The phone rings… rings… rings. An answerphone clicks into action only to be interrupted. “I’m here…!”
Ethan Miller is at home in California. The time’s 9.30 in the morning, locally. “It’s not a bad time to be up, just a little tough to get the brain working,” says the man best known for fronting outer space acid-rockers Comets On Fire, who buckled under the weight of their colossal freak-out arsenal last year after four awesomely received long-players (check out their Sub Pop-released Blue Cathedral and Avatar albums). In 2004 Miller got a group of musicians together to record the first Howlin’ Rain album, a self-titled affair attracting a spread of plaudits pleased by its refreshingly laid-back vibe, something of a departure from cataclysmic Comets material.
Unashamed in its embracing of retro colours, psychedelic-hued west coast classic rock played out with a contemporary twist, Howlin’ Rain didn’t impact upon as many radars as Comets’ last two LPs, but has paved the way for an impressive follow-up, Magnificent Fiend (review). Recorded with a different line-up after Miller parted company with a few contributors to album one, the newie is flush with warming guitar workouts and faintly familiar progressions that lend it an air of immediacy never common in the work of its lynchpin’s previous main concern. With Comets’ disbanding now accepted, critics and consumers alike can approach this LP without the need for prefixing any opinion with the words ‘side’ and ‘project’.
Engaging the grey matter, Miller and DiS begin.
Video: Howlin' Rain live @ Amoeba Music, San Francisco
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Magnificent Fiend has just come out over here – you as pleased with the album as you hoped to be, given it’s now your ‘main’ band?
I’m very pleased with it. We finished it quite a while ago so it has been coming down the pipe for some time – we’ve been playing the songs live and everything, but I’m a tiny bit distanced from the album because I don’t have that warm glow of having just finished it anymore. So I need to go back and check up on my notes, get a few listens in to refresh myself.
Has the reception to the album been any different than last time, for the self-titled, given critics now realise this isn’t a side-project set-up?
It’s hard to say, and hard to gauge. I don’t know… I think it is probably true that they have responded differently, but it’s hard to tell as there’s so much going on – the booking agent is working that bit harder this time, and we’re touring so much more, so all around… Certainly when you put something in the centre of your creative force, at the centre of your creative life, it seems to be a lot more in focus and drawing a lot more energies towards it.
How do you feel being part of the American Records/Columbia family after previously working with Sub Pop? Rick Rubin’s label has quite a roster, and now you’re on it.
Any record label you go to that has artists you admire and a team of people in the office you can work with, who are friendly and you can call your gang, that’s always a good place to be. Everyone we’ve ever worked with in Comets and Howlin’ Rain has had a really great vibe, and it’s no different with the Columbia folks – they’re great people.
The record’s licensed to Birdman, who put out the debut…
I am still working with Dave Katznelson of Birdman on this because of licensing stuff, and he’s an amazing person. It’s fun to work with a new team, but I’m grateful my tenure with him isn’t quite up yet.
And your relationship with the major label folks is sweet?
Y’know, if record labels can get an album that’ll sell like crazy then that’s number one, but 75 per cent of acts at most labels aren’t exactly going to go flying out of the door. At that point they’re usually looking to find out if they’ve got a musician, or a band, that they can be friendly with, who isn’t some junkie or a complete fuck-up, or fucking crazy or whatever. If you’re selling a lot of records, as a hard-working person who’s friendly and easy going, then that’s the business environment that everyone wants to work in. Although perhaps I’m a little naïve – I don’t know about accountants and shit like that, at the top of the labels. But the guys who you talk to about radio press, stuff like that – these people just want a band they can kick back and have a beer with. To be honest, at Columbia I’m not sure the gang there talks to too many artists, because most bands have managers, but they get to talk to me, for better or for worse!
Something that reviewers have picked up on is the more obvious soul sound on Magnificent Fiend, with references made to the ‘Stax sound’. A fair comment?
I think it probably does (have a greater soul element), and a lot of that comes from bringing in the horn arrangements, and the Hammond – both those elements have a Stax air about them, or that Muscle Shoals thing. You take those elements out and, if you write a soul song, you’re back to that A-C-D progression – most soul songs are pretty simple when you strip away some of the accoutrements and certain vocal flairs, and the organ and piano and the way they’re being used, and the horns.
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And the record sounds really familiar, too, like the chords used are ones ingrained in the fabric of rock ‘n’ roll, making the songs quite immediate.
I guess that’s good – the whole point of good music is feeling it, especially when you hear it for the first time. If it feels genetically familiar the first time you hear it, like when you turn on Sgt. Peppers and it’s like, DAMN, why didn’t I think of that? Well, that’s a bad example, but y’know, more the songs off Rubber Soul or The Rolling Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’… it’s like Shit, but it’s just a couple of chords and it’s so familiar. Hopefully this works that way for folks, too.
There’s something about both the Howlin’ Rain albums that really roots them in California, a warmth they exude, or something…
Both the records just came out that way, possibly due to the way I write – I’m using more major chords or something. I dunno, I guess we just gravitate back towards writing a certain way. I was playing certain songs which I’d written to get away from some of that vibe a little bit – at least two of the songs were in different tunings, to get a different feel, a little folkier feeling. But neither now have any droning, dark sensibilities. So perhaps you do go back, and the environment is an influence. I do think that Howlin’ Rain’s music sounds different… it does sound more rural and sorta coastline-influenced than a band from Brooklyn or somewhere. I think you are a product of your environment.
You’re touring here really soon, and calling in at ATP. Do you like playing in the UK, despite our dodgy weather and – so I’m told – questionable cuisine?
Oh yeah, I love it. I lived in England a couple of times in my life, so I’ve a real affinity for the place. When I come to England it feels like coming home, and not all musicians feel that way about England – some people love it, but some people are like, “Oh no, you can keep that weather”. I don’t have roots there so much anymore – I’ve lost track of a lot of friends – but you go back to a place that’s been important in your life, like London has been, and the city’s not changing that much, and all the buildings you used to hang around are still there. London’s not changing that dramatically to me – it’s just got cleaned up a bit.
Sure has, and the smoking ban’s helped in the bars and clubs. Have you been here since that came into effect?
Y’know I probably have been there since the smoking ban, but I’m for it. Being a singer I get pretty bummed when I’m touring these small clubs in the winter time, and the heating’s blasting and all these people are smoking… it’s hard to get a clean breath to do some good singing. As unpopular an opinion as that might be in some bars, it’s pretty much murder for your vocals.
Are you a fan of the touring cycle? Your schedule seems pretty hectic, keeping you on the road between now and October.
I don’t know – there are things on any tour which are enjoyable. Every night, being on stage, is the thing you kinda live for. Being in a van all day, away from your wife, that’s not so nice. I never enjoy that, but once in a while you’ll find yourself hanging in a pub in London with your buddies and y’know… You asked earlier, and I do actually have friends in London, and I get to hang with them. There are moments of glory to be had on tour, so long as you don’t let yourself get dragged down by the bad times.
Are you in control of your touring as much as you’d like to be, or as much as you could ever hope to be?
Yeah, everyone has to develop their own touring plan. If you’re thinking about being a musician in your life, all your work can’t be in the studio. You look at acts like the Stones and Madonna – if these people can’t stop touring to make their living, who the fuck can? Everyone has to develop their own plan, for your sake, your label’s sake, for your record’s sake. If you want to do this as a profession you’ve got to hit the road, but with a sane game plan. But it’s great to play to people, to have that interaction. That’s what I’m in this for, to take music to people and have that connection; I’m not making these records for myself, to fulfil some sort of gloomy artistic ambition or something like that. When that connection happens every night, you’ve got to keep going out there.
Finally, the group’s line-up changed between albums, but I get the impression there was always going to be a second Howlin’ Rain album – and that there will be more – regardless of who does or doesn’t come and go…
I set the thing up so I could use the title and the banner, and the identity of Howlin’ Rain for anything, even if one day I’m just making records on a four-track in my bedroom and nobody else is listening. Whatever, y’know – perhaps nobody will want to play with me, because I’m a dick, but I can still slap the Howlin’ Rain name on there. Groups are really tied to the members of the band, and I wanted this to be an environment where people could come play with the band, stay with the band and help create something, and be the band but then move on without any heartbreak or crumbling of the group. At the same time, as and when people do move on, as I’m the captain of this ship I can just pull over at harbour and get some new folks to come on board. This active process of people coming and going will force change in the band’s sound, which I cherish so much and strive for anyway regardless of whether or not the band’s line-up is changing. Like, you can hear that with the difference between the first album and this one, and that’s mostly to do with the change of musicians. The songwriting changed a bit but I bet if the same guys worked on it, it wouldn’t sound so different. So for me that mixing up of personnel is a blessing, because it makes it impossible for me to retread old ground.
Video: Howlin' Rain live, 2006
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Catch the Trent Reznor of easy-going west coast rock ‘n’ roll, and his Howlin’ Rain bandmates, live on the following dates:
1 Belfast Auntie Annie’s
2 Dublin Whelans
3 Cork Pine Lodge
4 Salford Kings Arms
5 Birmingham Custard Factory
6 London Luminaire
7 Cornwall Miss Peabod’s
8 Cardiff Clwb Ifor Bach
9 Camber Sands ATP vs Pitchfork
11 Bristol Croft
12 London Scala
Magnificent Fiend is out now via Birdman/American; find out more and hear songs at the band’s MySpace page (where all photos are taken from).