Interview: Amebix’ Rob Miller
When Amebix disbanded in 1987, Rob Miller started an entirely new life. Penniless and saddled with a broken arm, Miller retreated to the remote Isle of Skye, off the coast of Scotland, to forge a new path. He sold his gear, found a simple place to live and began the hard work of learning how to make ancient weapons. In the ensuing two decades Miller has become one of the most accomplished swordsmiths in the world. His business, Castle Keep, handcrafts Viking swords, medieval blades, and custom weaponry.
As his sword-work became sought-after, his long dormant musical career also became the stuff of legend. The Amebix albums Arise! and Monolith are considered benchmarks of anarcho-punk music. Neurosis guitarists Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till have said that Amebix was as important in their musical evolution as Pink Floyd or Joy Division. And the digital age has, thankfully, made these albums available for a new generation.
Miller was busy with his new life when a DVD project rekindled Amebix. Reunited with his brother and guitarist Stig, and new drummer Roy Mayorga, Amebix wrote and recorded Sonic Mass, a deeply spiritual album that draws on myth as much as it does on metal. Miller talked to us about the similarities between sword making and music, and why the heroic journey is missing in modern life.
— Justin M. Norton
Your other bandmates have been musically active in the many years since Amebix broke up. You’ve gone on and had a whole new career and life. Did you just jump right back into music after decades?
I wasn’t playing anything or any contemporary music. When I came up to Skye I sold off all of my old equipment – a bass guitar, an amp, and a stack. In exchange I got an acoustic guitar. I pretty much disappeared and burned all of my bridges. All I had was an acoustic guitar. I was living in a caravan at the edge of a loch with the wild winds of the winter. I was teaching myself basic guitar chords, singer songwriter stuff. But I had no contact with any music from the punk or metal genre for the better part of 15 or 16 years. I wasn’t interested in looking back. I had clearly redefined my life and was getting on.
Why did you move to Skye and uproot and change your entire life?
I was at the end of a relationship. I’d lost my home and my relationship with my kids. I was living on floors in Bath. I had a motorcycle and a job in a sheet metal factory, and that was it. I worked a night shift and was dying a slow death. I had no creative outlet whatsoever. At the end of this time I had a motorcycle accident and broke my arm. Things gelled around that point.
I found myself with absolutely nothing. My bike was trashed, the only clothes I had were torn to pieces. I had a broken arm and was walking around Bath in the middle of the winter. I had this personal revelation because everything was gone. I was somehow happy and content with my life with everything stripped away. All that was left was the potential for something to happen. This fell into place. I had six weeks off work to heal and decided to go visit my folks in Skye. I came up here and licked my wounds.
When I arrived I sort of had a “why not?” moment. Why not do something else with your life? You don’t have anything and you have nothing to lose. It was like a full stop, a very potent end to an earlier time. It was a change of perspective, a chance to change absolutely everything. So I did. I reinvented my entire life.
How old were you when you had the accident and epiphany? What was it about Skye that appealed to you and led you to stay?
I was about 27 or 28. I guess I liked Skye because it was diametrically opposed to my old life. It was also a return to the country. There was a sense of space again. I was coming out of a claustrophobic environment, relationship and job. My future was funneling down to nothing at all. There was suddenly a much more expansive view of life. It was like coming to a place of awareness, an ability to turn or walk anywhere.
In Scotland, we generally don’t have any trespassing laws. What struck me about California were all these “do not enter” signs and dogs behind fences near the redwoods. In Scotland I can stand in the middle of my yard and face any direction. It was just the idea of being literally, completely free to pursue anything I wanted. It allowed me to let things that were supposed to happen to come in, on my own terms.
What were the early days like in Skye?
To start, I had to work in a hotel in the evening. I became a waiter. I worked during the night, and during the day I started building a small forge. I’d practice my craft and read books and dream of making swords. I needed to come to grips with making a living. But the thing about being here with no great personal responsibilities was that it didn’t take a lot to do that. I had a lot of free time. I studied a lot and applied a lot of what I learned to sword making. I also spent a lot of time just walking everywhere and hiking and learning about the land, absorbing nature. I healed a rift from all the years in Bristol and Bath, all the years without any relationship with the Earth.
It’s interesting you say that because a lot of people say Amebix’s music is all about a connection with something larger than life, something outside the mortal world, something transcendental. Yet when you were writing the music you were in an urban environment. Was part of your music a yearning to get back to nature?
I don’t know if that’s case. It’s a good proposition. While recoding Sonic Mass, things started to really click in the country out in Derbyshire. We’d been out there seven or eight days. We were in a cottage owned by my friend Finn’s uncle. We settled in and there was a sense of being back in place, being in the environment from which Amebix draws a lot of our archetypal energy.
Stig and I were country kids. We were raised, born, and lived in the country. We always had an open response to our environment. It was as essential as breathing, being able to feel the Earth beneath your feet. Without being too fucking hippy about it, it was like feeling a sense of place in history. There are places all over this land where you can do it. It’s like plugging in, like getting a guitar lead and plugging into the ground.
When I think back to British myth, there’s always that sense in the great stories, going back to Arthur and Excalibur, about a connection with the land.
I started thinking more about Excalibur after working for a little while as a swordsmith. I was absorbed in a study of myth and esoteric subjects. The Arthurian story is one of the prime mythical cycles. It was approached differently, from Tristan and Isolde all the way to Tennyson.
What occurred to me was the central motif of the sword and the stone. So many people take it literally, like Disney, this young king grunting and pulling at a sword. I started to understand that it was more about making a sword and what that meant to the medieval mind. That became prescient. It was like a riddle. What I thought it meant to draw forward a sword from a stone is the person who could take iron ore out of rock and smelt it. In the sixth and seventh century when the real Arthur was probably around, the greatest technology was the person who could use steel, could harness steal. Anyone that understood the primal magic of how you make steel would be the master of the tribe, would be king.
In the Arthurian myths there’s also a sense that Arthur and the land are one. When he loses his sense of connection to nature is when the kingdom goes to waste and he needs to reclaim the Grail.
That’s quite right. Going on the quest is about reconnecting after being involved in the egotistical pursuits of starting a kingdom. When we lose our connection with something more primal there’s something you need to rediscover. You could use the Christian motif of the Holy Grail, the Celtic cauldron or other stories throughout time.
Was what you did after you left music a quest of your own?
It was, although it wasn’t a conscious quest. It was something I was driven to do. The manifestation was going into this peculiar line of work. It opened my mind to all sorts of different things and helped me come to terms with what happened before. It was like Skye was a wall between me and all of the stuff that had come before. I didn’t think about my past and didn’t return to it.
How did you learn to be a swordsmith?
It tied in with my interest with mythology and esoteric stuff. I just had the time to read and absorb and gain knowledge I didn’t have access to before. I hung out with guys who had similar interests and Celtic-themed stuff. One of the discussions that came up was, “Wouldn’t it be great to make a sword?” And I thought, why not? It was before the internet, so I had to write a lot of letters to bookshops, and find out who in the world was doing this. I studied and built a little forge. The sword is such an outdated idea for us as civilized people. But it’s one of the very few symbols that resonate with everyone in the Western world.
What was the most important thing in your swordsmithing education?
A book called The Complete Bladesmith by Jim Hrisoulas. In a very methodical American way he put out a book that showed you a hammer and anvil all the way up to building elaborate Japanese swords. He showed the ground level right to the level of aspiration.
What did Amebix mean to you once you got on the new path?
I found it a bit spurious at times. I took a lot of negativity from the experience. It just left a bad taste in my mouth, knowing we had poured our heart and soul into this and it seemed like no one listened. I couldn’t make sense of it. I couldn’t understand how you could paint with your own blood and people wouldn’t see it [laughs]. I guess a limited number of people did. We really did give it everything we had. I thought we were meant to do this, meant to be manifesting these feelings through music. But then it’s just like, “Here is the end of it and you’ve fucked up.” I think we just ran out of steam after ten years of banging our heads against a brick wall, trying to get things across.
Did you think your music was destined for obscurity? Were you surprised when Arise! became an important record?
I don’t think we imagined that it would have any life beyond that time. I thought it would get buried. The only reason it didn’t was the advent of the internet, this new way of communicating with each other. People go grave digging for musical corpses [laughs]. They try to find what came before. There’s a perennial quest for what came from what. It’s like the person who discovers Joy Division after being into dance music for half of their life. It’s nice when people find their roots. The internet allowed people to make that voyage and rediscovery.
The members of Neurosis have always been vocal advocates for your music, long before you decided to make another record.
I didn’t know anything about Neurosis. I remember getting in touch with Alternative Tentacles in the late ’90s to find out what happened with the record we put out. The woman working there was Steve Von Till’s girlfriend. She said “my boyfriend is a big fan” and wanted me to get in touch. I thought Neurosis just sounded like some rock band (laughs). I got in touch with Steve, and what a lovely guy he is. He’s such a calm and measured person. Scott [Kelly] as well. The video contribution they made to the Risen project, I felt a real sense of connection. It’s nice when you get people who are grown up talking about you who have also gone on their own journey.
What were the formative years of Amebix like, in the late ’70s and early ’80s?
There are two distinct periods. There are the pre-Bristol days and the post-Bristol days. In the first part we were growing up in Devon and had the band as a bit of a laugh. It gelled into a darker band when other influences arrived. Devon was where we grew up and we felt at home there. We had an opportunity to go to the deeper side of ourselves but didn’t have the musical literacy to do it.
We thought things would open up in Bristol, there would be more opportunities. We were offered chances to record and release new albums, but we also had to basically be homeless for four years. We were always being thrown out of one place or another while thinking about band stuff. So, Devon was the birthplace of the spirit of the band and Bristol was about finding a way to make music.
It was desperate times, a lot of frustration and anger. When we came out of Bristol and went to Bath is when we released Arise! It was more cohesive and allowed us to establish a sound.
There’s this huge dichotomy when you look at the pictures of you from the early days. People probably expected you to sound like The Exploited. You were making music that was nothing like that.
[laughs] We did look like punk rockers, and were involved in that scene. Punk to me was about doing your own thing, a freedom to express yourself. Even though we looked like punks, we still believed in musical freedom. I don’t think we understood the desire to conform, how strong it is, even in cult groups. It’s peculiar how uniform people get when you become part of a club. But we’d grown up with artistic freedom and the literal freedom of the country. We were about “fuck that – we need to do our own stuff.” We wanted to make art, have a constant evolution of creative ideas. Anything else is playing to the choir.
How did you decide to get back together?
We got involved with a fellow who was doing a retrospective on the British anarcho-punk scene in the ’80s. He asked if I wanted to do something with Amebix. I’d been collecting press clippings through the years. I knew there was a lot of conjecture and rumor about the band because of the internet. I thought I’d find a way to put that all to rest. I did that by talking about the band.
I went to Northern Ireland to go through the editing. The emphasis changed from showing some clips of the band and talking about it to being interested in the band again. It was an extraordinary path that led me to where I am today.
The way to write a story is a beginning, middle, and an end. We really didn’t have an end for this story. This fellow came up with a proposal for me, Stig, and Spider to play some songs. But Spider couldn’t play because he has tinnitus. I’d been in touch with Alicia [Morgan] from the band 13, who’d been encouraging me to get in touch with [drummer] Roy Mayorga. I’d listened to his work and his film scoring. I didn’t know him from Adam, but thought he was an interesting character. When I got back from the last editing piece I got an email from Alicia with Roy’s phone number. She’d been out of touch because of Hurricane Katrina.
All you can do is pay attention, like I did with the bike accident. The universe presents you with opportunities and says, what are you going to do with this? I decided to give him a ring and asked him to come from the States to re-record songs. I arranged to get him over here. The apprenticeship for the band was making your own sword.
I hadn’t played a bass for 20-odd years. It was odd when we got together and everything just went click-click-click. It was like everything was set up for us. After we recorded the first track the doors started to open. We were being led in a certain direction.
There was no hesitation when you plugged in together?
You’d think there would be. At first the goal was just to finish this DVD project. We instead found ourselves with stuff on our hands that made us ask, what it would it would it be like and why not?
Everything on Sonic Mass arrived in its own time. We recorded in three places when Roy was off the road, when we could all meet in the same country. We recorded bits and pieces and it became apparent that there was cohesion. We just needed to work at the narrative. It was like picking up a jigsaw puzzle and putting it together in the right sequence. There was an awareness after that we’d gone on a psychological journey. All true art should have a transformative affect on the viewer, listener, or reader. The person must be changed. Having put Sonic Mass together, I realized that’s what we had done. We’d changed. We didn’t consciously set out to do that but we were given all the tools to make it work.
Was Sonic Mass intended to be a full stop on an old story, or a new narrative?
It was the first time we’ve had the means to articulate the ideas we’ve had all along but haven’t been able to musically manifest. Sonic Mass is completely cohesive. Neither Arise! or Monolith does that – they are a collection of songs. Some of the songs are bad, some are good, and some are indifferent. Sonic Mass isn’t like that. It’s a complete world, self-contained.
On the internet peanut gallery, some people have said ‘this isn’t Amebix’ because the production is so good, but what did people expect since you are recording with much better tools?
I think people somehow think the sound we had was contrived. It was about necessity. We were playing shit instruments. I didn’t even know to change bass strings before we went into the studio. We had bad cabinets and amp heads and poor recording techniques. I understand the fetishism for the primitive, the essence of how a band sounded in 1984. But I have no desire to return to that. If we recorded Sonic Mass like we did Arise! or Monolith, it would be fucking awful. There are so many gaps in the old recordings, they sound horrendous to me.
Do you listen to your old music often?
No, because I don’t really enjoy it. Amebix isn’t a band I would choose to listen to much. There are only a few tracks that stand out. There are some songs that are great, some songs that are OK and some songs that are shit. I have to be honest about it – I’m not a great fan of Amebix. If I condensed our catalog down to maybe an album or an EP, that would be OK. The rest would be superfluous.
If you aren’t a fan of Amebix, you are a fan of your new album.
I’m a great fan of Sonic Mass. You hear the normal fucking rock and roll thing, the line about how this is “the best album we’ve ever done”. But this is the best thing we’ve ever done. This is the first Amebix album I will listen to all the way through. I experience this album differently each time. It’s a result of a journey that took three years. I’m sort of surprised by it. There are a lot of people that won’t get it but, tough shit.
Could maturity and wisdom be a part of making a record you actually enjoy?
I’d like to think so. The result of living for 47 years is that you have to accrue wisdom. But it also allows you to articulate things better. The old recordings were made under pressure. We only had a small time span because of financial limitations. We’d go into a studio, a small space, but we wouldn’t have the discipline to look at the music and think of the best way to do it. Roy has an innate sense of how to get something out of the music that you don’t automatically hear.
Plenty of people would say musicians do their best work in their youth. You are saying it’s the opposite in your case.
I really do think so. I can pick out Amebix stuff from the past I think is good but this is just better in every way [laughs]. When you are kids, there’s a lot of emotionally driven stuff, the response of the outsider to the world around you, a standoff position with society, the anger that erupts from that. But you eventually understand the more perennial subject matter: the bigger issues, what things are all about. It’s not just about the social sphere. There’s the experience of living and what is this thing called life? That’s always been the burning question for me, where we stand in the middle of the universe. Who is this ‘I’ standing here and where do we come from?
So if Arise! was an angry shout against the world, is Sonic Mass about finding your place in that world?
Yeah, I would say that’s fair. The album is a clear archetypal journey. It allows space for more metaphysical things to come along. The heart of this is the desire for knowledge, the journey to the heart of darkness. You have to go into the dark and come back out with what you’ve learned. The second half of the album is about sharing nuggets of information from the journey.
Joseph Campbell writes a lot about that, the hero going though periods of extreme self doubt and coming to a point of realization and sharing what they’ve learned with the community for the greater good.
Campbell has been a strong influence, one of the things I started reading when I came to Skye. I love The Masks of God and his work, his understanding of true myth. No matter how evolved we think we are, the mythological journey informs everything we do. This album allowed us to present that type of journey, a journey of transformation. That’s the basis of every mythological journey. The journey must transform the person.
Campbell thought our society is so dysfunctional because we’ve lost that idea of quest, of a larger self.
Things on a mythical and archetypal level have always been at the heart of my life. It’s why my response to the natural environment has been so strong. Nature allows the individuals to go on a journey, to become whole. So, I would agree with that.
What are the similarities between swordsmithing and writing music?
It’s all about attention to detail. I’ve worked as a swordmaker and as a musician. In all of the things I’ve tried I haven’t been completely happy with the results. But they’ve always led me to try to be better. I’m happy with my sword work but I’m always pushing myself to be better. As a musician I’m still at a primitive stage and I’m learning a lot, particularly through this experience. It’s made music interesting again for me.
Read the Invisible Oranges review of Sonic Mass
Rob Miller – Interview clip: Miller discusses the qualities of an ideal sword.
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Neurosis Interview From Amebix Film ”Risen”, discussing the importance of the band
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Amebix – “Days”
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Amebix – “Arise” (live, 1986)
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