The Light between the Sun and the Moon
by Mystery Flame
I fell in love with Amebix because their music was like no other and spoke to me at a deeper level. Unlike most of the punk bands around in the 80s, I felt that these two handsome brothers from Tavistock, Devon, spoke a universal language which went beyond ideological divides. Amebix represented the archetypal human being fighting against the tide, their music carrying the thunderous voice of a race at the mercy of its own shortfalls, fears and delusions. This timeless music was gloomy and bleak, menacing and tribal in an unheard-of-before, modern way: the powerful emotions it depicted stemmed from an ancestral common past we all shared and somehow forgot. Interestingly, the ground-breaking music and the anti-scene attitude of Amebix had a distinct sense of what was to become later one of the traits of black metal: “elitist individualism”. Rob and Chris Miller seemed to be looking for something else than being mere rebels against society; they seemed to be on a personal metaphysical quest, which is exactly what the serious spiritual black metal artist pursues. Amebix, creators of one of the most memorable slogans ever, No Gods No Masters, were initially part of the Birstol punk scene but were too unique in their musical approach (incorporating dark metal into punk, something Discharge also had tried to do) so, unfortunately, after only the second – massively influential – album, “Monolith”, they called it quits. Their music survived for over a quarter of a century, becoming the point of departure for many bands to explore uncharted territories within the alternative rock and metal universe. Directly inspiring Neurosis and many others, metal would not be the same today without Amebix. Well, they are back with a stunning album, Sonic Mass, just released through their own label (Easy Action Records), to give us once again a piece of their heart. And also to share the incredible story of Rob Miller the Swordsmith.
Crass always aimed at disbanding in Orwellian 1982. When Amebix split in 1987 personal issues (drugs, relationships) must have weighed onto the fact that you were no longer part of a scene. You were too heavy to appeal to the punks and too punk to be accepted by the metalheads: by the time “Monolith” was released, Amebix seemed to be walking a lonely, almost heroic, path against the world…
It was a difficult time, I really felt that we had come as far as we could, we were limited musically and it seemed that if we continued we may not have produced anything that would match or exceed the previous work. There was simply no more inspiration, I was looking into a dry Well, felt drained by the whole experience of swimming against the tide for almost ten years, I didn’t want us to end in disgrace, as a parody of ourselves, so had to call an end to it.
You must have been aware of the power, the magic your music had – and the fact that it was so groundbreaking. In an era where, generally speaking, punk bands would sound either like Crass or Discharge, you seemed to hold onto the concept of spontaneity as a key element for the new kind of alchemy you were creating (capturing the darker side of metal to incorporate it into a visionary type of post-punk). To me it is not surprising that almost every musician I have met who has managed to create an individual sound of his own confessed he could not play his instrument properly!
I do remember becoming more aware of music after the band had split up and in one sense it ruined things for me when I could understand how a song was constructed, hearing the individual parts and dissecting them can take the fire out of the music. Stig and I played very much on an instinctual level, not thinking about structures or chords, but much more the feeling or tone of a song, the way it made you feel. I think we have managed to maintain that to this day, Amebix is not a band to deconstruct, it is much more about a particular atmosphere.
Punk had its own geographical peculiarities. Roy (Mayorga, new drummer and producer) has a very positive and romantic idea of the old punk days, but in the US there was a different kind of spirit. In the UK, as it is often the case with the big metropolis, the London crowd was horribly bitchy, fashion-driven and frankly full of shit (if you were not complying with certain rules you could not be part of the in-crowd). In Birmingham metallers used to go to punk gigs and vice versa, which was great (thanks to that unity, European death metal and grindcore were soon created). Bristol seemed to be too infested by drugs to survive… In spite of the nice feeling of brotherhood, one could not help wanting out!
For me my ‘out’ was leaving Bristol and moving into the Country again, getting involved with Motorcycles again too and the autonomy that this gave me. I felt claustrophobic in the ‘scene’ in many ways, the Crass puritan stuff took all the joy and spontaneity out of things and replaced it with a book of rules which I didn’t subscribe to. It has always been the same with groups of people, there is an urge for conformity within the nonconformists, the desire to create a code of conduct, dress, belief system etc ,you have to move outside of the tribal unit to be able to absorb new experience which is truly your own.
Art is a potent mix of physical and metaphysical. At some point you and Chris had an incredibly impressive look: being over 6 foot tall, the clothes and hair-dos truly made you both look like you came from a terrifying post-apocalyptic dimension. Were you aware of the effect you had on people who? Coming from the military, did you feel that the aggressive look empowered you psychologically in a similar way an army suit does?
That’s a good question, and I think that my uniform look was an attempt at self empowerment, I wasn’t really aware of how we appeared as a band however, but we were always quite forceful live, partly because we had to work hard to get our message across, looking back you can see that.
Rob, after the split you moved to the remote Scottish Isle of Skye to become a sword-maker. That seemed to fit the whole idea I had of Amebix: if the mythology of a romantic fan had any resemblance to reality, one day Apollo and Mars would have turned the sparks flying from your anvil into notes again! Sword-making is an ancient and magical art and not an easy one to master: I celebrate the fact that you actively pursued something that the large majority of people would only fantasize about!
I know…its weird how that happened, I seem to have driven myself towards doing something that was not a practical or sensible at all, yet somehow it worked. I wake up and go out to my shed and make Swords every day, in 2011, and this is a full time job. I think I was still looking for these archetypal symbols of empowerment when I arrived on this island, I was completely a broken man and had to re-invent myself again from scratch, the work was almost a perfect metaphor for the journey I had to undergo, learning to make a sword from the very beginning, and in turn forging my own Will and becoming alive again. It was not an easy path to choose, but now I am known throughout the World for the quality of my work, ironically more people know about Rob Miller the Swordsmith than about the musician.
Did you actually think of music in the wilderness of your isolation, did you listen to any records or keep up with the new bands/genres over the last two decades? Were you in touch with your brother Chris?
I didn’t think about music at all for several years, Amebix in particular was a difficult thing for me to look back on, so I buried it. I had an acoustic guitar and wrote some ballads and songs, nothing that anyone would connect with my past life at all. Stig stayed in Bath, we had very little contact as his issues with drugs became more and more hopeless. Everything for ‘back then’ seemed to be tainted with a darkness and decay that I did not want to engage with at all; I was fighting to survive on a remote Hebridean island with no time or inclination to look over my shoulder. I am only very recently starting to listen to newer music again and thankfully finding some gems amongst the shitpile: glad to see that people are bolder musically now, it seems that it may be an exciting time for music again.
Amebix have always explored life’s existential drama from a universal viewpoint. Mankind has always sought something else, something glorious, magnificent and eternal to justify and affirm the short passage of our lives. Have you made sense of your own life yet?
My initial journey when I came to Skye was very much an inner one, traveling the landscape and reflecting on life. Study was important too, and I made time to look deeper into some of the more esoteric and philosophical issues. Both Stig and I had grown up in a family where we discussed these things quite openly, so that had informed both of us from an early age. I still have no made sense of my own life, but I do have a larger frame of reference now.
Do you feel strong ties to physical places at all, do you still have roots in Devon or has Scotland become home for good?
Yes I do. I love Devon, for me it is a magical and enchanted place, even now. I have chosen to live on Skye because of the natural beauty and also the freedom that I have here, I can walk into the hills and not meet anyone else for a week, disappearing into the land itself. I have always felt a very deep connection to the natural world and the earth beneath my feet; this is at a primal and instinctive level and informs everything else in my life, a connection to nature is at the root of Amebix too.
In places of great wilderness we can perceive nature as a mighty cosmic force above the human concepts of “good” and “evil”. Even when your early musical landscapes were plunged in harshness and gloom, Amebix have always spoken of hope!
I have always felt an obligation to communicate a positive message, I really do not have time for the recurring trend of misanthropy, it is selfish and self absorbed and ultimately childish: why would you bother to make music if you hate everyone and everything? What are you trying to say, and to whom? There is a moral imperative for me to try and give people ideas of strength and empowerment, to get out of the victim cycle of life and to bathe in the majesty of the living Universe, life.
Do you agree with those who look back at ancestral traditions as the only way to salvage a society which seems doomed by the ill use of modern technology? You spoke of this in the early 80s, nothing’s changed since! Yet, perhaps it is too easy, from the comfort of our homes, to forget about the terrible illnesses, famines, poor hygienic conditions, etc. which used to make human life a continue struggle: very few survived to see adulthood.
I think I understand that more so in the place I live. Life can be harsh in the winter here! I lived in a caravan for three years, battered by huge storms and perpetual rain living in the middle of nowhere. You can lose your mind too! I never take life for granted; we are always a very thin skin away from harsh nature.
The new album sounds intense, passionate and thunderous: it is unmistakably Amebix, an old fan will feel that the core of the band is still 100% there, but will also appreciate the maturity not just in the sound but also in the generosity of heart that it shows. It is music made by grown men and in a culture where the young are the prime driving force, it is a privilege to have people who show that rock music is not just a “phase”, something you do/listen to when you are not yet a fully-fledged member of society!
Thank you. I think we have managed to communicate our ideas very clearly on this work, and this is also in a sense the sum of the collective life experiences that we have all gone through in that preceding period. I do feel that the younger generation may be missing the ability to engage with music in the same way as we did when we were younger, skipping between songs, too much choice, a surface grazing that can inhibit your ability to really listen. We made this album as a full piece of work that you need to make time and space for, something that is a real journey, in the same way as we used to be affected by albums like Pink Floyd or Eno.
In the recording/mixing of “sonic Mass” modern technology was used wisely, without going over the top: unlike some, I did not expect you to produce a raw “crust punk” record! One thing that your up-to-date sound has brought forth is, in my opinion, a similarity between your vocal style and Jaz Coleman’s. Killing Joke and Amebix did share a lot of common ground, such as the dark, mythological, esoteric conceptual approach and the use of the rumbling, lower-end tones of the bass, so if I had to force Amebix into a genre, I would say apocalyptic post-punk/metal, leaving the crown of kings of crust to Hellbastard! ;-)
Haha, Scruff will love you for that! Hmmm, I have heard a lot of people use Killing Joke as a reference, but I also feel that a huge amount of people have only recently got to hear KJ, due to their Dave Grohl album and the recent Absolute Dissent, so they are looking for a tag to hang on us, and that seems close to them. People should know that the Amebix sound is the product of our own evolution, and whilst KJ have been a primary influence they were certainly not the only one. Our sound developed independently of them, particularly from Arise and onwards there was almost no reference point to Killing Joke. In a very real sense KJ have actually begun to sound like Amebix on some of their more recent work, much like Motorhead did with Orgasmatron. There are moments on the album where vocal similarities (with Jaz Coleman) are apparent, but there are more that bear no resemblance to Jaz whatsoever, such as in Days/Sonic part 1/Knights.
Sonic Mass” is a concept album focused on the primordial need of mankind to believe in god(s). Your lyrics have always been very profound and full of symbolisms, yet I know that some see in your famous “Drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die” the only immediate message worth appreciating…
The thing about art is that it can be understood on many levels: the same as my work making Swords, the Sword can be understood on a psychological and Archetypal level, religious and Archangelic or it can merely be seen as an instrument for killing people. I have never had any interest in the Martial side of this, purely the aesthetic, creative and artistic. I suppose the hope is that if you seed an idea within a person on a basic level then they may eventually come to a wider realization. Drink and be Merry could then be understood as live life to its fullest and spread hope.
One last brief consideration on the concept of human knowledge. After so many years spent searching, ultimately today I cannot find the slightest difference between the entire intellectual works produced by mankind and the howling of a lone wolf looking longingly at the moon…
I have nothing to add to that, apart from all that we know for certain is that we don’t know.
Keep your eyes peeled for a selected bunch of European and American dates. www.amebix.net