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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Interview - Horseback's Jenks Miller

As I've said in my review for Horseback's Half Blood (and maybe even in the On The Eclipse EP review as well), Jenks Miller is easily one of the most creative minds in underground American music. Despite how much Horseback is referred to and takes influence from metal music, it is so much more than that. Jenks was kind enough to let me ask him a couple of questions and here are the results of such.

Ian: First off, thanks for agreeing to do this. I hope you are doing well. How are you feeling since the release of Half Blood?

Jenks: Great, thanks Ian.

Ian: Getting right into it, you've said that Half Blood explores the theme of monomyths (among others), and the idea of someone or something being reborn and transcendence after a climactic downfall or disintegration. With Half Blood acting as the new vehicle/body for what was first The Invisible Mountain, do you see yourself continuing with the theme of rebirth in a following release, or at the very least returning to some of the ideas you presented on these two albums? (hopefully that makes sense)

Jenks: Yes, your question absolutely makes sense. The theme of rebirth is very important to this project as a whole. If you were so inclined, you could find elements of rebirth and transcendence in each of the records. I try my best to instill each record with a sense of self-contained unity (even if the formal attributes within a particular record might vary wildly), so that each one has its own narrative arc or life-cycle. The disintegration you’re referencing is not necessarily synonymous with a downfall; I’m more interested in motion that might be characterized as a dissolution into a new, multi-faceted and revelatory consciousness. I don’t see that as a negative trend.

Ian: Going off of the last question, you've ended both albums with songs that are far different from the rest on the disc, do you see this as a way of closing a chapter of what a certain album may represent or more of a way to represent the deconstruction of a being/concept in music form?

Jenks: Both, I suppose. A part of my creative process involves pairing seemingly unlike elements so that they threaten to undermine each other (or at least complicate a straightforward reading). This unlocks new possibilities and helps me imagine a path that the work might take in the future.

Ian: How do you morph philosophical ideas and concepts into music? I know for this record you've said you've taken influence from hermetic alchemy, evolution, and (Persian/Roman) mythology, what was your process for turning them into Half Blood? Does an idea come first or a riff/pattern?

Jenks: This is an essential part of what record-making means to me, but it’s not always an entirely conscious process so I can’t talk very coherently about the details. I can say that attaching a larger relevance to the work I’m doing as a musician (which work is often a very alienating, and moreover involves compromising a vision in ways I can’t imaginable at the start) helps carry each piece through to its realization. The music and the conceptual elements grow up together and start to resonate when a work is complete.

Ian: You've said in the past that you've taken influence from the likes of Fred M. Wilcox's film, Forbidden Planet, as well as films from the likes of Alejandro Jodorowski and Andrei Tarkovsky, were there any directors or films that you would say directly influenced the making of Half Blood?

Jenks: The artistic careers of Jodorowski and Tarkovsky (and I would add David Lynch), including their visions and methods as well as many of the films they produced, have had an enormous influence on the way I think about making music. It’s probably something to do with the way these directors explore the unconscious using an abstract or associative vocabulary.

Ian: I guess this might be a silly question, but is there any instrument or sound that you wouldn't use in a song? I know you've used everything from guitars, pianos, vocals, bells, etc. to create an end product, but is there anything that you would never use?

Jensk: Ha! No, it’s not a silly question at all, and no, I wouldn’t rule out any sound as a potential source. Thus far I’ve avoided sampling other artists’ recorded music, but if I’m getting the thrust of your question, you’re asking about using raw sounds themselves. A few years ago my girlfriend brought home a refrigerator magnet with John Cage’s quote, “Begin anywhere.” I’ve found that to be good advice.

Ian: What is it about cyclical patterns that appeals to you (in terms of riffs, concepts, etc.)? How do you write guitar/bass riffs, or drum patterns?

Jenks: Cyclical patterns quickly put me on the edge of consciousness, in the sort of trance state I’m often shooting for when writing or listening to my favorite music. A clearly-defined, linear melodic structure usually feels too obvious for this project; linear structures can come across as ham-fisted or formulaic, like the piece is trying to lead the listener by the nose to a comfortable and well-trod resolution. That’s really not what this project is about. My own taste has turned toward music that creates a less-defined/liminal space, music that requires a bit of effort from me as listener if I want to make sense of it. So that’s also what I try to create.
The rock-band arrangements usually start with a rhythmic pattern, a drum and bass groove. I usually keep those rhythmic elements at the forefront, rather than drowning them in heavy guitar sounds.

Ian: You mentioned in one interview that you prefer to play in open tunings for finger-picking and easier access to droning notes, do accidents in performing something lead to new ideas for you?

Jenks: Oh yes, absolutely! This is critical.

Ian: How much of a role do your vocals play when you're writing a song?

Jenks: Usually they’re the least important element, and come last in the writing process. In heavy music especially I prefer vocals that are more textural (“harsh”) than melodic. This allows the other elements of the arrangement to take on an extra importance or weight.

Ian: Horseback was first introduced to the world through the Impale Golden Horn cassette, back when you were crafting that album as well as when it was first being released, did you ever foresee the project moving into the directions and realms that it since has?

Jenks: Impale was originally released as a limited CD in 2007 (Forbidden Planet was first pressed on cassette by Brave Mysteries in 2010). I can never see exactly what the next record will look like, but given my own tastes and interests I probably could have given you a general idea. I’ve invested a lot of time over the years listening to and/or researching metal, modern composition (what a lot of people are now calling “drone” or “noise”), improvisation, and Americana, so those influences are usually present on each record in some combination.

Ian: As most people know, you have a country project called Mount Moriah. There are clear references to country music in some of Horseback's riffs, do you see any link between metal (more specifically black metal) and country music? If so, was the link an obvious one for you to draw comparisons between and later combine in Horseback (because I have yet to hear another group put the two together)?
Jenks: It’s all just sound as far as I’m concerned. Too much attention to one genre signifier or another inevitably leads to the stagnation of that genre. The more music I hear, the less I want to pretend that music genres distinctly defined... The links have always been there, we just have to decide to see them.

Ian: I remember reading in another interview you did that your first introduction to extreme metal was through Incantation's Onward to Golgotha album. Does death metal have any influence on Horseback? Do you ever see yourself releasing an album that is closer to death metal than the likes of black or doom metal in the future?

Jenks: Yes, Onward to Golgotha was my introduction to extreme metal as a kid. Before Incantation, the most “extreme” music I knew was Metallica or Megadeth. Golgotha was first record that made me want to expand my conception of music, so it is probably responsible for ultimately pushing my interests further and further into abstraction and towards free-form and textural/noise music. I still love a lot of death metal bands.
But would I ever make a death metal record? Probably not unless I were playing in a collaborative project.

Ian: Both the re-release of The Invisible Mountain and now Half Blood were released on Relapse, but you've done numerous smaller releases on more "underground" labels (Brutal Panda, Turgid Animal, Brave Mysteries). What is it about these certain releases that makes you put them out on these smaller labels instead of Relapse? Do smaller formats (EPs, splits, etc.) make it easier or harder to write material for?

Jenks: It’s easier to write material for smaller formats. Shorter, more limited releases allow me to try out new approaches to composition and audio engineering without engaging in the hugely expensive (in terms of money, time and energy) process of making and promoting a full-length record. I will probably always want to do smaller, more limited-format releases, but I also intend to collect this stuff for wider release when it makes sense.

Ian: What do your solo albums provide you, in terms of inspiration or ideas for sounds, that you don't get from your other projects?

Jenks: Complete control, mostly. And the freedom to focus an obsessive amount of time on a particular sound or performance or arrangement. Under these conditions, an idea can be realized without compromising with other people’s ideas (though I’m not saying that compromise is never desired). One idea can also lead to a dozen more ideas, which can be explored immediately while they’re still fresh.

Ian: How much does impact does improvisation have on your music (of any project)?

Jenks: A huge amount. Like you mentioned before, it’s usually the accidents that lead to the most interesting riffs, rhythms, textures and melodies. I always try to work a lot of improvisation into writing and recording. This is especially true for Horseback because there are few formal constraints for Horseback records.

Ian: Do you find it easier to create material on your own or when jamming out with others? How does your creative approach change when working with others, either through writing for a live setting or in a collaboration?

Jenks: It’s much easier to create material on my own. But a more collaborative approach can be desirable, too. The two approaches are vastly different, almost like two different art forms. Working with other people involves an additional layer of interpersonal communication and compromise. This can be a real challenge; for many bands, including some I’ve been involved with in the past, it becomes such a challenge that the actual creative process is neglected. But in the right situation, with the right band, it can lead to an exciting sort of synthesis that affirms multiple creative visions at once.

Ian: What's coming up next for you and your various projects? I know there's a four-way split coming out soon for Handmade Birds and there was talk a while back of a collaboration with William Fowler Collins, is there anything else or any updates?

Jenks: Besides the releases you’ve mentioned: Three Lobed Records, an avant/psych label run by my friend Cory Rayborn here in central North Carolina, is planning to release Impale Golden Horn on vinyl this year. I’m currently working on a new record for them as well. New Dominions, the Horseback & Locrian collaboration released on vinyl last year on Utech Records, will see a wide release on CD and digital formats before long. And I’ve started to compile some rare, out-of-print and unreleased Horseback material for a collection that would also be available widely.

Ian: Well that's about it from me, thanks for letting me interview you. The last words are yours.

Jenks: Thank you, Ian!

By now I shouldn't have to tell you that Horseback is easily one of the best groups I've encountered recently and every release continues to up the anti in quality. If you're one of the few who hasn't heard them yet or has just ignored it due to hype, do yourself a favor and listen to any record, you won't be disappointed.

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