Harvestman: Psychedelic Folk from a Post-Metal Pioneer

Harvestman, US Christmas & Minsk: Hawkwind TriadHarvestman, US Christmas & Minsk: Hawkwind Triad (Neurot, 5/11/10)

Harvestman: “The Watcher”

[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Harvestman_Hawkwind_The_Watcher.mp3|titles=Harvestman: “The Watcher”]

When Steve Von Till joined burgeoning metal giants Neurosis in 1989, there was a distinct change in the band’s direction. Its raw hardcore from 1987 album Pain of Mind evolved into more progressive, atmospheric music over the course of The World as Law in 1990 and Souls at Zero in 1992. The maturation was purposeful but wasn’t so radical that it denoted a conscious abandonment of the band’s previous work.

Twenty years later, the band is still continuing to evolve its post-hardcore sound and has influenced an entire generation of bands that worship the so-called cult of “Neur-Isis” (a tongue-in-cheek reference to both Neurosis and its latter-day kindred spirits Isis). By 1995, the band was beginning to venture farther and farther into ethereal, ambient music.

Tribes of Neurot became an alternate moniker for the band’s more experimental work, which often supplemented Neurosis titles. Even then, some musical channels remained unexplored.

In 2000, Von Till released his first album under his own name, presenting a singer/songwriter acoustic work entitled As the Crow Flies. In addition to more intimate guitar playing, his gravelly vocals took on a more weathered, reflective tone. And as his work in Neurosis, Tribes of Neurot, and as a singer/songwriter continued over the decade, he continued accumulating ideas that weren’t quite right for any of the projects.

“I had a body of work sitting around that was really concentrated on exploring the different textures and tones that an electric guitar can produce,” Von Till says. “I wanted to the use the studio as its own instrument to distill, stealing dub techniques to take what I’d tracked and morph it into something else.”

“I never feel that any ideas that come from my brain are that great. When I surrender to the fact that it’s larger than me — that’s when it becomes powerful.”

In 2005, he released Lashing the Rye, his first record as Harvestman. It’s a strange amalgamation of sound collages, vintage psychedelia, and folk revival.

“In a way, it’s kind of my own fucked-up folk music,” says Von Till, who takes inspiration from Germanic and Celtic folklore, stemming from the modern revisiting of folk music in the 1960s and 1970s. Add to this the sonic exploration and self-reflective themes of 1970s psychedelia and 1980s electronica, and his use of “folk music” begins to hold water.

“It’s the sound of what it’s like when I visit ancient stone circles in Europe…and it’s also my love from what I see across the ocean—Hawkwind, Kraftwerk, Skullflower,” he says, noting that his music is informed by both bloodline and experience.

The communal aspect of folk music is seen in heavy psych jam “By Wind and Sun” on Harvestman’s 2009 effort In a Dark Tongue. The song is based on sessions with DJ friends in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s singular in that it has vocals, specifically Von Till’s repeated chant of the title.

“It sounds cheesy, but it felt like I had this druidic moment,” he explains. “I’m meditating on the themes I meditate on, and all of the sudden, that mantra just popped in there.” This spirit captures the essence of Harvestman and a more mystical sort of collaboration.

“Whether you’re in the tracking or mixing phase, you have to obey what the music demands,” he says. “If you want to surrender to the muse, the head gets in the way. I never feel that any ideas that come from my brain are that great. When I surrender to the fact that it’s larger than me — that’s when it becomes powerful.”

Solo albums are self-indulgent by design, but that indulgence offers insight into the mind of its creator. On In a Dark Tongue, Von Till ties the spirit of his own guitar warbles and tape splicing to a John Martyn cover, a hypnotic, this-is-your-brain-on-drugs collaboration with Om bassist Al Cisneros, as well as pseudo-koto sounds curated by Grails guitarist Alex Hall.

The connection is simple: these are the sounds of musical reflection upon identity, a combination of nature and nurture. And through this process, the act of yielding to the music itself becomes a journey of self-discovery.

Von Till frames it best in words that seem to channel the hunchback musician of lore: “You really discover the power of meditation and otherworldliness, surrendering yourself to some sort of different realm [and entering] trance states through music,” he says. “Harvestman is probably the purest outlet I have for that. There’s no structure, just energy.”

Leave a Comment