Friday, May 23, 2008

A Conversation with Ethan Miller of Howlin Rain

Posted By on Fri, May 23, 2008 at 12:16 AM


The intern for a NYC publicist e-mailed wondering if I was going to cover the Howlin' Rain show (at the Jambalaya Wednesday, May 28). When I replied asking if an interview was possible, the intern's boss stepped in and arranged a conversation, set it up for a late morning call. She'd patch me through at the appropriate time. The trouble was, when the time came, bandleader Ethan Miller was not picking up his phone. Turned out he was wearing headphones and didn't hear the ring. When we finally connected, I asked what he'd been listening to so intently.

I was checking back over some of the live stuff. I just got this new recorder thing.

So it was a live Howlin' Rain show? Do you post the shows or sell them to fans?

I just got this recorder, so on the UK Island tour we recorded every show. I'll just send a "hey, we're home" thing out to the gang at the label and some inner circle people and attach a song to it like, "hey, here's a song from over there," just a little friendly thing.

Do the recordings sound good?

They do. By the end of the tour we we're all jammed out and sounded a little more powerful. You get confident playing the songs every single night and jamming the jams every single night. It's kind of an artistic adventure.

You make it some like you're a jamband.

(laughs) Yeah, well, that's the generic term for songs.

You know I'm calling from Humboldt.

Yeah, speaking of jambands, right?

It's true. They pop up like mushrooms here. I know you lived here. Were you born here?


Yeah, born and raised. I left when I was 18, came back and stayed a year about '98 or so.

And you were in a band here right?

In high school Ian and I -- he's the bass player in Howlin' Rain -- he and I and his brother started a band together. We played with that fellow Ryan McGonagle who still plays in bands around town.

What was this band called?

I was called Hookah. Then I played in bands with guys like Chris Colland from Couch. The Heroin Glow Bugs was an incarnation, some of his later stuff: Audio Lobotomy. I was just foolin' around on the scene.

Fooling around as opposed to being serious.

No, let me put it a different way. I was still a teen when I had my first band, and shit, even when I was in the band with the guys like Jesse Pearson and Chris, I was still only 20 or so. In a sense, you're just creating your musical character at that point. Those guys were older, so they were teaching me stuff. They had their music character together, had their vision for what they wanted. Most of the musicians I was playing with were older than me.

Did you play with Ben Chasny when he lived here?

We played gigs together in different bands, but I never played with him until he moved down to Santa Cruz.

Did you go down there for college or just to get away from Humboldt?

Both really.

You went to UC Santa Cruz?

Yes. I graduated from there. I was kind of on the slow track. Went to junior college, came back and went to CR a little bit. I was around 26 or 27 when I graduated.

What was your degree?

Literature. Modern lit.

Has that served you well?

Indeed.

You do write literate lyrics.

Thank you.

Are you working on the novel?

No, it's hard to split your time. I'm already...

At this point to relayed connection via NYC cut off. After another call to the publicist we were reconnected...

Modern technology...

Where are you actually?

I'm in Oakland.

I was born there.

Really? Where did your folks live?

[We talk a bit about Oakland, about where I grew up, and where he lives now.]

And you're done with Santa Cruz?

Yeah, since I finished school. I've been in Oakland for like five years, maybe a bit more. At the time my wife and I got done with school, Comets on Fire was going full blast and everyone was living up here in the By Area. When I was finishing up with school I got really serious about it, and we were touring too. Comets on Fire was taking of. I was commuting an hour and a half for practice.

And driving over that mountain too...

The other thing, you know once you get out of school, there's not that much in Santa Cruz. And it's expensive. And fucking around with the music industry and stuff, it's nice to be in the city, jut to be plugged in, to be able to get to shows, to go out and see somebody or do something or whatever. In Santa Cruz, you're behind a curtain.

How is the "fucking round with the music industry" working out? It seems like a tough time to be in the business of selling records. How do people make a living as a musician today? I doesn't seem like touring makes much money. Are you at a level where you actually get enough royalties from the record company to pay your bills?

Money comes and goes in this thing, whatever your trying to do. All of a sudden you get a good break and some publishing money comes in, some licensing money comes in because you have a song on a TV program, and you get some other thing, maybe they license the record in Australia and you get a little bonus. Then for four months you don't get anything. Or you go out on tour and earn a bunch, then the next one you make shit. It's not the same as earning a clock-in living.

The rapidly shifting paradigm of selling music in the digital age seems crazy. I have to admit, I found your album on a blog before it came out, so I did not buy the plastic version. I assume that happens a lot, which has to make it hard to make money from recording.

You know we still sell records. We still put them out there for sale, and people steal them. I'm not unrealistic. I've downloaded records when I didn't have any money, then it becomes habitual and you think, why would I ever pay for a record? I think it'll come back around. We're kind of in a Wild West moment with all this stuff. But, nobody's gonna want to have records be free like that forever. At some point they'll figure out a way to angle it back in, whether through subscription, like the majors want to do, or some other more intriguing form of baiting the public to actually buy the record instead of just getting the cheapest way possible.

Is this Three Lobe project you're involved in an example of that?

Partly. There's something about the way people trust record labels, you know, if they love a record label. I don't imagine a lot of people are going to download Three Lobes stuff. It's a small label run by this collector head dude who's also a lawyer out of North Carolina. It's really limited edition stuff, very creative what the bands do. He pushes them to improvise something or do something they don't dare to do on their record or whatever. In that case, people want the package. It's a collector's item -- not many people in the world have it, or will ever have it. You want to be a part of it. That's one angle. I'm sure the larger labels like Sub Pop or Columbia are looking for ways to present quality as well, in a way that makes people trust the label, and partake in it.

It seems ironic that you lump together those two labels. I never thought of Sub Pop as a big label, but maybe that's part of the allure. It seems like the epitome of young and indie as opposed to Columbia, which has been around forever.

They've very different in their history...

But they're the same animal on some level.

Well, I've worked with both of them so they're the animal I know. But the actual social contact I've had with both, and the love of music you find is similar. True, Columbia has had to come back from being this all-huge, mighty powerful entity. And they're looking for ways to redevelop it, to have some of the aspects of a boutique label, so it's like I would buy a Columbia record because they put out such good records. That's what people do with Sub Pop. You see a record and think, 'This is a Sub Pop band. No, I haven't heard what they sound like, but Sub Pop records are usually fucking awesome, so I'll get it.'

My experience with record buying was always that Columbia was top quality. Musicians have to reach a high level to get signed to that label. With Sub Pop, it's more a certain type of sound you grow to expect.

They have a pretty eclectic roster. Around the time Comets on Fire got involved with Sub Pop, they started to get success with this level of underground experimental bands like ours and with re-issues like Michael Yonkers and Radio Birdman. At the same time they were having literally mainstream success with Iron and Wine and Postal Service, things that were actually fucking with the Billboard charts and stuff. It was an extraordinary time to work with those people. They were doing extraordinary things that made the whole industry turn heir heads thinking 'Holy shit, these independent labels suddenly have a bugger vision than selling records out of the back of their cars or the basement.'

How did Howlin Rain come together? You were going strong with Comets. Was the idea to explore some different avenues?

I think so. I'd worked really hard for my part with Comets on Fire, and really dedicated my life to that, both my musical life and my personal life. We’d made four albums. When you think of yourself as an artist, you never want to become too comfortable with what you're doing. You don't want to think, 'Hell, I can dial this in. Another Comets record? No problem. Or whatever, like this is what I'm known for, I'll do that again. People liked it.

So you wanted to push yourself, to make yourself explore new territory?

Exactly.

Did you know where you were going?

A little bit. I had songs I'd written, a catalogue of songs accumulated.

Things that didn't fit the Comets template?

Songs that were more personal to me, that were not something I was writing for this entity that was already formed. They were something for me, where I could control the overall vision. I wanted to let them take on a life of their own.

As opposed to Comets, which I assume was more collaborative...

It became that way. For the first two albums I did most of the songwriting and most of the bandleader stuff. And I maintained the public face with the press through the last couple of records, but Utrillo [Kushner] and [Ben] Chasny and myself collaborated on songwriting more. The whole band would do group improvisation to finish off the songs. We worked as a democracy as best as we could with decision making, setting a vision about where the band was going.

When it came time to hit the studio, how did that democracy work? Would everyone bring songs in and you'd work together fleshing them out, with the writer taking the lead?

You know Utrillo wrote his songs on piano, so his sounded like Utrillo songs. Chasny and I would more often bring a riff each, them someone would add a bridge to the other person's thing and maybe I'd have some jam-out for a coda and we'd put it there. Then in the end, no matter who wrote the music, I would be the one to place the lyrical narrative on it. It was more or less collaborative. Where as with Howlin' Rain, I write the songs, the band breathes life and body into them, and again it' my personal narrative in the lyrics. And up till now, it's been my production vision. It's my vision for better or worse.

Does the name connect back to Humboldt? We have some howling rain up here.

Maybe a little bit subconsciously. Certainly the physical and metaphysical characteristics of the area, especially the Southern Humboldt are, and will forever be part of my artistic landscape.

Did you live in Southern Humboldt too?

My family owns a summer cabin in Southern Humboldt so I spend a lot of time up there. I go there to write and to relax after tours. And my folks are still up in Eureka, so I'm up there a lot too.

And you're coming to play here twice...

When I booked the show [at the Jambalaya] I didn't know we'd be playing with the Black Crowes or that they'd play up there. That was a fun surprise. I think that one will be a bit more expensive and harder to get into.

I don't imagine that the Jambalaya show will be easy to get into either.

Well, Howlin Rain hasn't come and played up there before...

But people know who you are.

I hope it fills up. That's the ideal situation for a band.

This tour with the Crowes seems like it should be a good thin exposure wise. Although I have to say, I'm not sure where the band is at career-wise.

I'd say they're at an extraordinary place. They're a 20-plus year old band and they've sold 20 million records or something. And they just put out a new record on their own label that debuted on the charts. Instead of becoming a reunion band caricature of themselves they're making music that's fresh and classic and quintessential for them. It's hard to do it that long and not just be totally destroyed.

The band Night Ranger is coming to play in a local casino this week. Who knows what that might be like and how it related to what they did in the past.

That's what I'm saying. If Night Ranger, after all these years, still had the core artists together and they put out their own record and it was like an artistic achievement, all of a sudden you'd be like, 'Night Ranger is pretty bad ass.'

Then you have guys like Blue Cheer who were just in town working the club circuit in a beat up van.

It's tough. But it's the easiest way to make an extremely hard living. You have to understand, people ask how much money can you make? Well, you can make a hundred million dollars, but maybe one out of a hundred million can do it. More likely, you'll struggle and fucking sacrifice the rest of your life spending a lot of time cooped up in a van or whatever, doing dirty business. But you do it if you love being a musician. Or you become a weekend musician until you tire of it and put your guitar in the attic and say fuck it, I want to play golf on the weekend. I don't want to sit around working on my chops. People who love making music do it because they can't stand not to.

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Bob Doran

Bob Doran

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