Intellectual Surfing With Howlin Rain

Sometimes we all love a good no-brainer rock song to get us through our day.  But then there always comes a time when too much rhythm partying starts to fray the stem cells and you find yourself craving Bob Dylan or Neil Young or Peter Gabriel; music that injects a few bars of powerade Einstein into those cavities in the brain.   Since about 2006, the San Francisco band Howlin Rain has been feeding the hungry with an alternative intelligentsia to the souls weakened by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.

It’s been four years since their last opus, but now Howlin Rain is back with The Russian Wilds, featuring some of their most powerfully eclectic music to date. And singer-songwriter Ethan Miller is itching to talk about it. In fact, on the day he called in to talk to Glide, he had been doing interviews all day and was in a philosophically laid-back mood.

So are you tired of talking about yourself?

Never (laughs) No, I’m just trying to do the out-of-body experience and draw from my deeper megalomaniacal tendencies and it’ll all be fine. I’ll do a good job.

You worked with Rick Rubin on the new album. Tell us about that experience and what you wanted to do with this particular entity.

I should preface this by saying on the issue of what we planned to do and what we actually did do, evolves over time. I started writing for this thing between tours.When I got home and had a few days, I’d sit in there and write and make some demos, play acoustic guitar for the couple of days I was home. It’ll be almost four years when this one is done; well almost four years to the day between records when this one is released. I had asked Rick, what can I do for the record at this point? And he said, just start writing, just write as much as you can so we can have songs to choose from. And of course in my mind I thought, a year from now we’ll have this record, we’ll record it quickly, it’ll be in the can, we’ll be back out again in 2009.

So at that point I think I thought I just want to write some quality stuff and dig deep and turn in some good songs. We’ll pick the best ones from the bunch and go into the studio and record it and release it and tour it and just do like I’ve been doing for the last ten years, eight years, whatever it was. But that process turned into a much longer sojourn to get to where we are now with the release of this record. And that included working extensively in pre-production with Rick. After we came off that tour for a year, year and a half, we probably worked another year in pre-production. I was going back and forth from Los Angeles working with Rick and finally we turned in a very large sum of song demos to him to choose from. And he made a final choice on those and we got into the studio and worked a pretty good long time up here in the Bay Area with Tim Green.

At that point, Tim Green came on and took over as engineer and hands-on producer for the studio work. For about eight or nine months solid we worked on the record here and for various other reasons instead of releasing right after that things got held up and here we are releasing on Valentine’s Day, four years after our last record (laughs). So the quick answer is, at some point in there you realize, oh, this isn’t really going on the schedule I thought it would. And then you start seeing four years of your life and the life of the guys in the band and even the life of the people around you at the label; even the music industry has changed immensely. You know, the whole climate of our world, of our musical world, and even the actual world around us, has changed since we had our heads down just forging forward trying to kind of survive the making of this record (laughs).  It’s not highly recommended for any band that’s trying to make it’s way in the world to go and work on something for three or four years between releases like that.

Did it surprise you that it took this long?

Yeah, it did surprise me. At a certain point nothing is surprising me anymore but at the point where things start to slow down you got to imagine you’re the band’s income, it’s the buzz that is surrounding the band, people talking about it.You’ve got to have releases out there for people to stay interested so you just don’t go to the back of their CD shelves and be forgotten about. All those things begin to present challenges, survival challenges. Trying to get the band members not to go off and go back to school and get a degree as an insurance salesman or something like that (laughs). “Whoa, wait, let’s finish this record, we can do it!” (laughs) “Hang on, I know things are changing” but those are all challenges.

Did you feel the pressure because it WAS taking so long? Did it get to you and maybe affect some of your work?

If you imagine you put all your other work aside and just work on writing one single piece or whatever just steady for two and a half years, it’s going to drive you a little insane, you know. To make it through and remain focused and energetic about that same single-minded project that you’re working on, you’ve got to draw on obsession a little bit to remain energized. Otherwise you’re just like, ‘I’m over it’ (laughs). I’ve been working on this forever and when you’re talking about working on something creatively forever you need to maintain inspiration and we all know that’s difficult after you get into really extended periods of time and you’re not really taking breaks from it. You’re not setting it down and coming back to it that much, you’re forging forward. I think, at least personally, I drew on some elements of obsession to keep that fire burning that hot. I mean, that’s where it’s sort of an unhealthy do.

Did you get tired of some of the songs and just wanted to throw them out the window?

Well, you know that usually happens at the end of mixing because everything else up to that point you can maintain. Then when you’re mixing, you just listen to these certain parts over and over and over again. And I think whether you make a record in a weekend and then mix it for two weeks or whether you make a record over two years and mix it, that kind of thing you kind of get driven crazy by, hearing these little parts going over and over in loops and they kind of keep you up at night when you go home and you’re still hearing them (laughs). And that happens inevitably but you know, I think for the other stuff it could be partly too that it’s a little bit the length of the songs, the way that we kind of ended up with this sixty-one minute record that’s kind of this epic journey.  And each of the songs is just this kind of mini-epic journey into the dark forest and crazy sonic environments. You know, that could have been partly a survival mechanism to maintain that inspiration and interest.

If we’d been working with these simplistic two minute pop songs that don’t keep unfurling as time goes, you’d never really gotten tired of them quickly, working on them, playing them again, but these things were a challenge. They were a challenge to write, to arrange, to record and to mix, everything. I think for better or for worse, I think deep down for better, to more artistic purposes they are a challenge to a listener to understand them and get to the heart of them, in a pleasant way. I’m not talking about being experimental noise music or something where there is really a violent challenge to the ear but people have said so far that have heard the record that they really like it a lot, that as they listen to it it keeps unfolding, you go deeper and deeper and that instead of the interest starting to lift and it becomes a little more blasé after four or five listens, that is really when you start getting somewhere deeper with it. And I think that worked a little bit for us too.

You have so many different musical genres going on in these songs, even within the same song, and that is really interesting. Is that how you heard the songs in your head?

Yeah, it did on this record. I think that is part of what makes us authentic and makes our approach to writing rock & roll music our own is that we have a little bit of our own jagged edge as far as our vision of how to go about arranging rock and pop music and stuff. There is a certain element of, I don’t know if its neurosis or just a sort of jagged tilt to it or what it is, but yeah, it’s kind of like what comes natural to us. And sometimes we try to submerge that a little bit so that we don’t have every single song turning into this fifteen minute super-epic thing (laughs) cause we don’t want to exhaust ourselves or the listener every time. But on this record it ended up making sense to the journey that we’d come on to create the record. Also to some extent a lot of these songs were kind of meditations on sorrow, loss and sort of the kind of darkness that’s down beneath the places that we normally want to admit to and access about ourselves in our lives, maybe in our memories. You know, that’s not a hard fast theme but it’s something that I found to be the most common strongest theme running through the record.

How did it feel going to those dark places?

For me, on my part of that, to write the lyrics and try to go to those places, these were things I had to try to access. You know, I tried to go to a place that wasn’t necessarily always comfortable for me. To try to go beyond singing a song about the blues and saying, hey, yeah, yeah, I got the blues or whatever, I’m going to drink all Saturday night, and to try and go and think about some things to draw; not to make autobiographical songs but to draw on some resonance that were in my heart and my memories that was more complex than just sadness, more complex than just longing or heartbreak or whatever.

We all have those things but then sometimes over time the layers start to build up on those things when they are down there in the subconscious and it’s not just pure sorrow and joy, guilt, deceit; these things can turn into this strange other single resonant thing that is buried way deep down there. You know, I know we all have those things down there.Sometimes they might be memories that we don’t want to admit, that we don’t want to access. I mean, who wants to write a song about the feeling of shame? I mean, truly who wants to feel that. A lot of times when we write music or singing or whatever, you want to access the good part of your ego that makes you feel confident in expressing yourself. But I don’t know, I felt like to try and draw upon those things, a lot of times some of those complicated songs were my favorite things.

What do you think is your most personal song on this record?

I think we worked so deeply on them that we all put a lot of deep personal stuff into it, even if it’s not lyrics it’s just trying to empower the song with that resonance.  But I think I drew upon that kind of method I was talking about, that kind of meditational, going down that path. I did that a little bit when I was writing the song “Can’t Satisfy” and the song “Dark Side”.

That one is a little more playful.  On “Dark Side” it’s about this kind of wild youth, that moment in youth when you just break free, when you’re like convinced that you’re going to live fast and die young and leave a good-looking corpse. Your youth, your vitality, your energy, your beauty at that perfect age, your immortality. All those feelings, they’re just so powerful and so untamable, it’s just one of those glorious things we all deify, that energy of youth, the power and ignorance of youth. Now that I am older, I look back at some of those moments and think about how destructive they were, how some of the people around that were also sharing that same emotion with me, how they’re dead. They don’t make it through because some of those things, whatever they are, drugs, the wild behavior, that’s maybe beautiful for a second in youth but practically becomes a crutch and then becomes the end of a person.
And sometimes people live on.They can’t get over some of the things they’ve done to themselves in these glorious moments. And you know I try to look back at that without judgment, without saying that’s wrong or that’s right. I tried to look back at that and still see the beauty of that moment and also let the resonance of that trail of destruction that moves out from it forward and into a person’s future, let those things co-exist; that joy of recklessness and this kind of sorrowful trail of destruction that also goes along with that.

Were you ever close to the bottom?

I don’t know, not purposefully.  I mean, who knows, when you’re a kid and you’re really running wild and stuff, I think you often leap off the cliff with the concept pretty much ingrained in your mind that nothing below could possibly kill you or hurt you. And the truth of the matter is that is not true. So I think there is a certain danger in youth, especially embracing that joyful sense of wildness, of indestructability. It’s a beautiful thing but I think it’s a dangerous thing. Unless you’re a kid that stayed holed up in their bedroom doing math homework for their first twenty-five years. I think that’s the thing, you look back and go, ‘Jesus Christ’ (laughs). That’s what I’m saying, they were fun and beautiful and some people don’t live through that kind of fun and beauty.

But when you look inside, when you try to rethink where your heart was at that moment, you long for that perspective and that inspiration and that fearlessness, I think. At least in honest moments we look back and it’s easy to say, ‘yeah, that was stupid back then, I shouldn’t have done that, thank God I’m alive.’ But when you look back inside of that youthful heart and mind there is a certain freedom and vitality in that recklessness.

You’re very well-spoken.  And how you put words together in your songs is the same  way, without over-thinking it.

Our producer was talking about how he liked it when a lead singer came into the studio that wasn’t very smart. He didn’t want them thinking at all (laughs) and he liked it when they were just kind of dumb because they could really get to a pure expression of feeling. Like they didn’t over-think it, they didn’t rethink it, they were just like “bwarrrr” and could just go for it and deliver this thing unadulterated by intellect and I love that. I just thought that was amazing. Like you can’t get too fucking smart. You get these guys too smart and all of a sudden maybe people that are listening to music they feel like the artist is trying to outsmart them and you never want to feel like that. I don’t want to feel that either. I feel like I’m a pretty smart person but sure, you get an artist that is a genius and they make you feel stupid then they haven’t succeeded in trying to express through their art. Sometimes I over-think things and sometimes we all do, even the most gloriously dumb artists among us probably once in a while can also question and over-think what they’re saying or doing more than they should.

But at the same time I think that there is a lot to be said for the thinking artists too; for the Brian Enos, the David Byrnes, people like that. If you look at Brian Eno’s work and where he is coming from, he’d say to think and to philosophize and to go very deeply with your thoughts, to try to make an understanding and to relay that concept through music and language and the tools that you have at your disposal in a very intelligent way, is not a crime. That it’s a heightened thing. You can do anything in between and when you listen to some great rock album and some great rock god guy just kind of scat-screaming over the top of some big dumb riff and it just sounds amazing, that’s when you don’t want him over-thinking about what’s going on there (laughs).

On the other end, you listen to some masterpiece by Brian Eno and some of the deepest philosophizing in music on record for you to listen and feel and learn from, well, you don’t want him under-thinking that. The kind of music that I do, I try to be as natural as I can be in my songwriting. I try to really let the songs come out from my very deep and unthinking place so that they can be true little living beings full of resonance that’s very human, a very human thing at the core. Then I think, ok, all this stuff spilled out but not all the lyrics are rhyming quite the right way.Maybe it sounds a little better if I do this or switch some of the words up. Same with the arrangements, where I try to be as natural as possible but then get smart about it. You’ve got something that is not working, don’t just leave it. I think Howlin Rain just goes between the two and that’s another thing I think is part of our individuality.That we have moments where it’s like it’s big and dumb and fun, like it’s summertime at the lake with the beers flying and motorcycles and shit (laughs). And then there are moments where we skirt something that goes a little more to the head and maybe challenges the intellect a little bit.

Do you think that your love for literature influences the way you write your songs? From the words that you use to the phrasing to the almost sensuality of using proper language,there is almost an eloquence to your lyrics.

You know, I think I’ve settled into a method of songwriting in that pursuit of trying to be as naturalistic as you can be in your songwriting and your lyric writing. Over time I’ve settled into this method where again, I just try to let that stuff come out and maybe even a day later you sometimes go back and have those little blips of where your mind sort of goes blank and your eyes sort of go white and you’re just putting stuff on the page and just rolling the chords and it’s just coming out. And then you’re kind of like, ok, once you take a breath and a couple hours have gone by and it’s really focused in a subconscious way, when a song is being born. You kind of look up and go, ‘I don’t exactly know where the hell that line came from but thank God it’s there’ (laughs). That’s the first line of the song; the whole story came out from that, everything started flowing from that. And, yeah, granted when I usually do that the first verse is there or maybe a second one and hopefully some part of the chorus, maybe the most poignant part of it. Sometimes you have to go and fill in the rest and work with the tone that you have.

But somehow I feel for me that’s how I express it lyrically. You just got to do what you’re comfortable with singing to. I guess just writing down “I feel like making love, yeah baby, baby” on the page and that’s going to be the chorus, it doesn’t ring true to me to try to sing that (laughs). I love that, I love to hear “I Feel Like Making Love” on the radio with this big, dumb, glorious rock song that feels awesome. And maybe if you hear that guy sing it, that sounds amazing when he grunts and moans and whatever with a banana stuffed down his pants (laughs)

Who did you grow up listening to?

I heard stuff that my folks had around the house. My dad listened to Kenny Rogers.Sometimes I’d go out to the woods to cut firewood with him and stuff, like on weekend trips, and he’s got Kenny Rogers “The Gambler” rocking or he’d listen to Crosby, Stills & Nash a lot. So I got that stuff and of course my folks being from the era that they’re coming from, the Boomers, I’d hear The Beatles and Jefferson Airplane, some of those classics.

And then I got into pop music sometime in the early eighties, just about the time the second Madonna record was coming out, Prince Purple Rain, Tina Turner Private Dancer; those three pop records I remember.And Michael Jackson Thriller being the biggest of course, probably still one of the most repercussive and influential musical things that reverberates through my life that has never stopped is that record. I think that was the first record that was really my own, and my friends, at a very young age. Maybe we were seven or whatever and getting that record and to a kid Michael Jackson’sThriller being your first record you own and you look at the gatefold and you listen to it and just dance and you’re going crazy and it’s the first one to really soak in. I can’t conceptualize it. I just feel this deep, deep connection and love for the music. And that is probably one of the most powerful records that you could have that happen with. It’s not just some crappy pop record that no one remembers. So that one had a huge effect in keeping me totally plugged in and dialed in to this love/obsession with music that’s run the course of my entire life basically since that moment.

And then as I start to go from there, as I got a little bit older, I got into hard rock just about the time of glam rock. I was in sixth grade or so and Poison and Guns N Roses were coming on the scene and I got that stuff. A little bit after that I started getting into punk rock and was fully into punk rock and alternative music and some of these kinds of things. I got into saying, ‘ok, how do you make the music that’s happening on Michael Jackson’sThriller?’ Well, it’s fairly complicated.  You have to take a lot of lessons to play keyboards like that (laughs). But then punk rock was the first thing that I heard that I just went, ‘whoa, this music is equally powerful, it’s incredible, and how do you make that?’ I went to the gigs and saw how they were making it.  And the lesson there was just get an instrument and you can make this very quickly; this is about expression, powerful expression, rather than just pure musicianship or musical knowledge to be able to create expression.

When you started writing music, did you start off writing lyrics or poetry?

I wrote and did poetry, wrote little books as soon as I learned to write. I’d make little picture books and stuff that my mom would sew together. That started happening early, really early, as early as I could hold a pencil or pen and make some shapes. I’d dictate to her and she’d write them. As soon as I could write, I’d write the stuff in there myself. Then I did poetry and creative writing. I started to write music and then it’d come out to words and music and I’d try to write a song.

Having mentioned your love of literature, what would you say is your all-time favorite classic novel?

You know what, I always get stumped when someone asks, what is your favorite record of all-time? and I’m like, ‘oh my God, I can’t’. I just feel like I’m betraying all my other favorite records if I give that up (laughs) but I’ll tell you one thing that I found was quite profound. I got into reading some epics that I never read before, like Moby Dick and War and Peace, while we were working on this record. I just got to this point where some of my mornings before the studio, I was getting up early and I was just like, I need to fill my time.So I thought I’d read some of these and I have to say that Tolstoy’s War and Peace was a profoundly rewarding experience as I was told it would be. You hear people talk about it, that this is a major work of art, one of the greats of all time, and it will affect you very deeply if you reward yourself by reading it in your lifetime, maybe even more than once. I read it and I have to say that I loved it, that it was kind of an ecstatically rewarding piece of art to engage with. It was incredible. I think it’s a more engaging and actually faster read and much more fluent than Moby Dick or definitely more than reading Hamlet. I mean, Hamlet is great but the new translations aren’t that taxing as reading Olde English Shakespeare,or even the older English and Moby Dick or something. So I recommend it, you should check it out, you will dig it.

What are you going to tackle next?

I’m actually reading Walk On The Wild Side, the complete short stories of Ernest Hemingway, and what else am I reading? Those are my main jams right now. I’m back in the classics cause I was reading so much science-fiction and stuff for a while and fantasy that I’m like, ‘ok, I’m going to go read some of these classics and I’m getting to the point where I’m going to get back to some faster fiction.’

No-brainer stuff

(laughs) It’s nice to have that on the line too. It all serves it’s purpose.

You once said that you liked being in the studio more than you liked being on the stage. Why is that?

(laughs) I think I was about a year into touring and I was tired of sleeping in bad motel beds and on people’s hardwood floors and being hung over and I think what I said is that I like it more than being on tour, because nothing is better than being on stage. The moment that you’re on that live stage making music that is affecting people and the audience is there and you make that connection and it goes deeply and it really touches them and you, and there’s that unified energy of the event happening, that’s the most incredible thing that there is. That is the most incredible situation I think you could be in when you’re presenting artwork and having it received. So nothing is better than that.

And furthermore, I’m looking forward to getting out on tour and not being in a recording studio. But it is fun being in a recording studio too. It’s cool, like a science lab with all the old school gear. You know, these guys like Tim Green, they can wear these big lab coats and they wouldn’t look weird cause all the machinery looks like this Frankenstein kind of laboratory shit. It’s fun.
But we’re going out right before the record releases and then we’re coming back doing the west coast right on top of the release. Then doing SXSW and then we’ve got some other things that we’re working on, setting up for the summer, festival stuff, just getting back in the grind out there and making some rounds. Getting out, seeing some folks. Go out and see how it goes. See where the winds blow once you get out there where you need to be.

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