Horseback (Jenks Miller): Interview
“I don’t think there was ever really a line between metal and American roots music for me to erase.”
Jenks Miller knows what he wants to hear. His exploratory composing and recording practices have yielded more than a dozen releases under his Horseback moniker since 2007, each offering its own high-fidelity aural experiments conducted by Miller and his occasional live collaborators. He populates his dense recordings with elements of American roots music, black metal, drone/ambient, noise, and psychedelic rock, uniting these would-be disparate ideas into into a singular vision of contemporary “esoteric” music: cohered by an overarching attention to tonal detail, dusted with winterdemonic vocalization, and draped in swathes of endless sustain. As much as Miller’s output provokes discussions of genre(-bending) and musical lineage, the sonic idiosyncrasies of Horseback trace a musical mind eager to move into unconquered territory. He has harnessed his perfectionist tendencies and omnivorous tastes, creating music that might sound, to some listeners, a bit like chaos.
Miller’s upcoming album Piedmont Apocrypha, due March 25 on Three Lobed Records, distills the ideas explored and hinted at in previous releases into a crystalline incarnation of the Horseback project: equal parts meditation and turbulence, introspection and exuberant clamoring. TMT spoke with Miller about the new album, recording, repetition, and modern musical expression.
What can you tell us about the creation of Piedmont Apocrypha? Did the composing or recording process differ from previous releases?
I try my best to maintain a daily practice of writing, recording, and/or mixing records. When I’m not at one of my day jobs, I’m usually working on music. I often have more than one or two projects going at once: on any given day, I might be mixing a Horseback record or two, writing material for a Mount Moriah record, and recording demo sketches with a new guitar-playing technique in mind. I call this a “practice” because I view it as a daily routine that is (I hope) slowly accumulating into my life’s work. The most successful writers and graphic artists seem to keep a similar routine, taking a significant portion of each day to sit in their offices or studios, ready for whatever their muse may deliver — or not deliver, as is the case on many days. It seems the best way to maintain focus.
It helps to keep a number of open projects going at once because my own muse tends to be erratic. When I sit down to work, I’m never entirely sure what it is I’ll be working on. If, upon sitting down, I start to channel aggressive or dark energy, I will most likely use that day’s work on a Horseback record at some point. Sometimes there is no open outlet for the sounds that come to me, and the work gets shelved until I can accumulate enough similar material to consider making it into a record.
Piedmont Apocrypha is a result of this practice. Some years ago, Cory Rayborn of Three Lobed Recordings and I talked about working on a record together. I’ve been a fan of Three Lobed since its early days as a CD subscription label, so the opportunity has been an exciting one. In 2012, Three Lobed pressed Impale Golden Horn on vinyl for the first time. That experience was positive for everyone involved, I think, so Cory and I started talking seriously about a new record once again. ?There was enough of a budget for a day in the studio with a few other musicians (friends and frequent Horseback collaborators John Crouch, Nick Petersen, and Rich James), which yielded the final track, “Chanting Out the Low Shadow.” I developed the rest of the material with that expansive track in mind as the record’s climax. The record probably took two years to complete, all told, largely because of the whimsical creative process I described above.
Your compositions have always embraced juxtapositions of disparate genres, tones, and traditions. I wonder about the personal origins of some of the ideas presented on Piedmont Apocrypha.
The Native American-seeming rhythms and instrumentation of “Passing Through”:
In retrospect, I can hear the instrumentation on that track as Native American in feel. That wasn’t necessarily the goal — I was aiming more broadly at a kind of psychedelic folk sound — but your characterization makes sense. The rhythms on that track came about as a result of my interest in repetitive, cyclical melodic forms, and the kind of rhythmic structure those forms require. I knew I wanted to save the “full drum kit” sound for the final track, so I stripped everything down in order to retain a sense of gradual change and an accumulation of complexity (and darkness) across the album as a whole. The odd time on that track gives the central riff an indefinite starting point.
“I like harsh vocals because there is an otherworldly quality to the delivery: they make the voice into a texture rather than confining it to a central melodic (or anti-melodic) role.”
The mystical atmosphere and irregular tonality of “Consecration Blues”:
That track was a real challenge. The harmonic structure is so strange, so tightly wound, that I was difficult to navigate at first. It sounds inside-out to me. Like nearly all of Horseback’s records, Piedmont Apocrypha was created with occult themes in mind.
The sustained drones and sudden bursts of energy on the title track:
The influence of my favorite guitar players certainly comes to bear on tracks like that: I’d name Neil Young, Richard Thompson, Richard Youngs, Keiji Haino, Loren Connors, and Junior Kimbrough on the short list of my favorites. If I remember correctly, the body of the title track came from the same dual combo amplifier setup that I used on last year’s Spirit Signal. Running two amplifiers with slightly different tonal qualities really opens up the possibilities for playing with sustain or any other effect; unfortunately, it’s not always easy to pull off from a logistical standpoint — it’s a pain in the ass to haul multiple guitar amps around.
Can you tell us about the origins of the album’s title and cover art?
The title comes from the Piedmont region of North Carolina, where I live. Many of the elements on this record, from its pastoral feel and its lyrical imagery, to the homes of Cory Rayborn, cover artist Phil Blank, and myself are tied to this region. Phil Blank is a renowned folklore artist here in Chapel Hill, and his cover image evokes the parade of archetypal (and, perhaps, apocryphal) forms I wanted the record to present. Phil and I met early in the record’s production process to discuss different possibilities for the cover. Sometimes having the image of the album cover in mind as I work helps me focus on a certain mood. Phil’s body of work exhibits the mood I was looking for, so it was just a matter of choosing the right image.
A couple years ago, I read John Fahey’s wonderful collection of stories, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life. Its semi-autobiographical, humorously exaggerated, and hotly contested personal mythology reflects my own feel for history. I think that book is a great starting place for a study of any local experience of the occult.
You’ve straddled (or erased) the line between metal and American roots music on previous albums like Half Blood, and your shift from Relapse to Three Lobed Recordings for Piedmont Apocrypha cements an association between your work and contemporary American Primitive-informed musicians like Steve Gunn, Mike Gangloff, and the sadly departed Jack Rose. Does this association carry weight for you?
Well, to be honest, I don’t think there was ever really a line between metal and American roots music for me to erase. Like all branches on the tree of rock music, the roots of metal are in blues. The first metal bands were just loud blues-rock bands who wrote exclusively in minor keys: as you probably know, Black Sabbath were originally a blues band called Earth before discovering Aleister Crowley. Everything has just grown louder and faster from there. (Don’t fret, deadly serious metal warriors of the internet — I’m being at least a bit tongue-in-cheek here.) All the elements that I identify with metal — its otherworldly quality, its confrontational but paradoxically populist presentation, its fascination with sex and death — all those elements are found in the oldest blues recordings. I learned to love the deteriorated quality of old blues records after falling in love with the underproduced sound of early black metal. Today, Charley Patton still sounds spookier to me than any metal band. It’s heavy stuff. As far as I’m concerned, all esoteric music is bonded by blood. I love it all.
I do appreciate all the American Primitive artists you mentioned in your question. I didn’t know him very well personally, but Jack Rose was a living legend; now he is a bona-fide legend and I miss his presence. When he died, Cory helped put together a download-only tribute comp; Steve and Mike and I are on it, along with a couple dozen other folks who move in the same circles. I was honored to share a stage with both Steve and Mike at the Three Lobed day party during the Hopscotch Music Festival last year. I’ll let you writers have the last word on how these scenes come about and what they might mean (mainly because I don’t understand all of that myself, and I probably don’t have the best insight into how I might fit in), but I can say that the tradition you’re talking about means a great deal to me.