The band’s erstwhile helmsman Ethan Miller discusses their new album, sharing credit and keeping the ship afloat
Over the course of their 15 year history, themes consistent thing one might say about the San Francisco-based band Howlin’ Rain is that they’ve never been easy to quantify, typify or describe in any discernible way.
A seemingly constant shift in their membership roster might have something to do with that, but mostly it has to do with the music itself, a cerebral yet slightly tarnished blend of folk, Americana and psychedelia stirred with kaleidoscopic imagery that leaves the listener guessing as to the exact intent. Ethan Miller, the band’s founder, sole constant and visionary extraordinaire is never short of ideas or instinct, making each of the band’s nine albums a study in obtuse expression and imaginary impulse.
Their new album, The Dharma Wheel, is no exception. Consisting of six songs with an outsized stature — the shortest, “Prelude,” clocks in at slightly over six minutes, while the longest, the title track, is well over sixteen — it’s a twisting, turning series of sounds, tones and textures, all of which combine to create a fascinating fusion of artistry and accessibility. So too, the band was able to enlist the legendary Scarlet Rivera, the violinist recruited by Bob Dylan for his Rolling Thunder Revue, and keyboardist Adam MacDougall of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood on keys. Their contributions help accounts for the swirl of tone and texture.
While Miller can take credit for being the instigator, he’s also cognizant of the fact that to make his complex compositions succeed, he has to let the other musicians take ownership as well.
“I’ve been writing Howlin’ Rain’s music for 15 years, and at this point, I kind of think that my duty is to write some basic songs, bring them in, and see what the guys latch onto,” he says. “I’m using this stuff as a language and once the band’s really living and breathing the songs, then I kind of feel like I have secretarial work to do. My job’s just about not getting in the way, and letting it develop naturally. I don’t force it or try to steer it in any particular way. I never want to say, ‘ always thought it would be like this, guys, we got to do it like this.’ I just want to let it happen naturally and not get in the way of the process if things happen to be flowing in a certain direction.”
VIDEO: Howlin’ Rain “Rotoscope”
It’s evident from the new album that the tactic indeed works well. Even songs that seem complex at first — “Don’t Let the Tears,” “Rotoscope” and “Under the Wheels” in particular — boast an effusive energy that eventually culminates in a series of compelling choruses. Despite exacting arrangements, it’s clear that the music has a populist appeal that would allow each to soar further onstage. “Annabelle” and “Dharma Wheel” have elements of classic Grateful Dead, the former courtesy of its easy, engaging melody and the latter via an intriguing series of instrumental intrudes that could have once accommodated the Acid Tests of old.
“That’s the best, when the music that you’re trying to create as a group or as an individual moves beyond what your imagination conceived for it,” Miller muses. “That kind of magic is the last element. Hopefully you don’t say, ‘Yes, this is exactly how I imagined the song.’ The magic happened along the way and allowed it to take another step and create a life of its own.”
Despite the steady shift in Howlin’ Rain’s line-up over the years, with no less than a dozen members coming in and out of its ranks, Miller maintains the belief that letting each player take part in the creative process yields the best results. In fact, the new album proved to be the maiden voyage for the latest incarnation of the group, which currently consists of Miller on vocals and guitar, Jeff McElroy on bass, Dan Cervantes on guitar and Justin Smith on drums. It’s that collaborative effort that makes The Dharma Wheel the masterwork it is.
“That’s what I’d hoped for it,” Miller recalls. “That’s what I’d imagined. But there’s also things that went beyond what I’d hoped and imagined. In the end, that’s what gives me the most pleasure, because as I get older, the more I want to be surprised, instead of just seeing my will made to feel like it’s all about the concrete or the vinyl, or whatever the case is. I had an idea. I saw it through. I made it concrete, but I also found that as I look back on that kind of creative force, I also wonder how many doors I might have closed on the way to the concrete plant.”
It would seem then that Miller is sold on the idea of giving the band over to democracy. And yet he demurs to an extent.
“I wouldn’t quite call it that, because usually true democracies, as far as bands go, just end up in flames, like democracies often do,” replies. “But my role, creatively, is to leave the doors open and not try to just make my will concrete, as if that’s the end of it. I’d be a fool not to try to use the natural process of everyone having a say, everyone contributing and allowing us to work as a single unit, because that’s really where that magic happens. But I’m not sure that that the band members of myself want that process to be a democracy as much as they want us to have the natural function of a unit, where we’re unified into a state of creative space and we work through it. Yeah, if anyone says, ‘Hey, let me try something. This might be crazy. Humor me.’ Yeah, we always do that, because, again, you don’t want to close the door on something great just because it wasn’t the quote/unquote bandleader or central songwriter’s ideas. At the same time, bands still have arguments once they get in the studio. They argue over which take was best or which way something’s gonna go. And if we get into a little block like that, that’s just the classic band argument where everybody’s got different opinions. So sure, I go ahead and take the baton. It’s like ‘Alright, we’re not taking a vote on this.’”
Ultimately, Miller’s assessment of what makes a band function effectively comes across like a treatise on modern music making within the confines of a combo.
“There are very, very few bands that make it more than a few years,” he suggests. “It’s more than just, ‘Oh, we love playing together, we’re just a band. People have very complicated relationships, but they find something they can overcome and keep them going. In a band, like Howlin’ Rain, we want to remain in a studio and rehearsal environment, writing and creating together, maintaining trust and openness. And if that natural relationship starts to become too intense, or go down the tubes, that’s when it falls apart. That’s the reason why I took on this experiment is a sort of bandleader and a caretaker for the central idea. So if it doesn’t work, we can just pull the ship over, let people off and find some new new sailors to get on.
“That’s the difference between the true democracy that you talked about and. Having someone steer the ship. In a democracy, when human beings need to get away from each other, they may burn down the whole fucking ship, and then it goes down. There’s no pulling over and letting the other guys off to experience another voyage.”
VIDEO: Howlin’ Rain “Don’t Let The Tears”
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