THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 058
Greetings, friends. Hoping that this finds you in a good mood. I come to you from my cluttered office on a grey autumn day in Portland. Just how I like it.
Once again, I'm gonna bug you about supporting the XRAY fall fund drive. Some of you amazing people made donations soon after last week's newsletter went out, which blew my mind. But we still need more help. Our fundraising efforts are stagnating a bit. So, if you could head over here and donate on behalf of this newsletter, my show Double Bummer, or just me, I'd love you for it. If you donate $15 or more you'll be in the running for a prize package of vinyl records chosen by me. And for any donation, no matter the amount, I'll send you a code to download this EP by the amazing Patricia Wolf. The download is also an incentive to subscribe to this newsletter, but I have enough codes to spare that I can dangle them in front of you as a carrot to donate to XRAY.
This week, I give you an interview with Ethan Miller, the man behind Howlin Rain, Heron Oblivion, and a bunch of other incredible psych rock projects, and reviews of three new releases. Enjoy!
Though he cracked the psych rock consciousness as a member of Comets on Fire and has been swimming through similarly tuned projects like Heron Oblivion and Feral Ohms, Ethan Miller expresses himself most purely through his long-running group Howlin Rain. For nearly 20 years, that Bay Area group has joyously rambled along with that perfect combination of steely focus and loose indifference. They're just as happy to drift through a long blues-rock number as they are buckling down and getting to the meat of the matter.
The shaggy collection of tunes on the group's latest album The Dharma Wheel are some of their strongest yet. Miller and co. explore tumbledown country rock territory ("Don't Let The Tears"), watery psychedelia by way of prime influence Joe Walsh ("Under The Wheels"), and, on the potent title track, a 16-minute blend of all the artists that participated in The Last Waltz. Aiding the cause are important collaborators, like keyboardist Adam MacDougall and violinist Scarlet Rivera, a woman best known for her work as part of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue band.
Though my intent was to chop it up with Miller during their recent tour stop in Portland, conflicts prevailed and I was forced to interview the man via email. But, as you'll read below, it was still a worthwhile conversation about the creation of the new album, psychedelics, and a quick stop on memory lane.
You just got done with a run of shows with the band. How has it been to get back on stage after so many months without live music?
On one hand, it felt like eight days had gone by and we were just resuming the next run of shows right out of the back of the last few in February 2020. On the other hand, it felt like the whole earth had changed and centuries had gone by. Both feelings at once, which together created a bit of psychic disorientation. A deja vu sensation of the unbendingly familiar and the "whole new world" in a single experience. And going out and doing it while the effects of the pandemic are still very real made it a bit like walking around on a movie set of a place and event in certain cities. Some cities are still very quiet and empty feeling out on the streets in the shopping/food/entertainment districts. But it did feel like we're getting there with this whole thing and that the pressure is lifting at least in terms of the mass health danger on the West Coast.
Howlin Rain has been a going concern for some time now. Do you find that having flexed your songwriting muscles for this project for so long that its gotten easier to write new material? Do you and the band struggle with it at all?
No, I never really have struggled with songwriting for Howlin Rain. I have techniques that I use to write if things aren't just tumbling out one after the other. And I find that if you sit down and "write" for a few hours a day, it's almost impossible for things not to take shape. Just start noodling on the guitar, writing words, reading passages from poetry or novellas that you love, let all that flow freely through your brain, sing nonsense ~ these are the kinds of things I might do in a normal writing session if I don't have a song already dragging me around by the collar to get it down on the page. You just start opening windows and see who flies in.
Is it easier for you to write a fictionalized tale like "Rotoscoped" than it is something that seems to come from a personal place like "Annabelle"?
I'm a pretty strong believer that all autobiography is fiction once it's "produced" as a work and also all fiction is an autobiography of sorts. So I wouldn't make those hard distinctions between the two songs. I'd say one is a very personal sounding song and the other is a romping overview kind of mini-story, not as intimately told. Mechanically, "Annabelle" was probably an easier song to write but it definitely takes more care to get that intimate or personal feel to a song right.
I was really struck by this note from the press release on the new album: "Songs were shaped via the blast furnace of endless gigs, then recorded often mere hours after the band slipped the stage." What can you tell me about that process? Were you recording these pieces in hotel rooms? Having studio time at the ready while you were on tour?
No, we'd book studio time for days off in the middle of tour. Or I'd book them for a few days after tour in L.A. if we couldn't get in on the road.
What can you tell me about how you got Scarlet Rivera involved in the band and on this album
Our drummer Justin Smith had seen her playing in a club in L.A. and told me his wife had a conversation with her at the bar after. I asked if she might be able to get Scarlet's number for me and she did. I sent her some music and told her what we were about and asked if she'd be down to play on the record. She dug it and said yes. She was especially taken with “Annabelle."
How did the title track for this album develop? Was this something you always had in mind - to write an epic-length tune to close out the LP - or was that something came about very organically?
It actually started with Feral Ohms in 2012, another band of mine, as a smaller song and we put it aside, perhaps too much like a Howlin Rain song in it's original form. All these years later I pulled out the demo for the guys and they dug it and we took it ever further out and finished it up. A 20-year journey!
The title of the album and that song refers, obviously, to a key teaching of Buddhism. What does that symbol and that practice mean to you?
I borrowed the symbol and the idea and relocated it into this musical world. Kind of like the way Robert Heinlein relocates religious ideas and themes into his own fictional sci-fi universe. I wanted the idea to resonate in a new fictional way inside this music's world and not in a religiously personal way, though I did think the idea of the Dharma was resonating heavily in this dimension also at the time of the naming of the album, after all we'd seen and been through over the last two years as a country and a world.
An undercurrent of the press information about this album and so much of your work concerns the psychedelic experience. Are psychedelic drugs something that you still engage in? If so, what keeps you returning to that practice? If not, how important was it to you in your development as a person and an artist?
No. I haven't taken psychedelics for a while. Psychedelics do a nice job of quickly giving you a glimpse of perspective outside of our "normal" dimension and forever that little reminder hums in the back of your mind afterward. We spend most of our days and don't see the 'big' picture, we see the hillside before us but our angle is too low to see the mountain behind it and the range beyond that. Psychedelics give you this glimpse of further reaching views.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of the first Comets On Fire album. What do you remember most about that period of your creative live and working with Ben and Chris on those recordings?
I remember our rehearsal space was one half of a barely converted car garage on King Street and this student couple lived in the other half of the garage and there was no real insulation, when we were recording that album the dishes were falling out of their cupboards. We felt bad for them, but we also had to make that record!
In this years since COF ended, you've been juggling a lot of different projects like Feral Ohms and Heron Oblivion and Howlin Rain. Is that necessary for you to have multiple outlets for you to express yourself? Do you find yourself leaning harder on your work in Howlin Rain these days?
I like having multiple outlets for creativity and interactivity with different musicians. I often gravitate toward Howlin Rain because I can steer it and it can move quickly and I write the most for HR.
What comes next for you and Howlin Rain?
Hopefully more touring and we'll see if we can finish up the second volume of The Dharma Wheel.
What are you listening to / reading / watching these days?
I just finished Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain which I really dug. Now I'm reading First Blood by David Morrell. My friend Andrew Mitchell just gave me a copy for a tour book. I just watched Over the Edge, the late ’70s suburban youth gone wild flick. Amazing. I also end up watching this complete garbage show called Ridiculousness that is basically Ouch My Balls from Idiocracy. They play YouTube videos of people getting hit by cars and smashed on the head, etc., and then three L.A. celebrities that no one outside of L.A. has ever heard of discuss the events. I'm making it sound a little more elevated and considered than it is. It's the rock bottom of American entertainment culture.
V/A: The Sun Shines Here: The Roots of Indie-Pop 1980-1984 (Cherry Red)
Cherry Red Records' continued mining of the Western world's musical past for reissues and repackages continues unabated with this triple CD set homing in on the era when post-punk gave way to pop within the U.K. indie scene. All that's missing is a photograph and a tacky badge. It would feel vulgar if the music on this collection weren't so damn alluring. Producers John Reed and RA did an impressive job contextualizing this four-year stretch when the excitement and ambition of many young artists at the time were outflanking their abilities as musicians and songwriters. It was also a time when groups like the Raincoats, the Wee Cherubs, and Mo-Dettes were desperate to claim their place within the rock and pop music continuum by covering classics by Sly & the Family Stone, the Velvet Underground, and the Isley Brothers, respectively. Not as ironic pisstakes but as warm tributes. The sequencing of this set is well-considered, following a roughly chronological path from the chiming dramatics of Wah Heat! to the feedback-soaked Spectorisms of the Jesus & Mary Chain. It's a journey mapped out by a gaggle of ’60s obsessed misfits, Marxist reactionaries, and retiring romantics, all of them with visions of pop perfection that ranged from the grand (Scritti Politti's "The 'Sweetest Girl'," the Suede Crocodiles' "Paint Yourself a Rainbow") to the adorably roughshod (Grab Grab The Haddock, Ludus, Del Amitri). [Cherry Red | Rough Trade]
Craig Taborn: Shadow Plays (ECM)
In his 2017 profile on Craig Taborn, Adam Schatz referred to the pianist as "a musical omnivore" who "has so fully absorbed his influences as to camouflage them, in a musical language of casual authority." It's something I thought about a lot when listening to Shadow Plays, Taborn's latest for the venerable ECM label. The music on this album is completely improvised and recorded in a one-day session at Vienna's Wiener Konzerthaus, and through it, it's as if the buzzing energy driving Taborn's brain and body has become manifest. The music is excitable, cycling through centuries of piano music as it takes snapshot hits of Beethoven, Stravinsky, Reich, Randy Newman, Cecil Taylor, Duke Ellington, and beyond. Taborn knows the work of those composers deeply, and wisely restrains himself from spilling out a series of pastiche pieces. He's a remixer of the plunderphonic school, combining elements of his source material in unexpected and startling ways while infusing it all with his creative personality. [ECM]
MF Robots: Break The Wall (BBE Music)
The name of this London project—Music For Robots—is, according to the press release for its new album, a reference to "the generic nature of a lot of present day pop" and the "lack of real individuality and personality in ‘manufactured’ music." It's the kind of statement that has been meted out against radio pop for decades now, but feels especially silly coming from an ensemble that attempts to recreate the sound of '70s funk and disco with such detail that it has drained all the personality out of the music. Not a terribly surprising turn of events as one of the architects of MF Robots is Jan Kincaid, former drummer for the Brand New Heavies, a group that built a following by its warm imitations of vintage soul and R&B. In the case of both acts, the songwriters leave nothing to chance, which results in a sound that is undeniably fun but strangely rigid in its execution. The kind of music that feels damn good when on a dancefloor or cruising the aisles of Old Navy but feels as disposable as the so-called "'factory songwriting" that this is intended to push back against. [Bandcamp | BBE Music]
Not much work of mine to share this week, outside of my regular Oregon Arts Watch column where I interviewed Margo Cilken and Maddy O'Neal in advance of their performances here in Portland this week. I'll have more stuff out there in the world soon, though. You'll see.
What other stuff would you like to see in this newsletter? Film/TV reviews? Streaming suggestions? Concert recommendations for the Portland metro area? Recipes? Recaps of recent cricket matches? Let me know!
Thank you so much for reading this li'l newsletter. I'll be back next week with, I think, an interview with the members of ONETWOTHREE, a wonderful trio featuring the work of women who were fundamental in the Swiss punk scene in the ’70s and ’80s. Until then...
Artwork for this week's newsletter comes from Music as Notation: Music as Experiment, an exhibition on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Krakow through March 13, 2022.