Scott Kelly of Neurosis on how he and the band treat every show like it's the last one they'll play
Brendan Tobin Photography
Founded in 1985 by a group of teenage friends who had been part of the Bay Area hardcore scene, Neurosis was never just a conventional band. Dabbling in heady ideas and archetypes of the human imagination, Neurosis is one of the most influential metal bands of the last two decades, casting a shadow on any music in which mood and atmosphere are informed by diving deeply into the imagination. With Neurosis, the five members of this group all wanted to do something markedly different, and to this day, they continue to explore their creative expression through the music. As a result, the outfit has never been short on creating an alloy out of the emotional, the intellectual, the spiritual and the visceral.
The band's latest effort, 2012's Honor Found in Decay, strikes the balance between the glacial pace of The Eye of Every Storm and the primal catharsis of Souls At Zero. We recently spoke with the always engaging, humble and bright Scott Kelly about the shedding of the band's signature visuals, the music as a ritualistic celebration of anti-time and how being people who have always been outside the center of mainstream culture has lead them to the path that has informed the group's experientially rich music.
Westword: What made this the right time for what seems to be a more extended tour?
Scott Kelly: I think we've been stretching out a little bit and getting more in the groove of playing more shows every year. Kids are getting a little older. We basically added maybe five or ten more shows this year than we have in the last few. We set out to really make sure we could get to a lot of places that we hadn't been in a long time and be selective regionally. We wanted to play places people could travel understanding that it's hard for people, especially financially speaking, to travel.
But we put ourselves in positions where people can get to see us if they so choose and if they're able to. We're not in a position to travel and hit every place, and I don't know if we ever will be again. We may, but it's difficult to imagine the entire band being free to tour for two months at this point. I don't see it in the next ten years. We work regular jobs, and we have children, and we have other commitments, and that's basically how we decide what we can do.
Your shows are obviously known for being a multimedia affair almost as much as a musical experience. When did that become an important part of your show?
Ironically, that's not a part of it anymore. We don't do visuals in our show anymore. But we started doing them about twenty years ago. It was part of our original vision for what we wanted to do, as well as incorporating keyboards and stuff like that. It took us about five years to get to the point where we could actually figure out how to do it, and found people who could do it, and we started collaborating and working together.
Twenty years later, we kind of felt like we needed to revisit that whole idea of the visual presentation for a number of reasons, mainly being that we felt like we wanted to turn it off for a while. We felt like there were enough screens in the world between all the phones, computers and TVs that are flashing in people's faces all day that us contributing one more hypnotizing image machine wasn't helping the world in any way.
So we are taking a stripped down approach to it right now. We're basically just going with a real basic lighting set-up, nothing special, and concentrating on the songs. It's freed us to be able to change the set when we feel like it. If we decide to do an older song, we just learn it and play it. We're not tied to the visuals like we were and like we have been for the last twenty years.
We may revisit them in the future. We're already talking about possible ways to do it, but we just kind of decided we wanted to do it a different way. It needed to be done differently. The way we had been doing it for twenty years just wasn't inspiring for us. Josh [Graham], the guy who's been doing it for the last twelve years, felt the same. It was a mutual thing. He was kind of done being a projectionist and wanted to focus on his band, A Storm of Light.
Continue reading for more from Scott Kelly.
Your two most recent albums have a very organic, almost totemic, aesthetic to the album art that hearkens back to Souls at Zero. Why do you feel that aesthetic suits the music you've put out on Given to the Rising and Honor Found in Decay?
I don't know, man. We just kind of let it flow. We don't really trip on it too much. We let the songs take shape on their own. We're definitely not trying to mold them as much as just kind of being the conduit for the music to flow. They are just kind of are what they are. We've been recording with the same guy for a number of years: Steve Albini. The last five albums have been with him. He has a very organic approach to things. It's old school recording on to two-inch tapes and an analog approach that we think sounds better. Beyond that, there's just a comfort level that we have working with him that goes a long way.
You first worked with him on Times of Grace. How did you come to work with him?
We just asked him. We called him, and he asked, "When do you want to record?" He's booked, but all you've got to do is call him, and if he's got time that fits into your schedule, he'll record you. He doesn't give a shit. He'll record anybody. He treats everybody the same. If you go into his studio prepared, you'll come out with a recording of exactly what your band sounds like. If you're not, then you'll come out with a recording of your band exactly what it sounds like.
He's supposed to be pretty hands off in terms of production.
Oh, completely. He just does his job and stays out of the way. That's perfectly great with us because we don't need any other input than the five of us, and that's plenty of input. Believe me, between the five of us, there are enough ideas and strong opinions to go around on damn near anything you can think of, creative or otherwise.
The music you've made with Neurosis, both sonically and thematically, is so rich and often dense. Do you feel that sort of thing emerged at some point in the band's history? Was that a quality that was there at the beginning?
It was there; we just didn't know how to pull it out. We felt it, and we knew it was there, and we knew where we were going, but we didn't know how to do it. We were too rudimentary in our skills, but our experience lead us to our sound, and we were able to find it relatively quickly. I think it took us about six years to get to a foundation of where we started to build on the sound that we've come to now. Even the original stuff that we wrote in '85 and '86 -- I can still draw lines between those songs and songs on Honor Found in Decay. I can see the lineage of the sounds. It's all there. But it did take us some time to figure out how to do what we do.
Was there a particular album where you felt that your thinking had emerged the way that you wanted it to?
No. I still don't feel like we have, actually.
You, Dave Edwardson and Jason Roeder were in a hardcore band called Violent Coercion at some point?
Yeah. That was the band we were in before Neurosis.
How did you get involved in that world growing up?
I met a kid in junior high who started playing me Black Flag and the Plasmatics and Stiff Little Fingers and the Ramones. I instantly knew that that was what I had been waiting for my whole life. I was always really into music, and even when I was little, I was really into hard rock: Kiss, Nugent, Queen and Deep Purple and all that. I always wished for something that was a little harder and faster, and I was never really a fan of guitar [solos].
All of a sudden I found this music that was exactly what I heard in my mind. It was kind of one of those moments in your life when you become obsessed with it from that moment forward. I never looked back. I'm definitely still there. Thirty-two years later, I'm still grinding to the same stuff and still listening to a lot of the same stuff that I listened to on that day.
Did you grow up in the Bay Area?
No, that was in San Diego. I grew up all over the state and moved a lot when I was a kid. I moved to the Bay Area in '84, and that's when I met Dave and Jason and joined that band. I was in that band for about a year -- it had existed before I got there. After a year, Dave and Jason and I decided to break off from that band and do something totally different because we were pretty bored with what we were doing.
What kind of headspace are you in playing with the band that is different from where you are playing as a solo artist?
It's pretty different. Creatively they're pretty similar. Performance-wise, it's two totally different animals, literally. For one, electric performance is way more primal, and I'm really out of my head. I'm out of my head when I'm doing the acoustic stuff, too, but it's a way more relaxed approach, and it needs to be. When I'm up there playing acoustic guitar, I really need to be focused on every note and every bit of what I'm playing. When I'm playing with the band, I have room to be a little bit sloppy and power through everything.
I'm playing the night before Neurosis plays in Denver in my new band, Corrections House. That's a little of both. That's a really experimental band. There's a little bit of folky type stuff and some noise and all kinds of weird shit. And there's some heavy stuff, as well. That whole cathartic experience of Corrections House is...I'll say this much, it's a heavy experience, no doubt. I think the people that come out to that will be surprised. It's pretty goddamned different.
What do you hope to instill and convey to people that come to see Neurosis shows, or maybe what is it that you hope to create for yourself and your bandmates to share with the people that show up?
For us it's this strange sort of ritualistic celebration of anti-time or something. The fact that we're even able to do it is a fucking miracle. Best case scenario is that everybody shows up feeling a little bit raw and a little bit loose and ready to step into it with us because we'll be deep in it regardless of whether people decide to join us or not. When the crowd decides to join us, it can be an explosive, deeply cathartic situation.
That's what we're able to do, but we're really thankful that we still have the opportunity to do this together. We started this band as teenagers. I was eighteen, and Jason was fifteen. We're in our forties now; I'm almost 46, and the fact that we even get to do it is a miracle, and we literally treat every show as if it will be our very last, and we never, ever take any show lightly. It's always do or die for us. Honestly it always has been but that sort of commitment only grows to this day.
Going back to the album cover, there are three arrows on there. Is there a significance to those arrows and the fact that there are three?
I love that number, for one thing. But the fact that I love the number doesn't really mean shit. Those three arrows were given to me by a friend of mine from Slovakia. He actually found them. He does some archaeological work there, and I think they're from 1200 A.D. Maybe older. Anyway, a friend of mine, a tattoo artist in Barcelona named Jondix, made this book of a hundred-eight symbols, and I found that symbol within it.
Basically the meaning of that symbol is unity within a cult. I looked at the symbol and thought, "Well, fuck, I basically got that. All we have to do is tie the X." So we decided we wanted a strong central image for the record cover, and that's what we decided upon. Using those arrow heads seemed kind of perfect. Unity within a cult -- that's us.
There's long been an element of the mythological in the lyrics and the presentation of the band, as well. What got you interested in making that an integral part of what you're trying to do with your music?
It just came naturally. It's just kind of who we are as people. We've always been kind of weirdos. We've always tripped on that type of stuff. We've always felt like we were walking slightly to the side of everything. I think we all found our spirituality or our center in music. When we found that, I think we found that there were a lot of other musicians out there who had found the same thing and channeled it whether they realized it or not.
We're really pretty much cavemen about what we do. We don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. We just kind of do what's in front of us. We don't really question what comes through. We spend a lot of time letting things filter in, but we don't spend a lot of time, once it's through, questioning whether it's right or wrong. We just kind of go with it, and we just trust in whatever it is. It's kind ridiculous sounding, I'm sure, to some people, but that's what we do.
Who do you feel channeled that sort of thing especially well?
Hendrix is the first person that comes to mind, or, obviously, Jim Morrison. Those are people who are walking in this other realm all the time with their sounds. A lot of stuff from the '70s was there. Those guys were open to dabbling in witchcraft and shit, which, honestly, isn't our deal.
We're very to each his own, and we all have our own, personal, spiritual approaches and beliefs, but we don't have some unified band beliefs in terms of what we practice and what we do before the show in order to achieve this whatever. It's not really like that. It's kind of this respecting the unspoken, you know? This unspoken truth that exists in the world, whether you recognize it or not, is up to your perceptions and experiences. For us it's clear as day.
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