Howlin RainHowlin' Rain - In the Russian Wilds
By Dave Schwartz

Howliní Rain is a San Francisco band that formed in 2004, when Ethan Miller began searching for a more melodic sound and the ability to express a handful of influences gained while growing up on the ďLost Coast.Ē Miller, then a member of Comets on Fire, recruited a high school band-mate and a drummer and a new band and HowlinĎ Rain was born. Several albums and frequent lineup changes later, Miller has returned with HowlinĎ Rain's latest record, ďRussian Wilds.Ē

Howliní Rainís current lineup is Ethan Miller, Joel Robinow, Rai Ojha, Cyrus Cominsky and Isaiah Mitchell. "Russian Wilds" drops February 14th and recently we had the opportunity to interview Miller and discuss the new album and music in general.

DB: Congratulations on the new record, "Russian Wilds." Itís due out on Valentine's Day, February 14th and Iíve had a chance to listen to some of the MP3s. Youíve put together a diverse and interesting record, why donít you tell me a little about it?

EM: Iím pretty happy to have completed it. Itís been a long creative process and weíre done with the first step, itís complete. The next step is the release and weíre still working all of that.

DB: Yes, you are to the nail biting stage-- waiting for the actual release.

EM: I feel pretty good about it. Actually it just feels good to have it done. The rest of the process should be fun.

DB: So tell me a little bit about the record. How long did it take? Where did you record?

EM: I basically started writing this album while touring on the last record. Out last album, ďMagnificent Fiend,ď was released in March of 2008. We toured for about a year and, in between tours, when at home, I started to write songs for "Russian Wilds." So you could say the journey started four years ago. I started accumulating demos, but the band didnít start working on any of the tracks until we got off the road and then got serious in 2009. So the actual process of the record: band rehearsals, preproduction, going back and forth with Rick [Rubin, record producer and the co-president of Columbia Records] on song selection, arrangements and finally the recording process all took about two years. Itís an awful long time to work on a single project in this accelerated modern era.

DB: Absolutely! How many songs did you actually end up writing?

EM: I donít know. Iím not sure how many I personally wrote. Between full songs and fragments and songs that I reworked, that could be somewhere in the 40-50 range. In the end, we took a demo of 25 or 30 songs to Rick for him to choose from for the record. And that was after we boiled down a whole bunch of material for past years. Youíve got to imagine, I know that youíve listened to "Russian Wilds," some of these songs are nine minutes long. So listening to 25 songs and trying to make selections for an album can be daunting.

DB: Youíve already mentioned the remarkable Rick Rubin. How much of a hand did Rubin have in making "Russian Wilds"? I know he signed you, but heís not listed as the producer of the record.

EM: I think itís fair to say that he executive produced it. He worked closely with Neil on the pre-production stuff. He had a hand in everything we did right up to entering the studio. We went into the studio with Tim Greene and he took up the producer role once we started recording.

DB: I didnít see a name associated with producer and was curious how that all worked. So Greene was the producer.

EM: Yeah, Tim Greene. Heís the guy weíve worked with all along. He did our last couple records.

DB: OK, so heís obviously somebody that you are completely comfortable working with. Heís a familiar hand and knowledgeable of how you work.

Howlin RainEM: Greene and I have a very effortless working relationship, especially on detail work. He likes to get into the details and go through them and thatís nice. He makes a nice foil for Rick, who likes to work on the macro stuff, although we did get him into some detail elements in the pre-production. Greene doesnít mind going into the studio and filling it with 10 hours of snare sounds. Weíre both into that and itís an important part of making a record. You want someone who can resolve small problems in the beginning before they turn into something big. After 10 years of working together on records, there is a great communication between us without having to say a whole lot.

DB: I will share with you that Iím not familiar with your past work. This album is the first that Iíve come across Howliní Rain, so it was important to me to complete due diligence, to listen to "Russian Wilds" in its entirety and vet the interview process. This album, like all others, has obvious musical influences. Itís always been interesting to me to ask if celebrating those influences was an intent, a tip of the hat if you will, or just something that occurs naturally during the writing and recording process.

EM: I donít think anything that you hear, anywhere, with the exception of people making music in caveman times, is a band just being a band. Everyone has been influenced. The most original artists of all times, if you want to claim them to be the Beatles or Hendrix, were all highly influenced. Some of the most successful aspects of their music is the regurgitation or the re-imagining of someone elseís previous work. Some bands like to list their influences, while other bands try to play it more cagey and pretend that Jesus just gave them their great gift and they are the only original. But guess what? Itís all the same. You can try to block outside stimulus, but youíre still a product of your environment. If you try to turn yourself off to modern pop or rock music, youíll find yourself influenced by advertisement jingles and ring tones. Itís already inside of you and, if youíre not careful, those fucking ring tones will start coming out!

DB: God, letís hope not!

EM: How many times have you had something stuck in your head and you canít figure it out? Youíre like, "What is that?" As musicians we tend to say, "Hey I got this new riff and I donít know what it is. Maybe itís a organ riff or something, but itís really cool." Later on you figure out that itís a vocal line from some Madonna thing! You canít throw everything out!

I think that sometimes having a sense of the music you love and then trying to give it a re-imagining is the answer. Iím not talking about stealing the riffs or any of those things. Weíre all just passing along a never ending river of sound.

So to answer your original question, I also like to pretend that I am the one true original! I like to believe that in my best moments, the universe has just given me divine inspiration! In actuality, we may strive for originality, but what we succeed at is authenticity.

DB: I will support your answer by sharing that I am also a musician. Iím 50 and I occasionally have the fortune to jam with my youngest son. And in the throws of our musical passion, I may suddenly kick out a riff that my son will later comment was the coolest thing that heís ever heard. Naturally Iím flattered, but if Iím being honest, it was just "Cat Scratch Fever"! So perhaps itís to our advantage that the world's musical memory is largely generational!

EM: Sometimes itís just a minor embellishment that causes something new and original. I donít know. There are only so many notes, tones and scales. The core elements of music are very simplistic, but lend themselves to very complex arrangements. Really, what it comes down to is how sincerely you voice those ideas. Iím here to tell you that you canít play a new note!

DB: There are a couple songs on the new record, ďSelf Made ManĒ and ďBeneath Wild Wings,Ē that stand out, if for no other reason, for being so different. ďSelf Made ManĒ is psychedelic with a Lenny Kravitz feel and maybe some Black Crows thrown in, while ďBeneath Wild WingsĒ very much reminds me of Crosby, Stills and Nash. The influences on these two songs are so diverse. How did they come to be on the same album?

EM: This kind of comes back to the more simplistic answer to the question before. Those songs come from a powerful emotional and honest place. With a two-year writing cycle, they were written at very different times.

DB: And to be completely fair, Iím not suggesting that you pocketed somebody elseís music. For most, influences can be as simple as an artist playing a couple chords in the same sequence or with the same tonal quality as anyone else. Our minds hear this, intended or otherwise, make note.

EM: Those two songs got onto our record because we liked them. As a band, we are constantly searching and discovering new things. Perhaps if we hadnít written so many tunes and had such a wide selection to chose from the songs would be more closely relatable. I think that the sonics of this album has produced a certain feel. Itís a journey to listen to ďRussian Wilds,ď where the album starts is not where it ends. In many cases these songs are mini-epics, they go through different places, they may start slowly and then go into jams or big codas. Itís all supposed to pull together as a real journey for the listener.

DB: Well Ethan, those are all of my questions, is there anything else that you wish to discuss?

EM: Sure, buy "Russian Wilds" when it comes out and come see us play!

I want to thank Ethan for having the time to speak with us. Heís a complex and interesting man, which is very reflective in his music. Buy "Russian Wilds," you wonít be disappointed.

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