Neurosis have been a band for more than 30 years. They've put out 12 albums, including one with former Swans singer Jarboe. They've curated their own Beyond the Pale festival and formed their own label. Yet for these achievements, it can be difficult to describe their unique mix of metal, punk, sludge and avant-garde experiments.
"It's sort of like a Windham Hill record meets Swans or Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed," Soundgarden's Kim Thayil says.
"Dawn in the black forest," offers Jarboe. "Rebirth out of apocalypse."
"They're dudes who were into metal and crusty shit who followed their muse and invented a kind of corroded and raging psychedelic hard rock with apocalyptic moments where they pry open the door to madness and stare it down," offers Shellac frontman and frequent Neurosis audio engineer Steve Albini. "Plus crows."
The band's own Steve Von Till, who has played guitar and howled on Neurosis LPs since 1989, has his own poetic description, specifically for the band's breakthrough 1996 album, Through Silver in Blood: "a fucking railroad through hell."
No matter how you label it, though, Neurosis' expressionism has never been one for the mainstream – they've never cracked the Billboard 200 and have never received a gold album – yet it's enabled them to amass a dedicated following that allows them to sell out concerts whenever they feel like touring. The band – Von Till, guitarist-vocalist Scott Kelly, bassist Dave Edwardson, keyboardist Noah Landis and drummer Jason Roeder – has run its own label, Neurot Recordings, since 2000. Outside of booking tours and scheduling press, the group has existed as a DIY operation for the better part of the last two decades, sort of like metal's equivalent to Fugazi or Black Flag. Everything about Neurosis, from their extended drum etudes to the Pink Floyd–like visuals they hauled on the road with them for years, has been about bowing to their own artistic whims.
Their 11th and latest release, this year's Fires Within Fires, showcases the best aspects of the Neurosis experience: downtuned Sabbath-influenced riffs, pounding tribal drumming, fleeting moments of elegance and caustic vocals recounting personal apocalypses. "The end is endless and washing over me," Kelly sings in the LP's slow-building opening cut "Bending Light." Elsewhere, on "Broken Ground" – a metal dirge whose main guitar riff writhes uncomfortably throughout the nearly nine-minute track – Von Till sings, "Trouble sleeps where dead men stare." They're the sort of existential proclamations only a nihilist like Sartre might find uplifting, and Neurosis will be bringing those messages with them on the road at some rare gigs this month and next on the West Coast.
The reason they make such few appearances is because they've settled into surprisingly normal private lives in recent years. Von Till, 47, teaches fourth grade in northwestern Idaho, while Kelly, 49, runs sound and works at a repertory theater in southwestern Oregon. Both are dads, and both play folk music as solo artists on the side. The others avoid doing interviews but live in California. Ferocity has become a part-time gig, but it hasn't become any less meaningful to the band members.
"[The music] works almost as a catharsis," Von Till says. "The thing we always talk about amongst ourselves is, when the shit boils up in us, what the fuck would our lives be like if we didn't have this outlet for it? Would it wreak havoc with violence, addiction, things that put you in prison or depression? I think we are allowed to be better human beings than we would be, had we not found each other and this outlet."
Von Till's non-touring life starts early. When he speaks with Rolling Stone, it's almost 7 a.m., though he's been up since 5, doing interviews. He's been a teacher for the last 16 years, and the school day goes from 8:30 to 3, "but teachers are there a lot longer." After school, he'll work in the Neurot office – run in a barn outside his home – with some employees. "It's a pretty good balance of being a husband, a father, a teacher and a musician," he says. "I like enjoying the outside and the nature here in North Idaho. The only thing I wish I had more of is time."
It's rare that his work and musical lives coalesce, but he did bond with the father of two of his students over a shared love of the proggy thrash group Voivod. The man has since become "one of my best friends in the entire universe." He adds, "Thank you, Voivod."
His own children are supportive of Neurosis but "their rebellion is liking horrible music," Von Till says. (He means pop music.) His 17-year-old and one of Kelly's children went with the band on a European tour together, though. "They see how hard I work on it," he says. "They know it's not all fun and games and party time being in a band. They've seen all the setup, preparation and travel that goes into concerts."
Kelly similarly starts his day early. Today, he woke up at 5:45, brought his daughter to school, took a nap for a couple of hours and made it to work by 11, where he plugs away until around midnight. "I'm running three shows here this year," he says. "I'm running the sound on two shows and then I'm performing the music and acting in another one." Today, he's setting up for an afternoon matinee of Shakespeare's Richard II and then switching it over for a play about South Vietnamese refugees right after the war called Vietgone. He gets Mondays off.
Music, for Kelly, comes when he has time during work weeks, since he's also taking care of his family. Last year, Kelly's wife Sarah fell ill with a mysterious disease – she woke up unable to walk or see – and a family friend launched a GoFundMe page to help raise money for her medical bills. Kelly says she never got a diagnosis and still suffers from symptoms of whatever struck her, but that she is "significantly better than she was this time last year. … She's so tough, man."
Since his job is seasonal, lasting only about seven-and-a-half months a year, he still has plenty of time to focus on music. "I get ahold of a guitar three or four times a week, for an hour or so apiece," he says. "I just write and record stuff straight onto my phone." He also goes on the road, either as a solo artist or with other groups he plays with like Mirrors for Psychic Warfare, to support his family. Between Neurosis, working solo and his other projects, including the metal supergroups Shrinebuilder and Corrections House, Kelly calls the last decade the "most prolific time of my life."
Neurosis formed in the Bay Area in 1985, originally playing rudimentary skate-punk with occasional post-hardcore diversions into melody, such as on "Black," off their debut, Pain of Mind, and on their 1990 LP, The Word as Law. They expanded their post-punk approach on 1992's Souls at Zero, by allowing keyboards to play a greater role and influences like Joy Division to inspire newfound moodiness in their music. But they didn't hit the right tenor of heavy, heady primalism until their fifth LP, 1996's Through Silver in Blood, a cataclysmic mix of tribal drumming, discordant samples and general chaos. Its follow-up, 1999's Times of Grace, showcased a tighter, more straightforward version of the approach on Silver, and represents the undefinable sound they've stuck with and tweaked only slightly since.
"Following Neurosis' career is like following the Melvins," says Thayil, who discovered the group via Kelly's Shrinebuilder side project. "You like the band and the attitude. You like the spirit and vision they have and you grow with them. Neurosis was a hardcore band, like how Metallica used to be really fast. With Melvins or Metallica or Neurosis, you grow with them and you learn to love the risks they take and you're willing to give it a chance and appreciate it.
"Neurosis' later releases are more attractive to me than the earlier work," he continues. "The way Neurosis grew paralleled my taste swinging more toward the doom and ambient elements of what our band has done for years." Soundgarden has since begun using former Neurosis visual artist Josh Graham – who was considered a member of the band during his period with them – to create their artwork.
"We've always been on the same wavelength, part of the same tribe," says Jarboe, who collaborated with the group in 2003 on an album titled Neurosis & Jarboe. "Years ago, I was driving late at night and this college radio station was playing a song that got my attention. I felt an alignment to it with what Michael [Gira] and I were doing at the time with Swans. I called the station and learned it was Neurosis. Michael and I went to see them, and we talked about music. I remember there was talk a few years later of Neurosis doing a tour with us as Swans members, with me and Michael, and they'd do their own set as Neurosis. Of course, that never happened, but I did go on to work with them. When we did, it was like a 'coming home' for me since Swans had ended then and the massive decibel level and power of the Neurosis live stage was familiar and comforting."
Von Till likens Neurosis' creative process, especially on Fires Within Fires, as "turning off the brain." He pauses before explaining. "This is gonna sound like some kind of fucking transcendental meditation commercial, but it's about being in the moment with the sound," he says. "It's having the instrument in your hands and feeling what resonates and chasing down that channel like you're following the curves of a river.
"We always try to push ourselves to the limit, so we're not afraid of going in uncomfortable territory," he says. "There's some interesting vocal harmonies and different ways of approaching melodies on the new album, which is new territory for us. It's new ways of being heavy. We're just trying to find the sounds we want to hear that are going to blow our minds."
"The new album is concise, but I felt like we told the story," Kelly says. "The emotional arc is there like we want it." When asked about the particularly heavy riff that ends Fires Within Fires' "Reach," he says, "Riffs like that are our strong suit. The least challenging thing we do is knee people in the face repeatedly with a riff. It's more about showing restraint and expanding around it in order to create the context so that those riffs have the most impact, as opposed to just constantly bludgeoning people."
"A key thing that separates them from the metal genre is their affect," Albini says. "Metal is usually emotionally dry, but Neurosis at full tilt is like being hit by a gale drenching you in the blood of your enemies."
When Kelly looks back on the group's discography, his least favorite record is Souls at Zero, but not for the songs. "All I can hear is how brutal it was to make that record, 'cause we really didn't know what we were doing when it came to recording with the keyboards," he says. For Von Till, it's his first with the group, The Word as Law. "It sounds like growing pains, like we didn't know where we were heading," he says. Both name the band's latest, Fires Within Fires, as their favorite because it captures their current headspace, though Kelly says he can still appreciate Neurosis & Jarboe "because my voice is barely on it."
Kelly and Von Till also agree that the hardest time in the band was 20 years ago, around the time they made what many of their fans consider their landmark, Through Silver in Blood. Kelly was struggling with drugs and was homeless. "I was addicted to everything," he says. "Never heroin, but I had a serious meth habit for a number of years and, of course, weed and alcohol. They're simple, easy addictions that I fell into. But I've been sober for 13 years now. I don't want to say I beat it 'cause I don't think you ever do. But I will speak for myself and say that my addictions really wreaked havoc on what we were doing as a band, our relationships. That stuff takes over your life. It's quite the beast."
"That wasn't pretty," Von Till says. "It was difficult to watch those things." He's also reserved in talking about the group at the time. "People were battling different things, and there were different, heavy things going on at that time," he says, purposefully vaguely. "It was young men struggling with what was going on in their lives – and not necessarily having the healthiest ways of dealing with it all."
"I think everybody out there goes through these hard times, and our life is extremely difficult and it brings you all sort of trials and tragedies," Kelly says. "Some people don't make it and it definitely leaves a big hole in you, but you just try to keep going and I think that honestly that reality is what brings a lot of people together around what we do. That common thread of understanding those triumphs and tragedies and what they do to your soul, that's what allows people to have a cathartic experience through music. And that's what brings us together as a band to create this music."
As bad as the period around Through Silver in Blood sounds, though, Kelly says the last year of dealing with his wife's health issues was harder. "I don't feel comfortable talking about my shit," he says. "I know a lot of people who have been through way worse shit and suffered a great deal more, and my life has been pretty fucking easy in many ways. I'm really a lucky person and I have this outlet artistically to get a lot of my shit out. A lot of people don't get that."
"We made a pledge that we were dedicated to this music and the brotherhood it brings along," Von Till says. "Like any group of human beings or like family, we've had times where we've struggled with each other. But when all is said and done, we have been the only constant in each other's lives for our entire adult lives. And part of it is surviving difficult times like that, because we really felt that we had something special and unique that we don't want to live without. It's sheer stubbornness."
To support Through Silver in Blood, they signed on to a second-stage slot on the nascent Ozzfest, but it was still a difficult time playing the music live. "There was just a lot of things in personal lives coming to a head," Von Till says. "We were tapping into some pretty dark and aggressive stuff to find that catharsis, and we didn't have an audience so we were touring our asses off. That music was particularly physically and spiritually very difficult to deliver. We learned a lesson early on that the music has to be delivered with 100 percent honesty and intensity or it felt completely fake and disingenuous. We needed to embody the spirit of the music and it took a toll on our bodies and well-being."
During this period in the band's life, thanks to Ozzfest, a tour with Pantera and the indie-music frenzy Nirvana had kick-started, major labels began courting Neurosis. "It was the time when arena rock met the underground," Von Till says. "The conversations we had with labels were disgusting. It was all these sports-team references or like fucking Pink Floyd, 'Have a Cigar.'" He laughs. "It was like, 'We'll give you enough rope to hang yourselves. We'll all be together as a team.' So we gave them lists of bizarre shit that we wanted – like to make an art film and a book and a magazine, putting Neurosis at the core of some sort of fucked-up art movement – and they were like, 'Whoa. Nah.' They didn't know what the hell to do with that and we thought that they were cheesy, so it's probably good that we avoided that. We dodged a bullet."
"We felt like signing to a major label weakened you as an artist," Kelly says. "The perpetual ass-kissing, and everything is so cushy that you lose your edge. If the offer we asked for came though, we probably would have signed it. But nothing ever came close. They wanted to edit our songs and our artwork. It would have killed us to do that."
Neurosis had a manager through about 1999 but eventually started the Neurot label and embraced the DIY lifestyle. They booked their own tours and set up their own press in house for a number of years but have since gone back to working with booking agents and publicists. "I got overwhelmed and we finally asked some old friends to take it over," Von Till says. "We don't work with any powerful agencies or PR companies. They're all my friends and peers and coworkers."
Albini, who runs a mostly DIY setup with Shellac, applauds Neurosis' commitment to personal independence. "The fewer people you have siphoning money out of the relationship you have with your audience, the more there is left to do awesome projects with," he says. "It's a lot easier now with all the online and internet resources available for communication and distribution, but they've been thinking like this for decades. I consider them comrades in a fight we're both committed to, and I'm regularly inspired and impressed by what they've done."
"I think Neurosis see themselves as being the stewards or custodians of not just the Neurosis brand but that attitude," Thayil says. "A lot like Melvins, and I think I've heard a reference to Fugazi or Minor Threat, you can definitely see that they feel a sense of responsibility or at least accountability to what they do and to the audience with what they're presenting. There's a lot to maintain when you're making creative changes and shifts over your career to be attentive to your role in the community that you help build. That's one of the impressive things about the band."
Earlier this year, Neurosis celebrated the 30th anniversary of their band and the community of fans that they inspired with concerts in San Francisco and at the Netherlands' Roadburn Festival. It's a milestone that means a lot to the group, and Von Till says he has no regrets about the journey that got him to this point. "We've been through births, deaths, divorces, people battling mental illness issues, but I've had nothing to complain about," he says. "I wouldn't trade any of the adventure or the experience that we've had because everything that has happened has made us what we are today. It's like the time-machine paradox: You change one thing and all of it's different."
When Kelly pauses to think about the anniversary, he says he's grateful. "We always had every intention of surviving," he says. "The fact that we did is pretty fucking amazing. The fact that we literally, physically survived that long is kind of stunning. A lot of people have come and gone. We started this thing when I was 18. I'll be 50 next year. It's crazy."