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Howlin Rain: Ethan Miller and the Art of Sequencing

2 July 2012

One of this year’s surprising albums was The Russian Wilds, the latest release from California-based psych-rockers Howlin Rain. Its leader, Ethan Miller, has been a fixture on the San Francisco psych-rock scene for years, first with his band Comets on Fire and then Howlin Rain. Early records were heady garage-psych records, but much to the surprise of many, the band signed to Rick Rubin‘s label American Recordings. Their debut for the label, 2008’s Magnificent Fiend, was well-received but not terribly different from their previous releases.

The creation of their follow-up, The Russian Wilds, was a different beast. Personal and personnel issues, tempered with the encouragement of producer and friend Rick Rubin, resulted in an album that took nearly three years to complete. As you will read below, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, for the finished product was an album that outshines and stands out as the band’s most polished, most produced, and most compelling album to date, one that replaces “psychedelic” with “classic” as the adjective to describe the album’s “rock.” The Russian Wilds is a bold record made by a master craftsman who was encouraged to eschew his work sensibilities and focus, focus, focus. One cannot argue with results, even if it meant waiting four years…

BT: It’s been a good four years since the last Howlin Rain album came out. Were you intending to spend so much time on this, did it just happen that way, or does it reflect a perfectionist nature? I say that because the finished album definitely feels like the work of someone spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get it right.

ETHAN MILLER: It’s interesting that you say that, because, really, I wasn’t always that way. I wouldn’t say I’m a perfectionist, as I have always been a spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment, let’s record our jams kind of a guy. In the scene that I came from, that’s sort of the typical way things get done—a great weekend jam session will take place in your garage or a friend’s studio, a few days later, the session tapes will be pulled out and listened to, liked, and then released a little while later as an album. It’s a spontaneous thing that can make it appear that you’re extremely prolific, when you’re not necessarily that way. With American, obviously with a major label, things are different, and you can’t really work that way. That said, Rick Rubin has been a really great influence on me and my craft. Rick really encouraged me to maybe slow down a little. He’s really a fan of rehearsing, spending time on songwriting, spending time on working on arrangements, and I took that as a challenge. And yet I was ready for it, welcomed it. You want to challenge yourself, and maybe it did help to bring out a perfectionist side. (Laughs) Making The Russian Wilds was definitely a different experience for me in terms of the way I work.

BT: One aspect of The Russian Wilds is that it’s a very interesting record, sequence wise.

EM: How so?

BT: Well, I’ve always noticed that when a band puts out a record, they may put their shorter songs up towards the beginning, then work their way into the longer, more epic tracks, or they’ll mix things up. But with this, all of the album’s epic songs follow one after the other, and then by the time you get halfway through, the rest of the record concludes with the shorter tracks. Magnificent Fiend, for instance, was epic after epic, whereas this one, it’s a totally different thing.

EM: To tell you the truth, the album was a hard album to sequence, and it wasn’t as simple as having a twelve-song, forty minute long album. To be honest, this was an extremely difficult record for us to sequence. This album wasn’t like dealing with a regular album and traditional songwriting. What we ended up with, we actually had 14 songs ready to go. We had twelve great songs, and we decided we’d set two songs aside for something later—maybe bonus vinyl tracks, or a tour single, or whatever. Then we got to sequencing, and then we realized that the album was too long—it felt a little too top heavy, so we made some tough decisions and we whittled it down again. A lot of the songs were epic and had a different form and aesthetic than most albums. It proved to be a great challenge to program; like you said, it’s epic after epic, how do you make it interesting to the listener and not tedious? I spent a lot of time pondering that question, and in the end, the way it is now was the way it sounded best to me and Rick.

It’s a big deal for Rick and from working closely with him and through our friendship, I also have come to realize it is a big deal. I mean, I like to sit down with a record, and I like for the experience to be one that lulls me and draws me in, something with peaks and valleys, you know? We live in the age of iTunes, where you can just pluck the song that you want and the rest doesn’t matter, and it’s easy to lose that sense of artistry. You could really bond with a record based upon its sequence—it could get you excited, then it could calm you down, or it could be something a little more romantic, where it puts you in a mood or it relaxes you.

BT: And another thing about the album that I like is that it really has a traditional album feel, in the sense that when you get to “Plex Reception,” you’ve just finished side one, and side two is on its way.

EM: Yeah, that’s true, we put that there for the next half of the album, and yeah it does feel like a split of a record, that it’s time to go to the record player and flip over the side for side two. Honestly, I can’t remember exactly how we decided that we went with that, but yeah, you’re right, it does divide the record and it does give it that two-sided album feel.

BT: Someone once told me that Rick doesn’t think in terms of a CD’s length, that instead he thinks in vinyl sides.

EM: Yeah, he does, and it’s a great way to think. It’s a thought process that focuses on the art of the record album. Nowadays, with CD and digital give you the option of not having to think of the beginning of side one, the rise of side one, and the comedown of side one, then repeating the start of side two, the climax and then the conclusion. You’ve got six basic precision points and an aesthetic arc in between for a classic side one/side two vinyl record. These days maybe that frees you up if you don’t think along those lines, so that you can go up, and then go up another tier, and not have to worry about coming back down within a rather quick amount of time. Yet that’s not bad either, in that things change over time and aesthetics change over time, and instead of having to concentrate on six points, you can look at the time on a CD, and instead make three—with a continuum over a longer period of time, as opposed to, say, 18 to 20 minutes. And that’s cool in its way, you know?

BT: I agree with you on that point, yet I know others from your scene don’t feel that way.

EM: You can be a purist about things and decry that sort of thing, but each form has its benefits, and I think you can miss the greater point. Case in point, Joseph: Pink Floyd. When you consider Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here or The Wall, all three of those albums are masterful in having the precision points, and they sound great on vinyl. But when you put them on CD, it’s an even better listening experience. It’s a case where the format is even better, especially in the case of Dark Side. Yeah, those six precision points are still there, obviously, but does anyone complain about, “Oh, the listening experience isn’t good because it continues without interruption?” Of course not. (Laughs) If anything, not having the break makes the listening experience tons better. A more recent example is that new Sleep record, Dopesmoker. They made a sixty-minute song. Yeah, I bet it sounds killer on vinyl, but when they recorded it, were they doing so with this notion that, “Hey, we’ll split it at the half-hour mark and it’ll sound great.” I don’t think so; it was meant to be experienced as a continuum. It’d be a bummer to really get into the groove of it, and then just as you and the album are in synch, having to get up out of your chair just to flip the damn album. (Laughs).

BT: In reading up on the album and the background, I’m familiar of the
stresses that went into making the album, the delays, the extra work, the lineup changes—it was a somewhat tumultuous time for the band. But the record’s been out a few months now, you’ve done some touring, and it’s received great reviews, so how’s the state of Howlin Rain in May 2012?

EM: You know, man, it’s really in a great place. Like you said, the album’s doing great, and being out on the road, it’s always something I look forward to. Being a touring band these days, though, it’s a challenge in its own right. I guess it probably always has been, but Joseph, when you’ve been away for a little while, that can make things hard. It’s still what we love to do, we love to sell records and go out and play, and hook up with other bands that are our friends, and have a good time, have a fun evening of music. Yet even though there are definite frustrations to be had—it’s hard to sell records in the day when people expect their music to be free, going out and touring when we’ve not done so in a while—people forget, and on some level you have to work hard to keep those people interested in what you do. But these negatives, they’re really easy to get caught up in, and sometimes forget that we’ve accomplished something. We’ve made a good record that people love, we do have people coming out, digging what we do, and we’re able to keep doing our thing. We’ve got some touring coming up, and I’m looking forward to that. I’ve got my eye on more music, too, and I hope to get some more music out a little bit quicker next time, and I want to keep out there on the road, just doin’ my thing.

 

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