The Loving Cup fills with Howlin’ Rain on Monday, Jan. 14
Howlin’ Rain is a damn force of nature.
Singer and band leader Ethan Miller’s voice screams loud and high on the wings of eagles, Daniel Cervantes’ guitar scorches out the amps with the hot, unforgiving tone of the noon desert. When bassist Jeff McElroy and drummer Justin Smith get going together, they’re as fast, dexterous and powerful as a herd of wild mustangs barreling down the plains.
The band’s smokin’ new album “The Alligator Bride” is its most brazen to date, taking listeners on a rambunctious joyride through the wide-open expanses our dystopian, American playground of the here-and-now. Recorded in the throes of the 2016 election at the Mansion in San Francisco, the record explores what it means to live in America as it stands on the precipice of an identity crisis.
On a psychedelic road hog fueled by the muscle scuzz of ’70s rock and roll, Miller and company cruise past scenes of crumbling nostalgia and mischief on the outskirts of civilization, rumbling on to a horizon that could set on itself. It’s rough and frayed around the edges, but it gives you something to hold onto as you blast down the cosmic highway through waves of reverb and clouds of electric distortion.
Miller’s spontaneous, kinetic energy has driven the spirit of Howlin Rain’ since the band’s first album in 2006 and in Cervantes, McElroy and Smith he’s finally found a core band of heathens who can match his musical spirit and intensity in the group. “Missouri” embodies that ragged camaraderie the finest, with the final minute of scrawling guitars and charging rhythm being one of the most invigorating injections of emotion into a song in 2018.
Outside of Howlin Rain, Miller’s restless energy is channeled into a litany of artistic endeavors, from playing in his other psychedelically tinged bands like Heron Oblivion and Feral Ohms, to running his own record label Silver Current Records, to releasing an epic sci-fi poem he wrote, “Odyssey of Odelgaene o0o Bloovenbeetle.” To underscore just how many in-house projects he likes to get his hands on, for the release of “Odyssey of Odelgaene o0o Bloovenbeetle,” Miller distributed the handbound book through his own Silver Current Records and released an ambient companion soundtrack, also on his own record label.
Really, what Miller, Cervantes, McElroy and Smith are doing in Howlin Rain is tapping into the same force of nature that runs through all of us: that uninhibited expression of life in-the-moment that is the essence of existence. You can feel that current pulsing through “The Alligator Bride” and the unhinged enthusiasm that the band members have playing with each other. There is no idling or inaction, they just show up, plug in and blast off. There’s a passion for life in the group that burns brighter than any phone or computer screen could. Howlin Rain is a hellfire hurricane blazing across this grand country, eager to set your soul on fire.
When you think about what you just did with “The Alligator Bride,” what is fulfilling about this record? What makes you feel good about it?
One of the things I really liked about it was we set out to rehearse it quickly and perform it quickly and capture that energy of the moment and I feel like we really did. I’ve done records where by the time you’re getting done with them, it’s been kind of a slog. We worked forever to get the right takes, I worked forever to get the right vocals, we overdubbed the guitar solos forever. I really like the immediacy of the album. Ironically, it was finished in early 2017, so its release wasn’t immediate. There’s a certain type of energy of making a record like that, kind of like making a movie fast.
Does it feel like it’s more on intuition or that you’re trying to build upon a plan your aiming for? How seat-of-the-pants is it?
The irony of making records fast or slow, a good percentage of the time they don’t come out that different. When you look at a Clint Eastwood movie from the ’70s, he notoriously made these things real fast. Just do one take, say “rolling,” and just roll through a scene and move on. Then you got some other movie that takes years to make and the director wants every line to be said 4,000 different ways over and over again. It really comes down to the taste of the audience.
But you watch those Clint Eastwood movies and they look a little rough around the edges but they feel fucking good. They’re really fun and killer flicks. Making a record can feel the same, they just have the same momentum to them. Sometimes you can move too quickly but the beauty of that in rock and roll is that if you went too fast and one song doesn’t quite work, you can go and record it again. We were under no time pressure, but I wanted to capture the Clint Eastwood ’70s effect, you know?
It is big, wide-open, expansive music. I’ve put it on during a couple road trips, so it has very much become road trip music for me. What is the stuff you like to put on? Any recent road trips where music was a big factor?
Oh yeah, it always is. If I am by myself and I have a few hours, I’ll listen to rough mixes we’ve been recording recently for Silver Current or Heron Oblivion recordings, almost always something going on. That’s sort of work and fun related. I often have new albums to check out that I’ve heard about or read about or seen friends posting online about. Seems there less and less time through the week to listen to all the new music flowing by. I find that on road trips is a really nice time. Your mind is slowing down, your mind is on the road, it is a really good time to be open minded to that stuff. Same thing when you are on tour, good time with the whole band when their mind is open to listen to new things.
What stands out to me when I listen to the record is “The Wild Boys.” That’s the epitome of the record and the essence of what I get from the album. Where did that song come from creatively? What were you trying to do with that song?
That song was like a William Burroughs tribute. I was reading a paperback copy of his book “The Wild Boys,” which is the first in “The Book Of The Dead” trilogy, I believe. A lot of the characters in that song are straight out of his book. I was just trying to write a tribute to him, to think about what it would still be like if Burroughs was still alive, writing and experiencing things and doing all of his semi to extremely depraved things (laughs) in the Trump age.
I relocated the location. In his book it is off in Mexico and I moved it to Riverside and San Bernardino counties, messing around and getting into trouble. I put William Burroughs in there as well, he’s Sweet Brother Bill, The Kind of the Swedes. From there, I was taking characters from his books and having them run around this American cliff. I imagine this democracy with this mad king we have running around here and this crumbling edge of the cliff with these characters, with Burroughs and his psyche and all of us playing on this cliff. But playing out Burroughian desires (laughs), in that they are very unconventional and they are kind of fetish. In a lot of ways, what the mainstream would call bizarre interests.
As you are starting to pick this music back up during tour rehearsals and getting more muscle memory, what’s jumping out at you when you are playing with the band?
We had Justin come on board right before we recorded the record, we did it with him. At that point, we had a four-piece band for the first time in a long time, we were really a central band. No paying this person or that person to come on board and do the tour or whatever. We really see eye-to-eye musically.
Going back to the first question, I feel like that is another thing I feel really good about is that one of the reasons I didn’t feel scared to leave the album to be first, second or third takes and not over rehearse is because I love the way this band sounds. I wanted to let the band speak, I didn’t want to go in and put an orchestra and horns and redub everything till it sounds perfect. There are some overdubs for some little things and there are some keys I added to give it flavor. But for the most part, it feels like you are standing in a room 10 feet away from the band as they are performing.as a four-piece. I wanted that to be the central feel of the record and the central expression.
To go back to the last question, I really appreciate our rehearsals. We started from a place where these songs were built and performed on the record to be an expression of the four-piece band live. Instead of having the tricky matter of on the record there is an orchestra and a horn section and I did 25 overdubs. What are we going to do with all that? There’s been a pretty exhilarating joy of just firing them up and playing them. Of course they turn into something a little different live sometimes, but it’s fun to start from a place of them being born on stage. They don’t have to be reborn or adjusted or reexamined for the stage life, they were born there. That is a reward and joy of making a record that is kind of a snapshot of a live band.
I think almost any band will tell you this. A lot of times a lot of records are made without testing all the material live on tour. It is very rare for bands do that. When you are putting the set together, only four or five of the 10 songs, maybe more, maybe less, work onstage or in the contemporary set you are putting together. Just by the nature of the record, it all works live. Well, I guess we’ll have to see what the crowds think. That’s fun to, to find out one of your favorite songs on the record doesn’t work out live (laughs).
What is the “Odyssey of Odelgaene o0o Bloovenbeetle” to you?
Without trying to evade the question, I kind of wrote down everything I could think of to fit within those 50 pages to tell that story… (trying to find the words) … I better leave it at that. I hate to explain away poetry. It’s the journey of this person through time and space and different experiences. Sometimes they end up touching us in a universal way and sometimes they are wholly his own experiences. In my eyes, that was fun writing for the character.