The Searcher
Dan Lake distills 26 years into 31 minutes with Neurosis powerhouse Scott Kelly
by: Dan Lake
Neurosis. Before the mid-'90s, that single word might not have sent tremors through the extreme music audience, but it sure as shit should now. The band has chewed up barriers like Popeye chews up spinach, each swallow making them stronger and more ferocious. Sitting down with one of the mouthpieces of the group was as relaxing as posing questions to God, so clearly I needed a beer or two before introducing myself.

Scott Kelly has spent the past several months touring on a few acoustic bills of various profiles, and I spoke to him one night during his run with Oxbow's Eugene Robinson, who would perform a (freaking amazing) unpublished section of his book, _A Long, Slow Screw_. Scott graciously spent a half hour talking about his various music projects before strumming out his smoky bar hymns to a mostly rapt audience in Baltimore's Golden West Café. Here's what he said:

CoC: How are the shows [with Eugene] going?

Scott Kelly: Good. Up and down, I mean, it's kind of different, doing the solo thing. Some towns people turn out to see different stuff. The East Coast has been good. The last few shows have been good. The Midwest was a little rough...

CoC: People weren't showing?

SK: Yeah, not as much of a turn out. South was good. So, you know, overall it's good. [Scott orders a coffee. I stick to my nice dark beer.]

CoC: What do you like about sharing the stage with the guys you've been touring with recently [Eugene Robinson, John Baisley, Jay Munley, Bob Wayne] as opposed to the heavier stuff?

SK: It's a totally different vibe. I like the different energy. I'd say me and Eugene, it strangely just works even though his spoken word thing is really different than my songs, there's some thread of energy that runs between the two things, and it probably just has a lot to do with the fact that we're similar people, we're friends. John Baisley and I were out doing stuff for a while, and that was more of an obvious connection in that we were both just up there playing songs. You know I like loud and heavy music, that's pretty obvious or I wouldn't have done what I've done in my life, but there comes a time when it's good for some sort of opposite, contrasting experience to bring out the depth of both things. That's really what I'm about. I enjoy them both; they're very different but trying to find a comfortable place to do this stuff [acoustic shows] is really what I've been about.

CoC: Do you have new solo work coming out?

SK: I just recorded a new solo record. I'm playing a lot of new material tonight. It should probably be out late summer.

CoC: How do you feel about that set of songs and the recording process?

SK: Really good. I feel like the songs [show that] I'm getting more and more comfortable with it [solo acoustic work] and the songs are getting deeper. The process was really good. I recorded it with Noah [Landis], the keyboardist from Neurosis, and we did it up at his mom's cabin. He's playing on it, as well as our friend Greg is also playing on it, so it's more fleshed out than the last record. There's extra instrumentation on every song: some keyboards, a lot of extra guitars, even a little bit of drums at one point in there. It's a different approach in that way. I just got the masters back the other day so, yeah, I'm feeling really, really good about it. We're just getting the artwork finalized and almost ready to hand everything in.

CoC: On your last solo record (_The Wake_), you rerecorded a song ("Remember Me") that you had done with Blood and Time. Was there a particular reason you wanted to do that?

SK: It just fit that record. There's a song that I didn't put on that record that's gonna be on the new one and, when it came down to it, I just really felt that song needed to be on that record. That's about all there was to it. That record was carrying a specific weight for me about some shit I was going through and I've always felt pretty close to that song. Some songs you just feel closer to than others and "Remember Me" was one of those songs I felt that way about. That's about the best way I can explain it.

CoC: Do you feel like you have different roles to play or different personalities when you approach the different kinds of music you do, whether it's writing or recording for Neurosis, yourself, Tribes of Neurot, Blood and Time, or Shrinebuilder?

SK: Not really, it all flows the same for me. My brain is compartmentalized now with my writing. Originally, it was difficult -- I couldn't figure out where things went, I would just write and then I would have to make a decision. Now I kinda know when I'm playing. It just goes to a certain little file in my brain for what it's supposed to be. I mean, in a live setting there's a totally different approach. Each thing is totally different. Even between a band like Shrinebuilder and Neurosis there's a huge difference in the live performance. Neurosis is a whole different deal. Shrinebuilder's more of just a rock band, there's not, like, 26 years of life...

CoC: Shrinebuilder's just a good record to put on once in a while and just vibe to...

SK: Yeah, totally. Neurosis brings everything with it, every step, and the shows are so infrequent that the pressure of each show becomes more every time, and it makes for some pretty interesting shows. These types of shows [acoustic bar performances] have got to be pretty relaxed. I've got to be pretty at ease. I need to breathe a lot and really have my voice ready.

CoC: Is that a challenge or is that a nice relaxing situation?

SK: It's just different. No, it's nice, I'm cool with it. I mean, I'm almost 45, so I like it. It's different. It's something that I can see myself doing forever. There may be a point physically where I'm not able to do Neurosis, at least in a live setting. I can easily see that. It's a really demanding performance. I hope that's not true, but it's kinda hard to imagine doing it 25 years from now, when I'm 70.

CoC: I'm sure it's demanding on stage. I can say that, when I saw you at [Maryland] Deathfest last year, it was demanding to be in the audience, too. There was just a constant crush of bodies. I hope you guys felt it on stage.

SK: Oh yeah, that show was really good.

CoC: Was the weather [lightning storm overhead with sporadic rain] a frustration or something that just rolls off your back?

SK: No, it was a frustration. It was a concern, I mean, we were for real concerned about getting electrocuted there. That was the first concern. If that wasn't an issue, we would've just played. We'd hang a tarp over the front of the keyboards and just go, we'd be okay, but when you've got cables and connections running through puddles of water and lightning and a whole PA wired to the stage and scaffolding, you know... Bad things happen in situations like that. We were a little bit concerned about how that was gonna go down. As it was, we had to cut a song from the set.

CoC: What song was it?

SK: [_The Eye of Every Storm_'s] "Season in the Sky". But then again, the failure or the near miss created this tension that then brought the whole show to a really good place, so when we did play everybody -- us and everybody there -- was so happy that it was happening, so it was really good.

CoC: Has Neurosis been recording?

SK: Yeah.

CoC: Are you done, or are you still working that out?

SK: It's not done. It'll be done at the end of March. We're mixing at the end of March. It's very close.

CoC: How do you feel about that recording, as opposed to past recordings?

SK: I feel really good about it, man. I'm totally happy with the songs. I'm totally happy with the recording. Albini, you know, he's an extremely consistent engineer. I feel like Noah really excelled on these songs. I think that his hard work is really paying off and showing on this record more than ever before. I feel like the emotional content of the record is super strong and it's just filled with these gigantic riffs. That's kind of the feel of the record -- there's just these giant slabs of riffs. It's a Sabbath-y sounding record in a weird sort of way. It's definitely got a lot of big guitars, a lot of weight to it.

CoC: Do you have a different relationship with the songs that you sing and the songs you play guitar on?

SK: I suppose I do. It's not a "less" or "more" sort of thing, it's definitely equal. In a live setting, if I'm not singing it allows me to not have to worry about that, which is nice. The less I have to think about when I'm performing, the better... I don't use a bunch of pedals or stuff like that 'cause I just get less and less able to deal with anything the more the show goes on. I guess singing kinda keeps me grounded in a way, so that I'm not trying to jump through my amplifier or something like that. You know, the reality of it is that I actually really enjoy singing. It's something that I've grown to really enjoy doing, so I suppose I'd rather be singing than not.

CoC: One of the things that blows me away every time I hear it is the a cappella song on your first solo record ["Sacred Heart" on _Spirit Bound Flesh_]. It kills me every time I hear it. There's a vulnerability in letting all the instruments go away. I just love it.

SK: Thanks. I've got vinyl here tonight of _The Wake_ and the bonus track of _The Wake_ is a live version of that song from Poland a few years back.

CoC: Do you do that live very often?

SK: I do it every once in a while if I can figure out how to fit it into the set. I did it once on this tour. I like that song. I've done it a whole bunch of times. Just recently, it's been kinda all about these new songs, so that's where my head's been at.

CoC: There are a lot of pauses in your music. Are you hearing something going on in that pause, or am I reading too much into that?

SK: Yeah, I do. That's the space... like, I believe that silence is part of it. It's just like if you're drawing, and you draw a line, and the only reason you're seeing the line is because of the white space on either side of it. It's all about positive and negative space within sounds. I like straight-up empty space, I like space between notes within a riff. I really like to fuck with time... or maybe better, I don't like to fuck with time; I would prefer not to have time really be a thought or a concern within the music. I think that that still exists in the new songs as well. There's a lot of space.

CoC: I read an article [in a book from John Zorn's _Arcana_ series] talking about how different kinds of music encapsulate time differently: how recorded music or music that has to be played the same way every time is like frozen time, and how songs that change each time they're played don't freeze time but let things expand and grow on their own.

SK: That's interesting. I typically try to play songs the same every time. I don't really go off into the free form jam. You know, Neurosis is totally controlled chaos, we know exactly where we're at, unless of course one of us fucks up...

CoC: Does that happen much?

SK: Well, yeah, I mean, the human factor is pretty strong in Neurosis, but generally speaking we do those really repetitive riffs, and it's kind of a bulldozer thing, so we know where we're at. We have key phrases or samples or vocal lines or just straight up counts where we know where we're going and where we're gonna stop or when it's gonna shift to a different thing. But, you know, there's a different aspect of that -- for us, the music is more about the ritualized aspect or the cadence. Just like if you hear a prayer or a ritual of some sort, part of the strength of the ritual is the cadence and the repeating of the words, and the fact that they've been said before, and the many, many years and the echoes of the words over time. That's something that we really believe in, so it would be pretty much the opposite of the free form jam, which is meant for mind expansion and I totally am cool with it, but for us it's not really where we're at.

CoC: And speaking of music as ritual, are you into any of the Blood of the Black Owl or Ruhr Hunter [both Chet Scott projects] -- that stuff is very ritualistic...

SK: Yeah. I am. It's awesome. He's a great guy. You'd totally dig him. He is absolutely fuckin' true blue. Good dude.

CoC: You mentioned your age and how you imagine that affecting you over time. You've been doing this a long time.

SK: Most of my life.

CoC: How has your approach changed, or has it changed, over time?

SK: Well, you get smarter... If you survive, you get smarter. You learn physical things like to stretch, wear good shoes. And these are simple things that are really fucking significant when you start piling up gigs, you know. Comfortable clothing... these are things you don't think about when you're just a kid out there on the road. I mean, I don't think that's what you're looking for, but it actually counts. I think that what you learn is that... I've come to really value every moment a little bit more. It's pretty cliché in a lot of ways, but it's true. At a certain point, when I was out there twenty years ago, when I was 24, I wasn't thinking about whether I'd be back to Baltimore again, you know. I wasn't even thinking about the fact that I was in Baltimore, honestly. I didn't really give a fuck. Unless I was looking at Edgar Allen Poe's grave, I wouldn't give a shit. And I lived like that for a long time. You're just traveling and you're playing and you're traveling and you're playing, and with Neurosis we had this really singular, focused thing, and we were so focused on just hammering out these relentless sets every night -- which we still do, we still play the way that we did then, it's just that we did it 200 or 220 times a year, and it was our approach. Once we found our way, found our approach and the way that we wanted to do things, we became totally obsessed with doing it that way, and when you're in the midst of something like that, years go by and you miss a lot. So one of the great things about these solo tours is I actually have a little time. They're not quite so hectic, they're not quite so shut down. I don't have to deal with the amount of preparation; it doesn't take as much to be prepared to do this as it does a Neurosis gig. A Neurosis gig, especially if I've played one the night before, it's an all day thing. My body... I've got some pretty significant injuries, long term injuries, and I gotta get my body warm and get ready. I gotta get mentally ready for the show, and it never really stops, it's a just constant thing. With these tours, you get a little time to get into town, see some stuff if you want to, see some old friends and go out to dinner or something; cool stuff that just doesn't happen with Neurosis, you know, there's never time. We're like load in at noon and sound check for five hours and then maybe eat dinner if your stomach will handle it... It's a whole different deal.

CoC: Do you get a chance to look around on these tours?

SK: Sometimes. It depends. When I'm in Europe, my buddy who I always tour with in Europe, he's always fired up about getting me to do shit. I'm kind of a shut-in, so if I have a chance to just hole up in a room and not be bothered I'll do that, so he's always trying to get me to do shit. Like, "Tomorrow we're gonna go see this, tomorrow we're gonna go see that", and I'm like fuck that, you know. But he's always like, "No, no, we gotta see it! How many times do you come here?"

CoC: It's good to have someone opposite you, sometimes.

SK: Yeah, absolutely. Especially someone who's got your best interests at heart. Yeah, my wife is like that, and he's like that, and when I'm with them I know that when they're pulling me against my will to do something, I know that it's for my best interests. Eventually I've learned to submit to their will. Normally I'm like, "Fuck you", when someone wants to, you know... most people are like that: "Come on, do something that you don't wanna do", but I've learned to trust the two of them.

CoC: So at nighttime you're the heavy music superhero, at least that's how I see you. Do you have a daytime, non-superhero personality?

SK: I am a father of four, I work a regular job, I am happily married... I'm a sound guy at a repertory Shakespearean festival.

CoC: Wow. Do you like that job?

SK: I do. You know, talk about ritual... Shakespearean plays are all about that ritual. It's kind of incredible, actually. That's why those plays are so powerful, so magical, it's all those years, man. All those echoes behind them. And actors who actually get that and understand that. Yeah, man, I do tons of normal shit, you know? It just happens that when I pick up the guitar these weird things come out and I don't really have an explanation for that. I mean, I really wanted that, I really fought to have it. I played and played and played, and I constantly tested my brain when I was younger and tried to get myself to a place where I could kind of deconstruct what was before. I feel like I'm a really lucky guy. I've got people in my life that love me and I'm able to travel around and see some stuff and play music. It doesn't heal all wounds by any stretch, but certainly my reality as of right now at this time is pretty good. I got nothing to complain about, man. There's fuckin' tons of shit, you know, tons of people with way harder situations than me. I've got a roof over my head, my kids have got roofs over their heads, we're all eating. I don't own a house, I don't have anything to speak of materially, but what's that mean? I'm not saying I'm against it, I'm just saying what's that mean? It's not much.

(article submitted 6/5/2012)

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