Ethan Miller, who helms the fuzzed-out, hard-charging rock outfit Howlin Rain, knows there are many ways to lead a band. And he knows none of them are quite perfect.
“There’s no fucking easy way to be in a band,” says Miller, initially known as a co-founder of the experimental band Comets on Fire. “You can be in a band with total strangers, you can be in a band with your best friends, a revolving cast, and in each of those elements, one thing will run really smoothly and another thing will slow down because of it.”
Miller has gone the revolving-cast route, with the idea that if someone quits, the band can move on. The “no-pressure” approach has allowed Howlin Rain to release five full-length studio records, a few EPs and the gotta-hear-it live album, “Live Rain” (2014). After a dalliance with Rick Rubin and the major-label world, Miller created his own Silver Current Records, on which Howlin Rain released “The Alligator Bride,” its fifth LP, last month.
The goal this time was to capture the band in all its live glory, but in the studio. That meant as few takes as possible, avoiding overdubs and allowing some of the flaws to make in into the final mixes.
“Fast rehearsal, fast trackings, fast mixing,” is how the band accomplished it, Miller says. “Just keep things rolling. We rehearsed maybe four sessions. The first session, I took a whole bunch of songs down to the guys and played through them quickly to see what gelled with them, and I could tell, and they could probably tell, if it was jiving or not. The next rehearsal was rehearsing the 10 songs we settled one. And these rehearsals were like a day on average. Then refining and recording. We tracked in two and a half days. … The solos were all done live. The interactions are all live, and I think that’s what does it.”
Resisting the urge to smooth out the wrinkles “invites in a lot of character,” and as Miller notes, on stage “there’s no stopping the show to fix something.”
Some of the touchstone records Miller had in mind while making “The Alligator Bride” include the early Jimi Hendrix albums — “he obviously wasn’t going in and re-recording everything” — Grateful Dead and “some of the great hippie fuzz bands, like Mount Fuzz.”
“I think those can be a nice reminder that the things we take for granted as the most celebrated performances often times are the most human,” he says. “I don’t want to say flawed, but the vocals can be sung out of key because humans don’t sing on key all the time.”
Miller, from Oakland, says his first exposure to music was pop material in the ’80s when he was 6 or 7 years old. His cousins, a few years older, influenced some of his tastes then.
“And the Walkmans were just out, the little orange earmuffs on them, and another sea change in youth culture and the shared experience was personalized on the go for the first time. The music that came out at the time maybe because of it. … Some of the mega pop records, the birth of the blockbuster pop record, was also happening at that moment. And me being 6 or 7, that was what you heard.”
Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Prince’s “Purple Rain,” for example.
“And Michael Jackson, you just couldn’t escape that. It was like ‘ET.’ Everyone was under the blanket with that stuff, and MJ’s stuff was brilliant.”
Later, he was turned on to the Beatles, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Jefferson Airplane, thanks to cassettes his dad had left in his pickup truck.
“My own choices as they started to come into play were glam rock, shitty LA Guns N’ Roses and Poison and stuff like that in sixth grade and the extra step was seventh or eighth grade, going to local punk shows when it all hit home and that you can start a band today and basically be writing, performing and playing tomorrow. The notion that it’s going to take 30 years to get to Carnegie Hall was changed when I saw the energy those guys and gals were putting off.”
Photos by Kristy Walker