Howlin’ Rain’s Ethan Miller seems skittish when he answers the phone at home in Oakland, Calif. You can imagine him shuffling his feet or stroking his magnificent beard—similar in length, color and style to his former producer Rick Rubin. He’s friendly, but tends to speak in circles, like he’s not sure how much of his story he really wants to divulge.
Miller, on the brink of releasing his sixth studio album as Howlin’ Rain, admits that his career in music is already probably four or five times longer than the average rock band. And in that time, he’s experienced pretty much every imaginable aspect of this amorphous, ever-changing industry we call music. Miller often refers to his journey like a ride—a common comparison, sure—but one that evokes a monologue by dark satirist Bill Hicks eerily closely:
The world is like a ride at an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down and round and round. It has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun, for a while.
Howlin’ Rain became known for performing a wild, modernized sort of psychedelic rock around the mid-’00s. Miller’s singing voice carries an animalistic power over the fatty chords and clear, sustained riffs. Guitar solos and full-band jams can stretch for 10 uninterrupted minutes, but feel like fleeting moments—just listen to last year’s epic live release, Live Rain.
But before Miller devoted his entire musical life to Howlin’ Rain, he fronted the Bay Area noise-rock band Comets on Fire. “I’ve been at this for 14 years,” he says, “grinding with my head down on a bit of a roller coaster, starting with Comets on Fire and a little idea in a half of a garage making our first record in 2000.
“I went on a wild ride with them into the underground, into the indie world, national touring, international touring, releasing a bunch of records. And then Howlin’ Rain came right with that and all the ups and downs and crazy stuff that happened on that ride.”
Comets on Fire led to a relationship with Seattle’s Sub Pop Records and much of Howlin’ Rain’s middle-period success is validated by recording with Rick Rubin. Miller signed to Rubin’s label American Records in 2008 and worked with him regularly through 2012’s The Russian Wilds. And then, Miller walked out of his major label run.
Some people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to question—“Is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us. They say, “Hey! Don’t worry, don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.”
After leaving American Recordings, Miller paused to assess the vortex of industry and creativity and expression and life swirling around him. “Last year, for the first time in 14 or 15 years, I stopped and took a breath,” he begins. With the rigorous, overlapping recording and touring cycles, he explains, “You have a habit of feeling like you haven’t gotten any older and you haven’t gone anywhere and you’re still in the beginning of your career.
“But,” Miller continues, laughing with the type of knowing deprecation you can only inflict on yourself, “I realized I’m not that anymore!”
For Miller, a decade-and-a-half in a touring rock ‘n’ roll band eventually constituted the norm. Of course, the notion of “real life” varies depends on who you ask.
“Shut him up! We have a lot invested in this ride, SHUT HIM UP! Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account and my family. This has to be real.”
For some of Miller’s bandmates and other musician friends, the strains of the cycle—not making enough money or not spending enough time with family—became overpowering. The real occurrences of paying rent and eating food and showering regularly and raising kids became too real.
“All of a sudden, I didn’t have any band,” he says.
“There was a bit of an exodus from the Bay Area here of working musicians to Los Angeles and other places that are cheaper because of the rent and other economics that are skyrocketing.”
So within the moments of existentialism and evaluation, questioning his career path and value of creative work, Miller resorted to what he knew. He wrote. And he wrote a lot of songs.
Mansion Songs took form in Eric Bauer’s San Francisco-based studio often referred to as “Bauer Mansion,” a locale that has also hosted the likes of other California musicians like Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees and Mikal Cronin. During Miller’s time there for Howlin’ Rain, he also tracked new Comets on Fire material and music for other forthcoming projects.
But Howlin’ Rain’s writing and recording process differed greatly because of the circumstances. Without his previous group of musicians, Miller allowed the process to be spontaneous and improvisational. He called in “cats,” as he says, who had never played in Howlin’ Rain—members of Portland-based Houndstooth and others from Comets on Fire—some of whom he’d never even met before, to perform on Mansion Songs. Once together, they cut each song in just one or two takes.
“As I got closer and closer to recording…I began installing risks for myself,” Miller describes. “[I’d have] a whole band session put together for that evening and an hour before going into the studio I’d scrap it and write a whole new tune and rearrange all the musicians and we’d be in there that night playing a tune that I’d just written that morning that I’d never played before either that they’d never heard!”
The immediate result spans eight songs with room to breathe. While opener “Big Red Moon” eventually achieves high-octane riffage and “Meet Me In The Wheat” features a “Hallelujah” chorus packing the power and influence of a gospel choir singing atop a cliff overlooking Laurel Canyon, the rest of Mansion Songs feels sparse and introspective. In fact, closer “Ceiling Fan” could probably even be considered spoken word.
Mansion Songs represents only the first record out of those sessions at Bauer Mansion, though. Miller considers his reaction to this period of self-reflection as something akin to reserve writer’s block; he produced enough material to release a trilogy of records within the next two years that reflects this time in his life.
And yet, Miller deftly deflects the proposition that this prolific response to self-doubt may itself be the answer to his questions of purpose.
“I don’t know,” he states flatly. “Those are deeper questions. Those are questions of our existence. They’re existential questions. I’m not the only one asking that about life and work right now.”
But it doesn’t matter, because: it’s just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings and money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one.
Instead, Miller quickly returns to Mansion Songs, reveling in its stylistic differences and hoping that fans can dig into that sonic evolution and solipsism.
“I think there’s something really thrilling in the idea that a fan listens to a record for the first time and it guts them a little bit because it’s not the same as the thing that they loved the last time,” he says. “But it also thrills them a little bit that that expectation’s been trampled and that there’s a deeper emotion than just that instant sugar-satisfaction. At least that’s the way that I feel when I put one of those [records] on.”
Miller’s talking about Mansion Songs, but also citing his own heroes like Bob Dylan and Nick Cave and PJ Harvey. He’s talking about himself as well as those who listen to his records. Because class and race and money and work don’t preclude being a fan of music. The music itself illuminates our shared experiences of being on the ride.
On this ride, Miller has a choice to release one record or three. He has a choice to tour in the traditional cycle or not at all. He has a choice to continue in music or back away slowly. And he can change them any time he wants.
For now, though, Miller chose the former: “I guess I looked back long enough to see that there’s still a little bit of smoke behind me and go, ‘Ok, alright, well, I burned something. Time to move forward.’”
Excerpts of Bill Hicks’ sketch are from Love All The People and can be viewed online here.