Ethan Miller is stoked. His band, Howlin Rain, is in the middle of recording its third album with none other than label head Rick Rubin serving as the project's producer. Add to that the fact that the band is going to be playing a hometown gig for the first time in nearly a year and be doing it with a few lineup changes on top of that. "The last time we played Oakland was at a house party," Miller explains. "We've got our heads down, working really hard on writing and trying not to be distracted. We've got a few summer festival gigs in Europe but we're trying to lay low from playing live. That said, it's nice to get out and keep the wheel turning a little bit and test a couple of new songs live. There's also a little revamping and realigning of the sound."
That realigning would be the addition of new drummer Raj Ohja and the departure of guitarist Mike Jackson. It's just the latest evolutionary step for Howlin Rain, whose roots can be traced to Miller's first band, Comets on Fire. Known for its extensive use of Echoplex, often rendering vocals unintelligible amid clattering psychedelic freak outs that fell somewhere between Hawkwind and Blue Cheer, Comets earned themselves touring slots alongside fellow noise rockers Sonic Youth and Mudhoney. And while the Santa Cruz outfit ended up getting its fair share of critical acclaim and a sweet label deal with Sub Pop, the democratic nature of the creative process found Miller yearning for a more personally driven project. "We were having a great time in Comets, but we were kind of confined by some of the members' jobs and/or families. It was a really slow process writing music and getting stuff done with Comets, even though it was a really rewarding one," Miller says. "I wanted to have something that could kind of have a single leader and flow a little more to my own pace. Eventually, I think it kind of took over for me at least and became where I wanted to focus my energies."
Those energies yielded Howlin Rain, a group with more of a melodic tenor whose 2006 self-titled debut rings with the kind of tie-dyed country rock the Dead and the New Riders were dabbling with back in the early 1970s. And while Comets continues in a kind of indefinite hiatus that was solely interrupted by the band's appearance at Sub Pop's 20th Anniversary show last year, Howlin Rain recorded its sophomore effort Magnificent Fiend. Now signed to Rubin's American Recordings, Miller and company upped the ante significantly with the addition of Joel Robinow, a Santa Cruz acquaintance he knew from the band Drunk Horse. By adding this multi-instrumentalist with an impressive mastery of the Hammond B-3 organ to the mix, the dynamic of Miller's band changed to that of an acid-rock, groove machine that evokes images of Steppenwolf and the Brothers Johnson breaking bread with Melanie. Songs like "Dancers at the Edge of Time" find Miller's Axl Rose-like yowl wrapped in distorted riffs and pumping organ runs that give way to "Lord Have Mercy," a slice of cosmic gospel music that eventually explodes into a joyous mix of unbridled choral accompaniment and potent shredding.
With this kind of an eclectic and earthy vibe going on, it's no wonder that an iconoclast like Rick Rubin would be intrigued enough to work with Howlin Rain. It's a welcome and challenging development for Miller, an admitted Type A personality who needed to adjust to his label boss' approach — one that dictated not worrying about hitting specific recording and release dates, instead focusing on getting the songs right with the players. "It's a little unnerving not to have dates on the calendar or anything," Miller admitted. "But when I realized that we're trying to make the best record we've ever made and have an opportunity to go well beyond what we've ever been able to do because we're without these time constraints, I realized that if I'm working at McDonald's in a few years, at least I've taken time in my life to just cool that shit out and try and make an incredible record."
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