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.
Originally published in Arthur No. 24 (August 2006)
A slightly injured and slightly drunk Sunday afternoon with the Sharp Ease: singer Paloma Parfrey is tipsy with a beer and a bent trumpet and one sprained ankle, still limping after the part in last night’s show when she fell into a hole in the stage. But Sharp Ease write off injuries instantly. Two shows ago, Paloma had scribbled some broken glass all over her arm, and she was completely recovered within hours. That’s the resilience of the Los Angeles native—the same thing that keeps coyotes and deer poking around the edge of Echo Park also keeps the Sharp Ease alive and thriving. Early 45s like “T-Spin” and first album Going Modern (released last year on olFactory Records in cooperation with LA’s landmark all-ages space the Smell) outlined the Sharp Ease sound: Pixies and Slits with sax (by Anika Stephen) and keys (by Paloma’s brother Isaac) and cut-above lyrics by Paloma, who grew up in a commune and graduated into teenage rock ‘n’ roll band the Grown-Ups before she even graduated high school. Newest EP Remain Instant finds Sharp Ease recovering after a line-up shake-up (longtime producer/supporter Rod Cervera played guitar on this one, following original guitarist Sara Musser) for seven of their best new songs about life in still-unheard Los Angeles—the never-seen-on-TV co-ops and galleries and collectives that keep an out-of-breath outsider community breathing, where the Sharp Ease play their shows and sprain their ankles. Paloma and bassist Dana Barenfeld, drummer Christene Kings and new guitarist Aaron Friscia meet for beer and photographs at Paloma’s 1957 Airstream trailer.
Arthur: Paloma, exactly what kind of commune did you grow up in?
Paloma: My parents were both extremely politically active and they decided to join this commune after I was six months old to be able to protest regularly and feed the homeless. It was this thing in East LA—the Catholic Worker. It’s Christian-oriented, but not like hyper-Christian. Their work is to serve the hungry and protest nuclear weapons. So I’ve been protesting since I was six months old.
Christene: Paloma came out of the womb with a NO NUKES sign.
C & D: Two guys reason together about some new records
AKRON/FAMILY Meek Warrior (Young God) C: [Looking at publicity photo of band] I’m surprised these guys haven’t featured in Arthur magazine yet. They appear to meet many if not all of this magazine’s apparent requirements for coverage. D: What, they have beards? C: Yes. I think the magazine is pretty clearly a beards-only policy. It’s pretty clearly where the underground beard was re-born. Or should I say, re-grown. Remember Alan Moore on the cover of Arthur No. 4? D: That was a beard to be reckoned with. No razors and shaving cream in the Moore household! C: Total ‘Lord of the Beards.’ On the other hand, Alan’s finger armor stylings haven’t caught on yet. D: I will keep an eye out for the beard as we check out these records today. I assume there will be ladies, too? C: Yes, of course. D: Who presumably are not of the bearded variety. C: One never knows, does one? [arches eyebrow meaningfully] Anyways, Akron/Family not only have some beardage, they have four-part harmonies, great cascading drumflows, sprawling late Trane skronk, and that’s all on the first track! I saw these guys once in L.A., they were like a devotional Animal Collective… D: [smiling upon hearing the refrain “Gone, gone, gone/gone completely beyond.”] Ah yes. Beyond. One of my favorite places. C: [ignoring, continuing] … in Oshkosh overalls, without the echo delays. Like Lubavitchers gone Sun Ra or Ya Ho Wha— D: Say wha? C: [snobbishly] Those who know, know. [continuing] They were awesome, in complete uni-mind synch. The audience made backward-and-forward ocean ripples and sounds at their command: ‘Shhh, shhh.’ It was beautiful.
BEACH HOUSE Beach House (Carpark) C: Lovely—possibly perfect?—debut album from this girl-and-boy lovebird combo who sound like they’re living down by the sea on some magic moonlit beach that stretches from France to Baja to Bali. D: [looks at biographical notes and photo] Actually they live in Baltimore. And there is no beard. C: Waiter, get this man a beard, se vous plais. D: [ignoring] But Victoria Legrand— C: Is that a real name??? D: —is definitely a lady. A lady who knows how to wear an aqua dress. C: [looking at the photo] And a big gold amulet as well. D: I would say this is late summer music, recorded at the beach house after everybody else has gone back to the city. C: It’s kind of minimal naturalismo—organ, drum machine, gorgeous female voice: Stereolab, minus le krautrock propulsion. Midway between Brightblack slow-to-stillness, Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” melancholism and Air and another Carpark artist, Casino vs. Japan. Also, what the heck, I’ll throw in that first Bjorn Olson record on Omplatten [Instrumentalmusik: Instrumental Music…to Submerge in…and Disappear Through, 1999]. Nordic beaches. As you can see, D, it’s a very particular, yet universal, mood. I see soundtracks in their near-future. [picks up phone] “Hello, Beach House? This is Sofia…” D: Her voice reminds me a bit of Sigur Ros. Hey, whatever happened to those guys? It’s like they evaporated. C: She can really SING, when it’s called for, which is in creamy middle of the album on the song “Auburn and Ivory.” D: Is Auburn the new Ebony? C: All the songs have some sophisto pop songwriting going on: bridges, key changes, et cetera. And the sounds… when the organ comes in on “House on the Hill,” it’s like Captain Nemo down in the Nautilus playing pipe organ for the octopi. Whew! Can you imagine these guys with a big budget…? D: Ahoy! Captain Nemo: ANOTHER famous bearded musician.
MICK BARR & ZACH HILL Earthship (5RC) C: New summit album by underground instrumental speed kings: guitarist Mick Barr of Ocrilim, and drummer Zach Hill of Hella. It’ll tighten yer wig! D: Well, I won’t need coffee for the next five months. C: They’re going in for the kill like two old ladies speed-crocheting. Mind the wheedlework. D: They are the speed criminals who no doubt are under surveillance by the authorities of rock. There’s a NEW MOTHER IN THE TEMPLE if you know what I mean! C: It does have that High Rise/Mainliner/Musica Transonic thing going a bit. Ah, Japan. Some people may also be put in mind of the Peter Brotzman Octet classic assault album, Machine Gun. D: That’s a ripping title, “Earthship.” [considers] If you lived there, you’d be home by now. C: Sometimes they’re against each other, sometimes they unify. D: I must ask: is there a beard? C: [looks at publicity photo] Have beard, will rock.These guys are the opposite of Sunn o))): they do as many notes and beats as possible per hour. It’s anti-void music, filling everything with sound. D: Without the benefit of riffage. C: There ARE riffs—you just need to adjust your attention to catch them. It’s condensed free rock. Like the instruments are too hot to handle. Except for this one song I keep coming back to… [plays “Closed Coffins and Curtains.”] D: Whoa! What…is…THAT??? C: It’s like some super-processed symphonic tri-guitar. Like what that weird Godley & Creme instrument was supposed to sound like, remember that? The Gizmo. They made a whole triple-album with it, and Peter Cook too. Bonkers stuff. D: [playing the 30-second track again] I am totally spooked. [musing] Perhaps if Mr. Ocrilim slowed down and contemplated like this occasionally, he’d get to somewhere really rewarding. C: Rewarding to you. D: [laughs] Of course, me! Who else matters?
THE HORRORS The Horrors ep (Stolen Transmission) D: [Reading song titles] They have a song called “Sheena Was a Parasite”? I worship them already. C: Frantic organ and guitar-driven psychobilly freakbeat rock’n’roll by five sharply dressed’n’coiffed Dickensian Brits from the belfry. D: They look like they live in chimneys and spend all day drinking red wine and listening to The Cramps, Tav Falco & Panther Burns…probably the Hives too, and the Birthday Party and Screaming Jay Hawkins (who they cover here) and Screaming Lord Sutch and of course the right honorable Arthur Brown. I think they like bourbon and some pretty nasty stuff. C: [listening to “Excellent Choice”] They’ve got a good look and a good sound and they seem up for a good party. They’ll come to your town and help you burn it down. And then dance in the ashes.
PRIMAL SCREAM Riot City Blues (Capitol) C: They’re been around approximately forever. And this is their once-a-decade “rock n roll is dumb fun” concept record, apparently. [C & D cringe for 15 minutes] C: Talk about the horrors. D: Where’s the pooper scooper? C: Rock n roll should be fun, it can be stoopid, but it should never, ever be tedious. One hates to witness someone failing at slumming. It’s embarrassing to all involved. Does [Primal Scream singer] Bobby Gillespie seriously think this band can boogie? Ha ha ha. Poor Mani… D: [thoughtful] Every once in a while an object is mysteriously withdrawn from stores by its manufacturer shortly after its introduction. That kind of decisive action may be appropriate here.
THEUSAISAMONSTER Sunset at the End of the Industrial Age (Load) C: You will recall that both members of THEUSAISAMONSTER are members of Black Elf Speaks, which is one of the great band names ever. D: What did Black Elf have to say? C: I don’t know, it was this kind of gibberish? But it seemed important. [sadly, as if narration] ‘And Black Elf spoke, but no one could understand what he said.’ D: [helpfully] Maybe he had something in his mouth. C: …. D: Or, he might have a speech impediment. C: … D: [looking at album cover] Naturally I am wondering, what kind of monster? C: Probably some kind of troll. On PCP. D: That’s pretty negative. … Um…. Idiocracy got you down again? C: Yeah… Between seeing that and re-reading Chris Hedges’s War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning last week, I guess I’m feeling more bleh about human life than ever. The idiots don’t know when to stop. And there’s more and more of them. They want war and fast food and spectacle. They’re bad at learning. We’re outnumbered, and it’s only getting worse because the herd never gets culled, since we lack exterior predators. D: [considers] No more trolls. C: What are we gonna do? I don’t see a way out. Ah, hell. Maybe that’s why the industrial age is going to end, as it says here on the album cover. [reading from the press sheet] “Of course The USA Is A Monster wants to turn the tide and prepare us for the time after the lights go dim on Western Civilization’s exhaust pipe party.” Sounds good to me! Let’s engage. [starts “The Greatest Mystery”] D: YEARGH!!! THUNDERAMA! C: Whoa. [45 minutes later…]Whoa. D: A shining path indeed! Was that all one song? C: Unbelievable, just ridiculous. The Who, Bruford-era Kid Crimson, Oneida, minutemen, Lightning Bolt, Liars, Rush. Homeopathic progrock with a lot of heavy spiritual-political truths and theories (“We are only holograms”) and jokes and accusations (“You’re a liar! And a CROOK!”) and digs (“My favorite subject is…me!”). That last song, the three-section “The Spirit of Revenge”… D: What a giant marching groover that one is! These guys must be super-fit. I’m guessing it’s a lentil and walnut-heavy diet.
WOLF EYES Human Animal (Sub Pop) D: [listening to “A Million Years”] This makes me insanely happy but I can’t put my finger on why exactly. C: I feel like it’s 4am at the docks and we’re hearing the soundtrack to some new-millennium industrial-environmental horror show. To update Funkadelic: Mother Earth is REALLY screaming now. [listening to “Lake of Roaches”] Especially now that these noise dudes have a horn. Yikes. D: I see scrapheap monsters vomiting spare parts and microchips. C: Urgh, this is uncomfortable in a really good way, like a good ol’ Khanate death-slog through the bog. It’s the feel-nothing hit of the fading summer. D: “Rusted Mange” sounds like somebody getting run over. C: “Leper War” is more queasy listening. I’m thinking of torture gardens and animal abuse science labs. All the atrocities going on behind the curtain. Machines playing with their prey. Angry dogs chomping on kids’ talking playtoys. Trains full of prisoners. D: [thoughtfully] This is music to blow up Monsanto to. C: Wolf Eyes: for when you want to detonate your day.
Originally published in Arthur No. 24 (September 2006)
THE NEW HERBALIST By Molly Frances
Fall is here. Embrace the wisdom of the squirrel and gather up your nuts. We need them more than they do.
One of the most ancient of foods, walnut fossils have been found dating from the Neolithic period over 8,000 years ago. Rumors of the walnut groves in the hanging gardens of Babylon have been circulating for some time, and King Solomon is said to have often strolled among his walnut trees “into the garden of nuts to see the fruits of the valley” (Song of Solomon 6:11).
In the Middle Ages, the “Persian” walnut became known as the “English” walnut as colonial-minded English sailors carted off loads of the nutty bounty and spread them about Europe, and eventually the “new world.”
Jupiter’s royal acorns, as the ancient Romans liked to call them, bear a suspicious resemblance to the human brain. That makes walnuts brain food in every sense of the word. They’re loaded with Omega 3 essential fatty acids, vitamin E, and minerals necessary for mental and heart health. It’s no coincidence that as our intake of omega 3s have decreased drastically, depression and heart disease have risen. Get this, slim jim: Your brain is 60% fat, and cell membranes will build themselves out of whatever fats are available. Omega 3s are the optimum choice, but most people fill up on omega 6s, found in polyunsaturated vegetable oils and animal products. An imbalance skewed towards Omega 6 fats are associated with inflamation, degenerative diseases, and mental disorders of all kinds, including increased violent activity. Sound like anyone you know?
Dr. Andrew Weil believes that the lack of Omega-3s in our diet is “the most serious nutritional deficiency we have in this country.” This deficiency is believed to be responsible for a wide range of diseases such as alzheimer’s, arthritis, ADD, diabetes, heart disease, PMS, and severe and manic depression. Omega 3 oils are found in oily fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and sea greens such as hijiki and kombu. They are essential for retinal function and vision, immunity, promoting good cholesterol, and cancer prevention.
Got the blues? Skip the sundae and go right to the nuts. Omega 3s stabilize moods and increase energy levels. They are also beauty oils, keeping skin youthful and glowing and hair soft and shiny. Get healthy and happy by replacing some of those 6s with 3s. How about a handful of walnuts as a snack or on a salad? How about some ground-up flax seeds? Why not? Let’s all learn how to cook up some delicious sea greens like Hijiki; it’s fun to say and more fun to eat.
Make certain to store shelled walnuts in the refrigerator (up to six months) to keep the oils from going rancid, as they can become carcinogenic. Chopped and ground nuts go bad more quickly than whole raw nuts. You can tell a bad bag of nuts by the smell – if they have the aroma of oil paint throw them away.
Enjoy a bag of organic raw walnuts or whole fresh walnuts from your local farmer’s market. Nothing says “I have arrived” like a big bowl of walnuts on your table and a nutcracker placed just so. You’ll have a potential moneymaker on your hands as well, playing the shell game with your friends. The increased walnut-fueled brain power is sure to benefit your sleight of hand.
Psychic Surveillance: Hi-tech wizardry and ESP come together at this mystic parlor in Stockton, CA. How can you augment your powers of perception?
Applied Magic(k): Magic(k) Calls by the Center for Tactical Magic
Originally published in Arthur No. 24 (August 2006).
The ancient oracles of Greece, which served as messaging centers between the gods and the mortals, did not shy away from associating metaphysical affairs with technological wizardry. Visitors to the oracles marveled as doors opened, fountains poured forth, and lights flickered all of the their own accord, thanks to an innovative use of hydraulics, pneumatics, levers, weights and balances. Such high-tech engineering (for the times, anyway) not only served to set an appropriate magical tone, but also held the potential to assist in conveying messages from the gods. Although more than 2,000 years old, this blend of magic(k) and tech stands in stark contrast to many of today’s expressions of magic(k). What is it about technology and magic(k) that leaves so many magic(k) practitioners hiding in the folds of their anachronistic robes and tuxedos?
Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the inventor credited with the notion of global satellite communications, once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” At the surface, such an assertion may seem simple enough; however, there are a few layers to excavate here. Some interpret this to mean we have reached an age where we are quite impressed by our own inventions. The workings of our gadgets have become increasingly imperceptible, if not due to sheer miniaturized size of the parts, then surely due to the veils of specialized knowledge. In the end, we don’t know how a given technology, a cell phone for instance, even works nor do we particularly care so long as we can talk on it when we need to. We take it for granted that there is a technical logic behind the engineering of a cell phone.
For some, that brief insignificant moment of faith in technology is comparable to magic(k)—after all, many (if not most) magic tricks are successfully performed along these very lines. Any enchantment whatsoever is overpowered by the puzzle that remains to be solved. The audience does not wonder if it is “real” magic(k); they wonder at how it is accomplished. While the overall effect may still be enough to satisfy and entertain, the method remains cloaked in secrecy and illusion. Likewise, when a technology performs its prescribed function, we tend not to ask any questions, and thus the mysteries of its inner workings are obscured to all but those with specialized knowledge. This certainly has some parallels with the way some view magic(k), equally in the realms of the occult, entertainment, and perhaps politics as well.
However, the magic(k) of a “sufficiently advanced technology” is not simply manifested solely by its ability to perform its prescribed function without one’s understanding of how it works. Magic(k) teases questions of “what?” and “why” just as much as “how?” Aside from the general mystery of its inner workings, a cell phone appears to be no more magical than a wristwatch or a solar-powered calculator largely because of our familiarity with it and the banal circumstances under which it is used. But when we take a moment to really consider what a cell phone does, we begin to scrape away at another layer of meaning. We act like it’s nothing, but when we use cell phones, our disembodied voices are transmitted invisibly via remote towers networked to celestial satellites (invented by Arthur C. Clarke, remember) floating somewhere in the heavens, before bouncing back to earth to be received by another living person located perhaps thousands of miles away. And this all happens in “real-time.” Is it becoming more difficult to distinguish between technology and magic(k) yet? Well, let’s keep going…
Mission Creeps: One of Us Is Not as Dumb as All of Us
For the first time in history, the average American is as informed as the president, whose grasp of world affairs is Power Point deep. From what Americans can tell by looking at the current clusterfuck on television is that Palestinians are like Mexicans: fierce sons of bitches with the same preference for moustaches and shitbox stucco. The type of people that swarm over fences erected in the middle of a desert in order to get at civilization. Palestinians need to get out of the street and stop their kids from throwing rocks. Go home and take a bath. I mean really, were they raised in a hovel?
The British gave Israel to the Jews fair and square. If that isn’t enough to get these so-called Palestinians high on Zion then maybe they need to check out a little real estate document called the Bible which makes it clear who belongs “down among the Philistines,” wherever that is.
Israel has been a gracious host. If I was Israel I would force these wandering Arabs into a voluntary “Back to Palestine” movement modeled on the deal we had with Marcus Gravy and the coloreds. Nothing is too good for these guys, and that’s exactly what they get.
The mandate of America, cobbled together from innate prejudice, televison news, propaganda from football coaches masquerading as high school history teachers demands that we bomb any building that hates super double freedom and the fries that come with it. Then strafe whoever runs from the wreckage.
Our leaders won’t let one of these bleeding head liberal house Arabs doubletalk us into getting specific about which Arabs did what. The known knowns of what we now know we did know then doesn’t matter anymore. It’s racialistic to discriminate.