Interview: Scott Kelly (Neurosis, Corrections House)
Scott Kelly is best known as a guitarist, tortured shriek, and songwriter for long running legends Neurosis, but in the past decade or so, he’s been branching his energy out into different avenues. Some of these projects, such as the Shrinebuilder and Corrections House collaborations, still retain the distortion, decibel and intensity of his anchor band, but in the opening years of the new century he’s been focusing his energy into quieter, more introspective work.
Starting in 2001 with his first solo effort Spirit Bound Flesh, Kelly began an acoustic country exploration, influenced heavily by story tellers like Townes van Zandt and Johnny Cash. Another project,Blood and Time, also featuring Neurosis member Noah Landis, was an early fusion of the softer dynamics of their main unit with Kelly’s thick growl, and still retained all of the darkness in its themes. With the release of The Wake (2008) and The Forgiven Ghost In Me (2012), his solo work has matured into an extremely bleak yet organic reflection on the pain of life. Now, Kelly has added Landis on guitar/synth, and Jay Munly of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club on autoharp and vocals, breathing life into those barren tunes like a bud in the spring poking through old snow, yet adding to the brooding drone at times in an unsettling, often tense and eerie way.
This new incarnation, The Road Home, recently completed a tour of the Pacific Northwest, ending on a shadowy evening in Portland. Kelly is a bear of a presence at the front of the stage, his heavily tattooed fingers plucking, strumming, and seemingly conjuring desolate chords of despair and bitter American arcana from the night air. The music is ponderous and intense, yet not physically like Neurosis is live. There’s no sonic hammer coming from the skies to smash you into oblivion. This experience is more like sitting in the twilight and listening to an old, crusty, hard man tell stories about hidden things and painful love, while the sounds of the universe itself leach in and out of consciousness. Kelly is still an intimidating presence, but he smiles and jokes with the other members, and appears completely and utterly relaxed. Landis sways and grimaces while conducting sonic alchemy with a bow on his guitar, and manipulating his synths in ways reminiscent of his work with Neurosis, while sounding fresh and adding rich fat and muscle to the bones of the music. Munly sits with an autoharp in his lap, the soft light from a lamp illuminating his pale, hollow face while he provides occasional keening wails to accompany Kelly’s gruff rock of a voice. The set is highlighted by a stunning version of “The Forgiven Ghost in Me,” and as the music ends, the small but packed house is stone quiet, as they have been through the whole set. The feeling in the air is of something being purged. Kelly addresses the crowd in a crumbling, emotional voice. “This is the Road Home, and I’m so proud.”
Scott Kelly’s wife, Sarah, recently suffered an as-yet undiagnosed medical affliction. The Kelly family has a gofundme account for her treatment. If you’re feeling charitable, the link, as well as further details, are here.
How has the tour been going?
It’s been great! It’s been as good as I expected at least. Noah and I have been grinding on this for awhile, and we laid a pretty good foundation, and then we added Munly and he just came in and changed the whole thing. I mean, he’s so unique, and talented, and…. [points at Munly on the other side of the room] and he likes to dance! [laughter]. But yeah, it’s been really good, the crowds are getting bigger, and I think people are really liking it more.
Have people been a little more respectfully silent? You’ve had noisy folks interrupt your sets in the past.
I just decided I wasn’t going to pay attention to that anymore basically. That shit is so distracting from the shows that I just decided that I wouldn’t acknowledge it at all. It makes for me being happier, and all of us being happier honestly. Even if we play a show and there’s people just sitting out there oblivious, just drinking and talking through it, well, fuck it, it’s just better to play the songs, to respect the songs and not worry about those people. And honestly who knows what they’re talking about, you know? You get a weird perception when you’re on stage and you think people should be looking at you. At the end of the day, they paid their money, and they can do what they want to do. As long as they’re not attacking us, or throwing shit at us of course . . .
What do you get out of playing acoustic that you don’t from your other projects?
It’s more of a peaceful thing for me. Neurosis is my home base, of course, and I feel really thankful when we’re together, it’s a really special, magical place that we created and have been doing for all these years. But it’s physically super demanding and intense, as well as being overwhelming in an emotional and psychic way. These solo shows seem to be more relaxed in general, but yet still sonically really fulfilling. I really just enjoy it, it’s a good vibe between the three of us. The chemistry is finally right in this band I think.
How much did moving from Oakland, California, to Southern Oregon affect your music?
A lot. I mean mountains and trees versus crowds and concrete is a pretty big change, especially at that point in my life. When you’re living in Oakland, your surroundings are made of concrete, you’ve got the street vibes, the music is oriented towards hip hop/rap. It’s diverse, you’ve got the Muslim community there that’s very heavy, the Americanized Muslims, like Nation of Islam, adding to that, so it’s a very different vibe than Southern Oregon where it’s mainly nature. You hear a lot of country music coming out of trucks driving by. There’s still a lot of guns, but not as much gunplay. Definitely a lot more options for using guns without getting in trouble. So yeah, it’s just different. I feel them both running through me though, they both still affect me and I identify with both of those environments.
What does your label, Neurot, look for in new artists?
We look for people who are working their asses off. Of course, first, we have to like what they sound like, but our big thing is we’re looking for artists who are working hard, and that’s it. We’re going to work really hard for whoever we sign, and we think it should be a reciprocal situation. People who want to tour, who want to promote themselves.
Neurot is releasing Brothers of the Sonic Cloths‘ new album this month. How did you come to work with Tad Doyle?
The first time I met Tad was at a Blood and Time show that Noah and I were doing in Portland. A guy who does outlaw country named Bob Wayne and Tad drove down from Seattle to see this Blood and Time show, this was before Given to the Rising was out. I don’t know if you’ve ever met him, but Tad is an extraordinarily nice, generous kindhearted dude, and us being fans from way back of the band TAD, well, that all helped. He came to us and said “Hey, I’ve got this new thing, check it out.” We played with him in Seattle a few years back as well, and we were basically just waiting for him to finish the record. It turned out awesome, it’s just such a fucking amazing record. It’s just super heavy, and Tad is a heavy dude. He knows how to lay it down, he comes up with the most thick, groovy riffs, man. I think that record is going to do really well, we are all happy about it.
What can you tell us about your new project, Rivers of Madness?
It’s me, Nate Hall from USX/US Christmas, and this guy Brett Netson who was in a band called Built to Spill as well as Caustic Resin, plus Richard Kirby, who’s a pro-skater who has played in some other bands. You’ll have to wait till it’s done, but it’s gonna sound like a combination of all of that. (laughs) I’m really liking it, it’s quite a mixture of different stuff. Hopefully people will hear it sometime this year.
Your son Damon plays in his own band Stoneburner. Do you see yourself in his playing or performing?
Y’know, I don’t know? I never really thought about it like that. Did you know he taught himself how to play? Ever since, he’s been doing his fucking thing with it. He was always around music of course, it was part of his growing up. He was always around it, and it was always a part of his life, pretty much since he was an infant. But he picked up an instrument on his own, I never pushed him towards it. I haven’t pushed any of my kids towards playing, actually. He’s the only one who’s really had the fire to learn it and work on it, so he does have that fire, and I do recognize that in me. I’m just really proud of him, he’s a good kid. Well, not too much of a kid anymore, but . . . (laughs)
How did becoming a dad change your outlook on life in general?
I have 5 kids total. It’s a different deal after you have kids. I wouldn’t really know any different, I’ve been a Dad since I was almost 20 years old, I had Damon when I just turned 20. For well over half my life I’ve been a Dad, so it’s not something that’s new anymore for sure. I barely remember what it was like to not be a Dad, I remember it was pretty empty. Life can still be empty now, but kids have a way of giving you something to live for and to wake up for, something that gives you a purpose, a positive goal to work towards, that makes you a better person I think. I love kids, and I think that raising good kids in this shitty world is a great and honorable thing to do. It’s the harder road than the “not having kids, fuck all breeders” sort of attitude. I mean I understand people have a need for time to themselves and such, but they’re also missing out on something that’s really beautiful and vital. It’s their choice of course, they can have a less fulfilling life if they want. They’ll have more money, that’s for sure. (laughter)
You stopped using substances to cope years ago. What do you do in place of that now?
I just had to deal with everything, that’s all. Lots of therapy helped, but just dealing with things is what I do now. Music is huge of course, it answers the “Why do you have seven bands?” question. It’s because I have that many holes I need to fucking fill most of the time, you know? I’m just doing it. These great opportunities keep coming my way, and there’s things I want to do, and every time I touch them they feel right to me, so I’m just gonna do it. Until the time that I decide I don’t want to anymore, pretty much. Without these projects, I think I’d be unfulfilled because Neurosis doesn’t play enough for me, personally. I need to play more than that. That’s the thing about Neurosis, is that it’s a total collective. If we decide something as a group, then that decision is what we are doing, so if one or more people don’t want to play that often, or play more, or whatever, then we sit down and figure out what the answer is. In our case, the answer is “We’re not playing that often,” and that’s OK, I’m fine with that. I can express myself in other ways, and Neurosis is still the center of that. Anytime there’s priorities being made, Neurosis is always first. If I have the chance to do Corrections House, or the Road Home, I have to make sure that isn’t gonna conflict with anything Neurosis is going to be doing.
Do you work in any other mediums, like painting or drawing?
I do, yeah, I paint. I can’t say much about it, but it’ll probably be something that comes out down the road soon hopefully.
With all the gear available today, what advice do you have for young musicians trying to find “their” sound?
I’m not and never have been a real big gear guy. One thing people might want to trip on is using some alternate tunings, they really open up things in an interesting way. The gear is all out there, just keep doing what you’re doing, and don’t settle. Just keep going, push it and push it. Work in the middle of the night, it’s the best time of day for that.
What is Neurosis doing in 2015?
Writing. I’m going out to Steve’s house tomorrow to start getting into some riffs that we’ve got. We’ve already started writing on the new record, just very primitive beginnings. That’s the goal. We’ve got that as well as a three week US tour next summer, which will take us a lot places that we haven’t been, more towards the mid-West, East coast and the South, towns that we haven’t been able to fly into before. And at the end of this year is our 30th anniversary, so next December we’re gonna do at least one show, maybe more, where we’re gonna do songs off of every single record we’ve ever put out. We’re gonna dig into all that shit. That’ll be in the Bay Area this December. We’ve got some work and some remembering to do.