In Spring 2018, Neurosis co-frontman Steve Von Till couldn’t sleep. He was staying at his wife’s family home in northern Germany and suffering from severe jetlag, his mind spinning. So, he set up some recording equipment in his wife’s childhood bedroom and tried to tap into the mysticism of the centuries-old house. The results of those near-hallucinogenic sessions were a few chord progressions that were tucked away and nearly-forgotten about when he returned to his home in northern Idaho. But over the next few months, Von Till kept returning to them, fleshing them out into what soon became his fifth solo record, No Wilderness Deep Enough. The album, which beautifully contrasts Von Till’s raspy voice with ambient piano and strings, was a new challenge for Von Till, one that required him to “surrender to the muse.” And, as a separate entity, Von Till is also releasing a volume of 23 poems, published by Astrophil Press at the University of South Dakota. Von Till called into mxdwn to discuss his new work, embracing rabbit holes and his love of poetry.
mxdwn: So, real quick, you’re in Idaho right now?
Steve Von Till: Yeah, I’m in my home studio in the forests of north Idaho. 40 minutes north of Coeur d’Alene.
mxdwn: Brilliant. And what have you been doing for the last however many months then, other than prepping to release No Wilderness Deep Enough?
SVT: Well, I’m an elementary school teacher. I was in hell from about March until June, trying to get 28 nine year-olds to interact with me in a meaningful way via technology which they may or may not have had access to.
mxdwn: Yeah, how did the kids respond to it? I know remote learning has been super different for everyone.
SVT: Yeah, for me, my experience mostly was that the ones that needed it most didn’t end up getting access — either because of the way their family operates and they had no assistance, or they didn’t have access to the technology at the right times. Our school district struggled to get, you know, we’re not in the middle of nowhere, but we’re in a rural area where internet is not available everywhere. And so they tried to get hotspots and Chromebooks out to kids, you know, as needed. But mostly they just wanted the contact, man. They’re nine years old. They didn’t want to be shut up in their houses, away from their friends and their teacher. They just wanted to hang out with their friends, so most of our time together online was connecting.
mxdwn: Yeah, as I can imagine. So, anyway, about the new record. I’ve given it a fair few listens and I think it’s absolutely fantastic. It’s a really beautiful sounding album.
SVT: Thank you
mxdwn: Yeah, it’s lovely. The thing that struck me about it, is especially right now, something about it feels very current. These themes of isolation and finding connection. How long has this been in the works for?
SVT:The seeds of it were spring 2018, the first kind of chord progressions which became the entire thing. And it was finished June 2019. So part of it feels current. That’s just the way I work. I’ve always dealt with the bigger existential questions anyway. So it’s just a time where the themes of connecting, connection with ourselves, with each other, with our own minds, with the natural world, trying to find meaning in a world where we’re often constantly distracted by things that I would say are not important. I think times like this just, societally, point out to everyone all at once, how fragile our decadent lifestyle is, you know. And how we take a lot for granted and we probably shouldn’t. Then again, that’s just society as a whole right now. There’s people every day, even when you and I were having a great quote ‘normal’ day, there’s people out there everywhere struggling with that stuff every day depending on their situation and where they live. So, I think those themes will always be current for someone.
mxdwn: Sure. And for this particular record, what was the impetus? Why those chord progressions? Why was it now, or then, I suppose?
SVT: It really was an accidental process. I’ve been constantly learning, as I’m getting older, to surrender to the muse and to follow those rabbit holes as they present themselves, you know. And it really began visiting my in-laws. My wife’s family is from northern Germany and they’ve lived on the same exact homesite — the exact same spot where the house is and the surrounding farm — for over 500 years. Even by old world standards it’s a long time for a family to not move across town, you know? Whenever I’m there — and I have an obsession with history and ancient history and mythology and folklore — it doesn’t hurt that this area is kinda littered with megaliths. So this area carries a weight with it for me. First of all her property and her land, because now I’m married into this family that’s so, you know, inseparable from this place. And the air seems thicker. It’s not quite ghosts, like in the movie sort. But there’s definitely like a familial spirit, kind of hovering over it.
And I was super jetlagged when we visited in spring of 2018, couldn’t sleep at all. I brought this simple electronic setup with me, set it up in [my wife’s] childhood bedroom. And finally after, you know, racking my brain for hours and spinning around in my mind, I finally got up and was like ‘I’m just gonna mess around and do something.’ And these chord progressions came out. I’m not a piano player — they were very simple. But they seemed to suggest other things. And throughout that week these progressions kept coming. I layered some mellotron strings, some vintage kinda ’70s strings on there, and some French horn samples. And it just kinda took shape as these beautiful simple contemplative, self-reflective melodies. I still thought nothing of it, came home, brought it into this room, this studio. And I kept opening the files over the next several months and revisiting them and going ‘Huh?’ I added synthesizer, I processed some of the digital sources with my analogue filters, delays and reverbs and processing. And I think the spirit of that land really kinda channeled into me because I was so open to the energy — that hallucinatory jetlagged state, you know? And yeah, by the time I kinda added to it here I wandered what it was that I just created. It hammered itself into a shape. This was before there was a vocal idea at all, I thought: ‘Holy shit, I think I just wrote an ambient neoclassical record, that I didn’t mean to — or I allowed it to happen.’
I think it was just that learning to get out of my own way, learning to not talk myself out of things because they didn’t fit into a certain box for me. As open minded as I think I am, I still trap myself in boxes, you know? And so finally I contacted my friend Randall Dunn, the engineer who did my last solo record, and recorded this one. I said ‘Hey man I think I made this really beautiful thing, and I’d like to replace my digital piano with a beautiful sounding upright piano, and maybe get a cello player to add some life to the mellotron strings, and replace the French horn with real French horn. What do you think?’ And he goes ‘Yeah, yeah that’s a good idea. And you also shouldn’t be a chicken as you should sing on it and make it your next solo record.”
He said that a lot nicer because he’s a nice person. But, I disagreed. I thought, ‘No this is an ambient record, it doesn’t need my harsh croak to fuck it up.’ But I took it as a challenge. I said ‘I respect your opinion, I’m going to investigate your claim.’ And this was the winter break after that spring I started. My wife was back in Germany visiting her parents, so it was just me and the dogs in the living room — because I didn’t feel like coming out here to the studio and leaving the dogs in the house buried in snow. So I brought a single microphone out there, set it up in the middle of our great room. And every morning with my coffee, because it was a break from school, I woke up, grabbed my notebook and my pen, and stood at the microphone and improvised to songs. By the end of that week I had all my melodies and harmonies. And I had gone through my notebook, and stolen lines from poems where I needed to, to make lyrics that made sense — or heard words in my head that were kinda hidden in the secret code of the music. And it really came together. It wasn’t effortless, I worked pretty hard at it for that week. But it came. It came very flowingly, very naturally. At the end of that week I called Randall back and said ‘Alright, you’re totally right. I’m singing on it. Let’s book time.’
mxdwn: Wow. To me, it’s the contrast between your ‘croaky’ voice, and these like beautiful strings and arrangements, that’s quite powerful. Is that something you came to realize?
SVT: It’s hard for me to be objective about it like that, because of course that’s where self-consciousness comes in — and those other voices come out, of self-doubt and whatever. And that’s where I have to honor the muse. That’s what I’ve got to work with [laughs], that’s all I’ve got. I had to honor the spirit of the manifestation of this piece, and accept it and own it. And as uncomfortable as it felt to put this work out there, I owed it. I owed the whole process, that honor of not sabotaging it, you know? And letting it be what it is for its own sake. And accepting it. I’ve learned to kinda love it as that uncomfortable process of self-growth. And, as an objective listener, I like music like that. I like interesting voices. I like people with character. I like beautiful ambient psychedelic music. It’s sometimes hard for me to accept the fact that I might be worthy of standing there amongst others.
mxdwn: Right. And then, when did you decide to release these poems then? That’s kinda the other half of this project, if you’d call it that?
SVT: Kinda. I mean they are their own animals for sure. But it was the same process that birthed them. I’ve written poems my entire adult life and they have been relegated to living and dying in my personal journals. And, to be truthful, probably many of them aren’t good. But, you know, over the years they’ve really only been lyric fodder, you know? When I need words: alright, go butcher the poems, steal what you need. And it was in writing those lyrics, where I had stolen two lines in particular: ‘We have the sea, and we’ll always have the sky.’ I took that from a poem and I liked that poem the way it was. I went ‘Well shit, now the poem’s dead because I’ve just stolen it for these lyrics.’ Then I thought ‘Well maybe not. Maybe I owe it to leave it alone. Maybe I should write other ones with the intention of not stealing from them. You know, letting them be, and taking a minute to actually go back and revisit them and edit them to make them a thing.’
So that same process, that was all last year, when I wrote all those 23 poems, every morning I tried to write a little before work or on breaks at work — and write something until I thought it was done. And so, when I ended up with 23 of them, and none of them had titles; I’d been lazy and not titled any of them. And so, I thought ‘Well this is a body of work, what do I do with it?’ I thought maybe I would go to Kinko’s and make a little book for friends or something, you know? The more I thought about it, the more I thought: ‘Maybe there’s an audience for this. Maybe these are worthy. Maybe I should, again, step out of the comfort zone and own what the muse is giving me.’ So I tied it with all of my solo lyrics with the hope that it would be a gateway in for fans of my music, and would also show the contrast between lyrics and poems, because they serve two different purposes. Lyrics have to serve a song and a sound — they have to sound a certain way. Poems have to own a page, and they don’t get the benefit of music to frame it emotionally. They have to live independently of music. So, that idea just kinda bloomed, and I started putting it together. And, again, ran it by a friend, asking just about manufacturing books. I’ve manufactured lots of records and CDs with our label, but I never did a book. So I asked a friend Duncan Barlow, from Astrophil Press for his advice. He offered to publish it himself. He thought it was good and worthy of being on his press at the University of South Dakota.
Again, it was just kinda following the rabbit hole, and it kept leading to places that were positive. So the album and the poetry book are kinda linked in this stepping outside the comfort zone of not what’s expected by other people, but where I kind of expect myself to exist in the artistic expression. And passing through another threshold, opening some new pathways. And getting out of my own way, following things to their natural conclusion.
mxdwn: Right. And have you maybe thought about what you hope people take from those poems? I mean, do you want them to say something about yourself? What’s the goal then, for you?
SVT: You know, I guess I never thought about that. My goal was self-expression. I often feel like it’s the artist’s duty to share your self-expression whether you understand it or not. Sometimes it’s that mystery of not understanding and not explaining, and not having an expectation, that gives things power. And I don’t always understand what they’re about, even for myself. Sometimes their meaning is clear, sometimes their meaning is revealed years later, after the fact. Especially with lyrics, when I’m stealing lines from here and there, maybe five and six different times of life all jumbled together like a Burroughs cut-up. Years later it has become its own life and has a very specific meaning for me. They become divinatory, like reading tea leaves or tarot cards or something.
But as far as what I enjoy out of poems…I’ve been in this practice lately, I’m not always successful at it. Instead of waking up and getting into the busy lifestyle, you know, like jumping into the rat race, grabbing the phone or turning on the computer, or checking the email. I want to enjoy something first. Even if it’s a brief moment. I want to wake up and enjoy something. Whether it’s a cup of tea and some silence or watching the sun come up, not taking for granted that I live in a beautiful place. So I’ve been waking up and reading lots of poems. Poems are great for that, because, let’s say you don’t have much time. You can read something that exists on one page, close that book, think about it, and put it down, and you’ve just enjoyed something. You’ve just enjoyed a piece for art. For me, I don’t over-analyze them. I don’t try to guess what the poem’s about. Some poets are very literal, and very specific about what they’re saying. I tend to like the more abstract ones that use language to paint these broader strokes which can reveal a universal truth that becomes a personal truth for you in that moment, as you’re experiencing it; as an original moment. Like that poem for me is different than that poem would be for you, even if we read it at the same time. Really, what I hope others can get from it is a place where they can be self-reflective, and where the words can give them some sort of ability to have meaning in their own life — and apply their own situation. And to find, I don’t know, an appreciation for that moment of self-reflection or whatever it is they get out of it.
mxdwn: So last question. This was obviously kind of an in the moment record, like you’ve said. You just wanted to let this process happen organically. Have you thought about what’s next for you? Are you going to get back with some of the Neurosis stuff? Are there gonna be any rebirths of any other projects?
SVT: Those are things that are always in process. There’s never a specific plan, you know? You kinda gotta go where things take you. My plan was, like a lot of people’s this summer, was to get out and play these songs and see what kind of life they would have performing-wise. I’ve never played piano and sang in front of people before. I’m still looking forward to being able to do that at some point — finding a few good musicians. Before, I could actually just grab a guitar and play my old solo material. This stuff I need a couple folks with me to do some other sounds. I look forward to being able to spread my wings that way. I have some Harvestman projects in the works, which were in the works even before this one — I just put them aside while I’m busy promoting this one. You know, some psychedelic studio madness. And, yeah, we will just see where that road leads.
mxdwn: sure, well thanks so much Steve. This has been a lovely chat. And like I said the record is fantastic and I wish you all the best.
SVT: Thank you very much man.
All Photos by Raymond Flotat