Ethan Miller steps up really, really close to the mic on his surprisingly intimate new Howlin’ Rain record
To fully grasp the uniqueness of Howlin’ Rain’s latest album, Mansion Songs, it helps to give their prior record a spin. Live Rain—which was released last year, but recorded live on their 2012 tour—is one of the band’s heaviest, hardest-rocking batch of recordings, performed at full throttle with singer Ethan Miller belting out some Chris-Cornell-meets-Janis-Joplin screams. The music is cathartic and borrows heavily from classic rock, with a tendency toward long and energetic jams. It’s a document of the Howlin’ Rain touring band at their grittiest.
This is not the band that played on Mansion Songs. In fact, by the time Miller sat down to write the record, he’d lost his band, his record label, and sense of focus. For the first time since his career began in 2000 with Comets on Fire, Miller says that his life slowed down long enough to take a deep breath—and he didn’t really know what he was going to do next.
“I never really had to take stock before. I just had to hang on with everything going on so fast,” Miller says. “There’s something extremely joyful and a little depressing about taking stock, especially as an artist. Life’s been so fast—at some point you look up and it’s 15 years later. You’re not about to step into the van on your first tour. I wanted to relate that mortal mix of joy and despair—just the passion of life without being able to comprehend anything.”
The sense of confusion comes across on the album. It’s moody, abstract and completely unlike the explosive nature of Live Rain and his prior studio record, the 2012 Rick-Rubin-produced The Russians Wild. The band is essentially pulling from the same classic rock/blues influences, but it comes off a lot more restrained and nuanced.
“I wanted to make something that’s a little more glowing, instead of exploding constantly. I feel like the live record was about as high as I wanted to take that classic-rock band thing. It’s a little over the top. The opposite of all that is something internal,” Miller says.
Despite its internal nature, it’s not a quiet album. It actually jumps around quite a bit: loud, quiet, dark, joyous. This is due in part to the fact that Miller didn’t have an actual band for the record, so much as various players for different songs.
As a singer, Miller is at his most experimental. He’s doing his best to ride the wave of each song’s mood. On some of the quieter songs, he’s practically whispering—a far cry from the near constant rock ’n’ roll belting on Live Rain.
“I got the mic in front of me so close, my mustache hairs are getting in there and touching the capsule,” Miller says. “It’s turned up so loud that you can hear the dog upstairs barking—you can hear people out in Chinatown honking their horns.”
By the time the band recorded Live Rain, they were really hitting their stride in terms of chemistry, but Miller never intended Howlin’ Rain to be a solid band. He started it in 2006 as a side project from Comets on Fire, and used it as an outlet for different ideas with different musicians. He relished switching up players and seeing how the sound would change as a result.
“I’m not striving for consistency. It makes a big difference the way you work and how you create. I capitalize on the extremes of those changes which allows the band to become a chameleon,” Miller says.
The difference with Mansion Songs is that his pool of musicians had very little preparation. Often they’d walk in the studio without having heard the music beforehand. Some of this was because Miller was in such a major period of output he would spontaneously change what was being recorded on a given day. Feeling upheaval in his life, reflecting on the past 15 years, and seeing this as a period of change put him in a place of writing at an extremely prolific pace. He’s written so much he says that Mansion Songs is the first in a trilogy of similarly themed albums. He’s really excited about it, even if he can’t completely explain what the linking theme between them is.
“I couldn’t stop writing. I had four people coming in to do a song that I’d had an arrangement for, then that afternoon I’d say, ‘Fuck it, we’re not doing it tonight. I just wrote a brand new song.’ I mean literally the last moment. Songs were just flowing out of me.”
INFO: 9 p.m., Thursday, March 12, Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $10/Adv, $12/Door. 429-6994. PHOTO: Ethan Miller (right) brings his band Howlin’ Rain to the Crepe Place on Thursday, March 12.