Howlin Rain's Ethan Miller on Pandemics, Patience and Portals
By James Toth
Listen in as musicians Ethan Miller, frontman of Howlin Rain, and James Toth, member of One Eleven Heavy, discuss The Dharma Wheel, Howlin Rain’s latest pandemic album. They swap views on writing techniques, playing hide-and-seek with their muse, putting in the time, overcoming roadblocks, finding their authentic voice, and when the ideal time to light up is.
James Toth: Congrats on the new record, Ethan. I love it!
Ethan Miller: Thank you!
JT: The press kit says that The Dharma Wheel is about “a WWI soldier passing from this world back into matter.” Do you consider this a concept album? It does have a prelude, after all!
EM: The story’s a little convoluted. Before COVID, the material we’d tracked for this record was, in theory, gonna be a crazy triple album—like two-plus hours of music. So we tracked stuff for all of that, and we were out there touring, which was both allowing us to perform in the studio at a high level—nice and well oiled—and also funding constant studio work to make a triple album. But then COVID shut down everything right after the session where we’d finished everything you hear on this record.
JT: How much was left unfinished?
EM: About half of the record or more still needed overdubs, and I wanted to re-record one of the songs, and have vocals of all kinds put on. But without that touring funding, and with the band being estranged all of a sudden, you know, all that stopped. Especially since I’m the record label, the idea of doing a triple album… I couldn’t just dump another ten grand or something into this thing when I basically had a finished record right there, you know?
JT: For what it’s worth—and to your credit—the album doesn’t sound to me like it’s missing anything. As for the concept being convoluted, well, like me, you’re something of a student of rock and roll history, so you know all concept albums are convoluted! The epic title track certainly sounds like the end of something. In fact, the second half of that track is one of my favourite things on the record.
EM: Well, there’s a “suite of the underworld,” an epic, 25-minute prog jam that was supposed to end the whole thing, which you’ll someday hear, but it doesn’t end this one! [Closing track] Dharma Wheel was supposed to be a halfway point.
JT: You’re working again with Tim Green, who previously collaborated with the group on Magnificent Fiend (2008) and The Russian Wilds (2012).
EM: Tim tracked part of it, and then a lot of the stuff that was tracked for the other half, that you’ll hear on Volume 2 or whatever, was tracked by Andrew Bush down in Chatsworth, in LA. But I was still living in the Bay Area at the time so it was easy for me to drive out to Tim’s studio in the remote foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, and I could stay with him. During the pandemic he and I could get together in an isolated way and keep working on the record.
JT: You guys have a shared history, which of course has its advantages.
EM: Yeah there’s almost no discussion about anything. It’s nice to have that relationship where no one is tiptoeing around. After 20, 25 years, I pretty much know what he’s thinking, and he knows what I’m thinking, and so we know what to do.
Howlin Rain performing "Don't Let the Tears" live at Palomino Sound, Los Angeles CA (August 31, 2021). Shot and edited by Tylre Wilcox and Ryan Borrell
JT: I’m of the opinion that every session needs a bullshit detector: one person who’s not afraid to shake their head and go, Nope, that’s not the take.
EM: Yeah, but sometimes it’s also nice to have fresh “un-familiars” around, if you’re really throwing caution to the wind, unrehearsed, just going and just lighting it up, and seeing what comes out of a session. They don’t know what you’re thinking or what you’re trying to do, and you don’t really know, either, and then anything can happen, rather than that pre-knowledge of methodology with one another. In this case, though, it was the perfect thing: Tim’s sound, his science, his creative side, his long-time production with me; it was perfect.
JT: Speaking of un-familiars, you got Scarlet Rivera on this. I love what she does on Annabelle, which is another one of my favourite songs on the record. How did that connection come about?
EM: We had tracked a song that had the Isis chords off Dylan’s Desire, and it was a song that wasn’t originally like that, but that Rolling Thunder movie had just come out, and I was like, Let’s get inspired about this track. There were so many amazing scenes; sweat dripping down Dylan’s white makeup and shit, all those close ups. And everyone went in and we kinda nailed the tune in that feel that we’d been working on for a few years, trying to find the right arrangement and feel for it, and we just ripped through it, Rolling Thunder-style, and it was perfect. So we recorded it, and [drummer] Justin [Smith] and I were talking and I said, “You know what would really top that off? If we had a violinist. Someone like Scarlet Rivera.” And he said that his wife, who’s a publicist, had rubbed elbows with Scarlet at gigs in LA, and he’d ask if maybe she has her number. And she did! So I dropped her a line and said, “Scarlet, here are the tracks, here's what we are, and here’s my ethos, and I’d just love it if you could come in and play some tunes.”
JT: I find that a lot of times when you reach out to those lifers you get unexpectedly good results. My friend Jerry DeCicca, who I think you probably know, is a pro at this. He’ll just cold-call Spooner Oldham, or Augie Meyers, guys like that, and ask them to play on a record, and they’re almost always amenable.
EM: Yeah, a lot of these cats—especially the ones who’ve been doing this for all their life—are essentially session musicians. So if you give them a call and say, “I’ve got a gig. What’s the cost? Can we get you in?” The answer is usually yes, if their schedules are free, because that’s what they do all week: they tour, or they go to the studio for a few hours multiple times a day and play on different records. It’s probably a little harder to try to get Joe Perry or somebody to just waltz in, but for these cats who’ve been lifers playing on session stuff, that’s their thing. And it’s a bonus, I think, if they hear what you’re doing and they’re like, Hey, I love this music. This is the music I love, too.
JT: I’m now going to throw some of your words back at you. You told Rock Cellar: “I like to think that Howlin Rain is an expression of my own and our own musical voice. I don’t know of any group or composer or artist that doesn’t interact with the history of music and wasn’t gravitating towards things that they love. And kind of mutate them and bring them into their voice.” I related to this quote because I often say that my band speaks in a vocabulary of “records,” which I distinguish from a vocabulary of music. It’s always so helpful when you can use the records you dig as shorthand. Do you find this to be true?
EM: Yeah, I think so. But I think it’s inevitable. It just happens. It’s pretty rare that you’re in a band where nobody has any crossover with music they love. Even what we think of as the most original voices in music, be it Mozart, Beethoven, or King Crimson, or the Beatles or whatever, they were referencing other things. It’s just that their voices were so authentic and just so fearsomely, daringly, honestly interpreted. And they left the portal open. Nobody on Earth is like, Oh, the first Beatles record is just an Everly Brothers rip-off, all those harmonies…it’s just used-up old trash that they ripped off somebody else. But in [the Beatles’] minds, it was simple; they didn’t have to discuss it all day, they just looked at their favourite record they had on the record player, and did it like that. You just leave the window open so the ghosts can fly in and out. It’s just energy and matter getting passed on.
LEFT TO RIGHT: Kyre Wilcox (bass), Ethan Miller (lead singer, guitar), Justin Smith (drums), Jason Soda (guitar)
Photo: Kristy Walker
JT: But sometimes it’s easier to explain something by referencing something someone else has already done.
EM: Yeah, more directly, when you’re having a tough time and hitting a roadblock, sometimes just referencing something can be really helpful. When everyone’s like, What do we do right here? and somebody says, What about when this band does it this way, on this record? and it’s like, Ah, ok. Thank you. Roadblock removed. And you’re right: you can talk about time signatures and music theory all day and you’re not gonna budge that roadblock.
JT: You told No Depression, “I try to practice for an hour or two every day but a lot of times, in the depths of practice, I end up writing instead.” I’m so glad you said this because I often have the same experience: I’ll sit down to practice scales or whatever, and I end up writing something. And when I say it, it always sounds like a humblebrag, but the truth is, sometimes I really just want to practice, and the song gets in the way! Is there a way to turn off that voice when you’re practicing that’s like, Oh, wait, that’s a riff!
EM: Part of why I write is I kinda hate practicing by myself. But I love practicing with a band, of course.
JT: Of course. Same here, on both counts.
EM: I just hate sitting there practicing, but I love the results of it. You have a lot more at your hands and mind when you do it. It must be done. Sometimes it’s just necessity. If we have a tour coming up and we have to get a new set together, or we have to rehearse songs for a record, and I gotta get my parts together and stuff, then, yeah, I make sure I’m not writing music. If something happens, I get it on the voice memo and then put it aside. I gotta keep focused.
JT: Silver Current is your own label. You and I share what I think is a relatively uncommon experience of having released records on indie labels, major labels, and our own labels. We won’t get into the advantages and disadvantages of all of these because that would take hours, but what are the challenges of running your own label in 2021, pandemic aside?
EM: I don’t know, I love it. It really works well for me. Now’s a great time to be putting out records.
JT: That’s reassuring to hear. I think you may be one of the only label owners I’ve heard say that!
EM: The demand during the COVID year has been bananas. It’s a great time to be a record label. I can’t complain, because it’s been so fruitful for the last year and half, even the last five years. I don’t really give a shit if it takes nine months to press a record; we’ll just be on a new schedule. It’s not like we’re rushing for tour right now! Everything’s on quicksand. But yeah, I love it. My only complaint is just that you spend a little more time at a computer than at a guitar or piano. Actually, a lot more time. And a lot more time on social media. When you’re running a band and a record label, you’re on social media a lot. And I don’t want computers or social media to just eat my life alive, you know? The more I do of either, the worse I physically and mentally feel. But the more you do, the more successful you are. You can live just cranking it out on your ten, 12-hour work day at the computer and the socials and stuff, then you sell more records, get more gigs, get more done, but it just starts to thrash your body and mind.
JT: It's exhausting. And I don’t think every artist has the stomach for it. And like you said, it gives you so much less time to actually create things. Imagine if the E. Street Band, instead of jamming after school or whatever, were like, Let’s Instagram!
EM: [Laughs]. Yeah. It’s just part of the contemporary world. And things like social media and Bandcamp are what’s made running a record label so fruitful right now. You can just reach out and touch the fans within seconds. You can release an album on a pre-order, in literally a fraction of a second, and have people respond.
JT: Yeah, I’ve enjoyed the live releases you’ve put up on Bandcamp, which seems like an extension of when you used to sell live CD-Rs at Comets on Fire shows.
EM: That’s the beauty of that stuff: being able to just cut out four, six months of interacting with people. You still have distro, you still have retail, but all of that used to be so cloudy. And if you didn’t have a good distro company, maybe you never got a check, and you didn’t know where everything was at.
JT: Is Silver Current a one-man operation?
EM: To a degree. I do the basic label-running myself, but it’s distributed through Revolver, and I often go to [Revolver owner] Gary [Held] for bigger questions about things, and he will advise or help me make a decision. We’re old friends. And then, Howlin Rain’s manager and agent Jared [Flamm], anything to do with that side of things, he’ll help me; Kevin Calabro does PR, Tim Daly does fulfilment. So, there’s a team. I’m not just having to figure out everything on my own, or do everything. I know, at least, PR is taken care of; the mechanics of retail are in place. I can always ask distro about distro things. And you just feel more solid, like, Cool, at least three out of four people in my circle have said this is great, this is the way to go, so you’re feeling good about it.
Howlin Rain main maestro Ethan Miller. Photo: Raeni Miller
JT: I’m curious about your relationship with cannabis in your creative process.
EM: I don’t really use it in the writing process. I have the Hemingway work ethic: you kinda get up in your undies, and from 7am till 10am you stand in the corner, kinda shivering, typing against the wall, you know? Like: Get it done! We’ve got work to do here! This is how you write the novel, you know? I just find putting in the time is important.
JT: And cannabis can compromise that time, yeah. I find it doesn’t really work for me when I’m writing or recording, but if I’m listening back or mixing, I think it’s a good tool as a sort of lie-detector test.
EM: Yeah, I have a lot of friends that compartmentalize certain aspects, and I like that. One of my friends will get stoned for writing the guitar parts for overdubs, just working out all these fun guitar lines. And I like the idea of it, but honestly, I guess just wearing so many hats and having such long days to try to do all this stuff, for better or worse, I fear the loss of minutes. Will I get stoned, get off course, and lose a few hours? I mean, honestly, that’s probably one of the best things that can happen to you, creatively: just losing yourself, and losing some time to it. But [for me], it’s been a while.
JT: I admire your approach to writing, the way you treat it as a craft. I actually don’t relate to it in practice, but I envy anyone who works this way. I have to wait for the muse to knock. Any time I’ve sat down with a blank piece of paper and some allotted time to write, I come up with bullshit. Is there a way to reconcile this discipline with, say, the notion of the lightning bolt moment, where you’re suddenly struck by an idea when you’re driving or trying to sleep?
EM: I mean, sometimes things don’t come. But there’s something interesting that happens when you put the hours in. Sometimes things come to you in the shower too, but they’re not really sneaking in the back door that way; you recognize them. Otherwise you wouldn’t have jumped out of the shower and grabbed the voice memo and thought, I got it! The name for the song! I got the thing! I like working within those hours of regimented work every day, where I’m gonna be spending two to six hours a day with my notebooks, just trying out new chords, different things, working through things, writing down silly words, whatever. If nothing’s happening, then I’ll just write a bunch of bullshit down on the page, play a bunch of weird shit, play some funny chords or whatever. And then, two days later, I’ll see the book, and maybe it’s upside down, and I see the inversion of the chord or something. Something happened when that time was spent. And maybe you’re listening back and you start [the recording] at a weird place, and, all of a sudden, you hear something. I like the way that things can sneak in the back door, accidentally, when you put that kind of work in. Sometimes they say if nothing’s coming, open up somebody else’s book and just start re-typing their book. See what it feels like to type someone else’s novel, what it feels like for those letters to hit the page, what that stuff looks like as a hieroglyph, even if it’s not coming from you. All of that is of value because you’re constantly creating these little windows for things to sneak in and happen accidentally, like birds that fly in and get caught in there.
JT: I really like that perspective. In fact, that may be the best argument I’ve heard for the quotidian “craft” approach to writing. The idea of keeping the portal open, and only recognizing the inspiration after the fact. Like, this bridge I wrote is now the chorus, and suddenly the song’s awesome.
EM: It’s a creative writing technique. You just need to write something. Write about breakfast for four pages. See how long you can go. Same with painting: just paint that same fuckin’ piece of wood or whatever, nine times. You’re not working on a masterpiece; you’re just putting in the work.
Listen on Spotify
This tuneage is a collection of songs that influenced the making of The Dharma Wheel album—in spirit, reference, vibe and heavy rotation. Sometimes in the van driving at dawn on misty winter mountain roads, or playing at the table over wine while the band broke late night for dinner after a long studio session at the Louder Studios band apartment. The shared music becomes a band's travel companion, the friendly ghost in the van, and a portrait of musical family. Includes Italian Giallo-Prog, French spiritual jazz, African neo-classical piano majesty, super-lost psych jams and a bunch of other spirit healers. Dig it!
About the author:
James Toth plays in the transatlantic rock band One Eleven Heavy, hosts the podcast The Toth Zone, and has written about music and culture for NPR, The Quietus, Aquarium Drunkard, Stereogum, and The Wire, among others. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife Leah and Old English Sheepdog Virgil Caine.
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