By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — One of the leading lights of the Bay Area’s psychedelic revival for nearly two decades ever since first rising to notoriety as a founding member of unhinged psych-punk group Comets on Fire in 1999, guitarist Ethan Miller has had an important hand in a number of significant bands to emerge from the region’s fruitful scene.
For the better part of the 2000s, Comets on Fire stood at the forefront of San Francisco’s modern resurrection of mind-altering musical mayhem. Founded by childhood friends Miller (guitar and vocals) and Ben Flashman (bass) in Santa Cruz just before the turn of the millennium, the group forged a chaotic sound matching Miller’s corrosive guitar destruction with his wildly effect-drenched vocals that were pushed into sonic chaos by Echoplex manipulator Noel Von Harmonson.
After the addition of powerhouse drummer Utrillo Kushner and Six Organs of Admittance mastermind Ben Chasny on second guitar, Comets on Fire earned a deserved reputation as one of SF’s most ferociously transcendent live acts. Two stellar albums for Sub Pop Records (Blue Cathedral in 2004, followed by what would be the band’s last studio effort to date, Avatar, in 2006) further established the quintet as major players on the global psych scene.
It was during Comets’ rise mid-decade that Miller decided he wanted a new outlet that let him explore a more melodic sound that drew on the laid-back style of SF psychedelia that inspired him while growing up on the Lost Coast. Forming the first line-up of Howlin Rain with longtime friend Ian Gradek and Sunburned Hand of the Man drummer John Moloney, Miller would delve into the kind of extended freeform improvisation favored by such Bay Area standbys as the Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service mixed with the earthy, southern-tinged guitar choogle of Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Allman Brothers.
Built around Miller’s songs and raspy, soulful vocal delivery and still corrosive guitar tone, Howlin Rain quickly found an audience that only grew in scope and reach with the release of the band’s eponymous 2006 debut and sophomore album Magnificent Fiend two years later that was released on noted producer Rick Rubin’s label American Records. With Comets on Fire going on an extended hiatus from activity, Howlin Rain would become the guitarist’s main outlet.
Supported by an evolving group of players that included members of local left-field hard rockers Drunk Horse Eli Eckert and Joel Robinow on the latter album, Miller worked closely with Rubin on the follow-up effort, sifting through dozens of songs before coming up with the tracks that made up the ambitious opus Russian Wilds that finally came out in 2012. Tracked with a powerhouse quintet the guitarist and Robinow put together that featured former Drunk Horse and Saviours bassist Cyrus Comisky, talented Earthless guitarist Isaiah Mitchell and drummer Raj Ojha (who would later form Once and Future Band with Robinow), Russian Wilds featured some inspired playing and songs, but the drawn-out recording process had already taken its toll.
Robinow would depart, leaving the band as a four-piece as it toured the globe to support an album that due to a label shake-up wasn’t getting much support from American Records. While the concert document of that version of the band Live Rain showed off the pyrotechnics of a fiery ensemble that highlighted some ferocious interplay between Miller and Mitchell, after the tour the group would dissolve, essentially leaving the bandleader without a band.
Miller occupied some time with a brief reunion of Comets on Fire in late 2013 that was spurred by members of the band collaborating with guitarist Chasney on an album and tour, but he eventually turned his focus back to Howlin Rain, putting together songs that would make up the 2015 effort Mansion Songs, the first of a proposed trilogy of albums from the band. That low-key effort featured support from Heron Oblivion, a new band Miller had formed with relocated Philadelphia musician Meg Baird (who has her own solo career in addition to playing with Philly psych/folk band Espers), longtime collabrator Harmonson and Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound guitarist Charlie Saufley, but at the same time, the guitarist was also putting together a new live line-up of Howlin Rain with LA-based musicians Jeff McElroy andDan Cervantes.
If anything, Miller has ramped up his activity in the several years since Mansion Songs came out, recording and touring with both Heron Oblivion (who put out their acclaimed debut for Sub Pop in 2016) and his blistering psych-punk power trio Feral Ohms, and releasing his first solo ambient/noise guitar recordings under the moniker the Odyssey Cult as well as two volumes of surrealist poetry through his imprint Silver Current Recordings. Earlier this summer, the songwriter hit the road with Howlin Rain for the first time since the release of Mansion Songs with a new drummer (Justin Smith) and a new album, the electrifying new collection of songs The Alligator Bride that returns the band to the melodic, blues-drenched psychedelic roar of its earlier recordings.
CBS SF recently caught up with Miller by phone near the tail end of the busy band’s swing of East Coast dates that had them playing more than 18 shows in 18 days to discuss the band’s latest work ahead of a hometown show at the Starline Social Club on Thursday, Aug. 2, to celebrate the new release.
CBS SF: So the Grateful Shred weren’t involved in the earlier set of West Coast shows you did this summer, but you’ve joined up with them for a couple of East Coast dates. How did you end up getting together with them? To my knowledge, that particular Dead tribute hasn’t been around for too long…
Ethan Miller: I think you’re right. I think it’s just been a couple of years. But yeah, they’re just buds and our management is the same. I guess it was something they came up or the management decided it would be fun to put us on a couple of Grateful Shred shows. So we did a couple on the East Coast and are doing another one in LA for Jerry Garcia’s birthday. I don’t know, maybe it makes it a more dynamic event on their end or whatever. But it’s always fun to play with friends
CBS SF: The Alligator Bride is the second part of what you’ve described as “the Mansion Trilogy” in the past, named after the recording studio you’ve been working at in SF for a long time. Just to get a clearer picture, are these all songs you got together in the time after recording and touring Russian Wilds? Or are you more building the albums as you go and including new material?
Ethan Miller: It’s all of the above. I think when I started Mansion Songs — the first of “the Mansion Trilogy” — I was writing a ton of music, so I had a ton of songs written. I didn’t really have a group. Well, not “didn’t really;” I literally didn’t have a group. Heron Oblivion came in and played on most of it as my backing band. I did a short session in Los Angeles that was when I first met Dan and Jeff, who I’ve now been playing with longer than anyone I’ve played with in Howlin Rain.
So I’ve been with them since 2014. We did a little session, but saved some of that music that didn’t make it on Mansion Songs. One of those songs actually ended up on Alligator Bride. And then we just let things organically develop from there. Some songs were 20 years old that I had ideas for that I said, “I’ll bring this in and let’s work on it.”
Other things I wrote right there sitting on a piano bench in the studio. I asked Eric [Bauer] to roll the tape and we’ll roll through it and develop a song. Three hours later, I’ve recorded stuff from the ground up: piano, drums bass, guitars and vocals. That was for Mansion Songs, the first one.
So for the second one, The Alligator Bridge, Jeff and Dan and I had already been touring for a few years, because they went out and toured Mansion Songs with me. I really wanted to capture the live band and their character as Howlin Rain. So we brought Justin in on drums to see if the would want to do the record and see if it was a fit. And things went pretty quickly from there.
The Alligator Bride was a rehearsed album that we went in and basically performed in the studio. We rehearsed it quickly and performed it quickly. The idea that it’s a trilogy is kind of just a loose guide. It has to do with the Mansion where we record with Eric Bauer. It also has to do with this loose concept of the rebuilding of a band from this disintegrated ground zero starting point. It’s kind of like these Polaroid pictures in music of the development of this band back to a total live experience.
In a lot of ways, I thought that it would go a little slower. Like the first one would be this sort of ragged, half improvised album. Heron Oblivion played on it and we were basically unrehearsed. They were playing off the cuff with me and I thought it would be kind of a ramshackle affair and have this really nice late-night vibe. And then slowly the albums would build back to this mighty rock band experience that on the third one would culminate in this ultimate smoking live band.
But I feel like that whole trajectory has happened in the first and second albums [laughs]. So the third album will probably be something a little different. I don’t know exactly what yet. There are songs that have already been recorded that didn’t end up on the last two records that are ready for the third one. There are some new songs that I have in mind, some ideas that we’ve been playing with on the road. So the loose ideas are all out there floating around. The concept of the trilogy is more poetic than a strict rule. There’s really no rules on it. It’s just a guiding light for me.
CBS SF: One thing I didn’t realize until getting questions together this week was that Mansion Songs was the first recording you’d done with Meg, and you’re enlightening me further that it was actually the first recording you did with all the members of Heron Oblivion. Was that before the band even existed per se?
Ethan Miller: No, we existed. I think we recorded the Heron Oblivion album pretty soon after that. Meg had just moved out from Philly. We had formed Heron Oblivion and we were playing, but it was pretty early on. I don’t think we’d recorded the first album yet. It was 2014, so we would have just been a band. We’d already played out for our first gig, it was with War on Drugs at the Independent.
But yeah, they all came in and played on the record. We were basically using our Heron Oblivion roles to make that music. Except in this case, I was the band leader; the Howlin Rain guy, but Charlie and Noel were doing their Heron Oblivion guitar roles and Meg was on drums and singing with me. So it was a pretty easy fit. Some of the songs were a little less rehearsed. Low pressure, I think.
CBS SF: Mansion Songs definitely has a different flavor than either Heron Oblivion or other Howlin Rain albums. It seems like a more intimate and folk-influenced album, though I guess Heron Oblivion has its folky moments too. The Alligator Bride is definitely a return to the cosmic choogle you’d done previously with the band…
Ethan Miller: Yeah, I think that’s right. I don’t know, the Mansion Songs album, people had a lot of different feelings about it.There didn’t seem to be a major agreement about it among fans or critics. Some people thought it was the high point in my Howlin Rain career and some people thought in didn’t sound enough like what they wanted from Howlin Rain. It’s interesting. I kind of found that dynamic responses were part of the thrill of having done it.
CBS SF: The Independent show that I saw for the release of Mansion Songs was the first time I’d seen the current live version of the band and Alligator Bride is the first studio recording you’ve done with them. Had you played any of these songs with them live prior to recording? There was nothing that they were already familiar with?
Ethan Miller: Pretty much, yeah. We did about four rehearsal sessions. The first one was to try out Justin, our new drummer to see if he wanted to come in. And I thought, “I’ll bring down demos of the songs that I have and play them for the guys and see which ones they like.” Jeff knew Justin and thought he could be a candidate to be our new drummer. I said, “Why don’t you bring him in and we’ll jam for a day and a half and work on these demos.” So even if we didn’t end up playing with him, we’d get some demo work done with a drummer. But it was a real nice fit, and we kept going.
So that first day and a half of rehearsals, we worked through the different tunes to see which ones the band liked. We kind of just played the idea once or twice and see if it was coming to life. If it wasn’t, we’d set it aside and just move on. And if it was, we’d set it aside and put a little check next to it. And the next rehearsal, we got into refining them. We had two more like that where I’d fly down, we’d play for ten hours one day and eight hours the next, and I’d fly home. And then we went into the studio and recorded for three days. That was pretty much it. Then I overdubbed the vocals and did a couple other little overdubs with keys. Done and done!
CBS SF: To what extent did the band have input on how the new material took shape? Did you have ideas as far as the instrumentation that you’d point them in a specific direction, or was it more collaborative?
Ethan Miller: Usually I’d take something that was somewhere between a campfire song and something that’s a little more developed that has more detailed guitar or general concept for a bass groove or something like that. But for the most part, I’d take things in the band would work them up and bring them to life and create the details and the arrangement.
Like “Alligator Bride” the song, I took it in and I thought it would be this real past midnight jam with just acoustic guitar and some ambient sound in the background and a hushed vocal. But Dan suggested we try it Crazy Horse style with a full rock band. That was an instance of the band really bringing an arrangement to life or me having a core idea, having the lyrics and the song which could have worked a number of different ways or outcomes if I was left to my own devices.
But instead I think the band really brought it to the optimal place with a little more objective ears, hearing it as a band member and a fan and saying, “Oh man, this has got more potential than the way you’re suggesting.” And we all said, “Yeah, it’s gonna have to be that way! That’s good!”
CBS SF: Listening to the new album and seeing you play in Brooklyn recently made me realize how much both this version of Howlin Rain and Heron Oblivion both invoke the squall of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, even though you don’t play guitar in Heron Oblivion. Would you say that Crazy Horse is something of a touchstone for both bands?
Ethan Miller: Yeah, Crazy Horse never gets old! Everybody loves that. I think, even though I’m playing bass in Heron Oblivion, I think I influence Charlie and Noel to play that element of squalling guitars up. Sometimes on the first record, they’d say, “We gotta work something out here.” And I’d say, “Oh no, let’s not work it out. I really want you guys to just f—ing slap me so it’s like a mix of Crazy Horse and Sonic Youth and Steve Reich.” All these elements happening at once in a big blender. Because you don’t hear that in melodic music that much. I’m not totally responsible for that; those guys naturally would do it, especially when they’re developing ideas.
I think sometimes they would think, “I think we need to move past this.” And I’d try to influence them; “No! Let’s not! This is great! I love it.” With both guys just going for it. I think I liked how it came out on the Heron Oblivion record so much that it was a little bit of a syndrome of like “I wanna do that too!” [laughs] So when we did the Howlin Rain record, for my part of that conceptual guitar interplay, I wasn’t done working through that idea. I wanted for me and Dan to get into some of that too.
I thought for Howlin Rain, we’d tip it a little bit further towards more like the Grateful Dead or the Allman Brothers type chiming, melodic guitars but still in chaos. It’s a pretty fine line for us to do stuff like that on the solo parts to “Missouri.” We can really tell. We’re playing free but melodically and it’s almost supposed to sound like cascading notes, like if you put all the guitar solo tracks up at once in the mix.
So we’re playing with similar ideas, but it starts becoming more Jackson Pollock or something. And we could really tell when we weren’t doing it right. The thing that defined what was happening and what we were playing to make it work right — or not right –were pretty opaque to us. We knew when it didn’t sound very good. It would just sound like an annoying squall, and then sometimes we’d hit the magic mark and we’d think, “Oh, ok. That sounds kind of like that intro to “Sweet Jane” or something like that.” Where it’s a beautiful melodic thing but still has elements of a weird sound collage to it. I guess I couldn’t quite get enough of that. I didn’t want to fully go into the technical, jazzy melodic guitar harmonies like the Allman Brothers do. I like the dreamy space that the loose, chaotic element adds to doing something like that.
CBS SF: You’ve gotten a lot of experience running your own label in the runup to Alligator Bride as far putting out reissues of your own bands and limited edition CDs and tapes of live recordings. Did you always have that kind of enterprise in mind as a way to distribute your music or was it inspired by your American Recordings experience where the band kind of went into limbo as far as releasing Russian Wilds?
Ethan Miller: Yeah, I think probably both. There are some things that are really beneficial like control. Then there are things that are scarier. Like if I spend $20,000 or $30,000 or $40,000 of Universal’s money or Sony’s money or something like that — or even Sub Pop — those companies can absorb that. And whether they can or can’t, it’s not my risk. My relationship with them may be at risk, but it’s not your literal financial risk. When you have your own label, it is.
So there are certain benefits to it and certain risks that make things a little harder. You start putting things on credit cards to get releases done. But you can only be so careful putting out records. You know you have to hedge these things ,unless you’re independently wealthy or your company’s got a ton of money and you can say, “Yeah, I’m in the clear.” But in the end, if you want to push forward, you’ve got to stack things up and have faith that so many of them will sell, especially if you have some that won’t sell.
That’s a lot for one person to take on. It’s a lot of joy and a lot of stress. And that’s not even including the actual work of creating the releases and overseeing their execution and their campaigns. But that said, the other part of it is, if you’ve worked f—ing three years on a record or some s–t and your record label switches parent company or something and distribution goes into limbo and your record is about to get shelved, then all that s–t goes out the window. I can set the release of the records I put out down to the goddamn second. And that’s a joy! If we need to push it back a week? No problem! It’s all on your timeline and when you want to tour. And if you f–k things up, well you don’t have to blame anybody else; it’s your own fault and your own problem. But at the same time, nobody else is going to f–k it up for you.
And there’s also a handmade aspect that goes into some of what you do through Silver Current. I’m not sure how much of that you’re doing with The Alligator Bride, but your poetry book was something that you pretty much made each volume by hand, and the first Feral Ohms album had a limited edition with a hand-screened cover. And that’s always a cool thing as a fan to get something that was actually handled by the artist you’re buying it from…
Doing the handmade stuff is the ultimate, but it also takes crazy time. Like those poetry books take forever to make. They’re all made by hand. I’m actually printing, cutting and sewing by hand. You’re book binding by hand. It’s nuts. And the more I’m on tour, the more releases I put out, the harder it is to do that. I mean, creating a hundred covers for the Feral Ohms record like I did, that’s slightly easier, because I can knock that out in an afternoon and repackage them and get them ready to go, and people love them. I love doing that.
I love handmade records. But if I’ve got a busy touring schedule, I need to be realistic. I have a live Earthless record that’s coming up that I’m going to put out on Silver Current. And in my mind, I’m going over all these different silk-screen cover ideas. But then I go, “Hang on a second. You’re going be out on the road for the rest of the year.” Maybe I can make some silk screened covers, but I can’t get ahead of myself.
CBS SF: Given all the different band projects you have, is it hard to compartmentalize when you’re writing which band you’re writing for? Or are things pretty clear when the song emerges? And how hard is it to schedule between things? I remember you saying recently that you were making good progress on the new Heron Oblivion…
Ethan Miller: Yeah, we’re pretty far along there. Meg’s back in SF working vocals and stuff. We have about an album’s worth of material done. I think we may try to record another little session just to get a couple more songs so we have a little leeway to play with the sequencing of the record in case we want to leave a couple tracks off.
I try to completely compartmentalize when I’m working on songs, but sometimes it doesn’t totally work like that. Usually it does. You have the different players in the different bands. When I’m writing something say for Feral Ohms, I usually know pretty quick. Because I’m thinking, “Would Chris Johnson play drums to this groove? Or would Meg?” They’re completely different drummers. One probably wouldn’t and can’t do what the other does. That kind of thing makes it pretty easy.
But once in a while something sneaks through. I wrote a song during the beginning of Feral Ohms and it was one that we liked a lot and we played and stuff, but Jay Babcock told me, “I always thought that was truly meant for Howlin Rain.” And I kind of had it in the back of my mind to pull it out and see if we could do it, because as time went by, I felt like it was true. Feral Ohms kept going in a different direction and it was probably was a truer Howlin Rain song.
So I don’t think that happens too often in my career and discography between the different groups, but it does because it’s hard to be completely objective about things. And if the group that you’re playing it for really likes it and plays it really well and seems to want to take ownership and use their own voice for it, then sometimes you do end up playing a Howlin Rain song with Feral Ohms.
CBS SF: This is kind of an absurd idea seeing as how this line-up of Howlin Rain just put out the new album and has been your band for years, but I wanted to ask about the version of the band that recorded Russian Wilds. I was lucky enough to see that version of the band a couple of times. With everything that’s happened with those players — between Isaiah and Earthless getting bigger and Joel and Raj starting Once and Future Band — this seems unlikely, but could you see yourself playing with that line-up again?
Ethan Miller: No, not really. I don’t look back like that and I doubt they do either. In something like Comets on Fire, where we’re a five-piece band that sets it down and walks away from it — oftentimes thinking we’re probably walking away from it forever. Sometimes something happens down the line and it brings us back together to make some music, but that’s the five of us as an entity putting the thing in cold storage and walking away before coming back together.
But it’s not one member taking up the mantle and reforming the group with other members and moving down the line with it and extending the legacy of the group. And then us trying to come back! “So what if we just ignore that and go back in time?” So for me in Howlin Rain, I would never think about doing that. I just can’t envision it. The five of us didn’t set something down and walk away from it.
I have set this group up to be something that people can come to and walk away from, and sometimes I set it down when I’m the last man standing holding the heartstone of the thing. I might set it in cold storage for a little bit while I work on other things. But I’m the one who goes back and reopens the door there when I have people who are ready to do it with me. That is a constant act of moving forward into the future. There isn’t really any mechanism in my mind — artistically or even nostalgically — to go backwards and meet up with people from a former musical life in little places on the road behind me.
That’s not to say anything on a personally level. I’m sure those people feel the same way, because a lot of artistic water has gone under the bridge for them and they’ve all gone and done really fantastic things as well. I’m sure they would say the same thing, that that’s a hard thing to look back on. It’s like, if you have this family and a wife, would you think about going out on a date with a gal you were seeing from 20 years ago? [laughs]I don’t think so.
CBS SF: Yeah, it’s probably not the most realistic idea. It’s funny that you make that analogy. I once asked Trevor Dunn about his thoughts on ever getting Mr. Bungle back together — even though he has played with Mike Patton and Trey Spruance in various other projects. He said he liked those guys and still played music with them, but getting Mr. Bungle back together to try to recreate what they did would be like making out with an ex-girlfriend. It would just be weird and unnatural, so he didn’t think it was ever going to happen because of that. Bands are an emotional relationship between people, and sometimes they’re only intended to last for that specific period they last and not happen again…
Ethan Miller: Yeah. And for me, sometimes every once in a while I get to play with Isaiah in the Chris Robinson thing that we did or Cyrus and I will play again — he played on Mansion Songs — so I know that he and I will play more music together. Maybe that isn’t the same thing for a fan who wants something happen, but like Trevor said, when he plays with Mike or Trey, he feels all those things he would want to feel playing as Mr. Bungle. That’s the rekindling of that energy between those guys.
And when I get to play with Isaiah or Cyrus, I feel that energy that I remember loving about playing with them back then and still do. I don’t need to revisit something else for that. When you have people you had a good creative relationship with, that can be fulfilled by the artists by just playing together. It’s not the same as what a fan might want of the situation to get that fulfillment and satisfaction, but you can’t please every master.
Howlin Rain plays the Starline Social Club in Oakland on Thursday, Aug. 2 at 8 p.m. with Extra Classic and Credit Electric