Howlin Rain: Trippy rocker turned trippy troubadour

by Jared Curtis

Ethan Miller has a lot to say. He just hadn’t found a way to express everything that comes across his mind. That’s where Howlin Rain comes in. Miller has been rocking since the late 90s when he burst on the scene with the legendary Comets On Fire but after going on hiatus in 2008, he was left without an outlet. Luckily, he found what he was searching for with Howlin Rain. And almost 20 years later, Miller is still expressing his message through the power of rock.

“I’ve been playing live and recording since I was 17 but I didn’t really begin serious record releases and touring until 2000 with Comets. I did however believe I would still be playing in 20 years,” Miller said. “I’ve always envisioned this as my life. I’m not one of those musicians that claims they just ‘fell into’ being in a band or ‘had no idea’ they’d be doing this. I’ve pursued every note and worked every minute to record and perform music as a career, (however frayed at the edges that career sometimes is).”

Although Miller might consider parts of his career “frayed at the edges,” he has worked with numerous iconic record labels throughout his time including Alternative Tentacles, American Recordings and Sub Pop.

“You have your energy and your vibe and certain people are drawn to that and vice versa. I’ve worked with every kind of record label from the smallest one person operation and private pressing our own albums to corporate major labels and I’ve enjoyed seeing how records are made with different visions, different environments and different motivations,” he said.

Miller recently began releasing music through a smaller label, Easy Sound Records.

“I have really dug working with Easy sound so far. It’s a good gang. A label needs faith, vision and an honest sense of heartfelt pursuit and risk, but not risk like ‘sudden death’ always looming over because of the shareholders’ constant demands,” Miller said. “Easy is brand new and I’m catching the label on that new born swing of faith, creative thinking, each little success feels rewarding like a big one and the big ones feel enormous to them (to us). That’s a fun place to be.”

Working with a smaller label has allowed Miller to take his creative ideas to their peak.

“Easy Sound has given me absolute freedom artistically, but honestly, so did American and Columbia. I have never worked with a record label that didn’t give me or the band complete artistic freedom within the budget,” he said. “Sub Pop used to let Comets turn in the albums mastered already. I look back on that now and shake my head. Letting the artists turn in the fully sequenced and mastered album from release without a single ounce of input or even hearing a moment of it is a lot of faith! I’m not sure anyone spending more than a couple grand on recording budgets and advances would do that now.”

With a new label comes new material. Miller has recently released his newest album, Mansion Songs, the first part of a trilogy of records released within the next few years. But the idea of a trilogy wasn’t in the cards from the start.

“When I began Mansion Songs I didn’t have a band, so I called up some musicians (including two members of the Portland band Houndstooth) and just asked them cold if they’d come down and play on the record. I’d pay them a little money and buy them a ticket, they could sleep in my guest room for three days and record with me,” Miller said.

He found working with different backing musicians curated a unique sound that could be specific to each album.

“Once I was doing all these different sessions with different players it took a minute for me to figure out what the album was becoming and which songs made the album,” he said.  “It didn’t take too long before I started seeing groups of songs coming together and at that point I had way more material than could fit on one album. Once I knew what songs were going on Mansion Songs, I focused solely on those songs. I decided to put the others aside for the foundations of a second and third album and we’ll create a trilogy.”

Miller said he believes “they will all be of the same world and all share a common thread, a common sky and a common ocean, but they’ll be different countries in that world. I don’t think the previous Howlin’ Rain records often come from the same world so to speak. They inhabit the same artistic universe but the common thread is me traveling to each place. These three are closer. Like instead of traveling across the universe to a new album I’m floating down a river that runs the length of a continent and may start in the mountains and run through the jungle and desert and down to the sea. The next one is probably a bit more damaged or haunted country vibe. The third one is still coming together in my mind and in writing. They all will express an abstract narrative and emotional trajectory that reads loosely as a whole.”

Talk about some trippy stuff.

LIVE SHOW: Howlin Rain, of San Francisco, will perform at The Shakedown on March 1. For more information, and to hear his new record Mansion Songs, see www.howlinrain.com.

Published in the February 2015 issue of What’s Up!