Horseback (Jenks Miller): Interview
“I don’t think there was ever really a line between metal and American roots music for me to erase.”
The self-consuming melodic mantras that loop and stretch across your compositions seem to channel the deliberately static riffs of Lungfish or modern-era Earth. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the psychological and compositional effects of cyclical riffing.
Yes, you’re absolutely right. Lungfish in particular represents the cyclical minimalism of blues, rock, and proto-punk taken to extremes, both in a formal sense and in terms of the band’s mystical approach. I love Earth too, but I tend to see their influence in the marriage of modern composers’ experiments in sustain and tonal decay with the metal paradigm (I personally don’t find the phrase “drone music” to be particularly useful… it sounds sort of absurd to me, like calling what Slayer does “fast-guitar-notes-and-drum-beats music”). Now that I’m thinking about all this stuff at once, I guess I see Lungfish as an extension of early blues music, and Earth as a welcome tangent for 20th century New Music derived from (for example) composers and theorists like Morton Feldman and Pauline Oliveros. This is an imperfect model, to be sure. Haha…
To address the second part of your question: As a younger listener, I would have found Horseback’s minimal compositions “boring.” And I probably would have said so to my friends while reaching for a Megadeth record. But a shift happened in my listening at some point, and now what I’m usually looking for in music is a kind of compositional and thematic centeredness or unity. If a composer or band can attain that unity, then all variations from the center become permissible. The dressing on the music itself — be it stylistic, or textural, or whatever — becomes secondary to the effect of the whole. I’ve received questions about the use of harsh vocals in Horseback’s music, and whether they are inappropriate stylistically. That kind of question is difficult for me to answer because a) harsh vocals don’t really sound all that harsh to me any more; and b) I hear things like vocal delivery as only one tiny part of a whole, which encompasses the methods of production used in the recording, the record’s larger relationship to technological innovations and/or cultural context, and the psychological effects you’re talking about.
I spend a lot of time playing cyclical patterns on one instrument or another, and this practice is helpful in organizing my thoughts. It is therapeutic and necessary. I haven’t found anything else that works quite as well, though more traditional meditation comes close. I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and I’ve been recording the results for nearly as long. When I hear someone else’s recording I try to see the production process through the veil of its presentation and consider what certain production choices might mean. There’s something for me to appreciate in the most lo-fi crust punk record and in Miley Cyrus’ latest single, though I won’t find myself listening to the latter very often.
As far as I’m concerned, all esoteric music is bonded by blood. I love it all.
I’d love to discuss your relationship with lyrics. I remember reading in another interview that you don’t consider the lyrics of your compositions especially important — or at least didn’t at that point. Do you still feel this way?
On a list of the things that resonate the most with me in music, lyrics would be close to the bottom. I can appreciate well-written lyrics, and I cringe at poorly written lyrics. But I tend to pay attention to the lyrics last, after I digest a record’s textures, production choices, performances, etc etc.
I can imagine that your utilization of “harsh vocals” has both elevated your work to a new degree of accessibility in metal-oriented circles, and perhaps polarized you in the minds of listeners that would otherwise dig every note and texture you pour out. Has the response to these vocals shifted over time? How did you start practicing and developing your own style?
In my imagination, antagonistic responses to harsh vocals from smug rockists (strangely, it’s usually fans of rock and metal who object to the use of harsh vocals), play out like the backlash against Dylan the night he plugged in his guitar in Manchester. Harsh vocals are an extension of music technology; the human voice is like any other instrument. If it suits you, it’s possible to investigate the breadth of sound and meaning any instrument is capable of producing; if you’re not interested in modern musical expressions, you’re always free to hit a couple rocks together — and no one will force you to buy any of Dylan’s post-1966 records.
As I noted above, harsh vocals don’t come across as particularly harsh to me. They don’t sound silly any more often than sung vocals do; nor do they sound “scary” or “evil.” 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. This creates new possibilities at the mixing stage, because the focus of a track can be distributed away from the voice without making the track feel unbalanced. This technique has been useful to me in creating a wall of sound where other elements (drums, for example) can become the engine driving a mix.
That said, I’m not against melodic vocals. I tend not to like melodic vocals as much in riff-oriented music, because they dominate the listener’s attention in a mix, as I described. My favorite “singers” have a similar otherworldly quality to their delivery, a sound that is untrained and raw — Neil Young, or Karen Dalton, or Roscoe Holcomb are great examples). I don’t have a list of favorite harsh vocalists because of that effect I’m talking about — the vocalist is usually not the focus of a composition, so their performance becomes enmeshed in the recording as a whole. Off the top of my head: I love Beherit, in large part because Nuclear Holocausto’s vocals fit the primal atmosphere perfectly. I like Satyr’s vocals because they’re totally devoid of emotion and just sit there like a block of ice atop Frost’s frenzied drum patterns.
I hadn’t seriously attempted harsh vocals on a record before I started recording The Invisible Mountain. It was useful for me to imagine how the vocals might sound, how they might sit in the mix. I’ve found that these considerations really affect the way I approach a performance. Most of my practicing these days is discrete and goal-oriented: I don’t sit down and play guitar scales any more; instead, I try to imagine what something might sound like and practice a specific technique or a specific approach to a performance until I can fulfill that vision. Sometimes this happens immediately. Sometimes I have to work for days before I’m capable of pulling it off.
I’d love to get into the strategies and compositional tools you use to engage your listeners across extended compositions. Do tracks usually take shape and structure early in your creative process? Can you imagine the turns into new textures and levels of intensity before you begin recording?
There’s a constant negotiation between the vision I want to fulfill and the result of any particular recording session. Sometimes I can get the sounds I want; other times the sounds I end up with change the larger vision slightly, or suggest new routes for me to try. I can imagine certain qualities and textures before recording, but I try to allow the ultimate goal a certain ambiguity in order to prevent myself from becoming frustrated or creatively stuck. The compositional tools that come into play are entirely dependent on what is needed to get closer to that goal.
Do the tones you thread into your tracks depend on the juxtaposition against other tones or can they stand alone, under “close scrutiny,” so to speak?
This is an interesting question I hadn’t considered before. On a recording, each tone exists in relation to the other tones present, to the intention (or lack of intention) behind that tone, and to the theoretical silence that serves as a baseline in the studio and also as the result of switching the recording off. Understanding the role of intention and silence in a composition allowed me to appreciate harsh noise and to develop a deeper appreciation for extremely dynamic music like classical or jazz. I personally find uncomfortable juxtapositions interesting (maybe that’s the influence of the surrealist school of painting, which I’m fond of), and I welcome them. Most new juxtapositions are uncomfortable at first, and then they are not. When they no longer feel uncomfortable, that’s when you’ve achieved the “whole.” Was it John Cage who said that, given enough time, you could replicate (or, as a listener, anticipate) any piece of recorded music, no matter how improvised it was originally, or how chaotic it sounded at first?
I admire your goal to derive music that meets your high standards of tonal quality from relatively no-frills instrumentation. Do you ever feel the desire to upgrade your gear?
I would like to upgrade my gear, for sure. It rarely happens though, simply because it’s cost-prohibitive and my means are limited. I try to find ways to make the gear I have work for my purposes. And sometimes I write for the gear I have — I mean, I develop a sound or an approach that I can achieve with the modest means at my disposal. It’s clear the days of having big budgets to make records are over for artists like me, so the strategy evolves. ?The most positive upgrades I have made are upgrades of necessity — when I find myself lacking some specific thing that would allow me to expand in an important way. I still use the same three mics that I purchased when I first started recording music 14 or 15 years ago. Recently I bought a fourth mic because I needed a certain kind of bass frequency articulation that none of the others could deliver and that I couldn’t achieve with EQ adjustments. On rare occasions I venture into a nicer studio for a day or two, but I make sure I know exactly what I want out of those sessions. If I need a big drum sound, for example, I usually record at my friend Nick’s studio, Track and Field, and I get John Crouch to play because he’s a beast behind the kit.
There’s something for me to appreciate in the most lo-fi crust punk record and in Miley Cyrus’ latest single, though I won’t find myself listening to the latter very often.
I wonder what strategies you use on a practical level in the studio to achieve such a full sound. Do your tones evolve and take on new character after the recording process has ended, or do you strive to stay true to the tones as they emerge from the amps, so to speak?
If a big, full-band sound is the goal, I’ve found that the drum sound is far and away the most important thing to get right. An awesome drum sound can compensate for the rest if you don’t have the means to get the best guitar sounds, etc. But it doesn’t work the other way around. A recording will only sound as big as the drums. If there aren’t drums in a track, or a track calls for a more lo-fi drum sound, then the EQ and relative fullness of the other instruments in the mix becomes my first priority. I always try to get the best sounds from the amp, with as little interference from effects as possible while still getting the character I want. There’s an ancient alchemical passion for turning shit into gold — as a metaphor for my own creative process, that’s been incredibly useful.
How involved are you in the mixing and mastering of your material? Do you trust other individuals to stay true to your vision in these processes?
I mix all the Horseback stuff. Mixing is an integral part of my composition process so this is usually a necessity, and a lot of the mixing happens naturally while I work. James Plotkin has mastered the majority of Horseback’s records. He and I have maintained a close working relationship and he knows exactly what I want at the mastering stage, so I’m very confident when handing my mixes over to him.
In the context of your compositions under your birth name, do you gravitate toward different compositional strategies or performance methods?
I’m still figuring that out, but in general I think the stuff under my given name tends to be more improvised and involves less of a persona. Horseback records are meant to access dark parts of the psyche, spaces that you just can’t access as, say, a guy who just got home from walking his dog and is probably going to make a ham sandwich with hummus for lunch. That stuff necessitates a kind of ritual mask in order to engage with the material properly. My work as “Jenks Miller”stems from more traditional approaches to folk music and modern composition. Even so, I find myself gravitating toward extremes in my solo releases; at some point, one approach shades off into the other.
Are there guitarists, bands, traditions, etc., that manifest as touchstones for the Jenks Miller material that don’t necessarily play into Horseback?
Ultimately, Horseback records are highly composed: even if they sound raw, that rawness is intentional. And though they often involve improvisation at an early stage, there’s usually a great deal of editing that goes into making something that feels larger than life or something that feels altogether “other.” So the approach of a player like Loren Connors, who kinda lets it all hang out in order to present something that is naked and beautiful and painfully real, that kind of approach would probably be a bigger influence on my “solo” stuff.
James is great. He’s been releasing his best material over the last few years and he just keeps getting better. I think last year’s Wooden Wand and the World War Four got more plays at my house than any other record. James also happens to have a voracious appetite for new sounds and an encyclopedic knowledge of genres of music I’ve never even heard of. Not to mention, his wife Leah makes a mean soap and I think may also be the world’s leading scholar on James Joyce.
Our split is very dark. James’ side isn’t too far removed from the Wooden Wand record he released a couple years ago called Blood Oaths of the New Blues. I guess my side sounds like a more stripped down Piedmont Apocrypha.