SCOTT KELLY OF NEUROSIS: THE METALSUCKS INTERVIEW
As one of the founding members of arguably one of the most important metal bands, Scott Kelly helped navigate Neurosis from a crust punk genesis to the lords of abstract doom they’ve become. Despite going on to semi-normal adult lives not built around touring, they’ve still managed to put out some of the most challenging and, ultimately, best music of the decade. Kelly himself splits his non-Neurosis time among Tribes of Neurot (the band’s ambient side project), an acoustic solo career, the post-apocalyptic folk of Blood & Time, and, most recently, stoner metal wet dream Shrinebuilder, featuring Melvins drummer Dale Crover, Sleep/Om bassist Al Cisneros, and doom icon Wino. In an interview Scott was kind enough to grant MetalSucks – conducted during his trip to the airport on his way to some European Neurosis shows, stopping once to get through airport security and ending when the plane was ready to take off – he discussed his collaboration with the gentlemen in Shrinebuilder, his history with Neurosis and long-time collaborator Steve von Till, and punk’s limiting ethos vs. metal’s acceptance.
How’s life going?
Life’s good, it’s alright. I’ll take it.
That’s good. Are you and Neurosis psyched about Roadburn this year?
Definitely. We’re really excited to get there and do it. It’s been a long time since we’ve done something like this. It should be a pretty special experience. It’s a really good festival. It’s a place where we feel comfortable. It’s pretty necessary for us to pull off something like Beyond the Pale. We got to really feel that we are going to do it at a place that will embrace it. You can’t just do it at any venue really.
What’s led you guys to be more picky about shows over the years?
A number of things, but mainly our families and our kids. Being on the road all the time doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. When you’re on the road all the time, it detracts from your ability to be creative. As much as we try to bring recording equipment on the road and demo stuff out as we were going, it just doesn’t really happen because it’s too exhausting of an experience. Our balance just wasn’t right. We basically started and always been a band that worked regular jobs and met at night and worked. We made time and sacrificed what we needed to to get it done. I think we had about ten years where we were trying to roll all the time, it just started to get away from us, at least to our perception it did. We needed to re-center ourselves, build a label, and a lot of other stuff that we wanted to do. I think touring is good and it’s fun and definitely something we want to do, but not where we are playing somewhere every night. It doesn’t make sense, not to us anyway.
Do you think that cutting back on touring has altered the way you guys sound, or allowed you to focus more on certain things that you wouldn’t have when you were touring all the time?
My answer would be yes, but I also think that everything in life influences the sound and what we do. I think it has allowed us to put more focus and energy towards the sound, and that’s always been the primary objective of the band. Well, really the only objective.
Which is good. Given Neurosis’ sort of reputation for quote/unquote “experimentation” and sort of thinking outside of the box metal, one would think that you are sort of given the freedom within the band that people in other bands would go to side projects for. Yet, you and the other members of Neurosis seem to be involved in more non Neurosis side projects than most people in other bands would be. What do you get out of having multiple/different projects outside of Neurosis?
Well some of them, like my solo acoustic stuff, is just something that I really wanted to explore. I’ve been trying to develop that part of my brain, and it’s something that’s always been around me. I kind of grew up around a lot of country music and stuff from my dad. Once I kind of got over my father/son relationship and start to kind of realize how that really works and was able to revisit a lot of that. That became something that I really wanted to work on.
Blood & Time was kind of a natural evolution out of that with a little bit of a different take. We couldn’t release Tribes of Neurot records and call it Neurosis. We didn’t honestly feel that it would be okay. We just didn’t think it would be a cool thing to do, somebody is going to spend their money on a record that has a name on it. There are some things that we thought would be a rip-off to just put an ambient noise project and not give it at least a different title. Shrinebuilder is one of those things that when someone asks you if you want to be part of a band like that, the answer is yes, it doesn’t really matter. You just fucking do it. That wasn’t something that I was expecting or planning on.
[At this point Scott had to hang up for a second before calling back. – Ed.]
You were talking about Shrinebuilder.
Yeah. I was going to add one thing that it really comes down to the sound. It’s just about dedication to the sound. You just kind of resign to that and wherever it guides you, you go. That’s really what it is. This is our religion. It’s what we really believe in. It’s where we found the most truth and the most knowledge. When you can submit yourself in that way, things open up and let’s things happen for you.
What’s the album going to sound like? How do you think the sounds of your members respective bands sort of plays off of each other in terms of that?
Like really, really well and easily. You never know, but right from the start it blended pretty seamlessly and pretty effortlessly. It was very collaborative. I think that you hear all aspects within the record from everyone involved. There are moments that you hear something that is a little obvious – like a riff or a line. There’s a whole other element to it that we couldn’t really anticipate until we got there and did it. Honestly, I couldn’t be happier with it. It totally surpassed our expectations, and our expectations were really high.
I imagine so. Ours are too.
I’m sure. I can feel that. For us it is if you dedicate yourselves to it and you do what is necessary to get it done, then you are rewarded. Everybody was really focused on it when it was time to do it, and it shows.
What was it like working with the three other guys whose music inspired what you do?
Well it was easy on some levels, but on other levels I’m still kind of in shock about it. I still trip out every once in awhile about the fact that it’s actually happening. I’ve known Al [Cisneros] for a long time. I’ve know Dale [Crover] for twenty-three, twenty-four years. Wino and I have become close only recently – over the last three or four years, but we’ve had a lot of parallels previous to that. Once we did finally connect directly, it was really clear that he and I had a lot of shared life experiences and can appreciate the same things. The first time that we all jammed was fruitful. We came up with a lot of shit real quick. One thing is for sure, there’s no shortage of riffs. Everybody has an enormous amount of stuff to harvest there. The first time we played as a band was at eleven o’clock at night the night before we went into the studio to record the record. It was fucking lightning instantly. Thirty seconds into the first song we just looked at each other like “yeah.” Now it’s all about putting it together to perform the stuff live and to figure out everyone’s schedules to coincide for some gigs. I’m really looking forward to that.
You guys are planning on playing out?
Definitely we will. It will happen this year.
That’s cool. Where did the name Shrinebuilder come from?
Al’s mind. That’s the best answer that I could give you. Dale was the last person in on this because Chris was the original drummer but he decided he didn’t really want to do it. So we went out and got Dale. By the time they asked me to be a part of it, there was already three of them. I was really excited about it and couldn’t wait to hear it. The first conversation we had about it and Wino said it was going to be called Shrinebuilder. I was like “alright.”
Speaking of new albums, how is the new Neurosis album coming along?
Skeletal at this point. There are a lot of skeletons of songs. We probably have most of it laid out in that form. There is a lot more work to be done, a lot more work to be done. It’s still in the early stage really. When we finished Given to the Rising, we still had about twenty minutes worth of stuff that we didn’t flush out completely. So we started there and started working more. Steve and I spent about three days back in December working on some stuff. We all worked on it together as a band as well. It’s in process, but these things take time. It’s not a quick process, and it never will be.
Is it going to be more like an extension to Given to Rising or is it going to take on more of a life of its own?
I have no idea at this point. All I can say is that one thing I will never do is define it before it’s been created. We’ll see where it takes us. We’ve got a lot more work to do to get it to the point where we feel that it is complete. We’ll see what happens.
How did you feel about a lot of the print community and the metal community referring to Given to Rising a “return to form” when it really didn’t sound like any of the other Neurosis albums?
I don’t know. I don’t care. We never for a second worried about what people thought about what we did. Honestly we just do what we do and as long as it meets up to our standards of what we are trying to achieve then we’re good with it. I can understand why people would say that, but I wonder if people are saying that because there are a lot of big guitars? I don’t know. A lot of people were comparing it to Through Silver in Blood, but not to me. I think that people were a little surprised. They thought that we were going to come out with… I don’t know what they thought. It doesn’t matter. The record stands. There is no doubt. I still feel as good about it now as I did when we were finished with it. The songs came out really strong. We dug deeper than we had previously. That’s always a part of it. It’s always trying to push everything and refine and blow things apart at the same time.
How would you define yourself as a guitar player?
Simplistic. I write riffs. I can’t do leads or anything like that. I guess I could, but I don’t. Maybe I will someday and explore that. It’s not really my thing. I’m not the most dexterous guitar player. I’ve worked with my hands my whole life, so my hands are fucking beat. I just try to use the guitar as an instrument to channel what I have in my head. Lucky for me I don’t have any guitar parts in my head that I can’t play anymore. I’m self taught. Lessons and all that shit are completely against the way that I see music. It’s like basically putting everything in a box that you’ll never get out of. I taught myself how to play and learned the names of the strings and what I need to do to make them sound correct. Aside from that, it’s just simple. I don’t do anything flashy. I’m more of a glorified bass player. I play a lot of simple, droney chords. It’s just about the song and how the riffs go together with the emotion of it. That’s what I’m concerned with. I’m really fortunate. Steve is an extremely adept guitar player and always has been – very natural, so is Wino. Obviously the both of them fit really well with what I do, so I can just feel it. Both those guys are very similar in a lot of respects, particularly with their approach to the guitar and sound and their use of effects. I hesitate to use a lot of different effects because in a live setting I’m not going to be in the state of mind to be able to negotiate my way around a pedal board. I’ll end up throwing it because I’m just blizzard brains – just totally primal around too much technology.
Do you think that that sort of balance between you and Steve and now you and Wino sort of plays a big part in why Neurosis and now Shrinebuilder are artistically successful?
I hope so. I think so. I think that it’s important that things flow naturally. I think that that probably lends itself to that because if we were sitting there going “oh I got this one” and that type of shit, it would be a different approach. It would be like an ego thing involved, and it doesn’t lend itself to good music. I think it’s basically that you got to do what you do. Steve and I basically evolved together. We’ve been playing together since ’88, so twenty years. So we know how the other plays. We know what works really well. Wino and I have the same thing happening when we got together. I told him when we got into this that I have never played with another guitarist. I think you kind of have to submit and sacrifice in order for things to work out for the betterment of the music. It can’t be about “oh this is where I get to do this”. If the song calls for it, then you do it. If the song doesn’t, then you don’t.
It’s sort of like putting the sake of the song over your own ego in that regard.
Given Neurosis’ roots in punk/cross punk and hardcore, you guys are revered as one of the big metal bands out there. Where do punk rock and metal meet for Neurosis?
I don’t know. It’s not something that you think about. The foundation of the way we do things is probably where it comes the most. We learned how to do things in the punk community or the hardcore community. We like to do things ourselves and we like to control as much of our stuff as possible and all that. Metal is honestly a place where we kind of ended up. It’s much more open sort of community as far as sound. There is a lot of variance in there. At a certain point, punk rock became really close minded and really focused on a particular archetypes – Stiff Little Fingers or whatever. We didn’t fit there, but like many bands before us, Black Flag, Joy Division or whoever came out of the same roots, we were finding resistance from the community that we came from. We just kept going and plowed through it. We eventually found a place in this wherever zone. I don’t know what it is. It’s not that we don’t listen to and enjoy a lot of metal, we do, we always have. It’s not something that we really think about. We just do our own thing, and we’ve been doing that for a long time.
My last question: Neurosis has been around for about twenty plus years at this point. How do you feel about the legacy thus far? How much can you look back on it fondly?
All of it.
All of it?
I’m fine with all of it, absolutely. No shame at all. There are just some individual situations over the years that I wouldn’t mind taking back, but nothing to do really with the music or anything like that. Everything that we’ve done, we still stand by, and it is a statement of where we were at that time. I’m still happy to do this with these guys – always. They’re family. That was the original idea: we needed family, we all did. We needed something. We needed to commit to building something and stay with it, and that’s what we’ve done. I feel good with all of it, and I feel that every time we have an opportunity to play and work on music, it’s a gift. I totally respect it, and everybody else does too. This isn’t something that you can plan on in your life. You can just hope that things break in a way that will allow you to continue to do something like this. For us, in the end, it’s been nothing but positive.
And I’m assuming it’s still going strong at this point.
Definitely. The well is not dry at all.