March 5th, 2008 | Interviews

Luke McGarry

Howlin Rain “Dancers at the End of Time”


Howlin Rain is Ethan from Comets on Fire plus four riled guys (Joel from Drunk House, Garrett from the Cuts, Ian from Ethan’s first-ever band and Michael Jackson and Eli Eckert on guitar) who have just released their second album Magnificent Fiend on American and Birdman. They play Wed., Mar. 5, at Spaceland and Thur., Mar. 6, at Amoeba. Ethan speaks now from his home in Oakland.

How did fifties crime novels inspire Howlin Rain?
I look at them when I’m doing lyric writing—not necessarily the subject matter, though the subject matter is super rad. Like gambling we can make it—win big or lose big, but doom is ultimately upon you. That’s always inspiring.
It is?
Well, literarily speaking, that’s good stuff! That pared-down language. In literature and poetry, crime and noir—even in film is the most pared-down you can get and yet the most expressive. They tell you exactly what the fuck—even when it’s a snappy comment or a double entendre, it’s still very much totally packed with resonance and direct. Yet really hardcore—hardcore poetry. That for me is a huge blueprint for lyric writing. Pare that shit down, like Jimmy Webb said—you got maybe two fucking verses to try and tell the whole story of the lives of these characters, and that’s a great place to look. Rather than James Joyce.
What are you thinking about when you start to write a song from nothing?
First I try to focus on a certain type of energy I wanna portray—maybe a little riffage is caught in my head, even if it’s sort of bluesy or sort of mean. I definitely run to the key of ‘A,’ but to make the riff a little darker and meaner, I think it sounds tougher with E minor or something. And for really heavy power chord riffage, I like to write in B or B minor. And it depends where you’re at at the time—for me, when I was like 24 or 25, working on early Comets stuff, I really had a lot of useful fuck-headed fire in me! I was still in that fuckhead phase—busting at the seams! Kicking against the pricks! You don’t give a fuck! Some of that more nihilistic riffage expresses that. And then if you find yourself getting a little older—‘Well, I don’t drink like 25 beers a night now—I’ll have a small gin-and-tonic and a glass of wine or whatever…’—your riffs might change a little bit. You’re not just like ‘UGGHHHH! ON THIS NEXT RECORD I DON’T CARE WHAT HAPPENS! I’LL KICK THE MOTHERFUCKERS IN THE FACE OVER AND OVER AND OVER—I WANT THE LISTENER PUMMELED AND DESTROYED!’ Obviously, Matt Pike never mellowed with age—High On Fire stomps the fucking shit out of you, and that’s great! Totally cool, but it wouldn’t be honest in my pathway. I do think it’s honest in Matt Pike’s path. I bet he’s got his heavy keys.
How much of Howlin Rain is a return to the music you grew up with?
When you’re young, you got no wisdom—your roots don’t look like your foundation. They look like shackles to you. You’re like, ‘Fuck it! I wanna break away—baby, I was born to run!’ As you get older and become a man, you get a little wisdom. You start making peace and understanding and some of your subconscious stuff trickles up. Just the meaning of the manhood and womanhood of your mother and father and stuff—different relationships in your conscious and subconscious. I do think that stuff trickles up if it’s been positive, and it also trickles up if it’s negative, and God bless folks with bad childhoods and horrible parents—they have to keep coming into contact with all these negative things they thought they finally dealt with. For me, my folks were a great foundation. I’m an only child and they left it that way—a lot of people are like ‘I want three kids!’ but then you’re working your ass off. Mine had just me, and by the time I was ten, I was traveling all over the world—living in different countries just for the purpose of doing it. I grew up a small town kid in an isolated place and if you grow up and don’t get out, it’s easy to not wanna engage with the outside world. Like ‘This is fine!’ But before age ten—before I even knew whether I did or didn’t want to do it—we were living in London and my mom would take me to art galleries and symphonies—stuff I wouldn’t forget. By the time I was 18 I’d been around the world a couple times. At that age, it’s like, ‘Well, that’s my life.’ At 25 or 28 or 30, you look back like, ‘Holy shit! I could just be hanging out reading comics and working at the 7-11 in my hometown!’ I was always fairly conscious and aware that my father and mother and myself made a team—rolling through the world together! At 18 and a lot of the end of high school, I was in super full-on fuckhead mode—‘Yeah, I know everything! I’m 18! I’m a bad motherfucker!’ But for the most part, I was conscious my folks were very unique people who moved through the world as individuals. I think my creativity all spawned from that—we’re products of our childhoods, you know? For better or for worse. As far as my deep deep passionate love for rock ‘n’ roll, I don’t know where that came from! That’s just my thing. My mom is not a huge lover of rock ‘n’ roll and neither is my dad—obviously they appreciate the fine arts, but I’m not sure they ever considered rock a fine art before I got into it.
Did you feel any opportunity panic when you first started meeting with Rick Rubin?
Not opportunity panic, but it was a little intense! ‘Whoa, holy shit—this stuff is going on!’ For a while it was just me and Rick talking on the phone, or going to the house in Malibu, and doing that very dreamy thing, which for a dreamer like me is very ‘Cool, man, wild!’ But once it’s like ‘Let’s move forward!’ then shit turns on! You’re no longer dreaming—you’re working serious details. I don’t know if I got opportunity panic—I knew something like this was what I always wanted to do with my life! I always wanted to be a musician—I mean, I am, but I wanted to be professional! I didn’t wanna work a day job until it killed my music and I just said, ‘Well, cool—I’m getting a promotion at my job…’ and all of sudden I’d just sit in the garage playing every couple of weeks, and then you get a kid and that’s it, and your instrument’s up in the attack.
Sounds like you’ve thought about this in detail.
Fucking a—everyone should! What do you wanna do? And who are you? And what can you live with in your life? I was in an interesting period—I was thirty and I’d been with a girl for ten years, and I wasn’t 22 anymore, and I needed to know with everything we’d have to go through with touring and hard work that we could make it through that together and reap some rewards from it. And if she was like, ‘Fuck, I don’t think I can make it,’ then I’d have to say, ‘Alright, cool, I’ll roll weekend-warrior style, and if shit gets into the attic, I’ll spend Saturday afternoon mowing the lawn, I’ll handle it.’ And in the end, she was like, ‘Hey, you live for this—it’s in your blood—it’s what you’re born to do.’ If I was twenty and single and living in a rathouse with four other guys in a band, it wouldn’t be intense—I’d just like, ‘FUCKKKKKK! I DON’T GIVE A FUCK ABOUT A CONTRACT! GET US A FRUIT PUNCH BOWL OF COKE AND A CONVERTIBLE AND LEMME RAGE OUT!’
What’s the most luxurious option you ever got in the studio?
We never had a budget like ‘Let’s ship a Mellotron over from Sweden!’ Comets and Howlin Rain were lucky when we got budgets where we didn’t have to make records in a weekend anymore! The first time we went to Prairie Sun Studios to record Comets, it was like ‘Fuck! We’re too tense, we’re too knotted—the vibe isn’t right! Let’s grab some red wine and go out to the field,’ and there’d be chickens running around. Prairie Sun is on a chicken farm—so let’s take a break and clear our heads and play acoustic guitar or hackey-sack or fucking fly a kite and be childlike hippies and relax for a second! We wouldn’t wanna do that for too many hours in a day but at least the budget was big enough that we could. Before, you’d just work through it—‘This is the best we can do right now, and the time has come to move on.’ And that sucks—that’s not how you make immortal albums.
Are you thinking about a new album yet?
I’ve written a lot for it. It’s gonna be different but I think I’ll just love having all this time, instead of being like, ‘I gotta get back to my day job!’ I worked at a florist—it doesn’t sound that bad, and they’re really good people, but all day I was carrying around these 25-gallon buckets full of water and flowers. Long fucking days.
Did you ever look at a flower and hate it?
No, but they tore me up—I was dealing with a lot of roses. I’d be like ‘I know this shit is character-building—it hurts my back! I know somehow I’m gonna benefit from this!’
What record do you put on when you need to unstick some ideas?
There’s a record by Keiji Haino—his first other than maybe Magical Power Mako, really his first known recording and entry into the Japanese scene. It’s like piano and vocals and I can’t remember if it’s drums or not—just a trio, really out stuff. One moment is super-operatic and amazing—he’s kind of fucking around, like, ‘Ok, it’s Haino…’ but then one thing is more melodic and ferocious and you’re like, ‘Whoa, this vision probably opened up his whole career!’ Here we go: Lost Aaraaf, PSF CD 18. The whole point is it’s something in the past I’ve used—so dense and dark and otherworldly, it’s almost a negative—almost a black hole. A lot of times really riffy ideas and melodic things and chord formations subconsciously boil up out of it. Almost like a Rorscach, or like when you see all the dots on the page and stare until an image come up—sometimes when you’re riffwriting or doing long drives and you just wanna meditate on music—sometimes it’s Haino. Some of Fushitsusha is so dense and catastrophically a black hole—it’s like sucking air out of your mind and giving you back so much. I don’t know—try it!
What did you mean when you said you play populist music?
It’s something I said that I stand by—my mind first got turned on to that when Comets were on Sub Pop, and our friend and A&R guy was having a conversation with us one day about experimental music, and I’d really thought of Comets to that point as this hard-rockin’ underground group, like ‘Straight fuckers can’t dig this!’ And they’d just put out the new Wolf Eyes record and we were diggin into it a little bit, wondering if it was gonna go with the indie kids, and he said, ‘I think it is. Underneath the fact that Wolf Eyes is a noise band from an improv place, they’re a populist rock group! Look at their live show—moves from arena rock!’ And when he said that they’re a populist group, that put it in my head——being a group that tries to engage with the populace can be something that celebrates the passion and joy and fucking raw power of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s something that serves bands—that can serve them a great deal of energy and magic, you know? That really rings true to me—I felt that way about Comets. What set us aside from a noisy band where people would be like ‘Oh God, it hurts! I don’t get it!’—a lot of people didn’t get Comets, but a lot of other people say, ‘I don’t usually like that kind of music but I love what you guys are doing!’ Trying to remain populist is… I don’t know, not necessarily serve the peoples’ ears or serve yourself, but serve the album, serve the music, serve the stage when you’re on it! If you’re true to that, you will be satisfied and they will be satisfied. Don’t think ‘How do I rewrite this to be a hit?’ Think ‘How can I write the most awesome song I can give to this album? The purest creation I can give to it?’ Then you serve yourself as an artist and serve the album.
What did you mean when you said every poet thinks the earth is losing its mind?
I said that? It’s rad having an interview with old quotes! Kristine McKenna is just the best interviewer—Elvis Costello, Dick Dale, Chrissie Hynde, Iggy Pop, Joni Mitchell—just crazy! She did one with Iggy Pop and was like, ‘So in an interview with Playboy in 1972, you said young pussy is better than old pussy—what did you mean?’ And it was in the ‘90s and he was like, ‘What?’ But to give Iggy his due—he tried to back it up. ‘What I meant was older women become self-conscious as time goes on—there’s something purer about young women because they’re not self-conscious yet…’ But you could tell she fucking nailed him! And he said it in the heat of the most nihilistic Stooges era—but it’s so rad he didn’t go ‘I was on drugs! I can’t remember shit from those five years!’ But the story about the world losing its mind—a lot of it has to do with what I was talking about, and I’m not sure if the whole world feels this way or Americans feels this way, but I was talking about the American identity post 9-11. From my generation of people—born right after or during the Vietnam war—the United States hasn’t been engaged with the world in a really horrific way like that on a scale that affects our identity. 9-11 tapped into so much: ‘Holy shit, we’re not who we think we are! We’re not in the place on the map we thought we were! Our mythology and identity is based on a myth that’s not fucking true!’ There may be that grand glorious ugly horrific set of people who are like ‘Fuck yeah, Americans! We’re at the edge of the western world and we climbed up here to get it!’ Or the people who are like ‘This is America—it’s grotesque and ugly…’ And it’s more complicated than either. There are a lot of people I bet who are peeking through their fucking hands at who we are and what this moment in time means—that’s worst case. Best case is people are starting to look—there’s a lot going on, a lot to think about as an American, to deal with who we are in the world and the fact we are in the world! I knew that shit—I lived in the world! I saw how others were—that there were others, that the U.S. wasn’t the center of the universe. Post 9-11 the blinders came off and it was a fucking crazy world! People are like ‘I’ll get anthrax in my mailbox! My identity will get stolen! China is gonna take over! We’ll be at war with Iran and Iraq and Syria!’ We’ve been at war for a long fucking time now, and that seeped into a deep part of the subconsciousness—there was a moment during the war when the whole country seemed like, ‘Enough! Fuck this! I got neighbors with kids that are dead, or my kids are dead, or my dentist who’s in the National Guard has been on three tours of duty!’ And now that’s cooled off. Because the economy cooled off. The world has been moving fast and wild and in different ways. The United States had been playing by its own rules and always had, and all of a sudden other motherfuckers played by their own rules, and that was some dark shit! Cold cold shit! The world looked like a different place. About the world going crazy—I don’t know if the world is going crazy, or if it’s just insane when we open our eyes.
How long before we can look back and laugh?
Historically or personally? I think a smart person is laughing now! You need to hold a steady gaze on your moment in history when it’s front of you, no matter if it’s good or bad—try to keep a square gaze. I’m already laughing about some of the worst shit I’ve been through or the world’s been through—one more little way to get to a different level of thinking on it. So I don’t know. That said—I think in 2010, we’re gonna have so much fucking shit on our plates, no one will worry! Well, let me make it 2020. People aren’t gonna be like, ‘Man, 2008—I was sweating it, but everything turned out fine! The environment, the middle east, all the massacres in Africa, the economy—it all worked itself out!’ 2020—there’s the problem!