Swirling formless ideas began to take shape in the form of a simple keyboard progression during a sleepless winter night.
Looking out at the midnight fields of his wife's family's homestead in north Bremen, Germany, Steve Von Till felt the stir of his muse. Had he been in his right mind and maybe a little less sleep-deprived after the flight from Idaho, he might've just dismissed it as "nonsense." But, instead, he started recording. And in the morning, when he listened, he could tell that something serious had taken root.
"To be in that area," Von Till says of northwest Germany, "I've always found that the air has a certain weight to it."
His wife's family has lived there for 500 years, cultivating the same land, he says.
"I'm a child of the American West who also looks back over the ocean to Europe and the ancient world, and to the ancient species in general, and [human] origins, contemplating the way it all spirals all around: life and death, creation and destruction," Von Till says. "When one family has been there so long, there are many layers of depth that I don't think we can comprehend."
Perhaps not. But two years since that night, Von Till, also the guitarist for longtime experimental metal band Neurosis, recently released his fifth solo album, No Wilderness Deep Enough, in an attempt to peel some of those layers. It is a meditation on the existential and an ode to ancient history and the natural world told through atmospheric waves of dark synths and Von Till's raspy, guttural verse.
Simultaneously, Von Till also published a similarly themed book of poetry, Harvestman: 23 Untitled Poems & Collected Lyrics, which was born out of his latest solo album as well. Both new projects are filled with questions of spirituality, ancestry, nature and self-expression.
"I've always been attracted to the ancient things. What inspired people to build these giant stone monuments? Who created the art in caves in Spain and France? Who were the first artists?" Von Till asks. "I want to feel a direct connection to that and the past."
When he's not contemplating vast, unanswerable questions, Von Till spends his days as a fourth-grade teacher at Garwood Elementary School in Rathdrum, Idaho.
It's only a week before school starts when he talks to the Inlander. While some schools are attempting a virtual classroom for the 2020-21 school year, the Lakeland Joint School District, where Von Till is employed, has opted for in-person learning.
"It's definitely gonna be a challenge, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that we serve the students and the families, and the reason why anyone gets involved in teaching is to pass on the torch of knowledge to upcoming generations of humanity," Von Till says. "And in order to do that, they need to feel cared for, safe and loved."
In that sense, he always looks forward to a new school year, he says.
Tattooed, bearded and now 51, Von Till has been teaching for more than 20 years. He admits he doesn't look the part, but more recently he's leaned into his rock 'n' roll roots.
Von Till's music career took off in 1989 when he joined Neurosis during the band's early days in the Bay Area's DIY punk scene. A decade later, while the band was on tour, its five members had to make a decision whether they were going to continue Neurosis as a full-time gig, he says.
"We just had a revelation that in order to support five families, we would have to be gone all the time. There was no security or guarantees that you're there to be a proper father and husband," Von Till says. "In order to keep the art pure, to make sure we weren't compromising our ethics or spiritual core of our music, we decided that it would be better to find ways to support ourselves and have balance between home and family and be professional traveling musicians."
So he left California to look for his muse in the woods of North Idaho.
"I needed space. I needed room to breathe. ... My art has always been about longing for a connection to the natural cycles and to nature, and I feel humanity has a separation from the natural world."
For Von Till, producing both No Wilderness Deep Enough and Harvestman: 23 Untitled Poems & Collected Lyrics meant wading into uncharted territory. To finish each project, he had to learn to let go and get out of his own way, "to not let any negative self-talk or 'impostor syndrome' get in the way of letting the art speak for itself."
"Like most driven artists, there are always voices that may try to talk you out of it," he says. "Who are you to think you are a poet? Who are you to make a beautiful album? Does this beautiful music need your harsh croaky voice on top of it? It's learning to stare those in the eye and say, 'The music demanded to be made manifest, the poems demanded to be made manifest, and who am I to argue?'"
It's a lesson he says he tries to foster in his fourth-grade classroom as well. To give the wrong answer. To take risks. To create without fear.
"It's OK to follow your passion, and it won't necessarily bring you riches and fame," Von Till says, reflecting on his own career. "That's not why you do it. You do it because the creative spirit compels you to do so." ♦
Visit vontill.org for more information. No Wilderness Deep Enough can be found at 4,000 Holes, Groove Merchants and Total Trash in Spokane and the Long Ear in Coeur d'Alene. Harvestman: 23 Untitled Poems & Collected Lyrics can be found at Giant Nerd Books and Auntie's in Spokane, and the Well-Read Moose in Coeur d'Alene.