Jenks Miller has been working on Half Blood, the new LP from his prolific metal hybridizers Horseback, for several years—at least since the heavy music titan Relapse Records added the Chapel Hill musician to its roster. His 2009 LP, The Invisible Mountain, earned Relapse's attention, resulting in a contract, a reissue and a swell of positive press bigger than Miller had experienced. The label, obviously, wanted its follow-up.
"Originally, Half Blood was going to be like a companion to The Invisible Mountain," Miller says. "It traced the hero's journey toward self-actualization and tried to undermine it in a couple of ways." Several of Miller's works involve explorations of enduring, often-mythological themes of self-discovery; he references the Alejandro Jodorowsky film The Holy Mountain, Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Star Wars to explain the protagonist of his own work.
Following these models, Half Blood takes place after the hero's apotheosis. (For Lucas fans, that's when Luke accepts that he has some of his father in him.) The character comes home and tells others about what he or she has learned: "If we imagine a protagonist involved in this record," Miller explains, "then Half Blood is about that character seeing the impurities in him or herself and being able to accept them."
On this warm spring afternoon, Miller is one of many people soaking in the sunshine outside of Carrboro's Weaver Street Market. If there is a stereotypical image of an extreme noise artist or experimental metal musician, Miller isn't it: He's soft-spoken and unassuming and, in his modest Western shirt and weathered jeans and thick sideburns, he looks more like a student of traditional Americana than someone who used to fall asleep to harsh Scandinavian black metal records.
Indeed, Miller's oeuvre is very much that of someone side-stepping ready labels; outside of Horseback, he co-leads the graceful country band Mount Moriah, following stints in pop acts like Un Deux Trois and loud-music militia In the Year of the Pig. Half Blood itself alternates from trance-inducing Kraut-metal with harsh vocals to long-form psychedelic sprawls, dodging classification as neatly and naturally as Miller himself.
"My own writing process involves so many different styles," he says. "I mean, it's not stylistically pure. It's not a metal record; it's not a noise record; so it's kind of almost a statement of purpose. This project is a hybrid. It's not meant to be one thing or the other."
Before the release of The Invisible Mountain, Miller had been incredibly active locally, playing as a member of several area outfits. A few years ago, he began trimming that number back so he could focus on Horseback and Mount Moriah. Yet he soon found himself just as busy as before, recording constantly in his two remaining projects. In the last two years alone, Miller has been involved in at least eight releases as Mount Moriah or Horseback.
Miller sat down to talk about the stack of music between The Invisible Mountain and Half Blood, though he insists they're not a road map from one Horseback LP to the next. "The way I think about it is, all these records could have been made at any point," he says. "I try and resist the idea that there's any sort of linear pattern here."
Linear, no, but there is a pattern, and it's hard to think Half Blood could cover so much ground—and do it so well—if Miller hadn't stayed so busy honing his craft. He mentions the styles he loves as pillars beneath a whole, not stopping points along a journey. "These things exist like a constellation almost; they're in three-dimensional space," he says. "And I'm somewhere in the middle drawing on them."
So maybe think of these releases as squares in a quilt: The longer Miller's been at it and the more stitches he's learned, the better he's become at incorporating different techniques to create a stimulating whole. Understanding Half Blood almost demands that we step back and view the rest of the quilt.
(2010, Brave Mysteries)
[This unsettling study in hard noise initially saw a very limited cassette release.]
That one I did before Invisible Mountain was even out. After I finished Invisible Mountain, I had all this energy left. So I put my head back down and did Forbidden Planet. It took a long time to be released, but it was recorded in the month after Invisible Mountain was done.
Jenks Miller and Nicholas Szczepanik
(2010, Small Doses)
[A long-distance collaboaration with Chicago musician Nicholas Szczepanik, this LP pulls at the boundaries of pretty, adding touches of distortion and squelch to beautiful hymns of hums.]
Forbidden Planet was done, and I was sitting on it a long time, over a year probably. In that time, Nicholas Szczepanik and I did American Gothic. His other stuff is much more abstract, electronic drone. I think he liked [the first Horseback LP] Impale Golden Horn, the more dronescape-y record, so we started collaborating with that in mind. It started to take on this really austere, spooky quality. A lot of the things this project does kind of take on that spooky, David Lynch-ian quality.
I've still never met him in real life. We were just passing tracks back and forth, which is how the Pyramids thing was done, too—passing files back and forth online. Once we had what we felt like was a consistent full-length record, we started looking around for cover art. One of the pieces that he suggested was this photograph one of his friends had done of this kid standing in that Halloween costume. Nicholas also had the inside art, like the ceiling of a Walmart or something. But it's in a black and white picture, so it looks really creepy. You've only got the ceiling, so it almost looks like alien architecture. It had this strangeness but it was also indicative of American culture.
Horseback & Voltigeurs
(2010, Mutant Ape)
[Black metal and harsh noise meet one another in two very different forms from two bandleaders who share similar visions of artistic adventurousness.]
Voltigeurs is a side project of Matthew Bower of Skullflower. Skullflower is one of my favorite bands. I've loved them forever it feels like. I had been in touch with him years and years ago.
The original idea for the cover art was that we were going to trade visual art, mail it back and forth, which we did. They did watercolors, and I did ink. We would each create some basic abstract image, send it across the ocean, and then the other person would finish it. It was very disconnected, but that made it cool. I think the original idea was that we were going to have a bunch of art prints accompanying the 10". At the last minute Matthew found a different set of images he wanted to use instead, which means those collaborative pieces are probably going to come out on some collaboration or something down the road.
Horseback & Locrian
[Two like-minded bands went into the studio to improvise and emerged with a record that pushes against several sonic classifications—drone, metal, noise and myriad subgenres of them all.]
When Locrian came to town for Hopscotch 2010, we were supposed to play at the same show and then [Horseback drummer] John [Crouch] broke his hand. Another band played in Horseback's spot. The Locrian guys stayed with me, and the next day we went to Arbor Ridge Studios. Jeff [Crawford, studio owner] just lent me the keys, and we just went into the studio. We just did a session that was probably six hours, and then they went back to Chicago. That was all entirely improvised. I spent a few days editing those performances together into something that made sense.
I really like Locrian because they have a very open, improvised kind of approach to their recording. If you're both working in the same place, it's easy to go into that same place and find a direction, whereas it would be impossible if it was groups of people that didn't share that vocabulary.
[Gorgon Tongue collected the harsh Forbidden Planet and the early, much more soft Horseback LP Impale Golden Horn into a single reissue.]
Half Blood was taking me a lot longer to make than I thought it would, so there was this widening gap since Relapse reissued Invisible Mountain. I wanted to give them something to release, and it bought me some more time. This put a record into that album cycle so the band wouldn't sort of fall off the map. It made those records actually available, and they weren't before. The advantage was it further emphasized that Horseback just wasn't this one thing. The fact that those records are out there and very accessible prevented me from having to make a record that was exactly like Invisible Mountain.
(2011, Holidays for Quince)
[Mount Moriah's recent success in the Americana world is analogous to Horseback's in avant-metal. Their debut record is a restrained, stately look at love and loneliness in several different forms.]
It's actually hard for me to remember now when we started that record, but it had been done for a year before it came out. We must have started that in 2010, probably about the time that Relapse was signing Horseback; all the reissues and the press that I was unaccustomed to started happening. We spent a while on that record. So we recorded it, we shopped it around before deciding we just wanted to release it ourselves. And then my attention really shifted to that band because we were doing a lot of touring on it.
Horseback & Pyramids
A Throne Without a King
(2012, Hydra Head)
[Recorded by shipping files back and forth across the Internet with Texas musician R. Loren, A Throne Without a King again represents a step into metal's higher ranks for Horseback, as it was released by California's Hydra Head. "Thee Cult of Henry Flynt," Horseback's non-collaborative track on this largely aggressive noisescape record, is unexpectedly quick and punishing.]
That really was the fastest Horseback track. Usually when I sit down to make a new recording, there's an element of "Can I do this?" I'm wondering if I can achieve this, and I hadn't tried a faster track. It was hard for me to do, hard for me to pull off because usually I think in slower grooves and not particularly fast guitar playing. I like guitar playing with lots of open space. Neil Young is a guitar player I really admire—also Richard Thompson, people who are able to do more with less. I wanted to see if I could swing the other way and cram as much information as I could.
The challenge for me was to fit it in that same psychedelic rubric, which a lot of black metal has, which is what the beginning of that track really is drawing on. When I was much younger, when I was a young metalhead, I would fall asleep listening to black metal records. I would turn them to a low volume, and more than any of the riffs you just heard that layer of treble buzz—drums so fast they became a blur, you know? It would put me to sleep. My interest in drone and ambient music and new music came from that practice I was engaged in as a kid.
On the Eclipse 7"
(2012, Brutal Panda)
[The title track here suggests the strangest alchemy with heavy-groove drumming, a sweltering organ theme, menacing vocals and a repetitive guitar riff surprisingly played on an acoustic guitar.]
Those two tracks were things I was trying to develop my skills for Half Blood. They're not really related, exactly. They were tracks I was working on at the same time to explore that particular style. The B-side to that 7"—the beginnings of that track—were very old, so I revisited it. The edges aren't as sharp, not as blunt. It has more a padded, celestial feel. I don't want to lose that in Horseback's work. I want it to be harsh and confrontational, but I want there to be elements of light in there. I want those things to exist.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Steady actualization."