“The thing about Amebix was that we weren’t trying to make the sound that later got labelled the Amebix sound or the crust punk sound. We were working with what we had at the time. And for people to go back and try to create that, you’re losing the whole point. You’ve already lost the artistic statement, that’s gone, BOOM, it’s disappeared in the smoke, it was done and it ain’t gonna be done again.” – Rob “The Baron” Miller
This is not an inside look at last year’s Sonic Mass, nor is it an inquiry about future tours and recordings. It’s simply a conversation between me – someone who really, really likes Amebix – and Rob “The Baron” Miller, a dude whose music has been an incredibly important part of my life. At this point, I think anyone who gives a shit knows the basics of the Amebix story, so I am not going to rehearse it here. In fact, I’m a bit concerned that in the few years since this band’s reunion, the discussion of their music has revolved around a pretty narrow set of talking points: “Punks playing metal”, “origins of crust punk”, “Venom and Black Sabbath”, “musically illiterate”, “apocalyptic darkness”, and so on, ad nauseam. While all these notions are accurate to some extent, together they form a one-dimensional image of Amebix, an image that reveals more about their profound influence on today’s extreme music than about the band itself.
Amebix were never just playing the music that would become crust punk and death metal. Unlike their successors, who have worked within the parameters of a very specific stylistic niche, Amebix truly belong to a long history of British electric guitar music, alongside everyone from The Fairport Convention to The Smiths to fucking Oasis. Listen for it – while their songs are the exact opposite of “rock n roll,” they also do everything a good rock n roll song does. Lyrically, Amebix were unlike anything in punk and metal before or since, and their mystical worldview has defiantly resisted reduction to any stock ideology. If anything, they fall into a tradition of British visionary literature that runs from the ancient epic poems through singular figures like John Milton, William Blake, Aleister Crowley, and David Tibet. My chief aim in this interview, aside from the simple satisfaction of my own curiosity, was to bring out the neglected aspects of Amebix’s work.
I spoke to Rob via Skype during the latter part of January, as he held out against the fearsome storms that batter the Isle of Skye each winter. I’ve pieced together the following from two lengthy conversations, and divided it thematically into four parts, which we will publish over the course of the coming weeks. Each can be read independently, but it helps to start at the beginning, because these will move into increasingly abstract territory.
In my past writing, I’ve emphasized how Amebix seem to be coming just as much from the post-punk or goth rock side of things as from metal or crust. And it seems to me, judging by the ‘Winter’ single and the like, that you guys were into Killing Joke and Joy Division before you were influenced by Venom and all that. So I’m wondering how you started getting into that stuff, and how you saw it in relation to punk.
You’re right about the early influences. Things like Killing Joke, Joy Division, Bauhaus – the darker-leaning post-punk – were really big influences, particularly in the Glebe in Devon. When you’re a kid and having your first drug experiences, getting your first bit of weed and sitting down to really listen to music, Killing Joke are great for that. It was this level of intensity I hadn’t found in anything else before. It blew my mind, really.
Joy Division were a staple. What Joy Division triggered for me was this very sombre depth, a sense of personal tragedy that came across in the music before all that actually happened with Ian Curtis. And I picked up on that – “this guy is talking about something very deep and very obscure.” Funnily enough, I was reading an early interview with Joy Division on The Quietus just last night, and Peter Hook made a statement about their lyrics similar to what I’ve said about my own. He said, “We don’t put lyrics in with our albums because we want people to work it out for themselves. And if they don’t work it out then that’s fine too, because what you hear yourself should be what you take away.” I remember that from bands back then. We didn’t have that proliferation of information where you could just grab hold of anything right here right now. You might get a fanzine that covered lyrics, but for the most part you’d have to work out what the fuck people were saying! And with Joy Division, these single lines would take me right into a very fucking deep and complex universe of ideas. Ian Curtis’s lyrical approach had a profound effect on me.
But it wasn’t just that. The bands that you grow up with, when you’re 10 or 11 years old, these are the most primary influences you have. And at that time I was listening to people like T-Rex and Procul Harum. Now, everyone knows ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, but Procul Harum did a couple of songs, one called ‘Homburg’ and another called ‘Conquistador’, and the lyrics on those songs have almost haunted me my entire life. If anybody wanted to look for a direct correlation between Amebix now and our influences, if they were to listen to ‘Homburg’ and then listen to ‘Knights of the Black Sun’, you would find some similarities there.
Yeah, my dad was always telling me that I would like Procol Harum! And I guess this has given me more incentive to check that out.
Yeah, I mean, they do this kind of lame prog shit for a lot of it, and this other stuff that has a totally eccentric Englishness, but they have moments where you think, “That’s absolute genius!” “Salty Dog” is another great song. That was on this album I bought when I was maybe 9 or 10 years old, and I actually managed to track down vinyl of the other day. It’s called 20 Fantastic Original Hits, and it had Tyrannosaurus Rex, Joe Cocker, Procol Harum, The Move, and a couple other artists. And almost every single song on there is an absolute gem, and something that’s informed me later in life. Joe Cocker was one of the first people I heard with that gravelly voice, that dirtier approach… Do you know Joe Cocker at all?
Yeah, pretty much, but he also did a version of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, which is one of the few covers you can say is actually 100% better than the original.
I believe that. Oh wait, you know what? My dad showed me video of Joe Cocker at Woodstock, I think, where he was just twitching like a madman!
Yeah, he had the same sort of spastic energy as Ian Curtis actually! Exactly! That’s what ties those two together. He was just these uncontrolled limbs, writhing around and contorting on stage. Somebody that obviously felt the power of the music, and it informed him. And those are the people I really looked to and thought, “This isn’t just a charade, it’s not just someone being a fucking poser!” It’s somebody that is so demonically possessed by this thing, it’s so much a central part of their life that it is what they live and what they breathe. I really wanted to get into that space, and I love to try and approach that. I wouldn’t have the pretension to think that I do, but from time to time you get intimations of that.
Yes, I definitely know what you’re talking about!
As an addendum, I’ll add to that Jaz Coleman from Killing Joke, who obviously is such a fucking lunatic, but a profound lunatic.
A “holy fool”.
Exactly, the holy fool. You can take that through the Tarot and right on to the Arthurian legends as well.
Not so much them, but I liked The Sisters of Mercy. I liked the timbre of the singer, the controlled coolness of this voice over the very driven riffs. When we came to Bristol I came up with a bunch of cassettes I’d been recording off the John Peel show, which for me was the biggest possible influence you could get as a kid. I would sit at home in front of the radio with a little Woolworth’s cassette player and press record. These awful fucking cassettes were my treasures, and I arrived on the squat scene with that. I was playing a lot of obscure stuff, but also things like The Psychedelic Furs. I actually think it’d be fair to say they had an impact on us.
Interesting, they’re a pretty cool band! Would you say that the structures in the music sort of carried into your own?
No, because we didn’t understand music intellectually at all! Music is artifice, in a very pure sense. It is artificial, constructed. When you take away the main factor in that – the artist, who is there to construct something – or when the artist isn’t particularly aware of what he’s constructing, then you’ve got something altogether different. Unselfconsciously, what we were manifesting was something not by the rules, and not contrived. The other week I was watching the Norwegian black metal video, Until The Light Takes Us. Have you seen that?
I’ve seen bits and pieces. I’ve sort of avoided it, to be honest.
Well, I wanted to have more of an insight into that. At first I was very reactionary towards it, thinking “What are these fucking wankers doing, going and setting fire to churches?” I didn’t understand that there was something behind that beforehand, and that exactly the same thing that happened with the punk rock scene happened with their thing. It got taken over and intellectualized by people, and then it got parodied. Everyone tried to manufacture a product resembling something that, in itself, wasn’t that self-consciously produced. That’s what Amebix was. So I could see in the spirit of these guys what we were doing.
But one thing I didn’t agree with was that they looked to other bands, maybe in the UK, and did things like recording with a child’s mic from a fucking karaoke set, or something like that. It’s pretentious, really. The thing about Amebix was that we weren’t trying to make the sound that later got labelled the Amebix sound or the crust punk sound. We were working with what we had at the time. And for people to go back and try to create that, you’re losing the whole point. You’ve already lost the artistic statement, that’s gone, BOOM, it’s disappeared in the smoke, it was done and it ain’t gonna be done again.
You know that’s actually very close to something Varg Vikernes said about the original scene. He said something along the lines of, “People kept asking me what equipment I used to get my ‘raw sound,’ or whatever, but I wasn’t really trying to get a raw sound. I just wanted to make something visceral, something that came naturally to me, and something that wasn’t death metal.”
The good thing about that film, in particular, is that it has this other character in this artist [Bjarne Melgaard] who kind of hijacks the ideas and look of the movement and makes an art statement out of it. How fucking typical! These vultures come along, after something genuine’s been done. You’ve got a window of six months, if you’re lucky, before it gets hijacked and gradually drawn into the mainstream under the auspices of art. But it’s not! It’s just a lame-ass artist who didn’t come up with an idea himself, hoovering up the fresh ideas of the youth. And that’s what happened with punk rock, and that’s why the original span of the Pistols lasted less than a year.