Stasis, it seems, is never an option for Jenks Miller. With the adventurous kind-of-metal outfit Horseback, Miller stretches strains of noise, black metal, doom and blues across albums that play like ominous expeditions. Even in the more restrained country-rock of Mount Moriah, Miller’s guitar offers a sense of adventure, itching to stretch beyond the genre into new territory. Various experiments under his own name have explored harsh electronics, subtle drones and folk-rock mutations.
So it should be little shock that Miller, never one to idle, recently announced two forthcoming releases. The first, a three-CD collection of Horseback rarities called A Plague of Knowing, arrives Aug. 20 via metal powerhouse Relapse Records. It collects limited vinyl releases, live cuts and new material Miller says will help fill the gaps between Horseback full-lengths. The second, Spirit Signal, is an improvisational collection to be released under Miller’s own name by the experimental New York label Northern Spy on Sept. 3.
Recorded earlier this year, Spirit Signal finds the usually meticulous Miller embracing his improvisational impulses, with six pieces that were each developed, recorded and mixed within a single day. The cover, a photo by local artist and WXYC DJ Julianna Thomas, was taken during a period of dense fog in Chapel Hill, at roughly the same time Miller was recording the album.
You can download “Through the Fog” in exchange for an email address:
Or just stream it:
We caught up with Miller soon after he ended a tour with Mount Moriah to talk about compiling Horseback's one-offs and how he's developing a distinct solo identity apart from Horseback and Mount Moriah.
INDY WEEK: How was the tour with Mount Moriah?
JENKS MILLER: It was pretty good for the most part. There were definitely some odd dates in there, for sure. But I really like Jesse Sykes' music, so it was great to see her play every night. That was fun.
I got kind of bombarded the other day with news of two new releases Spirit Signal on Northern Spy and then A Plague of Knowing on Relapse. I guess you've been pretty busy.
Yeah. Well, the Relapse collection has been in the works for a long time. I actually thought it was going to be out in the spring. I was trying to stagger them, but that never really works. It was totally coincidental that they were announced on the same day.
What was the process of compiling all this material for A Plague of Knowing?
A lot of Horseback stuff was originally released on very limited vinyl editions, like Turgid Animal 7-inches, a 10-inch, a couple of splits. All of that stuff got underway before there was any demand for the records not that there is now, but there's more than there was then. So it made sense at the time to have these extremely limited editions, because they didn't sell quickly or anything. But then once people started caring a little bit more, suddenly those things were unavailable, and I wanted them to be available for folks. For a long time I've wanted to put together a big collection of all the limited vinyl releases on a digital format so they're available for everyone. I think they also fill in a lot of the gaps between the full-lengths, so they help complete the picture or the history up to this point.
I also just used the opportunity to try and clean house. There are a few tracks that hadn't found a home yet, so I put them on there. And the very final track, which is kind of the title track, is this very long, kind of exhausting psych loop with noise guitars over it the entire time. And that was because we would have ended up with a CD with a 40-minute live track on it and I wanted there to be something else on there.
I haven't even listened all the way through to that track because it's so brutally intense the whole time, but I think having it on there sort of, I don't know ... there's something about moving the goalposts for myself. I like trying to sort of undermine a record, inside the record. I don't know if I can articulate it well, but the whole thing just felt so exhaustive, capping it off with this really long, repetitive trance track felt appropriate.
Brendan Greaves wrote an essay for the liners for this, so that's on there, too. That's exciting. He's an amazing writer. He's my neighbor, so we've talked about having him write something for Horseback for a while. You know, we trade records and stuff. So this seemed like a good opportunity for him to do that, to try to provide a context for these very disparate sounds. There's a lot of different forms represented on this collection.
A lot of those limited releases and earlier material seemed to be moving in sequence. Does compiling it change the way they might be received? Is that intentional?
It's intentional. I kind of imagined being able to do this as I was making those tracks. A lot of those splits and 7-inches and smaller records represent me trying out a new approach to composition or using a new tool that I haven't used before. So I kind of saw them as filling in the space around the full-lengths and connecting them in very vague ways but also standing on their own in terms of the way they all sound. They're more lo-fi than the full-lengths. So having them all together, I think, makes sense just from a sonic view.
And leading into the second release, coming out in September, how do you differentiate what you release as Horseback and what you release under your own name which is also quite varied and obviously coming from the same mind if not the same approach?
I'm sort of feeling that out. Right now, it's not a formula, it's more of a feeling.
You might've already heard the stuff that's on that record. That was available very briefly on my Bandcamp page before Northern Spy expressed interest, so then I took it down because it would have just watered down their release. The original idea behind that, though, was to do a more immediate, improvisational series of recordings that took a journal format. All the tracks on that record, they're in these blocks where I would sit down and write and record, or improvise and record, and then mix these blocks of tracks in a single day, like a snapshot.
It's actually been really rewarding for me, because they feel very raw and energetic and vital. And I want to have an outlet that feels a little bit more raw with more room for improvisation, because by the time I finish a Horseback record or by the time Mount Moriah's records are done, I've invested so much time listening to this stuff I kind of never want to hear it again. Just because you stare at something long enough, it gets kind of burned into your mind. So I wanted to have an outlet that's a little more raw; I didn't want to overcook it.
I have some ideas. I'm already thinking of ways I'm going to sort of undermine my solo approach and try to create something new with that, so we'll see where that goes. Right now, though, it's just more of a feeling.
I also feel like Horseback, despite my best efforts, kind of gets absorbed into the metal genre, and that's fine, but it also means that despite my best attempts to keep it weirder than that, it feels like it's been pigeonholed a little bit, so I wanted a little more flexibility.
Comparing this solo album, which had kind of an extemporaneous process, with Approaching the Invisible Mountain, which was also more improvisational, it seems like the solo releases have that more in common than Horseback, which you'd talked about in terms of its meticulous process and full composition being therapeutic for you. Is that where the divide between these projects lies?
I think so. I think that definitely gets at it. There will still be those elements in whatever I do, but I think Horseback will be darker and more abrasive, and I think there's going to be a little more room for improvisation and lighter colors with the solo stuff. There's still some abrasive stuff on the new solo record, but there's also more of a modern composition thing going on, too. I'm excited about exploring that a little bit more and seeing how those modern composition approaches respond to this process.
I did a solo show opening for Chuck Johnson. I've also been working on some tracks that are more composed but have some room for improvisation, so I'd like to explore that a little bit more, and I actually think that's going to serve to connect Mount Moriah and Horseback. Some of it is folky sounding. Some of it is heavier guitar sounds. Playing so many shows the past couple of years, I just feel the need to have this more improvisational outlet. Those are the shows I enjoy playing the most. They feel very exciting to me still. So to have that as an outlet is increasingly important to me.
How did your relationship with Northern Spy develop?
Northern Spy is a new label. They released some Loren Connors stuff, and I really love Loren Connors. And they were also releasing a Rhys Chatham record around the same time that he came and played Hopscotch. Rhys Chatham and Loren Connors are two of my longtime favorites, so I was curious about what the label was doing and I sent them those recordings and they jumped on them. It seems like a good fit for this record.
What's next on the to-do list?
There are some things I can't announce yet, but I am working on a new Horseback record for Three Lobed, and far off in the future there's going to be another Horseback record for Relapse. Both of those will represent departures, to some extent, from the metal identity. In fact, the record I'm working on for Cory (Rayborn, owner of Three Lobed Recordings), I've been working on for a while, and it's partially what inspired me to want to develop a sustainable solo identity and project. It's suggesting a new place to me. It actually doesn't even really sound like a Horseback record, it's a lot more subdued, and it got me really excited about the prospect of doing something a little bit different.