Howlin Rain exists at the heart of San Francisco’s current psych-rock revival. At times recalling The Faces or even early Grateful Dead, the Bay Area quintet offers an infectious, guitar-driven sound equal parts psychedelic and blues-rock. Formed in 2006, Howlin Rain grew out of the more alt-rock-leaning Comets on Fire, which frontman Ethan Miller played in for almost a decade. Miller originally formed Howlin Rain as a side-project with his longtime friend Ian Gradek, but what started as a side-project blossomed into one of the summer’s most buzzed about experimental bands. Below, Miller discusses Comets on Fire’s origins, his first trip to Bonnaroo and why everyone owes a little something to Jerry Garcia.
Let’s start by talking about Bonnaroo, which Howlin Rain played earlier this month. What were your initial impressions of the festival?
We got in at about 1 PM, after a couple days without sleeping, and we started rippin around doing this promo stuff. It’s fairly hazy for me. But, other than that, I was like, “Oh, wow this is a pretty good time, hippie-festival-style,” and kinda by sundown everyone was looking pretty wasted, nobody was hacky sacking anymore, and by 8 or 9 PM, it was like Mad Max out there! Maybe that wasn’t everything, but you see a lot of zombies running around [laughter].
For some of our readers that aren’t as familiar with Howlin Rain, can you walk us through the group’s history? Before Howlin Rain, you played in the group Comets on Fire, correct?
You know, I kinda wanted to have a different outlet for different kinda song structures, songs that I’d written that weren’t really going to work for Comets on Fire. I don’t know maybeit got to the point were where we were really writing for the band, and really writing for Comets on Fire as an entity. You kind of know when you wrote a song for yourself or just a song with a different thingthat isn’t based on being really big and muscular. I just wanted a different songwriting outlet, so I kinda started it up with my buddy Ian [Gradek] in 2004.
You and Ian went to high school together, correct?
Yeah, we were old friends. We grew up in the same town together and everything, so we’ve been friends a long time.
Who were some of the bands you first bonded over?
Um, well when we were really young glam-rock. When we were in like 5th grade, Appetite for Destruction came out. a lot of that kinda stuff. His older brother Colin was spoon feeding us the stuff he was listening to, and he was a classic mullet wearing, bully hasher dude. He was passing everything off to us from that end Poison, Guns N Roses, stuff like that. As Ian and I got a little bit older and we got into high school, we discovered punk and stuff like thaton our own through other means. Basically, stuff like the Replacements, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the classics you start with.
Recently, there has been a lot of emphasis placed on the so-called “New San Francisco Scene.” Relix even recently did a feature on the city’s musical revival [please see our June issue]. Have you seen a change in the city’s musical climate?
No, well not really. I grew up in Humboldt County, which is a really isolated little spot up on the north coast in the redwoods. I grew up in Eureka and Ian grew up in Arcada, two little neighboring towns that meet in the middle. I mean, when we were growing up, by the time that we wanted to go to shows, there was actually a lot more bands and there was a much more blossoming punk scene, especially in the Bay Area. That was the moment when were happening with Operation Ivy, and Green Day back when they were still small on Lookout! Records. By the time we were in Jr. High or 8th grade, we were like “Fuck, we want to go to some local shows,” and we had some friends who were like, “Hey, there are some great shows going on you should come,” and that was going on. It was like Green Day playing for like 80 people, or the Melvins would come through. So we had all these bands that went on to bigger and brighter things and to have long legacies and careers and stuff.
There’s always been a lot happening in San Francisco, it’s a really diverse scene. At least in the last ten years, there hasn’t been a really gelled one-type-of-music-thing going on. Tons of bands play with each other and stuff. I dunno, I’ve either been out running with Comets on Fire or with Howlin Rain, touring and stuff, for so long to be honest when you get out and start touring and stuff its kinda hard to tell, especially when things come and go so quick in the city, you know its definitely a creative place.
Going back to the band’s origins, at what point did you feel comfortable leaving Comets on Fire to work on Howlin Rain?
Well, it kinda wasn’t my intention, but once we got involved with Rick Rubin and stuff, and did the deal with American records and Columbia. At that point I was like, “I want to dedicate myself to this, and there’s some more muscle getting behind this thing so I wanted to do my part.”
At that point was it a full band? Or just you and Ian?
By the time we got the record deal, Magnificent Fiend, our most recent record, was already finished and mixed. It originally was going to come out on Birdman. So we were like, “Let’s have that come out on Birdman and start working on the next record” and then he was like, “I want this record too” and it was just the way it ended up. We ended up wanting to get out and tour a bunch on it. Just for the record, the band is five full time people. The website says that Eli Eckert is still in the group, but he’s kind of a satellite member. He was on the record and he toured while Mike Jackson was out in recovery from an injury, but the band is five people. Joel Robinow plays keyboards, there are two guitars, drums, bass and we both sing.
How did the band evolve from just you and Ian to a quintet?
The first record was just kind of a power trio, if you’ll let me call it power [laughter]. John Maloney, the first drummer, left the band after the first tour, and Ian was in Hawaii building a house, so I just kinda found myself on my own over here. At first I was like, “There’s another group out the window,” so I thought, “Well, instead of feeling kinda defeated, this is a perfect opportunity to take a set of events that could be a setback and turn it around and reinvent the group.” I’m a big fan of reinvention and always trying to stay one step ahead artistically. That kind of reinvention and having to put things together guaranteed a different record. There’s no way you can get five guys that are from different places to mimic the sounds that three guys made at a whole different time. That’s kinda how it came aboutjust putting a new band together for Magnificent Fiend and just kinda having in mind the overall sound I wanted to get from it.
It’s cool to evolve. Look at the Byrds.
Fleetwood Mac is the ultimate example. They’ve got the drummer/leader and the shifts keep getting even more radical. The shift from Peter Green to Rumors, you know? It is interesting how he shifted all these different songwriter energies, while keeping the same bandleader.
For us, Ian is the original bass player and I’m the original songwriter/singer/guitarist, so those elements have maintained some of the same elements. But, I think even since Magnificent Fiend I’ve kinda reinforced “the fierceness” of my guitar sound again and, you know, the live the band is coming into a wild and bombastic place.
Garett Goddard is much more of a swing drummer, so there is a lot more swing in the songs, and Joeljust having someone who is playing electric piano and Hammond organ and stuff like that is s a really vast change. He’s also a great singer, so we do a lot of singing together a lot of harmonizing and stuffjust those elements there, the swing shift, in rhythm and the huge presence of the keys and the more present vocal sound. This is the first time in all our years we’ve been touring steadily now and we have one band that is working at its core and its center to find its essential parts, instead of kind of throwing a band together and making a record and doing a couple gigs together, and trying to recreate sounds from the album. We are finally coming to this key place, which I think is becoming a great live band. And just knowledge about where our telepathies are onstage and knowledgeable about what our essential live qualities are onstage.
Did you write most of the songs on Magnificent Fiend specifically for the album?
It came out almost a year after it was finished being recorded, and I had been writing for two years on it. I just tried to write songs that were a little different that the first album, a little more complex and kinda mutate them a little bit. I tried to write a metal album and still put this weird kinda muscular kinda prog-elements into it, as well as jazz elements. If I had simplistic melodies I was trying to get across I tried to utilize a little more complicated architecture to the songs, a little more complicated chord structures and stuff like that, to get those melodies across instead of just going for a real simplistic vibe.
With that in mind, do you cite San Francisco legends like the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane as influences?
It is pretty hard not to have those kinds of bands influencing their music in rock and roll in general. Whether you like those bands or not they are such a cultural and musical phenomenon. At this point, it is like you can hate the Beatles and the Stones or say you don’t listen to them, but you’re still part of that musical history, you know? Unless you grew up in a cave [laughter]. You can ignore it and say you don’t like it, but it’s part of the musical history, and beyond that, I love those bands. There was some stuff that I wrote where I tried to pull a little American Beauty vibe on the first record. I wasn’t necessarily trying to copy the chords, but channel a little bit of that sorrow and a little bit of the beautiful imperfections of Jerry Garcia’s singing. Stuff like that. I also love Jorma’s guitar, especially on Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow.
Bringing the conversation full circle, do you write specifically for Howlin Rain now?
I always had these kinda more rootsy, bluesy earthy, singer/songwriter songsnot traditional singer/songwriter or even singer/songwriter rock songs, but the songs for Comets on Fire never really usually came from singer/songwriter placewhere a singer and songwriter sat down and worked them out. With this band, things are straight from my heart. They are worked up from different ways, from different methodologies. I always had this catalog of songs that were just kinda the natural thing where you sit and write, and I wanted an outlet for them. Howlin Rain has its own thing and it comes naturally. When I write for Howlin Rain, I try to experiment and sometimes things happen that are not right for Howlin Rain or Comets on Fire. It’s for some other time and space. Once a group has its own entity or essence, you can tell what it would like to have musically. If you write a really crazy fast punk song, it is just not natural for Howlin Rain.
_Mike Greenhaus blogs about new grooves and old flames at www.greenhauseffect.com