What’s there to be said about Howlin’ Rain that we haven’t said already? Having recently released a terrific third album, the band is currently touring the west coast in support of the record. The Russian Wilds has been released to critical acclaim, on this site and many others, something that’s not lost on the band. Though their successes are apparent, what many don’t know is the long, arduous climb it took for the band to get where they are now.
Before inking with American Recordings, bandleader Ethan Miller was in Comets On Fire, a band with a different type of psychedelic, blues-rock as compared to his current outfit. When he first formed Howlin’ Rain, Miller was writing in his spare time for what began as a sideproject, that is, when he was in indie faves Comets On Fire. In 2008, Comets more or less ceased to exist as a band, opening the door for Miller’s other outfit to take center stage.
It was around then when the frontman got a fateful phone call legendary producer Rick Rubin. “He contacted me out of the blue,” Miller said. “He invited me up to his house to have a hang and we talked about music and eventually working together.” Though he didn’t say yes immediately, the band eventually signed with the producer’s label. “It was a hard thing to pass up, especially knowing Rick’s chops as an artist and producer that I admire so much,” he continued.
Before, the band had a formula to how they wrote and recorded their albums. Almost like clockwork, Miller would write the material, the group would head into the studio and record it, and then head out on the road for about a year, then head back into the studio with new material. This is what worked for the band and was their way of doing things, until this album
The making of The Russian Wilds is unlike anything Miller has done before. Believe it or not, the album has been in the works for nearly four years. Over that time, the group had to replace three of its five members, with only Miller and keyboardist/guitarist Joel Robinow remaining from the original lineup. Before this album, Miller said that the writing process was quick, but this time, not so much.
“We toured for a year behind Magnificent Fiend and we worked for three years solid without doing other things and unlike anything we’d done before,” Miller said. “It was a huge difference and something that shook our whole lives to the foundation. Our lives were revolving around this one project.” After two years of working on the album, the band passed what Miller labeled as the point of no return, where many bands would scrap the projects due to the huge financial cost in making the record. Fortunately for both Howlin’ Rain and legions of music fans, they kept going.
Working with Rubin had both its positives and drawbacks. “From a creative standpoint, Rick was incredible,” Miller said. “He has a profoundly unique mind and ear about music. The time that I’ve worked with Rick and the influence that he’s had has been incredible. The way his ears hear music, he can tell what’s really popping and what’s alive.” However, working with a legend who has his hand in so many projects was tough because of his busy schedule. Despite having to start and stop over the years, the band wouldn’t trade working with Rubin. “He has a really great way of hearing a song and making it the best it can be. It’s a very powerful thing.”
Having a sound that has been compared to Mountain, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, the group’s brand of rock is a throwback to an era when heavy blues riffs were king in the rock world. That being said, when it came time for the band to choose an album title, they decided on The Russian Wilds because they wanted something abstract, yet would represent the journey that they were on during their time recording and has an open-ended meaning as well. “It’s not just called Party On and good for your Friday night or whatever, and then five years from now you’re a different person,” Miller explained. “We want this music to still serve you because it’s so rich and has complexity that can change with a person, at least that’s what we’re hoping for.”
Howlin’ Rain has a busy next few months upcoming. In addition to their current west coast run, they’re heading down to the southwest, culminating in several performances at SXSW. Making up for lost time on the road, the band isn’t stopping there. They’re going to hit the Midwest, work their way back to Seattle for Sasquatch and then head to Europe for festival season over there. Though they broke their usual cycle of doing things in order to make this record, the San Francisco-natives are excited to back on the road and if you want to see a band that’s about to hit their stride, then this is the one for you.