural world. We are a part of it. We’re made of the same stuff. You know? And it just seemed like, as much as I love the artistic creative potential of the urban beehive, there’s a part of me that felt like I needed room to breathe and I wanted to experience all four seasons. The urban areas of California don’t offer. So it is that, but I would also say that I’m obsessed with using the natural world as metaphor for the internal world. The mind and the emotional landscape. I’d say most of the lyrics have nothing to do with nature itself. If I sat down and tried to write about those things, it’d feel too hippy dippy or something. It’s more about cloaking my experiences and philosophical wanderings in natural metaphors because they speak the deepest and the darkest and the lightest. It’s an easy place for me to go.

Treble: Between your solo material, Neurosis, Harvestman… you’ve made a lot of music, and a lot of it is very different from one another. How important is it for you to keep stretching and moving out of your comfort zone?

SVT: Yeah, I’m always restless, creatively. I want to push new boundaries and new territories. I don’t want to feel stuck or like I’m pandering to expectations, whether it’s my own or anyone else’s. Luckily the kind of inspiration I got coming up in the DIY punk world, in the time I came up in, is that there’s no rules. It turned out punk actually had a lot of rules. But the ethos stuck. I’m gonna do what I want. I’m gonna do what I’m driven to do. I’ve never been very musically trained. I’ve never felt particularly adept at any instrument. I mean, obviously playing guitar in Neurosis, I have a certain dexterity in that world, but it’s our own self-created music that uses our limitations as much as it uses traditional musicianship I suppose. It’s a lot of work, but it’s not what I’d call traditional chops. So whether there’s any instrument in my hand, anything that generates a sound, I have the ability to find an interesting sound within it. I can take anything that generates a sound and find something that I find appealing. I just follow those rabbit holes, follow those suggested pathways and go wherever they lead me. Mostly it’s a journey about surrendering to the moment and following it.

Treble: Looking back over the lyrics you’ve compiled, as well as poems, do you find that there’s a quality or characteristic that connects everything?

SVT: In some ways, I’ve always been singing about the same thing. Kind of combining the personal trials and tribulations in a non-obvious way, hidden in metaphor along with the more existential questions. I think I’ve gotten better at writing. If you do something for a long enough time, you’re hopefully older and wiser each time and refine your craft. So I feel like over time they’d become more cerebral and more intuitive. And that’s that learning to surrender part. And I also realize that I write poems in a lyrical style. I don’t rhyme.

But I also feel that I’ve discovered I’ve been able to express and say things that I don’t know any other way to express. Obviously music can express things that words don’t do justice to. But poetry and lyric writing, they’re very separate, but they’re both ways to tap that infinite thing—I don’t write prose, so I don’t know how that inspiration feels, but I feel I’m able to tap into something that I’m not even necessarily responsible for. There’s just these kind of greater ideas out there that I’m lucky enough to tune into every once in a while and bring into that space.


Photo by Bobby Cochran

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