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Mercurial by Nature: A Conversation with STEVE VON TILL

"The truth is - I'm ready to own it"

Photograph by Bobby Cochran

Words by Rohan (@manvsplaylist):


As an artist, STEVE VON TILL is constantly searching. Compromise is never considered. He remains consciously and subconsciously connected with a wide expanse of influences & inspiration, be they embedded in spirituality, nature, history, mythology, family or humanity. VON TILL’s journey to this point in his artistic career has been one of continuous evolution, meticulous attention to detail and an unwavering commitment to honor the forces that drive him. With a new solo record and poetry book on the horizon, collectively marking yet another significant statement is his boundary-pushing body of work, Heaviest of Art was fortunate enough to catch up with STEVE recently to reflect on his latest creative efforts, his career’s journey and to discuss the profound impact that the current pandemic has leveled on not just the underground music scene at large, but on us all as individuals.

STEVE VON TILL’s upcoming new solo record, No Wilderness Deep Enough, is the fifth solo release under his own name, and marks a significant departure from his previous body of work as a solo artist, in that the album is entirely devoid of any guitar parts. In their place is a deft and spacious soundscape of gentle cello arrangements, layers of Moog & Korg synthesizers, at-times jagged electronic samples, refined piano melodies, all serving as a foundation for his trademark stoic, weathered vocals. Despite this refined, subtle approach, collectively there is an undeniable density and weight to these compositions – the hallmarks of any creative work bearing STEVE’s name now throughout his three plus decades of artistic output. Overall the album bears a decidedly more minimalist and ambient slant than anything else STEVE has released to date.

“When I had the music completely arranged and finished, I had thought I’d written an ambient album. It sounded to me like it was melding together my decades of listening to Brian Eno, or minimalist composers like Johan Johansson, not that I can actually compose music like that, but just hinting at the direction of these minimalist, neo-classical elements.”
Photograph by James Rexroad

For one of the masters of light and shade dynamics in his heavier compositions with pioneers NEUROSIS, it’s fascinating to hear STEVE explore similar textural elements on this record, albeit at an entirely lower, quieter end of the sonic spectrum. Given the degree of reflective, bordering meditative qualities that dominate the tone on No Wilderness Deep Enough, the demands of every subtle element of each song to hold their own place is extreme. Whether it be the calming, gently meandering French horn line that delicately guides Trail the Silent Hours, or the string arrangements and simple piano phrases that form the basis of Shadows on the Run, each of these simple elements are delivered with such poise, presence and beauty that they culminate in individual songs that in the same breath are equally powerful as they are peaceful.

What does remain constant though when compared to VON TILL’s previous solo material are his measured, precise vocal lines, delivered in his uniquely gravelly, raspy lower register style. The process to settle on the appropriate vocal accompaniments to each of these minimal, ethereal compositions was something that took a lot of time and patience:

“Creating the lyrics and vocal lines is like a combination of listening to voices through the trees, like “what is that I’m hearing?”, like literally down to “what is the cadence, what is the number of syllables, what is the vowel sound I’m supposed to hang on?” And then translating those into words is almost like decoding secret messages.”

Interestingly, for No Wilderness Deep Enough, that’s a process that STEVE himself never actually set out to undertake on these recordings at all.

“I had no intention of singing on this. I thought this was an ambient record and I didn’t really know what to do with it, and it wasn’t until sharing it with Randall Dunn saying “hey let's book studio time to replace the piano with a nice sounding upright, and maybe get a real cello player to flesh out my synthesizer strings, and I’d like a real French horn on there”. He said “yeah that’s a great idea, but – you should sing on it and make it your next solo record”.

At the outset and in its earliest incarnations, the writing process for this new record itself was also not a cogent, focused work of intent. Thankfully, with the challenge laid down by Randall Dunn, STEVE was driven and focused on seeing what creative energies could be channeled to find the perfect vocal complements to his new arrangements. STEVE himself acknowledges:

“I didn’t actually sit down to write this, I did not consciously make a cerebral decision to make a record. The entire thing was an accidental process, like most of my records, I never sit down with the intention of making a record.”
“I disagreed (about singing on the record), but I challenged myself to investigate it. In wintertime during the winter break from work, I sat down every morning by myself, my wife was back home in Germany visiting her parents, and it was just the dogs and I in the living room and I set up a microphone, and I woke up every morning with my coffee, with the house buried in snow and I would just improvise vocal harmonies to try and see what belonged on this type of music.”
Photograph by James Rexroad

What he landed on, immersed in his snow-blanketed northern Idaho home, are vocal lines, phrasings and harmonies that stretch further than perhaps any other work he has done to date. The opening verse of The Old Straight Track delivers two lines in particular that see STEVE swelling, extending his range subtly further beyond his usual lane, with touches of reverb added to create a stunning, space-filled plateau that provide one of the early emotional high points on the album. Similar moments are littered throughout the rest of the album, a process that was clearly a concerted effort to push his vocal range as much as his compositional approach. VON TILL concedes that the process on this album for him certainly was a challenge:

“This record is really outside of my comfort zone in a lot of ways, now that it’s done, it sounds like my catalog and it makes sense and it’s really not that different vibe-wise, but to have a guitar-less record with pulling out this kind of more emotive, expressive singing – it really did challenge me to sing in a different way, as well as to put myself out there more melodically than I ever have while my voice is also simultaneously degrading with age! I’m pushing it farther than I ever did, and so I that felt like I’m exposing myself and like I’m walking out there on a branch.”

Set for release alongside the new solo record is STEVE’s first piece of published written work. Titled Harvestman, the book is a collection of 23 untitled poems, plus the collection of his lyrics that span his solo material to date, new album included. As a stand-alone body of work, these poems touch on familiar VON TILL-style subject matter, are consistently, purposefully vague, cryptic and full of embedded meaning for the reader to reflect on and connect with in their own individual way. Speaking to the experiences or events that are called on to craft his written prose, STEVE acknowledges:

“The poems will be obscure, I’m not giving anything specific away, I’m leaving it up to you but I’m giving you the emotion of my experience so that you can have your own original experience based on what you need to get out of it. Honestly, a lot of the time I can’t tell you what it’s about. They turn into their own animal and they often reveal their meaning later, it’s almost like reading tea leaves or tarot cards or casting runes or something.”

Standing alongside STEVE’s poetry are a collection of lino-cut prints created by Mexico City based artist Mazatl. The pair were introduced through Thomas Hooper , and began forming a friendship through shared mutual interests in mythology and ancient earth-based cultures, and interest that reveals itself in his finished pieces:

“He bridged this perfect gap between European and Central American mythologies, and there’s elements of both in every lino-cut that he has done, especially the cover piece that’s referring to both mythologies. Both sides of the ocean if you will. The lino-cut itself gives the work a very old-world feel, but in his work in particular there is something very modern and edgy to it. It brings old world art to mind and references it, much like my work does, but it’s something new and now, and living in the modern age. As well as being new, he was also taking a lot from the words I wrote. He read it and was inspired by it. And that’s how each chapter’s lino-cut came about.”
Cover art by Mazatl

Just as his own process of creating the material for his new solo record required an acceptance of vulnerability, so too did his willingness to take ownership of the poetry component of his own artistic output have to go through a similar maturation.

“Even just saying the words “poetry book”, coming from the hardcore punk background that I do, you just choke on those words before you can even spit them out! (Laughing)”
“The truth is I’m ready to own it.”
“I’ve always been writing the poetry. It hasn’t always been good, perhaps it’s still not good – I don’t know. But I’ve often just butchered them for lyrics: the ore to be mined for lyrics later. But at one point I just decided you know what, I wonder what would happen if I just sat down and wrote them with the intention of NOT bastardizing them later. I’m going to finish some pieces, and let them be their own thing.”

It’s that kind of frank honesty and unvarnished self-reflection that has been a guiding principle of STEVE’s own work ethic, an element that appears to have fueled his professional, creative and personal development throughout the various stages of his life. Pragmatic, with a restless creative energy, VON TILL has crafted a lifestyle for himself that manages to artfully balance his own professional commitments as a school teacher (recommended listening for a glimpse into his world as a teacher) , with those that offer a creative outlet in his musical pursuits. And the location he’s based himself in to achieve that balance is key:

“I needed room to breathe really badly. As I crested my 29th year and my first daughter was born, everything I loved about the city (the Mission district in San Francisco) began to dissolve, and all I could see was needles in the gutter and carrying a baby and five sacks groceries four blocks from where I had to park just to see some dude pissing in my doorway really just started to….I physically felt that I was going to become a hateful person around that much humanity while raising a child in that environment. I still love to visit cities and I love that bee-hive cultural, creative mentality when you’re in it – but I needed it to be a place to visit not a place to live."
"So we headed to the suburbs for five years while I figured out how we were going to get somewhere, that’s how I got my teaching credential. It was something I knew I could take anywhere in the country as men are rare in the primary grades, so I’d be pretty hire-able. Especially if I covered up the tattoos and trimmed the beard - at least until I could get hired!!"
"So I was looking around and ended up here in North Idaho, which I knew was a place we could afford land. We’re in an environment where we’re surrounded by lakes and mountains and we get all four seasons, we get a gnarly winter, which being a California boy I still love it. I love the peace on a snowy day. So it went from longing for nature to living in nature. Because when you’re longing for a deeper connection to nature, when you have a busy lifestyle and you have to make a PLAN to go visit nature you’re never going to make it there, so if I just live in it, then my drive from work is in nature, my walking the dogs out in the yard which is 12 acres of forest, brings me more peace and the world is more quiet. It’s been huge for me.”

In today’s current climate of pandemic-induced isolation, many around the world are being forced to experience parts of the lifestyle that STEVE has actively created for himself years earlier: isolation, distance and solitude. While No Wilderness Deep Enough could never have envisioned the pretext under which an audience will experience this record, nor was it crafted in any way as a response to one of the modern world’s most recent life-changing events, it does however place VON TILL in an interesting position of authority to offer guidance and reflection on the relationship we all have to our daily environment, and the importance of finding peace, comfort & clarity in the face of increasing uncertainty and persistent daily anxiety. In consideration such isolation, VON TILL reflects:

“I think that it has forced people into a situation that in some ways I’ve always sang about – in every situation that I’ve been a part of creatively has been singing about this longing for a greater connection to the natural world. Now that people are finding themselves really grateful to get out and take walks, maybe they’re paying a little more attention to how the sun feels on their skin, or how the breeze feels on their face."
"I’ve always sang about a deeper connection to our loved ones and our communities and we’ve seen the way people are reaching out and trying to stay in contact with each other, even using modern technology which a lot of times is a fuckin problem, but using social media for maybe what it was meant to be used for, and that is being in contact with those you care about, and keeping informed & in each other’s lives."
"And finally, to reach a deeper connection with ourselves and our own minds. This has probably forced a lot of people to come to terms with themselves, recognizing there’s only so long that you can distract yourself by bingeing on Netflix. You’re gonna have to sit and be comfortable with your own presence. Personally, I look forward to those moments where I can get in touch with those aspects of myself that allow me to be creative and thoughtful, and contemplate whatever - trying to become a better person. Or reading time, time to sit and enjoy the simple things like a cup of coffee and a book of poetry."
"I think (this recent experience) it forces us all to get to the root of what is truly important, whatever that is for each person individually, what is meaningful.”
Photograph by Bobby Cochran

Recognizing that inner voice, identifying what is meaningful to himself (and his NEUROSIS bandmates), that flickering, guiding light has always been an element that STEVE has been cognizant of. An important part of his journey occurred during one of the bigger steps in his career with NEUROSIS, when the band was fortunate enough to find a place on the lineup for the OzzFest in 1997:

“We kind of flirted with the mainstream world for a little. Like taking some opening slots on some big tours like the OzzFest, and the only reason we did that was because we wanted to go to Black Sabbath school! “You mean you get to eat well, play these crazy shows, and watch Black Sabbath every night??!! Ok - DONE! Yeah, no problem”. But we’d done some other tours too opening up for other people and we kind of saw that the lower tier of the mainstream was kind of sad. The things people convince themselves that they think they need to do for it to become successful would kind of make you puke!”

And so, adjustments were made. The band members each sought individual careers outside of NEUROSIS, and touring schedules were reigned in. This same process bore itself out musically for the band during a profoundly transformative period for the group around 1999 / 2000. This period witnessed a leap forward in their own sound, one that was bookended in one era by the release of the Sovereign EP (1999), and another that commenced with 2001’s A Sun That Never Sets. That same period saw the formation of the bands own Neurot Recordings label, as well as the commencement of VON TILL and bandmate SCOTT KELLY’s own solo works. It was a lot to happen over a very short period of time.

“We had done a lot of work, and a lot of stretching our minds and our outlooks, I think we’d just pushed ourselves in 5 million directions, and all of that made sense. So our stuff I think became a lot more pure, we were following our own inspiration, we weren’t really looking to other outside art."
"We thought: If you want to be the soundtrack to humanity contemplating its own existence, or the end of all things and the beginning of all things – what does that sound like? So really we were just going down that road as far as we could take it. We were learning how to breathe in our music, especially after Through Silver In Blood, which was like a claustrophobic railroad through hell. We were learning to find breadth and space and really enjoying that.”

Coming back to the present though, VON TILL laments the utter decimation that the underground music scene has experienced through the COVID crisis, and struggles to envision how this devastation can be repaired.

“This pandemic thing has evaporated our entire community – instantly! Just, gone. Part of me worries that the survivors are going to be those with wealth, the corporate agencies, the more corporate venues, and that the mom & pops and the smaller ones will have a tough time. And now with that being said, I’ve always been skeptical of underground music as a way to earn a living anyway – it’s something you do because you love it. Again, we come from punk rock where that wasn’t even a consideration."

As the situation begins to return to some semblance of normality, STEVE is hopeful:

“Maybe hard times kind of cause a more energetic and visceral response, that’s what I really hope. I think people aren’t going to take it for granted and that people are really going to appreciate the ability to put together underground music events, for people to perform in and for people to enjoy as patrons. Hopefully it’ll bring people together in a more supportive environment.”

Turning a little more optimistic, he adds:

“I really hope we’re going to see some really visceral and intense art that I’m too old to visualize, like who are the 19-year-olds right now that are going to reinvent sick-ass underground music as we know it??!! I’ve gotta believe that that’s happening.”

Looking ahead, SVT has been re-booked on the incredible Wyoming based Fire in the Mountains Festival that is now set to take place July 23-25, 2021 in what would serve as an ideal setting to connect with his solo work, and to celebrate (hopefully!) the return of live music as an important part of our own life experiences. In a relatively short period of time, this event has carved out a vital niche in the US underground music festival space, a weekend long celebration that simultaneously embraces the extremities of art, nature and community.

While that event, as well as the return of day-to-day normality, seem both uncertain and distant, these are topics that STEVE has managed to so accurately ponder and reflect on in his own abstract way, both through his music and his poetry. Spending time with these works, either together or standing alone in their own right, seems entirely fitting at this juncture. Start that journey now with Untitled 1 from Harvestman, the rest is up to you:

We have the sea

And we will always have the sky

There, in our own shadow

And in the absolute absence of stars

A darkness of depths

Illuminates who we are


No Wilderness Deep Enough and Harvestman are due for release on August 7th via Neurot Recordings. Both are available for pre-order now.

Cover art by Orion Landau

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