Howlin' Rain sonic messenger Ethan Miller shares his definitive stoner playlist
A good cannabis buzz and the right jams can elevate how we experience music to the sublime. Ethan Miller of Oakland-based psych-rock outfit Howlin’ Rain has curated a deeply personal and exclusive playlist for Heads Lifestyle that runs the gamut of emotions, from despair to hope to love to escape with a few strong cocktails and side alleys of his own stoner nostalgia in there. Relax for an hour or two. Immerse yourself. Let the sonic journey lift your spirits.
This song is a penultimate stoner jam for me (and works with almost any drug as far as I can tell.) Begins like your mind is mud sliding off the side of a cliff into lava. The dense, winter shell and inner molten heat, the infinite shades of browns, purples and blacks will always represent the essence of Santa Cruz, CA as I found it and felt it from 1998-2002. A Twin Peaks-like paradox of carefree, small-town living, deep, ancient darkness and a strength of spirit that goes deeper than resolve, the free joy of unbridled life without oppressive structure and the ghostly, ever-present spectre of death—all in an essential whole, a yin and yang dynamic beyond the control of law, earthly boundary or mortal means.
One of my favourite artists of the last five years. With each album, Sarah takes magical jumps forward beyond my expectations as a fan, a feat usually assigned to the likes of The Beatles, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Joni Mitchell, etc. What a thrill to be immersed in her musical universe and try to hold on for the journey. What a track! A gateway to the ether.
What Reason Could I Give
The Science Fiction album in general is one of my recent stoner favourites. Getting lost in the beautiful cover painting while a whole intergalactic jazz city grows up into the sky around you in spires and towers from a red earth—exhilarating!
Odds Against Tomorrow
His own language, his own world of music, Bill’s got it up on the peak of the mountain. To me this is Coltrane-level expression and emotion. This shit just crushes me every single listen. What a trip to have lived in the time of Harry Pussy blasting through the world and experience Bill’s arc, and see it (climax?) with him re-writing traditional harmony into hieroglyphs we’ve yet to fully decode, but held in awe of their beauty, and we can damn sure feel them, right down to the blood.
To me this is Coltrane-level expression and emotion. This shit just crushes me every single listen.
Come To Life
I didn’t catch on to AR’s whole thing until all these reissues started coming out the last few years. This Iowa Dream album, in particular, took me and hooked me deep under a right rib near the heart. Homegrown expansive vision, and what grace—what gorgeous, soft, yet forceful grace! Breaks my heart and gives me faith to go on at the same time, to keep plunging into the whole, beautiful, heartbreaking thing of it all.
Exuma, The Obeah Man
Taking it back to the deep dark woods and the purple dusk of the river levee of Santa Cruz again where I about wore this record out with my pals in Comets. The opening song off his first album serves as an introduction to the record, to the man, to the vibe and it’s a voodoo-drenched door kick-in. Exuma’s vocal delivery is so fierce and full of power—it lifts my spirits and sends shivers down my spine every time.
Sometimes He’s In My Dreams
The great harpist and one of my favourite contemporary artists, Mary Lattimore keeps releasing one beautiful record after another. Here she is in a mode of emotion at once slightly tense and stormy but placed in a panorama of serenity. She’s working at peak level and I’m standing by for all transmissions.
Gerome Ragni & Hair Ensemble
The. Best. Listen to that high-steppin’ Motown-style bass. The bass absolutely destroys the whole way through this soundtrack. Broadway musical meets anti-war LSD awakening—fuck yeah! Take an enormous bong rip and this song comes on and it’s pure joy, pure journey, pure performance. That scene in the movie during Age of Aquarius where the cops’ horses start dancing—amaze! And in the Hare Krishna number when the cast is doing the Dionysian ‘peace, power, freedom, happiness’ choreography all around Claude, the young soldier, and he’s starting to trip balls hard in full hippie awakening! An all-time fave.
When I first moved out on my own and down in Oakland at age 19 or so in the mid-90s, I lived with a great actor friend, Nate, and he turned me on to a lot of great musicals. We’d smoke weed and listen to Hair, Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc.—trippy stuff. Sometimes he’d perform bits and monologues that he was working on in the living room of our apartment. Letting a friend who’s a killer actor work out their scene for you while you are stoned is great stuff and strongly recommended. He had this one solo scene that he’d do in the nude and at the end he’d break his props and thrash furniture and stuff in this violent, naked rage. It was the fave and trippiest bit he’d do, of course.
Best. Listen to that high-steppin’ Motown-style bass. The bass absolutely destroys the whole way through this soundtrack. Broadway musical meets anti-war LSD awakening—fuck yeah!
The Leslie/rotary vocals, the hint of far-east melody blended like liquid into fantastical, sweeping, harp-like piano moves as if brushstrokes from an Edward Robert Hughes painting and, of course, spiked with 180 proof New Orleans vibe in abstract. Absolutely genius.
Circles On Circles
Ultimate synth warlockery. Deeply sick, stoney sounds. Listened for the first time while driving through a blizzard on Donner Pass a few years ago. Sold.
(Poor Mi) Israelites
I was of the age that I first got turned on to this song via Van Sant’s brilliant Drugstore Cowboy, and, man, I was stung. I’ve listened to this song a thousand times and it takes me all the way down every time. I will always associate it with drugs, with free-living, with rebel, criminal-living just inside the yolk of a middle-of-the-road society closing in all around you. Sure, our societal dynamic is a lot more complicated now than that idealized, romantic outlaw dream, but along with the reference to Bonnie and Clyde, another film I associate more with the transgression of societal bounds through outlaw drug culture than I do transgression of societal norms through bank robbery, this song will always remind me to push further to the margins where the heat is.
Heaps Of Sheeps
This is fairly new to me. I’ve never quite got my head around Robert Wyatt but I always thought I would at some point. Heard this on WFMU a few weeks ago I think. Itches a nice future-pop Eno vibe for me. In a few places a comp tape needs healthy, flowing ligaments.
Ultimate synth warlockery. Deeply sick, stoney sounds. Listened for the first time while driving through a blizzard on Donner Pass a few years ago. Sold.
Probably more than the beautiful Popol Vuh music in and of itself, Herzog’s movie exists in its own world in my mind, like it’s in a crystal ball. The fateful human descent down a path that can only lead to doom or life and death folly seems to be Herzog’s central comment on humanity. But fearless engagement with the sheer scale and grandiose, and in most instances the shocking, horrible beauty of that descent seems to be at the heart of what a human can do in Herzog’s eyes, even if the rest is fixed for some form of disaster. Ringing increasingly true to the ear in 2020. No one could have sonically expressed Herzog’s scale the way Popol Vuh could. This piece takes me right there and I could ponder and psychically engage the questions and conflicts of humans and nature forever inside these sights and sounds.
You Played Yourself
Last year, I was record shopping a bunch with my bud King Riff and within a week I randomly found three sequential Ice-T albums: Rhyme Pays, Power and Iceberg at three different record stores in the Bay Area. In listening back to these decades later, in sequence of release, I realized what a massive force in music Ice-T was at the time. Between those three albums was written a map of the evolution of a genre of music moving from its underground infancy to titanic, groundbreaking dominance over pop culture and the future of music. If, at the core of our connection with the form of hip-hop, is the powerful beating of the heart and human story told in conversational poetry plucked from ground level on the earth, then it’s no wonder Ice-T is a master in the game, for nothing obscures those two essential qualities in his art. Iceberg came out on the cusp of new copyright laws that would change the face of sampling (which was just hitting its stride as a sub-art form within the wider genre of hip hop). Now the last albums of the open sampling era: Paul’s Boutique, Cypress Hill, Iceberg and others from 89-91 are like lost artefacts from a distant time, not just adorned, but constructed of millions of dollars worth of samples, each like churches made of gold bricks from centuries before.
What a trip and a joy to stand at the edge of the birth of a genre of music and witness its pioneers sail into the unknown and re-write the maps of the world and its known edges. And despite all the technologies that come along and change the mapping techniques, what we find out there, in the farthest reaches, is the same thing we found in our earliest moments of human consciousness just out of the cave and around the fire; the awareness of the pulse of our existence and the telling of our story.
Rock Your Baby
Pure summer heaven. Let’s take a break from overwhelming feelings of apocalypse for a moment and just ride the skies. George’s high notes coming from a beautiful falsetto to an octave up like a kiss on the ears from God. I go to this song when I need to get away in my mind, be lifted up, engage fantasy ideal otherworldly bliss, for those things are in us too as humans and we are capable of their engagement.
The Human Instinct
Searing down to the raw wood—lost Echoplex fuzz-wah guitar caveman funk-blues psych from New Zealand, completely zonked. Many wasted days in Santa Cruz at the turn of the millennium jamming this from a cheap boom box next to a mossy pool, melting in the summer sun. LOVE.
I go to this song when I need to get away in my mind, be lifted up, engage fantasy ideal otherworldly bliss, for those things are in us too as humans and we are capable of their engagement.
I’ve Got Drugs (Out Of The Mist)
This is how good low-fi bedroom jams can get. Like Midwest skid row Burroughs jive; brilliant, hilarious, heartbreaking, offensive, poetic, base and seriously medicated. The soundtrack to the most misspent year of my wasted youth.
Bill Mackay and Katinka Kleijn
Chicago Symphony Orchestra member and cello master Katinka Kleijn and the fantastic, ever-searching guitarist Bill Mackay combine in brilliant duo for these perfect jams as we head into a dark, unknown, winter of the season and of our souls.
Tropic Of Anodyne
What a quintessential fall tune for me, when the leaves have yellowed and there’s water in the wind, gusting in chaotic blasts of loose foliage and dampness under stormy skies yet to burst. Reminds me of a late October day in London or Nottingham. A free, wide-open moment of the spirit; exhilarating and stingingly melancholy at once.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
This version of this song will always be the ultimate stoner song for me. I was in the town of Clearlake, CA in 1995 for an all-day punk festival show with my high school band. Cheap beer and variations of Lookout! Records-type punk bands all day. My guitarist and super bud Ryan asked me to ride with him to the liquor store and we got stoned on the way. He put this song on the cassette deck (definitely not the type of music we were into in 95 at all) and we’d just hotboxed the car, deep coughing, little cartoon sizzle lines coming up off the top of our heads. He drove down Main Street in Clearlake on a dreary aggressively ugly sunburn-overcast summer day. Not even rays of sunlight, but the actual beams of crystal joy from the heart of the sun shot through the high, unbroken overcast cloud wall above and burned down into our eyes and pores, as SRV exploded into climactic solo, over and over and over. Fucking. Blew. My. Mind. Like someone was shooting my vein with a psychic colour bomb. And I’ve dug SRV ever since.
Not even rays of sunlight, but the actual beams of crystal joy from the heart of the sun shot through the high, unbroken overcast cloud wall above and burned down into our eyes and pores, as SRV exploded into climactic solo, over and over and over. Fucking. Blew. My. Mind.
One of my favourite records of 2020. Pressed in 250 copies, I can’t believe there are a couple left at the Forced Exposure mail order website. Please go buy one before you have to pay $200 on Discogs for one a few weeks from now.
Thicker Than A Smokey
Another essential fall number. Leaves in waist-high tornados, the changing of the seasons, the changing of an era, stepping further into knowledge of self by stepping further into the unknown.
This whole album is an absolute high point in what one of my Humboldt friends calls “burn-out rock,” to which I assume he meant partied on old 70s rock LPs that you are blasted back into the couch in nearly comatose stoner enthral, while cheap, empty beer cans rattle around on the faux-wood coffee table between you and enormous floor speakers. And, well, here we are. But, how many blended musical constructions of melodic beauty, masculinity and vulnerability, groove and clarity journey from intimacy to expanse and hit this mark? Very very few. Joe Walsh walks alone.
Chuck’s music has come to be a serious psychically healing force in my life during these past eight months of lockdown. I fell deeply into his Balsams album a few years ago (Ever wish Garcia had done an entire abstract instrumental album of his long-tone pedal steel guitar music? Balsams is that and a lot more) and it has never gotten old to my heart and ears. During Covid times Chuck released this brilliant new collab LP with Golden Retriever called Rain Shadow and it’s been a major healer and stimulator with its smearing of time, its drones and elemental patterns and at times the echoes of some sci-fi soundtrack Blade Runner thrills with dark simmering synth and muted trumpet moments.
Dark Star (Live at Wembley Empire Pool, April 1972)
After Live Dead, my favourite Dark Star from my favourite live Dead album. Picture proof that on an April night in 1972, they were the greatest band of all time for 31 and a half minutes. Certainly the most stoned.
This record has really had its hooks in me for the past year or so. And I love the way in this comp that Dark Star cuts off and Andromeda has a sort of record scratch as if you feel like you’re sitting in your bedroom as a teenager and made it through 32 minutes of Dark Star and then pull the needle just before it ends, tested to the end of teenage patience, and pop on another album in a totally different direction. What a voice! What chord progressions! What songs! What arrangements! The whole package here nails me.
“Where are you going, I don't mind
I've killed my world and I've killed my time”
Crushing jam. Here we are.
Creative powerhouse Ethan Miller is a singer-songwriter, poet, founder of Oakland-based psych-rock band Howlin’ Rain, and the driving force behind Silver Current Records. This sonic messenger delivers existential stories of human connection that evoke deep contemplation and then soothe the restless soul.
Howlin' Rain's Under The Wheels: Live From The Coasts, Vol. 2 the second edition in a planned series of live album recordings, will be released October 30 on Silver Current Records. Formats include a one-time, small pressing of limited edition colour vinyl variants that feature deluxe metallic rainbow foil jacket printing with stoner's delight album cover art by long-time Howlin' Rain-affiliated artist Arik Roper, as well as, cassette and digital formats.
Cover photo: Michael Lessner
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