I sat down recently for an interview with Ethan Miller of Howlin’ Rain, a couple days before the band’s appearance at Sasquatch. Howlin’ Rain’s record The Russian Wilds was released in February of this year under the aegis of producer Rick Rubin, who signed the band to his American Recordings label a few years ago. Four years in the making, TRW shifts the band’s reference points away from the Bay, evoking instead the sound of southern California circa 1975. Of course, your humble reviewer had her computer expire on her the weekend after this interview, and exhuming it took a few days, but better late than never, as the poet says, except when it comes to waiting for the proverbial man, which should have been the first thing you learned anyway, right? Right-right.
So here you go, post-Sasquatch people. Welcome back to the future!
I’m really interested in how you got from Comets on Fire to Howlin’ Rain. It’s a very different kind of music, you know, sort of the pysch-garage music vs. the kind of epic classic rock that you’re doing now. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
Yeah – I mean, for me it makes sense because for me it’s all part of something that I’m doing so I’m trying to round out a whole, you know, my own creative universe – I get tired of hanging out in just one place in there.
Yeah, of course.
You know, if it’s too crazy or too heavy, whatever, you don’t get to play around with this harmony and the deeper melodies and stuff when you’re playing this nihilistic rock and same vice versa – how in Howlin’ Rain there’s not as much of room for that kind of crazy stuff either – you know, there’s not a lot of nihilism. I guess that’s kind of the yin and the yang of those two things – one of them’s sort of a little bit more redemptive kind of ordered vision of the universe, and the other one’s more a nihilistic vision of the universe, that universe being the creative world that we exist in for either of those groups. But you know, one fulfills a different need, so hopefully at the end of the day it shows the whole thing. I know some people that just like to do a certain kind of thing, whatever, they like to play punk music and that’s what they do all their lives, but I’m hungry to do all that stuff…
Yes, of course. I hear some very unfashionable influences in your music and to me that’s the most punk rock thing about it. You know, “Cherokee Willow” kind of sounds like the Eagles, there’s a Joe Walsh song on there, I hear some Crosby, Stills, and Nash…could you tell me about the artists that inspired you while you were making The Russian Wilds, or maybe the artists that you heard while you were growing up that contributed to you making this record?
I think that those guys, some of those great guys, I mean, Joe Walsh, or CSN – you know, to say that a type of music or a certain record is unfashionable – well, anything that’s older than a year old goes through an unfashionable phase-
I mean, the Beatles are unfashionable at some moment and then all of a sudden you hear people say, oh, the Beatles are fashionable again, you know, because they fucking remastered boxed sets and then they’re number one all of a sudden, you know. Bruce Springsteen’s not fashionable for a second and then he’s back in because then you have the Arcade Fire and all other these people and they’re like, oh my god, the Boss!
Yeah, of course…
But he wasn’t hip in 1991 or 1989 – that’s when it was like, the Boss, whatever dude, I’d rather listen to grunge or something…all that’s just in the eye of the beholder. I can’t even keep up – things are spinning so fast in public opinion is hardly a unified thing or whatever…but some of that stuff is classic. I don’t see how someone can’t, you know, draw on some CSN as an influence, no matter what kind of genre you make, or even if you don’t think you want to make that kind of music. I mean, a lot of timess in Howlin’ Rain, or in Comets on Fire, we draw on some very obscure stuff, you know there could be an interesting point in there. But a lot of times, all of us, every single artist making a record, whether it’s the hippest flash in the pan right now making some shit on a laptop or whatever, or whether it’s a classic rock band, we’re all drawing from these creative foundations of artists that helped create and define genres and help create and define classic records leads to all the obscuro stuff that super hip folks get into…all that stuff either sprang as a reaction to the established classics or was influenced by them…
Oh yeah, don’t get me wrong – I think you’re ahead of the curve mining this stuff. Rock music is coming back. There’s a vacuum out there. What makes the music on The Russian Wilds different from the bands to which you’re being compared in the press these days?
Well, for one thing, it’s my music – it’s our music. Every piece of music is unique, some more so than others – well I guess then you get down to the idea of whether it’s derivative or not. I think that it’s a unique thing – we speak through a unique voice and there’s not another record that sounds like our record, and I think in a way it’s just about trying to make something authentic to yourself even if it has a lot of familiar flavors. It kind of goes back to the idea that the newest freshest thing that you think you’ve ever heard before, you know – this is really different – you know, it’s still made up of the ingredients, the same things that we eat every day. It’s just a matter of opinion. My personal opinion is that we make authentic voice and expression, authentic vision for ourselves. But you know, I agree, this record particularly, if it’s under a genre, you know, it’s a classic rock record.
One of the things I really like about this record is the guitar solos: they’re epic. Could you tell me who influenced your guitar playing?
Some of the classics- the classic greats, Hendrix and all that, but my first guitar influences where I learned how I could play guitar and stuff were more punk rock things – you know, like Johnny Thunders – all of a sudden, I was like, whoa, I could pick that up and do that – what he’s doing is a matter of style and swagger and soulful expression, not perfected shredding. I mean, not only can’t you sit down every day and play 24-7 to master all the notes on the guitar neck or whatever – that’s not going to get you the Johnny Thunders thing – not just that, but too much practice and you’ll never be able to get the Johnny Thunders thing – that’s way too fucking far! That’s what came over me early on – I don’t like fucking sitting around playing all these fucking scales and trying to play like some guitar virtuoso – I just love that, you know, big attitude that I heard right there – where’s he’s like, it comes time for a solo, sometimes he’ll play something like Chuck Berry, but sometimes he just fucking brnnnnnnngggg: slides a giant note up the guitar and just kind of makes it holler. I like that in the early blues playing, you know early Muddy Waters…it’s a lot of that, just moaning, just fucking with the guitar, just moaning – it’s not about perfect tone or perfect pitch, all that stuff… A lot of the punk stuff is the same way, figuring out how to express their own voice outside of their virtuosity…
I wanted to talk to you a little bit about working with Mr. Rubin. He had you guys tour with this material for a long time before recording it?
Well – specifically, rehearsing it. You know, getting that stuff to the right place.
It sounds like it.
Yeah, we rehearsed a long time. We really worked on the stuff for a long time. We worked a lot of material, too – not just those songs right there, a tremendous amount of material, so that we could kind of pick the cream of the crop, and you know, in the end, it was just a little much what we did – I mean, it ended up being years and years to make the record, and it went for hours and hours of collective song demos…you know, you’ve got guys that write a great record, you know, they write their nine songs in a four year span…some people’s whole careers may come and go in half a decade and only write nine or ten great songs…but in this period of four years myself and the band wrote a whole lifetime career full of songs – and that’s just not how I enjoy…I mean, it was cool to do that, but it was also a real challenge.
I think some people are like, oh, every album we do 27 songs and narrow it down to the 12 that are going to be on the record, but those people write three-minute songs with two changes…that’s not what’s going on The Russian Wilds, you know, three seventy-minute disks full of demos of songs like that – there are whole other fifteen-minute songs that didn’t get used – the vision is a little complex to be writing five albums and boiling it down to one 70 minute thing…
So did you guys multitrack this thing to a metronome or what? Are there times when you’re playing together? I’m just curious how you made it…
You know, all the tracking is live – some of the stuff, there may not be a lot of me, you know, my guitar or my voice live on there anymore – they’re probably overdubbed because in a lot of instances I’m singing and playing guitar, getting signals and conducting a little bit about certain things while we’re tracking…most of the bass, drums, and keyboards are all the original tracks – the guitars and vocals are overdubbed for the most part – but that stuff was all done the old fashioned way…
I’m always impressed when people are able to do that these days. It seems like a lot of folks have forgotten the art of playing together as a band. So what are you guys going to do next? What’s next for Howlin’ Rain?
You know what? I don’t know right now- what we’re doing is getting all our ducks together for touring, we’re finishing out the year…maybe see what the winter brings after the new year, but we’re touring Europe in September, we’ll be doing some more West Coast and US touring in October and November – we’re just trying to work the record now on the road and do that – you know, to be honest, the recording process was so…we just did a lot of work and we just haven’t, you know, after three and a half years, putting so much work into it…we haven’t rejuvenated…I think it’s happening right now – the record was just released in February and we’re replenishing the creative supplies. We don’t have time to go write and record a new record at the moment. We’re like, look, that was epic, that was pretty fucking crazy, in a controversial sense, almost ruined the band or whatever, but let’s go work this thing on the road and let the wind blow through us and air ourselves out creatively…unless a great opportunity arises for us to do something else we’re just not jumping in – there’d be a little risk there in terms of forcing things…
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