Steve Von Till’s label, Neurot, has been making selections from its back catalogue available as a pay what you like basis during lockdown. We had a chat to find out what was the driver behind that decision. And, some other stuff as well.
Steve Von Till is probably best known to most people as the man with the long beard who fronts American rock band Neurosis. But that’s not all. As well as being a school teacher and writer he also runs the Neurot record label, which has been going for 20 years or more and has released about 120 records in that time. He shows no signs of letting up just yet.
It’s a mammoth task. He has impressive energy and creativity, as we were about to find out.
Neurot came to our attention earlier in the year when we realised they were making one digital release from their back catalogue available from Bandcamp each week on a pay as you can basis.
Here was a fantastic chance to discover new music, to explore the label and acquire new tunes, even if the pandemic had punched your wallet in the face.
We were keen to find out more about the Neurot project and the reasons why Steve was giving away music for free.
To Zoom we go and he didn’t hold back in a conversation that had us both amused, entertained and head scratching, sometimes all at the same time. He is a generous soul and it was a conversation that left us with a big smile.
P3dro: Where are you and what are you doing?
SVT: I am in my home studio, in my barn outside my home in the forests of North Idaho. And I was setting up to start working on recording a cover version of one of my favourite Hungarian bands Vágtázó Halottkémek, The Galloping Corners. They asked me to contribute to a tribute album for them in Budapest.
P3dro: We don’t have many favourite Hungarian bands. We have to confess.
SVT: Well, if you dive into these guys, they will be yours.
P3dro: Well we do know a pair of Hungarian classical guitarists, but we have to say that that’s new one on us.
SVT: Just to capture your interest, they’ve been around since the late 70s, since the communist era. They were total punk rock heroes for existing during that time and going against the grain of the of the regime at the time, right. But they’re quite unique in that they weren’t just punk rock.
Their lead singer is a world renowned astrophysicist and is constantly studying and writing papers on the origins of our cosmos, the origin of the universe.
He is also an expert in ancient Hungarian shamanism. So he’s simultaneously extremely rooted in the earth in these ancient pagan ways of ancient Hungary. And looking also to the cosmos to the origin of us all. And it’s it’s quite an interesting dichotomy played with this very uniquely Hungarian rock music, punk rock music.
P3dro: You’ve given us some homework to do already.
SVT: It’s my job as a teacher to make sure everybody goes home with some homework.
P3dro: Ha! You’re full of surprises! We reached out to your label because Neurot had been doing the sending out free music on on Fridays. What was your thinking behind that?
SVT: Well, I think the pandemic added interesting side effects of forcing a lot of creative thought for people involved involved in arts and music. Simultaneously how to stay active, how to stay productive, and how to be able to promote your music in good conscience, during such a hard time for people.
I especially struggled with that because I not only had to promote one record, I had to promote three solo albums during this pandemic, plus my first book of poetry. I was very torn about whether it was an appropriate thing to do or not, given everything going on at the time. I decided that that music is what has always saved me in all the various times in my life, when things get hard, or on a day to day level.
You know, even when you just need life to pick you up a little bit you music will always be there. It has always been there for me since I was a child. And I’ve often heard from people that are fans of either my music or Neurosis’ music that my music has helped them through tough times.
And as a music fan myself, I have those artists as well those ones I reached out to. And we did not actually come up with that pay what you can idea. We blatantly stole the idea, with their blessing, from Temporary Residence label. They were doing it and I thought it was a perfect thing to do.
Music will get us through this, music will get us through everything. Music’s gotten us through everything this far. And so if people are having a hard time economically, and we have a catalogue full of albums, which might be interesting to folks. Why not just offer them digital versions for free if they if they can’t afford it right now? And if they want to support the artists and pay whatever they want to then, cool. It seemed like kind of the best of both worlds. Allowing people an opportunity to support artists when they can’t tour and an opportunity for people to listen to music when they can’t afford it.
P3dro: And what’s the what’s the take up in like? How’s it been received?
SVT: I think very well. There have been lots of “Thank Yous” on the social media from people that that truly needed the music and needed something, who are out of work, or whatever.
And also a lot of people trying new things just out of curiosity which they might not have tried otherwise, which is the whole point. I mean, our even though our label is associated with our band Neurosis, if you listen to the 120 albums that we’ve released over the last 20 years, it’s really varied and very little of it is heavy like Neurosis, you know?
And so I think maybe it gave some obscure, overlooked things, a little attention for those artists, which is cool as well.
P3dro: We’re not asking you for numbers. But you find lots of people downloading for free? Or do you find lots of people throwing you some cash at it?
SVT: Honestly, I haven’t asked to even see the data. I just assumed people were enjoying the music, mostly for free. But there has been a lot more attention and a lot more people interacting and buying things from BandCamp as well. So it did have a positive promotional effect, although that was not our not our goal or intent.
P3dro: It sounds like you’ve been having a pretty difficult lockdown. How’s it been the last 12 months? Maybe 15 months?
SVT: You mean “you” as in over here in the States? Yeah. Well, for me, it’s been quite different from most of my friends who live in cities. I left the city 16 years ago. And I live on 12 acres of forest. And so if I’d never had to leave the house, I wouldn’t know that shit was haywire out there.
You know, the coyotes and the wild turkeys and the the deer don’t don’t seem to care. And the other thing about where I am geographically is this area of North Idaho is extremely, extremely conservative, like a lot of rural areas around the world. And so consequently, a lot of this area did not see the pandemic and mask mandates and things like that as something they were willing to entertain. They very much viewed a lot of it as a conspiracy.
And so even though I’m an elementary school teacher is my day job, we did lockdown at first, last March, we went home and finished the school year, which is a horrible way to try to teach nine year olds, it really sucks.
But this year, against our local health administration’s guidelines, our school district started full on in classrooms last September. I didn’t do distance learning this entire school year that we just finished. There was a lot of teacher uproar, and nobody was considering our safety.
So yeah, so my reality was quite different from other people’s. I was in a classroom with 24 students. And in our community, when I put on the mask to go to the grocery store, I’m one of very few people ever doing so.
And of course, during our election, you can imagine that areas like this were politically difficult to live in as well. Again, I’m just thankful for my 12 acres of trees where the are the animals and the earth don’t give a shit about our human folly.
P3dro: You sound like you live in the most non Neurosis kind of place to be!
SVT: Hmm… Humanity is difficult species to deal with. I just want people that are kind and thoughtful and open minded people and, and free thinkers and creative people.
And there’s a thing about living in an area like this, where politically or religiously you might not see eye to eye. Yet, if you have a car problem on the side of the road, everybody will stop and help you. When I lived in the city, everybody will pass you by and no one will stop to help you.
So there is kind of rural country hospitality that you experience in these areas, and a neighbourliness and everybody’s willing to drop what they’re doing and help you out, which you don’t necessarily experience in an urban environment. So it’s, it’s just different.
And my community is very small. As far as who I interact with artistically and creatively worldwide, then my best friends are spread around the world, and not necessarily my neighbours anyway. But there are nice people and good people here. I mean, we have record stores and bookstores, it’s not all just a lost cause. But, what’s more Neurosis than beautiful mountains and lakes and, giant elk, and moose, and trying to try to get in contact with that and build a new connection with the seasons, with nature and things you cannot do in the city?
P3dro: That’s an interesting comment, do you think Neurosis builds on that kind of nature and wildlife thing?
SVT: Well, whether we’re talking Neurosis or even any of my own art, it’s the existential questions for me. I always zoom out to the macrocosm of us as an entire species, and what’s our purpose? Where, what’s our origin or what’s our part as being children of the cosmos? What’s our part being children of Earth, being a self reflective animal that chooses to shit in its own bed.
And having such creativity, wonderful thinking, ingenuity and original thought and the amazing things that we do with it. And then the horrible things that we do with it, the fact that we choose to use that ingenuity primarily to destroy everything, including ourselves and everything with us.
Neurosis has always tripped on that disconnection between our own mind, knowing our own selves, the disconnection between us and our loved ones most immediate to us, the disconnection between us and our modern families, the disconnection between us and our neighbourhoods and communities and our the disconnect between us and the Earth. It’s, it’s really all of those questions all at once. You can zoom in to your own mental issues of the day, and how you’re approaching each day. And zoom out to the issue of our disconnection from where we stand in the universe.
P3dro: Wow, that’s that’s quite a lot to get our head around.
SVT: Yeah, I can’t do it either. That’s why I ruminate it with poetry and music, because then I don’t need the exact terminology.
P3dro: Yeah, you seem to express yourselves in lots of different ways. You have for want of a better phrase, the thrash of Neurosis and yet you’ve got you kind of ambient music that you and Scott [Kelly] have put out and the writing as well.
SVT: I would like to hope that when you commit yourself to a creative life, if you can locate that part of yourself that connects with that greater part outside of yourself. I don’t know, where art and music and poetry come from. It doesn’t feel like doesn’t feel like I thought of it. I know with a lot of the best ideas, I don’t feel like I can even take ownership, even though it came from me. It feels like you’re just tapping into some greater, greater, force of creativity.
So maybe, the Muse or for lack of a better word, the spirit of creativity itself. And I think if you truly allow yourself to surrender to that, if you’re lucky. And you got to be careful what you ask for. But, I never asked to become a great musician, and I’m not. I’m a total hack. I’m not a great singer, not a great guitar player.
P3dro: Well, we’ll have a conversation with you about that in a moment, because we disagree entirely.
SVT: But what I do have is a drive a drive to create, and I do have inspiration to create, and regardless of the fact I lack a lot of technical ability, I think I’ve just been blessed to actually tap into these creative forces, which seem infinite. It doesn’t feel like I will ever have enough time to realise all the ideas that I would want to so I tried to make the most I can with the small amounts of creative time that I’ve allowed my busy life to have, and make the most of it.
P3dro: We saw you playing at the Supersonic Festival in 2019, you played in Birmingham Town Hall. That was a fantastic show. One of the things that struck us was that you have a kind of nuance where you’re not just thrashing at a guitar. You have a style, you’ve got a balance, and almost the kind of times when you kind of pause. You say you’re not a very skilled musician, We beg to differ. We think you are.
SVT: Well, thank you. I didn’t mean that I don’t have respect for the music that comes out. Just as far as training and skills and chops, I have very primitive primitive level skills, but I use them. In fact, I use them well, and actually, perhaps those limitations actually help create the music that wouldn’t have been created otherwise.
P3dro: We think you’re beating yourself up too much.
SVT: I’m not worried about it!
P3dro: Can you recommend a band or album that you think we should be listening to right now?
SVT: Man, you know, there’s so much great stuff out there. I mean, If I think about just what I what I picked up last weekend when I went to the nearest city to us, Spokane, Washington for Record Store Day and made sure I dropped some money. I came home with a Leatherface album which is a great pop punk from England.
Roland S Howard’s Teenage Snuff Film. He was with Nick Cave before Nick Cave started The Bad Seeds.
And then as far as bands like, if for like an obscure band that no one has probably heard of, then, how I started off our conversation, in English, their name is The Galloping Coroners, the Hungarian band called Vágtázó Halottkémek, really interesting fusion of pre Western influence, kind of punk rock, mixed with traditional Hungarian themes, and folk music intertwining again, like I said, with this existential cry to the universe and to the earth, and the connection to the ancestors and where we come from.