Formed in 2004, Howlin’ Rain are connoisseurs of the soulful sounds of California circa 1969 – the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Little Feat – albeit salted with an extra dose of psychedelic bite. During the late ’00s, the San Francisco-based quintet got an unexpected windfall when it caught the ear of record producer Rick Rubin (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Johnny Cash), who not only offered to produce their next record, but also signed them to his label, American Recordings
.And then… four years went by. But now Howlin’ Rain has finally reemerged with a new LP, “The Russian Wilds” due out on Valentines Day. With the band performing at Red Palace on Friday, guitarist and singer Ethan Miller recently chatted with the Click Track about the record, Rubin, and why it’s hard for a bunch of working stiffs to make an album on an Adele-style schedule.
It’s been four years between your last album “Magnificent Fiend” and “The Russian Wilds.” Where have you guys been?
I don’t know what the deal is exactly with that. It’s one of those things. Your whole life can be like this if you’re not careful. One minute you’re collecting old newspaper scraps from Pearl Harbor from the late ’40s, and then suddenly 20 years go by. Luckily, our obsession stopped at the four-year mark.
But really, what took so long?
Let me lay it out: We toured “Magnificent Fiend” for about a year. When I got home, I thought, ‘What can I do to prepare for this next record to make it go more quickly?’ Write songs. So, I began my part of the songwriting process then. Also, once we came off the road in 2009, that current lineup of the group was breaking apart. It boiled down to just me and Joel [Robinow] and we had to put a new group together. That’s always a trial. We took our time to make sure we got incredible guys who we liked as people. And then we began rehearsing the record. At the time, I was still going back and forth to Los Angeles to meet with Rick. And then we worked all these tunes that Rick and I were going through. All of this stuff too a second to do. Rick pushes you to [write] a lot of songs. Howlin’ Rain songs aren’t just tiny little songs, either. To put 30 or 40 songs on the table takes a lot of time because they’re these crazy ten-minute epic things. And then, in that long span of time, at any given point, things could be going smoothly with Rick and then he’d disappear for a while. That was happening here and there at inconvenient moments.
All of that stuff starts adding up. And on top of that, you start forming a mild to severe obsession about how long it’s been. It starts to consume your whole life. You start becoming kind of a little crazy about it as a survival instinct. I mean normal bands at our level, that don’t have a lot of financial means, usually just disintegrate when they try to make things happen over long periods of time.
I mean, nobody in their right mind wants to work on a record for that long. Especially when they’re just starving artists collectively working on one project for four years. Then we got it done, but we just couldn’t quite get it out under the wire during the dead time Christmas. All these little pieces create this gigantic period of time extension. It became this glacial thing — it’s too big, but it’s still moving. It just keeps moving a little farther and a little farther. That’s the messed up thing, just looking around and seeing the world change. Band’s careers came and went. You’d become a fan of somebody and see them release two albums and a couple of 7”s and have a successful arc and fall out of music history and you’re still there pushing on this glacier. And it’s threatening to crush you.
Rubin is the guy who revitalized Johnny Cash’s career and got Anthony Kiedis, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to write “Under the Bridge.” In short: A heavy, mystical rock and roll presence. What was that like?
The artistic portion of the work is very rewarding. He’s very honest about the music that you’re working on. When you’re opening up into a deep place for your songwriting, it’s a very intimate place. It’s a place where you can easily be damaged by other people. Artistically speaking, Rick is honest to the point where you feel very quickly that you can rely on his musical opinion. He does sit on the inside of the project. He can say, ‘Try a phaser, that might be a cool effect.’ But he also listens to the core of the song. He can turn all that [technical stuff] off and ask himself, ‘Is this really just igniting me on all levels?’ It’s very interesting to have feedback from somebody like that. You don’t feel like somebody is just kissing up to you and you don’t feel like somebody is trying to attack you.
How did you go about working together?
We’d demo songs, he’d listen to them and then he’d give and initial assessment with his eyes closed. Maybe he’d be grooving. Or not. Whatever. First thing, he’d say usually, there’d be one of kind of three extremes: ‘I kind of hated that one, lets move on’ or ‘That one’s great.’ Or sometimes something in between: ‘I really liked the chorus and liked this part, but a whole lot that needs to be fixed there.’ He did a lot of deep, classic producer work – ‘Check out the lead after the chorus, the chord not quite enough suspense. Make it a Dylan-esque moment.’ If I would ever say, ‘I was trying to do this one with a poppy edge,’ he’d say to stop thinking about those things, that your best stuff is going to come from a place you can’t control. He’d tell you to open up and produce your music without thinking about it. I think all songwriters say that their favorite stuff that happens when they just can’t stop a thing from coming out. You know, when you’re scribbling out words and chords and then, suddenly, you banged out a tune. You can’t do that on command. You just get those moments and then write everything else as best you can.
Howlin’ Rain’s sound has changed considerably between the last record and this one. You guys are lot more easygoing now. “The Russian Wilds” has a lot of lightly funky moments – not in the slap-bass sense, but in the Little Feat, bluesy swagger sense. Was that a conscious move?
Most of what you’re hearing, thinking back, I can say that it was kind of a Rick influence. Initially, I was trying to do all these heavy Deep Purple-type songs. Rick said, ‘These are cool and stuff, but I miss the funky edge. There’s nothing funky about this song -- it’s heavy, it’s fast, it’s got some Viking style, but I love the harmonies and that funky thing.’ It made me stop and think for a second. Even though we worked hard on that batch of songs, in my quest to keep changing and challenging the other guys, I thought, ‘I gotta be careful with going too far with that and becoming a chameleon.’ That was the point where I started trying to pull back and not let genre guide things as much.
Wait, you wrote a whole separate record that was discarded?
Oh, yeah. We discarded records and records worth of songs. The final song demos – everything written over the past two-and-a-half years – when you put it together, it’s about two 75-minute CDs-full.
So you’re finally done. What do you do now?
That’s the irony. No matter how long you’re making a record and pretending to be like a character from “Moby Dick” or something, in this game you release the record and then you get in the van and go do the gigs. You hope that successful things happen and you can continue making records. I feel, I hope, and by God, if I have anything to say or do about it, this kind of long-haul album making is a chapter that happens once in our lives. Maybe if someday I’ve got the funding, taking four years is a very convenient way to make a record — when everything is comfortable, when everybody is getting paid, and you’re not so far out of a cycle that people aren’t incredibly interested in booking your band.
Very literally, bands try to pursue the album cycles that they do in order to continue engaging with press, the fans, everybody. You buy an album, put it at the front of the stack and then it drifts off. After a couple of years it’s maybe in a box. You can see why people don’t want that to happen, professionally. Just as the buzz is just fading, you hit them with the new one and re-spark that thing. At the same time, I also believe that when you live by those cycles – when you make a record, take four months to set it up, and then it comes out, and then you try to keep that 12-to-14 month cycle going business-wise, a lot of time you find the albums don’t matter as much. In the new model of survival, very often, the album is just a tool to keep the talking points going. In that light, I’m very proud and very sure that we did something that completely and obsessively and sacrificially honored great album making. We honored the idea that an album is an icon, a fetish. It’s the thing that a band or a musician lives to do. It’s their novel. But I’m sure over the next ten years you’ll see us engaging in some yearly album cycles.