Scott Kelly of Neurosis: The Hellbound Interview
By Justin M. Norton
The revered Neurosis album Enemy Of The Sun opens with a clip from the movie The Sheltering Sky (based on the Paul Bowles novel). The narrator asks: “Are you lost?” It’s a prescient statement when you consider the album almost two decades later. Guitarist and vocalist Scott Kelly was lost, a gifted musician running from his past and trying to purge childhood memories through drugs. But Enemy of The Sun is also the album where Kelly and Neurosis discovered their voice after years of toying with different sounds and approaches.
Few would question the enormous influence of the album and Neurosis on today’s metal scene. Neurot Recording (founded by the band) recently reissued Enemy Of The Sun and also released a live album of their 2007 performance at the Roadburn festival. Hellbound talked to Kelly about the making of a metal classic and his personal transformation.
Enemy of The Sun came out 17 years ago in 1993, right when grunge was nearing its peak popularity. The record is very much not a product of its times. What was going on with the band when you were recording it?
We were still trying to come of age. I was 25 and trying to find my way in the world. I think we all were. We had started to find our sound and were able to express ourselves in a way we had been trying for a long time. Souls At Zero (1992) was a step in that direction. When I listen to it I find songs where we were tapping into it. But it was hit or miss, especially with keyboards and different textures. We had to get more proficient at our instruments to pull the things in our heads out. Enemy was a bold step in that direction.
Souls At Zero was the first time we had any sort of legitimate following, where people cared about what we were doing, particularly in Europe and the Bay Area. Up to that point we were so transient with our sound and approach that we constantly gained and lost fans. We tried to do things we couldn’t do. In a lot of ways this was a much more concrete record, even though Zero was packed with more songs. Every song and every moment on Enemy is deliberate.
What did you want to accomplish with this record? It’s your fourth record but it’s the album where everyone sat up and took notice.
We don’t try to do anything but write the next batch of songs. We don’t ever say we need to do this or that. We weren’t sure what we had when we went into the studio to record. There definitely was quite a bit of experimentation, both personally and musically. We were tripping out a lot and were pretty volatile and combustible.
We stepped into the studio with the intention of doing whatever the hell we wanted. We had material and weren’t sure it would be an album. I remember stepping outside on the street at 7 a.m. and standing there with Steve (Von Till) and Jason (Roeder) and saying: “Fuck, this is an album. This is a statement.” Previously, we weren’t sure what we had.
For those who haven’t seen the new reissue, how is the album different from the last remastering done in 1999?
It’s not a whole lot different. The tracks are all the same. The packaging is different. It’s’ just the first time Neurosis has been able to claim the album. It’s always been out there. We just wanted to take the initial pressing back from Alternative Tentacles and stop the bleeding. Now we’ve established this label, painstakingly put things together. The label is viable on some level and definitely the place to find our music. As we get back the rights to our records we’ll re-release more.
What happened with AT?
Alternative Tentacles ripped us off. That’s the simple version. They cooked the books and we called them on it. They accused us of all sorts of things and being greedy. And it was only about $3000!
It was basically an honor thing. There was no honor there. I don’t know what to say about it except that I was proud to be on the label when they approached us to do us records. We held them in high regard and it couldn’t be further from that now.
Label head Jello Biafra (former singer of the Dead Kennedys) also lost a lawsuit filed by his former band mates essentially claiming he’d been withholding royalties on the back catalog.
They won in court because they were correct. If he would rip us off for a small amount of money then he’d go after them for huge amount of money. When is the last time he had to punch a clock or worry about rent? He doesn’t. Who lives in a house on the hill? He does. I live in a trailer in the woods. I have a day job and always have. What he did to his fellow band mates is all there in black and white.
Again, it’s all about ownership. I’m not unhappy with the original recording. It’s an intense record and was an intense session. I was going through some real emotional struggles at the time. I don’t know what the deal was but some of the songs and lyrics were tough. All of these experiences were cathartic.
What do you think when you go back and listen to this old material?
Sometimes I listen to it and cringe because I wonder why we packed so much into such a little space. Other times, I hear things that are right on the nail. I’m always interested in trying to decipher where we were. But it’s just as much of a challenge to write songs now even though we’re much more proficient then we were 25 years ago.
There are still songs on there that really stand out to me. “Lexicon” is strange. You can feel the tension and unease. It’s like stumbling blindly down a hallway, not knowing what you are doing. You are just fucking going. You feel that in a lot of the songs.
The use of samples wasn’t prevalent in metal back in 1993. You were able to weave samples in and make them part of a song’s texture almost like rap. Sound bites these days tend to be some horror film clip before a grindcore song or something meant to shock. Do you think people have lost the ability to effectively use samples?
I think it’s easier to do samples now. Therefore, more people do them and they are worse. When things are more accessible they get worse. We always had a textured, layered idea. We wanted to use samples to go with rhythm in a cacophonous pattern. We were aware of what people like Dr. Dre were doing. It would be negligent to say we weren’t Dre was on a level of his own in constructing layers and tension through samples.
Why did you pick clips from the film version of “The Sheltering Sky?” Were you reading the book?
I’ve never read the book. Steve read the book. We just loved the movie. There was another band called The God Machine that used almost the same exact sample. We were just kind of obsessed with Sheltering Sky and Apocalypse Now. We’d find moments and we’d want to work them in any way.
Back then it was very grey and there were no laws about sampling .We don’t do any sampling from pre-existing music or film anymore. The legal hassle was part of it but Noah (Landis) is a different animal in terms of how he does things. Now, we just write stuff, patch what people say and record it. Instead of stealing from a movie we write our own words.
“Cleanse” is still a striking track after this long time with the tribal drums, didgeridoo and the almost ritual-like sound. It’s like a track that has never appeared on an album tagged as metal before…
We liked industrial bands that worked with percussion like Throbbing Gristle. A local band named Trial did amazing tribal beats and used hypnotic sounds. Crash Worship had full-blown tribal aspects. The percussion in “Cleanse” was something we tried to do for a while. It gathered steam when we were in the studio. We decided we wanted to record it and that in the end was what made Enemy a full record in length but also in vision and scope. And it was a perfect step up to the next record.
You have a pretty widely followed blog We Burn Through The Night but haven’t posted since February. Are you finished blogging or just taking a break? The blog does say you’ll post on your own schedule.
Has it been since February? I thought it was worse that. For one thing my laptop is toast and I can’t afford a new one. That hurt. I can’t write stuff in isolated moments anymore. I started the blog to practice writing and put things out there, and see how they sounded to me, and watch for reactions. I know music; I’m good with it, even if some people don’t like it. That was my initial thought … I have a lot to write about. I would like to write a book.
You describe yourself as a self-made psychedelic cyborg. What do you mean?
I mean that I made a conscious decision to destroy my brain with psychedelics and remake it. I was so damaged from my childhood that I needed to do that to survive. I spent a lot of time putting myself into positions where I would have to adapt to uncomfortable situations. I purposely put myself in harm’s way psychically and forced my brain to confront uncomfortable things. I had a strong desire to leave a large portion of my life completely behind, and I had a really strong desire to play music. I felt this was what I had to do.
You say you put yourself in harm’s way psychically … can you elaborate?
Not without getting into too much personal shit. A lot of stuff from my childhood I wanted to leave behind. I tried to confront it using psychedelics. But you can’t erase the past that way. I don’t have any regrets, but I did become a person that was easily provoked and prone to being forgetful.
Do you touch any drugs or alcohol anymore?
No. It’s been eight or nine years. I’ve had a few minor slip-ups but no hard drugs. Three or four times I’ve had a few drinks or smoked some weed and decided it was a bad idea. I live a sober life. It’s my goal every day.
What made you decide to change?
I’m an addict. I can’t stop. I don’t have any sort of ability to moderate anything. I knew that it was a choice that had to be made in order to be a good father and a good person for my family, to the people who love me, and my brothers in the band. I put them all through hell for years.
As for your brain, you can only punch the bus ticket so many times and then you’re done. I knew I wouldn’t make it out and I had gone down to the bottom so many times. Quitting was the first responsible thing I did in my life.
One thing you mention on your blog is that you never progressed past an eighth-grade education? How did that affect your development as a musician and do you wish you could change that?
School was nothing for me except trouble. That wouldn’t have turned out any different. I hung around high school for a few years, would show up occasion. It was a place to meet up with friends, and never something I took seriously. The last good class I took was something from a guy in a jazz band. He sort of laid the groundwork for me, that you could go out and make music your life. I couldn’t have handled school because I had so many freaking learning disabilities. There are things I’d like to learn about and classes I’d love to take. I sat in on a cool college U.S. history class.
You are a father of four. How has fatherhood changed you and what do you notice now when you listen to music you made as a younger man?
My kids are great and they stick by me. It’s been tough at times because I can be pretty unstable but they know how much I love them. My son is 23 and he’s starting to do his own thing, make his own music. My oldest daughter is just getting out of high school and is looking at getting into social work. That makes me feel pretty good, pretty strong. On some level it’s probably difficult for them to hear some of my music but I’ve always been honest. What can I do? It’s what I write. They also know the other side of me, the perfectly acceptable and positive part.
The core part of me still responds differently when I write music. What you are going to get is me at age three or four or five, confused and defenseless. That’s what comes through. Some of those songs are really hard for them to listen to and I appreciate they are honest. My oldest son is in the same scene, into the same stuff. He’s playing black metal grindcore type music. His friends will put on Neurosis sometimes and he won’t want to hear it (laughs).
What do you think about the ways that technology has changed music? Have you incorporated technology into your new music or do you prefer to work in the ways you have in the past?
Noah would be a better person to ask. I’m not a technology guy. I live real simple. I don’t have a brain for technology. I’ll just come up with a guitar riff and lyrics. I know this much – as we’ve gone along we’ve been able to use better technology to be smarter and more efficient. We fully embrace whatever is available.
You got your start in the Bay Area but now live in the Pacific Northwest. Has the change in scenery affected your work as a musician?
It definitely helped to get out of concrete jungle. I live in a valley with mountains around me. Trees and nature surround me. I see wild animals, deer and foxes every day. We have chickens.
These things are significant in your daily life. I don’t know if I ever would have picked up an acoustic guitar if I stayed in Oakland. Now I can get to a place that is wide open and see mountains. I’ll take a guitar, even a five-dollar guitar, and stuff comes right out of me. It’s like turning on a faucet. Being here has done wonders for my head. When my head is in a better way it allows me to write better music. Steve lives in Idaho so most of us have freed ourselves of urban shit unless we want it.
Do you think you are able to convey what a Neurosis performance is like through a live album considering the different elements involved? In the same way I wonder if you could accurately convey a Pink Floyd show via audio alone…
I don’t think so, no. I do think that this record is good. There are all sorts of live recordings of Neurosis available. This is one where we are saying: “This was a good night, a good venue, with good people, playing for people we support.” We wouldn’t put out a live record we didn’t have a good feeling about it.
What was it about the 2007 Roadburn performance that made it special enough to release as a live album?
The performance was good and the song selection worked well. Second, the recording gave us something to work with. We also have a real strong friendship with the guys who run Roadburn.
You did a solo tour in Europe in 2010. What was that experience like?
I think I’ll do more. I’m going to do a UK tour in December then go to Eastern and Southern Europe in February and March. Europe is like the East Coast and a bit easier to navigate and get places quickly, so it’s easy to do logistically.
It’s always been easier in Europe. There’s just more interest than what we do. Solo touring has also allowed me to go places where Neurosis never toured like Athens and meet people who have been out there fighting for us and are into what we are doing. A Neurosis show is not a place where I can be very accessible. When I play solo I don’t feel the same tension. It’s good to get out there.
What you think about the use of the term Neur-Isis to describe any band or album that was loosely inspired by your work?
(Laughs). I don’t care. It sounds like something I might say. I like combing words. I understand. People tend to need stuff like that to take the next step and listen to music.
Where do you think metal is headed? What’s the next progression?
I don’t know. Neurosis is in our own little world. I don’t even know what’s happening now, to be honest. There’s so many different levels to the music, the more commercial levels and the deep underground. You would have thought black metal would have gone away ten years ago but it’s become more intense and interesting. Stuff coming out of the scene sounds like a wind storm. I wouldn’t be surprised to see stuff like that become even more mainstream.
The first Neurosis record came out about two months after the first Melvins record Gluey Porch Treatments. Someone told me stuff like this would be mainstream in 15 years. I said he was full of shit. But he was right and I was wrong.
The re-issue of “Enemy of the Sun” on Neurot Recordings is available now from NeurotRecordings.com.