Deep Listen: Jenks Miller & Elysse Thebner Miller Discuss the New Blues from WHAT—Listen to It, Too | Music

Deep Listen: Jenks Miller & Elysse Thebner Miller Discuss the New Blues from WHAT—Listen to It, Too

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Jenks Miller & Rose Cross NC's new Blues from WHAT might be only four songs long, but Miller dives deep into meditative jams here. Together, they offer thoughtful escapes from the everyday hustle.

Along with his chief Rose Cross collaborator and wife Elysse Thebner Miller, Jenks sat down to discuss the record's gradual development in a cozy, record-filled corner of their home. Listen to the record below in an exclusive preview as you read their thoughts on the process.


ON SIDE A
INDY: How long have you been working on this record?

Jenks Miller: It’s hard to say, because some of the basic tracks are really old, like, the basic guitar track of the B-side, which is one long song. I probably recorded it in 2009 and just never finished it until I had enough stuff to make into a record. And then, the basic track for Side A, I think it was a late night drone jam that Elysse and I just did one time. I don’t even remember when that was.

Elysse Thebner Miller
: Am I playing on this track? 

JM: You’re playing a Drone Commander.

EM: It’s just like a single sine wave, and you can adjust it. There are two different waves and a couple oscillators. It’s just the simplest form of a synthesizer, a little box. I figure out what key the jam is in, and then I tune in to that, and manipulate the oscillators to give it some texture.

JM: And this one, you were running through a lot of distortion-type things.

EM: Yeah, which really changes the character.

JM: I was playing guitar, and Elysse was playing Drone Commander. We were just playing to play. We tend to record a lot of the stuff that we do. It’s one of those things where sometimes I go back and listen to stuff, and a track will jump out to me, and I feel like there will be something else to do with it.

For this side, I was experimenting at the time in our old house to see if I could get usable drum sounds in this tiny little bedroom that I was using as a studio. I found that track that Elysse and I had done, and then at the same time, that day, probably, I was experimenting with drum sounds and recorded drums over it.

Elysse Thebner Miller, Jenks Miller, and friend - PHOTO COURTESY OF ELYSSE THEBNER MILLER
  • Photo courtesy of Elysse Thebner Miller
  • Elysse Thebner Miller, Jenks Miller, and friend
All of these songs are listed as distinct tracks, but they run together seamlessly. Why did you want to break them up?
JM: Just for convenience, I guess. Most of the time, I think of records as a Side A and a Side B, so I try to give each one characteristics. It’s really just for convenience that it’s broken up. If there are places that feel like they can be indexed as a separate track on long songs, I usually like that as a music fan.

What attracts you to approaching a record as sides instead of track by track?
JM: It helps focus the conceptual element. It feels like there are two things that you can give slightly divergent characteristics to, but still keep them as part of this whole. That concept of difference—and even duality existing only as part of a whole—is central to the concept of everything I do in Horseback, and now in Rose Cross, too. That’s very important to me, spiritually.

A record can be this immersive experience rather than just a collection of songs or a single track that’s a single that’s trying to sell the record. You can order it so that it goes deeper the longer the record plays. The first couple songs of a record are usually the ones that are supposed to grab you, and then by the time you get to the B side, you’ve already established those ideas, and you can sometimes try and upend them on the B side.

How much time had passed between the first recording and when you added the drums to “Yellowtail (Blues from WHAT)”?

JM: Probably a year and a half or so. I’d forgotten that we’d recorded the drone track. Sometimes it’s that I’m curious to hear stuff that we’ve done. Sometimes it’s that I’m trying to find space on my computer, so I go through and find what I can delete. So I don’t remember exactly the context. I just remember hearing the drone track, and barely remembering that I’d done it. I played it back to Elysse, and Elysse was like, “Are you sure I played on this? Because I don’t remember doing it.” So it was a long time.

EM: It was just a drone. It’s sort of amazing that it has this new life. You’ve done that with a lot of things that we’ve started. We’re literally just fucking around on the computer.

JM: My favorite process of making records is allowing space in the process for really free experimentation. These kind of sessions are awesome, because there are no expectations. We weren’t saying, “Oh, we need to record something for this record.”

ON SIDE B
JM: There was something very watery about this track. The original track wasn’t played to a metronome, so it has this fluidity to the tempo that was challenging when I was coming back to it, because it’s hard to do overdubs if you don’t know where the rhythm is going to fall. It’s kaleidoscopic in that way, or like water—things run together and come together and work together and then go off. A lot of what I like when I listen to music is the meditative quality, being able to access a different way of thinking while listening to it. That way of listening has entered into the records that I make on a conceptual level—using the music itself as a tool to access more abstract forms of experience.

Where did this one start?
JM: This one was even older than that drone.

EM: I remember when you found this one.

JM: I was looking on an old computer for something else and ran across this recording I had made that was just the fingerpicking guitar track. Years ago, I was doing a lot of fingerpicking. I played some shows with solo fingerpicked stuff. I had recorded that toward the tail end of that time, but I never did anything with it. 

Blues from WHAT
  • Blues from WHAT
EM: It was like a raga.

You’ve talked about how several of these have been built from recordings that you found. Do you just hit record on most everything you do?

JM: I try to, for this reason. In the moment, it may not seem like something special, but you get that distance and that feeling that you don’t necessarily recognize what’s going on. Like Elysse says, she didn’t even remember doing it. It’s usually taken on this quality of otherness that you can then use. Usually, when I’m recording stuff and it’s just jamming, at the time, it doesn’t seem that special. But it’s because you’re too attached to it at that moment, and you have to step back. I do try and record everything.

Have you found that working on so many things at once changes your focus or approach to any of your other projects?
JM: I know that I feel invigorated by having different stuff to work on, and especially because so much of my approach—so much of the foundational stuff is not composed, so I can’t always anticipate what entity it will belong to. We might jam on something, and then listening back to it a week later, it sounds really dark. It’s like, “Oh, I bet I could tweak this and overdub stuff on this, and it could be a Horseback thing.”

EM: I remember when you wrote “Calvander” for the new Mount Moriah record, you presented it to me as a Rose Cross song. I was like, “This is not a Rose Cross song. This is Mount Moriah.” You were like, “Really?!”

JM: I like having the freedom of multiple outlets, because that way I don’t feel as constricted. I guess it’s a way to escape the boredom and inevitable staleness of the record cycle approach, where you’re writing for a record. As long as I am staying active and just working, it doesn’t have to be as focused, and I can still get stuff out of it. I couldn’t do that if I just had one project to channel everything into, because not everything would be appropriate, so I would just be discarding ninety percent of what I do. 

I feel like it’s only recently that I’ve understood how I’ve wanted Rose Cross and Horseback to be different. For a long time, when I was just working on Mount Moriah and Horseback, it was very clear what was going to Mount Moriah and what was going to Horseback. And now, I feel like it’s shades. It’s not as absolute.

Jenks Miller & Elysse Thebner Miller play an anti-HB 2 benefit at Kings Saturday, June 11. We'll have a full review of the album next week.

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