EMERGING FROM THE WILDERNESS Howlin Rain

How to
survive a four-year creative odyssey while laboring in (on)
The
Russian Wilds.

 

BY DAVE GIL DE RUBIO

 

 Four years is how
long it takes to earn a college degree. But in the fickle music industry world,
it’s time enough for a group to lapse into obscurity. It’s a fact that Howlin
Rain mastermind Ethan Miller is well aware of, having spent that amount of time
working on The Russian Wilds, his
band’s third full-length studio album. “The risk there obviously is that bands
break up. They get sick of the material and of each other and after a few
years, everyone feels like they’ve gone crazy, they tell each other to fuck off
and decide they should be doing something with their lives,” Miller admits.
“Not watching the entire world go by while focusing on a single fucking
project. On paper that seems insane but in reality it’s even crazier.”  

 

Best known for his time making a beautiful racket as a
member of Santa Cruz noise-rockers Comets on Fire, the Humboldt County native
started spending more of his time working on Howlin Rain, a project with a
considerably more melodic bent to it that harkened back to the tie-dyed country
rock of early ‘70s Grateful Dead and New Riders of the Purple Sage. Following
the release of a 2006 self-titled debut, 
Miller’s side project slowly became a full-time pursuit and in the
process, attracted the attention of musical Renaissance man/svengali Rick
Rubin. Shortly after convincing the Comets founding member to sign his new
group to his American Recordings imprint, Rubin released the 2008 sophomore bow
Magnificent Fiend, before starting to
working closely with Miller on a follow-up, a process that dragged on
considerably longer than either party anticipated.

 

When Miller greets me at the door of his friend’s Williamsburg
apartment, his hirsute visage and wild mane of hair gives the appearance of
lived off the grid whilst wrestling with his muse. Having spoken with him back
in 2009 and being assured that this project was going to drop in March or April
of 2010, explanations were in order. “Everything that could have possibly
happened to elongate the process did. It was to the point where I’m not sure
that we could of gone much longer. It wasn’t our fault. It wasn’t the label’s
fault. It wasn’t Rick’s fault or my fault. It was all those creative elements
that make the thing go,” he recalls, with a sigh. “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 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 ready to go. So I started writing between tours in 2008 and the journey
began there. ” With Rubin being pulled away to work on a number of other
projects, his involvement shifted to that of an executive producer while Miller
reunited with Tim Green, a producer/engineer, who’s been a constant dating back
to the Comets days.

 

Working from two 70-minute CDs of demos, Miller and Green
culled the material down to eleven songs that reflect the band’s diverse
influences.  The frontman’s testifying on
“Can’t Satisfy Me” and “Walking Through Me,” a pair of power ballads soaked in
equal parts Hammond
organ and screaming guitar brings to mind a fusion of Joe Cocker’s grit and
Brad Delp’s soulful upper register. A cover of the James Gang’s ethereal gem
“Collage” is one of the album’s more overt homage but closing number “….Still
Walking, Still Stone,” offers a subtler yet effective nod, fusing Robinow’s
Vince Guaraldi-flavored piano runs with Isaiah Mitchell’s Warren Haynes-ish
soloing. Most impressive is “Phantom in the Valley,” a proggy seven-minute-plus
epic that goes from gothic imagery, pointed harmonies and a keyboard solo
worthy of Jon Lord to an abrupt
change-of-pace outro bubbling over with Afro-Cuban rhythms and mariachi horn
arrangements that might have come from a lost Santana session.

 

Credit a combination of opportunity and Miller’s willingness
to go outside of his comfort zone for this compositional twist. “I did this
salsa performance, which I’d never done before, with [Latin jazz legends]
Arturo O’Farrill and Larry Harlow. I didn’t know anything about salsa but they
had me take a solo and do some singing,” he says. “I had this crash course in
this music – checking out Fania stuff the week before and trying to get down
some of the scales. After being up there with those guys and some of the best
horn players, it was amazing especially with the endless energy that comes out
of salsa music. So of course I went and started trying to write some salsa
parts and trying to get one of those things onto the record.”

 

 


The Russian Wilds by howlinrain

 

 

 

When Miller tucks a soulful howl that wouldn’t sound out of
place on an Aerosmith record in front of the funky Steely Dan-inspired strut of
“Dark Side,” it brings to mind Miller’s oft-quoted comparison of The Russian
Wilds
being a blend of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric
Ladyland
, Steely Dan’s Gaucho and
Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On the Edge
of Town
. “More than those being an influence, although they were a little
bit, I started to look at these albums that I considered great that were
troublesome. Honestly, it got to the point of working on our record for such a
long time that we went to a dark place. I just felt like it was never going to
end and I just went to those three records for whatever reason to have some
sort of anchor or meaning,” Miller explains. “I was gravitating towards these
projects that were big and messy. This is how some things that can take over
your life and threaten to destroy your artistry, band and career – this is how
it could turn out. Still rough and complex emotionally yet successful just in
the fact that this is what they convey.”

 

With the emerging success of Howlin Rain there remains the
question of the state of Comets on Fire. With all the Comets band members
relocating to other cities or in some instances, starting families, the band
drifted apart with the last official performance being at Sub Pop’s 20th Anniversary Festival four years ago. This group disconnect became even more
apparent when the quintet reunited for the first time since then earlier this
year to back up fellow member Ben Chasny on his forthcoming Six Organs of
Admittance record (due out this fall on Drag City). While it would be easy to
say this was a Comets record without being called a Comets record, Miller is
quick to set the record straight. “It was the Comets making music for Ben
Chasny and his vision of Six Organs in a Comets way. What I think he wanted was
to not necessarily have the guys together and have a good time but to have a
Comets feel to the Six Organs rock record that he wanted to do. The five of us
also realized that when we got in there that we couldn’t help but sound like
us. I think we thought we would sound Comets-esque backing him up but of course
it just sounded like us playing together.”

 

Howlin’
Rain is currently on a North American tour (including multiple shows at SXSW).
Check tour dates at the official website.

Leave a Reply