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Ethan Miller, founder and leader of Howlin' Rain, speaks with both ease and consideration about what went into his band's latest effort, The Russian Wilds. The Northern California-based quintet, who are playing a Valentine's Day show Tuesday at Detroit Bar, have created what's probably their most consistent and enjoyable release to date. At just more than an hour, the near-perfect playlist seems as though it were beamed in from an FM station in 1972, a mix of classic rock and soul variety that maintains a consistent voice.
And it took a lot of effort to reach that point. "[Keyboardist] Joel Robinow and I had to rebuild the band from scratch after the last album—new bassist, new drummer," Miller says. "You can't rehearse a band for two years like that without it becoming a collective voice! These songs in their performances, in their sound aren't far off from their demos, and that time gave us the chance to hone the details and the collective voice."
But the songs still carry over the idea of Howlin' Rain continuing to change, says Miller, though "there's always surprises once you get stuff onto tape."
It also helped that the band's label boss is also their producer; Rick Rubin is no stranger to enjoying bands from when vinyl actually ruled the earth. Miller certainly didn't sound fazed when it came to meeting the challenge of recording for a still-legendary figure in the industry. "Rick's least favorite way to work is to keep songs the same way throughout an album—he wants to hear a lot of songs and choose the best 12 or whatever," he says. "We had never done that before and took that as a challenge, but we're idiosyncratic—when Rick and I listened to the first full CD of demos, and then got into a second CD, he went, 'This is intense; I have to take a break!'"
The songs that did end up on The Russian Wilds were chosen from a broad catalog. They fit together somehow, Miller says, "but they're mutants—they're assorted outcasts, the one weird standout from other albums. Without sacrificing the form of a basic song, they have strange, fucked-up branches and things growing out of them! Our version of rock & roll music is not unrecognizable, but it's a little twisted."
In particular, Miller says, "Strange Thunder" is a lengthy song moving from a stark guitar/vocal arrangement to a full-band blast that details a friend's suicide in notably fierce language. Describing the discussion he had with Rubin and others as the song came together, he remembers saying, "I gotta make sure this song is honoring this memory and this person; I can't have this be something trite for commercial purposes."
It can be a fine balance, but Howlin' Rain succeed there and throughout The Russian Wilds, and Miller is already considering the future. "We may want to go in and work fast and loose next time, not aim for perfection, because that can cause a dynamic of obsession, and it does show a bit on The Russian Wilds," he says. "But now that we did that and did those sounds, it'd be interesting to make an anti-obsession record—get tracks down through the whisky and beer and haze of smoke, warts and all! We'll see!"
This article appeared in print as "Riding In On the Winds of 1972: Howlin' Rain perfect the sound of nostalgia."