Unapologetically influenced by the strong but easygoing grooves of West Coast ’70s rock, Howlin Rain represented something of a change of pace for guitarist and singer Ethan Miller, who previously fronted the psychedelic noise rock ensemble Comets on Fire. After the recording of Comets on Fire’s final album, Avatar, in 2006, Miller was eager to explore the more melodic direction the group had begun pursuing, and with bassist Ian Gradek (who had known Miller since high school) and drummer John Moloney (a member of the like-minded band Sunburned Hand of the Man), he formed a new band, Howlin Rain. Since then, they have recorded sporadically with a constantly evolving lineup. Miller is also a member of Heron Oblivion, Feral Ohms, and the Odyssey Cult.
The independent Birdman Records signed Howlin Rain and released their self-titled debut in 2006, while the band hit the road, touring as an opening act for Queens of the Stone Age, with guitarist Mike Jackson beefing up their lineup on-stage. After touring behind the group’s album, Moloney returned to Sunburned Hand of the Man, and while writing material for the second Howlin Rain album, Miller assembled a new version of the band. Jackson joined Miller and Gradek as a full-time member, alongside new recruits Joel Robinow (ex-Drunk Horse) on keyboards, horns, guitar, and backing vocals; Eli Eckert (also of Drunk Horse) on guitar and bass; and Garrett Goddard (of Cuts and Colossal Yes) on drums.
Rick Rubin, a noted fan of classic ’70s rock, was impressed with the material for Howlin Rain’s second album, and 2008’s Magnificent Fiend was jointly released by Birdman and Rubin’s American Recordings imprint. The band released the digital-only 12″ “The Good Life” in 2010, followed by a limited vinyl release the following year. Also in 2010, Belle & Sebastian selected them to perform at the second Bowlie Weekender in the U.K. (produced and presented by All Tomorrow’s Parties). Howlin Rain subsequently recorded their third full-length, The Russian Wilds, which was co-produced by the band and Tim Green and released by American Recordings/Birdman in early 2012. Concert recordings from the tour were later collected and released in 2014 as Live Rain. Miller had been working on a trilogy in the studio at the time of its release. The first part of that project, Mansion Songs, appeared in January of 2015. After incessant touring for the better part of two years, Miller assembled another incarnation of the band–Daniel Cervantes, bottleneck slide guitar; Jeff McElroy, bass and Justin Smith, drums–for the second installment in the Mansion Songs trilogy, The Alligator Bride. Recorded by Eric “King Riff” Bauer, the band cut everything live to tape in first or second takes with no overdubs. Their attempt was to capture the spirit and vibe of recordings such as the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72, Mountain Bus’ Sundance, and Free’s 1969 classic Fire and Water. Miller categorized the sound of the record as “Neal Casady Rock,” in honor of the inspiration of the unofficial patron saint of the Beat Generation writers. The Alligator Bride was issued in June of 2018 on Miller’s Silver Current Records label.
Credit to: Mark Deming of Allmusic
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Howlin’ Rain on what it’s really like to work with rock-n-roll yogi Rick Rubin
Formed in 2004, Howlin’ Rain are connoisseurs of the soulful sounds of California circa 1969 – the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Little Feat – albeit salted with an extra dose of psychedelic bite. During the late ’00s, the San Francisco-based quintet got an unexpected windfall when it caught the ear of record producer Rick Rubin (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Johnny Cash), who not only offered to produce their next record, but also signed them to his label, American Recordings
.And then… four years went by. But now Howlin’ Rain has finally reemerged with a new LP, “The Russian Wilds” due out on Valentines Day. With the band performing at Red Palace on Friday, guitarist and singer Ethan Miller recently chatted with the Click Track about the record, Rubin, and why it’s hard for a bunch of working stiffs to make an album on an Adele-style schedule.
It’s been four years between your last album “Magnificent Fiend” and “The Russian Wilds.” Where have you guys been?
I don’t know what the deal is exactly with that. It’s one of those things. Your whole life can be like this if you’re not careful. One minute you’re collecting old newspaper scraps from Pearl Harbor from the late ’40s, and then suddenly 20 years go by. Luckily, our obsession stopped at the four-year mark.
But really, what took so long?
Let me lay it out: We toured “Magnificent Fiend” for about a year. When I got home, I thought, ‘What can I do to prepare for this next record to make it go more quickly?’ Write songs. So, I began my part of the songwriting process then. Also, once we came off the road in 2009, that current lineup of the group was breaking apart. It boiled down to just me and Joel [Robinow] and we had to put a new group together. That’s always a trial. We took our time to make sure we got incredible guys who we liked as people. And then we began rehearsing the record. At the time, I was still going back and forth to Los Angeles to meet with Rick. And then we worked all these tunes that Rick and I were going through. All of this stuff too a second to do. Rick pushes you to [write] a lot of songs. Howlin’ Rain songs aren’t just tiny little songs, either. To put 30 or 40 songs on the table takes a lot of time because they’re these crazy ten-minute epic things. And then, in that long span of time, at any given point, things could be going smoothly with Rick and then he’d disappear for a while. That was happening here and there at inconvenient moments.
All of that stuff starts adding up. And on top of that, you start forming a mild to severe obsession about how long it’s been. It starts to consume your whole life. You start becoming kind of a little crazy about it as a survival instinct. I mean normal bands at our level, that don’t have a lot of financial means, usually just disintegrate when they try to make things happen over long periods of time.
I mean, nobody in their right mind wants to work on a record for that long. Especially when they’re just starving artists collectively working on one project for four years. Then we got it done, but we just couldn’t quite get it out under the wire during the dead time Christmas. All these little pieces create this gigantic period of time extension. It became this glacial thing — it’s too big, but it’s still moving. It just keeps moving a little farther and a little farther. That’s the messed up thing, just looking around and seeing the world change. Band’s careers came and went. You’d become a fan of somebody and see them release two albums and a couple of 7”s and have a successful arc and fall out of music history and you’re still there pushing on this glacier. And it’s threatening to crush you.
Rubin is the guy who revitalized Johnny Cash’s career and got Anthony Kiedis, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to write “Under the Bridge.” In short: A heavy, mystical rock and roll presence. What was that like?
The artistic portion of the work is very rewarding. He’s very honest about the music that you’re working on. When you’re opening up into a deep place for your songwriting, it’s a very intimate place. It’s a place where you can easily be damaged by other people. Artistically speaking, Rick is honest to the point where you feel very quickly that you can rely on his musical opinion. He does sit on the inside of the project. He can say, ‘Try a phaser, that might be a cool effect.’ But he also listens to the core of the song. He can turn all that [technical stuff] off and ask himself, ‘Is this really just igniting me on all levels?’ It’s very interesting to have feedback from somebody like that. You don’t feel like somebody is just kissing up to you and you don’t feel like somebody is trying to attack you.
How did you go about working together?
We’d demo songs, he’d listen to them and then he’d give and initial assessment with his eyes closed. Maybe he’d be grooving. Or not. Whatever. First thing, he’d say usually, there’d be one of kind of three extremes: ‘I kind of hated that one, lets move on’ or ‘That one’s great.’ Or sometimes something in between: ‘I really liked the chorus and liked this part, but a whole lot that needs to be fixed there.’ He did a lot of deep, classic producer work – ‘Check out the lead after the chorus, the chord not quite enough suspense. Make it a Dylan-esque moment.’ If I would ever say, ‘I was trying to do this one with a poppy edge,’ he’d say to stop thinking about those things, that your best stuff is going to come from a place you can’t control. He’d tell you to open up and produce your music without thinking about it. I think all songwriters say that their favorite stuff that happens when they just can’t stop a thing from coming out. You know, when you’re scribbling out words and chords and then, suddenly, you banged out a tune. You can’t do that on command. You just get those moments and then write everything else as best you can.
Howlin’ Rain’s sound has changed considerably between the last record and this one. You guys are lot more easygoing now. “The Russian Wilds” has a lot of lightly funky moments – not in the slap-bass sense, but in the Little Feat, bluesy swagger sense. Was that a conscious move?
Most of what you’re hearing, thinking back, I can say that it was kind of a Rick influence. Initially, I was trying to do all these heavy Deep Purple-type songs. Rick said, ‘These are cool and stuff, but I miss the funky edge. There’s nothing funky about this song — it’s heavy, it’s fast, it’s got some Viking style, but I love the harmonies and that funky thing.’ It made me stop and think for a second. Even though we worked hard on that batch of songs, in my quest to keep changing and challenging the other guys, I thought, ‘I gotta be careful with going too far with that and becoming a chameleon.’ That was the point where I started trying to pull back and not let genre guide things as much.
Wait, you wrote a whole separate record that was discarded?
Oh, yeah. We discarded records and records worth of songs. The final song demos – everything written over the past two-and-a-half years – when you put it together, it’s about two 75-minute CDs-full.
So you’re finally done. What do you do now?
That’s the irony. No matter how long you’re making a record and pretending to be like a character from “Moby Dick” or something, in this game you release the record and then you get in the van and go do the gigs. You hope that successful things happen and you can continue making records. I feel, I hope, and by God, if I have anything to say or do about it, this kind of long-haul album making is a chapter that happens once in our lives. Maybe if someday I’ve got the funding, taking four years is a very convenient way to make a record — when everything is comfortable, when everybody is getting paid, and you’re not so far out of a cycle that people aren’t incredibly interested in booking your band.
Very literally, bands try to pursue the album cycles that they do in order to continue engaging with press, the fans, everybody. You buy an album, put it at the front of the stack and then it drifts off. After a couple of years it’s maybe in a box. You can see why people don’t want that to happen, professionally. Just as the buzz is just fading, you hit them with the new one and re-spark that thing. At the same time, I also believe that when you live by those cycles – when you make a record, take four months to set it up, and then it comes out, and then you try to keep that 12-to-14 month cycle going business-wise, a lot of time you find the albums don’t matter as much. In the new model of survival, very often, the album is just a tool to keep the talking points going. In that light, I’m very proud and very sure that we did something that completely and obsessively and sacrificially honored great album making. We honored the idea that an album is an icon, a fetish. It’s the thing that a band or a musician lives to do. It’s their novel. But I’m sure over the next ten years you’ll see us engaging in some yearly album cycles.
Credits to: Aaron Leitko of The Washington Post
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Ethan Miller Commuted to L.A. to Keep Howlin Rain Together
The Oakland psych-rock trio’s latest, The Alligator Bride, is a cohesive collection of sun-drenched, Crazy Horse-approved rock anthems.
Ethan Miller isn’t one to stress about the potential decline of the Bay Area’s music scene. Not anymore, at least.
“The ups and downs of it all — it’s not going to keep me up at night,” he says, sipping tea in his sunny apartment in the hills above Lake Merritt. The walls are lined with books — John Steinbeck, Paul Auster — and records sit 12-deep on the floor next to his couch. Incense fills the air. It’s a space that feels settled and lived-in, and Miller has been here for 15-plus years. He’s been a fixture of the Bay Area’s fuzzed-out rock world for even longer.
The frontman of Oakland psychedelic rock outfit Howlin Rain has been a local Sultan of Shred since his days with Santa Cruz garage-psych rock band Comets on Fire, before transitioning to Howlin Rain’s poetic, ’70s-soaked, epic rock stylings. Their self-titled debut, released in 2006, combined twangy banjo, feedback-heavy guitars, and winding song poems into a somehow logical whole. Since then, the band has released four albums — plus one live recording — each of which has a distinctive sound and feel, thanks to a regularly changing lineup. Their latest release, The Alligator Bride (2018), is a cohesive collection of sun-drenched, Crazy Horse-approved rock anthems, rife with wailing guitar solos, road warrior vibes, and Miller’s powerfully distinctive howl. It’s unlike any other Howlin Rain album, but, per Miller, that’s kind of the point.
“Here’s how I’ve always thought of Howlin Rain: I’ll create a band and I’ll lay down the gauntlet of that band’s spirit,” he says. “I’ll be the caretaker of it. But the changing band members will dictate what the flesh and blood of the thing will be.”
The nebulous nature of Howlin Rain’s membership proved to be a huge point of stress in 2014. The band had wrapped its third album, The Russian Wilds (2012), and essentially, disbanded — all of the other members opted to pursue their own projects. Miller understood, but needed to rebuild a touring band. He started making calls and struck out, again and again.
“The Bay Area was in this moment of flux — all of the musicians were fleeing to Portland and Los Angeles,” he says. “For a minute there, I was like, ‘Dude … This is a goddamn crisis!’ What does a band leader do?”
He did what any Bay Area inhabitant would do for the right gig: commute south. Way south.
“I adapted to being a Bay Area musician by commuting to Los Angeles and San Diego for rehearsals with my band!” he says.
The commute is intense, but worth it. Miller found kindred spirits in guitar player Dan Cervantes and bassist Jeff McElroy. Drummer Justin Smith joined as rehearsals began for The Alligator Bride. Miller thinks that the current lineup is the tightest, most effective iteration of Howlin Rain yet. He was so struck by the band’s chemistry, and fans’ reactions to it, that he dedicated the creation of the album to trying to capture the energy of the band live.
“I was going for almost a cinematic realism feel,” he says of the recording process. “I tried to keep all of the tracks pretty rough sketches. I didn’t want to demo them up with overdubs, or horns, or fucking glockenspiels! I wanted to capture the band speaking their native tongue.”
The Alligator Bride is the second in a conceptual trilogy that Miller developed back in 2014, when Howlin Rain disbanded and, “everything kind of disappeared, all at once.”
Mansion Songs (2015), the first album, was a representation of that moment: Miller had no band, but a lot of songs. He gathered musicians that he’d worked with previously in Howlin Rain and members from Heron Oblivion, with different groupings on different songs. He would give the band a key, but not much more direction. The resulting tracks, often recorded on the first take, were meant to capture the idea of the song coming to life, rather than the most polished version of it.
Miller had thought that the second album would go one step further, showcasing the sound of a band starting to come together and find its voice. But this grouping of Howlin Rain was way ahead of that.
“We’re already at that fully formed place,” he says. “So I’ll need to rethink what that third record is — where the story goes from here. That’s kind of fun, though. And really, who wouldn’t rather have a band over a concept?”
Miller’s waiting for that conceptual spark to come before beginning work in earnest on Howlin Rain’s next album. For that to happen, though, he needs to find some space for the ideas to come. That can be hard to come by: in addition to Howlin Rain’s often frenetic touring schedule, Miller leads two other bands, dreamy psych-folk Heron Oblivion, and scuzzy psych-punk Feral Ohms. He also runs his own record label, Silver Current Records, under which he’s releasing a few live albums, including one from local band Wooden Shjips.
“I’ve been so back to back with different projects lately that it’s been hard to find that moment of psychic vacuum,” he says. “Or, as David Lynch says, ‘When your subconscious can fall down into the deep water and see the big fish in the dark down there.’ ”
Until he takes the plunge, Miller has a West Coast tour with Howlin Rain to look forward to, including a Jan. 19 show at The Independent with Scott Law and Ross James’ Cosmic Twang and Garcia Peoples. Considering Howlin Rain’s current lineup, it promises to be a raucous, high-energy affair.
The band is “ready to climb the walls, do cartwheels and backflips and stuff,” Miller says. “Like, ‘Hey, settle down, don’t knock my amp!’ But mostly, they drive my energy up. Like, wow, we’re all looking like a Fraggle dust storm up on stage here.”
The musicians may be relatively new, but Miller thinks they may embody the quintessential Howlin Rain spirit more than any other. It’s a satisfying feeling of realization, or return. And it goes to show that, sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“That kind of summarizes the Bay Area for me, a little bit,” he says. “I’ll go to a gig at the Nightlife or the Ivy Room, and you’ll still see a lot of bands that were playing when I first started coming down from Humboldt and going to shows in the ’90s. These East Bay punk rockers are still there, still playing, and probably will until the day they die. That feels pretty magical.”
Plus, we may be just an earthquake away from another artist’s renaissance in the Bay.
“You live long enough, things change over. At some point, the earth might open up the ground, and the artists will come back because it’s all fucked up and dangerous again!” He pauses and laughs, going to tend to the whistling kettle. “‘Make Oakland Dangerous Again!’ Put that on a bumper sticker.”
Credits to: Lauren Sloss of SFWeekly
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Howlin’ Rain and Buster Blue play the Reno As Fuck four year anniversary party at Revison Brewery on September 7th, 2019.
Psychedelic warehouse party with Howlin’ Rain and Buster Blue. We are bringing out all the stops with the Mad Alchemy analog light show.