Comets On Fire's Ethan Miller on Reuniting, Speaking In Tongues, and Finding Out If the Spark Is Still There
Comets on Fire plays the White Horse Bar in Oakland on Tuesday, Nov. 26.
For the better part of the aughts, local psych-punk outfit Comets on Fire stood at the forefront of San Francisco's modern revival of unhinged, mind-altering musical mayhem. Founded by childhood friends Ethan Miller (guitar and vocals) and Ben Flashman (bass) in Santa Cruz just before the turn of the millennium, the group forged a chaotic sound matching Miller's corrosive guitar destruction with his wildly effect-drenched vocals that were pushed to the brink of unintelligibility by Echoplex manipulator Noel Von Harmonson. After the addition of powerhouse drummer Utrillo Kushner and Six Organs of Admittance mastermind Ben Chasny on second guitar, Comets on Fire earned a deserved reputation as one of SF's most ferociously transcendent live acts. Two stellar albums for Sub Pop Records (Blue Cathedral in 2004 followed by Avatar two years later) further established the quintet as major players on the global psych scene.
Comets on Fire went on an extended hiatus following a performance at the Sub Pop 20th anniversary party in 2008. Individual members pursued other projects, but the nagging question of whether Comets would ever take flight again hung in the air -- until a seed of a reunion was planted last year when the band came together to back Chasny on his acclaimed Six Organs album, Ascent. Convinced that the quintet's unique sonic alchemy remained intact, Comets on Fire began to plan its current resurrection.
The band performs its first local set in almost six years with a pre-Thanksgiving show Tuesday night at Oakland's White Horse Bar (advanced tickets sold out, but some will be available at the door). Guitarist Miller recently spoke to All Shook Down about reuniting the celebrated band and what their new music sounds like.
It sounds like recording Ascent with Chasny was the impetus for you guys to get back together. How much time did you spend together working on that album?
It wasn't very extensive when we did the Six Organs record. We hadn't been in a room all together for four years. Not really on purpose; it's just Chasny moved to the East Coast, Flashman moved to LA and Noel, Utrillo and I were doing our separate things in the Bay Area. We just hadn't all collected even socially or anything, much less as a band. The last thing we did was the Sub Pop 20th Anniversary up in Seattle [in the summer of 2008]. People's families where there and it was a beautiful day. No ill will or anything; we just sort of walked off that stage and walked in different directions seemingly forever until we came back together on the Six Organs thing.
So Chasny got us together to do two or three days of rehearsal for the Six Organs record and then we drove out there [to record at Tim Green's Louder Studios in Grass Valley] and performed it for a couple of days, if I remember correctly. We knew -- no matter what -- we could all serve Ben Chasny and Six Organs; we've done that before and we enjoy doing it. We love Six Organs and we love Ben and wanted to help him make a record. We knew we could do a good job with that for what he wants. That was easy. The question behind that was "Is there still a Comets on Fire there?" Is there still a spark between us? Are we socially compatible now? Are we still musically compatible? Is there still that fire?
After a few seconds or minutes of jamming or whatever it was, it was obvious as people cranked on the amps. "Oh yeah! That sounds like him, that sounds like him...all together, it sounds like us!" [laughs] Even though people's styles and instruments or whatever had changed over the years, once everyone banged into it and made that racket, it was like "Hey, there's that Comets on Fire racket!" So we came out the other end of that and it was really fun. We decided to get together and have the guys who aren't in the Bay Area fly out whenever they can and we'll start writing some new music together and jamming and having fun making little recordings. To see if it leads to album #5 without any kind of real road map.
So outside of Ascent, you guys got together just a handful of times? From what I know of other friends in bands who have gotten together after years apart, it's surprising how few rehearsals it takes to get reacquainted with material and start working the kinks out...
Yeah, for us too. Even more than rehearsing the Comets material for these gigs or whatever else - though we do have to figure that out -- up until Avatar, we were using pretty primitive tools to try and create our own complex language. Now, all of us are different kinds of musicians; we've all gone to a different place technically. It was interesting. Even more than trying to get the parts right, in a lot of cases, we had learn how to get them wrong to make them right! [laughs] You know, you're like "Flashman, you're playing that a half-step up from me. Wow, listen to that record!" We didn't know any better. We were just hammering, just trying to express something. The real question isn't about how to play those notes right, it's how to express that thing correctly with that pure energy and how to use this language that we created. Once you're speaking in tongues -- if I can use that kind of metaphor -- then you're saying all the right things again. You have to relearn and unlearn [laughs].
Do you think you'll be playing any of the newer material you've been working on at upcoming shows?
I don't think so. Because we hadn't played in four years and we wanted to try to make a really classic Comets on Fire set to take to ATP to play in London and play in Oakland. It would have been ideal if we could have gotten some of the new things that we've been working out on the table. But at the same time, it was a sizable task for us to go through all the records. Basically, we picked the cream of the crop. Kind of the most savage, hour-long set from Field Recordings, Blue Cathedral and Avatar and whatever else is in there from that era. It still was a lot of work to get that together, so in the meantime we had to set the new material aside.
That said, we might sneak something in. But it's not going to be like "Hey, guess what? You're going to hear a couple of old tunes and you're also going to hear an hour of our new material that's not quite worked out!" It's sort of a greatest hits set; the most violent possible collection that we could put together.
How would you characterize the sound of the new material? How close is it to the Comets that people are familiar with, how much of it sounds really different and new?
It's a little tricky to tell. We did a lot of free jams that we got cool grooves out of; then we'd do them again the next time we got together and have even bigger 30-minute jams on one groove. A lot of stuff in that phase comes out sounding like these big Krautrock or Faust kind of jams with these weird floating elements of melody. It's hard to say exactly what those things are. Then there are a few songs that are more written, like a song that I brought in that sounds a little more like a classic Comets or Black Flag-y tune that could have been on Field Recordings or Blue Cathedral. With things like that, I bring it in and play it and Chasny's like "Hey! That's classic Comets!" [laughs] And then there are other songs that are more of a Popal Vuh sounding thing, which is definitely part of our repertoire and language.
So who knows what the outcome will be? Whether it would be something that people would say "Oh, I hear Comets in there, but it's different." I think no matter what, the thing that we've always done and what we would try to do once we get to the end product is to make sure that it's expanded. The core voice or the core language is there, but it's a new setting and new words and a whole new chapter. I think that's the most important thing for any band.
[Below, a few videos of the band playing live back in the day. If, for some reason, you needed another reason to get excited that they're back together.]