Howlin Rain: Ghosts With Long Tales

Stream unreleased tracks from Howlin Rain's upcoming album Magnificent Fiend at MySpace...

By: Dennis Cook

Howlin Rain
"The genetics of early rock 'n' roll and rhythm & blues is based on the ecstasy of the music and the creation of it. We're not fighting against that. We're trying to harness that stuff. But, I don't want to utilize stuff that Little Richard taught me, though, like, 'Wooo! Saturday is a killer night to go out dancing.' That's been done, perfected and I want the lyrics and poetry to speak to our historical moment," says bandleader-guitarist-singer-songwriter Ethan Miller, the big brain inside the fantastically limber lumbering of Howlin Rain. "I'm trying to work things from a literary standpoint. When you open a book, say Lolita by Nabokov or any piece of literature or poetry that works, and read through it, even when it's abstract and works in metaphor, you can find out something about that culture and historical moment. I'm trying to gauge things in that way. All the best art does that."

So, what's being said along those lines on Magnificent Fiend (arriving March 4 via a joint release by Birdman Records and American Recordings), the sophomore album by Howlin Rain?

"I wasn't necessarily trying to make a grand statement or promote my own philosophical judgment. I was trying to open myself up a little more, lyrically, to channel a more metaphorical or fly-on-the-wall moment," explains Miller. "If somebody opened it up from a time capsule, they wouldn't think, 'Oh, this guy hated George Bush like everybody else in his time. It says so here in this song called 'Fuck George Bush' [laughs].' I wanted something closer to sci-fi or crime fiction, where you pull The Postman Always Rings Twice out of the time capsule and wonder, 'What is the judgment on this time period in history?' It does tell you something about its time, but also something deeper between the lines. You come away with a judgment call by the artist, a portrayal of the moment."

Dancers At The End Of Time

The details will haunt us in strange ways
Like snow and smoke and skeletal leaves
Who will resurrect us jive, ass and teeth
Once we've all drunk our fill of fire?

Ethan Miller
Miller is also one-fifth of the holy cosmic tumult known as Comets On Fire, though Howlin Rain is pretty far removed from the inspired clamor of that group, which admittedly isn't always a fun sonic ride.

"Howlin Rain has really focused my songwriting. It would probably sound more like a side project if it was another completely democratically run group. In Comets it's not one person's vision," said Miller a couple years back when we first spoke about Howlin Rain's self-titled debut. "Avatar is a little more fun to listen to but a lot of Field Recordings or Blue Cathedral was only fun if you're a little nihilistic. I wanted to do something where the music was fun and sometimes simplistic as could be, and I could layer some nihilism and darkness in through the lyrics and guitar solos."

Since then, Howlin Rain has become considerably more thoughtful and collaborative, and what feels like the final lineup appears on Fiend, where Miller (vocals, lead guitar) is joined by Mike Jackson (rhythm guitar), Ian Gradek (bass), Garett Goddard (drums) and Drunk Horse's Joel Robinow (keys, horn and harmony vocals). The music on Fiend is reminiscent of beloved cult records like David Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name or The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow fronted by the tough, agile, emotional singing of Lola Versus Powerman-era Dave Davies. It's a catalytic mixture of heavy and beautiful elements that blurs the pretty acoustic bits with tumultuous rocking. Wind whipped and laughing at the sun, it's a record that taps into the cultural upheaval around us on a spiritual level, transmuting despair and violence into something a good deal nobler.

"We kind of set these songs up to be mini-epics. There's kind of multiple movements in each song," Miller says. "We tried to bring in elements from jazz and '70s soul music. Those infusions, in particular, do a profound job of mixing ecstasy and sorrow. They give you a jolt of ecstasy when you first hear that music and then give you something that cuts right to the heart."

There's also a more pronounced funky white boy vibe than the first Rain album.

"One of the reasons some of it comes across that way was I tried to write differently this time – use different keys and tunings, to use whatever I could to not write the way I usually do. Or to write the kind of songs that are natural to me with different mechanisms," comments Miller. "For example, 'Goodbye Ruby,' which is probably the most expressly funky song [on Fiend], started off as a fast, finger-picked folk-y ballad. So I tried to transpose that to something I'm not used to by using a funk beat."

This assortment of players really makes Miller's compositions shine. Live, tunes from the first album feel more inhabited. Simply put, these are the right guys for getting across the things Miller has in his head.

"I wholeheartedly agree with that. It was a long, long writing process to get these songs on the table. Once I was happy with the music and brought them to the guys it was a very quick process to give them their breath and blood to their bodies," says Miller. "I think that these guys are playing to the song. In Comets, we often play to the energy, and then the song is formed from that energy. In Howlin Rain, we try to get inside these songs, and if I've done my job right, there's an inherent energy to the songs when I've brought them to the table. And a lot more of that energy is built trying to honor the song itself."

Lord Have Mercy

I took your wild peacocks down to the sawmill
And ground their bones into dust and blood meal
A rainbow of feather and shame fell upon my wicked hand

Howlin Rain by Hilary Hulteen
Photo top Page 2 also by Hulteen
There's much barking wisdom in Howlin Rain, a wild mixture of light and dark that Ronnie James Dio would give his left nut to conjure with such alarming regularity. Miller's tunes search for capital "T" truth but do so with a boogie soul that embraces poetry and allegory, shaking off contemporary inhibitors, stated and subliminal. Things that get overly specific invariably stay frozen in their moment and are unable to tap into a larger zeitgeist. As tempting as it is to scream, "Dick Cheney is a massive prick," art loses power and longevity when it gets mired in details.

"If you get too literal, how can you paint a clear picture of reality, the horrors and the joys of our moment? How can I convey stories about the front lines in Iraq or some of the stuff that happens here in Oakland? How can I make something more beautiful than this incredible cathedral I've watched them build down the street by the lake for the past year? Those things are those things, and I just gravitate towards reflecting in my own way," offers Miller.

There's a reach to Fiend that reminds one more of Walt Whitman and his type of American spirit than other rock bands.

"[Laughs] I don't know, man, that's pretty high praise! The ecstasy of rock 'n' roll we were talking about, I'm not just trying to portray us as Americans or me as an American or us at this time as Americans as strictly a negative thing," says Miller. "There's also for better or for worse, our all-pervasive American mythologies: being pioneers, diggin' for gold or riding into the sunset, or riding that missile into our neighbor's backyard [laughs]. For good or for bad, for the power those mythologies have, they're also representative of our times, and I tried not to ignore those things."

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