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Interview with Ethan Miller from Howlin Rain

Howlin Rain plus The Soft Bombs are performing at the Miners Foundry Friday, May 25.  If you love the 70’s classic rock, Americana sound, we highly recommend checking out these two bands.  We caught up with Howlin Rain’s front man Ethan Miller this week by phone from his home in Oakland, CA, to hear what has been going on with the band since they played the Foundry last summer.

MF:  What’s new?
Ethan:  Just chilling out, playing some music around the house, and planning some festival runs for the summer.

Didn’t you guys just get back from a US tour?
Yea, it was pretty intense, the whole US, but it was good to get back out there; to go out and grind like that.

How was SXSW?
SXSW, it’s creepy crazy, we played six shows in the first 32 hours we were there.

Your 5th and latest album “The Russian Wilds” (produced by Rich Rubin and released on Rubin’s American Recordings an imprint of Columbia Records) was four years in the making.  How did you stay focused and dedicated to the process?
Obsession I guess.  I’ve never not finished a record, or seen something like that through.

What did you learn about this album?
It has been three-four years since my last album, and I’ve learn 10 times more about songwriting in these last years than I have in my whole 10 plus years of playing music. Some of the lessons were cynical things you don’t want to deal with when you are making art, like when a lot of people get involved and how things can go wrong, but the lessons I’ve learned I’ll take with me the rest of life.

What’s up with Rick Rubin?  What’s he like in real life?
He’s a fascinating character.  He has a huge mystical presence like many people who have reputations that precede them.

How did your songwriting evolve or change on this album?
It was a new way of working for me. I’ve been working so fast, starting with Comets, that I’d write just 8-9 songs, 4-5 songs started with some guitar riffs, and the songs would go on the album.  This time we wrote 150 songs.  There are cds and harddrives of this stuff, because Rick wanted a lot of music.  And then when you have that much to work with, you get into a situation where you have to learn how to not second guess what you perceive to be valuable, it is a whole other process.

What else did you work on?
In that three-four years since the last album came out I’ve worked hard on my singing.  I had to find ways to save my voice.  I come from the Comets (Comets on Fire, one of Ethan’s first bands) hard knocks of vocals where I was screaming my vocals out.  Drinking beers and screaming your head off at 21, you can do that, but as you get older, there is more of a chance for long-term damage.  I found I could sing and sound like me; I can do wild screams without tearing open my voice box.   I began doing exercises and my voice has strengthened and we were able to investigate deeper into harmonics structures.  Now with Joel, Isaiah and I, there are three part harmonies.

Producer/Musician Tim Green (also a new resident to Nevada County) helped finish the album when Rick went MIA.  What did Tim bring to the record?
Tim made us sing.   So there are some pretty much pitch perfect harmonies. Tim has perfect pitch.  On the other records we didn’t have time, so the vocals sound rougher.  On the new one they are pretty much flawless, we went over and over them.  I’m not doing that again, it was brutal (laughing).  Tim really wanted to hear them shinning like single beams of light.  Tim engineered and took over the production and the actual recording of the album.  Rick did the pre production stuff.  It was great working with Tim, after all these years of knowing and working with one another; a lot of things don’t need to be said.  Tim’s very detailed orientated, which made a nice foil comparing their roles on this album.  Rick can be very abstract and aloof, and at the same time his ideas can be brilliant and of course his ears are genius.  Tim helped the project gain momentum, when he came on there was a nice burst of energy, and we thought, okay cool, we are on the right track, the train is roaring.

Do you feel like you are different person now after making this album?
I believe our life is made up of changes, there is the beginning and the end and everything else in the middle is what makes us.

After we hung up with Ethan, we quickly Facebooked producer and musician Tim Green for him to weigh in on the making of Howlin Rain’s “The Russian Wilds”.

MF: You’ve worked with a lot of musicians and bands, how is Ethan and Howlin’ Rain different or unique?
Tim Green:  Besides being an incredible singer and musician, Ethan has the patience, determination and trust in me to sing one line of a song for an hour- or however long it takes til we get something amazing. The same can be said of all the guys in the band. They’re all superstars in their own right. I’ve worked on records with all of them in different bands over the years and they’re really the best of the best.

Ethan said that you went above and beyond, by waiting to move so the band could finish the album in your studio in SF. Why did you feel that was important?
Well, the reason I waited to move was because I didn’t want to leave them hanging for a month or two while I moved and got set up- although the mixing ran so long that I only ended up having 12 days to move and get everything set up before the first band showed up! I wouldn’t have been able to build the studio without them. The album paid for most of it.

What are you most proud about on this album?
We really took the time to get excellent takes. We were fairly perfectionist- especially with the vocals. With the previous records we just didn’t have the budget to afford that kind of luxury. I think we ended up with some really amazing performances.

How is “The Russian Wilds” different from previous Howlin’ Rain albums?
I think there’s more variety, stylistically, from song to song. We tracked the basic tracks in 3 different studios with a specific sound for each song in mind. Even though the songs jump from one style to another, nothing sounds forced and it all sounds like the same band. Also the songs are more fully realized- I would guess partly due to Rick Rubin’s relentless tweaking of the songs before we started tracking.

Buy your tickets now for Howlin Rain, Friday, May 25.