photo by Jim Bennett
Magnificent Fiend, the second album from Oakland’s Howlin’ Rain, breaks down any doors left standing after their self-titled debut. The lineup has undergone changes and additions in order to harbor a more hook-friendly yet all but overwhelming layering of psych-rock. Ethan Miller (guitar,vocals), formerly of Comets on Fire, led the group through a more than memorable performance their last time through Seattle and has been nothing but positive on and off the road surrounding the new album’s March 4th release.
|After Howlin’ Rain swung through KEXP for a live in-studio, they gave us a handful of signed lithographs. We have 10 to give away. If you would like one and live in the Seattle area (note: you must be able to pick these up from the station), write to email@example.com.|
While the band was wrapping up their North American dates and preparing for a Spring tour of the U.K., I was fortunate to catch up with Ethan Miller as they were en route to North Carolina:
KEXP: So first off, how’s the tour been going?
Ethan: It’s going pretty good man. We just played in D.C. last night. It’s a little bit different, a little bit rainy and everybody has the wet dog thing going on, but it was a super fun time.
When you came through Seattle a little while back, I have to admit I knew very little about the band. And since you opened up a four-act gig, the crowd wasn’t quite there yet, but you seemed to open a lot of people’s eyes that night.
Oh cool, man. That’s unfortunate and kind of weird too. It was a pretty stacked lineup.
Have you noticed a change in the crowds as the tour has gone on and the band has picked up some good press?
You know, that’s how it’s supposed to work. The label tries to work the press out and it turns some folks on. But it seems like mostly people still come because of word of mouth and because their friends got them to come out. We do get some people who say they read about us in a magazine like Rolling Stone and so then came out.
Speaking of labels, the American label jumped in alongside Birdman for this release. How did the relationship with American get started and what was there role this time around?
When we began working on the Magnificent Fiend album, it was solely with Birdman who we worked with on the last record. Then Rick Rubin got involved and wanted to sign the band, and we started negotiating a record deal and all that. While that was going on, we finished Magnificent Fiend and the folks at Birdman were interested in having it come out on American. In sort of a convoluted way, it worked out being co-released because of whatever they worked out on their end.
Musically, the new album isn’t as experimental as your previous work. There are obviously some dense, lush melodies going on and certainly a level of experimentalism, but in what ways was creating this new sound challenging for you?
Well, it’s all a matter of perspective. For me, I’ve gotten used to trying to write with more avant-garde or avant-rock elements going on. Partly, for me, it was a lot more experimental to write the songs on Magnificent Fiend than it was for me to dial in a loud psych jam or something like that. You know, not everybody in the world listens to avant-garde rock or wild psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll so that’s not the norm for them. When you dedicate your life to making that kind of music, it’s a much more experimental endeavor artistically to write and construct the textures for Magnificent Fiend. The songwriting was a challenge, and to record a record like that with those kind of arrangements was a challenge. And to do the planning of it and the preproduction but also have those off-the-cuff elements was difficult. I mean, we also had a fairly unrehearsed band. Even though we had a larger budget this time around, the challenges felt greater.
You also have some new members in the band. One in particular, organ and keyboardist Joel Robinow, has been getting some love in the press recently.
Yes, Joel is one of God’s special creatures.
Did you intend to have him play such a big role on the album or was that something that naturally happened in the studio?
Well, Joel was playing in a band called Drunk Horse and was friends of friends around town. I’d seen him play, and he’ll play different kinds of instruments, but I was especially taken with his playing on the keys. I asked him to come into the studio, and actually the first time we were together in the studio, it was me, him and Garett (drummer) and we recorded two songs that ended up being on Magnificent Fiend that weren’t even part of the album sessions. We had no idea what we were going to do with those songs — maybe a single or something like that. And yeah, those guys laid down a first and second take for
Calling Lightning pt. 2 and Joel laid down some keyboard solos, and each was drastically different but radically keepable and awesome. After that session, I really wanted to keep playing with him.
photo by Hilary Harris
To go back to the tour a little bit, there are a number of European festivals on your itinerary, but I haven’t seen any stateside. Is there a considerable following in Europe?
You know, we’ve toured Europe once and we got a lot of love from Mojo and Uncut and the British mags, and those seem to have a pretty big influence over people in Europe. They seem to pay attention to those. It seems like Europeans use those to keep a pulse on what’s going on with American bands. There’s an interesting prism that happens through the eyes of British magazines for American music. We do have some festivals coming up. We’re doing Bonnaroo this summer and some other American ones are on the line that we’re locking up. The European ones just got locked up a little earlier.
People try to place your sound all the time, saying it’s a late ’60s/early ’70s psychedelic rock sound. And surely there are modern influences on the record, but what were some of the driving forces behind Magnificent Fiend?
I think when I was writing it I was going through a super-Miles Davis phase and listening to other jazz music. One of the things that I started listening for was whether I was writing songs that sounded like my kind of songs — just really trying to complicate the architecture and chord progressions, those kind of things. That’s what Miles would do: take a simple, beautiful motif or melody and turn it into this much more complex thing. So we started with some big hooks and basic rock parts and thought how could we put things in that wouldn’t be totally overtly noticeable to people’s ears but after listening closer they’d find these abnormalities. When we got to the point of arranging and laying down horns and stuff and wanting a certain feel like on
Goodbye Ruby, we looked at, well, what’s going on with horn arrangements in Chicago and then you get into layering major and minor and deciding what kinds of horns to use.
Well, all these ideas translated to tape beautifully and the Pacific Northwest looks forward to seeing you down the road.