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.
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.