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Photo by Raeni Miller
Listening to anything by Howlin Rain is like stepping into a time machine that lands in the mid-70s, where pants were flared, hair flowed and moustaches were a given. Though the band’s new release, The Dharma Wheel, is just six songs long, the groovy, psychedelic jams take the listener on a 52-minute cosmic journey through dense songs that bear repeated listens to pick up on the different nuances.
Founding member Ethan Miller (vocals/guitar) is a great conversationalist and is happy to talk about growing up, as many people his age did, listening to ’80s glam rock before discovering Nirvana and heading to some far out places in the alternative and indie rock universe. After releasing albums on different labels, he’s also taken on the role of label owner for the release of The Dharma Wheel and, as he tells me, he now has to approach an album release wearing two different hats and making the most rational decisions for the label even if it means pulling back some of the creativity as an artist.
While we talked for over an hour, here’s an abbreviated version of that conversation.
What can you tell me about the 12-to-16-year-old Ethan Miller?
ETHAN: 12-years-old, I was living in Humboldt County, where I’m living again right now. I grew up in Eureka, here in the Lost Coast. Pre-internet, just getting some music from FM radio, a little bit from MTV, friends on the school yard. I think we had just gotten a mall, so there was a store you could go get new cassettes at on demand, new releases and stuff. Probably a lot of glam rock like Poison. I might have been getting a little old for that but I know in 5th and 6th grade, Poison and early Guns N’ Roses was definitely where things were at. By 16, I was living in England, in Nottingham, for a year and, even before that, for a kid my age in 1990, 1991, musically the world opened up a little bit. The gap was bridged between mainstream and punk rock with Nirvana and all the SubPop stuff and that whole explosion.
By 16, the world had cracked open. I was out and about, I was going to big festivals in England. So coming from a small town where you’d see local club shows – they’d put on shows at the armory – and then going to England where you go to the Glastonbury Festival. A couple of weeks after I arrived, I went to my first big concert which was Nirvana headlining the 1991 Reading Festival. I was like, “Okay. Mind blown.”
When I got back to Eureka, after Nottingham, in that 17 and 18-year-old zone, that’s when I got into bands. I was with the older crowd then and since I was an only child, that’s where the trickle down effect happens. When you’re in a band with 24-year-olds and they’ve lived in bigger cities, they’ve got huge music collections. All of a sudden you’re just completely opened up to the entire DNA of music.
I’m a little older than you but that glam rock was where my musical journey began. And, to this day, I still love it. In fact, I just saw Guns N’ Roses last night and I saw Faster Pussycat earlier this summer.
ETHAN: You’re still a believer! You may have been old enough to appreciate it when those bands were coming out. Maybe you were like, “I love this, it’s party music. I get it, this isn’t the most sophisticated music in the world.” For me, when you’re in 5th grade and listening to that stuff, it’s just like, “Wow!” Later, you listen back and there’s a few of those bands that could write and play and sing and then a lot of the stuff you listen to and you’re like, “There’s not much here in hindsight but attitude.” It should be attitude plus something but, for many of those bands, it was just attitude and zeitgeist. In L.A., I still meet people who are like, “That’s still my thing, man.” A lot of those bands are still out there in one form or another, not just Guns N’ Roses. You can even dig deep on some of these glam rock bands and you look on the Wiki and you’re like, “There they are.” I don’t know if it’s reunions or what’s going on but they are out there playing clubs.
Let’s talk about The Dharma Wheel. Did you go into this knowing it was going to be 6 songs or were you writing and recording over the last couple of years and all of a sudden found yourself with enough songs to fill a record?
ETHAN: It was even bigger. At the time we were working on it, we had been rehearsing all this material – we had actually tracked it all – we had tracked over 2 hours worth of music for what would have been this huge triple album. Since I’m the record label, the band and myself are paying for this stuff. We’d been steady touring and so I was taking a little bit of money out of each tour and was funneling it right into the recording. There was a nice business flow of things to keep recording. Obviously, getting into a triple album level, you spend a lot of money on an indie record at that point.
And then Covid hit and that touring income ended. We were already strained and we couldn’t get into recording studios, especially when it’s like, “California’s locked down. Don’t leave your house.” It’s not like you’re going to say, “I’m going to sneak out to the recording studio to finish this record.” And, I couldn’t fly the guys up so we could get together and hash it all out. I was like, “Let me check this out. How much of the record is done? What are the songs that are done? What do they sound like if I throw them into a playlist and then listen to all the songs together? Does it make a record?”
As the record label, I have to use my label mind. As the artist, now I’m doing this stuff to myself that I used to do to other record labels where I was like, “I’m the artist. I want the tip-on record cover and the 180 gram vinyl. Oh, can we have metallic ink on there?” The labels are like, “Jesus, guy, we’re trying to sell 2,500 copies of this thing and you’ve got the cost going up.” To be fair, no label has ever kicked back like that but now that I’m doing this to myself, I’m like, “Listen asshole, there’s no fucking need for this. You don’t need this vanity crap on here. Let’s get this record out and make a little money on it and not just break even.”
When I’m in the artistic frame of mind, I’m like, “Triple album. This is going to have to be 4 pieces of vinyl and it’s going to cost $70 retail.” Then the label side of me says, “Ridiculous. This is a stupid idea.” When I broke it down to a single record, the label side of me said, “Good job. This was the right thing to do all along.”
If you’ve got enough material for a triple album, if The Dharma Wheel sells well, would you consider putting out more of the music that you’ve tracked and recorded?
ETHAN: Yeah, that’s one of the deals I made with myself. The Dharma Wheel starts with the prelude and then you go into the world through that introduction and then you’re down in there and you’re traveling through it. And “The Dharma Wheel” itself, even though it’s a big tune and kind of a big album closer, it was meant to be the halfway point. There’s these ideas in that song about consciousness, moving from life into death, going from one dimension to another. That was supposed to be, thematically, a halfway point and then we had this, to end the album, 19-minute “Suite of the Underworld.” So it started with a prelude and ended with a suite that went through these different movements and ended with this huge, crazy, prog-fusion kind of thing. All of that is fine and dandy but when I listened to the songs that wound up on The Dharma Wheel on their own, I was like, “It still works. You don’t need all those other songs.”
In the end, if we release a second volume, they can be sister albums. I can even repackage them and give them a sleeve. You can kind of feel a little bit of something on this record, something a little different and odd in the sequencing and the way the record carries itself that suggest that it’s not an enclosed thing, that there is more.
With the songs on the album, it’s supposed to be that you can go and listen to this music over and over and keep hearing and discovering different things because it’s kind of dense and complex. But, it’s also supposed to be hooky and melodic so it’s an interesting dynamic that way. You don’t just chew all the sugar out of the gum.
The first song on the album, “Prelude,” sounds like a spooky James Bond song.
ETHAN: Right. Probably that theme first comes from classical music but it’s not that far off from “You Only Live Twice.” I think it’s John Barry and Nancy Sinatra who did that song. And, also, something similar was used for the Midnight Cowboy theme. It does have a cinematic feel. It’s just those three notes that cinema keeps going back to for music. I’ve always loved that progression.
“Don’t Let the Tears” makes me think of Smokey and the Bandit and “Rotoscope” makes me think of the Allman Brothers. I do hear something different every time I listen. It checks a lot of boxes for me.
ETHAN: It’s kind of supposed to. One of the things that we were doing was celebrating music. Some records feel like a really personally-driven statement. I mean, all records by bands celebrate the music that the band collectively loves to some degree. Any band will tell you that. I think this one was supposed to be an outward celebration of kind of the joy of music even if there’s dark places on the record, heavy places, dissonant places. I don’t think we consciously set out to do that but it ended up that way because of who the four of us were, and the way that we would constantly discuss music and listen to it in the van, and reference things. Bands don’t usually talk in theory to each other, they talk in records that they love. If they say, “The G Sharp, if you do an augmented step there, this will happen mathematically,” in theory that’s correct. Very few people do that with real band mates. What they say is “Oh, right there, you do that little thing that sounds like Robert Fripp or sounds like something off the Allman Brothers At the Fillmore East.” That kind of thing is already part of the DNA of every record that everybody makes. That’s how I sized up the record when it was done. It was like, “This really feels like not just us trying to do those things that we love in other records.” That’s the difference, it’s not like “We attempted to do a song that sounded like Humble Pie,” it’s more like the celebration of music in essence.
Is Howlin Rain you, Dan Cervantes, Jeff McElroy and Justin Smith?
ETHAN: That’s who made this record but Jeff and Dan are gone now. They went to other pastures some time in the long Covid downtime and estrangement. We’ve got a new band together. We’re just about to go out on the road and that’s been kind of interesting. In some ways it’s been very cool because there’s always something about making a record, especially if you have downtime like this, the band having to relearn it, reinterpret it, are they already bored with certain things? Having the whole band being a brand new sounding band, it’s not the same as the old one, we didn’t just stick in two ringers. Having a new guitarist and a bass player, there’s just a whole different energy. I think it created somewhat of an easier and interesting way to learn all these songs with two people’s fresh ears within the group.
Is the touring band who we see in the video for “Don’t Let the Tears”?
ETHAN: Yeah, that’s it, that’s the new band.
I love Jason Soda. He’s a great guitarist.
ETHAN: He’s great. Him and Kyre Wilcox [bass] are fantastic. Coming out of a long haul with Covid, which we’re not really out of yet, and then finding out or realizing that you’re half a band down, it’s not under normal circumstances that you’ve got to try to put a new band together. Once those guys came on board, it was like, “This is a joy.” They are making it easy.
You mentioned touring. Does that mean you have dates booked?
ETHAN: It’s a West Coast tour. In the end, it’s about 7 dates. People are out there touring at all levels. It’s going to be my first tour. I haven’t really been going out to shows or anything yet. There’s a lot of questions swirling around your head about “Is this the right time? Are we ready? People are doing it. Is that okay?” At what point do we finally say, “Okay, let’s give it a try. This might just be life for a while”? It has yet to be seen. We’ll see what it’s like out there.
If you feel safe and comfortable after this run of dates, do you want to do a coast-to-coast tour or will it be limited little runs?
ETHAN: I think the longest tour of recent memory was we did 22 gigs in 19 days or something like that. We like to cram them in, no days off if we can help it. Usually it made more sense to fly out to the East Coast, run back to the Midwest, instead of 70 dates in a row. It just was the balance that worked.
If there are anchor gigs and the money made sense to get back over here and do this instead of fooling around playing every small town out there for 70 days between anchors, that would be a good reason to do that. We’re all vaccinated but the Delta strain obviously blows right through the vaccination and music anyways. In most cases, if you’re vaccinated, you’re not going to get deathly ill from Delta, it’ll pass through.
Touring has always been a vulnerable state. Everybody gets sick on tour. Lots of times you get really sick because you’re working the merch table and everybody is coming up drunk after the show and spitting on you while they’re talking. That’s just part of touring. So, in that case, I’m glad it’ll still be like it’s always been. Hopefully we’ll keep our masks on the whole tour and won’t unmask for anybody but us in the van or while we’re on stage. It’ll be the healthiest tour any of us have ever been on!
I guess, for me, it’s a philosophical question about going out on tour and asking people to gather to see us. How safely will they be able to gather? How well behaved will they be? We don’t want them to go home from one of our shows and spread the disease to people who are vulnerable. I don’t want to engage in the mass destruction of unvaccinated people through Delta spreading even if it doesn’t hurt me that much.
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