Taking a permanent vacation from the distorted rock sound of Santa Cruz-based band Comets on Fire, Ethan Miller and close friend Ian Gradek jam out porchside with acoustic guitar and banjo in hand.
The mellower, more “countrified” sound creation soon provided Miller ample opportunity to gear his songwriting in a more technical direction with emphasis on added vocal harmonization.
“At some point I decided I’d like to do some solo-esque, different thing than Comets on Fire while Comets was going,” says Miller.
And the psychedelic, blues-rock foundation of Howlin Rain was born and then relocated to Oakland.
Four years and minus five original members later, Howlin Rain has added members Joel Robinow (vocals, guitar, keyboard), Raj Ojha (drums, percussion), Isaiah Mitchell (vocals, guitar) and Cyrus Comiskey (bass) to its distinct sound headed by Miller (lead vocals, guitar).
On the brink of the release of the band’s third full-length studio album this Valentine’s Day, Miller doesn’t necessarily think their sound has evolved, but says the new album, The Russian Wilds, shows another facet within the universe that is Howlin Rain.
But reaching The Russian Wilds was no easy feat, its journey fraught with many obstacles, including: working around music producer Rick Rubin’s schedule, going through 160 minutes worth of material, keeping the band together and staying on track when the album’s release date was nowhere in sight over a four-year span.
“It became more and more apparent getting through the making of this record was going to be an act of defiance of bad inertia, of survival,” says Miller.
But four years of music-making garnered two, 80-minute CDs full of raw acoustic demos, which fostered an intensity into the project by Rubin — who has worked with Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Adele, just to name a few.
Once Rubin heard the depth of music, he began to cut out less-promising songs while he developed those that showed the most potential.
“Rick’s very honest with you when he works on songs,” says Miller. “When you play him a bunch of songs … it’s like ‘This is great. I love this one. It’s amazing.’ The next one might be ‘I don’t like it. Lets get rid of it and move on.’ It was good for me to work with someone like that. I really put my trust in him to give me his honest opinion.”
This ultimately left The Russian Wilds chock-full of intense, epic and vast tracks that are unpredictable —quite like how Miller intended listeners to interpret the content of the album’s title.
Miller, who was reading Leo Tolstoy and other classics during production of the album, liked the idea of the Western perception of Russia, which is mostly based on fictitious assumptions that led people to draw their own conclusions.
“I wanted something people could read into it and discover their own [meaning],” says Miller. “And as they continue to engage with the record and album title, it could have a mutating and morphing meaning for them.”
Already several stops into the new tour, the guys of Howlin Rain are excited to finally experience life on the road for the first time together, even if it does mean an endless cycle of gas station Doritos and instant coffee.
But first and foremost, Howlin Rain will bring along the epic, vast journey of The Russian Wilds to venues across North America during February and into March.
“I will say this is by far the most intense Howlin Rain record as far as performance and depth of songwriting,” says Miller.
The band brings its album release show close to home at The Independent in San Francisco on February 18, with special guests The Soft White Sixties and Zodiac Death Valley.
“We haven’t been on a real album cycle tour like this,” says Miller. “We’re really looking forward to going and playing the record. Playing old songs with the new band, playing new songs with the new band, being a new band on the road together.”
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