North Carolina trio (and Philly-live-favorites) Mount Moriah are currently preparing for the release of their third LP, How to Dance, out February 26th on Merge Records. And the album sees the band going in a slightly different direction. While the band has thus far been best known for a kind of pensive and subdued Americana, pondering the particular experiences of the American south, How to Dance has the band getting a bit heavier and more energetic and exploring their other musical tendencies, which have at times included punk and psych rock. Last week the band released a video for album track “Baby Blue” and on March 11th they will kick off a relatively extensive US tour, beginning at the Rock & Roll Hotel in Washington DC and whose second date, March 12th, is at our very own Boot & Saddle. I recently got a chance to talk to guitarist/keyboardist Jenks Miller about the current state of Mount Moriah.
Izzy Cihak: So since this is a Philadelphia publication, I’m curious your thoughts on the city. You’ve played here a few times now, right? (I was at one of your Johnny Brenda’s shows and I’m pretty sure you’ve also played the North Star at least once.)
Jenks Miller: Mount Moriah has played your city a lot, yes. Most often at Johnny Brenda’s. I love Philly — I have a bunch of friends there, and Relapse (my other band’s label) is there, and my sister lived there for a while. It feels like a home away from home.
I also love Johnny Brenda’s — it’s one of my favorite venues on the East Coast. I haven’t been to Philly in a couple years, with Mount Moriah or without. The last time I was there, my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I went up to see our friend James Plotkin play with Oren Ambarchi and Keiji Haino at JB’s. We met Mary Lattimore at that show and became fast friends. Mary ended up playing harp at our wedding! So yeah, a lot of good things in my life have come out of Philly. It’s one of those cities that’s stayed vibrant. It has a lot to offer.
Izzy: What have been some of the highlights of the band since you released Miracle Temple in 2013? Any experiences that were especially great or reactions to your work that were exceptionally overwhelming?
Jenks: We played some great shows on the Miracle Temple record cycle. We got to play with Jesse Sykes on one leg of our tour. Everyone in the band loves her music, so that was a real treat. I think the guitar player she collaborates with, Phil Wandscher, is one of the most underrated guitarists alive. He’s one of those guys who knows exactly what to play and doesn’t play anything but that.
I wouldn’t say we’ve experienced any overwhelming reactions to our work. One fan brought a bunch of beautiful, hand-made bookmarks to a show. That was very cool. I guess it’s obvious that we’re book nerds…
We’re always thrilled when what we do resonates with our audience. We certainly appreciate hearing from folks. But honestly it’s a challenge to keep people’s attention these days at all, to keep the name of your band in front of people. We do our best!
Speaking for myself, the highlight of being in a band has always been making records. That’s what I live for. We had a great time recording this new one, How to Dance, and we feel very connected to it.
Izzy: How to Dance seems like something a little different (or at least an evolution) for you. What were the biggest influences – musical or otherwise – behind your latest album? It would seem to have a ton of really heavy non-musical influences. You also seem to have a pretty wide array of influences as a band to begin with.
Jenks: It is a bit different. We loosened the reigns a bit this time. Everyone in the band inhabits multiple musical worlds (Heather played in a post-punk band for a long time, Casey is a classically-trained jazz musician and session player, etc.), but for a long time we kept what Mount Moriah did very clearly defined: it was about creating a kind of musical space which in turn could open up a conversation about Southern heritage and identity. Most of our writing borrowed from classic country and Americana. We were aiming for a Platonic ideal of Southern Americana that would allow us to engage directly with the beloved and troubled history of our home.
Over the years, we’ve allowed the band to get louder and more aggressive, to let our other influences color what we’re doing. There are subtle touches of psychedelia and proto-punk on the new record in addition to the Richard & Linda- or Neil Young- or Patsy Cline- inspired stuff. The sound on the record is more Muscle Shoals than Nashville. Tempos are a little faster.
The thematic elements of the record are a bit different, too. Heather writes all the lyrics, and the thematic dimension of the band is informed by Heather’s lyrics, by the stuff we read and talk about at rehearsals, and by the images we use. The first couple of records were more narrative, more story-based, and more direct in their appraisal of the conservative South. How to Dance is more abstract and maybe more universal; it touches on some of the mystical stuff that all of us are personally engaged with to one degree or another. The language here — I mean, both Heather’s lyrics and the imagery we’re using for this record — is associative rather than narrative. As a result, there may be more to connect with.
Izzy: You’re about to kick off a pretty lengthy tour (at least by today’s standards). Are there any cities or venues you’re especially excited to play, or just to get reacquainted with?
Jenks: The best shows are always the ones where people show up and are willing to exchange their energy with ours. This can happen anywhere! Sometimes it’s in large venues, sometimes in small ones.
Izzy: And what can be expected of the live experience this time around?
Jenks: We’re definitely a “rock band” now. We were quiet and restrained on most of our early tours. These days, we’re not as quiet. We’ll play a lot of new songs and a few of the older ones that lend themselves to more energetic performance.
Izzy: Finally, in addition to your new album being released and this slew of upcoming dates, what else are you excited about in 2016? How do you plan to spend the rest of the year, or is it just more touring, touring, touring?
Jenks: It doesn’t seem to make sense to tour all the time these days. We’re not in our twenties anymore; we all have other jobs to pay the bills and other music projects we’re involved with. And we have plenty of new Mount Moriah material to work on!