Against The Grain: A Conversation with Scott Kelly of Neurosis

In the modern heavy metal scene, there are few bands that can considered as unique and groundbreaking as Oakland, California’s Neurosis. Starting out as a fairly traditional hardcore/crossover band, Neurosis have developed a sound over the years that has often been imitated. At the center of it all is founding member, vocalist/guitarist Scott Kelly, who in addition to trailblazing with Neurosis, has had numerous side-projects, as well as a handful of solo releases. We recently had the opportunity to talk to Scott at the Housecore Horror Festival in Austin, Texas.

“It was the first time I’d actually felt alive”

Neurosis Interview 1

MB: In Neurosis’ music, particularly when Steve joined the band, I noticed a shift towards folk, almost pagan-style imagery in your artwork and song-structures. How do you think the new style melded with what you were doing before?
Scott: It was really kind of effortless, actually. When Steve joined the band, we were all on the same path, where we happened to meet. We were already tripping on that sound and listening to that sort of stuff. He brought his musicianship, which was more extreme. I’m not a particularly good guitar player, I’m much more simplistic, and kind of nail everything down. I’m way more of a rhythm player, basically. We meshed really well together, and we created a bigger sound.
As far as the pagan imagery and sound, that was a part of who we were since before we were even Neurosis; it’s kind of what we were around in the Bay Area, it’s pretty normal, pretty regular stuff we’d run into, if not as children, then at least as teenagers. It seemed like it was meant to be.

MB: Yeah, over here in Texas, we’re in the middle of the Bible Belt, so it’s a little more unusual, and kind of stands out a bit more. Is it something you were consciously trying to promote, or did it just naturally make its way into the sound?
Well, I mean it is a conscious thing, in some ways. What we really want to promote, if we’re going to promote anything, is a free-thinking environment where people aren’t feeling they’re being pushed in any specific direction, you know? Whatever you’re comfortable with, let that be your thing. I don’t care what people worship, or don’t worship, I just care if people are imposing it on other people, or if they’re using it for power or trying to hurt others. It’s like our song “Don’t Be Cruel;” it’s a great song and it means something. Don’t be cruel, don’t be an asshole. If the whole world was like that, it’d be a different vibe; people would be able to express themselves freely. Unfortunately things are different; a lot of it has to do with religious bigotry, cultural insensitivity, and those are things we are totally against. If we stand for anything, we stand for the right to be who you are without someone telling you that it’s not okay. If you’re not hurting people, then do as you wish, and think as you wish.

MB: There has been some pretty big gaps between albums lately, though I know a lot of that has to do with starting families, and having other projects. It seems when you do release a new album, however, it seems like the underground metal scene is kind of waiting to see what you guys are going to do, because it usually sets the trend for the next several years. Have you ever consciously set out to create a new sound, or is it more about creating something you feel is artistically “honest.”
Scott: Yeah, we’ve never tried to set a trend in our lives, honestly. That thought never crossed our minds. If we could write an album a year, we would, but it just doesn’t work out that way. The last album probably would have been done in three years instead of five, but we had a lot of personal stuff going on that basically put the brakes on everything. Life brings you challenges, you can’t count on anything for sure.
We chose about 15 or 16 years ago to not go into the constant tour-record-tour-record cycle, and to pull back from the road, so we could focus on raising our kids, and writing. We felt that we could give the music more attention. I think the music is our primary thing, and I think that it has improved since then. The best records we’ve done have been the last 4 or 5, where we were basically home most of the time; we spent a lot of time with the songs, really letting them germinate, and get to a point where we were really comfortable with them. Basically, we tried to turn them into meditations, so they’d have a wave or feel to them that we were completely comfortable with the whole time. Once we get to a certain point, we spend a lot of time thinking about them, internalizing, and going over them again and again. That’s why it takes time.

MB: Your sound originally came out of a more aggressive hardcore and crossover scene. When Steve joined, though, things got a bit more melancholic, a bit more introspective, and you can almost feel this different atmosphere in the live setting. How does the crowd energy now compare to the old hardcore crowds?
Scott: I can’t remember those days too well, to be honest. [laughs] It was a long time ago. I remember there was a point when people were kind of into us, at least locally, where we grew up. Then we added the keyboards and the visuals around 1990, and we had a huge backlash. People hated it, walked out on us, and I remember feeling really good about that. It was the first time I had actually felt alive. It was like “okay, now we’re actually getting somewhere, to hell with these people and their close-minded bullshit.” It’s nice to have people like you, sure, but it’s also nice to have people repelled by what you’re doing artistically. We felt great about it; we had all these ideas, and had this instrument that we could basically do anything with, and make it sound like anything we wanted. That’s exactly what we needed for our brains, and we had people really turn on us and just walk out. Like I said, it’s the first time I really felt alive. We were really able to start over, and it really turned into something else.

MB: On the most recent album you parted ways with your visual artist, Josh Graham. Now, I feel like since his departure, while you’ve continued in the direction established by the previous 3 or so, you had a little bit of a return to hardcore in your sound, and even the live show changed pretty dramatically. It felt almost like a rebirth of Neurosis. Did you see it that way?
Well, we wrote the record with Josh in the band, and he did the album cover, as well as all of the artwork. It all kind of happened so fast. We often have these moments where we all kind of just wake up one day and say “you know, I don’t really feel like doing this anymore.” That’s what we did one day, and Josh said “I don’t feel like doing this anymore either”. We parted ways in completely friendly terms, with no hostility whatsoever. Josh is a really a good dude, and worked his ass off in Neurosis for a number of years, quite a long time.
After that we started re-envisioning the show, and the first thing we thought was doing the exact opposite of our normal live show. We went with white light, nothing to hide, and decided to keep it simple. That hardcore energy that you were talking about came back, and it was great! We weren’t expecting it, but when it happened we felt that it was interesting, although it was a totally different vibe. We just played in Denver, and there was a pit going for 2 hours, the whole time we were on stage!
The cool thing with us is that you get this kind of old guy pit, with like 40 year-old dudes throwing elbows at each other, and it’s really funny. I like the energy, I’m down with it, it’s the way we all grew up. Like I said, express yourself as you wish. The shows back home are all bloody, with old grey-haired dudes with face-tattoos beating the shit out of each other!

MB: That’s awesome!
Scott: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s great!

MB: You’ve also got a new project called Corrections House going on right now. How do you approach your solo work, compared to Neurosis?
Scott: Well, they’re all pretty different. With the solo stuff, I just approach it with an acoustic guitar and standard tunings. I try to write things with a different vibe, and much more beautiful sound, and now I’m working with Noah [keyboardist/sound-manipulator for Neurosis]. Corrections House is just about done with our second album; we move really quickly with our material. Sanford makes up these crazy loops and beats, and just kind of feeds them to me. The guitar parts just fly out, and we don’t really question anything. Mike does his thing, Bruce does his thing, and we’ve got all of these songs. That’s a really easy-flowing creative process that doesn’t require or demand the same sort of attention, or detail that Neurosis does. It’s a little more immediate.

MB: Corrections House certainly comes across as something that each member is 100% committed to. You can definitely pick up on that vibe. It’s almost like everything written was really organic, unforced, and everybody seems to be on the same page.
Scott: You’ll like the new record if you liked the first one. I’m really happy with it; it came together really well and quickly. It’s basically done, we just have to do some mixing.
I’ve also got The Road Home going on; I’ve got a thing with Nate Hall and Brett Nelson. There’s two or three other things that are potentially happening that I can’t really speak about, because we’re not quite at the stage yet. It’s kind of ridiculous how much extra stuff I have going on, but if things come my way, I take them.

MB: It’s part of being an artist, it’s kind of what you’re “built to do.”
Scott: Yeah, that’s true. I just try to keep it simple. If something comes my way, and I want to do it, especially with people I like, and the musical vibe is there and everything meshes well, then I’m like “alright, let’s do it!”

MB: Do you have any last thoughts for the fans, anything in particular you want them to check out?
Scott: We always appreciate anybody that takes the time and energy to check out Neurosis and what we’ve done over the years. We realize that for lots of people it’s not the easiest band to digest, but we know that for some people it’s exactly what they want. We just really appreciate the fact that people give us their energy, their time, and money, it means a lot.

MB: Awesome man, well thank you for taking the time to chat!
Scott: Thank you man!