By: Dennis Cook
Howlin Rain returns to the road again next week. Dates and details here.
Straight to it: Howlin Rain's third album, The Russian Wilds (released February 14 on American/Birdman) is an out-of-the-box classic. A vintage style double album, it fulfills and expands upon the promise of earlier work, offering up a fundamentally perfect rock ‘n’ roll song cycle, a humming, utterly alive thing of blood, bone and muscle. There’s none of the cheeky obfuscation or clever sonic trickery common amongst modern bands to disguise compositional or musical shortcomings. Howlin Rain has no need to hide anything, and the confidence, ferocity and artfulness of The Russian Wilds harnesses and refines their already justifiably ballyhooed live presence into one of the most powerful, wide-ranging albums of the past few decades, a master work that howls and cries and laughs with gusto and enormous heart.
|Howlin Rain by Josh Miller|
“There was a point when we were really trying to blend Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Steely Dan’s Gaucho and Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge of Town,” says bandleader-guitarist-singer-composer Ethan Miller, and the curious energies of this trio simmer in the subconscious of The Russian Wilds, though evident more in the eager creative reach, unshakable solidity and impassioned grace that runs in the veins of Howlin Rain’s latest. Boldness is another word that comes to mind, caught in the vintage Santana break on “Phantom In The Valley,” the hushed, peculiar sweetness and controlled power of “Strange Thunder,” the delicious pop sway of “Beneath Wild Wings,” and myriad other spots on the album’s eleven often lengthy explorations. Yet, none of it feels obscure or distant, each piece dotted with small touches that elevate the good to the great, a cumulative realization that one is in the presence of real gutbucket artisans, descendents of greats like the Love, Patti Smith Group and the James Gang (whose “Collage” gets a superb makeover on Russian Wilds), and kin to fellow New Cosmic California movement members Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Assemble Head In Sunburst Sound, Wooden Shjips, and Vetiver.
Miller, Raj Ojha (drums, percussion), Cyrus Comiskey (bass), Joel Robinow (keyboards, guitar, vocals) and Isaiah Mitchell (guitar, vocals) generate an elemental force together. It’s easy to pick up on in their electrifying live shows, but their latest album arms them with material that’s simply impossible to ignore, rock of such ground level rightness that it seizes and has its way with us – and we invite it back to do it again and again. What was already a good thing has reached the next level with The Russian Wilds, and the long hours spent in its preparation have already unleashed a string of buzz-generating concerts that mark Howlin Rain as a major surprise waiting to happen for live music fans, particularly during the summer festival season where they’ll be sharing the new songs with fresh audiences for the first time.
We sat down with Ethan Miller for a discussion of what’s lead him to today’s Howlin Rain, the nearly four year process of creating the new album, and more.
JamBase: Like many people, my introduction to you was Comets On Fire, and I was struck by what a different musician you are on The Russian Wilds than say the guy who made Blue Cathedral. There’s a lot of polish and intelligent design to the The Russian Wilds which is a sharp contrast to the chaos courting of Comets.
Ethan Miller: There is a grasp for perfection, for really highly majestic architecture [in Howlin Rain]. The Comets were after imperfection, especially the early stuff. When we decided we wanted [expert noise manipulator and sound warper] Noel [von Harmonson] in the group as a full-time member, that was a plan for chaos. His role was nothing short of that – that was his job. And when you have a member whose listing on the album credits is “chaos,” well, that’s pretty clear, though we did work at being perfectly chaotic [laughs]. Furthermore, the person that you hear as me on those early Comets records was a bit of a hard thing to tell who that person was because Noel’s chaos was intrinsically linked with my vocals, and the places I went and things I was saying were often very colorful but dense, even opaque.
| Noel von Harmonson|
JamBase: It has the hallucinatory quality of really deep, psychedelic metal.
As Comets got bigger the more people saw the shows and literally interacted with us and realized we were nice guys and not a dangerous band. Though I think people did sometimes deduce that [we were dangerous] initially from the music. This one druggy chick came up after a particularly intense show and had read things into what I was singing and said, “I want you to know that it’s okay. You’re alright,” and just consoled me because she thought I was cosmically askew and in a dangerous state towards myself. That made me happy, I guess, because it’s nice to hear you’ve put out something that powerful. Utrillo [Kushner, Comets’ drummer] got a note a while back from some guy who had seen us on hallucinogenics and felt Comets was putting something so powerful into the world – in the performance he saw fucked up on mushrooms or something – that it was affecting the world or universe in a powerfully negative way. It sounded one step away from, “I need to kill these guys!”
That’s seriously messed up. I personally had no idea what to make of Comets until I spent time with all of you for the Signal To Noise cover story I wrote years ago. I had NO assumptions because it was such a singular sound. And I quickly found you all to be pretty sweet, somewhat introverted guys.
Well, we’re all extroverts to a certain extent but if you rubbed elbows with any of the Comets guys in the supermarket you wouldn’t feel that magnetic rock star energy you’d get rubbing up against Freddie Mercury in a supermarket. If you rubbed elbows with Freddie Mercury NOW in a supermarket it would be REALLY wild…
|Comets On Fire by J. Bennett|
Actually, I think Queen is a perfectly apt touchstone for what you’re doing in Howlin Rain.
Wow, that’s huge. Those guys are unreplicable.
You have the same undisguised ambition and boldness, and, especially on The Russian Wilds, focus on vocals.
For most people, vocals are the soul of the song. That’s where you get the narrative and emotion. The body, the muscle and power comes from the music itself, and the emotions are played out by the chord progressions, but it’s all meant to enhance that one voice. I know there’s different takes on that, but it’s generally true. Once you get the storyteller on top that’s where people say, “Whoa, he’s talking about MY memory, MY thing.”
It goes deeper than the lyrics though. It’s in the emotional quiver of the lead singer’s voice, and even the punctuation and nuance of backing vocals – something especially on point and effective on The Russian Wilds.
It doesn’t have to have words. When I say ‘narrative’ it can be something like David Crosby’s “I'd Swear There Was Somebody Here,” where he expressed everything he needed to in just this painful cry of the deepest kind of English. He didn’t have to express heartbreak, death or loss in actual words, yet it’s all still there. It’s a good lesson that sometimes creating a little thing – spirits and ghosts – with the voice can be the quickest way to let these lil’ hauntings happen in a song. You can just feel something coming from the corner.
|HR’s Joel Robinow & Ethan Miller by Susana Millman|
It seems like the whole band pushed themselves to stir up such small but effective haunting on the new album.
These things that we’re talking about – haunting an album with intricate, small details that you often feel instead of see or hear initially – that kind of detail only happens making a record over a longer span – years instead of months. That’s the upside of this forever-journeying process and forever-questing album making style. There are a lot of downsides to it, but in retrospect I can see the upside. You can’t purposefully endow an album with those kinds of things when you’re doing a two weekend smash ‘n’ grab - nail it, finish it and onto the next thing style. With a longer time frame you can work more cinematically.
Had you always worked in the quickie manner prior to The Russian Wilds?
Everything had been a little smash ‘n’ grab, and everything will be smash ‘n’ grab in the future compared to the time we spent on this [laughs]. I don’t think it’s healthy to make records like this always. You turn into these maniac freaks like Talk Talk or Steely Dan, people who try so hard they drive themselves fucking insane!
You don’t want to get sucked into your own Laughing Stock, where it consumes your life.
|Howlin Rain by Hilary Hulteen|
But you kind of do! Steely Dan and Talk Talk and in film guys like Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick definitely got into that shit. Though by the end of Kubrick’s life he had 10 million tiny details he was worried about and you don’t want that! His films were always great but it’s not like that hyper-detail made them get better and better.
It becomes a sinkhole for your attention but what comes out the other side doesn’t necessarily make for great – or even better – art in many cases. And as long as it took to make The Russian Wilds, the care comes through but it doesn’t feel fussed over or overworked. It’s a song cycle worth repeat inspection. Like the best rock slabs, it will take years of listening to pull out everything this album has to give.
There was an air of danger to us doing it the way we did. It might have cost our careers, our relationships in the band (and without), and it wasn’t clear if all the guys would make it through this process. There were moments when the band was getting really strung out making a record for so long and it felt fucking crazy. There was a fear our lives would be frozen in this moment forever, and the urge to get out was strong at times. It’s not funny. In the four years it took, Presidents have changed, whole bands’ careers have come and gone, and we’re out there trying to fill up this fuckin’ glass palace or ride the high seas. It sounds glamorous but anyone can imagine the depths of despair we hit. But, one thing I’m endowed with is the ability to persevere. I’m just not one of those people that gives up.
It’s such a big work in its finished state, a double album in the classic sense.
Thank, God! Not only did the members of Howlin Rain put in their time, lives and energy into this because of their faith in the project but musically they just pushed themselves. They were all already crack musicians, and most people who play that well don’t always want to admit there’s room to go up, room to still push yourself. But these guys all said, “Okay, we’re all great players. Now, how can we grind ourselves and really take it to a whole other level?” It’s an incredible thing to see musicians go past ego and keep searching. Everybody really engaged with that kind of thinking and discipline and challenge.
Rick Rubin was the executive producer on The Russian Wilds but the guy who was there in the trenches with you through the whole thing was Tim Green (The Fucking Champs), who may be one of the most underrated and under-praised producers today.
Yes, Tim was definitely in the trenches recording, and Rick worked on the pre-production pretty closely with me for the first year or two and helped with the songwriting and song choices. Then, when we went into the studio to record Tim took over and was there producing and recording and getting the right stuff. When that was done, they got together and got some Rick input. Tim and I were eyeball to eyeball for 18 months, which shows real dedication in his own life to the project.
Oftentimes you get guys in that business that are artists themselves and maybe they aren’t the most reliable person to be taking care of all this really technical stuff, which is the preservation of what you just recorded in the best possible fidelity. Tim’s brain functions really well on that mechanical perfectionism. He’s just SO reliable. At the same time, he’s also a songwriter, musician, band dude and old school punk rock guy back in the day, so he’s also good at working with ideas on the fly and helping guide things artistically as well.
It’s just a fantastic sounding record. It sounds great in headphones and loud pouring out of speakers. It’s a great driving album. It holds up in many settings.
The part Tim plays with any band he works with is being in the booth with headphones on. The band can’t really hear what’s going on, and he makes judgments about takes, etc. He decides what’s perfect, good enough and not good enough where it needs to be done again. And depending on time and budget, he has to keep the whole thing moving. With [The Russian Wilds], he could make any of these three decisions from the control room, and we had the time to pursue perfection.
For as much as the album boogies, there’s a fair amount of complexity to each piece. Is there pent-up energy to share the new material live after so long in the studio?
|Howlin Rain by Adam Neal Gochnauer|
Oh yeah, we’re going big this year. We’re back out in the game bringing this thing to life. One thing is this band is not the band that played on the first and second records. So, they’ve breathed new life and energy into the back catalog in a way that makes it feel new. It’s exciting to play all the songs now, not just the new album stuff.
There’s a great deal of delicacy to the new songs, and it’s a challenge to get that material across in front of a live audience. One just hopes some will hush down and really pay attention when you break out gems like “Strange Thunder.” In fact, there’s a lot of things to pay attention to with this band.
And we ask a lot of audiences, too. There is music that’s more simplistic and easier to swallow with a shot when you want to chat with a friend and be social at a show. We ask a lot while trying to still serve up something that feels good, something that boogies and has that intrinsic feel-good rock element. We also try to engage people on a level that is artistic, the unfurls and unfolds as you go into it, and hopefully lasts a long time as you explore it, with perspectives changing as the song opens up and shifts for you. We want this to be something that changes and grows with you not just a piece of candy you chew on and spit out. Or maybe a shot you swallow and stumble home and cringe about the next day. We just want to take it a little bit further, where there’s meaning, shadows, and darker pops within in the electrical currents.
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