BISS List Interview with Ethan Miller of Howlin Rain: (1.14.19)

By BISS List Contributing Editor, Josh Danson

Howlin’ Rain – and the band’s leader, the bearded and blazing Ethan Miller – are a force of nature. This is a band that should be consumed with friends while standing barefoot in the middle of a Northern California field on a sunny spring day, with gnarled coastal oaks and vertiginous redwoods providing the backdrop. Or barring that, in some appropriately funky music hall that allocates more for its killer sound system than on niceties of décor, service or swag.

Miller has been bending strings and blowing minds in the Bay Area since his first band, Comets on Fire, blasted appreciative crowds with an intense, uncategorizable sound akin to a sonic blowtorch. Originally from the Lost Coast town of Eureka in far northern California, Miller has put down roots in the Bay Area but has never left the wild and untamed too far behind.

In the past few years, in addition to his work in Howlin’ Rain, Miller has put out albums with his other bands – Heron Oblivion and Feral Ohms – while also finding the time to found a record label (Silver Current Records), and publish a book of poetry. This is man driven to create who seeks the dynamism of contrast and extremes.

Howlin’ Rain’s latest studio album, The Alligator Bride, couldn’t be more different than his early work with Comets on Fire (or his recent work with Heron Oblivion or Feral Ohms, for that matter), but on some level they’re all of a piece, in that they all represent a piece of who Miller is. Where his work on Comets on Fire was loud, brazen and experimental, this latest album with Howlin’ Rain represents Miller’s more mature, mellowed and melodic side, but still with a driving fire and funk. Harkening back to bands like Crazy Horse, CCR, early ZZ Top, and even the good ol’ Grateful Dead, Howlin’ Rain sounds familiar, while managing to let their own chemistry and artistry shine through to create something distinctly new.

I spoke with Ethan on the phone the other day as he was getting ready to embark on a West Coast tour with Howlin’ Rain about his career, influences, genre associations and the forces the drive his creative output.

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity. 

BL: Your music is often described as “Psychedelic,” or as some hyphenated subgenre thereof (Psych-Folk, Psych-Punk, Psych-Surf, whatever). Do you accept that label and if so, what does it actually signify to you?

EM: Yes, I accept it. But after pushing 19 or 20 years of trying to figure out if you can control the genre or subgenre of music that people describe your band as, you finally realize you can’t. You’ll drive yourself crazy. I actually learned that the first year that we did Comets on Fire, when we first got started – enough that there was actually press about a band I was in – the article would say, ‘Hopped up metal punx…,’ you know, like p-u-n-x? ‘Comets on Fire rage into…!’ And we would be like, ‘Metal punx?? What is that? That’s not us! We can’t wear that. Get that off there.’ But then you just, I don’t know, you learn to just accept it.

So, I don’t know if there’s one definition, but I’ve kind of come up with my own way of explaining it. But really as long as people are speaking about it in a positive way, and usually these days they are, I’m OK with it. Maybe 20 years ago when people said ‘psychedelic’ they might’ve meant that this is some really obscure subgenre from the past, or it was somehow antiquated, just some retro thing from the 60’s that nobody really listens to anymore. But of course now there are groups that are labeled ‘psychedelic’ that make the Billboard Top 100, like Tame Impala. So in 20 years, that genre category has moved around a lot and I really don’t have any control over it, one way or another. It’s better than a lot of things people could say, even in a loving way, genre-wise because it still has radical, transformative, druggy connotations and all those are….

BL: Applicable??

EM: Sure, yeah. But they’re nice to have. They’re cool. Because it’s just a little more descriptive than saying, ‘Yeah we’re a Rock n’ Roll band.’ Or whatever. Some people say, ‘Oh no, Howlin’ Rain’s not psychedelic. That’s more of a Rock n’ Roll thing.’ But probably if people can get into an argument about what genre you are, or what sub-genre, that a positive thing in and of itself.

BL: Right. And it’s kind of like that famous supreme court explanation of “What is pornography? Well, I know when I see it.’ It’s something like that. What is Psychedelic music? You know it when you hear it.

But anyway, I just wondered if you had ever developed or thought about a specific definition for psychedelic music – if you are going to be included within that genre.

EM: Well, my specific definition of psychedelic music is that it’s a type of music that is transportational. That is, it’s not about the types of pedals the players use. It’s not about the genre trappings… like, ‘These guys wear paisley, they’re really psychedelic.’ It’s about when a band is creating their own little universe, on their own terms, and you are transported from your place on the couch, or your place on the floor at the concert venue, to a different headspace that is fully guided and dictated by the artists.

I think any kind of music can do that, but when bands really set out to do that, they’re not necessarily supposed to be a hard glass reflection of what stands before them and reality, that they’re more a type of group that… Rather than, ‘Let me step into your space and reflect a bit of your life back to you,’ kind of music, it’s more like, ‘If you cross this line, and you step into our space on our terms, that’s that. You’re now in a different world for a little bit.’ And I think that you find different kinds of artists in all different major genres that you can think of that do that. You know, when you put them on you’re like, ‘I’m going to have to deal with this on their terms and in order to enjoy this music I’m going to have to step into their world and get lost.’ And that’s the joy of engaging with this artist and this record or their live experience. And some of that is true for any good record or live experience. But to me that was kind of – I had to talk a lot about the psychedelic music genre in the Comets on Fire years. We were part of the time period when that genre label went from, ‘Is that even a thing?’ to, ‘This is a thing and it’s becoming a force in independent music.’ So after having been asked that question a lot of times I asked myself, well what are we talking about here? Are we just talking about scratchy old 7-inch albums from lost bands in paisley outfits, or is it about the equation of bright sounds creating colorful music the way psychedelia does for your eyes? And so that’s finally what I boiled it down to: It’s music that transports you to an alternate micro-universe.

BL: You have recently been touring in support of Howlin’ Rain’s latest album, Alligator Bride, which has met with a lot of critical success. One of the things that leapt out at me when listening to it was the obvious parallel, or sense of homage – to Crazy Horse on the title track – and to other forebears of straight-ahead Rock n’ Roll elsewhere on the album. You obviously have a wide range of influences, but was connecting those dots a self-conscious song-writing decision, or did that sound and vibe grow out of the sessions themselves?

EM: Yeah, I think so. I had a couple of touchstones that I wanted to pay homage to. Like “Alligator Bride,” the song – originally, I had written it as a really late-night, simmering, just me by myself with a lit candle in a room with a concrete floor and wooden walls, kind of song. Thinking, maybe this’ll be the last song on the record, just this really intimate late-night burner. You know, just kind of barely brushing the strings of a nylon guitar with my hand and singing low. An intimate song about psychic time travel – about present, future and past. But Dan [Cervantes], the guitarist in Howlin’ Rain, I showed it to him and we’d run through a lot of other songs for the record and I said, ‘I’ve got this other one but I’m probably just going to do it myself and maybe add a little thing to it. I don’t even know if we need to do it.’ So I showed it to him, just to get his thoughts and Dan was like, ‘Oh man, I think that song – its lyrics and its chorus – I think it could be a much bigger song. I think the chorus could be anthemic-sounding… that song could be one of the great Rock n Roll songs on the record.’ And I was like, ‘Nah, I’m not seeing it.’ But we gave it a try. And at first it came out seeming a little Jackson-Browne’ish. So I said I think the way we’re doing it is not very far off, if we did it little more towards the Crazy Horse end of the dial. You know, get it out of the Jackson Browne territory a little bit.

BL: Right. Like, a little less Laurel Canyon and a little more On the Beach?

EM: Yeah, if you take away the buzz guitars and the more plodding beat, you get something that’s more like, I don’t know, “Running on Empty.” Because it’s kind of got that wistful, reflective, but still kind of driving thing going on. So, the next day I said, ‘You know Dan, I think you’re on to something. But let’s see if we can break it down and make it a little more caveman.’ Like Crazy Horse.

Honestly, I love Neil Young, and when you put on the fuzz pedal and play chords that use all six strings and start doing the whammy bar washes, you’re getting into Neil Young territory no matter what. But what I really wanted to take from Crazy Horse was the way that, and I think how I described it to the guys was like, in that Zuma era, they’re just so ragged and barely holding it together-sounding, but at the same time totally unbreakable. Like it’s barely staying on the rails, and yet there isn’t an ounce of fragility. There’s this monolithic quality that is somehow just so unique to them.

Our go-to thing is not to play simply – the drum beats, the different parts – so that’s how Alligator Bride ended up using the Crazy Horse model as, ‘Let’s break this down to just primal elements that are kind of bashed out, with just a deep feeling that doesn’t have to have to include a lot of changes or have anything complex about it.’ Just bashing, bruising, emotion that just keeps rambling on, you know? So that’s how the thought process boiled down on something like that – rather than me sitting down initially and saying, ‘We need a goddamn Crazy Horse song on this record,’ you know? So I’m going to sit down and figure out which Crazy Horse song I like the best and then rip that one off. It’s more like working through things and then finding the reference points to keep distilling them down. Ironically, people would probably say something like, ‘Oh, those guys doing something that sounds like Crazy Horse, what a no-brainer.’ But with this band, I think that’s actually one of the reasons people liked that song a lot was it was something different from what we usually do. Having the rhythm section boil down to that level of simplicity, was… frankly, it was an interesting challenge. And one that I think was successfully met.

BL: Yeah, for sure. So, tell me a little bit more about the guys on the Alligator Bride sessions. You’ve had a couple of different lineups for Howlin’ Rain, but on the most recent album you included a couple of LA-based musicians, Jeff McElroy [Bass] and Dan Cervantes [Guitar], that you had been playing with live but hadn’t previously recorded with. Is that right?

EM: Well Jeff and Dan have been with me in the live band since about 2015. I think 2014 was the first time that I ever met them. My manager was friends with them from a band that they were all in from a previous life.

I didn’t have a band in 2014. It was after The Russian Wilds [produced by famed impresario Rick Rubin over the course of four years and still a lingering source of some consternation], everyone was gone and I was kind of like, ‘What the fuck?’ The economy was going crazy in San Francisco, most of the touring musicians had moved to LA, so I was just like, ‘Man this is tricky living in the Bay Area and trying to put a band together that can tour and do all the stuff I want to do.’ So, he said, ‘Why don’t you play with these guys and see what it’s like?’ So instead of me doing normal auditions or something like that I said, ‘Well, it’s about time for me to start working on my next record anyway, so why don’t I book some studio time in LA and we’ll walk in cold and these guys can help me record for a couple days and I’ll feel them out that way.’ Instead of, let’s go into a room and play my songs and see how these guys sound. Because I thought if they’re as creative… if they’re as interesting characters as they sound like they’re supposed to be, and they’re that good of players, then I know we can record something cool. So that was a pretty nice bonding experience. I really liked doing that. I mean, everybody hates audition-type shit. On both ends. Especially the guys who are auditioning. And that goes for whether you’re in Metallica or the deepest underground band. It’s just not fun. Not creative.

So that was a nice way to get together. And after that they joined the touring band and we went through some different drummers and then, when it came to time to do this record, we brought Justin Smith into the mix in the same exact way. Instead of auditioning him as a drummer to play on the record, I just said, why don’t we have him just meet us for our rehearsals that we’re going to do for this record, and he can rehearse with us for a weekend, and work on the demos with us, and help us arrange the songs and let’s see how that feels to just pretend that he’s in the band instead of seeing if he could be in the band. And at the end of the weekend, we were all like, ‘Cool! That felt good. Let’s keep going.’ So we did three two-day rehearsals and then recorded the record. And that was it. We didn’t rehearse that record for three years. We didn’t write it forever. I wrote a ton of songs, went down the first little two-day rehearsal session and we played through them rather quickly to see which ones the band came to life on. At the end of that we had a list. Had two more rehearsals where we rehearsed those songs up and then the fourth time we met in the studio and recorded them and that’s what you got with The Alligator Bride.

BL: Very cool. Clearly it worked out great. There’s something about the combination of Jeff’s bass, Dan’s slide, Justin’s driving, bass-heavy, lower register drumming, with your wailing tremolo and plaintive vocals on top that kind of sends you back to some older, weirder time, and gets your feet stomping and your head bouncing. “Chooglin’,” as some have called it.
When did you recognize that as the sound you were looking for – for this latest incarnation of Howlin’ Rain – or did you go into the sessions with that sound already in your head? Was that something that you went out looking for when you brought in those particular musicians, or was it just what happened to materialize when you started playing with those guys?

EM: I’m not sure about that. I think on this record it was more about the songwriting and then the band’s attention to the language that they used to express those songs. And part of it was that process of boiling down the song choices. When we played something there were a couple things I was looking for when I played them the basic song – play them the chords, sing them the chorus and then the verse. Then we’d run through. And you could almost immediately tell in that first run-through if the band was hearing and speaking it as one. If you’re like, yes, this band, as a single entity, as one creature, just took a bite out of this thing and is really liking the way it tastes. And then it’s speaking out the other side of its mouth, the music’s coming out and it’s clear this is a natural expression for this band. And then another song, you try it and you’ll be like, ‘Yeah, it’s not really…” You can tell, the band’s not – it’s not their language. Or they love it, but they just don’t quite understand it. And in that case I might say, ‘Let’s try it one more time with this in mind,’ and if it still was like the band’s chewing on it but they’re not really sure what they’re chewing on, or what’s coming out the other side of the mouth isn’t quite cohesive, or comprehensible to me, I’ll just be like, ‘Fuck it, let’s put that aside. We’ve got plenty of songs here.’ And we just kept that list of songs that were basically the first time we played them, or the second time. That’s not to say that some of those other things might not have been, with enough time or energy, THE masterpiece of our career, but I wanted that immediacy and I wanted things to sort of jump out at the listener off the record in that same way.

I think that’s part of what’s natural about… you know, the “chooglin’” description is about a certain kind of natural feeling, a certain natural-ness, of groove or expression, that’s not the most overthought thing. It doesn’t have to do with musical theory and a big study session to figure out how the song works. That term comes out of Credence Clearwater when they were really kicking it in the groove super deep and were like, ‘We may not be coming out this place for a long time. We’re right where we’re supposed to be right now and it feels infinite.’ And furthermore, I don’t want to go anywhere for long time either. I feel like these guys are connecting with me and I’m bouncing down a dirt road in the back of a pickup truck and the sun’s beating down and we’re feeling good. So, I think that’s how that ended up boiling down, that vibe that you’re talking about.

BL: Sounds like you still have quite a bit of unreleased material that you’ve recorded at The Mansion [Eric Bauer’s famed indy/garage-rock studio located in downtown San Francisco] over the past few years that has not yet seen the light of day. Any sense of when you might have enough material for the third album of your so-called “Mansion Trilogy”, or is that still a ways off?

EM: No, I don’t think it’s very far off. I’m still kind of figuring it out, but I like that I set out calling the Mansion Trilogy a trilogy because I had no idea what was going on in 2014, or what I was going to do, but I liked the idea of setting out a mission for myself and one that would kind of remain mysterious. Like I have certain ideas and it’s inspiring to me, the idea of this trilogy. Originally, I thought, what I’ll do is… The first one will be Mansion Songs, which came out before Alligator Bride and it’ll be like a deconstructed version of Howlin’ Rain. I have no band. Basically, Heron Oblivion went in there and performed with me. And I thought, I won’t even really show them the songs on most of these. Some of the stuff on Mansion Songs is literally first take, where I was in a different room than the band and I only told them the key of the song basically. And I was like, ‘You’ll get it, we’re just going to sort of…’ like the song “Restless,” on there, is just this oozing thing. I think Cyrus [Komiskey, bass and backing vocals] was in there too, so it’s like a four or five-piece band improvising their way through what’s basically a deconstructed fifties pop song. And I wanted to capture not only the first take, but the first moment that anyone even considered the thing.

BL: Very Zen.

EM: Yeah. Well, for me it was just a fun project. That may or may not be what anyone else wants to hear from Howlin’ Rain. Like you said, I think people’s favorite is more like The Alligator Bride – that intimate, not as complex, connection with the listener. But that was part of the Trilogy. My original conception was we’d start there: No band, just different musicians, helping me put this thing together, capturing the messy moment where it just barely comes together. And the second album, I thought, would be the sound of a rock band re-forming and coming back to life. It would be back up on its legs. It’s moving. It’s rehearsed to some degree. And then the third album would be – It’s come all the way. It’s a full triumphant, dominant rock band again. Playing high level rock n’ roll. But the interesting thing is, I think Alligator Bride is kind of that third record. We went all the way…

BL: Right? Like, how do you top that?

EM: Yeah, I felt like the band is re-formed, we have the whole band together. It’s the four of us, like the Four Muskateers. Nobody’s just hired on for the tour, or in another band, or anything like that. Like, we’re in this – Zen. And I felt like for the first time in a long time the band had a full complete musical expression that was in and of itself, that was pure Howlin’ Rain. So that leaves me with an interesting question. Luckily, I wasn’t holding on too tightly to any of the tenets of the Trilogy concept, so now I’m like, ‘OK, that’s interesting. What exactly do I do with the third record?’ I’ve got a lot of material. Some of which was some of the favorite stuff that we recorded for the last record or the record before, in the Mansion Trilogy, but they didn’t quite fit with the vibe of the album. Or the album was too hot. Or too long. And it was like, ‘Wow we need to cool it down, we can’t have another huge number in there like that.’ So yeah, we’ve got stuff that I thought was some of our strongest material that just needs a different home for it to be in its rightful place. I’m at that moment right now where I’d like to record  soon but I have to have just a moment to breathe – hopefully after this tour – psychically and artistically, just let my head breathe for just a second, so I can be like, ‘Ahhh, OK. Here’s what we should do.’ And then see if the band is on board as well. Then we run down that concept a little bit, you know?

BL: Right. I hear you. So, you mentioned having recorded with Heron Oblivion for the Mansion Songs record, and I was listening to the standalone album that you guys put out on SubPop back in 2016, which is a definite departure from the sound you create with Howlin’ Rain. I’d describe it as a kind of heavy “Prog-Folk/Folk-Prog” – speaking of meaningless genre-labels – Psych-Prog-Folk??

Meg Baird has a beautiful, haunting voice that’s reminiscent of Sandy Denny from Fairport Convention. Towards the end of Track 3, “Your Hollows,” she hits this sustained high soprano note that’s eventually echoed by and bleeds into a sustained guitar note which eventually leads into a heavily distorted, feedback-laden outro jam…

EM: Right.

BL: …And it just struck me as such a cool moment. Like a “Wow!” moment.

EM: It’s a good moment. We were definitely aware of it too. [Laughs]

BL: Right? How could you not be??

EM: Yeah, we recorded it mixed directly and we were like, ‘Yeah, this is a moment, let’s see how this works here.’

BL: Totally. And it seemed to me to kind of symbolize some of the things you do in a lot of your music, where you explore the line between the organic and the man-made, between music and noise, form and chaos. Does that make sense?

EM: Yeah. I mean, you’re talking about the dynamic of life. That’s the core of everything. The Yin and Ying. The black and white. Loud and soft. Those dynamics are the source of all stimulus. In relationships with people. In art. In music. And if you’re going to have something where the power is going to be in its monotone, then the dynamic has to be a heavy intellectual dynamic. But they have to be there, or there’s no interest. So I think artistically and in life, I think dynamics and the search for balance is what all successful artists and people in their relationships pay the closest attention to, of all the aspects of their work or life. And when they do that’s where psychic and creative power lies.

BL: Yeah, that sweet spot.

EM: I think so.

BL: I’m wondering, with all the stuff you have going on creatively, three projects at once – Howlin’ Rain, Heron Oblivion and Feral Ohms – all with different sounds and different styles, if you ever feel a sense of schizophrenia? Or are they all discreet enough that they represent distinct parts of your creative outlook, or that allow you to scratch all of your different creative itches?

EM: I know what you’re saying. But I never have a problem with feeling schizophrenic. Like, ‘Oh man, I’m doing too much and they all sound the same.’ Or something like that. The problem is that sometimes it’s a little overwhelming scheduling-wise. I want to have my life be filled up… I feel like creativity is life, for me. In my mind. I want my life to be filled with creativity. And I feel like I function highest, I work best, when I’m working creatively. But to be creative, you have to also let your mind have a moment to recharge. And maybe it’s just a few hours… But it’s not really about hours and days or specific time, but more about having the subconscious, psychic space to let natural subconscious prompts and ideas and interpretations of what can be done, let those things just happen. You can’t just grind 24/7. Just like physically working. I mean, you can try and work 27 hours straight. Yes, it’s possible. Try doing to for 50 hours straight. Maybe. But at some point, if you want to keep lifting those things and doing it physically you have to go to sleep and let your body rejuvenate to start working again. And I think the main thing, whether you’re dealing with one group or a number of groups, even if you’ve got five different projects that you’re working on – the trickiest thing is just letting a group, or a project, or an idea be what it wants to be. That’s kind of what I was talking about when we went through the songs for The Alligator Bride record and I was seeing how does the group want to express. Here’s these skeletal songs and we’d play them once and I could hear immediately if the band is being what it wants to be. If it’s saying what it wants to say through those songs. That’s the trickiest thing, in the first place – just reminding yourself, don’t try to goddamn force the group to be this thing or that thing and don’t try to force an idea or a song to be this thing or that thing. Just try to keep your receptors open and really be in tune with the minute dynamics of where it’s trying to live and what it’s trying to be and then just usher those into existence – don’t fuck it up.

BL: Right [laughs]. Give it the creative space it needs to exist.

EM: Right, like a doctor giving birth. You’re not like, ‘Oh the baby’s looking a little funny coming out, let me see if I can squeeze its head a bunch of different ways and see if I can change it right now.’ No, you just pull it out and let it live. And do no harm. It’s like the Hippocratic Oath. And with bands. Like if you’re the Feral Ohms you don’t go like, ‘Let’s do a Hip-Hop album because I’m bored with loud music.’ You just have to listen to what that thing is that the members create to make this one unified being, and that being is Howlin’ Rain, or the Feral Ohms. It’s its own Frankenstein’s monster, or little child, or whatever you want to call it.

BL: Cool. Well that kind of nicely brings me to the question that I’ll wrap up with here. If you look back over your career – from Comets on Fire, to the earlier Howlin’ Rain albums, to Heron Oblivion and the Feral Ohms, to this latest Howlin’ Rain album – do you recognize a logical trajectory, or linear development, or has it been more a case of just following your musical bliss, as it were, and just letting come what may?

EM: [Laughs] Yeah, probably the latter. I don’t know about logical. I’m not sure there’s been anything logical about my career, but I do appreciate it. There’s been all kinds of up and downs in it. I think everybody, even really financially successful artists, will tell you that 10, or 20 years, or 30 years of doing it… Even Bruce Springsteen talks about the crazy ups and downs. Moments when you’re in. When you’re out. Moments when everybody loves you, or moments when everybody says, ‘Ehhh, you’re kind of shit. And sort of what we don’t like anymore.’ So those things, on either a big or small level, they kind of come and go. So once again, the dynamics play out. And no one beats those dynamics of good times and bad times, when you’re talking about a career, or an artistic trajectory, or any of those things. And more than really loving or hating anything about my trajectory, I accept it. And you keep looking forward and pushing and being creative and trying to create. And I think when it comes to the strictly artistic, yeah, you just follow the natural course, again. You try to just listen to the wind of what’s kind of whistling in your ear there and just say, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ Or, ‘Let’s start a group with these people,’ and check it out and if it feels good you know that feeling is the same, whether it’s your first year of music, or your 20th year of playing and putting out records. When the group creates that extra member that’s just it speaking as a unified thing, that’s when you’re like, ‘OK, guess we’re going to have to make a record!’

BL: Well on that note, I want to say thank you for your time and I look forward to seeing you at The Independent on the 19th!

EM: Thanks man.
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Howlin’ Rain plays The Independent, at 628 Divisidero St. in San Francisco, on Saturday, Jan. 19th. You can purchase tickets here.