Band mastermind Jenks Miller goes deep on recording techniques, dark nights of the soul, and his Appalachian roots.
Photo courtesy of the artist
The cover of Horseback's new album, Dead Ringers, suggests a kind of twisted folk metal. On this latest effort from North Carolinian Jenks Miller, a skeletal Lady Godiva meets a Grim Reaper on a white eight-legged horse while various medieval manuscript dogs—one totally cut in half and bleeding appropriately—cavort in an otherwise idyllic landscape. Graced by that kind of imagery, it'd make sense to assume that Dead Ringers would recall one of Miller's early efforts, all howling voids and black metal-inspired blur and rumbles, yet Dead Ringers is something else again—an inversion of the visual art expectations, something which Miller described to me initially as his "Factory Records tribute."
Drawing on the creative tone of both now-canonized post-punk classics and the deeper realm of experimentation that also surfaced at that time, all in reaction to punk's own sonic self-limitations, Dead Ringers also feels modern from the start. The nervous stuttering pulse and buzzing whir of "Modern Pull," Miller's vocals providing a cool, calmly distanced perspective, sets an uneasy but still beautiful mood that the album carefully explores, from the near beatless feedback and tonal layers of "The Cord Itself" to the quarter hour conclusion, "Descended from the Crown."
Noisey is happy to present the premiere stream of Dead Ringers in full (out Augut 12 via Relapse). Miller spoke with us via email in detail about his work, his process for this album, his Appalachian roots, and much more besides.
Noisey: So you'd mentioned to me this was kind of your post-punk tribute, or early Factory or something along those lines. Was the album always conceived that way?
Jenks Miller: I knew this record would foreground Horseback's electronic and post-punk influences. 2014's Piedmont Apocrypha somehow wound up recalling both Horseback and [Miller's other band] Mount Moriah. I hadn't planned it that way, but ultimately I decided to pursue that loose, krauty, psych-folk direction more thoroughly. That's what Rose Cross NC has been doing, more or less, with the Music for Snowdrifts cassette on BaDa Bing! and most recently with Blues from WHAT.
With many of Horseback's folk elements siphoned off into Rose Cross NC, I had a chance to reinvent the project again. The sound still had to be dark, but I wanted to work with new textures and push into less obviously aggressive territory: I try to keep things as open as possible in the first stages of making a record, so those were the only guidelines until the sound revealed itself.
There aren't a lot of guitar riffs on Dead Ringers. Most songs are built on rhythmic motifs, which are sometimes sequenced and sometimes performed live, but usually have electronic and acoustic layers. Joy Division, New Order, This Heat, Suicide, Coil, and Nurse with Wound have always been an influence on Horseback. On this new record those influences are really front and center. There's something about the moment when early electronic music started bleeding over into punk that still feels very eerie and unnerving to me. Almost wrong. That's where Dead Ringers is coming from.
Saying you sound "comfortable" with your voice and performances through the album might be a stretch, but building off my previous question a bit, there seems to be a strong emphasis on clarity throughout—lyrics are sometimes understated but still audible, guitar parts and general arrangements aren't shrouded in murk. Is that a fair way to consider the album?
I think so. I'm never entirely comfortable with Horseback's records, but that's kind of the point. I always try to include elements that threaten to undermine a record's foundation in order to destabilize both my own creative process and the listening process. A sense of discomfort, lack of balance, or surrealism is present on most of my favorite records, regardless of genre. I think this is a big part of what gives those records an otherworldly quality -- in the best cases, it makes them feel dangerous, as if they have the potential to transcend their mandate to entertain and become profound.
And you're right, there's less distortion and noise and murk on Dead Ringers. It's still there, but it's been relegated to the background. Production choices probably had more of an impact here than any larger concept did. Synths can sound uncannily clean and "big" because they aren't mediated by the acoustic properties of the room they're recorded in. They may deprive your performances of a certain lived-in quality or soulfulness (for lack of a better word), but in exchange they give you incredible control over every sonic detail.
The use of electronics ranges from strict sequenced rigor to open-ended jamming, sometimes both in the space of a song. Did you find it easy to experiment in this fashion? Is this something that's always been more of an element than people might recognize?
The trick was learning to layer acoustic sounds over the sequenced stuff in a way that complemented what was done "in the box," but that still felt organic and imperfect and alive. This kind of electro-acoustic approach is something I've experimented with on every Horseback record, to some extent, but the early material was never sequenced by a computer. In most cases, the earlier material was performed live in small, obsessive, repeated musical gestures meant to challenge own my limits as a performer. [Horseback's] Impale Golden Horn, for example, drew on Philip Glass' Music with Changing Parts and Music in Twelve Parts, which are live performances but have a perfected, pointillist quality that sounds like electronic music to my ears.
Until recently, I didn't want to allow a computer to take over the rigorous repetition at the heart of a lot of Horseback's music. It felt like cheating! And mind-numbing performance is a big part of what I've been after here. On Dead Ringers I wanted to use repetition in a slightly different way. Minimal electronic music and dub (The Moritz Von Oswald Trio, Rhythm and Sound, The Field, Coil, etc) showed me that it's possible to use sequencing techniques to develop what are ultimately very organic-sounding compositions.
What equipment in general do you favor, and what recording environment, studio or elsewhere, do you look for? What on the technical side in general is important to you which a lot of listeners may not otherwise realize?
I like gear that's simple and does one or two jobs exceptionally well. As a guitar player, I'm always trying to simplify. I'm not very fond of modeling gear or amps with complicated effects circuits, and I don't have a lot of experience on different kinds of equipment because I think ideas should drive the kind of gear you use and not the other way around, and music equipment is expensive. I still use the same handful of mics I bought when I wanted to teach myself music production almost twenty years ago, and I don't own any fancy microphone preamps or outboard gear. A big part of my process is figuring out how to achieve the sounds I want with limited means, and there's a lot I'm not able to do on my own. I don't have the mics—or the room—I would need to get highly detailed acoustic drum sounds, for example. If a record needs a huge drum sound (which was the case for my albums The Invisible Mountain and Half Blood), I work with my friends John Crouch—who is a monster drummer—and Nick Petersen—who is a sick engineer—to get them. More often than not, I rely on James Plotkin's ear to touch up a recording in its final stages. I try to stay flexible, work within my limitations, and collaborate when needed. I'm not after perfection. I do enjoy AC/DC, Judas Priest, Archgoat and other bands that have devoted long careers to perfecting their version of a single style. But that wouldn't be an appropriate course for a project that's about evolution. The next record will probably start with curiosity about how to create or destroy some imagined sound, and go from there.
Technical stuff is only interesting to me as a means to an end. The record producers who continue to inspire me (the list would include Holger Czukay, Martin Hannett, Delia Derbyshire, King Tubby and Daphne Oram, among others) were really working with ideas; the specific pieces of gear they used were secondary. Those engineers could produce an interesting record on any gear you'd give them! But if a producer's approach relies heavily on, say, a single expensive compressor to color each element of his or her sound, then it's not so interesting to me.
For a lot of people I think they use alternate projects and names as a chance to showcase other sides'of their art, but it seems like Horseback evolves by default even while you're doing numerous other things. Was this conscious, or did it just happen — is Horseback all of you, creatively, or just a reflection of you at any one time?
Horseback has always been about investigating dark aspects of the psyche, then harnessing the fruits of that investigation for the work of personal transformation. It's a tool upon which to stage a sort of psychodrama, so it's fundamentally performative, even if it's often performed alone. It's not real in the same way that daily life at home with my wife and our dogs is real. It is the hermit's equivalent of animal masks and goat's blood, or maybe an aural adaptation of Jung's Red Book. In this sense, it's never truly a reflection of me—it's only a vehicle. If the project didn't evolve as a matter of course, it wouldn't have much utility to me any more.
As far as my creativity is concerned, Horseback represents only one small area of interest. I consider it a piece of a whole.
You've spoken eloquently and passionately about your Appalachian background in numerous contexts, personal and political. Without being reductive or essentialist, is what you do with Horseback a kind of response to assumptions that Appalachian art and artists must always be one way, or fit a preconceived notion of what kind of art comes from that area?
I'm interested in a mythologized version of the American South that seems to run counter to the dominant narrative about this region. So much of history and identity is in choosing the things we talk about and the things we leave out. Like all contested areas, this place is a crucible: any attempt to tell its history with a single voice is doomed.
The self-imposed isolation, fear and tragic ignorance of the Bible thumpers have worn so thin, something's going to give. It always does. Today, what we're experiencing here in North Carolina is a last-gasp, reactionary attempt to maintain a status quo that rotted away decades ago. I'll do my own part in imagining the future, but I think the larger point I'm interested in is that the "New South" isn't really new. There has always been a part of this place that resists fear and ignorance, that works tirelessly to keep it at bay, that turns its lead into gold. It's not even so hidden! It's right there in our history, we just have to listen properly.
The South doesn't only represent backwards thinking, prejudice, and prolonged injustice. It also represents change, trial by fire, the messy stuff of transformation. We reap the whirlwind here, of a "past not even past." We'll all have to wrestle with similar challenges sooner or later. A world at our fingertips promises that. We can decide to be larger than ourselves.
Ned Raggett is heading South on Twitter.