Howlin’ Rain aids societal transition at The Great Depressurization

Tahoe Onstage
Ethan Miller and Howlin’ Rain’ are coming to Reno’s The Great Depressurization.
Tony Contini / Tahoe Onstage

Editor’s note: Howlin’ Rain, Buster Blue and Mad Alchemy play starting at 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7 at Revision Brewery for the Reno As F—  four year anniversary party.

Exactly what life is is anybody’s guess. But at some point in most people’s lives, probably everyone’s life, they’ve come to the conclusion that it must be more than what is sitting square in front of them in the minutiae of everyday life.

Another day at the office, another party that has ended, another baby crying; on and on in a loop of reality that doesn’t seem to end. That’s when people start to look for something more, look for the alternative and make a break toward freedom from whatever they feel chained to.

Reno is certainly a place born to provide some of those freedoms to people. Its origin as a desert oasis that dealt in taboos and vices and made loose with the law is the stuff of history. That history has evolved to include its current position as the launchpad for Burning Man, a place also born to provide an ecstatic expression of certain kinds of freedom. It is also the home to The Great Depressurization, a weeklong, city-wide come down of parties and concerts for the legions of people transitioning back to a more practical existence in society from Burning Man. It is in this last ray of gleaming freedom that Howlin’ Rain will stand poised to blast off at Revision Brewing Company for Reno As Fuck’s Four-Year Anniversary Party.

There’s no better band than Howlin’ Rain to lead Reno on one last pastoral psych-rock romp through the fuzz-time continuum. For 15 years, Ethan Miller has fronted and been the creative force behind this force of rock and roll nature that has compiled an inspiring discography of modern psychedelia and a reputation as one of the most earnest, lightning-in-a-bottle rock shows around. The band’s 2018 album “The Alligator Bride” was a whirling epic of classic rock electricity, a free-range-sized testament to the unchained crazies and fringe characters who operate on the precarious edges of society, where freedom can mean life or death depending on the prism in which you look at it through.

On the wings of “The Alligator Bride,” Miller, Jeff McElroy (bass), Dan Cervantes (guitar) and Justin Smith (drums) embarked on an ambitious touring schedule across both coasts through 2018 and 2019, which yielded great exposure to new venues and crowds as the members explored and settled behind their sound. Culled from this very exciting time of surging band chemistry and new opportunities comes the “Under The Wheel” series of live recordings from Howlin’ Rain, beginning with “Under The Wheels: Live from The Coasts (Volume 1)” on Aug. 30.

This five-track recording offers the opportunity to experience Howlin’ Rain at its most powerful and free: in front of an audience. The record itself drops all pretensions and doesn’t claim to be a record of greatest hits, but rather a record of greatest expression.

“It was something I wanted the people to hear and it was something I wanted people to know about the rules of the series: there are no rules,” Miller said.

That’s why he decided to lead the album off with a 10-minute plus improvised jam dubbed “To The Wind,” an act of traditional tracklisting subversion as freeing as the song itself. Hungry to get more of this awesome material to the fans, another release in the series is already set for the Fall. “Maybe the third record in the series is just improvised pieces like that,” Miller said.

The band is set to record its next album in September during a break in touring. From there, who knows, but one thing is certain: there are no rules, anything goes. There’s a particular freedom to that, it’s something you can feel in the group’s music of as it comes rolling to you like thunder in a canyon. At this point, Miller, McElroy, Cervantes and Smith are strapping down their weathered freak flags to the back of cosmic road-hogs and getting ready to head out to their next adventure, a psychedelic posse looking to the horizon for inspiration. They’re hoping you’ll join as they barrel on toward freedom. Are you ready to know what more there is to life? Join up and strap in, Howlin’ Rain’ is ready to show you.

You’re playing Reno this year for The Great Depressurization. What do you know about the event?

I don’t know much about the actual event. We’ve been playing a lot in Reno and having a lot of fun times with the folks out there at the clubs and amongst the scene over the last two years. So if they ever ask to play an event out there I’m all for it with this gang I’m playing with now.

Have you ever been to Burning Man?

I haven’t been to Burning Man, but I’ve done large festivals since I was 15 or 16. They probably weren’t as loose as Burning Man used to be, I don’t know if it is as wild as they were with dope guns and screwing-in-the-street kind of vibe (laughs). They were music festivals I was usually going to, with hippies and screwing for sure, but it wasn’t on the back of these homemade ATVs.

You’re coming out with “Under the Wheels: Live from The Coasts (Volume 1)” on Aug. 30. It seems there are going to be a couple volumes of these Howlin’ Rain live albums and each of the songs are hand-picked from different shows. It’s kind of in the same vein as your live album “Live Rain” in that sense, just more music. I’m curious to know why you choose to curate the tracklist versus recording one stand-alone concert and releasing that? 

When we did “Live Rain,” that was more of a single concert. It was recorded at a New Year’s Eve run that we did, so we had three nights. It was all the same venue, it was all the same setup, we could seamlessly construct a single set from the three nights for the best performances. I think mostly that was all captured from the second night, so that was relatively from a single set.

We didn’t have any situation when we were recording this stuff where the opportunity was that ideal. These were just board recordings we’d grab, go in at soundcheck with the laptop, ‘Hey, can we plug in and get multi-track?’ Sometimes we had the perfect set and had played really amazingly and the recording sounded terrible or it kept glitching out. We didn’t have a professional engineer back there to oversee the recordings and make sure everything came out right. So at the end we had a grab bag of the tour.

We just didn’t find a single show that was as compelling as hearing these different vibes put together. One song from the first volume that is coming out might be from a high-energy show where we are playing really fast, coming in at the end of a long East Coast tour, 21st show in 18 days or something. We’re playing and we are just trying to rip the walls down. Then here’s another paced, laid-back song that’s really improvised and from another show where we were in a different state of mind and a different city. One of the songs that is pretty sizeable on the new record is completely an improvised piece that was happening. Those things really varied from night to night too.

I kind of have an affinity for that too. The major blueprint of putting out any series like this of course is the Dead. Not just their official stuff and Dick’s Picks, which were often single shows, but I also like the sub-compilations, like from the Phil Lesh zone. I think maybe the road crew got to put that one together, stuff that Lesh shined on. But it’s different than what they’d put on an official release. Sometimes the recording’s fucked up, the singing’s fucked up (laughs), but I like that, it is a real free-for-all.

Was there one song that you are particularly pleased about putting on this first record? Kind of like, ‘You haven’t heard this on a Howlin’ Rain record yet’?

Really, I just tried to listen with fans’ ears and the ears I had on the stage, like what was it like on the stage, what was it like in the room? This is a limited series and they are kind of directly pointed at fans of the band. In that way, I put on the opening track of the album a large improvised piece from the band (“To The Wind”). Traditionally you think let’s put one of the big rockers first and get this record going. For better for worse, I wanted to set the tone of this series that anything goes.

They are going to hear an improvisational, instrumental piece, in the moment, stretching us out for 10 minutes or so. That space gets into a rock and roll space, but it definitely sets the tone that it is not the greatest hits. They will be on there, but the space this is in is anything goes.

You are on your way to go do some writing for the new Howlin’ Rain record soon. Have you made any notes to yourself about what you’d like to accomplish or different things you’d like to hear, or are you not even at that brainstorm yet?

I’m past thinking about it, it’s pretty much written and we’ve been rehearsing on it. I’ve been flying down to southern California the last couple months to do writing and rehearsing, we’ve got a lot of material. We’re going in to record in September right in the middle of one of the tours, we’ve built-in some time off. We’d thought it’d be interesting to take these songs on tour with us, then try and play as much of it as we can, then play what we feel is the strongest material from the club the night before and walk right into the studio the next morning and do it for the album. We’ve never done it this way, kind of right in the middle of the tour. We’ll see if that’s a great idea or not.

We started with fairly abstract stuff and free jams. I have stuff that I’ve written two days ago and stuff I wrote 15 years ago. Things kind of find their own time to present themselves. Sometimes you set it aside, sometimes it pops right up and wants you to give it a try right away. I held off on bringing on a whole bunch of songs in, just to get the band voice back and see what it might be for the record. So we did a lot of free jamming, then I brought in some songs that I had, and I think it was a nice mix of techniques. If I bring songs in, how will the band devour and digest them and turn them back into their own expression? I just wanted to bring prompts of small melodies and choruses for the band to bring to life.

You mentioned expression and you operate very much in a rock and roll, fuzzed out space between your main three bands: Howlin’ Rain, Feral Ohms and Heron Oblivion. Have you ever gone outside of that niche and comfort zone to something that sounds nothing like that?

Not really, at this point I feel pretty free to try anything I want to. If I want to play with some elements, I think one of my groups has the room for me to do it or I could just do it. The Odyssey Cult is something that is more experimental and I can use loops and ambient music. That might be a place where I can have a solo piano piece or something more ambient.

I’ve never been grabbed to make an entire hip-hop album or something. There’s fun moments when you are producing a record on your own and you feel like it’s got some hip-hop thing in the lyrics that you can play with. But I feel like you are often rooted in a natural place and my natural place is rock and roll of different types, whether leaning toward punk or psychedelic or more classic rock. I obviously got bit by a rock and roll bug somewhere and that is at the heart of what I am doing.

You wrote an essay for Aquarium Drunkard kind of looking at how speed had its own place in pop culture and creative expression. Where did the interest to write about that come from and what did you want to accomplish in that?  

I can’t really remember the seed of it. (Laughs) Part of it was hanging around with friends and musicians that would often praise marijuana or acid or psychedelics as being an artistic enhancer and cornerstone, especially in the hippie and jam band worlds. In that same conversation, they’d say that speed is shit, they don’t like the way it feels, it shouldn’t even be discussed in this conversation, stuff like that.

I think you are going to see more articles about it because it hasn’t been a drug that’s been glamorized. Even heroin is finally becoming slightly deglamorized because of the focus and attention of the opioid crisis. Up to that point in rock and roll, it was the most glamorous, black widow drug. A lot of interesting writing is coming out about the use of speed and the part it played in 20th-century culture.

I also think you do a good job of not endorsing it, just saying that its use is a fact if we want to look at everything that was there and influential. In terms of your discography, could you point to moments on your albums that have direct correlation to sounding or feeling a certain way because of something you used? I guess it wasn’t until that article that I realized the song “Speed” was about speed.

I guess going back, that article came from a conversation I started musically with that song. In The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed wrote “Heroin” as sort of this epic poem, a dirge ballad to heroin. He kind of did that with speed too with “White Light White Heat.” I thought it would be fun to write and almost romantic ballad to speed.

I work so hard on music and in my creative life now that I am not really affected by things like that, that kind of happens when you are young. Took some acid, saw some colorful visions and at night I wrote this song and it’s only the seventh song I’ve written in my life (laughs). Now I’m writing my 700th song of my life and I’ve worked in some capacity on a creative endeavor every day in a fairly regimented fashion. For better or worse, I’m not seeking these new experiences in my creative work or the work that I do creatively. The fundamental, clocking-in, day-to-day work that happens to be able to write music and essays and all this stuff.

Part of it when you are young is that you don’t have as much stuff going on. I can’t lose a day for some crazy hangover or something like that, so I temper my indulgence with the colossal amount of work I have before me. I could probably point to stuff in the very early, early records that probably wouldn’t have been performed the way they were without booze or whatever it was, but I’m hard-pressed nowadays to say I was drunk off gin and tonics when I sang that one (laughs). After 25 years of songwriting, hopefully you’ve got some techniques to journey psychically and creatively.

I do think there usually isn’t much that can be gained in-the-moment creatively. But possibly you can think outside the box more because your mind has been outside the box before.

Sure, absolutely. When you are young and do those things, those few first times can have high impact and what you are seeing is you are breaking a really fundamentally locked evaluation and perception of reality. As you grow up, this is solid, the sky is blue, this is red, that hill over there is always there. Then when you take something like LSD, some of those things are shown to be different than what you’ve always known. The sky is no longer blue.

And it’s not just, ‘Wow, this is crazy and it looks different.’ You realize a bumblebee has a different way of seeing things. Insects see in infrared, that is their reality. My reality and the way I see things is just a sense of perception, it’s not the truth of what these things actually are. That’s the matrix of human perception, it’s not the truth of the bumblebee, it’s not the truth of the actual color of things. That initial awakening of that knowledge, it’s something good to be reminded of from time to time.

I notice when you are on tour you post on social media about your favorite “murder motel.” You don’t have to say, but where is this place and what have your experiences been? Also, since you are a fan of murder motels, have you ever been to the clown motel in Tonopah?

No, haven’t been to that one. There’s gotta be a lot of those hotels along the highway in the desert in Nevada, for sure. I specifically won’t say any of the ones I’m in. Sometimes they can’t help that the fact they are a little murder-y. Some people are working really hard but it’s so cheap, no matter what, the tweakers are going to come in. Then some people you can tell are just kind of setting up the murder vibe. They don’t care, it has just fallen into disarray and has become a place for the underworld, not very clean or safe or anything.

I kind of cut-off doing that. My kind of definition of a murder hotel is that the vibes are really deep here, it’s somewhere between a little and a lot creepy, you kind of mind your P’s and Q’s. It has that look of pretty grim. But I don’t cross the line into complete filth and bugs, the craziest lowest of the lows. I try to walk the balance of finding great murder motels that have all the vibe but they aren’t going to infect me with bed bugs for the rest of the tour.

With the $150 Holiday Inn, the beds are way more comfortable and don’t have the murder vibes. But sometimes that space becomes really purgatorial psychically, to be in those kinds of rooms day after day. They are usually out in these industrial parks or freeway offramps, they are depressing in their own way. At least in the murder motel there is this beauty of desperate living.

— Garrett Bethmann

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.


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