The Strange World Of… Howlin’ Rain

Ethan Miller, key cosmonaut with Comets On Fire and lead grizzly dreamer in Howlin’ Rain, recounts his path to neo-psychedelic nirvana to Stevie Chick, taking in feral punk rock, doomy folk and feedback-soaked poetry readings along the way

Howlin’ Rain in 2021 courtesy of Kristy Walker

“Psychedelia is the linking factor running through all of it, if we have to break things down to simplistic terms,” says Ethan Miller, Zooming from his sofa in California and trying to make sense of his wild and varied discography to date. “We can argue sub-genre and nuance from there,” he continues, wry smile creeping out from behind a wiry thicket of silvery black beard. “I guess I’ve always leaned towards heavy music and psychedelia.”

The details don’t bother Miller too much, his eye, as ever, fixed on the big picture. Sometimes the canvas upon which he paints his masterpieces can get so vast it’s almost unwieldy, like with the original plan for The Dharma Wheel, the latest, grandest opus by his group Howlin’ Rain. Originally conceived as a sprawling two-and-a-half hour meditation on America – styled, in part, after Dante’s Inferno – Miller had to scale down his plans for the album after COVID forced the group off the road. “No more money from touring meant no more money to finish off the triple album,” Miller sighs, clearly haunted by his ambitious original vision for the project.

But The Dharma Wheel, as we get to hear it, is no botched compromise – it’s a vision distilled, and all the more powerful for that. Just under an hour long, it’s a set of ecstatic choogle and choruses transmitted from the AM radio heavens, of transcendent extended instrumental passages that channel the untrammelled, primal force of Miller’s earliest work into something more earnest, more structured, but losing none of its spiritual power in the transition. The glorious ‘Under The Wheels’ refracts classic rock via the lens of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, a cat’s cradle of exploratory riffs and glancing blows of tenderness. The epic, closing title track offers 16 minutes of ever-ascending crescendo, false endings and breath-taking heroics, a masterpiece of focus and composition.

It’s all a far cry from his chaotic early days in Comets On Fire, the group he formed in Santa Cruz, northern California in the late 90s with bassist Ben Flashman and electronicist Noel Harmonson. Harmonson worked part-time at a record store and had fallen under the spell of Japan’s arcane, overdriven psych-rock scene, and the nascent Comets On Fire used techniques of sonic extremism drawn from those records to split punk rock’s atom on their self-titled debut album. “Comets On Fire was really a deconstruction of all these things that we loved,” Miller says, a mission accomplished by feeding their guitars and vocals through Harmonson’s collection of electronic gizmos, distorting and contorting every note and sending it tumbling down a hall of carnival mirrors. Heavy rock in dub, with some divine celestial Upsetter at the controls.

This transformative process is, for Miller, key to the psychedelic experience itself. “From Hawkwind, to Keiji Haino, to Skip Spence’s Oar,” he explains, “you can hear the ghostly goop of blues or R&B or folk in there, but they’ve been so deconstructed and reconstructed and reimagined that it becomes it’s own thing. As a genre, the guideline to psychedelia is that there’s no guideline – it’s just an open space, and that’s what’s always attracted me to it.”

Miller’s commitment to the cause cannot be questioned. Not just a musician and bandleader, he’s also a label mogul, his Silver Current Records morphing from side-hustle via which he hawked home silk-screened CDR “bootlegs” of his own bands, to actual, fully functioning imprint. “I really got invested into the label during the extended period when Howlin’ Rain was making The Russian Wilds with Rick Rubin,” Miller says. “Things were moving so slow, I really wanted to feel connected to some creative output.” Silver Current has gone on to release music by fellow travellers Purling Hiss, Earthless, Wooden Shjips, Growing and Oh Sees, along with Howlin’ Rain and other Miller projects like Feral Ohms and Odyssey Cult. “Putting out other bands is a joy,” Miller adds. “There’s a whole other psychic reward to seeing how creative other artists can be. It’s still all really DIY, but it keeps rolling on, and I love it.”

Comets On Fire – ‘Beneath The Ice Age’ from Field Recordings From The Sun (2002)

Comets’ second album sounded like an undiscovered private press psych album recorded by some sinister, acid-gobbling hippie cult, an ambience conjured by its opening track, which quickly slipped from eerie chanting, bells and percussion, to full-on, overdriven psych-rock extremism. The arrival of new drummer Utrillo Kushner, meanwhile, enabled the band to indulge in wild passages of improv, while guitarist Ben Chasny of space-folk project Six Organs Of Admittance, who guested on the album, soon stepped aboard as a permanent member.

“We were getting into Japanese noise rock,” says Miller, “stuff like High Rise, Acid Mothers Temple, Keiji Haino’s Fushitsusha stuff, High Rise, Mainliner… Basically, the whole PSF world, which tore open the boundaries of rock & roll and psychedelia. These guys would put out the most blistering, psychotic rock music that’s ever been made, and their next record would sound like a bunch of cannibals having a picnic at a Zen retreat. We were like, ‘Wow, these guys play by no rules, they take no prisoners.’ So that was our vision for Field Recordings. We’d write these ‘boundaries’, these outlines for the songs. Like, for ‘Beneath The Ice Age’ I wrote, ‘Bells and shit, chanting, crazy solos, a big open improv section, then we leave a few minutes to cool it down, then one more big blast, and then a bunch of cult-vibe bells and chanting’.” And that’s as good a summary as any. Originally planned as a double-album, there is, Miller says, “a whole other album’s worth of Field Recordings-style music out there somewhere. But when we listened back to the full thing, we chopped it down to barely an album’s length. We were like, ‘Dude, that’s enough’. It’s a complete nuclear meltdown. Like, there’s nothing left but scorched earth after those 36 minutes. That’s the statement.”

Comets On Fire – ‘Whiskey River’ from Blue Cathedral, (2004)

Comets’ third, their first for Sub Pop, swung between Field Recordings-style freakouts and more sculpted, considered pieces. This majestic track split the difference, its heavy, oscillator-scarred thrash giving way to passages of cosmic prog, before mutant-guitar, screaming synth and blurting sax melded together and rained down like the like the very apocalypse.

“By now everyone in the band was writing material, so there was, like, this CSNY-type effect,” remembers Miller. “Utrillo was bringing in his piano-based songs, Chasny and I had started writing riffs together, and Flashman and I still had our thing going. It was, by nature, more diverse. We’d been on the road together now, so we knew what the chemistry was. We still didn’t really know enough about how music is traditionally performed in a recording studio – I’m singing totally out of key, not worried if the timing is off. It’s still about the moment.

Comets On Fire – ‘Hatched Upon The Age’ from Avatar (2006)

This elegiac, soaring closing track was Comets On Fire’s most lucid, coherent moment yet. It also remains their final music released to date. “We had a tough time making Avatar,” says Miller, of Comets’ fourth album. “Opportunities were happening for the band, people were getting it, we were playing larger and larger rooms. But there was more pressure. We wanted to do different things, to make every album different, to have that ‘Beatles’ feel – like you don’t know what’s going to come next. In the studio, there were fun moments, and tense moments. Moments where we were thinking, ‘We’re doing something we’re all proud of, that’s a pretty big step, that has density and complexity, but is still us.’ But there was also a sense that our unity was falling apart. We couldn’t find the joy and creativity together. It became like a psychic bloodletting. Everybody had their guard up, and you can’t be creative like that. We got through Avatar, we went on to play some more good tours. But everyone had their own outlet, too, and then you’re thinking, ‘Why wouldn’t I go and do this thing over here that feels fresh, and I can be open, I can be creative, there’s no toxicity in it, nobody’s getting hurt, everybody’s bringing things to the table?’ That’s what happened with Comets.”

Howlin’ Rain – ‘The Hanging Heart’ from Howlin’ Rain (2006)

Around the same period he was working on Avatar, Miller hooked up with John Moloney of Massachusetts psychedelic experimentalists Sunburned Hand Of The Man and old friend Ian Gradek for a new project that pulled back from the screaming Cosmische armageddons of Comets, in favour of a rootsier, more classic rock direction. The first Howlin’ Rain album was a loose, loveable, jammy delight, Miller’s avant guitar techniques lending his timeless and playful songcraft an electric edge, as evidenced on this rolling epic. “I wanted to hear a little more space and detail and colour and stuff, and not just a chaotic explosion,” Miller remembers. “That kind of 1970s, AM-rock-music-coming-out-of-the-pickup-truck-on-the-mountain-road music was really close to my heart. Comets had had a hot five years, and we were in a tense place with each other. And I wanted to find a place where I could be creative with other people. With that first Howlin’ Rain record, I didn’t put too much in place before we recorded it, and while we were doing it, we were not quite sure exactly what it was. I was like, ‘My audacity, my willpower, and my vision will get this thing made!’ There’s a real joy and excitement in that, capturing a little bit of lightning in a bottle, on the tape. Certain fans really connected deeply with that first record. it. There’s nothing too complex about it: cowboy chords being strummed on acoustic guitars, and a lot of big, crazy fuzz pedals going over the top of them, and this ‘dismantled Americana’-thing going on. And I didn’t overwork it, so it would still sound a little like a found object, not a scientifically constructed one – I wanted it to sound like something that you’d dig up in the backyard of an old house and be like, ‘Holy shit!’”

Six Organs Of Admittance – ‘Waswasa’ from Ascent (2012)

Comets had gone on hiatus following Avatar, but six years on from their final album, all five members reunited as the backing band for Ben Chasny’s Six Organs Of Admittance project, for an album of apocalyptic folk-rock jams as wild as anything Comets had released. “You might think it would have been weird, to take this band that had been so democratic and have Chasny play bandleader, dictating to the rest of that group,” says Miller. “But actually it was a real relief. It was fun to take some direction, to not have to think so much, and to just let our energy hold Ben up. And I think Ben thought it was a nifty way to test the waters, to see if it was time for Comets to come back together and make another album. And for a while, we did. We reformed, and played the ‘final’ All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in 2013. And it was our finest performance, and I’d been taking care of myself, which I’d never done in Comets, so I had the stamina to play longer shows. We got pretty far into another record, about three quarters through. We had a lot of fun. And then it ended, with a whimper, not a bang. The communication sort of fizzled out, and when you’re sending messages, like, ‘Should we book some more studio time? Should we remix this?’, and you’re not getting replies from people, then you stop asking. That’s where we’re at now. We’re all scattered, we can’t just pop out an album over the weekend anymore. But it was cool to know that, instantly, the old chemistry was there. And there was some stuff on there that sounded like classic, quintessential Comets. It was going in a strong direction. It’s all on a hard-drive here somewhere…”

Heron Oblivion – ‘Oriar’ from Heron Oblivion (2014)

A supergroup uniting two Comets with Meg Baird of Philly drone-psych group Espers and Charlie Saufley of San Francisco’s Assemble Head In Sunburst Sound, Heron Oblivion married haunted acid-folk to the kind of phosphorescent psych-rock noise that was by now second nature to Miller. “Noel [Harmonson] and I had an improv unit called Wicked Mace, where we’d grab musicians touring through town, do one rehearsal and then one performance, and the whole thing would be improv,” Miller remembers. “Meg moved to town, to be with Charlie, so we did a Wicked Mace thing with them, with Meg on drums, Charlie and Noel on guitar, and me on bass, because we didn’t need three guitarists. And the rehearsal was so fun, and we improvised like nobody’s business: just the coolest, most awesome Krautrock-y, Throbbing Gristle-y, Vashti Bunyan-y shit, for hours. And we were like, ‘This is not Wicked Mace – this is a real band, with real chemistry.’” Morphing from loose one-off project to actual band, the group had penned their eponymous debut within four days. “The record truly made itself. A drummer that can sing like fucking Sandy Denny, over the top of this noisy stuff – that’s not a bad recipe, you know? Meg’s voice is beautiful on the music that she makes as Espers or solo, but there was something bewitching about hearing it over that kind of music… A lot of these songs are written in a folk format, and then taken to that level of pulsing rhythm and noisy guitars, and from out of the fire and the detailed chaos comes this beautiful, soaring female vocal… We had a lot of fun with it. We toured all over the United States, up and down the coasts, supported a lot of cool bands, and the two guys with salary day-jobs didn’t end up losing their day-jobs. It was really, really a good run.”

Feral Ohms – ‘Super Ape’, from Feral Ohms (2017)

After their second album, 2008’s Magnificent Fiend, Howlin’ Rain caught the attention of legendary super-producer Rick Rubin, who signed the group to his American Recordings label, and stepped aboard to produce their third album. But this dream opportunity soon morphed into a years-long nightmare. “Working on that album, The Russian Wilds, took a really long time, and it turned into a slog. And I don’t blame anybody, but it was a long timespan, and Rick had a loose way of working. After four years I was not excited about being in that house, or working on that record, or making that kind of music anymore. Feral Ohms was the antidote.” Where Heron Oblivion channelled the wild scree of acid-rock into something focused and considered, Miller’s next group ploughed full-pelt in the opposite direction: an ear-wrecking power trio that made like Kick Out The Jams-era MC5 hopped up on whatever all those PSF bands had been taking. The results were gonzo to the absolute fucking max. “I went into a rehearsal space with these two guys, Josh Haynes [bass] and Chris Johnson [drums], and they just were fucking wild animal players. And I was playing through bigger, louder amplifiers than I’d ever played, 100 watt Marshalls, and they had the firepower to counter that. And we were making this fucking racket that nodded back to Black Flag and the Misfits and the Germs, all this crazy fucking loud West Coast concrete basement punk rock. Feral Ohms was just a primal fucking scream. The power trio setting is so fun, you can just close your eyes and lean your head back. That’s what that band’s all about.”

Howlin’ Rain – ‘The Wild Boys’, from The Alligator Bride (2018)

For their fifth studio album, Howlin’ Rain returned to the earthy, on-the-hoof creativity that had characterised their self-titled debut, happening upon the platonic ideal of a rootsy psychedelic rock album along the way. Recorded live in the studio, with minimal overdubs, The Alligator Bride was a force of nature. The interplay within this new line-up of the group was electric and inspired throughout, Miller taking unabashedly classic rock tunes and overloading them with megavolts of 21st Century acid-rock guitar freak-out and sculpted, tempered melodic soloing, as the songs demanded. The subtext, meanwhile, was Miller’s deepest yet, a theme he’s still warming to. “The Alligator Bride was about the complexity of American history, and the complexity of the American present,” he says, “and how, as a country, we will never be able to have a holistic understanding of America or its history. After World War Two, Germany experienced this shock and trauma over what had happened and what they had done, and what their fathers and grandfathers had done, and they came to a fairly clear reckoning. But we in America are doomed, because America is so big, and its histories are written in so many layers, by so many people, vying for so many different kinds of power and to control the narrative. And through our ignorance we develop a collective misunderstanding, and it creates a multi-dimensional aspect of reality in America that is unlike anywhere else. And I was coming to some kind of thinking about what America is now, and always has been, since the white man landed and started creating that kind of dimensional split, reworking history from the moment they landed and began creating holocausts to clear everything and everyone that was here before… What we now know as America, this huge thing of grace, beauty, horror, devastation, triumph, patriotism: just one giant carnival. I was coming to this place, philosophically, about who I am, as a son and product of this nation. And then the night that we recorded the title track, we walked into the control room afterwards, and the drummer said, ‘Fuck me, Trump just won the election’. The moment in history that the song was about happened while I was striking the song to the tape, its permanent vessel.”

The Odyssey Cult – ‘Nausicaa/ Sandymount’, from Volume 2 (2017)

The Odyssey Cult is perhaps Miller’s most arcane project yet: two albums of deep electric guitar experimentation, artful amp-abuse, ambient noise terrorism and blissed-out new age synthesiser droning, conceived as the soundtrack for The Odyssey Of Odelgaene oOo Bloovenbeetle, a handmade book of Miller’s poetry which accompanied the first 100 pressings. If you love the long version of Sonic Youth’s ‘The Diamond Sea’, or Neil Young’s ‘Arc’, chances are you’ll dig this. “I could listen to this kind of shit for hours,” says Miller, of the album’s lysergic textures and graceful harmolodic chaos. “I just hear a symphony in feedback and amp noise… There’s so much colour and ghost melody, the ghost of harmony is always there, in layers. I had a big concept for those records – perhaps too big and too esoteric. I’d written an epic poem, this sci-fi epic poem that was in a rush to be Homer’s The Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is his postmodern version of The Odyssey. My epic poem was about this Odysseus-type character running through time travel and having different human experiences. It’s very experimentally written, and the albums were basically the soundtrack for this poetry book. I feel like my strongest ability in guitar-playing is my ability to harness feedback, to hear what I want to do with feedback. That’s what got me making those records. The whole fucking thing’s esoteric, and I wasn’t quite prepared to properly hustle it to the masses. It’s going to take a special person to like all that stuff. But it’s one of those things that I really, really loved. Meg lent me her voice on one of those songs – it’s this big, epic tidal wave of feedback, and Meg’s voice. One day I heard it playing unexpectedly on WFMU, and I was like, ‘Yeah! Fuck! This is my kind of shit!’ I loved it, hearing one of my most sincere pieces of music on the radio… It’s completely obscure.”

‘Dharma Wheel’ from The Dharma Wheel (2021)

If its predecessor The Alligator Bride was an exercise in back-to-basics rock production – “I wanted it to sound like you were just 15 feet in front of the band, on a wooden floor, in a club that’s not that big,” Miller remembers – then The Dharma Wheel is a much bolder project. “The songs are pretty ambitious, and they’re very detailed arrangements,” he continues. “We rehearsed more than seven days on the stuff this time. It wasn’t supposed to be a snapshot, or just feel like a band in a room. It was supposed to feel like a big, produced rock record.” Or three records, in fact – The Dharma Wheel’s deeper examination of the existential and political undercurrents running beneath The Alligator Bride was, in its original incarnation, a triple album. “It became an opus,” nods Miller. “We wrote two hours of music. We were touring a lot, and as we had income coming in, I could pay the band and put money into the studio, so we’d be able to record a two and a half hour record and pull it off.” When the pandemic swerved the band off the road, that income ended and Miller had to pare back his ambitious project. “I had greater schemes about the themes running through it, how the album would be this song cycle, this crazy multi-hour journey. And The Dharma Wheel on its own is pretty epic, so you can imagine how fucking epic the whole thing would have been! With a giant 20-25 minute song suite that ended the thing like Dante’s Inferno, going down through different layers of heaven and purgatory and Hell, musically, and then coming out of it. The whole thing was so ambitious. In the end, financial issues took over… But I like the way The Dharma Wheel boiled down. I knew we had a great record in there already, and hopefully we’ll get the rest of it out there soon enough that people will understand it’s all one statement.”

The Dharma Wheel is out on Friday

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