Abstract Muse: An Interview with Howlin Rain's Ethan Miller

Over a dozen years ago, Howlin Rain first tore from out of the blues with their self-titled release. Timeless southern rock played through a haze of guitar effects and mind-melting riffs, the credentials of its players every bit matched the songs they made together. However, a number of band, label and producer changes have followed since then, but Ethan Miller has continued to harness Howlin Rain throughout it all. 2015’s Mansion Songs marked a new era for the band with a return to self-releasing and a promised trilogy of releases. Three years later, Howlin Rain is back again with The Alligator Bride and it is absolutely worth the wait.

GB: In the Mansion Songs press release, you talk about it being a new beginning and the first in a trilogy – that was three years back – are you still looking at a trilogy of releases, or is The Alligator Bride starting something new?

EM: I’m still thinking of this as a loose trilogy. I’ve always really liked having a loose guide or abstract concept to guide a record. I feel very strongly that Mansion Songs, The Alligator Bride and then next one will form an interesting story and journey together and I’m going to let that guide me. I think with all three the root of their creation is a very naturalistic and intuitive approach, I’m just catching the sleeve of something and following it to the end and within that ethos I believe I can still do very different things. Like a lot of writing on the spot or studio song creation for Mansion Songs or more detailed and rehearsed live band performance for The Alligator Bride and still have them be part of the same trilogy and have the same heart despite the different methods of creation. Who knows if this abstract muse stuff reads to the audience, I’d like to think it does somewhere in the subconscious but even if it doesn’t it’s a travel guide for the artist.

GB: I love how The Alligator Bride feels like a return to the raw sound of that first self-titled record. Tons of energy and tons of guitar just let loose. Is that something you were going for?

EM: Not necessarily, I think it may be more the fast manner in which we recorded it. I suppose that I did start to see elements of each of the previous album’s vibes represented in the character of this album as it hit the tape. In that way, I think this album almost serves as a summary of the bands trajectory as well as a new step. I liked that The Alligator Bride came out as a blend of past, present and future within Howlin Rain’s timeline without it being an overtly intentional thing.

GB: Over the years, there have been a lot of incredible musicians with you in Howlin Rain – can you tell me about who is in the band now and how that shaped The Alligator Bride

EM; Jeff McElroy on bass and Dan Cervantes on guitar have both been with me since about 2015 now and Jeff brought in Justin Smith, our drummer, for the first The Alligator Bride album rehearsal thinking he’d be a good match and he fit in effortlessly. With him, we’ve got the first proper 4 piece, all-in band in the classic sense of the word since the Russian Wilds band and not just rotating members taking it tour by tour. Stoked.

GB: Do you think of Howlin Rain as a revolving set of players or would you want a more constant lineup?

EM: I have to think of it as revolving because it always has been, and because I’ve found that when a band member has decided to move on if they don’t have a clean clear exit option to go when that idea starts creeping into their head, or the whole existence of the band weighs on their decision to leave or stay that all kinds of psychic hell begins to break loose in the group. That begins to be a big mess and ultimately ends in wreckage. So I try to use the difficulty of line-up changes to creative advantage and let those changes guide an interest in new sounds and vibes for Howlin Rain.  But on the other hand if a group settles in for a while and the camaraderie and creative relationship is optimal I’d love for it to maintain for as long as possible. If that’s forever, then great! I ‘feel’ like this present group is going to be around for a while, Jeff and Dan and I have had a very deep connection as Howlin Rain over the past few years and now Justin has completed the club house so hopefully this band rides for as long as we all feel this good about it and keep pushing the music upward together.

GB: The different musicians, labels and producers that have been involved with Howlin Rain have made for different sounding albums. Has that been your vision adapting to the given circumstances or has the band changed from being collaborative in it’s direction with each of these changes?

EM: All of these things. I like the different elements that keep changing the outer vibes with each record. But also part of the Howlin Rain concept is that the band that surrounds me really dictates the feel and sound of the album and the bands expression.

GB: A lot of the musicians you seem to pull inspiration from don’t have the importance placed on their studio albums. These albums feel more like just the cleanest recording available on the improvisation of a live show, which will change every night. Do you feel that way about recording? How does it affect your relationship to the finished album? 

EM: I’ve always loved albums. I don’t just feel like they are one more tool to get out on the road and tour over and over again. I feel like they are more like novels. No writer on earth writes a novel just so they can go out on a book tour and I believe albums should be little novels, or at least little movies or a book of photos that fans can take with them that really transports them to a unique place. An album is a very singular and special location to have a unique relationship with art. So, no, I don’t go in for the ‘albums are secondary and a bad place for music to live compared to the stage’ concept. That just sounds like repeated failure in a very elevated and complicated medium. And that’s ok to try and to fail by someone else’s standards or even your own, but I feel like in my career I’ve been a part of some extraordinary albums and at the very least you could say I never threw one away. I have always treated the process with the upmost respect and concentration.

GB: You’ve got a lot of outlets these days between Howlin Rain, Heron Oblivion, Feral Ohms and The Odyssey Cult, it feels like a cliché question, but with all of that – how do you find the time? Is it just as people are available or as your mood takes you?

EM: We try to balance it the best we can. Sometimes things get set aside for a minute while we work on another group. Nobody finds time for anything, not in 2018. Not in the music world in 2018. You make time for something. So in all of these groups we make the time to do them and it is a very tricky thing to do in context of all the work we’re trying to do. But we seem to make them work in varying degrees and it keeps us all busy and productive.

GB: When you write songs, do you have a specific band in mind or is it more just seeing out where they go?

EM: In most cases I write for a band. But sometimes I’ll have some lyrics or a concept and it might slide from a floating or un-contextualized place and find it’s spot in one of the band’s songs. But usually with this much creative work to be done I’m sitting down and focusing on writing work for a group and trying to have my head in their space and character.

GB: Do you have any thoughts on what’s next for Howlin Rain? 

EM: We have an east coast and midwest tour beginning July 11th in Washington DC at DC9 and then we’re working on tour schedule for the rest of the year. Hopefully somewhere in there we’ll get some new album rehearsals in and perhaps even some recording and send the third Mansion Trilogy album down through the pipes!

Photos: Kristy Walker
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