By simply witnessing the sonic power and his grip-tight command of ear-shattering guitar riffs, plenty of wrong assumptions could be made about hardcore’s most commanding presence, Steve Von Till, singer/guitarist of the legendary Neurosis. Yet, the master of grit, grind, and grace manages to look back at over thirty years in the music industry with humble appreciation because of a very simple notion; he never forgot his roots.

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“Steve was always the coolest of guys,” says Mark Tippin, who connected with Von Till through the 1980s San Francisco punk scene, when Von Till recorded a four-track demo for his band Anxiety. “He was three-fourths earnest human, one-fourth fucking crazy, and always 100% creative.”

That three-fourths earnest human was probably more like 100% with “crazy” as a bonus, as he has managed to keep his humility and gentle nature from the time of community shows at Berkeley, California’s famed Gilman Street club to the biggest rock festivals in the world. So, the question becomes how someone of Von Till’s stature in the hardcore community never burned-out and managed to be successful in his personal life in a way that would equal his creative life. The answer seems to always be in the question. Why does one lead a creative life in the first place? If stardom or riches is the answer, he and his bandmates might just offer blank stares. It also involved making a brave choice.

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Photo Credit: Jimmy Monack

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“I kind of won the lottery on both of my jobs,” says Von Till about music as well as his work as a fourth-grade teacher in northern Idaho. With the decision he and his bandmates made to take steady jobs, they didn’t so much as walk away from an artistic life but create insurance for it. Answering to no one financially, Von Till will make the music he wants. Full stop.

“It wasn’t premeditated. It just evolved,” he says. But the fact remains that the story of Neurosis and Von Till’s solo work are the product of freedom. After so many years, most musicians either call it “quits” or carry on until there is no choice. But he was never going to find himself in a position where expectations from either fans or a record company would dictate his output. Can Lynyrd Skynyrd get off stage without playing “Free Bird?” Von Till has no such tether.

Consider his latest contribution entitled A Deep Voiceless Wilderness. The product of jetlag on a trip to Germany, Von Till cranked out sonorous tones and then matched them with words from his daily routine of reading and writing poetry. (In fact, he admits to having a journal tucked under the desk in his elementary school classroom for when an inspiration might arrive). The result is a beautiful tableau that contains not one guitar. That’s right, there is no guitar on this record, and it is outrageously entrancing. With certainty, he states, “The most inspiring thing… is always the next thing.” Again, not a “Free Bird” in sight.

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That unencumbered stimulus is the product of his decision to take steady work, but also a work ethic that was forged as a teenager in a community of artists who were committed to art for art’s sake. “Commerce” was probably a word they couldn’t pronounce at the time. “It was such a unique community of doers and makers and supporters. Everybody had a part,” he says. “What I walk away from is an eternal sense of gratitude. I had the opportunity to grow up with punk rock and it allowed me to become who I am.”

Surely there are younger musicians who would love to find some key to becoming a pivotal figure like Steve Von Till, but he is a rather taciturn fellow. The most he can offer is, “Give everything. Expect nothing. If it pays for itself… there you go.”

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Photo Credit: Jimmy Monack

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