By Justin M. Norton; Photos by William Lacalmontie
When Hellbound caught up recently with Scott Kelly the Neurosis co-founder and solo artist was returning from camping in the Oregon woods. He wasn’t looking forward to working later that evening. “I’m not that excited to get back into the world again,” Kelly said. If anyone has earned some down time this year it’s Kelly. He’s released an acoustic album with The Road Home (The Forgiven Ghost In Me) and was one of three artists featured on a Neurot collection celebrating folk artist Townes Van Zandt. The new Neurosis album Honor Found In Decay will be released in late October, and Neurosis is likely to emerge for a few select shows this winter. We talked to Kelly about playing solo and the power of a man alone in the universe – whether in a fighting cage or on a stage.
I feel like this has been the year of Scott Kelly. You have two records out and the new Neurosis is finished. Have you felt more productive?
It’s coincidental, really. We were pretty sure the new Neurosis was coming this year. The Townes Van Zandt project fell out of nowhere. And my record would have been out last year but there was just an odd sequence of events. I was recording with a guy up here (in Oregon) and he ended up sick and in the hospital. So we had to stop production. I started talking to Noah (Landis, Neurosis keyboardist) about it and he convinced me he had a really good idea how to finish. So I delayed the recording six months and ended up finishing last December. It just happened that everything came up this year.
Have you always been interested in Townes Van Zandt? Why the cover record?
I’ve been listening to him for more than 10 years. Noah is the guy who turned me on to Townes a long time ago. I recorded “Rake” with Blood And Time like six years ago. I’ve played a (Townes) song in my set for years. I’ve been playing “Tecumseh Valley” for three or four years in my live set. The guy who was the brainchild behind this is Ansgar Glade. He’s a German guy who has worked with Neurosis for twenty years. He always had this idea to put together a record of people dong Townes songs. He knew me and Steve (Von Till) played him and knew Wino had picked up some songs. It was his idea to put us together. We were all moved to do it because his music is so exceptional. I think he’s the greatest songwriter of our time.
Why does his music move you?
How he crafts songs and tells stories. He has an ability to show things for what they are. He also has this ability to move back and forth between views. He’s very dynamic with his lyrics. I’m the opposite in that I stay in a tunnel with my lyrics. I’d like to break free of that. So I really admire how he can craft stories from first second or third person stories. Sometimes you don’t even know with him. He’ll switch genders within songs (laughs). In “Tecumseh Valley” you don’t know if he’s talking about someone he knew or himself.
When you work with Noah outside of Neurosis what is it like?
We’ve been friends for a really long time, even before Neurosis. We work really easily together. Not a whole lot needs to be said – things just sort of flow. It’s always been like that. We can get a lot accomplished in a short period of time.
We’ve talked about (blues musician) Skip James before. Do you think our culture has lost an appreciation of what one person can do with an instrument? If you look at Townes or Skip James there’s not much there, but it’s much deeper than what people do with fancy gadgets and studios.
I think people have lost the ability to appreciate anything simple. But those of us who still understand it will always seek it. And a lot of people are coming back around to it. I play acoustic sets to far more people than I did ten years ago. I’m playing to much younger people. If I do an all ages acoustic shows there’s really good turnout. I can play to 200 people sometimes in Europe. They are open minded about it and come just to hear the tunes. So, there’s some hope there. The more things technologically move forward the more people will pull back.
That’s one of the reason I like the idea of you and Wino playing acoustic sets. In the past music was much more of a communal thing where someone would stand on the corner and play. Or someone in your village would provide the music. Nowadays, music is often seen as something other people do.
I agree and I like those connections. I like connections to the primitive nature of things because it keeps it good, keeps it flowing.
I think you’ve hit a sweeter spot with your vocals on this record than on The Wake. There are more textures.
I’m finally comfortable doing this and can let go. It’s like my voice was freed from a cage. Whatever mental barrier I was having, I let it go. I was also sick when I recorded this record so I don’t know how I got a good take. I was able to pull it off. I caught some sort of flu. I was on tour for almost a month before recording and it was winter.
Since you’ve been working alone what was it like to get back together with your band of brothers in Neurosis?
It felt good. I had a lot to contribute. Any moment we have to create, perform or even spend time together is really special now. We realize how lucky we are to have had this run. When we get our moments together we try to capitalize on it. I’m very happy with this record. I’ll be happy when it gets out and it will be great to play some shows this winter.
I thought the title The Forgiven Ghost In Me was intriguing. Do you care to talk more about it?
It’s pretty personal so I’ll just leave it as it is.
You’ve brought a lot more attention to Townes. Who are some of the other solo artists that inspire you?
Like you mentioned, Skip James. Robert Johnson and Hank Williams are the guys who moved me to do something like this. I came across Robert Johnson a long time ago, back in the 80s. I still find him totally mystifying. I even have a hard time going there; it’s one of those musical trips you need to be careful with. It sort if depends on what comes into my world. I don’t go searching for stuff. But I love Erik Wunder’s project Man’s Gin. I really like Nate Hall and Mike Scheidt’s stuff. And of course Wino and Connie’s stuff is great.
Do you remember anything in particular about the first time you heard Robert Johnson?
At the time I was just attracted to his story, the mysticism of it. And then you start listening to the songs and they make sense. I think if you were around in the 20s or 30s people thought of music like this as some form of demonic possession. It’s a simplistic view and those people don’t understand the nature of it. But he was obviously an intense guy who wrote songs that were compelling and raw as hell. It seemed like I could almost see him, how he carried himself and what he must have been like. He was kind of a motherfucker, really.
There are three gravesites for him in the Mississippi Delta. They only recently figured out the right one.
I didn’t know that but it’s not too surprising. It’s not surprising that there’s more than one and it’s not surprising that there are three.
If you look at a Townes or some of these blues artists and then you look at your own music you see a lot of metaphor and allegory. You’ve been doing that since the shift around The Word As Law.
I’m not consciously doing it but I’ll take your word for it (laughs).
What was it like traveling with (Oxbow frontman and writer) Eugene Robinson?
We’ve know each other a long time but now we really know each other. There’s no one like him, at least not in my world. We got on good and everything was good for the most part, a few dud shows. But we didn’t give a shit. We’ve both played shows to no one over the years and try to perform every night.
When he has down time I think he fights if I’m correct. Does he train on the road?
We were on a pretty tight budget so Waffle House happened a few times. He intended to train but it didn’t happen. It might have been that we were driving a lot. We were typically in the car eight hours a day. It could have been that some of the people he was looking to train with didn’t pan out.
You both share a passion for mixed martial arts. Why does MMA appeal to you?
I appreciate the beauty of it. It’s very cerebral. It’s one of the few sports you can see performed on a low or high level and it’s very satisfying. It’s also deceptive. You take a guy like Tank Abbott who was considered a one-punch knockout guy. People thought he didn’t have a lot of skills. Then you find out he was an exceptional wrestler in addition to having hands that would put you to sleep. Then you look at a guy like Jon Jones who is the UFC light heavyweight champ. He reminds me of Babe Ruth or Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan. He’s an exceptionally gifted guy who has more skills than anyone in the game. He free forms shit on the spot. He’s totally reckless in many ways but totally confident in how he does it. He has this ability to create on the spot that is unparalleled. He’s not afraid to put things on the table. A guy like Anderson Silva has the same skill set but is more conservative. Jones may end up losing a fight but no one has even come close yet.
I grew up (around) boxing. My Dad was into it so I’ve been a fan my whole life. I still like boxing but there are differences. There’s a lot less stuff you can do with boxing (than MMA). I like when there are no limitations.
Growing up did you ever work the heavy bag or train?
Yup, in boy’s clubs and stuff. I really liked it. If I hadn’t been so into football I would have gotten more into it. But it freaked my Mom out because this is when people started showing up punchy. I think she might have been afraid of the brain damage. My Dad was an Army middleweight champion. He trained me young. When I was four or five he started showing me stuff.
Did you notice any decline in your father from fighting?
No, because he was quick. He wasn’t a power guy. I never saw him box but I saw him in quite a few street fights. I never saw him get hit, I can tell you that much. He was pretty talented, had a gift.
When you think about MMA and boxing and then think about making music solo do you think there are any parallels?
It’s hard to say. I’m sure there are some. But they seem very different to me. Although it’s not out of the realm of possibility you aren’t putting your life on the line when you sing songs. But you definitely are if you step into a cage. That alone is a major difference.
At the same time, when you fight there is an emotional and thinking component most people don’t consider.
That’s key. Anyone who’s at an elite level has a game plan every step of the way, every day leading up to a fight. Even making weight is significant depending on what your walk around weight is versus what you fight at. A lot of those guys have to drop 20 pounds or more to fight. I’ve heard of people dropping 35. But you have to keep your strength.
Scott Kelly and The Road Home’s The Forgiven Ghost In Me is out now on Neurot Recordings.
The new Neurosis album Honor Found In Decay will be out October 30 on Neurot.