Howlin Rain: The Long Follow
I. The Man on the Screen
When I visit Ethan Miller in the quiet Oakland, California apartment he shares with his wife, he leads me into the pantry, which on this October day, is an editing suite. The Howlin Rain frontman is assembling some stark video footage shot in a loft-style rehearsal studio. Miller appears onscreen in his enormous black beard, dark sunglasses and a black suit, twisting and writhing against the white space the way he does when he plays his bombastic guitar, as the band rocks and rages on beat around him. The image is startling—you could see this guy driving around Los Angeles in a big black car with Rick Rubin and Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. He’s different from the child of the redwoods, the kind soul that, after getting to know Miller a little bit over the last few years, I think I know him to be. It’s incongruous, somehow disturbing. Yet, there’s something so right about this guy with the dark glasses, the suit and the outsized scraggly beard, singing this song, howling these lyrics. It fits. He looks like Miller sounds.
The video is for “Dark Side,” from Howlin Rain’s upcoming Rubin-produced studio magnum opus, The Russian Wilds. Now, three figures pop up at a strange angle— Miller, his chief accomplice Joel Robinow and Isaiah Mitchell, the accomplished lead guitarist for the ferocious space-rock power trio Earthless. A three-headed hydra, they sing the harmony—close, all high in the register. It’s startling, again: the tight harmonies from the version on the record that seem so richly layered, sung live. Live, these guys are going to just crush.
It’s the dead of summer in San Francisco—an unusually warm night in late July. Howlin Rain are set to play a warehouse gig at a hip art collective in the Mission District, with Sleepy Sun and Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound. People spill out into the side street to smoke. Poster artist Alan Forbes is talking to Noel Harmonson from Miller’s earlier, seminal psych-punk band Comets on Fire, and Nash Whalen of the Wooden Shjips.
An almost-hidden door in a nondescript industrial building opens into a wood-lined party space that feels like an art installation. The crowd crams into the basement—a broad but narrow space beneath massive beams hewn whole out of thousand-year-old redwoods at the turn of the last century. The entire room is wooden and jam-packed. People clog the wooden stairs. You can picture something along the lines of the Great White concert fire disaster with someone’s weed cinder sending the place up in flames, the panic up the stairs a bottleneck of doom.
Howlin Rain sprawls in a line onstage across half the room—separated from the crowd by load-bearing pillars—the big, burly bassist Cyrus Comiskey, Mitchell, Miller, the unassuming drummer Raj Ojha, and Robinow the trickster at stage left on the keys. The band rocks, hard. Assemble Head bagged—a member was home sick—but Howlin Rain invites the band’s Charlie and Camilla Saufley up and backs them on “The Chocolate Maiden’s Misty Morning.” Then the band returns to formation.
It’s a completely different set from the loose, laid-back material that they played the previous autumn. The band rocks in unison—super-tight and hyperkinetic. They blast through the changes. Miller wrenches and contorts his body as he wails, as if the guitar strings were the leads to his own marionette. It’s one of those moments that you can feel beneath the lights of history—a rare last chance to catch a supernova before it blows.
III. The Life and Times of Ethan Miller
The son of schoolteachers, Miller grew up in Eureka, California, in Humboldt County, the state’s northernmost coastal region, home to the world’s largest trees and finest marijuana. Miller gravitated to the hard and fast rejection of all things hippie, to punk and hardcore. It was not cool to be into the Grateful Dead at Eureka High. He took classes at College of the Redwoods while he partied and played in bands. But small town life was stifling—his ambitions were bigger than playing house parties until the cops show up. There was no place to go.
In the late ‘90s, at around age 20, he shipped off to UC Santa Cruz where he majored in modern literature. He also co-founded Comets on Fire, a band that sounded just like you think it would: hard and fast and loud and thrilling, a—psychedelic noise rock that ground the earlier iteration of psychedelic through all the punk and hardcore that had so fervently rejected it. Miller’s guitar was wham-bent, cosmic, and screaming, his voice a hardcore shriek. Everything was overdriven and full-throttle, underlain with feedback and synthesized noise. The band built a following. Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra re-released their self-made first album on Alternative Tentacles. They released two albums on Sub Pop. They toured the world.
As the band matured, the members had their own visions to serve. They started forming side bands. For Echoplex player Noel Harmonson, it was The Lowdown; for drummer Utrillo Kushner, Colossal Yes; guitarist Ben Chasny stayed focused on Six Organs of Admittance. Within Comets, things moved slowly. It was a democracy.
Miller wanted to play in a band that he could helm without having to wrestle against four other musicians’ visions. He’d embraced the warmer side of psychedelia. He wanted to play more open, melodic music. Compared to what Comets did, what he was thinking about could be considered light rock.
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