Horseback’s The Invisible Mountain is one of the most interesting albums to come out this year, blending genres as diverse as black metal, noise, post-hardcore, and country into an amalgamation that defies conventional labels. One of many projects of Chapel Hill-based musical mastermind Jenks Miller, Horseback is definitely a band to keep on your radar.
Verbicide was thrilled to call and pick the brain of Miller, the creative force driving Horseback, and in doing so, explore some ideas of what music and creativity are all about.
How did Horseback first come about, and what sets it apart from the solo work you’ve done under your own name?
Well, it didn’t start out completely as a solo project. In 2004 I started doing recordings as almost a sort of…I don’t want to say “therapy,” because therapy is maybe too strong a word, but it was a way for me to channel some essentially self-destructive sorts of behaviors into this kind of meditative music. It ended up being therapeutic in that [I could focus] my OCD symptoms on this productive and creative task, rather than [have them be] disruptive in my life. So that was in 2004, and I actually didn’t really intend to release anything.
It was just work for yourself?
Yeah, but it kind of took on its own identity over time, and the record that resulted from that was called Impale Golden Horn. I’d been working on these songs and one day stepped back and said, “Hey, this could be a record.” I’d been playing with lots of other bands [and] I definitely felt like I was part of a scene, so it wasn’t too hard to make that shift.
Where does Horseback now as a band fit in with all your other projects? You’re playing drums in Year of the Pig, and guitar in Un Deux Trois and Mount Moriah?
As Horseback has gotten more attention and sort of become more my primary focus, I’ve had to divert more of my attention to it. I was with Year of the Pig, this kind of noisy Kraut-rock and crazy psych band, for over five years and I just recently, in the last few months, had to back out of that. Un Deux Trois is on hiatus now because both Heather, who is the songwriter in that band, and I are busy with other projects. That’s kind of like a pop band, that I play drums in actually, and then Mount Moriah is kind of this alt-country band.
What changes when going from collaborative work to solo work? Is that a hard change when it comes to songwriting, or is it just something that feels right for you?
It definitely feels right, the solo stuff. Horseback is more collaborative now, even though a lot of the songwriting I just do by myself, but I’m working with people to get a live lineup together that can play the songs from The Invisible Mountain. So in that sense it’s collaborative, it feels really natural.
I think collaborative work is a lot easier in some ways. It’s harder because dealing with people is always a challenge. When you’re doing creative things [in collaboration] you have to negotiate ideas, but in terms of the time involved, I think the collaborative things tend to be a lot faster because you have somebody else playing another instrument so you don’t have to worry about what that other instrument is going to be doing. Somebody else is bringing this other idea, so things can happen, a song can come together a little bit quicker –whereas working solo it’s kind of a trial and error thing. I’ll start with an idea and work through that idea hoping it will give birth to a composition of some sort, but it doesn’t always work.
How do you figure out the point where something stops being a riff on its own and starts becoming more of a song?
Well, sometimes it can be hard to know when that point is. I think that sometimes something clicks and it really comes together, and it’s undeniable, but sometimes it’s just a constant struggle to make it work. The thing about [writing] solo is, I love music so much and I’ve been involved in music, listening to music, and playing music my entire life, so the solo thing feels very natural to me. I just like doing it. Instead of doing other things with my time, It’s what I do. I have my job and I have a girlfriend and a dog, but in my free time I am recording music. So in that sense it’s very natural feeling.
Do you have a particular process that you go about when you’re writing music, or is it just a [matter of] sit down and play whatever comes to you and then build from that?
It’s more the latter. There was a point when I would always sit down and try to write a guitar riff. But…I guess I wanted to start challenging myself, so while I still do that sometimes, I like to start from other places. Even trying to come up with a rhythm, and have the rhythm be the foundation.
In the past, everything has sprung out of the guitar, but for The Invisible Mountain, for example, for the first three tracks it was much more about the bass. [I based] the first three tracks on these repetitive sort of monolithic riffs, and wrote them on a bass with a particular drum part in mind. It was very much about that combination, a rhythmic foundation. I wanted to have this very repetitive sort of hypnotic effect, which involved coming up with the entire rhythmic foundation at once. After recording that, I went back and wrote the guitar parts over it. So that was a change for me, because usually the first step would be to write the guitar riffs, but it was kind of backwards.
And then the final track is more sort of expansive and abstract in some ways. [With the final track] there was never a time when I was, “Okay, here’s the main guitar riff.” It was much more about trying to evoke a certain mood, like tinkering around with processing and just throwing different instruments together until I felt like it was conjuring the right sort of thing.
I have a quote here from a reviewer, and he says: “In interviews and press materials, Miller has stated his mission, influenced by the films of Alejandro Jodorowski, to use music as a means of achieving self-actualization, to journey toward some sort of self-discovery…” Could you elaborate on that?
This kind of gets into the more conceptual basis of that record [The Invisible Mountain], and where the project is currently. It did start out, as I said, as a therapy for this very personal issue that I was experiencing at the time, and then as I got a handle on that, the thematic element shifted. So it was then more about taking my own personal identity and finding out how that fits into a society that I increasingly couldn’t really relate to. I found that once I’d been diagnosed with OCD, and been through all that, it was really hard to communicate what I was going through with people. It’s even hard to articulate now, something that’s such a central part of your day-to-day living experience, is impossible to relate to somebody else because it’s such an abstract thing. Unless you’re going through it yourself it sounds ridiculous and bizarre. So in the years following that, I was kind of forced to evaluate where I was in relation to the people around me and so the artistic side was very much involved in those kind of questions.
Do those themes appear in the lyrics also?
Yes. One of the things I’m interested in is mythology and comparative mythology. And Jodorowski’s work is also, and he’ll bring in mythological elements, and all of his movies are based on the idea of “the journey.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with any of Joseph Campbell’s work, but he was a scholar who devoted his life to finding the common elements among different mythologies and religions. He had an influential book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he tried to present a single what he called “monomyth,” which is sort of a pattern that all myths take on.
Is it similar to the book of literary theory [The Seven Basic Plots]which argues that all stories can be broken down into seven basic types?
Yes, it’s very similar to that, except he would go even a step further and say that there is only one type. And it’s still kind of a radical thing, and I think it has a lot to do with literary theory because what he talks about is the hero’s journey. And so it’s very much about tracing the actions of the protagonist.
For example, [Campbell] would say that [the hero’s] pattern is this: The hero is given a call, or receives a call — I don’t mean like a telephone call, but a call to something else. In this case, it draws him out from his day-to-day life and out of the society he’s comfortable with, into the world beyond that; kind of beyond the village walls, so to speak. Here, [the hero] is confronted with obstacles from the outside world, which force him to come face-to-face with things he doesn’t understand. Joseph Campbell called this “the Other.” And, eventually, through some sort of conflict — and it could be a violent conflict, but violence in a metaphorical sort of way (like metamorphosis, not blood and gore, necessarily) — through some sort of violence and metamorphosis the hero has to identify himself in the Other. Usually this is termed as “apotheosis,” which is that crucial point where that identification takes place. The hero recognizes himself in the Other. [Many] times this is based in terms of becoming one with the father, because you kind of reject what your father teaches you, you go out into the world, and eventually you have to find a way to reconcile your paternal influence with the things that you’ve come across.
So your upbringing versus your life experience?
That’s right. And that’s what The Invisible Mountain is about, that first part of the hero’s journey. I’ve recast it in terms of self-actualization, and I kind of bastardize the psychological theory of self-actualization to fit into this framework.
I think, personally, that metal music as a whole really likes that mythological process, that concept. I think you can find a lot of elements of that in metal from satanic sort of themed metal, where it’s all about positioning the individual in relation to society as a whole and achieving individual power, that kind of thing. Or, from that to more politically-driven metal like Napalm Death, trying to reconcile the individuals place in society, kind of throwing off the negative influence of corporations, something like that. I feel that these are themes that metal, and mostly metal, take on in a very direct way. That’s one of the reasons I like metal, because it has a mythological element to it.
The [other] part of the mythological journey, the second part, is the return. This is the part that a lot of metal isn’t too involved with, because it’s not exciting. It’s where after gaining knowledge of the outside world the hero comes back to society and has to reintegrate himself into society with this new awareness and spread his wisdom essentially.
What do you think makes it unexciting for metal, or what would be a way to make it exciting?
Well, that’s why I’m trying to find a way to make it exciting, because I think it’s actually important. I think it’s not exciting because it doesn’t have any of the violence of the first part. It’s not so much concerned about conflict as it is about reconciliation, so unless you cast it in the proper light it seems kind of lame, and there’s not as much symbolic power in it. I think that because it doesn’t have that element of conflict, you can’t attach as many things to it.
Does it become less significant then?
No, I think it is actually equally or more significant, and here’s how I’ve kind of made it relevant to me: I think it’s more significant because, even though we may have this mythological understanding and be involved with these stories that give our lives sort of an enhanced or higher level of meaning, it really helps. I love the mythological imagination because it really helps you determine what the possibilities are for your own life, for your identity as a human being. It kind of connects you to history, to these larger narratives that have been a part of history forever. But at the same time, you have to live with other people in the material world right? And I think the problem that a lot of metal has is that it gets stuck in the mythological understanding–
And it can’t return to the real world?
Exactly, exactly. It can’t find a way to return and share that mythological understanding; share that knowledge, in a way that’s relevant to other people. I feel like it’s missing a very crucial part because of that. So here’s kind of an example of what I mean:
I read a lot about Satanic people who use a lot of Satanism in their music or you read about [practitioners of Satanism] and they’re talking about the Satanic rites, or something and it’s so real for them and they live it everyday — and I understand what they’re talking about, but I feel like it has limited appeal. It is a choice that they’re making, and it’s this abstract thing. For most people, that’s ridiculous. For the world at large, that’s ridiculous. The effect that it has is almost to sell a product to a certain group of people who have already bought into that, whereas I think the greater challenge would be to translate what the experiences are, translate the knowledge that you have gained beyond the genre you are in, beyond the subculture that you appeal to already.
I would argue that a lot of hardcore music tries to do that but fails. Like, it tries really hard to bring ideas to the table but it can never seem to get them outside its immediate circle. Do you think that there’s something there that metal and hardcore as genres can have some kind of a dialogue?
Yeah, I think so. I think there’s almost, for better or worse, a stigma attached to people who want to bridge those two genres. I think that’s because the “metalcore” genre has become so commercialized, at this point, but I think that what you’re saying is very interesting and I actually hadn’t thought about it from that perspective — but growing up with punk and hardcore music, I think you’re onto something.
I think that part of the reason it fails is maybe because it becomes a really dogmatic thing. [With] hardcore, you live by a set of rules, and it’s all material, it’s all how you are operating in the material world; you know, justice and anti-racism — which I totally see as valuable lessons — but there’s no flexibility there, you can’t grow and change within that strict dogma. Maybe you can — and I’m just thinking aloud about this for the first time — but maybe it’s because there isn’t a mythological element, because the mythology is all about placing that material reality in a continuum, in a process.
In my own experience with punk and hardcore, I was really into those ideas, and then they seemed to lose relevance as I grew up. And because of that, I feel like you’re totally right, there is a lot of potential there, there just needs to be a way to translate those same ideas to someone outside of that exact circumstance. I’m not such an angry young man anymore. So the constant really aggressive sort of experience of hardcore just doesn’t seem as relevant to me anymore. I feel like I miss that; I miss being able to relate to that. I used to be vegetarian, and be really militant about those ideas, and I’m not anymore. I don’t have any interest in that, and I can’t relate to somebody who thinks that their own personal view has to be “capital T True.” I just think that you experience enough of the world and that dogmatic understanding of life doesn’t seem to be relevant anymore.
It starts to lose its luster over time?
You’ve been talking a little bit about past influences on music and your life. Talk for a minute about both musical influences and some of your non-musical influences and how they end up in your music.
Musical influences are so varied. I love sound. It feels weird to talk about, because people say, Oh, they love everything, and they really don’t. I like finding things to like about music. To me, it’s a way to challenge myself. Usually, if I hear something, and I don’t like it, I’ll sit down with it and try to find out what it is I don’t like about it, and why, and see if there’s a way in.
An example of this that ties directly into one of my biggest musical influences is the band Swans. I remember years ago hearing some of the early Swans records — and they’re just really, really repetitive and heavy and very monochromatic; they don’t have any dynamic variation; there’s no hook, there’s very little melody, and it’s just so hard to get into them — and I hated it at first. But then there was something about that reaction that kind of wormed itself into my consciousness, and over time I was like, Okay I must be missing something, what am I missing? So I went back and I spent time with the sound, I spent time with those records, and now they’re some of my favorite records. I found my way in, I found a way to relate to them, and now that’s a huge influence. Swans would be one of the biggest influences I have, probably.
So, similar things have happened in a lot of other genres. I really love noise music because I love the textures of the sounds. That was something I had to learn; I had to learn that appreciation. So, for example, Skullflower is a really big influence on me. A lot of their stuff is extremely abstract, kind of guitar drones and guitar noise, but again, it was something I had to almost teach myself to appreciate. A lot of people have drawn a comparison to Earth, and that’s definitely there, and Om, and that’s definitely there.
I really love Americana and country music, and so a lot of the guitar parts on The Invisible Mountain I played with a Telecaster, rarely associated with metal — it’s more like a country guitar, but it gives a kind of a twangy sort of resonating, cleaner sound. So it’s really just trying to find the things that these different kinds of music have in common. I’m never interested in blending genres haphazardly just for the sake of it, but I think that there are really strong elements that all music shares. I think that finding those things and working with those things on a really basic level can be really satisfying.
So, it’s almost like trying to find the unifying theory in physics?
Sure, and it’s not to say that you ever will. In physics, you peel a layer away and it works for awhile, and then whatever theory you’re working with runs up against a wall, but it’s like that process. Trying to find a basic form, or something that resonates the furthest.
So what is the future of Horseback? You mentioned earlier that you’re trying to form a live lineup to tour?
There is a lineup in place now, and we’ve been rehearsing. Live [performance] is a totally different thing. The experience of playing live is so different than recording, so it’s almost like it’s own project. One of the reasons I love recording is because you can control every aspect of it. You can control every element of the sound. There’s a learning curve associated with that. When you start out recording, you don’t necessarily know how to control everything, but eventually, over time — after you learn the technology and you learn the properties of sound, and the role an instrument serves in an arrangement or a composition — you actually do in a very real way gain the ability to control everything that’s happening in a recording.
Live, that sense of control is nowhere in sight. No matter how hard you rehearse or whatever you do, there’s always the chance that you’re going to get to the venue and you’re going to plug your shit in and it doesn’t work. Your amp blows out, or something breaks, or the room you’re playing in sounds terrible and nobody is into it, or the sound guy has no idea what he’s doing, and it sounds like shit. I mean, that’s always a possibility, and so because of that it’s a very different experience. The performance element in some ways is enhanced because of that. Because of that excitement, it’s much more in the moment, it’s uncontrolled, it’s more raw, and because things can go wrong, there are levels of excitement to live music, and I appreciate that. It’s like learning a different sort of skill, I think.
Who’s in this live lineup that you have?
The drummer is John Crouch, he plays in a band called Caltrop that’s also from Chapel Hill. He played on The Invisible Mountain, and on a couple of tracks of the new record that I’m working on for Relapse right now. The other guitar player is Nora Rogers, from The Curtains of Night, which is a two-piece sludgy, crusty doom band. The bass player’s name is Nick Peterson and he plays in a band called Monsonia which has more of a Touch and Go post-punk sound. These people are all my friends, and I’ve seen their bands so many times, and hung out with them so much, that it’s very much a project among friends which is cool.
Would you say that the vibrancy of Chapel Hill as a scene has really helped your music a lot?
Probably in some ways, [but] in other ways it’s been very challenging. Even though Chapel Hill does have a very vibrant music scene, for along time — up until the last five years or so — it’s really been identified only with a particular sound. Kind of like the Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Polvo, sort of college rock, noise rock, punk sound. And I really love Archers of Loaf and Polvo, I think those bands are great, but for a long time that’s what Chapel Hill was. Everybody in Chapel Hill that was into music was playing that sort of music; everybody who was a fan of the Chapel Hill scene was into that sort of music, and so there wasn’t a lot of room to do anything else. It’s taken along time to change that. There have been some great bands from here that have been working really hard for years — I think partially because of how Chapel Hill is identified, they haven’t really gotten any attention.