Meditating Americanism: A Conversation with Ethan Miller of Howlin’ Rain.
Over the last dozen or so years, Howlin’ Rain frontman and creative cosmonaut Ethan Miller has carved a wide and prolific niche into the primordial face of literary Rock n’ Roll. Miller is unrivaled in his DIY work ethic. The purveyor of all things neo-psychedelic, Miller runs Silver Current Records and Howlin’ Rain while maintaining a recording and touring schedule with both Feral Ohm and Heron Oblivion.
Howlin’ Rain’s latest album, The Alligator Bride unfolds like a novel. With a melee of weirdo characters lost to unruly adventure, Miller meditates the ever-changing American perspective. Facing crumbling civility with the full poetic heart of the Bay-area, Miller effortlessly re-establishes the necessity of counter-culture folklore in American music.
Ahead of a West Coast tour, Miller and I shared a winding, hour long phone call. With a shared propensity for non-sequiturs and wild tangents, we discussed the craft of writing, the art of recording, the dichotomy of Americanism and the uncertain future of light orbs.
NL: The Glasgow Birds, The Denver Shitter and Other Poems of Musical Life is really cool man. So much new poetry has that same spoken word rhythm. (Ethan Laughs) It was really nice to read something with a unique perspective and cadence.
EM: Nice, thank you. I tried to really study up and go deep on poetry, from ancient poetry to post-modern to modern stuff, the Black Mountain School people, all the way up to Flarf poets (Laughs) and contemporary cutting-edge experimental poetry. That was a nice challenge. I’m glad that you liked it and it stood out from the average open mic slam poetry. (Laughs)
NL: It certainly stands out. You can feel the time put into it, into the experiences and the structure. Has writing always been part of your work or did that develop over time?
EM: I think it was always there. When I was a little kid I would make up stories, write them out and illustrate them, ya know produce something that wasn’t that that far in construct from The Glasgow Birds. Before I could write I would tell them to my Mom and she would write them down. I would illustrate them and we would bind them together and stuff. I think that the talent to write is something that’s probably burned at the heart of what I’ve done all throughout my life. And still, I’m not a competitive guitar player on the level with some slick guitar virtuosos that practices all day ya know? My obsession is with writing music. I try to practice for an hour or two every day but a lot of times, in the depths of practice I end up writing instead. A lot of those hours end up corroding, or eroding into songwriting. The desire to write and the poetic touch is at the heart of it all – my driving force.
NL: It seems like that literary thread of your songwriting has only grown over the years. Was that an intentional evolution, or is it just the natural ebb and flow of that poetic force?
Alligator Bride may be the most-full of my down-and-out rebellious characters of any of the records that I’ve made so far.
EM: I go through phases. Obviously, Mansion Songs had a lot of lyric stuff going on, a lot of poetry, especially a song like Ceiling Fan. It’s basically a big poem that I’m trying to make function in a Rock n’ Roll way, like Patti Smith got away with, or Nick Cave used to get away with it, or still gets away with – a little less verbose these days, but ya know. Ceiling Fan is obviously totally verbose, the second part of that song is more words than can fit in a measure. I had fun with that. It created a unique environment, a unique song. Then for Alligator Bride, I wanted to concentrate on more simplistic rhymes, more simplistic phrasing, how the vowels go together, where the consonants are. But the stories are still there. Alligator Bride may be the most-full of my down-and-out rebellious characters of any of the records that I’ve made so far. It’s chucked full of them and their stores are all in there.
NL: The stories in these songs invoke the literary Rock n’ Roll tradition, they unfold effortlessly like John Lee Hooker or Woody Guthrie – I mean that as a compliment.
EM: Absolutely, I appreciate that. I think some songwriters write universal songs, like I Want to Hold Your Hand, or Baby I Love. Those songs are universal and they don’t have a story. You aren’t writing with characters in that song, you don’t follow the main character and go, wow that’s a dense little world and story. You’re just overwhelmed by, wow that’s the sound of love, I relate to that, I recognize that, it’s my emotion put into a song. Then there are other writers, like you said, John Lee Hooker may tell a story for eleven minutes about a guy going down to the river and killing somebody. That is not a universal execution, it’s a story. I think that I am probably the second, I like to tell stories. It’s how I size up a song.
NL: “Neal Cassidy Rock n’ Roll” is the best style descriptor that I’ve ever come across. It’s a fascinating nod. What is the connection between Cassidy and The Alligator Bride?
Your whole day could be made up of Neal Cassidy type characters doing God knows what kind of adventure/miss-adventure, against all better judgement.
EM: The thing I like about Neal Cassidy rock, the idea of, where does Howlin’ Rain music fit in? By now I understand it doesn’t fit into the main stream, and it doesn’t quite fit into the jam band world, or hippie world. Watching old Grateful Dead footage, or that documentary that came out about Ken Kesey a few years ago, there is a lot of Neal Cassidy, shirtless driving Further the bus and he’s just cranked out of his mind. I always loved those kinds of characters. I grew up in Humboldt and Eureka, there was an endless amount of Kerouacian, Cassidy-esque characters. These weird older wizard guys that you can’t tell if they are druggies, or weed dealers or pedophiles. They could come right out of a Burroughs or a Kerouac book or the outer edges of a Flannery O’Connor thing. Your whole day could be made up of Neal Cassidy type characters doing God knows what kind of adventure/miss-adventure, against all better judgement. They were sort of dark hippies, maybe in and out of jail, not the bright, light side of the tie dye coin ya know? These guys could teach you to do a breaking and entering or something, a little bit of the Manson edge without the killing, kind of institutionalized. I guess I just felt that, more than a utopian vision of hippie vibes or whatever, that Cassidy was a better example. He was beloved by some people but never destined to be the king of the hippies. Again, he was just a verbose storyteller, just cranked out of his mind so the stories just followed. That’s another Burroughs connection, that sort of static storytelling that never stops. Burroughs’ writing in his primo Naked Lunch, Nova Expressera. Its monotone but it’s pretty cranked out, just jive-ass crazy alleyway stories. I guess with the album it’s just what it feels like. It’s a little over-excited. It’s definitely a proto-hippie thing, but it’s a little too jacked up to be hippie as we know it these days.
NL: In some ways I’ve always seen Cassidy kind of lost between the Beats and Punk. The idea of a character, or characters stretched between two worlds feels central to The Alligator Bride, where did that title come from?
EM: Originally, Alligator Bride came from the song. We recorded that song on November 8th 2016, the night of the election just by coincidence. I knew the song was this meditation of Americanism, or what it is to be American, then in 2016. We recorded it that night and the United States had a new trajectory the next morning. That night we saw the election results and things were very different than we thought they’d be. And a whole other layer of that songs and title and resonance opened up to me on the meditation of the American character. I was not pleased with the election results but I was rather thrilled in some small way that I’d written this song that had enough poetry and truth and elasticity and flexibility to be written in one moment about a thing, and then have that thing change and be even more poignant or more resonant.
NL: I think you captured that dichotomous feeling in real time without a date.
We recorded that song on November 8th 2016, the night of the election and the United States had a new trajectory the next morning.
EM: That was maybe the toughest one to try to boil down, the essence of the United States. The vibe and the beauty of the place, the political turmoil, the violence, the unity where it exists and just what a complex thing it is. And play with what it means to be my age, to have lived almost on the edge of an old America and certainly now, for the last ten or fifteen years to have been living in a brand-new America where a line was definitely drawn in the sand with technology. Our parents grew up in a time where radios and televisions and phones in the house were new. They saw somebody land on the moon. They saw the birth of modern technology I was trying to meditate on the swirl of all that. What does all that mean? What does it mean in the same moment to enjoy some beautiful sun shining California day and sip espresso in a beautiful neighborhood while thinking about the Native American Holocaust, while deciding who you are going to vote for in an election with Donald Trump. This shit is crazy ya know? You can’t pin it down or call it one thing. The Alligator Bride had that resonance that you couldn’t quite put your finger on. There is some eternal beauty and horror to it. I found out that there is a lot more to Alligator Bride. In this little village in Mexico the mayor does this ceremony every year with this baby alligator that they put a little wedding dress on and stuff. There is a real Alligator Bride. Also, do you know the poetry book from the 60’s?
(Editor Note: The Alligator Bride by Donald Hall was published in 1969)
NL: No, I don’t know it.
EM: I haven’t read it, but I found that out later. Usually I Google things if I’m going to name a record after it. But I just thought nobody has named jack shit Alligator Bride, but there is some real stuff out there.
NL: I heard that when Dylan named his tour The Rolling Thunder Review he just thought it sounded cool. Later somebody told him that it was a Native American saying for speaking truth. Like, let’s roll thunder, let’s speak truth. It’s interesting how these things travel through time and space with their own meanings.
EM: One of the reasons that I like to write poetically, or I usually don’t say ‘oh it was June 6th 2014’, everything is about the engagement of the imagination with an audience. That’s really when sparks are flying and I want it to be whatever it is to someone else. I’ve done my part and I left it open enough that, ya know, probably nobody is going to mistake it for a song about a tech company or something, but as far as – or maybe they will – I left it pretty open, I even kind of said what it was a meditation on but that still encompasses all the history and country that we live in. I like music that’s wide open so that people can bask in the mystery a little bit and let their imaginations run away with them. I think that’s the real joy of music. It’s what I love so much about Van Morrison or Steely Dan or Patti Smith lyrics ya know?
NL: Absolutely. One of my favorite lyrics of the album is, “You can buy a pistol but you can’t buy a thrill” from Wild Boys. It also has some of my favorite characters, all facing the edge of the known world in their own way. Where did that story come from?
EM: The general character stuff is taken from The Wild Boys by William Burroughs. There is some stuff in there like “Joselito shaving his silken chest in the wind”, I don’t think those are Burroughs exact words but the imagery is taken right out of his book. I was just tickled by it, here’s Burroughs fantasizing about some young Mexican buck out by the fountain in some small Mexican town shaving his chest. (Laughs) I kind of transplanted that to San Bernardino County, ya know those weird towns at the edge of the world. The colossus Los Angeles great metropolitan area just goes on forever. By the time you hit Riverside, you’re fucking hours from LA and you’ve just been driving through one megalopolis suburban sprawl. There is something that has always been very fascinating and poignant to me about the way that finally crumbles into dust and desert. Then you head out and there are a few more weird towns out there, Joshua Tree or Palm Desert or whatever. Then you are in the fucking Mojave and Death Valley and then you are really out there. I wanted to transplant Burroughs’ galavanting from Mexico to a place that represented the final erosion of civilization into the wild. The lyrics are also a little pointed towards shit house rats like political stuff that was going on as we led up to the election and just going, what the fuck is all this ya know? Just playing with this concept of rats and cats and who is chasing who? Who is guiding who? What’s going on with the vermin and the predators?
NL: The Alligator Brideis the second of the Mansion Trilogy, what inspired the idea for a trilogy?
EM: The trilogy was something that I kind of put together in my mind to help me get through it. After The Russian Wildsand Live Rain, I started working with Eric Bauer at the Mansion in San Francisco, which is a basement studio in China Town. It’s not an actual mansion FYI.
Here is what the band sounds like when you are ten feet in front of it.
NL: (Laughs) Off the record right?
EM: (Laughs) No, no, on the record if you’d like. I always think that’s funny. It’s a basement in China Town but it’s a mansion of imagination in the mind for sure. Initially, my band was gone, the record label was gone, my normal partner in engineering and production was in a different place and I was kind of like, at a blank slate. I found that invigorating but also a little bit scary ya know? What the fuck am I going to do? I kind of envisioned this concept of the Mansion Trilogy; I’d do three records at the Mansion and the first one (Mansion Songs) would be all the way zeroed out. A lot of those songs are me working them out at the studio, sometimes that day, I’d written them that morning, it was very poetic and rough around the edges, a lot are first takes. Heron Oblivion ended up coming in and being the backing band for a lot of it. We didn’t rehearse the songs, one of them that’s on the record I didn’t even show them, I said it’s in the key of G, ya know? We kept the first take of it without them even knowing anything about it. So, I was really going for that kind of thing, trying to capture the moment of creation over and over again. I thought the Mansion Trilogy will be interesting if I start from complete deconstruction and then put a band back together as I go. The albums will be this linear trajectory of this band coming back together. The second will be like half deconstructed, like you can hear the band forming and the third will be an ultimate Rock ’n Roll record again. I kind of feel like the band got hot and we sort of jumped the second concept. I feel like The Alligator Bride was a pretty great rock record so the third one may end up being a blend of both. I didn’t feel that I was done with that Ceiling Fan type literary expression. I’m not quite sure what the third one’s going to be yet but I have quite a bit of material for it. Some of it is even recorded. There are things that were supposed to be on Mansion Songs or Alligator Bride that are some of my favorite things that I’ve ever done but for whatever reason didn’t fit the flow of either of those records.
NL: You can definitely hear the joy of the band, the synergy that happens when people are sincerely in the moment, and really playing together.
EM: I’ve been really into that lately, that’s what I want to hear. We did that with the first Heron Oblivion record, we did that with the Live and the first Feral Ohms record, and then we did it with Alligator Bride. By the time we got to Alligator Bride I’d done those other three records and we’d fucked with them so little. It’s like, here is what the band sounds like when you are ten feet in front of it. People seem to really love that, I really love it, and I kind of said, without putting any rules on myself, that’s a great way to make a record. It’s not tedious. It’s not very time consuming. You just rehearse like a son of a gun and then perform as best you can.
NL: You definitely hear how unique each moment is that way, each group, each album, you can hear the unique moment in time. I think that is the most interesting thing that art can be – unique to its moment.
When you hear that snap shot of a band playing, something happens beyond anyone’s imagination.
EM: Absolutely, when you do a lot of studio work, when you make a Sgt. Peppers or something, what ends up being the product is the artist’s imagination. That album is as good as the artist’s imagination. There’s not a lot of incredible performances on Sgt. Peppers, the takes they used sound like a good take but it probably doesn’t matter a ton if they use that first take or the second take once all the different hullabaloo goes over it to create that big studio album. When you hear the other thing, when you hear that snap shot of that band playing, something happens beyond anyone’s imagination. That Polaroid picture got taken of that sort of light ghost. There’s the three people and there is that weird fucking light ghost above them, and nobody knows what that is. It’s just like some weird thing happened right there. That light ghost definitely goes away once you bring in the big cinematic studio experience. Then you are dealing with how profound the artist’s imagination is and the expression of that. But I love the spooky, spine tingling light ghost thing, the What the fuck is that?
NL: The light orbs certainly won’t survive Photoshop. (Laughs)
EM: Well, yes, (Laughs) that’s a whole other conversation but yes that’s right. Somebody won’t even think its special. It’s just, “What’s that? Get rid of it.”
(Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length.)
*Photography by Kristy Walker
Catch Howlin’ Rain on the West Coast in January
Jan. 9 – Vancouver, BC – The Astoria
Jan. 10 – Bellingham, WA – The Firefly Lounge
Jan. 11 – Seattle, WA – Sunset Tavern
Jan. 12 – Portland, OR – Doug Fir
Jan. 13 – Bend, OR – Volcanic Theatre Pub
Jan. 14 – Reno, NV – Loving Cup
Jan. 15 – Sacramento, CA – Harlow’s
Jan. 16 – San Diego, CA – The Casbah
Jan. 17 – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo
Jan. 18 – Santa Cruz, CA – Catalyst Atrium
Jan. 19 – San Francisco, CA – The Independent