Originally published in Arthur No. 24 (August, 2006)
How Comets on Fire and Howlin’ Rain singer-guitarist Ethan Miller got his cosmic Californian yawp
Text: Trinie Dalton
Photos: Eden Batki
Design: Yasmin Khan and Michael Worthington
My adoration for Comets on Fire, Six Organs of Admittance, Howlin’ Rain and The Colossal Yes — all bands that either include or are tangentially related to cover boy Ethan Miller — stems from my love of music that reminds me of the Pot Growing Capital of America, Humboldt County. As a native Californian, any music that conjures up the Redwood forest—its clean, pine-scented air, abundance of ferns and fungi, and a high tree canopy providing year-round shelter from the elements—causes me to pause as I grind through traffic in Los Angeles and wonder: Why do I live in such a hellhole? (This doesn’t mean I’m moving up north to chain myself to a tree or that I bust out bootlegs from cheesy Phish wannabes, however.)
Ethan Miller’s music in his bands Comets on Fire and Howlin’ Rain does yeoman’s work by evoking his native Humboldt region. His guitar playing and vocals attest to a magical and ancient ability to conjure up place, recalling that golden hour in American rock history: San Francisco in the late ‘60s, the heyday of Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Grateful Dead, to name but a few. On the other hand, Miller is audibly influenced by Japanese freak-out messiahs like High Rise, Ghost, White Heaven, Acid Mothers Temple and Keiji Haino. Those inspirations supply the proverbial fireworks inside Miller’s balmy, casual Northern California sound. Consider it a Pacific Rim/Ring of Fire kind of thing.
Comets on Fire have built their sound upon the excitement and uncertainty of impending disaster. Their fourth studio album, Avatar (Sub Pop), sounds, at first, less chaotically punky than their previous records (2001’s Comets on Fire; 2002’s Field Recordings of the Sun; 2004’s Blue Cathedral), but close listening reveals its deeper strangeness. The new album has a more professional studio sound, yet Avatar also features powerful ballads whose lyrics has the power to hypnotize much like magic spells. In “Swallow’s Eye,” Miller sings: “Eye of the moon will turn the tides/Leaves of the orchard beckon the blight/Spite of our circle, ever on/Only a river can carry a song.”
While Comets’ awkward-but-beautiful tendency towards demolishing harmonic riffs and jams with screeching, scary guitar solos still reigns, Avatar has clearer piano, more bass, and, most notably, Miller singing sans effects. His earthy rasp is reminiscent of Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, and Ozzy. But when Comets played ArthurFest in 2005, Ethan was singing at maximum capacity, and it was impossible to understand one word he was saying through the distortion of the Echoplex. Now, the ability to understand Ethan Miller’s lyrics is a breakthrough, adding poetic and political significance to an already heavy experience.
Miller’s lyrics come through even clearer on Howlin’ Rain’s self-titled debut on Birdman Records. Howlin’ Rain is an Ethan-fronted revolving posse including old buddies Ian Gradek, Mike Jackson, Tim Daley and Sunburned Hand of the Man’s John Moloney. They have a real California-country feel, part Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, part original Charlatans, with the feel-good vibe of the Doobie Brothers. I sampled the Howlin’ Rain LP while crossing over mountainous Route 299, through Weaverville, deep in the Shasta-Trinity wilderness famous for its thriving Bigfoot population. With the trees rolling past, a river to stop at and dip into, and some beer and trail mix for nourishment, the tunes sounded pretty idyllic. Howlin’ Rain’s lyrics are another matter: doomsday vibes, as in “Calling Lightning With A Scythe,” set far off from pastoral troubadour musings: “We are only slaves/To our ghostly arms and legs/Got us dancing in our graves/And then lay around in the wreckage/Of this pitiful little world.” Bluesy murder ballads and songs about the apocalypse are further disturbed by Miller’s guitar solos that wreck the Neil Young-ian peace and harmony that the songs present on the surface.
Ethan grew up in Eureka, the Humboldt County seat, but now lives in Oakland. I had a fantasy of driving up to some remote redwood cabin to drink gin with him for the interview, but since he’s busy enjoying Bay Area city life with his wife and working a day job, we enjoyed a long, fun phone conversation. Ethan Miller’s lucidity, in his interview as well as in his music, reassures me that there are good things happening, in an age that can sometimes feel overwhelmed by corporate dread.
Arthur: Is it difficult to be in two bands, since it takes up two places in your brain?
Ethan Miller: The logistics are difficult, but artistically, it’s easier. There’s no band that everything you want to do is right for. A band has its own particular persona and willpower, especially a band like Comets on Fire. We can hardly steer that thing.
The first Comets on Fire album sounds so live. And on the CD, after the album ends, you have the whole thing live. They sound so similar. The studio mastery of Avatar is a real breakthrough, it sounds way more crafted.
That’s because the first album was recorded on a four-track in a garage back in ‘99. That was the sound we were going for. Thankfully it’s not difficult to capture the sound of the garage. That’s how we sounded live then as well. For all practical purposes, we were making a record of live music, playing songs live for the recording. We did it, and we didn’t want to do that again. We wanted to do something else. This is Comets’ fourth trip into the studio. Lots of bands mostly love playing live, they just see the studio as, Let’s get in the studio and get it over with. They try to portray their live sound as genuinely as possible. But we’re admirers of the great album as well.
We wanted people to hear everything on this album, the stuff that people recognize from classic rock records, the really gritty, off-the-cuff psych records. We tracked the record for about seven days at Prairie Sun studios, in this old converted chicken farm. We stayed in the cabin guesthouse, in such an incredible environment. We’d never had that lock-in before, where we didn’t have to go to work the next day. Usually it’s like, After work I’ll go back and do vocals. This time, we got to be artists for seven days, which allowed for the recording process to be more stressful, for us to put more energy into it, and to put more pressure on ourselves to make a great album. That’s the life. Just remember to eat, and restock the fridge full of booze.
Did you play in bands in high school?
Oh yeah, the first band I was in was with Ian, from Howlin’ Rain. Rock, Pop, Punk whatever. It was good for learning the ins and outs and the essentials of being in a group, trying to get a vision.
Did you always know that hippie and punk are two sides of the same coin?
Not always. In the town that we grew up in, all of us, in Eureka and Humboldt—and I think probably it’s true for Noel in Ojai—we were raised on the so-called punk scene and punk ethics or whatever about music and stuff, in other words: Hippie music does suck. Today, if you play a bar in Los Angeles or a show in Portland, yeah there’s a lot of beards and longhairs and pot smoking and little leather bandanas: hippie stuff. People look like they were right out of the Woodstock movie or something. But in the ‘80s, and the ‘90s too to some extent, the people that were looking like that were the leftover hippies. The burnouts. And I swear, Humboldt, probably other than a few hives in Marin or in Southern California, Humboldt was the last bastion of hippiedom. It wasn’t very cool to the punks. The Dead, classic rock, any of that stuff? Our reaction was basically that punk rock ethic: Fuck the dinosaurs.
So there was that for all of us: that specter, that kind of mythos hanging over our heads. But you know, I grew up with such an instinctual love of classic rock, even more than punk rock or anything. And some of the hippie bands included in that, that I personally began to shed that, especially when I got to Santa Cruz. You know? Fuck it. Going around barefoot, having your dog out with the neighbor’s dog on the front porch, living like that… I don’t need to be ‘cool’ anymore. I’m getting a little older. I’m not 20 or 18 anymore when you’re desperate to be cool or punk rock. As you get older, you just become more accepting. Of everything. And in music, I think becoming more accepting of everything draws you closer to understanding the core energy source of music. The core energy that totally invigorates our DNA when we hear it, it’s the same in Little Richard and Black Flag and Public Enemy and Mozart.
Did getting into Japanese rock help there, in re-assessing music that you might have previously discounted because of its hippie-ness? In the way that the French taught us how great Jerry Lewis is.
I hadn’t thought about that but that probably is totally true. I remember when I was getting turned on to a lot of that stuff that the more I tried to dig into the Japanese PSF scene [PSF being the seminal Japanese psych label – ed.] and stuff like that, the more interviews I read with those guys… Like Keiji Haino is super-obsessed with Jim Morrison and the Doors, I think I read that. That Haino, one of his greatest inspirations was like some free jazz thing—right of course—and some Japanese creepy Dadaist anarchist dance movement—okay, okay—and then… Jim Morrison and the Doors! And you’re like, Wait, what? Hang on. The Doors are just bastardized in this country, especially by elitist people who are a lot of time the buyers of PSF records, or the people you might sit around talking about this stuff with. And then you search that back a little bit and you got Iggy Pop saying “Yeah man my whole inspiration for my thing was Jim, he opened all those doors.”
So yeah, the second fold of that whole concept of trying to re-see something through their eyes, or see new roots that they put together off those original embedded roots. … You don’t have to draw your inspiration to make noise music from listening to noise. Or make psych music by listening to psych records. Or make heavy music by listening to Blue Cheer or Black Sabbath all the time. In fact, you’re probably gonna make MORE enriched, heavy music if you try to take core elements and core vibes and core emotions out of something that’s completely the opposite! And start confusing those genes in your music.
And that’s another good lesson from the Japanese dudes. I’m not sure if they set out purposefully to make these crazy mutated babies like that out of the music, like “Let’s mix the Grateful Dead and the Doors and then we’ll make the most harrowing, deconstructed inside-out crazy rock music,” because I think they’re still, especially in the ‘80s when a lot of those Japanese guys made their masterpieces and really changed rock music from behind the Pacific Curtain over there or whatever…I think Japan was still a really different place from the West, really upside-down to us. And same with us to them, and it may have been a truly more natural and strangely different reading they were making of things.
Did you cultivate your scratchy vocal stylings? Do you have to breathe steam like Ozzy?
This is how I naturally sing. The falsetto without scratch, when I’m trying to sing a little calmer and on key, is usually something I have to work at and it still isn’t exactly what I’d like to sound like in that range. The scratchy, going-hoarse voice is my most comfortable and natural singing thing. As long as I don’t have to strain for volume over the amps and drums, it really doesn’t bother me to sing like that all night long. My favorite singers are people that I can’t imitate. I haven’t been able to take much from them, except learning how they let their voices be their own, and how they’re honest with what they show of themselves. Grace Slick, Howlin’ Wolf, Stills, Young, Crosby, Dylan, Judee Sill, Elvis, Tom Jones, Exuma, Janis Joplin. I love all those voices and would love to sing like any of them, but I can’t and won’t be able to no matter how hard I try, because they express something far deeper then just great singing. That’s all a singer can try to do, or really all anyone should try to do, be something more interesting and honest than just being good.
Who were your earliest guitar heroes? You’ve developed a signature guitar style for sure, but on the Avatar and Howlin’ Rain there are differing guitar sounds too.
Everybody loves Hendrix. His guitar playing was so all encompassing. I love his out stuff, really out, when he’s playing with distortion. Not that he ever got super-super out, but man, “Star-Spangled Banner” gets pretty fucking out. His use of distortion, even more than his ingenious virtuosic playing, no one is ever gonna replicate that. There are some great ideas inside his experiments with distortion.
There’s also John Chipolina, from Quicksilver Messenger Service. They were one of the early groups to do really long jams, like the Dead, part of the Haight-Ashbury scene. Their albums never translated that well, but Chipolina’s guitar is super-beautiful. He’s one of the great tremolo players of all time. He mastered the whammy bar. That’s something that I really like, and have always experimented with. Also, Michio Kurihara, who plays with Ghost, and White Heaven. Check out the albums Out, or Next to Nothing. They’re totally crucial. They were crucial when Comets was making the first two albums. Noel, Flashman, and I were really into him. He continued the Chipolina legacy. Neil Young, a fucking great guitar player. And Bert Jansch.
What is it about Comets On Fire that makes it psych rock? To me, it’s a blend of long jam-outs with noise elements that make the music sound contemporary. It definitely goes back to Hendrix, the quintessential, blues-based psych rock man.
The best thing you can say about something is that it sounds like the people it admires and borrows from, but it also sounds like itself. All the classic guys did that. Hendrix took a look at Albert King and was like, I want to do that riff. So he sounds like Albert King but he has his own thing. Those guys were trying to encompass the history of what was inspiring them, in order to make their own mark, their own contribution. You deify these people and think that they’re geniuses who fell from the sky, when in reality they just practiced, and tried to incorporate everything. They were never ashamed to rip off what they loved.
I was thinking about that the other day. I was reading this Beatles thing. They’re the ones who you wonder, How did Lennon and McCartney write this shit? It must have come from god. But no. Really, you read an interview with Paul, and he’s like, “Yeah when we wrote some famous song, John and I were listening to the Everly Brothers and we decided to rip off their vocals.” Or, “The Byrds were playing these riffs, so we took those, put them together…”
There’s this idea that even the best musicians, or especially the best, would listen to their favorite music, then try to take things from it to create the most original music. It presents this idea that has become a total no-no in rock music, a faux pas, because everyone wants to be so original. The idea that ALL the riffs, ALL the chords changes, ALL the melodies, ALL the songs are already out there, and that musicians are engaged with this ever-changing, ever-moving history that has no beginning and no end, so you should just grab things, and make them your own. Fuck bands who are trying to be, like, a gift from god.
Your live shows are so sonically entertaining. You said once that it’s easy to crank up your amps and blow everyone away, but it’s harder to make a song that people actually want to listen to. I think that’s an apt description of both your bands, because there is a careful balance of noise and harmony. I like listening to Lightning Bolt, for example, but I can only handle so much.
There’s a fear of being really loud and chaotic, sonically aggressive, that you risk hitting people over the head. Burnout is the same with anything, really. Even if you listen to your favorite Dylan song over and over again, you’re like what the FUCK? That harmonica solo cracks into you and you’re like, Oh My God. The majority of people gravitate towards melody, there’s something about it. A great chord, a great hook, a great coda, a great guitar solo, these things intertwine into this invisible DNA, something that we relate to as humans.
Did you try to make Avatar more pleasing to the ear, as defined by what you just said?
We tried to play differently, but not to please an audience. You can try to intellectually go in a direction with music, but you can only do that so far, because you’ll betray your true urges. Sometimes it’s good to fight your creative inertia, if you’re like, I’m in a rut. But on the other side is your musical essence, and you don’t want to betray that just for the sake of always going against what you’ve done. We felt like on Field Recordings and Blue Cathedral, we got as heavy and wild as we could get while still being true to our essence. We still liked melody and hooks, and we didn’t want to become some atonal noise band. It wouldn’t be true to our make-up as a group, at least not yet. Maybe in the future. At the same time, after songs like “Black Poodle” or “Whiskey River,” Chasny and I felt that we’d accomplished our heaviest riffs. We wrote those songs as fast as we could, thrashed them out as hard as we could.
There’s a risk of trying to out-do yourself the Woody Allen thing. Like, dude, you made Annie Hall. You don’t make Annie Hall better by making it over and over again. Because it was perfect, or it captured what he was doing at the time. I think we only made one attempt on Avatar to out-rock our hardest rocking song, with the song “Holy Teeth.” Avatar sounds different because there’s more piano, more paths that we tried to go down. For Field Recordings and Blue Cathedral, we wrote the riffs and got the songs about 60% to 75% done, then left the architecture open-ended, unfinished. We’d jam that out, improvising. That’s the Neil Young method, and a lot happens by happy accident in the moment of creation. If we don’t have something for this part or this ending, then something will happen. Trusting in chaos, or randomness, that something of substance will occur, is a more thrilling thing to hear on a record than rehearsed perfection. Some of our earlier songs were written, recorded, and finished in one day. Drinking beers and recording on a four-track in the garage is an extreme version of that. After three albums of that, we didn’t want to tread over the same ground. Things are a lot more experimental for us now, since they’re new. A lot of people don’t want to face improvisation, especially in a studio, but we felt there was a boldness and courage in doing that, which would shine on the albums and give them heart.
How do you answer people who peg your music as stoner music, or drug music?
There is nothing to do about that but say there is no connection between us and drugs. God forbid you should ever mention that you did drugs in association with your music… ‘Yeah man, we took a hit of pot and said let’s work on a song.’ Then you’re [positioned as] ‘wild druggies.’ Dude, come on. Every schoolteacher, fireman and cop in America is smoking pot after work or doing a little coke at a party every once in a while. It doesn’t make them a ‘druggie cop’ or a ‘junkie schoolteacher.’
“Stoner” was a pejorative when I was growing up.
Yeah, it was the dudes who had long hair and Levi’s and jean vest jackets who would beat you up in high school, listened to Slayer, banana comb, be on speed… I dunno. I think it’s passe as can be to hear about bands doing drugs. What the fuck? You can do a bunch of drugs, but how are you gonna do all that and try to be making records 20 years from now?
Howlin’ Rain is all about being easy on the ear, minus some intense guitar solos. Is Howlin’ Rain a counterbalance to Comets’ tamed chaos?
Yes, Howlin’ Rain was light to the dark of Comets. It’s the old yin and yang thing, the good and evil within us all. Creatively, I am simply trying to acknowledge, accept, and develop both those sides. Though, Comets is beginning to develop both those sides within itself as an entity. It’s usually in fairly dark ways. So, I still enjoy playing blues field and sunshine music with Howlin’ Rain.
How far back do those Howlin Rain songs go? Is that stuff you’ve had for a while, or…?
There’s probably not a single song on there that I just popped up with and was like, here it is, I just wrote it. I try to work in the ways that I was taught to write in school, for creative writing or whatever: If I get ideas, if I’m just brainstorming ideas, I’ll just kind of do outlines and snippets and just get shit into notebooks… Some of the things that I wrote on there, the lyrics were from a different time. “Show Business,” that song is basically a kind of love song or an anti-love song, or just the disappointment of chance meetings and lovers and the comings and goings of them, and the sourness that come with that, as well as exhilaration. That’s something that I wrote some years ago. Now, I’m married, but I wasn’t always, you know? And that came from then. I don’t know if I’d still write a song like that now, but then it’s almost more interesting for me to grapple with this theme now, it makes the emotions even more mixed and strange for me to deal with.
With Howlin’ Rain, especially Howlin’ Rain live, you have this summery, mellow-rock style. It reminds me of California. Do you think there’s such a thing as California music?
I was trying to make it represent the nature and vibe of California, musically. I wanted to sonically represent the history of California bands.
What were you listening to when you wrote the Howlin’ Rain songs?
A lot of early and mid-period Fleetwood Mac, Exuma, MIJ, Stephen Stills, Terry Allen, Crosby, Clapton, Be Bop Deluxe, Bill Fay, Terry Reid, Cat Stevens. I was reading Brautigan and Pocket Book pulp crime novels. I tried to think about doing things with the music or arrangements that, normally, in a really heavy rock setting, I would be a little embarrassed to do or would think was too soft and not brutal enough, like multi-part sax horn arrangements and goofy, funky breaks. That’s something that I got from listening to Stills or Graham Nash. They were brilliant musicians and songwriters, putting down these breaks or hooks that were just unabashedly cheesy, like the Spanish singing and do-do-do-do part at the end of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” At first, you’re like, This is so sugary and sweet it’s embarrassing, it’s unashamed that it’s a nakedly super-indulgent fun part. Once you let your guard down to a part like that, it can be one of the most beautiful musical moments. I was trying to let my guard down with Howlin’ Rain, to parts that aren’t constantly stormy and tough, but are cheesy, smelly, and a good time, in efforts to allow something great to come of those parts. Unguarded emotion, even if at times it gives you kind of a goofball feeling.
You mentioned the time you spent in Santa Cruz. What did you get out of being there?
Santa Cruz is a weird place. With Residual Echoes and Mammatus and some of the Holy Mountain stuff that John’s putting out from Santa Cruz and Comets on Fire coming from there and Wisp coming from there and these other groups, I think that people in a very small way are starting to look back and go, “Whoa there was some sort of scene or happening or heyday in Santa Cruz that produced this stuff.” Well, it sure fuckin’ didn’t feel like it. There was a scene of friends, and a few restaurants and bars that would let you do shows. But certainly not something that was sustaining its own life on a larger scale and reaching out a wider audience until you could get a record out into the world for people to hear. It’s weird that way. I think Santa Cruz is probably more influential to us by its natural setting and its vibes and good friends rather than being part of a really crazy music scene that was burgeoning there.
How do you put up with living in a big city now?
Once in a while, on a Saturday night or something, you go and get off. Go to an art opening and see some friend’s stuff and then go see one band and then skip over to a bar and see another band and it’s some rad band and you’re like, This is awesome, this is what’s so cool about living in the city! But on the other end, yeah, commuting for work, exhaust, two hours a day spent in traffic? I’m just not a very city-oriented person. Neither is my wife. We live in Oakland, for one. That’s one way to put up with it, is not living right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of things. But still, I’d probably gravitate out of the city once I get the chance. You can live in a small town and be a quarter of a mile from the thickest, most beautiful Sequoia redwood groves, old growth redwood giants. Granted, what you’re trading in is a paycheck. [laughs] You won’t be able to buy music anymore, you’ll be making six dollars an hour, drinking Hamm’s ice red wine.
I remember being in high school, getting high in the forest, and listening to the Jefferson Airplane, being really addicted to that state of drugged bliss. Howlin’ Rain has that blissed-out sound, but lyrically it’s more metal.
Well, these are my times, we don’t live in the Seventies, and I don’t want to say, Everybody, don’t worry be happy or something. When I have my moment to say something that’s going on the record, I want to show contrasts. These times that we live in are some of the most incredibly enlightened, beautiful, awesome, and wondrous times ever in the world. But in other ways, they’re horrifying and dark, and it’s seems like we’re on the edge of some abyss. I wanted to make something that represented that. Our shoes have both the gold dust and shit on them. I was playing with that idea on the Howlin’ Rain album. People feel related to this modern, beautiful world, while in the back of their heads, they get the sense that things are fucking crazed. People’s eyes are open to that duality. And America finally has its eyes open to that, more in the last decade at least, on a mass scale.