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Interview: Horseback

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In the past few years, metal as ambient soundscape reached a fever pitch with excellent releases from artists like Locrian, Mamiffer, Sailors with Wax Wings, and North Carolina’s Horseback.

Horseback have just released The Gorgon’s Tongue: Impale Golden Horn + Forbidden Planet, a reissue of their first album, Impale Golden Horn, and last year’s cassette-only album, Forbidden Planet.

The following interview discusses the past and present of Horseback with songwriter and band leader Jenks Miller.

— Joseph Schafer

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Horseback is one of the first Bandcamp release success stories, alongside perhaps Cloudkicker and Iron Thrones. How did the decision to use Bandcamp come about?

I didn’t know that Invisible Mountain was one of the first records on Bandcamp. Relapse set all that up. I had heard about Bandcamp, and eventually I’m sure I would’ve moved Horseback’s online presence to Bandcamp from the trainwreck that is MySpace, but any success with the site is owed to Relapse’s staff.

When Relapse picked the record up and began their promotion, The Invisible Mountain had already been released on CD by Utech Records in 2009, and on vinyl by Aurora Borealis in early 2010. The Bandcamp thing came after all that. I honestly hadn’t realized until I read this interview question that Bandcamp was such a big deal!

I heard some talk about how Invisible Mountain was a distinctly “American” record. People found it in some ways reminiscent of American folk music, as well as related it to the work of author Cormac McCarthy, who deals primarily with the violent heart of America’s past. Are these claims credible?

I do consider Horseback to be American music in that it is entangled in a very complex mythology that precludes any fanatical, white-knuckled grip on “purity”. The violence you’re referring to is more metaphorical than literal. It represents the process of grappling with conflicting interests and influences in order to synthesize something new. That is “America” at its best, I think. At least, it is the America I’m inspired by.

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You said that you’re interested in violence in nature, but Forbidden Planet is bringing in Speculative Fiction, or “super-nature”, for which we have no specific frame of reference. How did these more abstract ideas come into the music?

Good question. One of the things I like about Speculative Fiction is that it reflects its author. In the author’s imagination, what qualities characterize “super-nature”, and why might those qualities be important to him or her? To draw on a pertinent example: Why is an apocalypse so fascinating to folks of certain religious persuasions? And why is that apocalypse violent? What do these folks really want to change?

Of course, this kind of thing is tangential to the music itself. I do try to organize a few more abstract ideas in a loose conceptual framework as I’m recording each album, because such a framework provides an internal logic for the project, and helps me imagine what might lie ahead.

Both Invisible Mountain and Gorgon’s Tongue have covers that deal in quadrupedal mammal imagery. What’s the fascination with that image?

Both covers use works created by one of my favorite living visual artists, Denis Forkas Kostromitin. The artwork for The Invisible Mountain was originally commissioned by Keith Utech (of Utech Records) for a different record, but it turned out to be perfect for The Invisible Mountain. The artwork for The Gorgon Tongue was borrowed from a series Denis did on the Gorgons; he recently wrote an article about that series which should still be available on Decibel’s blog here.

I suppose I’m interested in animal imagery because violence in nature reflects one of the themes central to this project: violence (and especially “apocalyptic” violence) as a metaphor for change. It’s largely coincidence that both covers depict horses. Still, I’m glad it’s horses on there, because Denis is great at drawing them.

You’ve released a very beautiful, minimalist video for “Blood Fountain”. What was the creative process behind that video?

My friend Jon Mackey had complete freedom to interpret that track. He and I agreed that a minimal approach would be appropriate, but he took it from there. I’m not sure how he achieved the images in that video.

Gorgon’s Tongue contains material previously only available on cassette. What is the appeal in this day and age of cassette?

Cassettes are appealing primarily because they are relatively inexpensive to manufacture. Some folks also appreciate their defiant physicality in a world of ephemeral ripping. I would guess that the return of the cassette as an art object has followed vinyl’s own resurgence as the medium of choice.

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Impale Golden Horn to be more interested in creating a sustained sensation than any sort of structured “songs”. How do you go about writing such music?

To an extent, it is true that Impale Golden Horn is interested in creating a sustained sensation. That record was recorded in a very difficult time in my life, and its composition deliberately served as a form of therapy. The repetitive structures on Impale required my approach to the performances to be very meditative. Too much attention, and I wouldn’t be able to maintain exactness in each repetition; too little attention, and I would get lost in cycles. So a balance was important, and came about in the same way that one achieves a meditative state in, say, Zen Buddhism.

There are structures in each of these compositions, derived from a combination of writing and improvising. For most of the tracks, I would record one or two repetitive melodic ideas to a designated rhythm. Then I would improvise and arrange textures around that first melodic theme, layering different instruments until the whole thing felt whole. Then – in most cases – I would remove the primary melodic theme and most of the rhythm from the track altogether, so that the improvised, more textural ideas hovered in the space created by that absence. This gave the tracks a kind of “shimmering” quality, where brief melodies created by layered, improvised sound seemed to fall forward together on their own momentum. I had to revise the final compositions quite a bit so that the underlying suggestion of structure remained present, but didn’t draw attention away from the textural stuff.

Metal has historically been highly structured music, with the most basic unit of that structure being the riff, but I’m not sure that I hear riffs here in the traditional sense. Do you see Horseback as being part of the metal spectrum?

There are “riffs”, in the sense that there are contained melodic ideas that relate to each other. Occasionally, the structure is based on relatively simple two-chord vamps, at least if we’re still talking about Impale. Often, the riffs are performed on piano or organ, with guitars adding textures and overtones rather than providing most of the rhythmic and melodic motion. I suppose this is not a structure that’s common in metal, but I’ve never really considered Horseback a metal band. However, since I’ve been a huge fan of “extreme metal” for nearly two decades now, those influences – especially influences from black and doom metal – appear quite often.

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A lot of metal musicians think of composition as additive. One person writes riffs, brings them in, bass and drums are added later, and then vocals – or at least that seems to be the norm. What you just described is subtractive. How did you come across this approach?

Yes, you’re right. I have to answer this question in a somewhat roundabout way. I’ve been recording music in many genres for 10 years or so. Working on the engineering/production side of things changed what I listen for in music; that is to say, my ear started hearing things I wasn’t hearing before, and those things became more intriguing to me as a listener. I became less interested in cool-sounding riffs and more interested in the entire arrangement as a whole – the way instruments relate to each other. Likewise, I became less interested in flashy playing and more interested in an instrument’s tone and the way its capabilities could be extended to create new sounds.

As the focus of my listening turned away from melodies and lyrics, entire genres of music that I hadn’t understood before revealed their respective vocabularies and became profoundly beautiful. Noise music, atonal modern composition, and free improvisation recordings that I had no context for in the past now made a lot of sense. An artist like Keiji Haino, whom I might have dismissed as a joke as a younger listener, became one of my favorites.

For a while during all this, I couldn’t listen to metal at all. It all sounded so dramatic, even maudlin. Compared to a minutely detailed Phill Niblock composition, metal’s bluster seemed corny and dumb. I sold most of my metal CDs, which I regret doing now because I had to buy them all back. And I got hooked on vinyl, so I had to buy LP versions, too!

I think revisiting Darkthrone is what brought me back into the fold. After swearing off metal for a couple of years, I pulled out some of the stuff I had loved before, and it sounded completely different. The riffs that had previously captured my attention had been subverted by their tone and the recording techniques used to capture them. I had a much greater appreciation for the role that space – what is not being played – plays in a metal composition. Extreme repetition no longer bothered me because I started to notice slight variations within the performance of each repetition, like a slightly nicked string or a snare hit that fell just outside the pocket. The process of discovering slight variation within repetition enhanced my enjoyment of the music itself, and I’ve carried that with me ever since. I started subtracting parts of my own compositions to find out how that changed the way they felt. I’m still experimenting with all this, though lately I’ve started to flesh things out just a bit.

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There is a distinct shift of mood between Impale Golden Horn and Forbidden Planet. What created that shift?

While recording Forbidden Planet, I was influenced by Tarkovsky’s Solaris and the 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, from which I obviously borrowed the title. In each of these films, the protagonists strain so desperately to understand an alien environment that they end up analyzing their own unconscious instead. Forbidden Planet is not personal like Impale is. It adds a layer of confused menace to the bliss-out session. It’s less meditation and more hot coals, beds of nails, and self-flagellation.

The vocals and guitar riffs on Forbidden Planet are a lot closer to traditional “metal” than anything found on Impale. But much of the composition process itself was very similar. I kept the original melodic lines in the compositions more often in Forbidden Planet than I did in Impale, but they’re almost always buried under layers of noise, which could be manipulated independent of the organization underneath. I think the sense that there is a world of melodic content beneath the chaos adds to the tension on Forbidden Planet; I hope this gives the record the necessary “alien landscape” quality.

One of Tarkovsky’s signatures is his focus on the prolonged, uninterrupted shot. Maybe it’s natural that his work would come to influence music that is also occupied in prolonging.

Stalker is my favorite Tarkovsky film, largely because of the lengthy shots you’re talking about. The time the camera spends on a single room or a landscape or a character’s profile allows the audience to reevaluate the relationship they share with the film. Often I find myself retreating into my own head, hypnotized by the slow procession of changing textures. At the end of the film, it may be unclear what happened to the plot, yet my attention has been rewarded with a kind of guided tour of the psyche (I like many of David Lynch’s films for the same reason). Achieving this effect with sound is one of Horseback’s goals. Whether the resulting music might fall into the metal genre, or any other genre, is really beside the point.

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Amazon (CD)
Amazon (MP3)

Relapse (CD, shirts)

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