Photo: Hilary Hulteen
Inspired by the sound of wolves in a storm, Howlin Rain come from deep within the Great Smoky Mountains. Living off trout and wildflowers, the band would spend most of their days honing their chops and learning to survive on the bare necessities, which came in handy when they started touring. Now, some will tell you that none of that is true. They’ll have you believe the group was actually formed in Oakland, CA in 2004 by vocalist/guitarist Ethan Miller, frontman of the now-defunct group Comets on Fire. But, let’s be honest, that story doesn’t seem plausible. The band’s amalgamation of psychedelic and ’70s rock is a sound that can only be successfully achieved after a lot of stargazing and river-bathing.
As we discuss below in our interview with Ethan, Howlin Rain’s new full-length, ‘The Russian Wilds,’ ended up taking a little longer than usual to make. We’d all like to blame those damn tricky mountain lions in some way or another, but they had nothing to do with it. After hammering out a lot of the general details during pre-production with rock demigod Rick Rubin, who signed the group to his American Recordings label, the band hopped into the studio with producer/engineer Tim Green, a frequent collaborator. ‘The Russian Wilds’ became a soulful, bluesy, enigmatic, and anomalous collection of tracks. It’s something you’ll want to blast through your speakers, but the need to see it live might infest you like it did with us. Still, as Ethan tells it, “They’re totally different entities.”
Keep reading to learn more about the band’s new LP, relationship with Rick Rubin, and ongoing tour. As an added bonus, we also have a clip with artist Arik Roper at the end. He explains his inspiration behind the cover art for ‘The Russian Wilds’ and how he went about designing it.
You guys just got into town.
Yes, we did. We got into town on Sunday night. On Monday, we did some promo shit and an intimate and lovely performance at The Living Room Bar, which Sirius XM taped for a broadcast. It was fun. We don’t always get to play acoustic sets like that. Sometimes we get to play songs that we don’t have in the set anymore because they need an acoustic guitar, even some old faves that aren’t quite right when they’re fully electric. It was a nice opportunity to do those.
Cool. On the new record, you have a few horns. You don’t bring the horns on the road with you, right?
No, we don’t bring them. No horns.
Who played the horns on the record?
Erik Jekabson played trumpet and flugelhorn, Scott Knippelmeir played trombone, and Matt Waters played saxophone. Those guys are great; they’re all great players. Scott and Matt also played on ‘Magnificent Fiend.’ Joel [Robinow, keyboardist] played most of the trumpet on ‘Magnificent Fiend,’ but since then his trumpet broke and he was a little out of practice. [laughs] Playing trumpet is not like riding a bike. Some of the performances were demanding on those guys. The trumpet solo in “Phantom in the Valley” is off the fucking charts.
Totally. Did the horn players arrange their own parts?
No, Joel and I did the root of that. We put some of the arrangements together, or we just gave them the key. We didn’t give them demos or anything first. For “Phantom in the Valley,” we said something like, “Here’s the key, it’s descending, and it’s sort of Latin.” I love seeing that shit come together with the guys in the studio. They were hanging around, blowing on it, and we’re going, “Play a Latin feel there!” [mimics trumpet playing] “Hang on, that’s great guys, but do it with more of a mariachi feel! Bend those notes down at the end; make them weep.” [mimics more horn playing][laughs] That’s great.
Yeah, that’s a fave when that shit happens. Erik did the same thing with his solo. He was like, “Okay, I haven’t played salsa in a while, especially in this key.” But he just let it rip. I was like, “Whoa!” After the first or second take, he said, “Did I go for it too hard?” And I was like, “No, go ahead and go for it as hard as you want.”
Sometimes we would get the keyboard out before the guys came over. Me, Joel, and Tim [Green] would sit around with a fucking midi thing doing that shit. [mimics horn parts while tapping on an invisible keyboard] Then, they would take what we came up with and improve upon it. We know what we want, in general. We’ll put it together in a loose sense and then let the fucking professionals dial it in from there.
How are you feeling about taking the new material on the road?
Good. The album’s got its own thing. It ended up being a crystallization of three to four years of work and the cause of no small level of obsession, as well as some serious highs and lows. There were moments when [we felt like] we were in the middle of a desert: too far to go back and survive, but the end seemingly too far away to survive too. The things that you call upon to push through those moments create a little neurosis and psychosis and every other -osis that could go on in your brain. [chuckles] At the end, you’re just clawing through the fucking thing and saying, “God damn, we made it. We fucking made it.” Maybe you’ll die the week after, but you fucking did it.
Anyway, obviously, we have to reimagine some of this stuff [when playing it live]. How do you play “Phantom in the Valley” without the horns and stuff? Well, that’s easy. That’s a fun challenge. You just have to do a little reinvention without giving away the feel of it. And man, we’ve been in the fucking cave working on our chops and working on the tunes and making a record for way too long. The energy that’s ready to hit the stage is a lot. That’s where you gauge everything for real. The way an album interacts in the world, whether it be on Facebook or people writing you an email, is fairly abstract — any actual engagement is totally abstract. But, when you get on stage, that’s as real as it gets, and that’s what we’re after.
Do you prefer one over the other? Do you enjoy playing live more than being in the studio?
Well, it’s funny because everyone always says, “Fuck, I want to get out of the studio and get on the stage,” but at the end of a nine-month tour cycle, everyone’s like, “I love the studio; you can be so creative there; it’s just a grind out here.” All that shit just takes some physicality and mentality. Your intellect, your artistic creative source — it’s all taxing once you pile it up like that for too long. And they’re totally different entities. Other than guys holding instruments and trying to bang out tunes, it’s not anything alike. With one of them, you’re making the most crazy, mind-bending, critical theory thing, where you’re making music for machines to interpret and reinterpret for reproduction by other machines for people to then evaluate through another fucking machine — that’s a trip. With the live experience, you smell it, you see it — you’re using every sense. But, there’s no perfection in the live setting, and there’s no un-immediacy, which can sometimes be a very powerful thing on an album. I don’t know. The answer is: both. And, these days, you gotta do both — you can’t have one without the other. You can make albums, but nobody’s gonna buy them if you don’t go out there and do something. I can think of only a tiny handful of artists who have done that.
On that same token, only certain bands, like the Pixies, can go out whenever they want.
So can Radiohead or U2, because they were hugely influential acts. I’ll tell you what, if the Pixies tour hard this year and next, they’re going to have to drop a record to keep doing it, otherwise they’ll be back to the clubs.
That’s probably true, and maybe they will. Are D. Charles Speer & the Helix with you on this whole tour?
Only on the East Coast. On the West Coast, we’re playing with a Seeds-esque, ’60s group called the Allah-Las. They’re cool. We’re doing SXSW with The Shrine. They’re a cool group, too. They play a sort of Black Flag meets Motörhead thing. And we’ll be playing with some other guys along the way, like the Buffalo Killers in the Midwest.
Cool. Let’s talk about the new record. What kind of relationship do you have with Rick Rubin?
We’ve got a good relationship. He first contacted me out of the blue in 2007 or so. I was still playing in Comets on Fire, and he was a fan of that. I’d done the first Howlin Rain record, and he read an interview in Arthur Magazine or something like that and heard about Howlin Rain, checked it out, and was turned on by the whole idea. He literally contacted me out of the blue. He emailed me something like, “What’s up? This is Rick. You wanna hang out sometime? See ya later.” And I did. We talked about working together and went forward from there. We whipped out an album really quick… [laughs][laughs] 4 years later?
5 and a half years after that conversation! Rick is probably a genius when it comes to the way his ear and mind is able to cut through things. I don’t want to say he hears things in a child-like way. I think he hears things in a way that people have lost. At some point, you start to talk with your friends, or you read Pitchfork or something, and you realize something you liked isn’t so cool. You’re like, “Fuck, I thought Stone Temple Pilots was cool, but all my hip friends hate them.” It’s hard for that not to affect you. With Rick, he doesn’t seem to have that.
He insulates himself from that somehow?
I don’t know. I don’t know if he tries or what. Also, he was so young when he got his start, and he had such a powerful effect. The things he was involved in at the fucking birth of his career — I think after the first two years that he tried making some records and it turned out to change the fucking history of music, he probably was like, “I’m not listening to no fucking blog. I’m pretty sure I got the fucking opinion here.”[laughs] Right.
By whatever means, he’s got a real honest way of working through stuff like that. It’s an intimate experience to know someone who is honest with you in that way when you’re working on songs. He wasn’t a tyrant about the stuff we worked on; he was just like, “That’s my opinion. My part of the work is to give you my opinion, and you do with it what you will.” Part of the thing with this album was that engagement with him. I wanted to follow through on that. We started this work as a partnership and fairly well ended it that way. Of course, there were some ups and downs.
I’ve heard different accounts of how Rick handles himself in the studio. Some say he’s really hands-on, while others say he just likes to sit on the couch and stroke his beard. What was your experience with him like?
He didn’t go into the studio with us. He and I worked very intensely on pre-production together for those couple of years. Well, maybe not intensely — I would go down and we would do sessions together. Some of them were very detailed. I think that’s just his jam. I’m not sure if that has to do with how interested he is in what’s going on; sometimes maybe he gets the sense that what the band is doing, details aren’t going to fix — it’s just off. Sometimes I’d give him a song and he’d say, “I didn’t like that at all.” Other times, he’d say, “I really liked it, but let’s take a look at that pre-chorus again. There’s a word in there that sounded off to me.” Everybody’s got an idiosyncratic way of doing it.
Let’s discuss the album artwork a bit.
We just fucking had Arik Roper standing right there!
That was Arik?
Yeah. Should I text him and see if I can get him down here to talk about it really quick?
[sends Arik a text] Let’s see if he gets this.
Have you been working with him for a while?
Yeah, every album. He did a Comets on Fire poster on some tour way back when. I really love his art. We’ve been working together ever since the first Howlin Rain record. Same with Tim Green. Once we were done with pre-production, Tim Green came in. Rick said he loved the way the last record sounded and that his schedule is fucking nuts for the next nine months, why not go up to the Bay Area and work with Tim? So then Tim took over production in the studio. There’s been a nice package deal with that. No matter how much Howlin Rain’s grown or where it’s gone, we’ve worked with Arik Roper and Tim Green on the first album, second album, and third album.
Pick up Howlin Rain’s new album, The Russian Wilds.
For the band’s upcoming tour dates, check out their website.