Cyclopean Masonry: Steve Von Till Of Harvestman Interviewed

Steve Von Till follows the ley lines from bagpipes to Skullflower, from throat singing to Thin Lizzy, from megaliths to modernity, in conversation with Pavel Godfrey

Earlier this summer, Neurosis’ Steve Von Till released Music For Megaliths, his third full-length record as Harvestman, and the first in eight years. In my review for the May edition of Columnus Metallicus, I classified Harvestman as “folkdrone,” a made-up but useful term that links this project to tQ favourites from Laura Cannell to Woven Skull to Gravenhurst. But Harvestman is more drone-based than any of these artists, and tapped into something even more ancient. On Lashing The Rye (2005), Von Till gave us a dreamscape of delicate fingerpicked guitar lines dancing over tectonic drones, unearthly pipes wailing, and stray voices echoing in the analog synth mists. In A Dark Tongue (2009) revolved around two heavy, incantatory drone-rockers in the vein of Hawkwind, but also showed Harvestman moving towards denser synth-driven ambience, like kosmische music or later Coil. In the years since this last release, Von Till has honed in on that ambient drone approach, but without sacrificing any of the musicality that always characterized the project. And Music For Megaliths has a compelling narrative arc, something like an initiatory passage from dusk into dawn.

I spoke with Von Till about his work on this new album, the influences behind Harvestman and Neurosis, and his connection to landscape and history. What follows is an excerpt focusing on the relationships between folk and drone, tradition and technology. Von Till talks about taking folk music as a raw material to be processed into drone, but also about drone as the inner life of all the folk music that interests him most, from the long-forgotten ululations of druids amidst the stones, to the raw vibration coursing through the eldritch amps of Skullflower.

When you started Harvestman, you had already released two albums of acoustic folk music under your own name, and since then you’ve continued these personas in parallel to one another, letting them bleed into one another, even. And there’s an underlying sensibility connecting all of your solo work to Neurosis. So, what was the origin of Harvestman, and what makes it distinct from your other projects?

Steve Von Till: I’ve always had home recording equipment, and I enjoy experimenting sonically: putting down random drones, getting in that creative improvisational mood, rolling the tape, and seeing what happens. I ended up with a body of work that did not belong as potential ideas for Neurosis, or for my solo songwriting, or for Tribes Of Neurot, or anything else we were doing. It was clear that Harvestman was an all-encompassing improvisational meditation on that which, in my other projects, I still didn’t get to express: love for ancient European folk music, and fascination with ancient stone.

In Harvestman I use folk music sounds, but I’m not a traditional folk player. I don’t want to become proficient in Celtic or bluegrass music, but I listen to it a lot, so Harvestman has these strange sonic nods to different musical traditions that float around in my brain, along with places, histories, and supernatural elements. You can go ahead and throw in my love for ambient music, krautrock, spacerock, and psychedelic lo-fi music, all of it swirling around in a way that’s hard to express to anyone else, but makes perfect sense to me.

So, let’s get into how you synthesize those traditions. On your first album as Harvestman, Lashing The Rye (2005), you were taking root themes from folk songs, and embellishing on them with electric guitar, right?

SVT: Absolutely, there were some interpretations. On ‘Scarborough Fair’, all the notes are there, just not necessarily in the same sequence or rhythm. But they are all there, the melodic structure is there.

And there were some other fun experiments, too – these really abstract songs where I took a couple traditional bagpipe tunes played by a friend of mine, processed them, and screwed them all to hell.

The bagpipes were not distorted enough for you?

SVT: Apparently not! But I also did some really goofy shit, like downloading MIDI files of bagpipes. I don’t even know how to use that stuff, that’s beyond my technical prowess, but I figured, “Ok, if I can throw it into a digital recording, I ought to be able to have this file trigger some other sound.” So some of those are bagpipe files from some bagpipe dork website, where they have MIDI files of bagpipe music. I would set it to trigger some primitive onboard synthesizer in the computer, instead of a bagpipe sound, and then run that out of the computer through all my pedal boards, and then back in, to screw it.

So you’re screwing it, but you’re also sort of… translating it?

SVT: Yeah, chopped, screwed, and translated Celtic music, there you go! It’s that whole idea of processing… One thing most people might not pick up on about Harvestman is that I really enjoy the dub reggae concept of using the recording studio as an instrument. It’s that whole Adrian Sherwood approach, where it doesn’t matter what’s tracked – it’s what you do with it, in the final mix, that is the performance. It’s all up for grabs, up until the very end, as far as continuing to break down, destroy, manipulate, and rebuild, really playing delays and reverbs and analog processing, and allowing it to come to life.

I have to say, I did not expect the dub connection. So would you say this studio-oriented approach is another thing that differentiates Harvestman from your Steve Von Till albums, even when they get psychedelic?

SVT: Absolutely. Because it’s not something that I sit and work on, then go record. I turn on all the gear, and as soon as I’ve got something worth hitting record for, I’ll do it. And often I’ll put something down, whether it’s a drone from any source, or a loop, or a simple guitar part, and maybe I’ll overdub something on top of it, and then I’ll walk away from it for years. I’ll collect pieces like that, over a span of time. I occasionally revisit them, when I’m just dicking around the studio. I’ll be like “Oh, what’s this?” and I’ll open it, and I might be inspired to lay something else down on top of it, or to do what I just explained – to bring it all out of the recording device and process it in some way. And then I’ll walk away from it again. This goes on until I feel the energy boiling over, and there’s a certain quantity of pieces that are ready for one last look. Then, I’ll attack all of those at the same time – maybe add something, take something away, process it again – and mix it down into cohesive album material.

So this process really takes time… I feel like that touches on all of your work with Harvestman, and even Neurosis – it all has to do with the presence of the past in the “now.”

SVT: Well, I have an obsession with things ancient. It’s on a very gut level – not something I sit and philosophise about. But there is a constant wonder: What was the intent, what was the spirit, behind making a giant mound of earth, and dotting it with huge stones, using the highest architectural ability of the day? They dot the landscape of my ancestors, no matter where you look. My wife is German, and when I visited her area in recent years, I saw this whole part of Western Germany that’s completely built over with cairn tombs and other stone structures from the Neolithic Age. They extend from the islands north of Scotland, all the way down into Spain and Portugal. It’s amazing that there’s this megalithic culture we know so little about, and only through modern archaeology and guesswork are scientists starting to figure out what may have been behind it.

A recurring theme running through Neurosis, my solo work, and Harvestman is the question of what it means to be human, and what it means to be connected to the natural world, or, in the modern age, to be completely disconnected from it, and therefore disconnected from ourselves. This project is one where I can let go and interpret that theme through sound in the craziest way possible, where it doesn’t have to have an intellectual explanation. It can just be me imagining strange shit, like: “What is the musical connection between the invention of the hurdy gurdy, the bagpipe, and these ancient horn instruments, and then between those and modern music like Skullflower, and Flying Saucer Attack, and Hawkwind playing free festivals at Stonehenge in the 70s?”

Well, maybe you’re doing with music the same kind of thing that the people setting up the big stones were doing. There’s a similar attunement to nature, to ancestral voices, and to the rhythms of time.

SVT: Yeah, you know, it’s an homage to the ancestors unknowable, and the recent lineage of musical heroes.

So, how did you first get into the ancestral folk music that influenced this project, and that show up in weird ways in Neurosis’ music?

SVT: Well, as a young guy I went from metal to punk, and then from punk to industrial and ambient, and then got into drone music via Tibetan chanting, I was looking for trippy shit – Indian classical music, Mongolian throat singers. To me, that’s some of the most primal, powerful stuff – just these really simple stringed instruments and a voice. If I could just go off and do something else for a while, I’d head to outer Mongolia and figure that shit out. And hunt deer with eagles.

So I went from that to Celtic music, and then to what seemed like the most counterintuitive thing, to American bluegrass and country, because that came from Celtic music. So, I went all the way around the world just to end up back home. I came to appreciate the things in my environment that I had rejected at first. And so some of the early stuff that influenced me for Harvestman was buying a lot of Celtic music, and discovering the folk revival in the late 60s and 70s, things like the Bothy Band, and De Danaan, and Clancy Brothers. And then hearing Steeleye Span, where they’re doing it with electric guitars, and the Horslips in Ireland, who did some jigs and reels with a weird early-70s electric guitar angle, and even some of the early Thin Lizzy stuff, where they’d do a few Celtic tunes.

Then discovering Fairport Convention, and falling in love with Sandy Denny’s voice, and realizing, holy shit, she was always the vocalist on Zeppelin’s ‘Battle of Evermore’, and I never knew it, because no one ever talks about who she is! I’d heard her voice my whole life! And that song has imprinted. So things came full circle in that way, too. And I was getting into more obscure stuff, too, reading about how Jimmy Page was really inspired by Bert Jansch, who played electric in Pentangle.

What about the really ancient stuff, pipe or fiddle music?

SVT: I wouldn’t be able to be specific. I have plenty in my collection, but I’m really bad with the names. Because, yeah, I like listening to Scandinavian folk music. But what I really like listening to is the way Wardruna is reinterpreting Scandinavian folk music. It’s kind of like listening to a bluegrass field recording from the 30s versus listening to Gillian Welsh today sing a heartbreaking ballad with a slower pace. There’s an energy to be found in all of it, but there’s something to slowing it down.

That sounds like Harvestman, too. You’ve talked about how you’re not a trained trad-folk musician, but you’re working with and transforming that source material, and in that sense it’s traditional music.

SVT: That’s a compliment, that would be the higher goal. But I have no choice but to work with my limitations, and interpret the tradition with a piece of broken electronics plugged into a phaser. That’s more my speed.

Music For Megaliths is out now on Neurot

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