Interview week: Howlin Rain's Ethan Miller

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Howliin' Rain is one of the bedrocks of San Francisco's psychedelic blues scene. Ethan Miller founded the group while still playing with Comets on Fire, another important mid '00s psych outfit, deciding that he wanted to go bigger with the sound, anchoring his new group's perspective squarely in the land of the arena: massive organs and guitars explode Miller's vocals all over bigger stages. With the release The Russian Wilds earlier this year, Howlin' Rain has taken to the road, with a short East Coast jaunt in July and an expansive European festival tour in September. (Tour dates below.) You can check out a full album stream of The Russian Wilds here.

San Francisco is lighting up the buzz charts with bands more than ever these days. Why do you think that is? Do you feel that the Bay as a whole has become more prolific since the early days of Comets on Fire?

I don’t think so. The Bay Area always has a lot of stuff going on musically, sometimes more in certain genres than others but it seems to keep a steady flow. I think a lot of Bay Area bands are ready to tour, so sometimes when a band gets a little buzz on a record they hit the road for the year, and with a lot of bands out on the road sometimes it feels like things are a little dry. But in actuality there’s a tremendous amount of music happening – it’s just not happening on a local level right then. That cycle seems to ebb and flow in the Bay Area fairly heavily.

Do you feel that SF has woken the world up from being the talent sleeper cell we were for the bulk of the oughts?

I don’t have a clue about that. For me the oughts was a great decade in music and I am incredibly thankful for the music that I got to be around, see and take part in. That was my first decade in music beyond a local level and I have to say it was a goddamn ball! Every decade and generation has its challenges in cutting through the the layer of shit that sometimes accumulates at the top of a generally good brew, even in their own forward thinking vision or talent. I’m not sure that I’ve seen some great leap forward in the quality of vision, talent, and music being produced since 2010 and forward compared to the previous decade's output.

With your move to American Recordings, it seems like you, Rick Rubin and the band engaged in an honest and creative matter. How has Rubin's approach affected your approach to song craft?

Rick got me digging deeper. He can be abstract at times about suggestions and direction, but I really like that. I often think musically in colors and textures, and literary and emotional abstracts, and I think that can be a zone that can stump a lot of musicians. But I dig it, and understand that form of musical communication for the most part. There are, of course, times that Rick’s abstracts can go beyond anyone else’s understanding, but that’s a fun challenge. Mostly I think Rick pushes an artist to try and close their mind to the voices coming from different parts of the brain (and externally) and let the true muse do the talking and guiding from deep within…try not to think about what to write or how to write, try to keep the windows open for those strange mysterious spirits of songs to come in and possess you.

What is Rubin like these days? The stories you hear about from over the years are epic, I tried getting photographer Glen E. Friedman to open up about any good Rick stories but he got a little irritated and refused to tell us anything.

Hmm. I don’t really have any encapsulated anecdotes from our working together except for the levitation one, or the Malibu LSD lost weekend one, but you’ve probably heard me tell those a million times. Rick does have a real Pterodactyl skeleton that he wrapped around his body like a cloak and would sort of do a deep listening/ meditational dance type thing with this prehistoric Pterodactyl skeleton on him while we listened through song demos some days…that was a trip.

I have heard that an album’s worth of demo takes were shelved during the recording of Russian Wilds. Will this material ever appear on an official bootleg or a future re-released and re-mastered Russian Wilds triple disc-er?

Undoubtedly elements from the stack of tapes and hard drives of demos, songs left off the album, etc will make their way out. Some of it is great but didn’t work with the final vibe, and lots of the demos are of great multi-track quality. I don’t think we’ll keep them too deeply under lock and key. I suspect they’ll make their way out there if the interest is there.

You seemed to have spent a great deal of time with Rick on the album. Were there shared holidays spent together, sharing wisdom over dinner, yoga sessions, etc?

No. It was mostly pleasurable work time spent together. In the early days there was some hangs to listen to tunes and plot the future that weren’t work-related, but I think for both of us work is social and one of the most pleasurable forms of interaction with our peers, so a work day in rock and roll serves many masters within one's self.

Did Rick veer your taste more toward LA '70s AM radio like some have suggested?

No. I think it’s going to be hard for Howlin Rain not to have elements of '70s am rock in its DNA – it’s a sound and a spirit of adventure that we seem to shine out without thinking about it.

What has the road from Comets on Fire to Howlin' Rain shown you as an artist?

That no group is easy to keep together, to keep vital, to make survive, and the full-on engagement with the artistic process and creation is a worthwhile pursuit but one that will consume your life.

In the time you have spent making Russian Wilds what have you discovered about the recording and craft process?

Too much to begin to respond about in a few sentences. My life was the recording and craft process for the last 4 years. I can’t just sum it up for no other reason than the fact that I already feel like it’s possibly ridiculous and insane that I spent 4 years working on one record and I don’t want to compound that reflection with bite size summary of the event. I hope you’ll be hearing what I learned over the last 4 years shining through on the albums I make over the course of the rest of my life.

How was it working with Earthless's Isaiah Mitchell on guitar on the new album?

It was great. And it is wonderful to have him as a full time member with us on the road now. He is beautiful singer and a tremendous guitar player. He brought a lot of soul and blues fire of a different kind than Joel or I do to the table.

What is it like shifting the focus from vintage-feeling psych toward a progressive take on MOR '70s radio?

I didn’t think about doing something like that. We just followed the things that were working. Perhaps we were influenced by the things we were listening to at the time or the larger budget influenced the ability to produce higher quality recordings, technically speaking. But really we just followed up on what was working best in the jam space and what Rick and Tim Green liked best, and the options they heard within the successful songs and structures.

You continue to chase that '70s odd AM California pop sound dream while the contemporary sounds representing California are moving into new directions. What are your thoughts on the current state of Californian popular music?

I’m not sure I know what current California popular music is exactly…commercial LA rock? Bay area hip-hop and club music? LA super hit pop music? I really don’t know much about that stuff other than what comes across on the radio or in my periphery once in a while. Again I just speak the language that I understand and know how to communicate most articulately. To me the “sound” of our music is natural, not vintage.

Artists you are excited about seeing while on tour and beyond in 2012?

I hope to see Black Bananas for one!