Q&A: How Howlin' Rain Survived a Four-Year Hiatus, Worked with Rick Rubin, and Finished The Russian Wilds
By DAVE GIL DE RUBIO
When Howlin' Rain's Ethan Miller answers the door of the Brooklyn flat he's borrowing from a friend, the disheveled hair and wildly scraggly beard he's sporting gives him the look of a modern-day Rip Van Winkle. In many ways, the analogy fits, given that it's been a four-year odyssey between the band's 2008 sophomore outing, Magnificent Fiend, and The Russian Wilds, the its brand-new project.
Executive produced by Rick Rubin, (who wooed the band to his American Recordings imprint back in 2007), Howlin Rain's third full-length continues down a familiar stylistic path with the extended jamming and hard-hitting delivery of Blue Cheer and the bluesy boogie of Humble Pie. But this time around, slight nuances hint at a broader palette of influences: There's a fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms and mariachi horn arrangements framing the outro of "Phantom of the Valley," and a Vince Guaraldi-jamming-with-the Allman Brothers Band flavor to "...Still Walking, Still Stone." It's all quite a leap from the work of Miller's previous group, S.F.-Santa Cruz psych-rockers Comets on Fire.
Later on that night, at the Lower East Side's cozy Mercury Lounge, Miller and his crew bash out a 10-song set that manages to incorporate Sabbath-kissed slabs of riffs, soulful testifying, crazed organ runs, and even a version of Richard and Linda Thompson's "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight" delivered as a heavy strut. (It works splendidly, despite having a framework that's the diametric opposite of the original's baroque arrangements.) The live show is likely to sound even better when Howlin' Rain pulls into The Independent this Saturday, Feb. 18 to play a homecoming album release party along with guests The Soft White Sixties, Zodiac Death Valley, and DJ Britt Govea. We caught up with Miller to find out how he and the band are doing.
I remember reading back in 2009 that the tentative date for the release of your new album was March or April 2010. What happened?
Everything that could have possibly happened to elongate the process did. It was to the point where I'm not sure that we could have gone much longer. When we got back at the end of 2008, early 2009, we started putting the band back together. It was just Joel [Robinow] and I. That took some time -- to get a band together in a natural way. At the same time, I had asked Rick [Rubin] what I could do to start working on the record while we were out on tour. He said whenever I was home from touring, just go write songs. He wanted to have the best nine songs of all the ones that I wrote. So I started writing between tours in 2008 and the journey began there.
How many songs did you guys end up writing and cutting?
I don't know. I can't even quantify that. In the beginning of 2008, I probably took 15 demos with acoustic guitar to Rick, and maybe another 10 that day, which was the first meeting we had. Took a bunch out and took some back to the band. The next time, we took another 12 songs while still working the 15 we had at home. In the very end, the album demos we wound up with for him to pick the songs were two 70-minute CDs. It was fucking crazy.
How did you hook up with Rick?
Initially he contacted me through my friend Jay Babcock. He was publishing Arthur, a very influential underground culture magazine in the early 2000s. He did an article on me and Comets on Fire, and I guess Rick was already a Comets fan and had read this piece. Then he sent me an email asking if I wanted to hang out. At the time I was working in San Francisco and thought this was interesting. I knew Rick was interested in different things. I thought he might have been into '70s Italian horror movies and wanted to talk with another amateur aficionado. [But] when I went to talk with him, it wasn't about Italian horror movies -- it about Howlin' Rain, and we went on from there. He wanted to work together and bring Howlin' Rain to American. It wasn't done through managers. Our engagement on the label level was due to Rick. And this indie/major or whatever the fuck American is turns out to be its own little thing. It's been a good place to be on an idiosyncratic label run by an idiosyncratic man.
You said that the new record was a blend of Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, Steely Dan's Gaucho, and Bruce Springsteen's Darkness On the Edge of Town. Explain.
In reality, it was more than those [records] being an influence, although they were a little bit. Since our record started to grow in size, I started to look at these albums that I considered great that were troublesome. On Gaucho, they struggled to get enough songs on the record, and we struggled to finish ours.
Which you did.
Which we did, although you don't hear that toil so much on the Steely Dan record. I wasn't really looking at albums that were made very easily on a weekend or between tours. I was gravitating towards these projects that were big and messy. Electric Ladyland is classic, but it's just a giant grab-bag of all kinds of shit from just the most hi-fi production to some of the most sloppy playing. That all formed this giant thing that you can't really put your finger on. Honestly, it got to the point of working on our record for such a long time that we went to a dark place. [Producer] Tim [Green] and I were working in the studio for a long time, and the routine was that I'd go to his house at noon or one and come home at two in the morning. I'd have to sit down and want to clear my head. I just felt like it was never going to end, and I went to those three records, for whatever reason, to have some sort of anchor or meaning.
Next: Miller on the project the members of Comets on Fire have been working on recently.