“Days away from madness”: An interview with Rob “The Baron” Miller of Tau Cross
As the bassist and vocalist for English crust punk pioneers Amebix, Rob Miller, aka The Baron, holds a storied place in the history of aggressive music. Beginning in 1978 as an ultra-raw punk group (originally billed as The Band With No Name), Amebix released a couple EPs and two landmark albums before Miller and his brother, guitarist Stig, called it quits in 1987. Rob moved to the Isle of Skye off of Scotland and embarked on a career as swordsmith. He didn’t come back to the music scene until the 2008, when Amebix reunited. The band released a new album, Sonic Mass, in late 2011 before breaking up again a little over a year later.
For all the aggressive riffs and the Baron’s inimitable snarl, there had long been an experimental undercurrent of post-punk-influenced melody to the sound of Amebix. Those qualities became more pronounced on the band’s final release, and truly came to the fore as Rob continued to work on new music. He embraced a wider field of influences, fleshing out the surprisingly catchy, folk and rock-infused results as he recruited an international crew for his new band, Tau Cross. The lineup now features three Americans: guitarists Jon Misery of Misery and Andy Lefton of War//Plague and bassist Tom Radio of Frustration, plus Quebecois drummer Michel “Away” Langevin of thrash/prog metal titans Voivod and Rob’s neighbor James Adams on keys.
Tau Cross has just released its second album, Pillar of Fire, and I had an opportunity to chat with Rob via Skype. I’ve edited the conversation to remove the part where my faithful hound, Boleyn, interrupted by repeatedly dropping a bone on the hardwood floor in my apartment. We nonetheless managed to cover a wide range of topics, including the prospects for the future of Tau Cross, politics, UFOs, and, of course, swords.
Jason Kolkey: You’re at home right now, in Skye?
Rob Miller: Yeah, yeah, that’s right.
When you and the band get together to rehearse for tours, where have you gathered?
Well, generally we’ve got a base in Minneapolis, which is where Jon lives, in the old Misery house there. I’m trying to persuade the guys to come over here – well, they will be for this tour. So, we’re off on tour end of this month, and we’re all going to practice around the corner from here. So, this is like, just about seven miles up the coast. I live in a little village in the Isle of Skye, in the mountains. And my friend James, who plays the keyboards and does the production and stuff like that, he’s around here, so we use his place for that.
So, for a North American tour, you’d go to Minneapolis or Canada? You’re such an international band.
Yeah, Minneapolis, exactly. That seems to be a good place to come to. Away can come down from Canada, and Tom, the bass player, is in Seattle now. But he used to hang around with the Minneapolis crew, so everyone knows each other from there, so it’s good. It’s good to have a base of operations – it’s kind of like James Bond, you know.
Right, Minneapolis is a great town, anyway.
Yeah, yeah, pretty cool, actually.
Yeah, I had a really good time there when I was last touring. So, sort of on the same note, when you were writing all the songs for the first album, you were still kind of in the process of putting this band together. Now, you’ve done an album, you’ve done some touring. How does that change the songwriting and the way that you produce the album?
Well, to be honest with you, we didn’t really have a big breath in between the first album and doing a second one. We just … all of a sudden a lot of other songs appeared, so it kind of seemed like the onus was on us to do another recording because we had so many. So, that’s kind of how that one turned out.
I think, in retrospect, what I want to do in the future is make a lot of time together so we can pull everyone into one place and sit down. Because we haven’t had a studio experience yet. We’ve just relied on this very, very DIY sort of operation, way of doing things. Somehow, we’ve gotten away with that so far. It’s been good. It’s been great, but I think it’s going to be a really good experience to kind of knuckle down and bring everybody into the same space. But, obviously, logistics is the issue. Because bringing in people from three different countries, it’s expensive. And we don’t have a lot going on, money-wise. So, we’ll see.
The album’s title, Pillar of Fire, refers to one of the ways God manifests in the book of Exodus, most obviously. But clearly you’re someone who enjoys playing with religious imagery and giving it these pagan resonances and doing different, interesting things with it. So, what does that title mean to you, personally?
For me, I love the image itself. Pillar of cloud by day, and pillar of fire by night. It just immediately to me suggested UFOs because it’s the same kind of thing. It’s like the whole, sort of gray cigar shape in the day and luminescent when you’re in the night. I thought, it’s an interesting observation because it just shows that the phenomenon itself has always been in the background of all cultures, whether we’re talking about a literal “happening,” we’re talking in mythical terms as well. It’s like the ideas of these lights in the sky has always been passed down through generations because it seems to have been a phenomenon that every succeeding generation has been acquainted with in their own way. And obviously, in earlier times, they have great religious significance, and these days they’re acquainted differently. In the Middle Ages, they were equated with the demons and the fairies. Nowadays, they’re UFOs or people have come to save us from other planets. The phenomenon has always been there. It’s just interesting to see how it’s been interpreted by different generations.
I don’t get the impression that you necessarily believe in literal UFOs visiting – though, correct me if I’m wrong there. But is that something that’s an interesting spiritual idea for you?
Yeah, you’re not wrong. I don’t believe in the extraterrestrial hypothesis. I’m much more interested in the work of people like John Keel and Jacques Vallée. I don’t see any evidence for the extraterrestrial thing, to be quite honest. It’s almost like a smokescreen. But the phenomenon itself has always existed, and it has had different interpretations throughout different ages. And it’s unquestionable that it does. But what we don’t know is whether it’s an actual physical manifestation that’s going on or something that’s a relationship between people and the environment and also things on a vibrational scale, if you like. It appears that there are things, lights manifesting into our space, but they are able to manipulate the energetic spectrum in a lot more of a free way than we are. We just tend to be people that bump across these things from time to time. It’s almost as though we’re under constant observation, but we very, very seldom see the eye in the sky that’s actually looking at us.
Are you familiar at all with the Scottish comics writer Grant Morrison?
No, I’m not, no.
He just has a really interesting take on the whole concept of alien visitation. He deals with the idea of it being this extra-dimensional force that experiences time in a different way. It gets real involved, including a drug trip in Kathmandu, but it’s fascinating.
It sounds along the same sort of lines as well, which is extra-dimensional. Which is something that science these days is coming to terms with, the idea that we do live in a multi-dimensional universe, and there are various permutations of reality as such. But also the very obvious fact that even compared to some of the animals around us, we have a very, very limited spectrum of interaction with the vibrational field, with frequencies, with light, and the phenomenon itself. So we’re almost half-blind in a way. So, I don’t think it’s gonna to take anything that has to be particularly sophisticated, or it doesn’t necessarily have to be highly spiritually evolved or anything like that. It just has to have a different frequency to interact with us. It doesn’t mean to say it’s a good thing, and i actually believe that from the information we have it’s actually not a good thing. It’s very mischievous at the bottom of the scale, and also it’s very exploitative and very devious, really. It always has been.
That’s a really interesting perspective, and I’ve never heard anything quite like it, so that’s pretty cool. How much input did you have into the cover art, because I feel like it’s an intriguing take on the sort of imagery you’re referring to there. Was that something you were in close communication with the artist, [Costin Chioreanu], about, or did you present him with the ideas and let him take them where he wanted?
Yeah, with Costin, he did us a great poster for the gig we did at Roadburn, and he presented it to us beforehand, and it’s like, fuck, this guy’s got a really strange and weird imagination. I like it. So, with a lot of this journey, I guess we’ve been quite unprofessional in our way of going about stuff. Because a lot of us come from that sort of old school punk rock thing where you do everything that you can do yourself. So, I don’t tend to have a big sort of control switch on top of everything. You just say, “Okay, what’s available right now?”
Costin came up, and it’s like, “What ideas have you got, Costin?” And he said, “Gimme some music.” So, it’s like, “There you go, have that stuff. Come back to us with something.” He came back with one idea first of all, which wasn’t going in the right direction. And this one here, he spent a bit of time with, and it’s like, I like that. That’s great. Okay, we’ll roll with that. I like the idea of people bringing things in. Sometimes it can be quite risky because without an overarching kind of control on top of everything, it can be kind of anarchic. But, in some ways, you have to let the process do itself. And you have to say, people bring what they do to the table, and do with it what you can. I think, perhaps, in the future I’m going to start to become more manic and control-orientated. Who knows? [Laughs]
Is that sort of the same philosophy you take to developing songs with the band? It’s generally anarchy, but occasionally I will step in and be kind of a dictatorial figure?
Yeah, I think you have to when it comes down to songs because you normally … Within every band, you’ve got the guy that wants the guy to do a ten-minute jam, and then you’ve got the other guy that wants to do a three-minute sort of d-beat thing, so it’s like you find a space in between and find out whether something is working, whether it feels right. And there’s a bit of guidance all the way along. But, to be fair, the other guys are guiding it as much as I am in that respect. Everybody seems to have a lot of input, so they’ll say, “I like this, I don’t like that” and all the rest of it. So, things shape their own…So, you play yourself as well, eh?
You know, I sing in a band, so sort of. [Laughs]
Okay, so you know how it is. It’s difficult to get everybody on the same page in the first place and to try to understand how a song comes together. Is it any good, or is it not? It’s so difficult when you’re in the middle of stuff. It can be a pile of shit, and you can’t see it. You think it’s the greatest thing ever. But then again, these things happen. So, we’ll see.
To dig into some of the actual material on the album … something you’ve tended to do over and over again that I think is really interesting about your lyrical approach is you refer back to historical events and patterns without necessarily explicitly stating how they are connecting up with current events, but sort of drawing the parallel and letting people come to that conclusion themselves.
In this particular moment, which is a very fraught political moment, what do you think we most need to learn from, say, the fall of the Roman Empire, that I think you refer back to in a song like “Bread and Circuses.”
I think it’s very important to be aware of decadence because when we become over-inflated and over-indulgent, self-indulgent, when we have a society that becomes all about the implicit needs of the individual as against the whole, then there’s a kind of tipping point. And when our concerns are more to do with the peripheral kind of stuff, which doesn’t really have any real meaning in the sense … You know, we have this phrase these days, “First World problems,” and we’re already in that. We’re already in a very decadent society that we’re living in because some of the issues that people are talking about now on social media and throughout the Facebook realms and all this kind of stuff are so meaningless and vacuous. Yet, they seem to be given credence. It’s as though they mean something. And they don’t mean anything except for the fact that we’ve kind of corralled ourselves into a societal form whereby this kind of behavior is acceptable. It’s like children having a hissy fit about everything they want and need. So, I think that’s our danger at the moment. I think that’s our Achilles’ heel is this social decadence.
One song where you are more explicit about the politics is “Deep State,” which is a concept that’s gained a lot of importance in political discourse recently, both on the side of people on the left criticizing entrenched intelligence communities, surveillance, and things like that and in this weird way becoming co-opted by the right as a sort of propaganda tool to diffuse responsibility for anything that goes wrong. What do you think is important for us to be concerned about in terms of the Deep State and surveillance?
Well, for a start, I will say that “Deep State,” the lyrics to that song don’t bear immediately onto the political situation today. They’re kind of more metaphorically about an unconscious manifestation of our wishes and dreams, if you like, or our hopes, or even our fears. The same as “Raising Golem,” it’s the same sort of thing.
The political landscape at the moment is a fucking nightmare. The whole idea of surveillance and all the rest of it … I mean, the thing is already stitched up. It’s like, we see the tip of the iceberg now. The NSA thing is like, that’s been going on for so long now. They know everything about everybody. We’re already identified. We’re already quantified. We’re already made into a kind of marketing mincemeat that we’re catered to. I used to think it was quite weird if you have a conversation where you type in looking for something online and then all of a sudden – woo, it pops up in your Facebook feed. “How did they know?” We are just … we are becoming increasingly aware of our meaning as tools. We’re basically work units. We’re energetic units, which are used for the creation of this thing called money. And then we’re also relieved of that too by the same operation. You know, it’s like we’re gifted with the means to survive, and then we’re told what we should be spending that on as well at the same time. So, we’re kind of caught in this trap at the moment, and a lot of the surveillance culture has to do with that too.
But the overarching thing about it, of course, is the whole lie about the War on Terror and all that sort of nonsense. I mean, it’s so paper-thin now. The whole narrative is ridiculous and it’s … for any reasonably thinking individual, you can see all the way through that and say, we’ve been had. All the way along, we’ve been had. And what’s been put into place along that timeline is this whole surveillance state and the consequent things that go with that.
A really interesting thing that goes along with what you were just saying is how the right has reacted to that facade dropping has been largely trying to burn everything down, both in the U.S. and the U.K. Going outright toward xenophobia, toward pulling out of the world. And it’s hard to see how that ends up in a good place.
Yeah, well you know, the thing is it’s almost predictable because what you see is this, as I was saying, this sort of idea about decadence, about social decadence. And there’s almost like, there has to be an interplay of these two ideas, one against the other, which becomes the alt-right, as they call it now, and the extreme left or the Democrat and Republican kind of thing as it is in the States. So they play off against one another, but both parties are scared, and they’re fearful. And they react in different ways. With the right, it’s basically a kind of tough guy thing. It’s saying, “You wanna burn the world? Well, fuck you, we’ll burn it for you, and we’ll destroy absolutely everything rather than let you have your own way.” And you can kind of see the rationale behind that.
I think you need to understand both sides of that spectrum and say, “What is it that these people are missing?” And often what it is, is the most basic thing, which is like, people don’t know how to argue anymore. They don’t know how to sit down and have a conversation and evolve a new idea from that. What they want to do now is say, “You’re full of shit.” – “No, you’re a fucking asshole.” And that’s it. And that doesn’t work at all because it doesn’t advance anybody. And I mean, it’s not a generic hippie idea or anything like that. It’s just, the Greek philosophical idea is based upon dialogue. And you don’t have to be fighting against one another. What you need to say is like, I have this opinion.This guy has that opinion. What can we create which is unique and new in between us? We don’t know how to talk anymore. We don’t know how to argue. We don’t know how to discuss. I think that’s what we miss most of all.
So, just the value of discourse as a constructive social tool. That makes sense.
Exactly. And I think probably poor education is to account for that too and this kind of just … people do get very stuck in their ways, and they can get very opinionated. And they’re not willing to embrace anything that they feel threatened by. And I think from the left and from the right, they both feel threatened by one another. And they can never say, “What is it that we have in common?” rather than, “What is it that separates us?”
Do you think that where you live, being a little isolated from Scotland even, not to mention the rest of the U.K., gives you a different perspective on these things from other people?
Yeah, probably. I’m very, very lucky in where I live. I think what I do face here most immediately is the rawness of nature. You can get lost in the hills here, people can die on the mountains, all that kind of stuff. It’s very much … you’re really in front of that kind of thing, in front of the world as it really is. And I lived for some time within the city and that, sort of normal social structure, and when you move outside of that, you become acutely aware of how constructed it is and how it really does rely on the kind of consent of everybody working within that society to keep everything going because it’s really madness. It’s only days away from madness.
It’s like a little instance we had here. Back in the winter, two years ago, we had – we don’t normally get very bad snows and stuff, but it was snowy, and it was difficult, and all the rest of it. And there was no food deliveries for three days at the local supermarket. And you could tell that it was a three-day thing. It was like, things are going to go fucking apeshit. If there’s one more day, people will start to lose their humanity, and you become aware of how close we are. As soon as you start to get hungry, it doesn’t take very long. Things break down. And we can make all these social constructs, we can make these really elaborate, utopian dreams that are wonderful and the world of consumerism and all the rest of it. But we’re never that far away. We never really are. And I think that living here in this environment has brought me face-to-face with that. I’ve always had an appreciation of nature, but now it’s that thing I know that weather really can impact upon stuff here, psychologically and all the rest of it, and things can get difficult, but I like it because of that. It’s more real, in a sense.
Right. Lyrically, anyway, you strike me as a bit of a romantic, as someone who is very interested in that sort of duality of the natural world, where it’s simultaneously beautiful and also overwhelmingly horrific, and trying to find your way around that is where you create art.
Yeah, I think that’s true. I think I’ve always been deeply invested in nature itself. Growing up in the country, I always felt a real connection to not just the physicality of nature and the raw being of it, but also the history too. I’ve always felt very much a sense of place and time and almost like able to intuitively tap into a place and the feel of a place and the overall idea about it. It’s almost like being able to read the story of a place intuitively just by being there. If I was sort of very pretentious and arrogant and all the rest of it, I’d say maybe I’m kind of a poetic person. I think my expression is kind of poetic really, yeah.
In preparation for this, I was looking back at some of the footage from that documentary, [Risen], that came out a few years ago, and there some moments in there where you’re reading from an account of the early days of Amebix, which was really lovely prose, I thought. It made me wonder if you were ever going to turn all that into a book. Is that something you’re waiting until later to put out?
Yeah, well, I started writing a book years and years ago, and the problem is, I had different PCs that have broken down, so I don’t know whether I still have it. I wrote quite a few chapters and started bringing them together. I called it Scene but Not Herd, which I thought was a kind of good title because that was very much Amebix, which was, we were in the scene, but we weren’t part of the herd, you know? So I was trying to tell that story in the DVD thing, Risen, of course, so I was using a couple little bits that came out from that. I hope I can find it. I think it might be on one of these drives or somewhere around here. But you know how it is. You have these shitty old Windows computers. They blow up, and it’s like, throw them out the window. I don’t know where the fuck it is. I’ll dig it out again, but I could do with somebody going over it and returning to it some years. Because I enjoyed writing that.
Yeah, I mean that’s the writer’s worst nightmare, you lose the whole manuscript.
[laughs] It’s gone!
To turn back to the album for a moment, something I really appreciate about everything you’ve done since Sonic Mass and you returned to the scene is that you didn’t really go back to exactly the same sound you had before. It’s always been sort of expanding on different influences, different vocal styles. How did you challenge yourself to grow on this album?
Well, I suppose I had to fit myself around the work that was submitted by Andy and Jon because they brought songs over. So it’s like, okay, that wouldn’t be my way of writing stuff, so how would I place a vocal in there? I guess they tend to write … when they put stuff together, it’s a lot denser, with a lot more going on. So I’m kind of looking for stuff in there. Looking for little stabs where you can put in a vocal, you know what I mean? It was difficult to work myself around what they were doing. So that was the challenge for that.
For me, personally, the whole thing since Sonic Mass has been really trying to find out, can I do anything as a musician? Can I develop anything at all? It’s almost like I’ve been given carte blanche for some reason to just get on with it, and people have gone, “Oh, that’s all right.” So, fuckin’ hell, I got away with that, that’s great. [laughs] We’ll see how much longer that one goes on, but I’d like that journey to keep on going because I’m quite excited by some ideas, and I think now is really a time for reflection and to take stock and say, okay, what can I do realistically, what can I not do? What can we do together as a band? What do we have? What makes that unique? If you can’t take a bit of stock, you go, where are you? Because all of a sudden, we’re two albums in. It’s almost like a bit of a surprise now. So I’m personally wanting to stick the brakes on and say, “Whoa, hang on a second. Right, time for reflection.”
Up through that first [Tau Cross] record, you’d always been a bass player as well as a singer. But then, when you went on tour and when you recorded this second album, you’ve stuck more to just vocals with the occasional bit of acoustic guitar thrown in. How has that changed the way you perform and the way you see your role in the band, if at all?
Yeah, I really found it very difficult to let go of the bass because I love playing bass. I love playing bass and singing, but the problem is with a lot of these songs, when I wrote them, I wrote them without the normal jam thing. When we were doing Amebix, we’d be in a room together and play songs, and I’d find the space in between to put the vocal. With this stuff, it wasn’t like that. It’s more like making a song and then looking at the pattern and returning to it and putting a vocal over the top. And then I found when I put the vocal on, I couldn’t play the bass and do that at the same time. You know, it was a really a counter-intuitive kind of thing. So, it was very difficult to pass that one over and it was like, ugh. But, meeting up with Tom, and he’s such a great guy, a really great bass player as well. It was like, okay, he’s the guy that can do that, and that’s great. But I still, if I write any songs myself, I sit down here with my bass [plucks string and laughs], and I put the bass lines down on that and say, “As a suggestion, here’s something here.” And he might take a couple little bits from there, but he’s a better bass player than I am, you know.
So, I miss it, but to kind of answer your question there, playing bass guitar was a great … it was a great means of hiding, you know. It’s like, if you’re a guitarist, if you play guitar and you sing on stage, you’ve got this thing to hide behind. It’s like, yeah, you can lock into that. So, it’s a lot more exposed. I don’t know, do you just sing?
Yeah, for a long time. For me, I like that you can get right up in people’s faces, that you’ve got more of a connection with the audience. Also, I’m shit at guitar and bass, but the other thing sounds better.
Yeah, so what I’m trying to do is get used to that a bit more now and just get more into that idea about being a frontman as well and having a band behind. So, it’s like increasingly this band is getting bigger and bigger. Now we’ve got six people in there, so you know [laughs]. I’m enjoying that, but it is kind of … not intimidating, but it requires a little bit more forethought. I’ve got nowhere to hide anymore. You’ve gotta really believe strongly in what you’re doing and what you’re communicating.
Do you have any plans to tour beyond this upcoming European tour? Is there anything in the works?
Well, it’s difficult because with all of us, we’ve got day-to-day jobs and things like that. So yes, we do definitely need to get out and tour, but it looks like it’s gonna be once a year, a small sort of run of stuff, two or three weeks, wherever it is, you know? And so, we’ll try and make something happen next year. I’d like to do some festival work as well, things like that. I kind of enjoy that. Because I really liked the Roadburn experience, that was great. So, it’s difficult because there’s so many places that we wanna be able to go play. I think we should go back to the States and do the West Coast because we did a lot down the East and up into Canada, but then again you do that and people in the U.K. are going, you fucking assholes, you know Why haven’t you played the U.K. yet?
So, for a start, we don’t have management, we don’t have tour managers or anything like that kind of stuff. Not officially. So we reach out to other people to try to help us out doing stuff. So, still, it’s so DIY, it’s kind of ridiculous. So, I think I need to step up a little bit and say, “All right, let’s get some other stuff on board without being too professional or anything like that about it, it’d be kind of nice to have somebody say, “Yeah, these are the days everybody’s got off. Go and play some shows.” Or do this, or do that, or whatever. So, we’ll do as much as we can, but it’s not going to be a lot. Kind of like people like Neurosis. I’d like to turn this into an event. So, you don’t see them very often, but when you do, it’s like, whoa, yeah Neurosis is back out. Good I’d like Tau Cross to be that sort of thing. Like, get it while it’s here, cuz who knows, it’s gonna be gone.
Yeah, I caught you when you were here in Chicago … that must have been a year and a half ago, something like that. And it was just really cool to see that band with you and Away in this small club, the Cobra Lounge, which is a place I’ve played a million times, and it was just a really fun show, I thought.
Yeah, that was a good laugh. We had Bat there, just shouting at the band. This guy [old man voice], “My wife says I can’t have any more drinks tonight” [laughs]. Okay, Bat, okay.
So, to kind of wrap things up here, obviously I have to bring up your day job, which is the most metal possible day job both literally and figuratively, of course, making swords. You’ve been doing this for a long time now. What is your favorite part of the process after all these years? What part still makes you feel a lot of passion, excitement about making a new piece?
It’s really when everything comes together. It’s actually when you’ve done the last bit and you put that bit in and you stand back. And sometimes that’s gonna be like, “Ehhhh, that’s okay.” Other times, it’s gonna be like, “Fuck, that’s great.” I just finished a piece this week, which is like … I did a recreation of this sword which is attributed to King Cnut, or one of his warriors in the 11th century. So this is an exact copy of that. I’ll share a picture with you. I put it together, and I think it’s fucking great. It’s one of these things, I used a little bit of gold work in there and put everything together so it started to look just right. It’s an almost exact copy of the museum one. And it’s like the whole thing, so I put the whole thing together, and it’s like little silver details, gold details and all the rest of it and then peened over the top of this one, stood back and went, “Oh, fuck, that’s a great sword,” you know. And that doesn’t happen very often, but it’s good when it does.
Any final thing, any last plug you want to put out there?
Not that I can think of, no. Again, at the moment, that’s the thing. We’re watching the album, see how people like that. And the thing is, it’s been kind of surprising for me. I suppose I’ve been able to rely on a bit of history for what I’ve done and all the rest of it and been very grateful for the fact that people have given us enough time and space to be able to listen to what we’re doing at the moment. And I hope that keeps on going on. And, as I say, time now to take a big step back and think about stuff and just, yeah, get planted. So, thanks for the interview as well.
Pillar of Fire is now available through Relapse Records. Catch Tau Cross on tour in Europe on the following dates.