“I don’t completely understand how a band like AC/DC or Metallica can dig into their project.”
With decades of experience in well-received bands, Ethan Miller — who first made a name for himself in the now-defunct Comets on Fire and now divides his time among Heron Oblivion, Feral Ohms, and Howlin’ Rain (appearing tonight at Club Café) — is still searching for his place. Or maybe he isn’t. He is a known quantity in the circles that matter to him most, namely the bands he plays in and the dedicated audience for whom he plays.
Howlin’ Rain’s Rick Rubin-produced third album, The Russian Wilds, released on Rubin’s American Recordings label, threatened to ensconce Miller within the confines of Rubin’s fussily-curated menagerie of American authenticity. Whether avoiding that fate was a positive probably depends on who you ask, but for now, most of Miller’s output flows from his own Silver Current Records label. While he doesn’t seem to revel in obfuscation, exactly, Miller is uncompromising in running down his inspirations. His output is all over the map.
HOWLIN RAIN with MOUNTAIN MOVERS, MAPACHE. 8 p.m., Tues., July 24. Club Café, 56 S. 12th St., South Side. $12-15. 412-431-4950 or www.clubcafelive.com
“As time’s gone on, Howlin’ Rain on one side is dealing with a little more melodic explorations all across the board and then Feral Ohms is dealing with the noisier, wild, constantly bombastic exploration. Those two are sort of a Yin and a Yang for me and I’ve kind of separated the two,” he says over the phone. “And then we’ve got Heron Oblivion in the middle, which obviously plays with both those dynamics, again.”
For Miller, exploration is inherent to the creative process. Comfort is boring and it yields results that reflect as much. To be established and accepted is validating, but it can also be a yoke around an artist’s neck.
“I don’t completely understand how a band like AC/DC or Metallica or something can dig into their project. One reason they can is because they start seeing huge results with the fans and financial,” he says. “On a strictly creative level, it seems a little bit intense and exhausting to me, after you’ve gone after something, an element or an expression, and you feel like you’re refining and refining and refining and, in a case like AC/DC, that was refined to the point of perfection on their second or third record.”
For Miller, the results of that refinement are felt more than they’re heard. Holding that process with the necessarily light touch it demands is the through-line in his various projects and, in his view, the best quality he brings to them.
“Music isn’t that different from writing poetry or writing prose or painting or whatever. These are forms of expression. To me they have to be a little messy and a little bit not finalized and they have to take me by surprise a little bit as they come out for me to feel like I’m totally engaged with the muse,” he says. “All the bands that I’ve been in that have had that kind of success, we often strive even harder to keep one step ahead of the audience’s imagination. We always assumed that part of what they liked was that they expected that there’s going to be a little bit of a surprise.”
Howlin’ Rain’s latest, The Alligator Bride, a steamy, searching article of rock and roll proper, is messy in all the best ways, borrowing from classic rock formations like Free, and, of course, the Grateful Dead. Loosely recorded and favoring live arrangements, it’s easy to hear the Grateful Dead’s influence, if not its sound. Recently, Miller reacquainted himself with their work and quickly realized how much their approach affected his own process.
“They pose a reminder to me how powerful the imperfection of a band and people can be. When I listen to the way that they play and the chances that they take it often comes off as a wreckage, as a shambles. Things that most groups would say that could never stand to be out there,” he says. “That’s what real people sound like, for better or for worse. I love to have that touchstone to remind myself of that, because it’s easy to get neurotic about your writing process, your performing process, your recording process.”
Despite the willful referencing of these tropes, The Alligator Bride sounds vital and fresh, sidestepping the traps and pitfalls that can turn any jam-adjacent music into a warmed-over nostalgia trip, and proving that rock and roll is still a viable vehicle for expressing the struggles of contemporaneity.
“My character, my lyrics, the characters in my songs, the narrative that runs through Howlin’ Rain or any of my groups is an authentic voice that is my own and of its time,” he says. “I feel that all musical creation that has an authentic voice and an authentic intent, is of the moment.”
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer Ian Thomas can be reached at email@example.com