We chatted with Ethan Miller from Howlin Rain about the band’s latest release ‘The Russian Wilds’ and a few other interesting subjects, including working with producer Rick Rubin.
Northern Transmissions: What was it like working with Rick Rubin on the new record?
Ethan Miller: That’s a question that everyone wants to ask, and I guess they want to get a couple of blurb answers on, but the real answer is a lot more complicated and spans a 4 year period, and really 5 years if you include the time when we first started getting together to work on the contract to work with American. To be honest the last 4 years has been a challenge working with him, there were some times that were really high, and others that was really a struggle. I think anyone coming out of something that they’ve worked on, one single project that you’ve obsessed over for 4 years, it ends up threatening the survival of your band. And it’s not just Rick, there’s lots of factors that helped make this an epic journey, instead of just making a record, and seven months later you’re on tour, it just didn’t happen that way. But he had his hand in elongating the process as well, it’s complicated. I mean Rick and I are still friends, there are things artistically though that have been really rewarding.
NT: Was the end result something that you were pleased with, or did it come out differently than you anticipated?
EM: We didn’t really know what to anticipate. There weren’t a lot of surprises; we had
rehearsed these songs for so long, so it wasn’t like “I can’t believe it turned out that way”. We had worked long and hard on these songs not to make a perfect record, but to make one where the grasping at perfection is part of the aesthetic. With the Stones like on Exile, grasping at perfection is not a part of the aesthetic in any way shape or form, and there are other albums where people do do that. And we all know that perfection is impossible, and perfection as an art is an atrocity, but the obsession with perfection with a rational understanding that it’s impossible, starts to create an interesting dynamic, a
sort of insanity to the process. We did that this time around. We had more of a budget and a little bit more time. Once we got into the obsessive mode and realized it was going to take a few years, we just embraced it all the way to the other side. All that said, I am pleased. It became dire enough at some point though, just to put things in perspective. If the Chili Peppers or Metallica take four years to make a record they can take some time off because they’re financially stable. And if it’s something they’ve lost their fortune over, well they can take an outdoor gig in Germany or something like that make some money, take some time and think about what they’re doing. But if you’re a starving artist
to stretch an album out that’s supposed to be the foundation of what you’re doing. Well one year goes by, after two years you’re financially running ragged, after 4 years you’re going into crazy zone. That buzz about you is gone, you need some people in the clubs, you need to be part of the average concert goer and album buyers conversation about music. It’s hard to keep on their tongues and in their hearts. This is just to paint a picture of when you go so far in the desert you can’t turn back it’s way too far to survive to turn back, and at the same time it’s many more miles to the other side. We did make it, but
that challenge was a big thing, and I was so happy to have it done, but then once we got it all mastered and done, all these things at the label starting happening that didn’t have anything to do with us. Every single step of the way more shit just came down the ladder, and left us hanging, it went on and on.
NT: Was it just the fact that there were so many takeovers and mergers at American that
was the major stumbling block with releasing the record?
EM: No that was one of the smallest stumbling blocks actually. The main thing, is you can’t have one major event that will change everything, it’s like an earthquake, and then a tsunami, and then the nuclear reactors because of the tsunami, and then something goes wrong with shutting down the reactors, and they’re melting over on this thing, and it just happens to be where all the fresh water is, and then all of a sudden you have a major crisis. But it was the chain of events that happened that was the problem. Our last record came out in 2008, we toured for about a year, and after that it was just me and Joel left.We had to put a new band together, and that took a little time, meanwhile I was going down with Rick to work on songs. And he was really about working on a lot of song demos, like not just 8 but more like 40 and choosing the best 12 and he was really about making a masterpiece. So we’re putting the band together meanwhile I was going back and forth to L.A to meet with Rick but he’s a busy guy to schedule around, so you’ve got yourself organized and your shit together, but you can’t get together with him for another 2 months. If you keep adding these stalled moments over years, and they’re happening every 3 or 4 months, all of a sudden you’ve added another year. And then you’ve finished it but then the release date is going to be Dec. 20, which you can’t do that, everyone is on break. So then you hold on to the record for another 3 months. Every little thing that comes together, you add it all up and you realize you’re trying to build a big glass mansion on a lifeboat or something and the whole world is just changing and evolving without you. You ask anyone what you’ve done for the last 4 years, I bet there’s some shit in there, and there should be. But if you ask me, it’s a simple answer with a
NT: Howlin Rain is a bit more melodic than Comets on Fire, was that something you
always wanted to do?
EM: Yeah, originally it was supposed to be the yin to the yang or whatever, you get the
picture black and whites swirling together. When we were knee deep in Comets, it was still really wild and nihilist rock and roll, and we tangled with some of this harmony stuff, and some melodic stuff, and some of the laid back stuff. But I had thought there was a lot of powerful stuff that we’d never get a chance to do, but I wondered if it was appropriate.In the end we toyed with some of it in Comets, but I wanted to fill out a bit of the other side of the spectrum with Howlin Rain. We had a done a lot of experimentation in what Grateful Dead called a “troubled democracy”, one where the group makes the
decisions. And that’s down to the artwork to everything, and that can be fucking painful for everyone. Some times that would produce an ingenious output by the group mind, but other times it was the lowest common denominator that we all agreed on but that was no ones first choice. If any of the members are at odds with each other, than the entire group is in danger of breaking up, it’s legacy for better or for worse unless all members are ready to put all their gasoline into the project. So I thought if there was a core songwriter that was the legacy, we could have different musicians that could come and go, and I’ll
be the spine of this thing. The musicians that come and be a part of it will be the musical aesthetic of it, and the listener will see the beauty of the whole, not the spine. I was also experimenting with it so it wasn’t a total dictatorship. That the leadership is for the good of the group and the good of the legacy, so hopefully that approach would be energizing.
NT: Your songwriting seems more prolific these days. Do you find songwriting more of a
difficult task these days?
EM: No it’s easier. I’ve wrote countless stuff for this new record. We put so much music
on the table, I’ve learnt how to do more out off the stuff that comes out of the ether, that god given stuff that just hits your brain and in 45 seconds you bang it out. But how to work with it a bit more, and just take maybe the verse out of that and how to walk away from the stuff that isn’t working. I’ve learnt how to read the tea leaves of what’s happening with all these ideas that I have. Now I got all these little riffs, and I got these books with lyrics, I’ve got all these demos, I’ve got this old song that I love but it doesn’t make sense with what I’m doing now, but I can find where its place should be.