Grace Period: Neurosis Talk Times of Grace’s Companion Album

If you’ve already taken a gander at our brand-new “Neurosis issue” (and if you’re not a subscriber, you’d better head here because that shit is already sold out), you know what an important album Times of Grace is in the context of Neurosis’ legacy. Simply put, it’s the record that cemented the band’s signature sound and informed the careers of countless post-metal groups throughout the land. Front to back, it’s an immense, dynamic statement that continues to resonate 17 years after the fact.

Oh yeah, there’s also Grace. Our Hall of Fame interview touches on how Neurosis decided to record a companion album of ambient music under their Tribes of Neurot moniker with the specific intention of creating an “active listening experience,” but alas, the cursed restraints of print media only allowed for part of the story to be told. Thankfully, you’re on the Internet right now, so you can simply read on to hear the rest of the tale, straight from the mouths of bassist Dave Edwardson, drummer Jason Roeder and guitarist/vocalist Steve Von Till. 

When did you get the idea to do Grace? Was the plan always to do dual albums that were designed to be played simultaneously or did that idea come up later in the Times of Grace writing process?
Dave Edwardson: I think the idea originally came from me talking to Steve [Von Till] about something I did once. My roommates did some psychedelics and I mentioned that if you put two pieces of audio on at the same time, they do some very odd things. So I put on Univers Zero’s album Heresie—they’re kind of an avant-garde, semi-classical prog rock band—in my bedroom and put on the Planet of the Apes soundtrack in my roommate’s bedroom, and then we opened both doors and hung out in the kitchen. It worked incredibly. Everyone was just tripping hard on the sound.

At that point, the Flaming Lips had done Zaireeka, which were four records you’re supposed to play at the same time. We liked the idea that the listener had to go out of their way and do something, and of course we were doing Tribes of Neurot stuff anyway, so we said, “How cool would it be if we put together all these ideas we have?” There were also keyboard parts we had jettisoned [from Times of Grace] in our effort to strip things down, so we said, “What if we just let that part ride?” So, we took all the “what ifs” we could have originally done on the record and worked them back in. After things took shape, we revisited it and added more layers.

Jason Roeder: We knew there were similar ideas out there, but we wanted to put our own spin on it. We noticed there was a loss of active listening in music, where people would just throw something on in the background but not really sit in a room and listen to a record as an actual activity. We wanted to make this environment where not only do you need to sit and listen to this one record, you also need to actively engage your mind and focus your attention on this other record or both records simultaneously. That’s kind of a lost thing. People used to just sit and listen to the radio or a record or just sit and watch TV, and a lot of people these days are doing several things at once.

Our philosophy was, “Hey, get together with a friend and make it a more communal thing if you want to.” If your friend has a tape deck or portable CD player and you have a turntable, experiment. We wanted to push the experiment out of our hands and into the hands of the listener. You can play the records at different times, put one record in one room and one in another room and shift between…it’s something to focus your attention on that’s purely audio and doesn’t have several other inputs. It almost seems like we need to push that boundary again because active listening seems even less important to people now than it was back then.

Steve Von Till: Grace was amazingly fun and if I really think about it, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. We have lots of crazy ideas, but often crazy ideas fall victim to practicality, time and effort. That was one that seemed too crazy at first, but we just stuck with it. Creating it was really great. I remember being in my room on Christmas Eve—I had this shitty crackling fire tape I bought at Walgreens in a clock radio cassette player, a Brian Eno album on the turntable and a CD boombox playing something else that was non-rhythmic, and all of these things just started working together in this bizarre way. And then I turned on the TV and the Pope was giving a midnight mass in Latin, and I was like, “OK, I’m pretty fucking good!”

Our sound man, Dave Clark, had turned us on to the Flaming Lips, who were in their peak period of fucking around with shit like that. They did a weird thing where they dissected a rock mix into four different component parts that worked together or on their own in any combination. It was really fucked up. But [I liked] that idea of creating material that was in key and had the right energy. Times of Grace is a full record, so we had to have things back up during heavy riffs. It would never be a time-sync, so timing would have to be fluid—it had to be OK for it to be totally off but not conflict.

We basically just started recording things on a multi-track at different home studios. EBow guitars, synthesizers, strings, sampled field recordings…just catching all of these different things and blending them together. Sometimes we would dissect a riff or melodic part into its component notes and then overdub them without listening to the original. We would play parts where those notes would happen but the rhythm didn’t matter. Timing was thrown out the window at that point. It was just pulsing and in there. And with the heavy parts, that was when something could come to the forefront on the Tribes of Neurot version—maybe a spoken word or a voice. I remember Dave Clark was staying at my place while I was working on it in my bedroom, and I was like, “Man, I hear some voices here or something.” And he goes, “I’ll be back.” He left with a handheld tape recorder and came back several hours later. He had grabbed a couple of drinks, got on the BART train and started wandering around in the rain, walking by himself through puddles and muttering to himself, and he came back with this tape of him talking to himself while wandering the streets of San Francisco, and it just sounded fucking incredible.

So, it was taking things like that and just making sure the energy and vibe were right. It had to work with Times of Grace and it had to stand on its own. That’s probably my favorite part. It’s basically our best Tribes of Neurot record because it has the energy, flow and harmonic sensibility of a crafted rock record that we spent a lot of time arranging, but with these abstract sounds. We would have never spent that amount of time crafting an arrangement of such abstract music if it didn’t have the restriction of the rock record framework. It’s one of our unsung moments where we hit upon something unique and special.