Few bands as heavy as Neurosis push themselves to evolve their sound album after album. Hell, few bands of any genre push themselves into new sonic territory the way the Oakland, California five-piece (their visual director recently parted ways with the band) have over the past 27 years. Their tenth LP, Honor Found in Decay, continues the trend, mixing pounding, Sabbath-inspired riffs with ambient passages that build into piercing dissonance, all anchored by the cerebral lyrics of guitarists and singers Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till. For the latest edition of Tell Me About That Album, we talked to Von Till about the record, recording with the legendary engineer Steve Albini and the process of musical evolution. Neurosis play the Showbox at the Market on Jan. 5th.
Does that mean that he serves more as an engineer than as a producer? He would never consider himself a producer. He has no interest in telling anybody what to do with their music. He's a traditional engineer with thousands of hours of experience and he knows exactly what to do. He can problem solve anything in seconds and he has no opinion about the music. He likes to record and make people's dreams come true with a great-sounding album. We go in there, set the microphones up and roll tape. He also provides a relaxed, no pressure environment, where, even though we're recording and mixing an entire album in a week, we never feel rushed.
So you do the whole record live then? We do it completely live. We're not big overdub guys. We might do one or two just for effect, but even those keyboards and samples, which are a huge part of our sound, and which people often view as complex and layered, that's all played live. Bass, drums, guitars, keyboards all go down in a single take. We add the vocals on after and the only reason we do that is because it gives you a more intimate sound without the guitar amps bleeding through. And we all play better if we're not singing at the same time.
I know that evolution is important to you as a band. Does doing so require a constant push to try new things or does it just happen naturally when you're writing? That is the only cerebral boundary we place on ourselves, that we have to push the envelope and outdo our past efforts. The process of that is about learning to let go and let the music guide itself and not let any expectations or grand concepts get in the way of letting the heart and soul float through the music. The older we get and the more experienced we get I think there's a certain musical wisdom that we have about surrendering to the music and trusting that if we do that, we honor the purity of the songs and it will naturally evolve past where we've been before.
I'm curious though about how you get there. It's definitely chaos that drives that. Rather than relying on our strengths to be our focus - I mean we know what they are and we can pound a heavy riff into eternity if that's what we want to do - but we have always challenged ourselves to use the strengths to break through the walls and the boundaries and confront our weaknesses each time and find this new sonic territory. Our way of staying the same is by breaking through to new territory each time. Each time we do that we learn new things, we learn new ways to be heavy, new ways to integrate the disharmonic noise and dissonance with the melodic and full nature of the sounds. Each time around the spiral we get closer and closer to what we're supposed to be, the core of what Neurosis is supposed to be. We're fully willing to accept that we're never going to reach the center but it doesn't matter because it's the journey that counts.
Do you feel a kinship with experimental bands that aren't heavy, like Sigur Ros, for example? We love people that go out into new sonic territory, but definitely our blood is heavy rock. Our blood is Black Sabbath and Black Flag. That's where it all comes from and that will always be the core of where we come from as a rock band.
Can you talk about where the album title came from and why you liked it for a title? The title was probably the last thing to come. Usually a song title comes up to the forefront and becomes an album title but that didn't happen this time. In some ways, the artistic concept drove some of it - not as far as any specific narrative, but words came to mind - honor and decay, and the idea of discovery seemed to keep coming back around. It came more the way lyrics come. The series of words sounded right and worked with the picture we had for the cover and leant itself to a wide array of interpretations. If you can tap into those kind of multi-layered, multi-dimensional phrases, we find a lot of strength in that because I think our music, in a lot of ways, does the same thing.
You guys have been putting out your own records for 20 years, and though you started doing that as an alternative to the mainstream, mainstream bands are now issuing their own records in the wake of a collapsing record business. Have you felt a change in the D.I.Y. culture? We came up in a time where we the second generation of the D.I.Y. movement. There still weren't many clubs to play or magazines or any of that. We didn't have a slew of independent labels or magazines like Decibel or Terrorizer, which cover extreme music in big, glossy formats. That the industry has come full circle is very interesting. As the guy who runs the label, I still take the inspiration from SST, Touch & Go, Dischord. That's my touchstone. But now there is a pretty massive underground culture that has spread this kind of independent attitude in a very different way.
What does the departure of Josh Graham, who did all the visuals for your live shows, mean for future performances? It was definitely necessary for our evolution. Since '92, when we first started using projects, there were no personal computers or video projection stuff. Everything was pretty primitive. We were using slide projectors and 16-millimeter film and creating content wherever we could. That era ended in 2000 when Josh jumped in and he carried us into the video age very gracefully with this beautiful and professionally-made content that worked with our stuff. It's hard to explain, but at a certain point we just stopped feeling it. We're not sure what the future holds - it's definitely wide open. We just played our first two shows without it and we're feeling kind of liberated right now. We're not political about it, like a turn off the TV thing, but in some ways it is a different culture. Everybody's plugged in to a video screen all the time, whether it's the computer or the smartphone - everything has visual content. So we decided that we needed to reinvent it. We don't know what it's going to be but we don't feel that we need to hang on to it just for the sake of hanging on to it. And Josh understood where we were coming from with it and actually agreed. Right now we're just enjoying the liberated feeling of being at ground zero and having the sky be the limit.