Howlin Rain: The Long Follow
Photo by Sonia Molina
Miller understood that to make music that is “universally more accomplished,” he would have to embrace such critique—and to yield some of his instinct to control.
“Rick said, ‘Hey, look, I want to tell you something about your music. I want to set something up where I will always be honest with you about how I feel about it…I want to be completely honest, so when I judge your music, [it’s] not because there’s something I want out of you and it’s not because I’m trying to put you down or elevate you. I’m trying to help you make the best art we can make.’”
Miller asked the mastering guy to do some edits. Then, he re-sequenced the record.
Magnificent Fiend was harder and tighter than the band’s basementy debut—a rock record. It was sonically lush—the song structures were complicated, not verse-verse-chorus. There were a lot of sounds, too: Rhodes piano and Hammond B-3 tones, certain lead-in beats, stuff that you could pin back to something else you’d heard somewhere in the annals of rock. It wasn’t folk music with lit-up Comets guitar solos.
This band seemed to be drawing on classic rock as a sonic palette and using it to construct something elaborate. The rest of the album was aligning closer behind Miller’s rusted old Chevelle of a voice—doubling it in some cases, and doubling the electric guitars, so that they sounded like KISS here and the Allmans there. By the end, big, elaborate horn sections blasted in. The lyrics were apocalyptic. It was a concept record about outlaws, shot through with anti-war sentiment, yet Miller left the lyrics cryptic, to carry the host of human emotion without being taken literally, without becoming rock opera. He thought of it as “cinematic.”
The album was resonant enough that at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., in early 2010, unscheduled speaker Dick Cheney bounded onstage to the blazing dual-guitars lead-in to its opening track, “Dancers at the End of Time.” The layers of irony may have been lost on the CPAC crowd—the song, which alludes to a series of Michael Moorcock sci-fi novels, had been inspired by the corruption of what Miller calls “the Cheney/Bush Administration.” Miller found the moment surreal and thrilling. He was characteristically generous. “Everyone deserves music, the heroes and villains,” he wrote in an email at the time. “I am glad those folks enjoyed the tune.”
At the same time, even as Miller felt that Magnificent Fiend was more accomplished and more deliberately arranged than the first album, his vision was for something even bigger, and even more cinematic and complex.
He had already begun sketching out songs with Rubin. Now, he went to ground .
VII. The Crew Lashed Him to the Mast
There is no single clear stylistic line that runs through Rick Rubin’s discography. Still, if you listen to his most resonant albums—the Chili Peppers’ Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magick or Cash’s The American Recordings —Rubin seems to be able to put his finger on what’s essential in an artist, and encourage that artist to amp up those qualities and strip out everything else. The result is essential work.
“For the very first session that we had, I took an acoustic guitar and played [Rubin] tunes—raw tunes with some chords … bangin’ it out,” recalls Miller. “You know:
Miller: [sings] ‘We all live in a yellow submarine—how do you like that one?’
Rubin: ‘I don’t. Next.’
Miller: ‘OK, [singing] show me the dark side, show me the dark side, ya ya ya, show me the dark side.’ Whaddya think?’
Rubin: ‘OK, that’s good. You need to work on the chorus.’
“[It was] the very raw, basic thing of what people imagine a songwriter and a producer sitting in a room together would be like: this is good, this is a great lyric, fuckin’ don’t like that one, next!”
Meanwhile, a new Howlin Rain lineup was forming.
Miller and Robinow worked from the demos that had passed Rubin’s watchful gaze. Bringing Robinow’s old friend Ojha aboard on drums, they continued to arrange what were becoming quite complex songs, experimenting with flavor and speed.
Then, partly at producer Tim Green’s urging, Comiskey signed on. Howlin Rain was becoming a hard, tight rock band with complex capabilities and a jazz tendency. A band that could serve Miller’s vision of a dark, complex rock and steer it through all the hairpins.
More and more, the band began to invite Mitchell—he’d played with Drunk Horse, too, in the early ‘00s—into the studio to lend a vocal harmony or a guitar lead. When Howlin Rain opened for (and then backed) Terry Reid at an Oakland gig in May 2010, Mitchell ran leads alongside Miller. The music seemed funkier, more rooted in soul. The interplay between the two underground guitar heroes was enthralling.
It felt like an iconic lineup, with each player archetypal in his own way: keyboardist Robinow—son of the Oakland shipyards, who grew up on jazz and never even heard rock until he was 17—could pick up just about any instrument and play it, as Mitchell says, better than almost anybody else.
Comiskey, the big, longhaired bassist with a supernatural sense of timing—an inhuman obsession with meter, as Miller explains.
Ojha, the Charlie Watts-like drummer—quiet and reserved, with a deep arsenal of tasteful licks, and the focus and drive to study and master, say, exactly how the timbales are supposed to come in on a salsa part.
Then, there was Mitchell of the mighty Earthless, the explosive power trio axe slinger brought in as a ringer.
All of that contextualized Miller, with his uncanny classic rock rasp and his interstellar guitar assault, as the visionary leader of a whip-tight rock outfit of serious players who had the theory, the technical understanding and the chops to realize his long vision—the complex, cinematic work that Rubin was helping him to isolate.
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