“Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.” – Aristotle
There’s a certain magic to place particularly when viewed through the lens of the human position in it. Specific places can speak to us in hushed tones only available when we allow ourselves to be attuned to the nature of it all. The natural world in and of itself serves as both a reflector and conduit at times for humanity to burrow deep within itself to seek a deeper understanding of that spiritual part that connects us. Finding the space to seek connection is an increasingly important skill that we must learn and adapt with to get by sometimes. Music is one of the many ways to do this.
When Steve Von Till (Neurosis, Tribes of Neurot, Harvestman, among other acts) goes into his yurt – a.k.a. his home studio in the woods of Couer d’Alene, Idaho – it is to seek connection with the mystical, the spiritual, and the larger one-ness surrounding us as we move through life. Taking in the reflective moments is something that is essential to the human condition and is an element of living that often gets neglected because of the near constant demands made on people by society. Our jobs, our obligations, our basest of needs – survival – take so much from us that we can forget the inner dimension and the magical occurring around us in the natural world. Von Till is keenly aware of this and, for him, it is defused in this chamber of sound that he spends time in when he receives the call.
When speaking to Von Till one quickly grasps that he is intensely interested in music rooted in its connective qualities. “Man’s connection to nature, self, each other: Ancestry is big for me. If you look at what we know, we don’t know a lot about the spiritual or mystical worlds. All of us here today, regardless of where we come from, there’s a connection to the people who had the good luck, will, and skill to survive.” In that way he draws inspiration from the music, real and imagined, that spawned from the earliest human cultures. ”What was it that caused our neolithic ancestors, who had to struggle to survive, to take time and energy and calories and everything away from the practical to build these stone structures that were aligned to the stars and have these revelatory moments of inspiration to do so?”
Questions like these are what make Von Till turn inward and head to his studio. “Harvestman is me tripping out on thinking about those things and how they relate to music. What music was around the fire?” In his own way he likes to “draw the line to the future from this past such as Hawkwind playing with synthesizers at Stonehenge. It’s my own weird, unique mythology tying together these concepts and music history combined with my own influences and distilled into a kind of fucked up folk music.” For him it keeps coming back to meditations. “It has the potential to sound like a bunch of new age hippie bullshit but it all makes sense to me sonically. It’s as much the love of the growl of a certain pedal as it is the sight of the dolmen on the landscape.”
One of the more powerful takeaways from his latest effort, Music for Megaliths (our review of the album can be found here) under his Harvestman moniker, is digging into the process. Von Till’s approach is almost entirely organic and semi-shamanic. “The process of creating these things is really just trying to find a meditative calm and going out to my home studio and seeing what happens. If things are right there will be a seed.” On the track “Oak Drone” the seed was the fundamental drone then “layered with the same drone gradually integrating similar drones to get lost in” leading up to the point that he “walked away from it.” He would return to this track, as with others on the album, only when he felt moved to do so which in some cases meant that tracks would sit for quite some time, left to grow into and over themselves. As he says, “I collect these moments and let them pile up and I revisit them.” It is in that re-visitation that something solidifies, binding tracks into cohesive meditations.
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It is these meditations and the fugue-like state that one approaches when in a state of reflection that Von Till is fascinated with, particularly when it comes to the creation of his art. “When you’re a creative person and your art is self-reflective, all of the elements of your day to day life are going to worm their way into your heart.” His environment hasn’t always been the wooded and utterly beautiful setting of the Idaho “panhandle” but he has always attempted to connect to the veracity of nature through his work. “Even before I lived out here I longed for a connection with, and contemplation of, our separation from it (nature) as a species which has always been a recurring theme. I’ve been able to get more in tune with the seasons out in the mountains and forests.” For Von Till it is about nature and inspiration to act, not some charted out progression of musical ideas, and this finds itself frequently in his material, particularly on Megaliths. “It’s not an intellectual exercise, where it all comes from, because it’s more spiritual in nature.” For him it is about the building, or perhaps maturation, of tracks before he can consider them complete when it comes to Harvestman. In coming back to the work he describes it thusly: “I heard some subtle melodies that I wanted to be in there and I felt there was something kind of narrative over the top.” In order to consider it complete there has to be a “revisiting (of) these little things in sonic moments of meditation.”
But the drone of Harvestman is merely the latest expression of this man’s vast creativity drawn from the deep primordial well that he and his bandmates in Neurosis have managed to draw from for over three decades. “All of the acts are really different animals. There’s a big difference between Harvestman and what I do in my solo stuff under my own name which tends to involve more sitting and writing music and trying to craft a song in an attempt to pay homage in my own way to folks songs.”
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But it is the ferocity and sheer force of nature that is Neurosis that most know of this plain-spoken teacher-by-day, blunt-instrument-of-musical-force by all other times and his work. “Neurosis a fucking driven beast that really requires the five of us to be together and open ourselves up to that force. It requires our unique viewpoints in this process of destruction and reconstruction.” That the band have managed their craft for over 30 years now it means that there are some corners that can be cut. “We don’t even practice for tours most of the times. Instead we just tell each other the setlists and we show up and do it. We’ve really streamlined the process.”
This privilege of familiarity became particularly evident as the band prepared last year’s Fire Within Fires. “We wrote the skeleton of the record in a weekend pretty much from scratch but that was odd.” Von Till calls it a “30th anniversary gift from the gods.” Almost apologetically he offered that their next go around like that didn’t go quite as well. “We got together at the end of winter and locked ourselves in a room but we weren’t given the next record.” But in his own typical fashion he chalks it up to the band being better with their time and energy. “We don’t have the time to mess around. We’re more efficient with our time and really good at reacting to situations we find ourselves in.”
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When a band of such power and skill say that they are able to come together, be highly efficient, and consistent in their end product one has to wonder if there is not something else at play here. It could be argued that this is a band that, over time, have learned to get the maximum yield for their toil and there is an intense feeling of honor about the work they do together. “We think a lot about our legacy and we won’t let anything tarnish it. We don’t owe anybody shit.” That the band have been able to do what they’ve done largely unfettered over the latter half of these 30 years is also notably important. “We don’t have any pressures from the music industry itself and that allows us to keep it pure. Not being reliant upon it as a main source of income allows us to keep it pure and allows our lives to have balance.”
But a band doesn’t last this long in a vacuum without support from within and without. “The main thing we feel at this point is gratitude. We feel so fucking lucky to have come together as brothers and to have lived this experience that no one else has shared.” The quality and uniqueness of the work also has a lot to do with the connection they have with each other as well as their audience. “To have found an extremely original form of expression that is everything we could hope for that never seems to stagnate and the fact that other people have a deep personal connection to our strange ass music, how can you not be grateful? We just feel incredibly lucky.” And so there is something to be said for that impulse towards gratitude, again, inward and outward, that speaks to the soul of Von Till but as ever he comes across as humble and human. Even though some idolize him in the way some might be in awe of the megaliths that inspired him there is something about solitude that draws him in and so, over time, he will find himself back in that studio looking inward, searching as if to find that secret frequency between soul and universe that hums ever so slightly beyond our grasp. After all, “It’s a liberated place for me. I shut off from the world, close off into my cave, and go inward with sound.” Ever deeper with who knows what next to emerge?
Steve Von Till’s latest album as Harvestman, Music For Megaliths, is out now. You can stream and purchase it on the project’s Bandcamp here, and you can find his other solo work and music with Neurosis here and here.