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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Horseback Muses Experimental

Jenks Miller is the force behind Chapel Hill's Horseback, primarily powered by the experimental guitar and other instrumentation by Miller and friends. In 2007, Horseback released its latest album, "Impale Golden Horn". I asked Jenks to tell us about his music and his recording label, Holidays For Quince Records.

D: What is your approach to your solo work? Is it mostly improv or composed?

J: Horseback's music is mostly composed, though elements of improvisation and indeterminacy do play an important role in those compositions. Some of the songs on Impale Golden Horn, for example, are based on very simple melodic figures and chordal vamps, with improvised guitar and processed textural elements added over top. The idea was to allow the basic improvisations to grow into their own shadow-melodies, then step back and compose complimentary textural layers that would themselves evoke new melodic phrases. Other songs on that record (like "Blood Fountain") involved more detailed composition work up front, in order to allow for the kind of vocals I wanted, as well as more complex rhythmic structures.

"Approaching the Invisible Mountain", the guitar record released earlier this year, was produced entirely through blues-based modal improvisation. The idea on that record was to maintain a very specific mood and create a ritualized/hypnotic mantra; so the entire thing was recorded in one sitting and mixed very soon after that. The only compositional processes on ATIM involved editing out a couple of shorter, redundant tracks and processing a cymbal swell for the intro to one song.

I'm currently writing songs for a new Horseback record, and the new songs blend the different approaches from these two records.

D: I checked out your list of influences, which is gigantic, but if you had to pick your top 5, who would that be?

J: This is a really tough question unless I narrow it down a bit ... What if I name the 5 guitar players who have influenced my playing the most? That would be Loren Connors, Keiji Haino, Junior Kimbrough, Robbie Basho, and Sir Richard Bishop.

D: What other musicians have you worked with?

J: Heather McEntire (Bellafea, Un Deux Trois and Mount Moriah) contributed vocals to "Impale Golden Horn". Horseback's live shows are all about testing out new ideas and combinations of instruments. Over the past couple of years, the following musicians have participated in Horseback's live performances: Aaron Smithers (In the Year of the Pig, Todos Somos Ninjas): bass, French horn; Jon Mackey (Bells): laptop computer; Scott Endres (Suntan, *Sons): guitar; Bradley Cook (Megafaun, Akron/Family, Cold Hole): bass, laptop computer; Joe Westerlund (Megafaun, Akron/Family): drums, percussion; Phil Cook (Megafaun, Akron/Family): melodica; Dave Cantwell (Cantwell, Gomez and Jordan, In the Year of the Pig): drums, percussion; Crowmeat Bob (Kolyma, Dex Romweber): sax, clarinet; James Wallace (Max Indian, Mount Moriah): drums, organ; Bryce Eiman (Bicameral Mind): electronics, tape loops.

D: Tell us about the 100 guitar performance you were part of. What was that like?

J: Earlier this year, I traveled up to Williamsport, Pennsylvania with the guys from Megafaun in order to participate in Rhys Chatham's guitar orchestra. Rhys Chatham is a minimalist composer largely responsible for expanding the rock-band aesthetic of punk music into the realm of American minimalist composition. His 1980's records (of which "Die Donnergotter/The Thundergods" is probably the best) were a sort of apotheosis for the early punk and no-wave movements in New York, in that they more fully realized the philosophy of "maximum volume brings maximum results" by simply bringing more guitarists to the table. Because multiple guitarists played very basic parts simultaneously, the natural overtones of the instruments rose above the din to create their own sort of melodic haze. Chatham then expanded these ideas to orchestra-sized proportions, perhaps in an attempt to reach the logical conclusion of his concept.

Seth Olinsky (of Akron/Family) offered to host a performance of Mr. Chatham's 100-guitar orchestra in Williamsport, where Seth helps run a music school for high-school aged students. The students themselves made up most of the orchestra, complemented by "professional" musicians that Seth recruited from around the country. We went up two days in advance of the performance in order to rehearse in sections, then had a full rehearsal the day of the show. The orchestra performed a variety of songs that Mr. Chatham had re-worked from his catalog, including sections of "An Angels Moves Too Fast to See" and "The Out of Tune Guitar." We also played an epic version of the Ramones' "Beat on the Brat," which highlighted the close relationship between early punk and Mr. Chatham's own brand of loud. Local music writer Grayson Currin reported on the actual performance for Pitchforkmedia -- his story is worth a look.

D: Are you still working with Holidays For Quince as your label?

J: Holidays for Quince is a locally-conscious record label that I run with Heather McEntire of Bellafea. This year, we released the first EP from Violet Vector and the Lovely Lovelies, as well as debut full-lengths from both Caltrop and The Curtains of Night. I have tried to keep HFQ's imprint on my own releases; both Burly Time and New American Folk Hero were kind enough to allow HFQ to co-release "Impale Golden Horn" and "Approaching the Invisible Mountain", respectively.

D: What are your upcoming plans?

J: I'm excited to be working on a new Horseback record, and in the meantime I'm testing out some of these new ideas in a live setting with James Wallace and Bryce Eiman. Horseback plays November 9th at 4pm on Ross Grady's local music show on WXDU. You can also catch us at Bynum General Store on November 22nd with Electric Bird Noise.

D: What's your favorite Halloween costume of all time?

J: My fiancée wants to go as Hunter S. Thompson this year. She is a beautiful woman with a luxurious, flowing mane, so if she can pull off a transformation into a bald, bombed iconoclast, that just might become my favorite costume of all time.

D: You play some very odd-sounding instruments! What's a shruti box? A tanpura?

J: These are Indian instruments that produce oscillating, tonal drones. An acoustic shruti box is much like a harmonium; I use a programmable, electronic version that's a lot less exciting. It's more like a computer, really.

D: Anything else you would like to tell people about your work?

J: Music is magick! And this quote from Aleister Crowley's Book of Lies is very important to my philosophy on music: "That which causes us to create is our true father and mother; we create in our own image, which is theirs. Let us create therefore without fear, for we can create nothing that is not GOD."

Thanks for that amazing discussion Jenks! Jenks Miller is performing as Horseback on November 9th on WXDU 88.7 (Duke) at 4PM.

Photo credit: Derek Anderson

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