Fewbands have stood so clearly in defiance of the conventions of heavy metal the way Oakland veterans Neurosis have. Across nearly three decades, the band has gone above and beyond both what the genre is able to sound like and what it presents itself as – unlike many, Neurosis have dipped as frequently into the avant-garde as they have into scorched-earth intensity. Of course, much has changed for the Californians over the years – they will often go for many moons as an inactive project before the spark arises again. It begs the question as to whether the band finds it more difficult to be a working band now than back in the proverbial day.
“I wouldn’t know,” says Steve Von Till, one of Neurosis’ two vocalists and guitarists. “We as a band wouldn’t have a balanced perspective on it. We kind of have a privileged place right now – we decided back in 1999 that our lives were completely out of balance with the touring and recording schedules. It wasn’t that we couldn’t, it was that we felt that we shouldn’t. It wasn’t the right way to be – I’m a family man, and the industry is so full of poison and bullshit.
“In order to keep our art pure and our lives balanced, we walked backwards a little bit. We have day jobs to support our families, and we have this unique art form that we’re still dedicating our lives to, but don’t have to be dependent on. Now, we have to do this for our own survival of our sanity and our souls. It’s not treating it with any less respect – it’s actually that we’re treating it with more respect. This music is really special and deep, and we feel blessed that we were able to be the ones to channel it. We feel that it requires treating it as such, and not as a commodity.”
On the topic of Von Till being a family man, discussion turns to parenthood within the confines of Neurosis. As the band has gotten older, being fathers has remained one of the top priorities. It brings out a different side to the men behind the gruelling, intense music they release. “Three of us are fathers,” says Von Till. “My son has a band that’s on our record label, he’s in his 20s now. He’s a man. Fatherhood has been a part of Neurosis since the beginning. Every kid’s different – my daughters are aware of my music. They’ve even seen us play a few times, and it’s not their thing, but they still respect it.”
As for the day jobs that keep the members of Neurosis busy during their off season? Believe it or not, Von Till actually spends time as an elementary school teacher. Don’t worry, though – he won’t be found blasting metal to his students during assembly anytime soon. “I keep it pretty low-key, man,” he laughs. “They’re pretty young – they’re fourth-graders; nine going onto ten. They don’t know anything about the music itself. They know that I go away for a few days and that I get to go to other countries – they think that’s really cool. We talk about music a lot, but to them I’m just their teacher. My teaching is similar to my work in music – I’m just trying to do something that’s going to make a mark in the world.”
2014 is an interesting year for milestone anniversaries within the Neurosis camp. Not only has a decade passed since the album The Eye Of Every Storm, it also marks 15 years since the band’s sixth LP, Times Of Grace. Working with legendary producer and fellow genre outsider Steve Albini, the latter in particular stands as one of the band’s most beloved records in a long discography.
Although a retrospective mindset feels untoward for Von Till, he still recalls the creative process on the album fondly. “I didn’t even know it was 15 this year!” he confesses. “Every record for us is a milestone, and the peak of our abilities at that time. We’ve always seen our development as spiralling in towards the centre of the pure inspiration from which it comes from, which we’ll always be searching for. Each record is us getting closer and closer to what we think Neurosis is. It’s always a peculiar thing, then, to look back.
“Times Of Grace was after the Through Silver In Blood era, with a much-needed time in which we felt that we had crawled out of this several-year period of surviving in this deep, dark swamp of physical destruction following Through Silver In Blood. We were really fighting to survive as what we were, discovering the power and the energy of intense music and really paying for it. Times Of Grace is kind of like getting up to a peak, being able to look back with some sort of sense of inner peace – taking all of the lessons we had learned and moving forward with them.”
Despite the band’s constant efforts to progress, the time is still not yet right for any new material to present itself, either on tour or in the studio. Neurosis’ most recent effort came in late 2012 with the release of their tenth album, Honor Found In Decay – and, at least for the time being, it’s going to stay that way.
“We’re still just beginning the process of the next album,” says Von Till. “There’s nothing to unveil yet. We’re still working our way into our slow-motion touring way. Our time works a little differently to other bands. There’s definitely something boiling up – there’s things coming to the surface that will need to be expressed soon, so we’ll arrange our schedules to find time for it together.”
August sees Neurosis finally arrive on Australian shores for a run of headlining performances that have sent the band’s cult fan base here into a frenzy. Though anticipation is high on the fans’ end, Von Till is entering his maiden voyage to Australia with a clear mind, curious to discover what he’ll find.
“I have no idea what to expect,” he says. “I’ve never been there. Scott [Kelly, fellow guitarist/vocalist] has been there with his solo stuff, so he’s seen the country and met some people. I’m just looking forward to the adventure, whatever it entails. I know that we’ll be ready to surrender to the flow of the music and bring it down there. Hopefully, it will be well responded to. I know that people have been saying they’ve been waiting for us to come for a really long time, but these days that could mean anything – that could mean five years! We’re just really excited to finally get down there.”