I stare down from the balcony, shocked. What had started as a disagreement between a music fan and the police had escalated into a full-blown riot. The police had responded to noise complaints and decided to shut down the concert. The first band, Couch of Eureka, had already played. While Hookah, another local band, was setting up, the Eureka Police Department literally decided to pull the plug. Now I watched, horrified and fascinated as the police punched local punk rockers and attempted to subdue the whole scene.
The year was 1994, I was 16, and this was my initiation into rock and roll.
We had come to see Hookah, fronted by Ethan Miller, one of my closest friend’s cousins. The band played stripped-down dirty rock/punk rock music and I had become an early fan. Ethan was visibly upset and kept apologizing to us, as we had made a two-hour drive to come down to see him and his band. We retired to his house as he went to the Humboldt County jail in an attempt to bail out some of his friends.
Since that time, I have closely followed Ethan’s musical career, perhaps closer than any other artist. From the early, simple music of Hookah, to the mostly solo four-track recordings of “The Philistine Swine” while in college, to the more popular and critically acclaimed Comets On Fire and Howlin Rain, Ethan has had an incredible evolution as a singer, songwriter and artist. While he’s lived in various parts of the state, his music has always had a distinctly “California feel” to it, especially the more recent material with Howlin Rain.
After signing with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings in 2007, Ethan was finally able to quit his day job and focus solely on life as an artist. I used to marvel at the fact that he would tour with Sonic Youth while in Comets, then return home to the Bay Area where he worked at a floral shop delivering flowers.
So what happens when you’re not touring, not recording but living day-to-day life as a musician? I caught up with Ethan recently and discussed what he’s been up to, why the Grateful Dead matter, his Humboldt roots, and how obsessively listening to Miles Davis can drive your spouse nuts.
BEN: Your last album, “Magnificent Fiend”, was released more than two years ago. Howlin Rain has played only a handful of shows in the past year. Where has most of your creative time and energy been focused in the past 12 months?
ETHAN MILLER: Ninety-five percent of my time and energy has been focused on writing and rehearsing the next album. I jog some days and watch some television at night and read in the morning over tea. Cook dinner, buy groceries, shower. The rest is writing, arranging, rehearsing, listening back meticulously to every rehearsal (which I record), rewrite, rearrange, rehearse, record, listen back, make changes, rearrange, rehearse, record, listen back — OK, the arrangement sounds pretty good; let’s just keep rehearsing. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Some days feel like a bit of a hamster wheel and other days are full of “A-Ha!” moments or “Eureka!” moments, perhaps more appropriately. It is an experiment in a highly structured regimen to enhance the quality and scope of our creative output.
B: Not having a “typical” day job, do you ever wake up and wonder what you’re going to do that day?
E: Unfortunately no, I haven’t really woken up and really wondered what I would do today since I was in my early 20s. That’s not to say that some extraordinary things that I never could have imagined or some strange trip haven’t filled out the hours of a day that otherwise seemed normal when I awoke. But sadly I believe most of us rely on the order of our working lives to make sense of our lives as a whole. Those of us who don’t have a forced structure create our own born from the same impulses and work ethics. It is the most sad and interesting part of the American dream to be willing to work yourself to death in an obsessively ordered fashion to try to obtain the right to break that work regime and break that order that constricts your life. We all work our whole lives to try to get to a point that we don’t have to work. In true American form, it seems to be a cycle that runs on perseverance and change in the short term, and yet in
the long term continues to yield cyclical results. When I was younger I was much more of a free spirit and did awake some days and wonder, “What will I do today? What will happen of all the infinite roads in front of me? I’ll just walk out onto the street and let the wind catch me.” Those days are long gone. What I do now when I awake is follow and build upon structure that I have created.
B: Is it ever hard for you to remain motivated to do so much writing and arranging?
E: Usually not; I am a very motivated person, especially when it comes to my own art. Arranging sometimes can bog you down if you are chipping away on a song that just won’t work right for you but you believe it is good and just won’t sit down right. That can become a little obsessive and a bit of a drag — an extended boxing match. But I love to write; the initial burst of inspiration and the song flowing out onto the page in front of you … sometimes hours can pass like seconds if you are writing a good song that is writing itself and just spilling out. Many days I have awoken to a song and sat down with my tea and robe and slippers in the morning while the fog is still burning off the hills and all of a sudden I look up and the sun is going down outside and I’m still sitting there with my robe and slippers on and a cup of cold tea and a lot of sheets of new lyrics and chords across the floor and table. That is one of the most wonderful feelings a songwriter can have. The “runner’s high” of the songwriter’s world.
B: So, would you consider yourself a prolific songwriter?
E: Yes, I would. Fairly prolific anyway.
B: Although the band has only been together four years, you’ve lost five members. Do you intentionally approach projects focused on yourself as primary songwriter/frontman with a rotating cast of collaborators, or has it been difficult to keep a solid group together?
E: People come and go in groups and that is just the way it is. Ask any group on any level, no matter how great or little their ambition, if it is difficult to keep a group together and the answer is always YES. You know when you get together for Thanksgiving with the family and the first three days everyone is on their best behavior? Then days four through seven, people start to nip at each other a bit, then a snowstorm hits and no one can go home, and the second week real ugly fights are breaking out … and even more dangerous are the quiet strange social subplots that begin to unfold between the different family members. By week three, the airport is still closed and all rental car agencies are sold out for two weeks … The fights aren’t vocal anymore; each family member is beginning to let themselves go physically — drinking to excess, bags under their eyes, the shakes, swearing that if they ever get out of here they will disown the others. The storm rages on and at some point in week four, the power has gone out and the food is gone and as everyone hunkers over a small fire of furniture in the attic and prepares to freeze to death and starve simultaneously there is one last moment through the shivering and the tears of, “I didn’t mean what I said. I do love you guys. I’m glad we die together.” Take that scenario, put it in a much smaller environment (like a five-seat van for 10 hours a day) and amplify it times five years instead of five weeks, and that’s basically it.