Inspiration can manifest in the most interesting ways. Artistry could stem from hours spent immersed in subject matter; it could form spontaneously—as if art found life in a vacuum. For Steve Von Till and his new album, No Wilderness Deep Enough, it is the latter. The Neurosis guitarist and vocalist has been a living legend in metal for three decades. Outside of the group, however, Von Till crafts his own individual music under his namesake or as Harvestman. Needless to say, the well of creativity is never dry.
Von Till's newest effort came completely out of thin air. There was no formal consideration, no dedicated construct to arrangements. In fact, it came from sleepless nights in Germany—the familial ghosts of his wife's homeland fueled early ideas and piano chords. From the strokes of those keys, the six songs of No Wilderness Deep Enough slowly took shape. It's an ambient record in its own right. Layers of mellotron, cello, and French horn create textured nuance to his keys. However, as Von Till details later, the album almost remained instrumental.
A nudge from his friend and producer, Randall Dunn, brought Von Till's signature rasp out and built a dark folk and Americana record that's drawn comparisons to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Brian Eno. Songs like "The Old Straight Track" and "Shadows on the Run" exemplify this emotive blend. The minimalism—both in musical and lyrical arrangements—carries an equivocal emotional weight to some of Neurosis's biggest moments.
The approach to the album isn't the only new creative development for Von Till. Accompanying No Wilderness Deep Enough is a new collection of untitled poems and a compilation of his lyrics from his solo albums entitled Harvestman: 23 Untitled Poems and Collected Lyrics. Poetry has always been a creative outlet for Von Till, but it's never left his personal journals. The unorthodox formation of his newest record coincidentally inspired him to craft new lines, unbound to musical arrangements. This culmination of new music and poetry amounts to one of the most radiant exhibits of artistic talent in recent years. As Von Till puts it, in summary, it came from honoring the muse.
Metal Injection sat down with Von Till via Skype from his home recently. Von Till's been gearing up to go back to school with his students in addition to managing the release of his album through his label. Read our interview about his new album and book of poems and much more. Purchase the album and book through Neurot Recordings.
Your fifth full-length album, No Wilderness Deep Enough, arrives accompanied by a book of poems and collected lyrics from your solo musical works books called Harvestman. You've been writing individual material for quite some time now—about two decades. Looking back on this time and how your music has unfolded, how would you say your self-titled material fits into your entire body of work with Neurosis and then your Harvestman project?
Steve Von Till: Well. It's been a lifelong discovery process for me, even though I've been doing it for 20 years. I still remember what it felt like to do the first solo record because it wasn't like I had some ego trip where I felt the need to go do music under my own name. I always had home recording equipment since I was in high school—starting cassette four-tracks and moving up to reel-to-reel. I would just collect ideas.
Throughout the 90s, I had collected this group of songs that one day I sat and listened to these reels going, “I don't know where this stuff fits.” I only had Neurosis and Tribes of Neurot, and this stuff doesn't belong with any of that. This is truly my own music. It's not that driven beast that is the collective channeling of Neurosis.
This is private music. It's the music that I make when the world was quiet. Back when I lived in the city, it’s only in those like wee hours of the late-night or early morning where the world gets quiet enough to make music like that. It just presented itself to me, like, “OK, you have this body of work. What is it? You did it already.” So, I feel you have to honor the muse.
When things are presented to you—if you find them meaningful—you owe it to share it with others. So, starting that has led me down this road of validating that creative process. And this new record is even a further step in that I did not intentionally set out to make it. I did not ever conceive when it started that it was going to be my next solo record. It was really just circumstance and following rabbit holes.
How did the album start coming together then?
Von Till: It started at my wife's parents’ house in North Germany. Her family's been on the same homeland—the same exact house site for 500 years plus. So even by old world standards, it's a fucking long time. That area is littered with megalithic monuments from the megalithic era as well, which it’s no secret I'm obsessed with. So unlike here, like in north Idaho where the wilderness is still wild.
That land in that part of the world is extremely cultivated and has been for thousands of years. That landscape has been manipulated and it has a different energy and a different kind of weight to it. There's a lot of ghosts and I don’t mean Ghostbusters ghosts, but kind of familial spirits or whatever tied to the land; the energy of having one family work a place for such a long time.
I couldn't sleep. I started improvising instead of torturing myself—which is my expertise—with nights of sleeplessness. I can sit there and spin the wheels, or I can just get up and do something. So, I got up and I just started improvising on a simple electronic setup and stumbled into these very simple piano chord progressions. I recorded them because I was just messing around. Throughout that whole week, I never did find sleep, but I found that each simple chord progression suggested something else—suggested a melody. By the end of the week, I had a collection of these simple progressions with some Mellotron strings and some French horn parts.
I still didn't think I was making anything. I brought them home to my home studio, and I kept opening those files and going into them. I was intrigued by them. I added analog synthesizers and started treating some of the digital sources with my analog gear in my home studio and over a period of spare time, it just kind of took shape in brief moments.
It basically kind of came out fully formed as it is now, without vocals, just by following the rabbit hole. I never felt like I was working or laboring over anything. I was just going with the moment. Then I realized it was a beautiful sounding kind of ambient record with nods towards some of the neoclassical minimalism stuff that I really have enjoyed my entire adult life.
I ran it by my friend Randall [Dunn], the engineer who did my last record. I said, “Hey, man, I think I want to go into a studio and replace this digital piano with a real piano, but keep all my treatments and all my electronics and maybe get a real French horn and a real cello player to flesh out my Mellotron strings.” He came back a couple of days later and said, “I agree with you, we absolutely should do that.”
I told him I didn't know what it was. I didn't know if I'm making ambient music right now. It didn't feel like it was Harvestman, because that has a different energy. He said, “We absolutely should do that, but you should have the courage to sing on it and make it your next solo record.” I disagreed with him entirely.
By this time, it was winter. That whole process started Spring break from work in 2018 and the winter of 2018-2019 is when I ran it by Randall. My wife was back in Germany visiting her folks. I was alone here in this living room with nice tall ceilings—which I don't make music in here because we’ve got dogs and refrigerator and everything. My studio is out in the barn and I didn't want to go hang out in the studio. We were buried in snow as it is here around New Years’ time. I don't want to leave the dogs alone all day by screwing around in my studio. I just set up a microphone right here and woke up every morning with my cup of coffee, a composition notebook, and a pen.
I approached the microphone and I improvised to the melodies every day as I woke up. As I'm getting older, I'm finding my morning more psychedelic and more productive than trying to stay up late when I have no energy left. I'm finding the morning hours more magical than the evening hours. By the end of the week I called Randall and said, “Okay, you're right. I figured it out. The melodies came. The words came.”
We booked time for the first time we could actually get together, which wasn’t until June last year, and we knocked it out in three days. He recorded and oversaw the recording of the cello and the French horn in New York, where he lives now. Then we met in Portland at a beautiful studio called Flora Recording and Playback. For three days, I replaced all my demo vocals and scratch piano tracks and we mixed it and it was done.
That's awesome. This record itself, at least to me, sounds very different than some of your other solo albums under your name. It feels a little bit more somber and rawer compared to some of your other albums. It seems like almost kind of like a change in scenery as well as a kind of a change in approach (or lack thereof) sparked a lot of this stuff.
Von Till: Yeah, it was magic because it was not preconceived. In no part of it, say, for maybe the week where I was forcing myself to investigate Randall's claim that I should sing on it, it never felt like I was working. It just kind of felt like everything was just falling into place. I've been learning this all along the way. Again, that's how the whole solo project started. It’s learning to get out of my own way and not impede the process by getting in the way of the muse and not trying to overthink things and even letting Randall be the voice of the muse for a moment where I wasn't thinking I was going to sing on it.
I still think it's a great sounding record without my harsh croak all over the top of it. I really like it both ways, and because I never felt like I created it, I can actually listen to this one.
That brings me to another question I had. You’ve mentioned in interviews, when asked about Neurosis that you don't really return to a lot of older material that you write because you're not drawn to it, more or less. Do you believe that the opposite is the case with some of the solo material?
Though it doesn't seem to be the case for this new album, did you find yourself kind of dipping back into some of the things that you tried before and thought maybe I can find some inspiration or some ideas out of this?
Von Till: No, I don't really like to listen to my own music. Maybe some ideas might stick around for a long time. Maybe there's an idea it might be a decade old that didn't work, that all of a sudden finds its voice, you know, but as far as listening to it or considering it, no, not really. Whenever it gets that mental, it seems to suck, to be perfectly frank.
I know some people are very gifted in making cerebral music and it's never been my gift. I really have to stumble into things. I guess my gift is learning how to create environments and time and space for myself to allow those things to flow. I have a very busy lifestyle. I don't have a lot of time to be creative—a full-time job, running a record label, managing all of our business stuff, and being a parent and a husband—it doesn't leave a whole lot of free time. So, when I have a couple of hours, they have to count.
You mentioned that up until the last little bits—until Randall convinced you to sing over it—that it was an ambient record. Taking the lyrics to this album or some of your other solo albums and then comparing it to some of the poems that you've written for this collection, do you find that one is a little bit harder than the other? Do you find that writing for lyrics to fit a song is different than normal poetry?
Von Till: I don't know if it's harder, but they're very different. They serve two completely different purposes. Lyrics for me, I've never written words first. I have always written music first—in every context. So, for me, lyrics have to serve the song. They have to complement and exist within this musical framework. Before you even think about meaning, they have to have a certain rhythm, a certain cadence, certain energy. What vowel sound do I want to hang on, you know? If I know I'm going to hang on this long vowel sound, I've got to find a word that makes sense because it's sometimes it's like trying to translate voices in the wind or through the trees or whatever.
Sometimes they come out of nowhere and you can transcribe—like you're breaking some kind of code. But other times I've got to dig through my journals and find words. I've written poetry my entire adult life. I've just never published it. It's always kind of lived and died in my personal journals or been reduced to lyric fodder where I rob lines as I need. Even phrases or half-lines, anything I can use to make the lyrics work with the song.
Song lyrics, meaning wise, might in some ways be more lenient because you have the music to frame the emotional reaction of the words to give it a context. Lyrics could start off as a collage of translated secret code mixed with four or five lines stolen from poems of completely different episodes in my life which—if anybody else knew what I was referring to when I wrote those lines, they would make no sense together—but they take on a whole new life in this new context of a song.
Sometimes I kind of know what they mean. Sometimes I have no idea what they mean. They might reveal themselves to me years later, almost like a divination or something like, “Oh, that's what it was… I wrote it about something that hadn't happened yet.” But that's just a trick of the mind: using words to frame your reality. Or, I may never know. They may remain a mystery and I'm good with that.
But poems, they have to say everything they want to say and give all the emotion that you want to give with no musical backdrop. They have to own a little piece of real estate on a piece of paper. I think it has to look right. Where you start and end the line, make a big difference.
Looking at the difference between the lyrics of the new record and these 23 untitled poems that are the primary purpose for the book, I stole two lines from one of the poems for one of the songs. That was the impetus for making the book. I felt so guilty stealing these two lines—the best lines from the poem—and it seemed like I just killed that poem because without those two lines, the poem sucks and now I can't use it.
I mean, not that I had any plans to show anybody my poem, but I felt the poem was nice just the way it was. So, then I got my wheels spinning, “You know what, maybe I'm going to sit and write some things with the intent of not butchering them later for lyrics. Maybe I'm going to allow some things to have their own life as poems.” I realized that I could let those two lines live in a poem and a song and I would be okay with that.
When I had completed 23 of them, none of them had titles. My first thought was maybe I'll go to Kinko's and make a chapbook, give it to friends. Then the more I thought about it, the more I thought this kind of work has presented itself to me. I went back to thinking you need to honor the muse sometimes and if I had the courage. You know how it is in our music scene, even saying the words “poetry book” is like super pretentious and full of yourself and all that shit [laughs].
I was like, “Well if I'm not going to own it now, when am I ever going to own it?” So, then I thought my way in is to tie it in with the lyrics of the new album and in fact, why not all of my solo work. And then if I release it simultaneously with my new record, maybe some people will be interested in checking it out.
Absolutely. That's good thinking. Comparing the untitled poems to the lyrics of previous albums, you made the comment of how you have words in lyrics fit the context and the shape of the music and the poems have to present as their own shape. I noticed that with a lot of these untitled poems compared to the lyrics from your songs. There's almost like a heightened kind of primal tone in these poems surrounding the beginning and end of life compared to some of the lyrics in the album.
So, as you were kind of sitting with this music, did you find these poems as a means to be a little bit more deliberate in the connection to spiritualism and the naturalism that surrounds birth and death?
Von Till: Not intentionally. Again, I go back to my default answer of “if I get in here [points to head] with any sort of intent, I fail miserably. I really have to kind of surrender and just let it take shape naturally. If you look at every lyric of every piece of music I've ever been a part of—after maybe being teenagers and screaming about society—it's all been the existential search and the existential questions.
It's all been our relationship to the cosmos, the earth, the soil, the elements, the other species, ourselves, our communities, our loved ones, ourselves, our own minds and all the crazy spinning that we get when we cross-reference all those different questions, you know? [laughs] It really kind of all exists within the same world view. I think within the same way I'm always questioning it all at once.
It becomes a very psychedelic collage in a way. Then the poems kind of become wordplay. One thing I did realize through writing them is that I have a certain rhythm. I don't rhyme a lot. I don't use a whole lot of alliteration unless it happens naturally. But I have a way that I see them being said. I say them out loud when I'm editing and I’m seeing if I like the way it is.
I notice a lot of modern poets don't begin and end their lines the way they speak them. I second-guessed if I should be more of an adult modern poet and fuck them up a little more but then I decided against it because I think sometimes people do the line breaks to be artsy but I tried to break them where I naturally want to create emphasis.
I think that kind of returns to the initial comment of having the poetry take its own shape, that’s probably where I pick up a lot of this noticeable or tangible difference between your untitled poems and the lyrics. I think that's a really cool observation and I didn’t notice that until you said it.
I know you've been asked about it in the past, but this take on existentialism and our connections to the natural world and spiritual world. When did this become such a big part of your life? Was there a point where you kind of realized this is where you put the basis of your creative side?
Von Till: No, I think it's slowly, organically took shape to where I can't pinpoint moments. Whether it's dreams and visions as a kid to discovering the magic of art, music, and the realm of the imagination and discovering books. It's been a lifelong process. Again, being open to allowing things to happen and having a life that allows these kinds of eventful things to happen. Sometimes when you have conversations with folks, you realize some people just don't want to be that open to allow things to happen or they just live life by more of a recipe.
Given the advent of technology, gentrification, or some of the push towards urban areas, I imagine it's a bit easier to kind of fall into that. That default of “what I see on the internet is what I need to do.”
Von Till: I just can't imagine life any different, really. I've always had this deep existential longing for some sort of connection. Whether it's the connection to the ancient past, maybe what our ancestors or indigenous people would have thought of how they saw the universe or a deeper connection to seasons and to the cycles of nature and of life and death.
We get so divorced in our modern world from real connection. When I lived in the city, it was longing. I never became an adventurer because of that longing. I never spent months backpacking mountain terrain or anything, but eventually, I realized in order to find peace, I had to find space.
I had to choose my career as a teacher and being in a DIY music lifestyle, which is very busy. In order for me to be more connected to nature, I had to get the hell out of the city so that I can live in it. I need to be able to walk out the door and see nature on a daily basis because if it involves scheduling time to go visit nature, it's not going to happen often enough.
I need to be where the weather dictates my day a little bit more and we're in a place long enough to recognize how the natural cycles of things affect what wildflowers are growing next in the cycle of the year or what the indicators are that autumn is coming or what cycle of the moon is happening right now. I've seen so many more sunrises and sunsets living out here than I ever saw in an urban environment, you know? I think that alone is huge.
It sounds like you have this oneness with things now that you find yourself out in Idaho compared to what you were dealing with in the city. Going back to what you mentioned about being in Germany with your wife and kids. The megalithic history of old-world Germany and then comparing it to where you're at in Idaho. How does that vibe that you pick up in Germany—where that spawned a lot of this early material for this new record—compare to being at home in Idaho?
Von Till: The land has a different energy. Humans haven't manipulated the landscape here because they absolutely have, but it's different. We've only been here for a couple of hundred years. You can think you're in the middle of nowhere and come across an old logging road somewhere or a mine shaft in the middle of nowhere and realize that people have been crawling all around here looking for ways to earn a dollar. It is just rawer, rougher, wilder, you know, at least for North America. I think it's some of the more wild territory we still have left. So, that brings with it a different energy. You’re West Coast, right?
I am now. Yeah.
Von Till: It's still the Wild West. Mining shacks and gold rushes weren’t that long ago and the mindset of constantly moving and where is the next gold rush? We're not rooted here, and that energy is very much here as well. The human energy is still that kind of Wild West thing, but the natural energy is a little wilder. Grizzly bears and wolves command a certain amount of respect.
There aren't those centuries and centuries—except for the native people whose ancestors are from here. They probably pick up on a deeper connection that is not available to me. I can empathize with it. I can long for wanting that type of connection, but I'll never have it.
It’s something we won't have, for sure. That kind of raw is more recent in that regard too. I'm originally from North Carolina and when I moved west I found you do still get this feeling of the Wild West as you find your way out here.
I drove through Couer d’Alene and northern Idaho on my way out to Washington. Also, being in Colorado for a while, you do have these remnants, these visible ghosts of life in the West.
Von Till: Even the way the land seems. That earth can just crumble through your hands because it's been plowed and tilled and plowed and tilled and cleared and plowed. It’s not like here where you've only got a couple of generations max of moving it.
Yeah, that's very true. I think maybe because partly I've never been to Europe, I don't really have a good grasp of what it looks like there. But definitely from East Coast US to the Pacific Northwest, there's a lot more of being in touch with indigenous tribes and First Nations—the roots and the soil that kind of built this part of the country. I can see your draw to get into nature, especially where you're at.
Von Till: It was definitely the right move for me.
How long have you been there now?
Von Till: Fifteen years.
I have been here officially 15 months. Do you get out in Washington a lot?
Von Till: You know, one thing that I have not done as I have not explored the Olympics and that's on my bucket list—to get out there a bit. We're in the [Idaho] Panhandle, so technically we're 15 minutes from Washington.
The Olympics are gorgeous. That was a big bucket list thing for me when I got here. The North Cascades are gorgeous as well. I’ve been a big fan of that. I've also been down around Mount Rainier. But there's a limitless opportunity between where you're at and where I am to just explore.
Von Till: You’re coming from the Carolinas, right? So, you've got a much older mountain range there. The mountains are a little more worn down by time on the East Coast. They’re not as sharp and jagged as this West Coast, more recent, volcanic stuff. Do you pick up a different energy when you're in mountain areas here than you did back home?
I do very much so. I think it's the scope and the size of the mountain ranges here and sort of the vastness of it. It's incredibly humbling. It puts me in a similar place t0 you. It reminds me of the roots of nature and where you come from. It reminds me of my humanity. I remember the first time I went through the Rocky Mountains and just seeing some of the stuff there, it takes your breath away and it gives you a whole different vantage on things. It makes you feel small in the best way possible. It's enlightening. It's eye-opening.
Going back to what we talked a lot about, the Wild West feel the vibe of exploration and discovery is prevalent combined with indigenous cultures and First Nations in Canada, the East Coast doesn't really have that as much. It's very colonial. You look at what's kind of happened. Their cities are on top of each other. It's become very it's kind of—I don’t know if whitewashed is the right word…
Von Till: [laughs] It may be the perfect word!
Yeah, it would be the word! But a lot of that has been pushed away. I remember coming out west and it renewed my interest in some of these other cultures that existed before we ever “discovered” this side of the country.
Von Till: Which is a shame because they're actually in every single part of the country. I think the East Coast, having been colonial and been colonized for an extra hundred years or so, has had more time to decimate those populations and cultures. They're still there. But even here, you know, Seattle likes to put a kind of front on using the artwork of indigenous people a lot to make it feel like there's a connection, but people aren't really connected, you know?
I'd say the indigenous people are, for the large part, like completely invisible to most people here, much like the Aboriginal people are in Australia. You can't even see them even though you're surrounded by them. Their reservations are just on the outskirts of some of our cities and unless it's a tourist trap for some reason, it's not even seen or talked about or known. It's sad because there's a lot of great cultures and languages and art forms and songs and poems and things to be inspired by and to learn from.
Very much so. I feel like it would do much to kind of improve a lot of the representation of these cultures in modern cities.
I find that some of your music, reading through some of the lyrics and some of the untitled poems, loosely taps into some of the ideas and things I know about rituals of some of these indigenous populations and older cultures. Do you do any kind of research into some of these? Is there, say, a fascination with some of the Northwest tribes?
Von Till: I mean, in general, I'm fascinated with pre-Christian spirituality and, you know, even going back to what those of us of European descent, what our ancestors, how our ancestors might have viewed their place in the cosmos and in the landscape. And that idea of ritual has always been very fascinating for me. I read a lot about it. We’re a couple of thousand years past where Native Americans are and when we might have been disconnected from that.
As Rome did the first wave of globalization throughout Europe, they changed things. People's connection to their own indigenous rituals and spiritualities, which were tied to the land, were lost. I've heard a lot about shamanism, different cultures all over the world. I wouldn't claim to be any sort of expert in the Northwest.
I learn about the tribes in Idaho when I can because it's part of what we teach in fourth grade is Idaho history. I want to make sure I don't do what the history books do and gloss over the First Nations in a paragraph. I devote a big chunk of the year to talking not just about how they were and what they were like before Lewis and Clark came through here, but what they're doing now.
They still exist and they have websites, and there are powwows. You can check it out and you can see what they're doing. They might be your neighbors. But in my younger years, I did have the good fortune of getting really involved with some different groups that were doing some activism against forced relocations that are still happening around the country—tribes losing their culture and land to the corporate mining interests.
I did get to have some firsthand experience with some rituals and ceremonies. That was very eye-opening. It's not my culture, so I can't take it. I can't use that. I don't want to be a wannabe. I believe that's just as bad as, you know. If somebody's culture and spirituality are what's kept them going for the last 500 years, it seems like to take it would be to take all they've got left, you know, but it is inspiring.
A 90-year-old Dené woman one time—as I was taking her to an event we had organized—told me through a translator, “I can tell that you understand that your people were tribal once. You should help explain that to your other people that you guys were tribal too."
I don't think she meant tribal in the sense that we do now: have tribes to have conflict with each other. But, probably saying, hey, you know, you guys do have a culture that was deeper than Wal-Mart and the NFL.
Yeah, that's a good point. I think that gets lost. Your activism and your continued interest and knowledge of it, that's something a lot of other people should strive for, too. I think promoting the cultures without coopting them is going to be one of the best things we can do for these cultures that have been pushed out and forced into different areas now.
Von Till: And it just makes the world way more interesting. Even from a self-centered perspective, not out of wanting to just do good, but just to be inspired by all that is good in the world. We should want to preserve that.
In closing, do you have any sort of personal highlights from this new album or from your poetry that stands out to you a little bit more? Does anything kind of have a little bit more of an impact as far as arrangements or lyrics or words from certain lines from certain poems go?
Von Till: The overwhelming feelings I have from both owning the fact I am putting a book of poetry out into the world and also put out a record I almost felt was too beautiful to sing on. That was very much outside my comfort zone for both of these. I think like a lot of artists, I suffer from a lot of self-doubts a lot of times. I can definitely put roadblocks in my own way and talk myself out of things.
I definitely suffer from Imposter Syndrome sometimes, like, “Who the fuck am I to think I am qualified to release a book of poetry? I have no history of publishing poems. Who am I to think I can put out this beautiful music that's some pale version of something better?” But I also know logically that, again, go back to trust the muse, honor the muse. It’s actually a dishonor to the muse by shutting it down. Whatever that creative force, wherever this stuff comes from, I'm not self-centered enough to think that I created it. I just feel grateful for the opportunity to tap into this once in a while—this reservoir of creativity.
To be 50 years old and confronting these things and saying, “Hey, I better own these things because they presented themselves to me.” That stepping out of the comfort zone on both a poetry book and this beautiful record seems like one step for me all at once. I’m putting myself out there in a way that I haven't done.