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Turn Me On: Howlin Rain and Band Leader, Ethan Miller
Over the course of thirteen years and five studio albums, the kaleidoscopic jam band Howlin Rain has ingeniously explored the ever-evolving relationship between avant-garde psychedelia and blues-based southern rock. Their latest studio album, The Alligator Bride, and new live release, Under The Wheels: Live From The Coasts, Vol 1, both offer immersive listening experiences that are as emotionally and energetically invigorating as they are awe-inspiring in their influences and impressive in their innovations.
The musical and existential journeys of Howlin Rain are navigated by the rudimentary compass of singer, guitarist and bandleader Ethan Miller, who founded the band in Oakland, California in 2006. In between legs of touring, recording Howlin Rain’s next studio album and preparing the next band’s next live release, Miller spoke to Rock Cellar over the phone about crafting both recent releases, the influence of the Beat Generation on his work, and the evolution of Howlin Rain.
Prior to our interview, I had read in a press release a comment of Miller’s that, “The guiding principle for The Alligator Bride was to create ‘Neal Cassady Rock.’” Upon universal kismet granting me the opportunity for us to speak, I expeditiously asked him why the Merry Prankster and driver of the mythologized Furthur bus was a seminal figure for him, and what element of said mythos was he hoping to capture in his music.
Miller replied, “That comment was made about not so much his writing, but his kind of essence. When you see the film footage of him, he’s driving the bus. He’s got his shirt off. He’s sweating. He’s high on speed. He’s telling stories endlessly for three days. All of the hippies are riding around with him on acid. Kind of a roving sort of Ulysses for the beatnik era.”
Miller furthered, “The thing that I was getting at there, too, is the idea that pot and acid and laid-back drugs are such a quintessential caricature of hippie culture. But, in that kind of moment that hippie culture was being born, and when it was still sort-of half-way between beatniks and hippies, characters like Cassady had a real speed-edge to them. I’m fond of that vibe, that moment, when hippie culture was just sort of coming into focus. And it wasn’t completely pigeonholed as a mellow-out, tune-out kind of thing. It was still this sort of force of powerful expression of individual character for these different kinds of characters like Neal Cassady or Ken Kesey or a lot of the beats. Obviously, those guys were not playing with a unified vision of their culture. They were playing with fearsome individualism. Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, in fact, some of these people were completely anti-social.”
This philosophy permeates the entire artistic output of Howlin Rain. Though the great irony may be that while it’s Miller’s deeply personal and closely held interpretation of the hippie philosophy and experience that make his perspectives as a songwriter and bandleader unique. It’s his impassioned reverence for his influences and their ideals that make Howlin Rain an equally euphoric and epiphany-inspiring blend of chicken soup for the hippie soul.
Although Howlin Rain’s music would never be considered “prog rock” as the term is often used, even the most cursory listen immediately reveals that Howlin Rain is nothing if not progressive. One of the best examples of this is the title track from The Alligator Bride, which itself engages with a spectrum of musical styles, influences and emotional landscapes that dominated American musical culture between 1967 and 1977.
When I broached the subject of making music that journeys through a cornucopia of familiar ideas and feelings via the road map he’s drawing with the skill of a masterful cartographer, Miller ruminated, “I like to think that Howlin Rain is an expression of my own and our own musical voice. I don’t know of any group or composer or artist that doesn’t interact with the history of music and wasn’t gravitating towards things that they love. And kind of mutate them and bring them into their voice.”
To give a timely example in the wake of the 50th Anniversary re-release of Abbey Road, Miller expounded, “We put The Beatles in such rarified air. Like The Beatles are only The Beatles and that’s all it is. Like they sprang from God’s throat down to Earth and it was the most wholly original group of all-time. I don’t think that’s how The Beatles viewed themselves.
“I think Lennon and McCartney thought, ‘This is our favorite Everly Brothers chorus. Let’s just take it for our song, do it our way.’ They do it. And it strikes people as so endearing, or people are so enamored with them, that they don’t really hear all of those influences. But when you break it down, they’re just like any other group. They had groups they loved, like The Everly Brothers, and people like Chuck Berry. Even The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones, the groups they come into competition with. They very clearly placed their influences in there as major songwriting devices. Because there’s a joy in that.
“All that is to say, we’re all part of a long conversation and an endless elliptical flow of musical ideas.”
In addition to his work within the context of Howlin Rain, Miller runs Silver Current Records, a record label that releases “artist run handmade, limited edition and specialty music product created and curated by Ethan P. Miller,” sold directly to fans via Bandcamp. When I asked Miller how Silver Current evolved and what role it presently plays in his work, Miller recounted, “When Comets on Fire was going, [drummer] Noel von Harmonsonn and I would make little live CD-R bootlegs of Comets On Fire to sell at the merch table. We’d often put them under the Silver Current banner. Put the little label name on it. At some point, I kind of got away from that. I think it came back when I just needed a creative outlet. I started doing it again for the Howlin Rain merch table.”
Miller continued, “About the time that I started doing my own releases, I was looking around thinking, ‘A lot of times I’m kind of micromanaging releases for the labels that I work with.’ I wanted these products to be an idealized, basically perfected version of the product that I would like to buy. A lot of this stuff comes out and something’s wrong with it. The covers are fucked up somehow. Or the vinyl doesn’t sound as good as you want it. But ‘We’ll fix it next run.’ So that was part of it. I thought ‘I have most of the knowledge here and can learn the rest on the fly.’ I went to the owner of Revolver USA distribution company. He’s an old, dear friend of mine, and talked to him a little bit about it. I asked him if he would take my records for distribution if I stated putting some of them out myself. He said yeah and we were off to the races. The first full release with a cd and vinyl was the first Feral Ohms album. Then we did The Alligator Bride. Then I did a live Earthless record. A live Wooden Shjips record. On and on and on. Setting up the schedule and knocking them out.”
On how his enterprising entrepreneurial streak, combined with his acumen for navigating the artist’s ever-changing economic relationship with one’s own fan base, led to the release of Under The Wheels: Live From The Coasts, Vol 1, Miller shared, “One of the beautiful things about Bandcamp is, especially if you’re a one-person label operation like this, I can look and see what kind of numbers the records are being sold in. You get to know what your fans want. What they would pay for. What they would buy and pre-order. And what would probably please them as product.”
On conceiving the series since dubbed Under The Wheels, Miller elaborated, “After a few years of seeing and getting to know the patterns a little bit of what this fan base for Silver Current and Howlin Rain is interested in, I think, ‘Yeah, I think that they would like a live series. Like a Dick Pick’s style live series.’ I love bootleg records. I love live records. They’re all out there somewhere. And fans can just endlessly sort through them and listen to them and collect them.
“I thought, ‘That could work for us on a smaller scale. It might be nice.’ And it might serve a lot of masters, too. That the fans would love it. That I personally love that kind of thing. So it’s close to my heart. That it allows a side of Howlin Rain that maybe otherwise only gets to be heard through bootlegs or tapers or a live album once every ten years or something like that. In this case, if we put one or two out whenever we want, every year, every couple of years, it keeps that representation of that other side of us alive, too. So, I don’t know, at some point it just kept boiling down to sort of being a good idea.”
When discussing the challenges of producing a live album for the vinyl format and how Howlin Rain’s latest release took shape, Miller once again was generous in sharing his perspicacity and enthusiasm for the artistry of live albums and his desire to make an original statement in that historically fertile landscape. Miller illuminated, “When you’re talking about making something for the vinyl format, you do have to think about the time frame. There was probably a question of, ‘Should I put one more song on there? And what song would fit? This one feels okay. But it’s nine minutes long. And the album can’t house another ten minute song.’ So that’s one of the reasons that I went to two volumes for the first one. I thought, ‘I’ve got enough material for both. Each one’s not going to be the longest live record in the world. But that’s okay.’ They’re fun, limited edition, little views into the live world here.”
On how he settled on two songs from The Alligator Bride for inclusion in Under The Wheels: Live From The Coasts, Vol 1, Miller stated, “For the most part The Alligator Bride songs sounded so live on the record to me, that they didn’t sound that different to me live. So I kind of felt like, they need to be little different.
“‘Missouri,’ it sounds pretty close to the album version. But the energy was really cool and I liked the way it sat in the live record and gave it a lot of cool energy and just a sort of five-minute bombast. The whole live album opens up with a ten-minute improvised piece. The idea was, ‘Do we start with a big rock song, so everybody’s right there in the middle of the rock show? Or do I take this opportunity to put this improvised thing and really set the tone for these live records that they have no rules?’ The first thing in this series of live records is just this kind of slow burn improvised piece. Just putting the flag down that anything can happen with these live records. They can be live rockin’ records. They might be live improvised records. The track order might make sense. It might not. But they are what they are. It’s part of a big, flowing conversation.”
Miller is currently looking forward to a run in early December that’s going to take Howlin Rain through the Pacific Northwest, including stops in Oregon, Washington and Vancouver, Canada. Under The Wheels: Live From The Coasts, Vol 2 is slated to be released in spring of 2020 to coincide with a soon-to-be-announced tour. Howlin Rain is also halfway through recording their next studio effort which Miller hopes to release in the fall of 2020. Additionally, Miller’s hinted, “There are going to be plenty of other little fun things from Silver Current between now and then.”
To turn yourself on to Howlin Rain go to @howlinrain on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Visit https://www.howlinrain.com for information on upcoming tour dates, browse an extensive merch collection and join the Howlin Rain mailing list. Visit https://www.silvercurrentrecords.com to explore the full range of memorable releases from all of the aforementioned artists as well as other exciting albums and enticing merch.
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