Ethan Miller is one of the Bay Area's best musicians. He formed the psychedelic/noise, super intense band Comets on Fire in Santa Cruz in 1999. The group has met with much success-- Comets was signed to Sub Pop, has toured all over the world and released four great albums. After relocating to Oakland, around 2004 Ethan brought together another outlet for his creativity, the riff-heavy Howlin' Rain. Howlin' Rain has released two exceptional records and was recently signed to musical luminary Rick Rubin's label American Recordings, which should bring the group's heavy rockin' sound to even higher highs. Check out Howlin' Rain's performance at Amoeba back in March here.
What follows is my recent chat with Ethan about songs that make him cry, his old piano teacher, and why the studio is what really winds his clock.
Miss Ess: Is there someone in particular who recognized and nurtured your musical interest/talent when you were young?
Ethan Miller: Yes, I had a piano teacher named Jean Bazemore who has been just one of those magical people that you meet in life that is a guiding force and inspiration. Most importantly, she is one of those people who helps you to understand the depth and meaning, power and spiritual activity that is going on beneath our artistic actions. Also my folks, both my Mother and Father, have been supportive and encouraging of my musical path since I was young. Parents can make the musical path very difficult if they don't approve or don't support it and my path and road in music would have been very difficult without their support.
ME: What song or album reminds you of your childhood?
E: The Gambler by Kenny Rogers.
ME: It's funny that you say that because that record is also one of the touchstones of my childhood, and I have to say I have been revisiting Kenny lately just for a little blast from the past. He was on constant repeat when my dad was driving me around in the station wagon. So what was the first song/record you remember hearing that got you pumped and made you think about making music a major part of your life/your career?
E: Purple Rain by Prince.
You've been in bands since you were a teenager-- what was it initially that made you want to be in a band?
E: When I listened to rock music as a youngster and when I started going to local punk shows as a young teenager, the power and energy that I felt coming from the stage and the albums was like looking deep into the fire of a burning building. Something so exhilarating, powerful and beautiful but out of control-- there is something almost magical going on, like a prism of emotional resonance hitting you. Though we can mathematically explain how chords and melody work in music, we still can't rationally explain the intense emotional and resonant response that happens when we hear those melodies and chords. There is something profoundly spiritual and intoxicating happening there, at times healing, at times longing or sadness, even dangerous responses can happen. It is the most powerful unexplained force in this world and I did then and still find that completely baffling and wonderful. From those early experiences with that force, I wanted to live a life that moved inside of those energies, try to ride it, get knocked down by it, learn from it, spend my life trying to catch that shit by the tail.
When you arrived in Santa Cruz, what did you think of the music scene at the time? Did you have a vision of what kind of band you wanted to form there or did it all just fall together with Comets?
E: When I arrived in S.C. there was a music scene but it was pretty disparate. I didn't have my complete vision then. I was still heavily influenced by my older peers that I had played music with before moving there. It was the first time I was out from under those heavy older influences and once I was surrounded with new musicians that didn't come from the small town that I came from and hadn't grown up under the same influences, my own personal musical path and vision started to emerge. Once I was turned on to White Heaven and High Rise and Mainliner and Albert Ayler and Sonny Sharrock, it was all over and I knew the kind of edge I wanted to have in my next band and Ben F. and I dissolved the rock group we were in and formed Comets.
I read that you would commute back and forth between SC and Oakland for practice a while back...When I was living in SC, I used to drive over the mountain and back like that to see shows in SF all the time for years, and one of the ways I would be able to make the drive so late at night was to rock out in my car to all kinds of stuff, stuff where I could sing along to every word and stay awake. On that note...what records do you like to listen to while driving?
E: Nilsson, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison. The Boredoms' newer albums. Aerosmith. Thin Lizzy. Miles Davis - The Jack Johnson [Sessions] box set, Tony Joe White.
If you weren't playing music, what do you think you'd be doing?
E: I'd be lost. Severely depressed. I think I would be questioning what I was doing here. I would be writing and painting constantly to take the place of music. I enjoy those things as well, but not to the level of making music.
What's your favorite local Bay Area band?
E: One of my last favorites was Brightblack Morning Light but I'm not sure if they are even in the Bay Area anymore. I've been on tour for many months now and in even a short time in the Bay Area so many bands come and go-- so I'm not sure who is currently tearing it up down at the Hemlock tonight, ya know? Ask me again in November when I come off tour and I'm able to make it out to a few local shows again.
Last I heard they had skipped town to New Mexico. Speaking of Santa Cruz, the first time I ever saw them was when they were still called Rainywood, opening for Will Oldham at Henfling's Tavern in Ben Lomand! What are your favorite places to go on tour and why?
E: New York is always fun. I love Spain and Portugal and have had great experiences there. With Howlin Rain we have had some amazing experiences in Scandinavia.
What has been your peak musical experience?
E: Making albums is the tops for me I think. Getting a little more time and money and vision for each progressive record. Getting to do a little more and broaden my scope a little more each time. I love making records and always wanted to do it. A lot of people don't like them, or dread the studio environment, but I love it. It's like being in a fucking playground when you're 6 years old---you just play and play and pretty soon the day is gone and the sun is going down and you're just tearing around, climbing all over shit and playing in the dark.
There seems to be a dearth of rock bands the past few years. Howlin' Rain' is a notable exception, of course. What are some other current rock bands that you admire? Are you into the whole Japanese Rock thing?
E: Hmmm. Wouldn't it be nice if now were the time of the death of rock music? But alas, I think rock bands are like cockroaches: after the bomb they just come crawling up from beneath the rubble, banging away at those power chords and playing the "Stairway to Heaven" intro. Maybe being in a rock band has become a little obsolete because the "indie rock band" is the new Rock Rock band. A new cockroach crawling over the head of the old one out from beneath the rubble. I guess we (Howlin Rain) run the risk of being called cockroaches also because we are trying to wring new art out of an old faithful slop rag. I admire Mudhoney, The Melvins-- those are two of the greatest rock bands ever and they are better than ever. Grinderman at its best is an astonishing rock band.
On the Japanese tip, I didn't read the Japrock Sampler. For me, the big moment in Japanese rock was the mid 80s through the mid 90s. That is where the albums I loved the most from there came from. Ghost and Boris and some of those guys still do great stuff but the 80s and early 90s PSF [Records] stuff is what shook me up and got inside of my heart and head. I don't really keep up too too much on what's going on there now in such depth.
Rick Rubin is one of the most intriguing figures in the music industry, I think. It's really exciting that you are on his label now. Will he produce any of your future records?
E: Yes, we will work together on the next album.
How will being on American Recordings change your recording/production process?
E: Larger recording budget. More time to get it right and shake out ideas and experiments.
What role do you see production work as having in your studio time-- is it a major consideration, an afterthought, something spontaneous? Does it change from album to album/project to project?
E: So far, production is usually sort of invisible because it sort of works itself out in the studio as we go and get stuff down. Mostly with Rick, I think the difference will be that he and I will focus much more on the songwriting and getting the songs in an ideal state before entering the studio, which I like the idea of. I have always felt that a songwriter cannot truly be an objective judge of the value of every part, every lyric, every nook and cranny of her/his songs. And your band members can be tricky judges also because of your already complicated relationship with them, both musical and personal. So having someone like Rick get in there with you and help define what's good, what's great and what needs work in the songwriting sounds very intriguing to me.
Do you prefer to be on the road and play live or be in the studio?
E: Absolutely without a doubt with no fucking question in my mind I love being in the studio. After the first month or two of tour it's not much fun anymore. I do love the feeling of a great live night with a great crowd---just cutting loose like you're trying to do violence to a mountain and succeeding. That energy cannot be beat, even in the studio.
What is your most prized piece of musical gear?
E: My 1964 robin's egg blue Fender Jaguar, which I've been beating the living shit out of for the last 8 years on stage and continue to to this day. A rare beauty and the instrument that I found "my sound" on.
Is there a song you love so much that, every time you hear it, you wish you had written?
E: "The Mercy Seat" by Nick Cave.
What Neil Young album is your favorite?
E: Probably After the Goldrush or maybe Everybody Knows [This is Nowhere]...On the Beach...Tonight's the Night....would be hard to take just one to a desert island.
Those are all my faves in a nutshell too! I was a lit major at UCSC too...what authors have influenced you?
E: Jerzy Kosinski, Michael Moorcock, Jim Thompson, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Brautigan, Joan Didion, Goethe, Shakespeare, Margaret Atwood, and many more.
What album do you love that you think more people should listen to?
E: Bad Brains - s/t
Is there a particular piece of music or song that can bring you to tears?
E: I can't remember lately, though I know a couple have recently...but actually you just reminded me of it when you asked about driving from Santa Cruz. I was driving from Santa Cruz to Oakland or maybe up to Humboldt maybe 6 or 7 years ago and was listening to "The Candidate" by David Bowie [an outtake song off the Rhino deluxe reissue (of Diamond Dogs) from the 90's] and though the song isn't particularly sad, one of those changes hit in the song and just moved me to tears.
What has been your best find at Amoeba?
E: One of my recent best was a beat up old copy of Ike and Tina Nut Bush City Limits. Too many great finds to mention or remember. Love those stores.
What's next for Howlin' Rain?
E: Off to England for the Greenman Festival and surrounding dates, then Outside Lands Music Festival, Bumbershoot in Seattle, and some other Pacific NW shows. We're supporting the Black Crowes in September and October. Then in November we come off tour and begin working on preproduction for a new album!