Howlin Rain: Mercy Sweet Moan


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Mercy Sweet Moan:
Magnificent Fiends, Rick Rubin and SXSW with Ethan Miller
04.08.2008
Words by Martin Halo

Austin, Texas — The Bay area surrounding San Francisco, California stands as the epicenter for the finest musical expressions that litter America’s great Wild West. The folkies are alive and well, the jam bands are still heavily influenced by the ever-ambitious nature of the Grateful Dead, and in the case of Ethan Miller his projects are reaching deep into the belly of the psychedelic beast.

It’s more than just rock n’ roll from a time long gone; it is a reinterpretation of the blistering hypnotic power of soul music. The story of Howlin’ Rain manifested itself from the blossoming ashes of Comets of Fire and Six Organs of Admittance, projects that Northern Cali native Ethan Miller unveiled simultaneously. Comets steam was blowing hard with three full-length pressings, backed by Sub Pop Records, earning mass critical acclaim for its noise-pop nature and face-melting acid flashback injection. Six Organs stayed under the radar, but what proved to be the sleeping masterpiece was the howl buried within the rain.

“Rick Rubin sent me an email out of the blue which said: ‘Hi. This is Rick Rubin. Do you want to hang out sometime? Peace,’” says Ethan Miller as he shares a laugh.

It was Rubin, the clandestine music industry veteran that brought Howlin Rain to Def American Recordings, before eventually sharing the distribution duties with Birdman and Columbia.

“That is how Rick Rubin and I met,” Miller explains. “It was just a random no fireworks kind of email. The album, Magnificent Fiend, was mostly done by the time he got involved. I went to his place to get some mastering notes in terms of bringing tones up or down, and Rick helped me re-sequence the record. In the end he was dead on. I didn’t think I had it put together in a way that wasn’t flowing very well. You just do that sometimes, for whatever reason you don’t see the big picture.”

Miller’s vocal draw and coastal nature takes all the tension out of each conversation, as he prepares to knock down his morning coffee on the eve of the concluding weekend at SXSW. His band had a week of performances that culminated on  Saturday Night, which drew Rolling Stone Magazine veteran David Fricke and Creem Magazine founder Jaan Uhelski.

“The record is called Magnificent Fiend, and for it I decided to start a new regimented schedule of writing. That was something that was a little different about this project. I would wake up; throw down a cup of coffee and put bulk time aside. Go through it the old Hemingway style,” as Miller begins to joke, “just kind of sitting in the corner in your underwear plugging away.”

“I’m trying to work a little more closely with the subversive chambers which reside in more traditional song writing and dealing with the architecture of melody and harmony. Rather than trying to find transgression through radical methods, the experimentation for this record came from more traditional approaches to songwriting.”

Upon dropping the needle onto the face of Magnificent Fiend, a Miles Davis inspired trumpet burst screams out of the speakers. It rattles the senses. The airy ambiance behind it serves as a simmer for the brass footsteps to scamper across the palette. The piece dangles on a cliff before launching into the full-fledged rock enterprise “Dancers at the End of Time Pt. 1.” Its title is “Requiem.”

“I’d figured I had all this music there should be an intro to it. I was just thinking a little synth or a little horn. So I asked Joel Robinow [keys/horns] and he made this little melody. We went outside and he laid down the initial piano progression which would lead into ‘Dancers At The End of Time.’  That is what was going on under the trumpet.”

“Somebody laid Joel’s acoustic guitar down. We were shot gunning beers,” Miller  laughs. “We tracked all the songs in one day and in the excitement I backed up and knocked over the guitar. It shattered, it was a terrible moment. I think Joel was so shocked he started downing Whiskey really hard and pretty quick. He then walked to the mic and laid down the trumpet line that you hear on the record.”

“It wasn’t Requiem then; it’s called Requiem for a fallen axe.”


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Ethan Miller:
“I am not sure what it is exactly that makes people better musicians or compels them to live for rock n’ roll. I don’t know what it could be except for the spiritual or metaphysical side of music. It is about engaging with people, or primal communication. There is something gripping about making records and having people live and die by them. Having your music help people laugh, love, and make it through tough times is an indescribable feeling.”



“What keeps me going?” Miller pauses before his response. “I am not sure what it is exactly that makes people better musicians or compels them to live for rock n’ roll. I don’t know what it could be except for the spiritual or metaphysical side of music. It is about engaging with people, or primal communication. There is something gripping about making records and having people live and die by them. Having your music help people laugh, love, and make it through tough times is an indescribable feeling.”

“Then there is that whole other side of it, where if you stop playing music for a few weeks you go into a drastic and violent depression. You become physically sick,” he says with a chuckle. “I think the whole music junkie thing is true, I think that is how you can tell weekend warriors from the others. There are people that just can’t stand not to do it. It becomes something that keeps their blood flowing.”

Music junkies are magnificent fiends of soul sacrificing expression. They are conduits to a world of primal healing and indigenous gyrations. They are the essence of the human core.

“If there is not sincerity in music than what is the point,” he says. “That goes for all art. Why would you even give your time and energy dealing with insincere art or music? When people are honest and they bare their souls, I think it is just like great literature or great film. We are looking into the consciousness of somebody else. You are looking into their spirit and soul and we want to see how that resonated with our own consciousness. I think we crave to find out more about the things that we don’t fully understand. It is the human nature, the human heart, and the human mind,” an eloquent verse from the Bay Area rock patriarch.

“Music specifically is powerful to me, more so than just viewing a painting. It is something that you can visualize and the sound resonates inside of your body. It is an art form that gets inside of your air passages, your ears, and your nose. The vibrations of the music can get into your chest and actually realign your heartbeat with the pulse of the song. As a medium there is something so powerful about the way music engages the viewer and the listener.”

www.howlinrain.com

TheWaster.com | SXSW
04.08.2008