Howlin Rain Is Not Seeking Perfection:
Ethan Miller on Leading “An Artistic Life”
Words by Steve Melone
Photo by Kristy Walker
Howlin Rain returns with its fifth studio album, The Alligator Bride on June 8th. The band’s direction weighs prominently on the shoulders of frontman, Ethan Miller, who’s excited to play live with the band’s new characters. The record will be the first Howlin Rain release with Miller’s label, Silver Current Records. There he retains creative control throughout the productive chain. He heads the band with the help of drummer Justin Smith, bassist Jeff McElroy, and guitarist Dan Cervantes, who splits six string duties. From his earlier days in Comets on Fire to his recent work with Heron Oblivion, Feral Ohms and The Odyssey Cult, Miller continues to make authentic music with a work ethic driven by a love for what he does.
Growing up along the ‘lost coast,’ has been part of Miller’s musical makeup. Particularly in the earlier years when he performed with Comets on Fire, the essence of such an isolated locale makes an impact.
“We’re pushing two decades out from that time”, Miller reflects. “I’m far enough away from those [influences] that I’ve gone back and revisited some of those things that I totally absorbed at that time and went, ‘if I listen to this Sir Lord Baltimore record one more time I’m gonna go blind!’ And then twenty years goes by and there’s something about this record that really stimulates you. You hit that spark again cause you almost wiped them out again in your mind.”
Bubble Puppy, Mighty Baby and Mountain Bus are some references that have resurfaced since Miller had some conceptual overlap between the new Howlin Rain album and the band’s initial record.
“When I did this new record I wanted to be kind of raw and live”, he declares. “That sort of freewheelin’ feeling that was my state of mind on the first record. Like, ‘what’s kind of funky, up-tempo, fuzzy and sort of breezing through the takes?’ We’re trying to get a Polaroid snapshot here of a really evocative moment. When the first Howlin Rain record came out critics referenced some of the things they thought it sounded like. Mighty Baby and Mountain Bus – these lost psych records. I kind of breezed through the references if I hadn’t heard them before and was like, ‘that’s pretty cool!’ I went back to a few of those that I never totally digested all the way, like the Mighty Baby record. It had more interest for me listening to it in context with what we were about to do with The Alligator Bride. When someone throws something like that at you, you listen to it after you’d made the record. It’s just for my listening pleasure as a fan, but when you listen to it before you make the records, sometimes it’s got resonance, blueprints and different things. You could always use a little grab bag – ‘oh what should we do with this bridge, or this part?’ So ironically, I did absorb some information from the critics from fifteen years ago, and put it into one of the albums that’s coming out next week!”
Recording is a sonic process that can determine the spirit of a record. For Miller it’s better to differentiate between albums, even preferred.
“I try to create a varying experience for the fans, for the band, and for myself – from record to record”, Miller shares.
The difference in The Alligator Bride compared to Howlin Rain’s last album, Mansion Songs, can also be attributed to a change in personnel. On Mansion Songs, Miller was in part dealing with the fallout from Howlin Rain’s The Russian Wilds album, released on American Records. After the break between the label and the band there was an opportunity to create a new experience, especially for Miller himself. That recording process placed more pressure on Miller, and drew on Heron Oblivion as a backing band when necessary.
“The fundamental difference between the making of these two records is I didn’t have a band”, he explains. That was coming out of the backside of The Russian Wilds era Howlin’ Rain. Mansion Songs – a lot of it was off the cuff. I had an emotional vision for the record, but I didn’t have a sonic one because I was kind of the whole thing. It gave me an opportunity to really free-fall into the ether, and to feel the wind around you. That was extremely invigorating. I think in the end the feel of the record is a different thing than the feeling of making it because everything was so unknown. Like, I’m having nine people come down here today, and they’re all going to go in that room together, and I’m supposed to conduct them. I’ll make a whole plan on how to do it, and what song we’re going to do. An hour before we go in their I’ll say fuck that, I’m gonna just take all that off the table and walk in their with a completely new rock concept. That’s adrenalizing because this could be a big waste of time, money and energy. You’re taking a real chance there. Studio time is precious, and you’re really rolling the dice out in the blue yonder with trying to get something good for the day. That’s exhilarating!”
On The Alligator Bride, there’s less freefall and greater ground to dig into with the help of his new band members.
“This one I want to have the sound of a four-piece Rock n’ Roll band, really firing”, Miller continues. “On stage, your mental space is that you’re fifteen feet in front of that band, standing there – just in it. Once we got Justin we said okay, we’ve got a band here! He feels like he’s the fourth member for the first time since the Russian Wilds thing. We’ve got a real four-piece band. We have a central character, a central concept that’s totally unified. This is pure Howlin Rain character here. And once that happened I felt like I really didn’t have to conceptualize anything because what I wanted to do was capture the sound of a great band. Once you got a band that’s doing its thing you set the camera up in the right place, make sure its not too dark, and hit the button at the right moment and capture”.
The Alligator Bride brings listeners the sound of a straight up Rock n’ Roll band. Some say they hear a little Neil Young (particularly in the title track), Bruce Springsteen and The Grateful Dead at times. Songs like ‘Rainbow Trout’ remind one of a guitar sound made famous by Billy Gibbons. The combination of screaming and even howling guitar solos with up-tempo rhythms makes for a head-banging and air-guitaring good time. But in truth, you’ll just have to make up your mind yourself when jumping in.
And like a lot of great rock music, the bells and whistles aren’t necessary here. The chemistry and energy of the group is at the core of this album, and it comes through.
“There’s not gonna be a whole bunch of horns and string sections overdubbed and elaborate stuff”, Miller asserts. “Though there are overdubs on The Alligator Bride, the basic emotion and feel of the album is one of a snapshot of a live band trying to put you in that place with them. So we rehearsed very quickly. I think I went down to three different two-day sessions. We often do eight hours or ten hours a day. The fourth session we were in the studio recording.”
Unlike the Russian Wilds album, which took several years to produce (with a magnifier nearby), Miller has learned to take advantage of a less stressful process.
“I think the reason I like to track quickly, and not have it be a pressure situation is because when we tracked with Heron Oblivion, and when we tracked with Feral Ohms – we’d just gone in and tracked for a day and a half. It wasn’t a crazy thing. We didn’t worry about all this affection in the takes, or anything. Let’s just do like three takes of each song and then move onto the next. It’s a lot less stressed than the other thing when everyone’s seeking perfection. I don’t think I’ll ever be doing that again.”
When it comes to the writing process, Miller approaches the craft with what he describes as a protestant work ethic. “I’m of the theory that you take it however you can get it”, he shares. “When it comes the time to write you just do what Hemingway did at a very basic level. You set aside this many hours a day, and you sit down and you do it. Some people will tell you, well you can’t just force it, but that’s not true. If you want to be a long distance runner you don’t just fucking do that when you feel like it and hope you’re going to be okay when the race comes along. God isn’t putting these songs into you; you’re working on artistic craft. Sometimes you are just in the shower, or you’re out on your jog, and for some unknown reason something that does feel more God given pops into your head. That’s a gift from somewhere and that may be neurons firing in some certain way that it translates into a song or whatever. And at that point if you’ve already been working diligently then you just got all that much more good material to work with. I’ll take it how I can get it, but when it comes time to write, I work.”
The artistic process is an on-going journey that Miller continues to embark on. He continues to perform in numerous groups and runs his record label, Silver Current Records at the same time. Having spent so much life on the road, in the studio and on the stage, I’m curious as to how he has adjusted over the years, if at all.
“The longer that I’m leading an artistic life, the more that I feel that it’s a matter of practice, craft and engagement”, Miller engages. “There’s a reason why people when they’re working constantly; like you look at a Neil Young catalog in the 70’s – those years were so profoundly productive because he’s doing it constantly. Sometimes you have to gauge timing, business and different things a little bit, but generally that’s one of the rewards of really doing it for life. In doing it in your life and having it be your whole life you don’t have to struggle with these bigger questions, cause you’re actually in practice. I like that state, that transfer of energy and engagement with the universe”, he concludes. “Be it something lofty like songwriting, creativity or banging away on a nail. Doing it up is kind of all the same thing.”
Look out for Howlin Rain’s new record, The Alligator Bride due out June 8th and catch the band on tour this summer!
TheWaster.com | The Alligator Bride