Minimalist Art Form: An Interview With Jenks Miller Of Horseback

Despite being one of the most renowned metal labels around, Relapse Records have never been exclusively ‘metal’. From Amber Asylum’s haunting neoclassicism to the space-age prog of Zombi, they’re a home for all artists who seek to explore their personal limits of sound and musical construction. It makes Horseback’s presence on their roster a natural fit, a project that has gone from minimalist drone and blackened atmospherics to what is presented on Dead Ringers, an exploration of pastoral psychedelia and minimalist electronica as absorbing as any great work of literature. Speaking to mastermind Jenks Miller, we uncovered the meshing of mental cogs that resulted in this curious musical objet d’art.


What were your musical beginnings and how did that develop into Horseback?
I’ve been playing music in one form or another since I was very small. When I was in college I tried to get a band together and I didn’t have very much success so what I did in the meantime was teach myself how to use studio recording equipment so that I could do everything myself. That enabled me to be productive even if I couldn’t organise the more social aspect of playing with other people. The first Horseback record, which I probably started working on back around 2004 and was originally released in 2007, was the culmination of this experimental phase I had which was mainly focused on music production. A lot of it was very personal for me, a way to funnel what I was going through at that time. A friend heard it and he was starting a record label at the time and he wanted to release it, so he put the record out even though I had never really intended for it to be released. It’s more like this personal experiment. That record was Impale Golden Horn and it’s since been reissued on vinyl by Three Lobed and as part of The Gorgon Tongue, which was three records that Relapse released. After that, I did some smaller recordings that were more aggressive and then wound up, kind of on a whim, booking some studio time with a friend and asking a couple of guys that I knew and liked a lot if they wanted to come and sit in with me to record what ended up being the basic tracks for The Invisible Mountain. As I was putting it together, I was talking with Keith Utech, who runs this label out of the Midwest called Utech Records. He’s released a lot of experimental stuff and has a stylised visual approach as a graphic artist, and he put me in touch with Denis Kostromitin, who is a painter from Moscow who did a lot of the Horseback art early on. He did the art for The Invisible Mountain and Half Blood, he did the art for The Gorgon Tongue and New Dominions, a collaboration with Locrian, so that was a really productive collaboration with Denis. Keith released The Invisible Mountain on Utech records in 2009 and somebody at Relapse got a hold of it and asked if they could work with me, and I was excited about that. They reissued The Invisible Mountain, because they had greater distribution, and I think it surprised everyone by doing really well. It caught a lot of attention for whatever reason and that elevated the project to a new plateau. The rest is history. I still have this urge to experiment, both in terms of the creative process and with production methods, and that’s always underlined the project itself. That’s one of the big reasons why there’s not one sound associated with the band – it’s not like we’re a black metal band or a rock band, even. It’s a much more mercurial creative effort. We played some shows on the back of the attention we started to get, but recently it’s been more focused on recordings, because I’ve gotten older and I’m married now, I have dogs to look after, that kind of thing. I’m also involved in Mount Moriah, which is more active on the road and has been for some time, and because of that I haven’t had much touring availability for my other projects. That’s the not-so-brief of how the project started and evolved into what’s happening now.

You typically work on multiple projects at any one time. Is this to offer multiple avenues of expression without ‘cross-contamination’ between them or do you find that the projects actually influence each other?
I think there is an influence between each other. I have the multiple projects because I love so many different musical forms and I don’t like the feeling of being trapped into making a record that’s supposed to sound a particular way. I try and keep the production process very open-ended at the start so that I’m not trying to force things and I can let ideas evolve more organically, rather than trying to write a song that’s supposed to fit a particular genre mould. I found that’s much more artistically satisfying for me and, to me, it’s illuminating. It helps me understand a lot of different kinds of music and having the multiple avenues available allows me to commit at a later time. After the ideas have grown on their own, then I can identify if, say, it sounds more like a Horseback thing. At that point I can start to shape it in that respect, or if it sounds more like a Mount Moriah song or a Rose Cross one, which is the most recent outlet I’ve had. That was because Horseback put out a record called Piedmont Apocrypha in 2014 on Three Lobed and I liked how that one came out, and I wanted to pursue those sounds a little bit more, but it’s not quite as dark. It’s suggesting a lighter path that wouldn’t feel appropriate for what Horseback had been, so I broke off this folk-psych, loose, improvised thing for Rose Cross and that’s kind of the stuff that’s under my name. I like multiple avenues mainly because it keeps things creatively interesting for me, it keeps me from backing myself into a corner with a particular style or sound.

There are elements, not just in the sound but even in the art, of Dead Ringers that is reminiscent of the pastoral psychedelic folk of England, and of its folklore too. Do either of those play a part in the composition of the album?
Absolutely. Folk music is a big part of my life. I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about that kind of thing and I love a lot of folk music, especially Appalachian-derived folk music, which is basically Irish and Scots-Irish traditional music. I like a lot of the folk rock sounds developed by the likes of Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny. I like southern American rock and bands that exist in that tradition like Neil Young and The Band, stuff that’s referred to as classic rock here in the States. I really love a lot of that stuff, and the blues tradition too, that personally I see very evident in Black Sabbath and the early days of heavy metal. All that is really interesting and it resonates with me. I like the challenge of translating those folk music sounds and folklore to more electronically-derived soundscapes. At first they don’t sound like they really fit together, but I think they do in some ways and that’s where Dead Ringers is coming from. The inspiration there is largely the World Serpent bands that were coming out of the UK like Coil, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound, those bands especially along with a lot of post-punk bands and a lot of the folkier krautrock stuff, and Can and Faust. To me, those were the avenues that suggested a meeting of the folk traditions that I’m interested in and electronic composition, like electro-acoustic and what is generally progressive music.

The development of your voice is one of the most striking aspects of Dead Ringers. You’ve said in the past that you view voice more as an instrument than as a narrative tool. Do you feel that has led to you developing your voice in a different sense to that of a more traditional vocalist?
I think so. In the past, a lot of the vocals have carried harsh textures and haven’t had a lot of melody, or that narrative quality that you’re talking about. In a lot of the early Horseback stuff, I was trying to create vocal textures that would blend in with the guitars – kind of a shoegaze-y idea, even if the music wasn’t really shoegaze. A way to make the guitar distortion and the harsh vocal textures fit together. On this record, it has changed a bit. There were clean vocals on Piedmont Apocrypha and I’ve been doing a lot of clean vocals with Rose Cross and I wanted to give it a shot in a Horseback context, where the vocals were almost entirely clean. It’s completely new territory for me in some aspects and it was a challenge. It was something I hadn’t really tried before and I was curious to see if I could actually pull it off. I’m more confident in my voice and less interested in perfection now at this point in my career. I feel like that allows me more room to put the voice front and centre as a very human element. I think that does represent a big change on this particular record. I imagine that will turn off a lot of the more metal fans that Horseback has, but it might excite some other people.


“I like the challenge of translating those folk music sounds and folklore to more electronically-derived soundscapes. At first they don’t sound like they really fit together, but I think they do in some ways and that’s where Dead Ringers is coming from.”

You do have a lot of fans who have come from the metal community and through Relapse, though you’re obviously not a typical ‘metal’ band. Do you think that a lot of the open-mindedness within those communities is a largely recent development, or perhaps specific to certain subgenres?
It’s hard for me to say. I do feel like there is far greater access to different sounds thanks to the internet and so it’s much easier to parse out the different influences and gain an understanding of where these different sounds are coming from. One of the results of that development is that listeners have a much broader taste. There are plenty of people I know that love straight-up black metal, pop music and abstract noise and drone stuff. Just having everything there at your fingertips gives you the vocabulary necessary to figure out what’s being said with these different forms of music. I think there is an interest in new form in ways that these things can come together. That’s true across the board, whether you’re talking about metal fans or any sub-genre of music. That fandom is much broader and that’s certainly true for me. I love so many different kinds of music and while I’ve always identified as a metalhead, as I grew older I became much more interested in learning as much as I can about other types of music, where they come from and what they mean.

One of the terms that I mentally associated with Dead Ringers was psychedelic, in the traditional consciousness-expansion sense. Do you adhere to that term and what does psychedelia mean to you?
I think that’s entirely appropriate. It’s definitely the thing that connects Horseback and, at least, Rose Cross. One of my primary interests as a music listener is to find music that changes my mental state and that you can get lost in; find more layers the more you listen to it. I like when records smash different production styles together. This Heat is a really good example of that, where there are very articulate, immaculately captured sounds that will fall off into really lo-fi textures, and I like that juxtaposition. I think music can get a lot of energy out of that sort of thing. That, to me, is a very psychedelic thing, creating this world of sound and then throwing the listener into a very different world. It creates a kind of mental shift. Also, with bands like Coil and Nurse With Wound, who approach music as the creation of a sound world, there are melodic elements but they take a back seat to that psychedelic sensibility of creating this mental space for you to explore. That’s definitely one of my aims with Horseback and Rose Cross because it’s one of my favourite things as a listener. It’s one of the things I look for.

The ideas of repetition, harmony and dissonance all have ties to that idea, not just psychologically but also in terms of spirituality. Is there an overarching sense of spirituality in your use of these forms of sound?
There’s definitely a spiritual element, but it’s hard to talk about spirituality because it’s so abstract and very personal. It feels like a personal experience to me. It’s definitely there, but it’s not something I would necessarily expect people to relate to just because I feel like spirituality is experienced so differently. But for me, it is definitely there. Music is a vehicle for my spirituality in many respects and so it shows up again and again in whatever I’m working on.

Is there a physical component to your use of these techniques, like how repetition can induce trance-like states? Have you encountered it yourself or has anyone reported those effects?
I try and create that possibility in the music, for sure. It’s also something that, for me when I’m making it, the repetition does frequently take me there. That’s an enjoyable experience for me, that tranceing effect and a large part of my composition process is to access that half-removed trance state, and to create from there. It feels different from day-to-day life’s mental plane. That’s certainly something that I experience when I’m making it and I hope that other people could, if they wanted to, access a similar experience.

I was curious about the final track on the album, “Descended From The Crown”. The composition and instrumentation on that song are so bizarre, very difficult to articulate.
Compositionally, that one hearkens back to the very earliest Horseback stuff, where there would be a strict foundation, usually very repetitive, and I built structures around that. Then, at some points you just take the foundation completely away so that the structures you’ve built around that are suggesting this absence of a well-defined space. All of Impale Golden Horn was created that way. The goal is to define that absence of space with the things that you’ve layered on top of it. With this particular track, it was originally based on a really repetitive improvisational piece that my wife and I did one night, mainly on synths, and then I took that and went back and built around it; again, removing a lot of the elements that provided that sense of structure to make it float more. I do usually like there to be an extended piece on Horseback records that is more transporting, not as attached to an obvious song structure.


“I love so many different kinds of music and while I’ve always identified as a metalhead, as I grew older I became much more interested in learning as much as I can about other types of music, where they come from and what they mean.”

Is all of your work done entirely in-studio or do you make use of field recordings too?
Both. I’ve worked with field recordings a lot in the past, and I do like to work with them. I haven’t been doing as much ‘out in nature’ field recording, but I do try and record a lot of sketches and then sometimes those sketches themselves, if they were recorded with that more voyeuristic field recording sensibility, can serve in the same way as a nature recording would. Flying Saucer Attack are another example of a band that’s using rock band instrumentation, but almost approaching it with a field recording approach. The sounds themselves take on this sense of removal and I do like that a lot.

How did you find working with Denis Kostromitin? He’s an absolutely incredible artist.
I think that he is a modern master. He approaches his work and it is of a certain quality that you have to compare it to other master painters throughout history. I feel he is the real deal in that regard, and because of that he has an attitude that doesn’t really correspond to the traditional record cycle. He’s much more classical – classically trained, classically minded in terms of his approach to painting, and he is a painter. He’s not a record cover illustrator. In many respects I feel lucky to have worked with him on records because it’s not his primary pursuit, it’s not necessarily how he’s trying to get his work out there. His process is fascinating. His creative process involves trances, like mine often does, and he describes himself as a symbolist painter, so he works with a lot of mythology and folklore, which is also what I’m interested in. We had a lot in common in terms of interests and approach. He’s a fantastic artist and I feel he deserves every bit of attention he gets. He should be one of the most famous artists in the world at this point. Maybe one day. He is one of the few artists I’ve worked with who wanted to be involved on that level, where we were discussing the thematic elements and how it was going to relate to the mythology. We were talking about that stuff at the earliest stage of the work, especially with Half Blood. He contributed a lot to the ideas at the heart of that record and the cover image he created was one key that allows you access into the thematic elements of the record. Most illustrators and painters will take your idea and run with it, but he wanted to be very active in developing the ideas themselves. I liked that. It was challenging and very rewarding.

Is there anything else you have coming up apart from the Horseback album?
There’s a Rose Cross record that came out last month on Three Lobed that’s called Blues From WHAT. That’s still out there, trying to find listeners. I’ve been working really hard these past couple years trying to get a number of records finished and one of those was the Mount Moriah record that came out at the beginning of this year. Another was the Rose Cross record and the third was the Horseback record, so this is going to be the last one in a very busy recent release schedule for me. Beyond that, I’ve been working on another Rose Cross thing, Mount Moriah’s been writing songs and with Horseback, the writing process is often very abstract and not something I sit on specifically to do. It’s often very hard to judge progress with that band.

Words: Dave Bowes – Dead Ringers arrives on August 12 on Relapse Records.
You can also read the interview here:

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