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Baker's Dozen

The Old Country: Steve Von Till’s Baker’s Dozen
John Doran , December 16th, 2020 10:06

The long-serving Neurosis guitarist and singer shares his deep dive favourites; 13 albums which have shaped the way he looks at music and informed his writing and solo work as Harvestman and Steve Von Till

When I speak to Steve Von Till he’s standing - metaphorically at least - at the intersection where the different strands of his life converge. He’s just returned from spending time with his wife and in-laws in rural Germany, near Bremen, where their family have lived for countless generations. But summer is now over and he’s back in his own equally remote 12 acre patch of forest and stony outcrops in the Rockies of North Idaho where, during term time, he’s an elementary school teacher. But lesson plans and text books have been put to one side for a few hours so that we can talk on Zoom about his creative life, as musician and writer and of the albums that have informed his journey.

Von Till grew up in San Jose, California, and gravitated towards the fertile Bay Area punk community, becoming deeply enmeshed in the international tape trading scene and the US zine culture of the 1980s. While not a founding member, he was a big fan of the crust-influenced hardcore band Neurosis, and within two or three years of discovering them, he realised that febrile dream of many a young musician: they enlisted him. In 1989 he joined their ranks as a second guitarist, joint-vocalist with Scott Kelly and new songwriter. This was a time of great flux and creative invention for Neurosis as their line-up expanded further with the inclusion of a keyboard player and dedicated visuals creator the following year. The entire concept of what they could achieve began to expand way beyond what was deemed acceptable in the relatively hidebound American punk scene of the day.

This shift in style and aesthetics, married to a growth in spirituality and learning, was shaped in no small part by Von Till’s deep rooted interest in esoteric, avant-garde and extreme music. In recording the albums Souls At Zero (1992), Enemy Of The Sun (1993) and Through Silver In Blood (1996), Neurosis (inadvertently) set the template for post metal, while constantly remaining furlongs ahead of any other band who decided to chase after them. You could claim that via their significant interest in groups such as Coil, Throbbing Gristle and Current 93, that they made a more authentic distillation of industrial and heavy metal than any so-called industrial metal group of the day made, but it should suffice to say that Neurosis, remain a sui generis outlier in the field of heavy, hypnotic, transcendent extreme music, whose ultimate roots lie in post punk, punk, no wave, industrial and heavy metal.

After the turn of the century, to complement his work as a member of Neurosis and Tribes Of Neurot, Von Till began to explore other musical influences both under his own name and as Harvestman. While initially the former was the vehicle for the release of acoustic folk with guitar and vocals, and the latter was geared more towards experimentation with elektronische, neo folk and drone, over time both strands have blurred pleasingly into one another.

Earlier this year saw the release of his fifth solo album, No Wilderness Deep Enough, which he says, was almost entirely accidental. He explains: “It started in Spring 2018 when I was staying with my in-laws in Germany, where the family have lived for over 500 years. Because I’m the child of an immigrant family who were always being forced West I’ve always had an unspecified longing for connectedness to a place and via my own interest in and passion for ancient European culture I feel a deep connectedness to where they live. The air and the land is different. There’s a weight to it. That area of Germany is called ‘Straße der Megalithkultur’, and it's littered with megalithic monuments. it's very different, it contains an energy which I think I tapped into accidentally.

“When I arrived I had a horrible case of jetlag and I didn’t sleep for the whole week, so rather than lay in bed and torture myself I just started to make music. I had a small set up in the corner of my wife’s childhood bedroom and these simple piano chords just started flowing out of me. Had I not been in an hallucinatory kind of open state I might have shooed them away as inconsequential, as too simple, not interesting, but I followed that rabbit hole, I didn't get in my own way, and by the end of that week of sleeplessness I had added mellotron strings and some French horn parts. I never once thought I was creating something. I was just passing the time like you would reading a book or watching TV when you can’t sleep.”

With some gentle persuasion from his friend, the producer, Randall Dunn, Von Till slowly started to see these musical sketches as his next solo album to which he needed to add vocals, and then the album began to take shape back in Idaho, with additional piano, French horn and cello accompaniment. Coming out of a similar process, the book Harvestman: 23 Untitled Poems and Collected Lyrics was completed at the same time.

He concludes: “In one sense the album and the book are both part of the same process that took place during the same time period regarding the need to make a conscious decision to embrace the lesson of getting out of my own way; to learn to honour the creative spirit and the muse by letting go of the negative self-talk and owning what I'm doing. I'm 50-years-old, if I'm not gonna own the fact that I make beautiful music; that I can sing emotively and that I write poetry now, then when am I gonna own it?”

Steve Von Till’s solo album, with accompanying book, No Wilderness Deep Enough was released earlier this year by Neurot. Click on the image of Von Till below to begin reading his Baker’s Dozen