12:05 pm Feb. 16, 2012
“I’m calling it my wedding jacket,” said Ethan Miller. He was speaking about a particular sartorial choice he had made for a Tuesday night show at the Mercury Lounge.
On first glance, it was a typical, elegant-looking suit jacket. Coupled with slim-cut black pants, it made Ethan Miller, singer/guitarist of the psychedelic rock band Howlin Rain (whose new album, The Russian Wilds, came out this week), appear poised and slightly formal. Yet on closer inspection, the jacket was adorned with an array of brightly-colored iron-ons, ranging from tropical kitsch to summer-camp mementoes. Not so straight-laced after all.
“I was at this vintage place on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland,” Miller recalled a few days after the show. “My wife was there, and I said, ‘I need to take this. I’m not sure what it’s useful for, exactly, but this is thrilling me.’” That suit embodies Miller’s unexpected notions of proportions: a formal suit gone lunatic; a rewriting of classic-rock expectations along delirious lines.
Much like his stage presentation, Miller’s songwriting hits you first on a formal level—big guitar riffs, the sound of a Hammond organ wailing away, meticulously crushing drum fills—and then winks ever so slightly. At their core, Howlin Rain’s songs summon up the familiar—the big, not-necessarily-cool riffs—and then veer somewhere unexpected; there’s a sense of balance, in other words. Miller has played in bands with names that are certainly evocative—Howlin Rain, Comets on Fire—but there’s also a fondness for satire there, the dial that goes to eleven, albeit adjusted by a band fully aware of such discrepancy. In keeping with such a sense of the absurd, there’s a song on The Russian Wilds called “Cherokee Werewolf.”
And while such a sensibility doesn’t ever quite approach the more overtly knowing performing persona of, say, Stephen McBean (of onetime Howlin Rain tourmates Black Mountain), there’s a sense that Miller strives to blend classic-rock moments with meditations on the same. Howlin Rain’s is a rock sound that wouldn’t have been out of place in 1970—think Cream, Sabbath, just a hint of Joe Cocker—merged with a modern and self-aware sensibility. The Russian Wilds opens with “Self Made Man,” which centers around a lyrical riff on the title phrase, sometimes delivered through sinister harmonies and sometimes pausing to allow for nimble instrumental breakdowns. Musically, the band is up to the challenge of keeping things interesting, opening with a brief instance of Sabbath-esque heaviness before allowing the guitars to open things up: more Southern rock than proto-metal, Miller’s vocals bearing a ragged soul influence. And while the lyrics remain constant, the music shifts even more, sometimes stopping on a tranquil space, at others allowing the guitars to, well, howl. In the end, it’s a tour of classic rock styles and more a strange amalgamation of them, all in just under eight minutes. That's the band's MO: juxtaposing styles to achieve something majestic yet disconcerting.
At last week’s Mercury Lounge show, the band focused heavily on songs from the new album. Live the songs sounded rawer than on record; the triplicate guitar work of Miller, Joel Robinow, and Isaiah Mitchell alternately soared and shredded, albeit more cleanly than the copious distortion heard in Comets on Fire. “Strange Thunder,” a slow-burning Russian Wilds number, emerged as the best showcase for the group’s technical ability, its stately escalation moving from confined and contemplative to bombastic. And yet there’s that discrepancy—the deeply retro qualities of Howlin Rain’s sound brushing up against the sense that Miller’s own musical background contains a far greater capacity for the propulsive and explosive. (The group encored with a beautifully frayed take on Richard and Linda Thompson’s “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” the sound of their guitars perennially threatening to fracture into a sea of fuzz.)
Miller is clear about his aims for Howlin Rain. “The records that sit on people’s shelves forever end up being these kinds of organic things, where the song is at the center of it," he said "It may be rock or folk or even hip-hop, but all those albums have the songs are at the heart of it. That’s not to say that a brand new experimental sound of something is invalid, but that isn’t what Howlin Rain is doing.” Later in our conversation, he delivered an impressive shorthand description of his group’s sound: “We strive to make our own fucked-up classic records.”
The Russian Wilds is Howlin Rain’s first album in four years. To hear Miller tell it, the process of making it involved Robinow effectively recreating the band’s lineup following their tours for 2008’s Magnificent Fiend: “It pretty much came all the way down to just us. People were coming and going.” (The current lineup also includes bassist Cyrus Comiskey, who played with Robinow in the densely psychedelic rock band Drunk Horse, and drummer Raj Ojha, of the slowcore band Carta.)
In our conversation, Miller spoke of the complementary roles that Howlin Rain and Comets on Fire had held in his creative life, and of his attempts to schedule tours in ways to allow the energy from one to flow into the other. Since 2008, Howlin Rain has been Miller’s sole songwriting outlet—a more overtly blissful take on rock than the cacophonous, sometimes harrowing moments heard in the Comets on Fire discography.
“You have to read—not just if this person’s the greatest musician for the band, but can you live with this person in your life, like a marriage, you know? Because that’s what it’s going to be like, only more negatively intimate most of the time.” Miller spent several years working out songs with the band and famed producer Rick Rubin (Slayer, Johnny Cash), a process that yielded the songs on both 2010’s The Good Life E.P. and The Russian Wilds. For the recording, Tim Green (Melvins, the Fucking Champs) became involved, a process that Miller seemed to appreciate: “We felt great about that, having Tim come back in. He’s worked on all the other Howlin Rain records, he’s been a part of all the Comets records.... He has a really good guiding hand as a producer, also. He’s a great technician in his engineering, but he’s also been in his own bands; he’s an artist in his own right. He has great ideas about those without ever becoming a dictator.”
Some of the best moments on The Russian Wilds come from unexpected intrusions of the ominous, however: the harmonies on “Self-Made Man,” or the wordless section that ends “Collage” like some fever dream of AM radio. At other times, the group makes a solidly left-field choice that works: the cool-jazz piano that opens “Still Walking, Still Stone,” for instance. And it seems as though Miller is working back towards the same sort of equilibrium present during the years when Howlin Rain and Comets on Fire existed in tandem.
“Over the last six months or so, I got into this band called Feral Ohms,” he explained. “It’s the opposite of Howlin’ Rain, in some ways—big amps, loose, raw, scuzzy punk stuff. It’s still got the rock element, but ... it’s kind of seeking that yin and yang balance again after working so long and hard on the Russian Wilds stuff.”
Plenty of guitar-centered bands can summon up surreal lyrical imagery while engaging in strenuous guitar workouts; far fewer are willing to subvert classical elements of their style towards ominous ends—or throw in a left-field Dave Brubeck reference. If the best moments on The Russian Wilds are any indication, Miller’s own songwriting appears to be evolving between the previous dichotomy of his pair of bands and into something new—pushing away from hard rock and psychedelic expectations and relishing in what this group of musicians has the capacity to create.
More by this author:
- Widowspeak's Molly Hamilton discusses how a Brooklyn band goes country
- Brooklyn-bred band the Babies seek inspiration from way out west