Raw Evolution: Scott Kelly of Neurosis on Creativity, Career, and Live Performance (Interview)

Every heavy music fan should be so lucky to witness a live performance by Neurosis at least once in their lifetime but anyone attending the sold-out Vancouver show at Venue tomorrow night (featuring the equally intense opening acts Sumac and Yob) is in for a truly historic concert experience.

The band is an indisputable cornerstone of contemporary heavy music and its influence over the past 30 years parallels that of the Big Four, with the added distinction of career autonomy: proudly independent since 2003, Neurosis established the Neurot Recordings label to both champion the efforts of like-minded artists and to protect the integrity of its creative output, which has maintained a singular, elemental vision of heavy music as dark spiritual catharsis.

Last week we spoke with Neurosis frontman Scott Kelly about the band’s creative process, formative experiences and influences, and the evolution of its approach to live performance.

FWM: Often it takes time and no small amount of trial and error to find out what one’s approach to the creative process is, and, once found, it probably doesn’t change much as it becomes a dependable habit or ritual – but occasionally, for one reason or another, things can get shaken up and the old familiar approach doesn’t work. You’ve been doing this for a long time, has there ever been a point where there’s been an upheaval to your creative process or has it been consistent and, in either case, how do you deal with creative blocks when they do come up?

SK: I don’t really get them, and I kind of always write, too. Speaking personally, any time I pick up the guitar or a pen I’m always writing for keeps. I don’t really jam anything too much, I sit down and work on riffs, arrangements and sequences, I just let it flow. And then I’ll go through a process of reviewing where I’ve been with it and where I think it should go in terms of which band, what project or solo stuff I’m working on. Once I’ve done that I’ll start going through the sifter with everything and start dialing in the words to the effect that I want, or being sure that the riffs fall in the way that I want, maybe meditate on all of it and see if anything else comes up, if a hook or a hitch here or there comes to me.

As a band, Neurosis tends to work – well, first of all, that way I think everybody has their individual processes; but as a group we’ve gotta be in the room and something will start or someone will, and it can be anywhere, any one of us could start the idea and we’ll just build on it. At this point 30 years down the road we fall in with what we do pretty quickly, we all know our instruments now. I know for myself I typically tend to fall into my role as basically the rhythm foundation of the three guitarists; whereas Dave [Edwardson] as the bass player he doesn’t play traditional bass so I usually lock in with Jason [Roeder, drums/percussion] and try to dig out that foundation and allow everybody else [Steve Von Till (guitars/vocals; Noah Landis (keys/synths, effects and samples)] to freak out, you know.

Neurosis, 2016 (L to R): Noah Landis, Scott Kelly, Steve Von Till, Jason Roeder, and Dave Edwardson. Photo credit: Scott Evans

Neurosis, 2016 (L to R): Noah Landis, Scott Kelly, Steve Von Till, Jason Roeder, and Dave Edwardson (Photo credit: Scott Evans)

FWM: Has it always been that way or is it something you’ve come to organically over time?

SK: Yeah, we came to it organically. I mean we’ve written every possible way you can imagine. We’re actually getting together to have a group writing session right after Christmas so we’ll see what happens.

FWM: I guess it’s common in songwriting that dichotomies arise – certain motifs come up, sometimes in the lyrics, e.g. dealing with light and dark, good and bad, etc. – and there are a few elemental ones that do seem to crop up in Neurosis’s work – steel and stone, blood and water – so in terms of the songwriting process is there anything that you try to connect with, either an image or an idea?

SK: I think that they just keep coming back, I don’t really know why; I see it too, I figure at some point it will make sense but I don’t really question the lyrics, I just let them be a thing.

FWM: In bigger-picture terms of scenarios when you’re writing, has there ever been either in the past or now, larger social issues that have affected your creative work, whether collectively or as an individual?

SK: As an individual, sure; I’ve never really had it come into lyric writing very much but I’m wondering if it will now – I’m fucking stressed about the situation we’re about to see in [the U.S.]. I don’t know about future lyrics as far as that goes but I’ve always felt more drawn to the spiritual aspect of things, introspection – but now I don’t know, as a person I feel a real strong pull towards moral values, things that maybe I took for granted before.

FWM: It’s well-established that [Neurosis] have taken a self-determined path rather than going with a record label – and that seems to have been a really wise choice, given that the industry itself went tits-up once we started with digital – so, are there any choices that you have made as a band that you were glad to have done or glad to have avoided, in terms of business decisions?

SK: The label idea was a good one for sure, and it was always a goal of ours so we felt like we’d accomplished something when we got to that point and Neurot is a big point of pride for us, having all of the other bands on the label as well as Neurosis. I think we kind of bullheadedly avoided the major label thing back in the days when they were hunting around, giving us offers, taking us out to dinner and all that shit. I think that worked out well, we set the bar where we wanted it to be with them – we made it so that they would never be able to offer us what we demanded, we put the band out of reach of those guys and not being tied down to that structure.

The important thing is that I don’t think we would have survived it, honestly; I just think the band needs to be free, we can’t be having somebody in our shit in any way. We’ve always been free and it’s really important to us to be autonomous and make our own decisions as to what we’re going to do with everything, and take responsibility for our own shit, and not be locked into something that’s not us.

FWM: You were quoted in the Rolling Stone piece, “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.” So, in terms of how it’s all come together compared to what your mindsets would have been like 20 years ago, what has the band become at this point for you?

SK: It’s just grown as a family, it’s gotten deeper and more cherished. Age does that to you, that’s life, it makes you appreciate it and gives you some hindsight on things and some respect, and you realize that you’re fortunate to be still walking around and able to do this. I’d say we’re 10 times more thankful now than we were 10 or 15 years ago.

FWM: There was one question put to me to ask you guys so we’ll go with that right now: You’re going to be playing Vancouver next Tuesday and for some of the kids who are going to be seeing you then this is the first time that they’ll be having that experience. Have there been any shows by other bands that have had a similarly memorable effect on you over the years?

SK: Sure, seeing Negative Approach last year was huge for me. I’ve been into them since I was 13 years old and I’ve always loved everything they’ve ever done and we got them to play at one of our 30th anniversary shows and it was so amazing. Also I think back to when we played Ozzfest and one stage was Black Sabbath – watching them every night, that was literally like going to college for me. Just to be exposed to what those guys do that heavily, for several sets over a short period of time, completely absorbing what they did and taking lessons from them.

FWM: And what about touring experiences, has there been anything comparable, where you’ve seen other bands on tour that set a standard for how you guys wanted to do that?

SK: We definitely set our standard off of bands like Black Flag, who were out there parading their own touring circuit in the States, doing their own label, booking their own shows, touring with the bands on their label – we completely mimicked that whole approach with Neurosis and they were one of the fundamental influences of our band, spiritually and business-wise, they would be the prototype for what we are today.

FWM: Coming back to next Tuesday’s show, for the kids who haven’t seen you guys before this might be a little different than if they’ve checked out videos online and are expecting to see some of the earlier style visual stuff – what should they expect to see and how has the stage show evolved for you guys, are you happy with where it’s at right now?

SK: Yeah, man, it’s raw; it’s just raw. We do some lights, it’s pretty no-bullshit. We got sick of doing the visuals, it wasn’t doing anything for us anymore so we decided to get rid of it and strip things back down to where we were at at the start. I think it’s contributed to making things a lot more visceral, and renewed focus on the music, the riffs, the sound – and there’s plenty of that. We’re looking forward to it, I can tell you that much. Vancouver has always been really good for us and it’s been a long time since we’ve been up there so it’ll be a great show.

FWM: This is definitely a widely-anticipated show for Vancouver. I guess the general feel of the Pacific Northwest – it’s very distinctive, it does feel very communal culturally; you guys have always seemed to gravitate around this area, is there anything in particular about it that you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else that keeps you coming back?

SK: The trees and the water, the mountains, it’s all good. I live in south Oregon myself so I’m definitely quite fond of the Pacific Northwest. I think it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and the music has always been good coming out of Vancouver and Seattle and Portland, and shows have always been good in all of those places. And it’s been a constant refrain for us throughout our whole journey to play there on a regular basis.

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Neurosis plays Venue (with Yob and Sumac) tomorrow night (20 December 2016.)

Neurosis with Yob and Sumac at Venue, Vancouver (sold out!)

Neurosis with Yob and Sumac at Venue, Vancouver (sold out!)