Burning House Interview: “guitar music doesn’t have to adhere to riffs and clichés”


Burning House band photoWhat first impressed me about Southampton shoegaze revivalists Burning House was the sheer audacity of their debut album Anthropocene. Tapping into art rock, post rock and dream pop with tracks typically exceeding six minutes (Robinson hits the audacious eleven-minute mark!) whilst making references to mysticism, revolutionary poetry and dystopian SF literature, it felt like the magnus opus culminating the entire life work of an artist’s lengthy career rather than their very first full length. It’s currently popular to refer to any record which is the least bit spacious as cinematic, well Anthropocene feels akin to a hallowed epic movie, the kind no director has dared to make in the 21st century so far – which is very appropriate for a band that takes its name from the closing scene of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice.

Led by guitarist and singer Aaron Mills, the self-described contrarian and “born iconoclast” gently considers any point raised to him before delicately tearing it apart with the enthusiasm of an eager young surgeon. I caught up with him whilst he was busy moving houses to talk about all things Burning House and I started by asking what drew him to adopt such an unconventional guitar sound on such a huge scale and was interested to discover that he had nearly pursued a totally different direction as a producer and DJ; “I became really obsessed with Aphex Twin and Warp Records. It prompted me to put the guitar down really. So, I was focused on making beats and making ambiance and things like that.”

Whilst using very different methods, there is a similarity in approach by the acts from Warp Records to those on a label you would expect Burning House to reside on like 4AD or Creation in terms of encouraging experimentation and embracing expansive ambience, fuzzy sounds and dense walls of distortion. Different sides to the same coin with Warp being digital and the others mentioned analogue, it was discovering that pioneering spirit in bands from the late 80’s and early 90’s that led to Mills once again picking up the guitar; “I got back into it through discovering My Bloody Valentine really, and it was guitar music beyond guitar music. It does its own thing and seemingly doesn’t feel limited. It’s a kind of deceptive simplicity but there’s all these different timbres, colours and textures. That’s kind of where I sit with it really. And it was other bands that made me think you can do things differently with song structures like Red House Painters and Smashing Pumpkins…”

It was really the experimentation that appealed to me and I thought; “Oh right, guitar music doesn’t have to adhere to riffs and clichés. It can go anywhere. It’s just soundIt’s just chunks of sound and it can maximise, and you can do all sorts with it”.

Inspired and eager to create something beyond the limitations he had felt whilst learning the guitar playing the Britpop hits found in Guitar Magazine, Mills synthesized a style which mixed his programming with an ever-growing pedal board. It soon became clear he would need to team up with others, but found he was somewhat thwarted by the provincial nature of his hometown; “Well, initially I made bits of demos in my room. I had a whole list of different styles of music and bands and things that I used to put on ad sites… they were mostly obscure apart from a couple. They probably intimidated anyone or put anyone off because I’m really up against it, living in Southampton. If I was in London or Berlin or something maybe there would be more potential applicants.

While Mills may have initially struggled to find fellow collaborators due to his location, I put it to him that those outside the London bubble are perhaps less subject to trends or fashions and are more committed to creating music that is truly part of them rather than accruing some sort of social currency. Something Mills agrees with, although he is reluctantly aware of the need to present yourself to the world to get heard; “I think that’s a good point… But when I initially started Burning House, I just wanted to make music that was good like the bands that I listened to. I didn’t even conceptualise it beyond recording an album. I just wanted to record an album and I wanted to make a pillar of music I could put against my favourite records.

But it’s only when you start to realise that’s not enough. In order to make a record, you’ve actually got to visible. So, I think I came at it from a sort of backwards angle. I think some people are in bands, maybe I’m being cynical, just to be cool or to get laid or to have something to do. I’m obsessed with music and art, I’m very driven to make beautiful things or what I consider beautiful.

Such keen focus on creating a record rather than getting out there and playing to as many people as possible made me wonder if he felt they are more of a studio-based band rather than a live one. The soft-spoken singer said they may have initially preferred their own safe surroundings because of “inhibitions essentially that I couldn’t shake off”. However, they have grown to embrace being on stage as they have developed in terms of sound and as musicians; “I think I’ve changed; I think my conceptualise vision is a lot bigger than it used to be. Even then, when I said I was studio orientated, I hoped that lots of people would latch onto it. I’ve come at it from a bit of a backwards angle in some respects.

As I said before, Anthropocene is hardly a record which is lacking in ambition and certainly is not phased by the prospect of tackling big ideas across fifteen lengthy (mostly) tracks – even the name is a reference to the sixth mass extinction currently precipitated by latter stage capitalism where human industry is now the determining factor affecting all ecosystems. At first, the recording process was “plagued by lots of technical difficulties” but Mills was determined to avoid any clichés because the acts that follow the path well-trodden “you don’t feel compelled to listen to it again because its missing something, it feels possibly its insincere or its all style over substance”. Having given the impression of having such a definite idea of where he wanted to take Anthropocene, a record which he feels “gets very loud and quite relentless but then resets itself and it explores a different emotion”, I wondered if their debut always had a grand narrative and was written as a cohesive whole rather than individual tracks that came along naturally and was almost surprised to learn that the songs had indeed been penned singularly and the sequence worked out later rather than an architect working feverishly over a detailed schematic. However, he believes there could have been something lurking in the unseen deep recesses of his mind, the Id somehow scheming to create his new cathedral to ferocious sound; “At the time, I would have never contrived to do something in terms of like following a narrative or unravelling the story. But I think a lot of subconscious organisation comes into play by the way your feel your way around what you’ve recorded and how the dynamics and sort of restating of emotions and dynamics come into play.

The combination of powerful ideas put to huge walls of sound are truly exciting, however Mills empathically reminds me that despite the implications of the title, he isn’t “making a political statement, categorically anyway, and it would be ill advised for me to claim that because the songs are fragmented. They go from different directions, they explore religion and human relationships, bits of literature – all kinds of subconscious things that came out.” While raging polemics can certainly be thrilling, the grandeur of songs with over fifty guitar parts could have easily spilt over into pomposity and it was the right decision to avoid becoming too on the noise or overbearing. Such overexposure can be a real danger to musicians, revealing too much about your own personal beliefs and oversaturating feeds with puerile posts raises the danger of evaporating any air of mystery, something which Mills is very concerned about; “Music, it should retain enigma, hopefully. It’s kind of a shame, in modernity, where you’re forced to share everything all the time. Every banal bit of information and that is killing the enigma”. Personally, I cringe whenever I see an on tour Instastory however I understand it seems to be a necessary evil and Mills also detests the same “attention grabbing”. Implying that there is no separation between the identity of the artist, their actions and their work, he believes that the constant feeding of social media dispels the magic and “it diminishes something about it” whilst gloomily reminding me “but unless you do it, no-one will hear you.

The problem with being purposefully ambiguous and avoiding definite statements is that you can fall into the trap of being overly obtuse or simply not say anything at all. However, Mills is a real advocate of the power of the subliminal and is interested in developing the ideas of pioneering psycho-dramatic therapist Jacob L. Moreno into his music in the future. He enthusiastically explains; “The basic elemental idea is that if the organism can’t express itself, it will find compensation methods and they can be incredibly unhealthy. In place of parental love you become narcissistic or you adopt self-destructive strategies that aim are trying to aim at similar wants and needs. And of course, consumer culture comes along and it replaces your wants, repackages your needs.” He implies that these ideas are feeding into new music he is currently working, taking a more direct and instinctual approach which lets go of the dense referencing found throughout the first record. I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s dichotomy of how to balance the intellectual Apollonian with the sensual Dionysian urges and posit that Anthropocene might have leaned to the former with the new Burning House material he is now working on becoming more primal. He ponders upon this and says “That’s an interesting separation… (Anthropocene) does aim at the Apollonian, with all the grand concepts and gestures” then briefly laughs before continuing “but it’s very aware of its place in the dirt as well”. And if there is no separation between artist and art, Mills amusement shows that while he is happy to play with such high concepts there certainly is no arrogance and he is very much deeply rooted in reality – albeit a reality he feels can be adapted and shaped through the subjective experiences he can create with his bandmates and a fully armed pedalboard.

When I press him for a more exact description of what we can expect from his upcoming material he tells me of a recent experience of a friends reading his tarot cards. Though not superstitious by nature, he was able to “suspend my disbelief at my own ignorance” for the sake of friendship and intrigue and asked the chaos magic where the music should go next. He was pleasantly surprised to hear that the cards agreed his songwriting should become more instinctive in the future; “rather than trying to build this great symphonia you should go back to the skeleton, the elemental parts that make things work”. By removing any expectation, either external or pressure placed upon himself within, he feels he will once again be able to return to an almost childlike state of freedom and through playfulness he can avoid the harmful effects repression as warned of by Moreno to be able to fully explore whatever sonic avenues he decides to stroll down next.

While many musicians find themselves burnt out by their debut album and spend the rest of their career trying to repeat it with diminishing return, Mills seems energised by the prospect of embracing possibility and promises something new early next year; “I’ve got a lot of ideas about it and I’m writing all the time. I’m just excited to see where it ends up. I’m not going to try limit myself or contrive anything. It’s getting a sense of feeling and the feeling should dictate where it goes.” While he doesn’t yet know if it’s going to be an EP, an album or something that totally defies any sort of format, I get the feeling we can all look forward to another smouldering soundtrack of existential discovery.

Anthropocene is currently available on limited edition Electric Blue Double 12” vinyl from the Burning House Bandcamp page here. They see the year out with a headline date at The Wave Maiden in Southsea on November 23rd and play support for Phobophobes at Bar 42 Worthing on December 1st.

Tour dates:

Jimi Arundell

Jimi Arundell

Journalist and blogger specialising in music and politics from Hull, UK (currently residing in Nottingham). DJ, socialist and Manic Street Preachers obsessive who is excited by anything nasty, loud and intelligent.

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Indie is not a genre

Indie is not a genre