“Music feels like it’s what my life has been about, and hopefully what it will continue to be about.”
JENKS MILLER is an American musician who has managed the rare feat of becoming a leading creative light in several scenes which seem, at first glance to have very little to do with each other. From his personal project Horseback, whose experimental and psychedelic meanderings have helped extend and redefine the notion of heaviness throughout the past decade, to the artful elegance of Mount Moriah‘s American folk, Jenks’ work is always distinctive and unique. Since this year, he is also a part of new project Poison Blood, alongside Neill Jameson, a sort of return to musical extremity, which seemed like a great excuse for The Devil’s Mouth to get to know Jenks a little better.
You play both wildly experimental music and very traditional, old music – it’s hard to imagine what kind of background you had that led to this diversity. How did it all start?
I’ve always played music, ever since I was a very, very small child. I wasn’t in a musical family, but I think for that reason my parents encouraged me to take lessons. I took piano lessons when I was around four years old, and I played a variety of instruments all through my time as a student. I didn’t fall in love with music, at least with playing music, until I was in high school and switched to guitar – I had been playing in the school orchestra up until that point. Then, when I did that switch, it felt like a new world opening up to me. It was much more similar to what I was listening to, as well. Being able to play guitar made me feel more connected to the music I listened to. For the first time, I started thinking that music was something I wanted to have as a major component of my life.
What kind of bands and artists were you used to listening to, around the time you picked up the guitar?
When I was very small, I listened to a lot of oldies rock’n’roll radio stations. I had a little cassette recorder and I would hold it up to the radio and record those old songs. Then I’d pretend I was announcing the records and stuff, that I was a little radio DJ. [laughs] I guess that when I started looking for my own music, beyond what was on the radio, it was definitely Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. When I was in the fifth or sixth grade, thereabouts, I was totally immersed in those bands. Still today, even. I think that, because those bands clicked so early on, I started to investigate heavier music, guitar-based music that used riffs and stuff like that. At first I was looking for anything that sounded like Sabbath, so I was listening to doom bands mostly… I remember back in those days being exposed to some early black metal stuff and thinking it was totally ridiculous. [laughs] I think because it felt… I think it didn’t connect with me at first, you know? I was so used to hearing rock bands that had a beat that you could feel rather than one that was going to be super fast, but for some reason I was so intrigued by it that I’d go and buy black metal albums – this was long before the internet – because they had cool artwork. I’d come home and try to figure out what it was doing. I was still a kid, so I didn’t have any real income, so if I would spend my money on something, even if it was an album that I bought just because it had cool art, I wanted to appreciate it. So I kind of taught myself what the aesthetics were, because I wanted to figure out what it was that was driving the music. That’s kind of how I grew to like black metal, almost like challenging myself to find something I liked about it.
So it was a love born out of morbid curiosity, in a way.
Totally, totally. Like I said, I was used to Tony Iommi riffs, and hearing what, to my young ears, sounded like people trying to play as fast as they could, it felt comical, it felt kind of silly. I don’t feel that way anymore, I love that music now, but coming from the background of Sabbath and blues rock and oldies, it took a while to figure it out.
“I remember hating [country music] when I was a rebellious kid, I only wanted to listen to metal for a long time. But now, I’ve really come to appreciate it, and I’m glad I’ve had that exposure early on.”
Was there a moment when you realised black metal had clicked for you? When you finally understood the meaning behind that silly noise?
To tell you the truth, when I would buy these records, I started listening to them to fall asleep, with the volume turned down really low, so I could barely hear it. I remember listening to Satyricon‘s ‘Nemesis Divina’ that way. I had never heard of the band and I only bought it when it came out because of the art. I remember lying in bed and listening to that album at an incredibly low volume, and it just became this treble wash, sort of ambient music. That’s how I started listening to that kind of very fast music, treating it like it was ambient music, it’s almost like the inverse of how I guess most people think of it, as aggressive music. I think that, because I had that association – I didn’t really know what actual ambient music was, I didn’t know it was a genre –, because that’s how I figured out how to appreciate black metal, I think I almost always heard it that way. Most metal to me doesn’t feel aggressive, it doesn’t feel heavy, I’m more interested in the atmospheric qualities, what’s the recording doing, that kind of thing, and I think a lot of that has to do with the way that I started to listen to extreme metal.
Listening back to your first Horseback records in particular, it makes a lot of sense that you had that sort of perspective of extreme music.
When I made those records, it wasn’t because I was trying to grasp for something new, necessarily. It’s just how I listen to most metal these days, and always have really. There’s only one exception I think, at the time I was also really into Metallica and Megadeth, and to me that was something totally different. Thrash and speed metal felt different, it didn’t have that ambient quality. I couldn’t put on a thrash record really low and fall asleep to it. [laughs]
You grew up in the South, in North Carolina, and whenever I talk to a musician from there, the connection between the region and the musical upbringing is always mentioned. Was it like that for you too, did it inform a lot of your musical personality?
Yes, I think it probably did. And I don’t think I could have even avoided it. When I was really small, the kind of concerts my parents would take me to, as a family, were mostly bluegrass and old time stuff, basically what I think about when I think about folk music in the South. From a really young age, I was exposed to a lot of American folk music, which has a lot in common with European folk music too, obviously. I think that, because I was raised in this region, a lot of the people around me listened to country music, even radio country top 40 stuff, and that’s something that was always around, it was a part of my environment. I remember hating that stuff when I was a rebellious kid, I hated all of that, and I only wanted to listen to metal for a long time. But now, I’ve really come to appreciate it, and I’m glad I’ve had that exposure early on.
Were you in any meaningful bands before Horseback and Mount Moriah?
I was in a band in high school, but it was a typical kind of garage band, a sludgy riff band sort of thing. In college – I went to UNC, in Chapel Hill – I tried to piece together a band, but I never had much luck. I played together with a few people for a little while, but it never materialised to something, and that’s when I decided I had to start to learn production techniques, so that I could just do it all on my own. I think that has been a really slow process. I first had to learn to record and produce music, because I couldn’t find people who wanted to play what I wanted to play, and that was a way of being engaged artistically even though I couldn’t find a band. So doing things on my own has always been a part of my musical practice, of how I think about writing and playing music. After I graduated, I was playing drums in a noise rock band called In The Year Of The Pig, it was like Melvins meets Stereolab meets Lightning Bolt or something, I don’t know. We made one record. Then I started Mount Moriah, but it had a very different line-up than what it does now, I was singing. I’m not a good singer… do you know the band The Silver Jews? It was kind of that shambolic country influence type of sound. Those were a couple of the bands I was in, immediately after college, and stuck with for a long time. Both changed their line-ups a lot, and then Mount Moriah got rebooted a little while later, after I met Heather, who is the present day singer for the band. Horseback was really just a personal project at that point. It was what I fucked around with when I was recording music. It was also related to my early experiences with having a mental disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in this case, it was all kind of funnelled into what became the first Horseback record. But I never intended that to be released, I never thought in commercial terms with that record, ‘Impale Golden Horn’. That record was originally just a way for me to zone out.
“How I got involved with Relapse? A cat asked me!”
So did you write ‘Impale Golden Horn’ pretty much as an experiment, and not really as a record for people to listen to?
It was very much an experiment. The record itself… I’m trying to think back… I think Aquarius Records, back then they’d write about all the cool weirdo music that would come out, and I think they wrote something about it, and that was the first time I thought that there might be some interest in this project. Before that, it hadn’t really occurred to me that it might be a real band at all.
How did Horseback become a proper thing, then?
There’s actually a funny story about how Horseback turned into what it is… One of my friends, Grayson Currin, who is a music writer, he started a label with his friend Brad. He approached me and asked me if I wanted to put out that Horseback album as one of their first releases, and I was like, “sure, if you want to.” I honestly had never thought about it in those terms before, but I went ahead with it. He did that, and then I made a second Horseback record for Utech Records, ‘The Invisible Mountain’, and on the back of that record I actually got a MySpace message, back in the days when MySpace was still relevant. It was from Matt Jacobson, one of the Relapse owners, or rather, from his cat’s MySpace account. He had an account for his cat, and so the message from his cat read “oh hey, do you want to work with Relapse?“, and then I got a second message immediately after that from his regular account saying “oh shit, sorry, that was my cat’s account!“, so that’s how I got involved with Relapse – a cat asked me! [laughs]
So Horseback has evolved from a sort of therapeutic thing you did to help with a difficult situation, to something people admire and…
Hey, let’s not get carried away! [laughs]
I’m speaking for myself, so at least someone admires it, okay? [laughs] So after becoming something else, do you think Horseback still helps you with your balance as it did in the beginning?
I think it does. It did become an essential part of my life, and I think that if I didn’t have that outlet, things would get bad pretty quickly. I think it still serves that role, but I don’t really see it as therapeutic anymore, I see it more as how I’m spending my time every day. Being engaged and doing what you love is so valuable that it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. Even if you’re sacrificing something to do it.
That’s a good thing, isn’t it?
It’s what I do when I’m not at work and not hanging out with my family. I’m definitely kind of a hermit – I spend so much of my time working on music that I don’t necessarily hang out very much anymore. I feel like things are more insular in that way than they were ten years ago. So yeah, it feels healthy, unless I think about what a normal person’s life is like. [laughs]
You produce music that is very different on your various outlets, mainly Horseback and Mount Moriah. Do you have to specifically work to maintain a unique identity to both of them, and for any other projects you’re involved in at any time too?
I don’t think I work at it… In fact, I feel like a lot of the work I do is to try and dissolve the boundaries between what’s seen as separate identities. I feel the projects themselves are different, obviously so, but it feels like they’re part of a whole to me. I don’t feel like I’m wearing a mask. Which, well, is not entirely true either – Horseback has allowed me to engage with darker themes, and so I guess there is a sense that I’m putting on a mask to explore those things, but even so, it’s still related to what I feel is a creative whole. I guess I’ve always just grown up with a lot of different kinds of music, as we’ve just talked about. Even when I was a total metalhead, I didn’t listen exclusively to metal, so it feels natural to me. If I find something that I don’t like, what I do is try to figure out why I don’t like it, and I try to figure out what other people do like about it. To me music is a wonderful way of engaging with the world. It’s spiritual in a lot of ways – it’s how I feel most connected to other human beings, and I think that, for those reasons, it would feel wrong if I tried to just work on a single project. I feel like I would be neglecting a part of myself.
“I remember when I first discovered Swans, I was like ‘metal sucks compared to this!’ I literally sold all my metal CDs.”
Even though a record like ‘Dead Ringers’ is incredibly heavy and affecting in different ways, I think it’s safe to say that you have steered away a bit from the extremity of the first records, up until ‘Half Blood’ mostly. Was it intentional?
It’s hard to say. I don’t feel that I was in a phase when I made those records, because I’ve loved and listened to metal for so long before that, and still do, and I feel those influences are still a big part of the way I feel about music. I think part of it is wanting to explore new compositional methods, and that means exploring different technology and approaches to recording. All of those things inform the sound of a record – the difference between the first and second Horseback records, ‘Impale Golden Horn’ and ‘The Invisible Mountain’, was huge already. I never really felt like the project was meant to be a genre exercise of one kind of another. It was more like experimentation with composition and the elements of sound. Over the years, as I’ve been exposed to different music and been excited about different aspects of the music I listen to, those things end up finding their way into whatever record Horseback‘s doing. And I think that, when Relapse signed Horseback, I thought, well, Relapse is a metal label so I should make another metal record. But at the same time, the Relapse guys were encouraging me to do whatever I wanted. I know they personally love so much different music, and they didn’t necessarily want, or even expect, another metal record. So I don’t know, it’s tough to say – I don’t really try and shoehorn any particular record into a genre, and my appreciation for heavy music is so broad, and not limited to metal by any means, that it feels natural to me for the music to just evolve on its own.
It’s a bit of a cliché to say this, and I’m not putting metal down in any way by saying it, but it is true that some of the heaviest music ever made is not metal at all.
I remember when I first discovered Swans, this was probably when I was seventeen or eighteen, I was like “metal sucks compared to this!” [laughs] You know? I literally sold all my metal CDs. I found Swans and Skullflower immediately after that, and I was like, what was I doing? That stuff feels so silly! I’ve since come around and rediscovered my love for metal as a genre, but I think in that transition from identifying with metal and having that identity capsized by the discovery of other intense music outside of metal, that broke the spell, maybe. It freed me to see heavy music as anything that moved me in that way. So it’s never been about metal. Even with Horseback, the records that people say are metal, they don’t feel like metal records to me. Maybe they are. [laughs]
I think they’re your most metal records, but I wouldn’t call them metal records, as such, either.
Yeah, I get that. I agree.
So, as you said, it’s all part of a whole. How does that work practically, like when you write? Do you put on a Horseback hat or a Mount Moriah hat before you sit down with the guitar, or do you just come up with stuff which later falls into place?
It kind of depends where I am in a record cycle for a given project. When I’m first starting a new record or working on a new project or something, it’s all very free. I’m not committing to a sound or another. That means that I might come up with something and just say “no, this is a Mount Moriah riff“, or it can also happen that I’ll be thinking that I’m writing a Mount Moriah song and it doesn’t work, doesn’t fit, and I have to adapt it to a different project. That’s happened quite a bit. There’s definitely the element of sitting down, and whatever comes, exploring it, whatever it is. But as I get further into the record cycle, the more material I accumulate for a given record, especially if I’ve already talked to a label like Relapse or somebody, if they’re expecting me to give them a record, then I will sit down and write with that hat on, just so I can focus a bit more. But yeah, I like the process to be open for as long as possible, so I don’t have to commit to a sound or another as I’m writing.
And now you have another hat on your hat stand, Poison Blood. Does that also feel like part of the whole, or is that something else?
It feels a little bit separate, it does feel like more of a genre exercise and more directly derived from metal and punk, and goth rock maybe. I think as Horseback moved further away, although in a very organic way, from a heavier sound into more atmospheric stuff, I felt like I wanted to engage more with the aggressive side. And it didn’t really feel that it made sense for me to go there with Horseback. I feel like if that Poison Blood record had been released under Horseback, it would have been the first genre record for that band. It didn’t feel like it fit the project because of that.
So how did you go from that to starting a band with Neill?
I recorded the basic tracks a long time ago, as I was working on the less heavy Horseback records, because when I sit down and play, sometimes what comes out is still a metal riff. Then, I got to know Neill, and kind of on a whim, I asked him if he wanted to do vocals on it, because I wasn’t planning on finishing it under any given project that I already had existing. He was interested, and so the rest became really easy. It’s a different thing, I think it adheres more to genre rules. The influences are pretty clear, I believe, listening to it.
They are, but even so, it’s not an obvious record either. Is it something that you will keep pursuing? Please?
[laughs] Well, we are both interested in making another record, that much I know. I think it will probably happen, but we are also super busy. I think the process would be a lot different if we made another one, because for this one I basically made all the music on my own and handed it off to Neill and told him to do whatever he wanted with it. If we were to do a second record I think it would be a bit more collaborative, every step of the way. I think it’d be fun. Right now it’s hard to consider just because I have a bunch of other stuff that I’m involved in, including having my first kid. So things feel very up in the air, at least up until I can figure all that out.
Congratulations, first of all! And personally I think it’s great that you keep a proper metal outlet. I feel you have a lot to offer to that genre, that might not have much space in Horseback anymore.
Thank you! And yeah, I cannot imagine not playing that kind of music, no. I have always loved it and now I have an actual existing project to do that, so it wouldn’t make sense to start another one, so I think that there’ll be another record, I just don’t know when. The other thing… and this may be too vulgar, or whatever, but it needs to be considered. It’s hard to feel like you’re going to pour yourself totally into any given project because the return on making records is so small these days, financial return I mean. Rather than thinking about it in the old way, where you’d produce a record, put it out and toured it, and you’d recoup your expenses that way… that doesn’t really work anymore. At least it hasn’t in my experience. So it’s hard to think about how you’re going to make these things work financially. I mean, if I’m making a record, that’s time that I’m not at my day job, and that balance needs to be found. In general, that whole process feels much more open and up in the air these days. There isn’t that initial influx of cash there used to be, that allows you to sit down and properly focus on a record. The process becomes more diffuse.
Making a record is not an investment anymore, for any part involved.
I won’t say that making underground metal was ever lucrative, of course. But it’s affected by all those things too. I feel the way the industry works has changed, and the processes have changed a lot too, for everyone. I’m excited about all the potential nevertheless, and my strategy has been to keep my head down and work on music every day, just making it a part of my life, so that no matter what happens in the industry, how far it actually ends up collapsing, I’ll always have something.
Do you feel that has caused your relationship with music itself to change in any way too? Does it ever feel like a chore?
I think a while ago – years and years ago now – I decided that I wanted music to be a daily practice. Writing music, recording, producing records, all that. When you think about how you’re spending your days on Earth, I wanted that to be a major component of how I spend every day. I made that commitment to myself, and then arranged the rest of my life around it. Especially in the States – I know that things in several parts of Europe and also for my friends in Canada are a bit different, there’s more government support for the arts and everything –, because of that reality, you have to maintain a day job, and I’ve worked to find the balance where I can have the time that feels so important, the time to make music, and also time for other things, like supporting myself and contribute to the household since I got married too. It’s a constant negotiation. The music part never feels like a chore. The only time it does is really on tours that aren’t going well, for example, at some point you’ll wonder “what am I doing with my life?” [laughs] But otherwise, it feels very essential to me. It feels like it’s what my life has been about, and hopefully what it will continue to be about.
Main photo by Tom Pitts