Ethan Miller isn’t one to stress about the potential decline of the Bay Area’s music scene. Not anymore, at least.
“The ups and downs of it all — it’s not going to keep me up at night,” he says, sipping tea in his sunny apartment in the hills above Lake Merritt. The walls are lined with books — John Steinbeck, Paul Auster — and records sit 12-deep on the floor next to his couch. Incense fills the air. It’s a space that feels settled and lived-in, and Miller has been here for 15-plus years. He’s been a fixture of the Bay Area’s fuzzed-out rock world for even longer.
The frontman of Oakland psychedelic rock outfit Howlin Rain has been a local Sultan of Shred since his days with Santa Cruz garage-psych rock band Comets on Fire, before transitioning to Howlin Rain’s poetic, ’70s-soaked, epic rock stylings. Their self-titled debut, released in 2006, combined twangy banjo, feedback-heavy guitars, and winding song poems into a somehow logical whole. Since then, the band has released four albums — plus one live recording — each of which has a distinctive sound and feel, thanks to a regularly changing lineup. Their latest release, The Alligator Bride (2018), is a cohesive collection of sun-drenched, Crazy Horse-approved rock anthems, rife with wailing guitar solos, road warrior vibes, and Miller’s powerfully distinctive howl. It’s unlike any other Howlin Rain album, but, per Miller, that’s kind of the point.
“Here’s how I’ve always thought of Howlin Rain: I’ll create a band and I’ll lay down the gauntlet of that band’s spirit,” he says. “I’ll be the caretaker of it. But the changing band members will dictate what the flesh and blood of the thing will be.”
The nebulous nature of Howlin Rain’s membership proved to be a huge point of stress in 2014. The band had wrapped its third album, The Russian Wilds (2012), and essentially, disbanded — all of the other members opted to pursue their own projects. Miller understood, but needed to rebuild a touring band. He started making calls and struck out, again and again.
“The Bay Area was in this moment of flux — all of the musicians were fleeing to Portland and Los Angeles,” he says. “For a minute there, I was like, ‘Dude … This is a goddamn crisis!’ What does a band leader do?”
He did what any Bay Area inhabitant would do for the right gig: commute south. Way south.
“I adapted to being a Bay Area musician by commuting to Los Angeles and San Diego for rehearsals with my band!” he says.
The commute is intense, but worth it. Miller found kindred spirits in guitar player Dan Cervantes and bassist Jeff McElroy. Drummer Justin Smith joined as rehearsals began for The Alligator Bride. Miller thinks that the current lineup is the tightest, most effective iteration of Howlin Rain yet. He was so struck by the band’s chemistry, and fans’ reactions to it, that he dedicated the creation of the album to trying to capture the energy of the band live.
“I was going for almost a cinematic realism feel,” he says of the recording process. “I tried to keep all of the tracks pretty rough sketches. I didn’t want to demo them up with overdubs, or horns, or fucking glockenspiels! I wanted to capture the band speaking their native tongue.”
The Alligator Bride is the second in a conceptual trilogy that Miller developed back in 2014, when Howlin Rain disbanded and, “everything kind of disappeared, all at once.”
Mansion Songs (2015), the first album, was a representation of that moment: Miller had no band, but a lot of songs. He gathered musicians that he’d worked with previously in Howlin Rain and members from Heron Oblivion, with different groupings on different songs. He would give the band a key, but not much more direction. The resulting tracks, often recorded on the first take, were meant to capture the idea of the song coming to life, rather than the most polished version of it.
Miller had thought that the second album would go one step further, showcasing the sound of a band starting to come together and find its voice. But this grouping of Howlin Rain was way ahead of that.
“We’re already at that fully formed place,” he says. “So I’ll need to rethink what that third record is — where the story goes from here. That’s kind of fun, though. And really, who wouldn’t rather have a band over a concept?”
Miller’s waiting for that conceptual spark to come before beginning work in earnest on Howlin Rain’s next album. For that to happen, though, he needs to find some space for the ideas to come. That can be hard to come by: in addition to Howlin Rain’s often frenetic touring schedule, Miller leads two other bands, dreamy psych-folk Heron Oblivion, and scuzzy psych-punk Feral Ohms. He also runs his own record label, Silver Current Records, under which he’s releasing a few live albums, including one from local band Wooden Shjips.
“I’ve been so back to back with different projects lately that it’s been hard to find that moment of psychic vacuum,” he says. “Or, as David Lynch says, ‘When your subconscious can fall down into the deep water and see the big fish in the dark down there.’ ”
Until he takes the plunge, Miller has a West Coast tour with Howlin Rain to look forward to, including a Jan. 19 show at The Independent with Scott Law and Ross James’ Cosmic Twang and Garcia Peoples. Considering Howlin Rain’s current lineup, it promises to be a raucous, high-energy affair.
The band is “ready to climb the walls, do cartwheels and backflips and stuff,” Miller says. “Like, ‘Hey, settle down, don’t knock my amp!’ But mostly, they drive my energy up. Like, wow, we’re all looking like a Fraggle dust storm up on stage here.”
The musicians may be relatively new, but Miller thinks they may embody the quintessential Howlin Rain spirit more than any other. It’s a satisfying feeling of realization, or return. And it goes to show that, sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“That kind of summarizes the Bay Area for me, a little bit,” he says. “I’ll go to a gig at the Nightlife or the Ivy Room, and you’ll still see a lot of bands that were playing when I first started coming down from Humboldt and going to shows in the ’90s. These East Bay punk rockers are still there, still playing, and probably will until the day they die. That feels pretty magical.”
Plus, we may be just an earthquake away from another artist’s renaissance in the Bay.
“You live long enough, things change over. At some point, the earth might open up the ground, and the artists will come back because it’s all fucked up and dangerous again!” He pauses and laughs, going to tend to the whistling kettle. “‘Make Oakland Dangerous Again!’ Put that on a bumper sticker.”
Howlin Rain, Friday, Jan. 18, 9 p.m., at The Independent, 628 Divisadero St., $16-$21, theindependentsf.com