San Francico’s Howlin Rain is about to release its third full-length album, The Russian Wilds on Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label. The album, due out February 14, is also produced by Rubin. We spoke with lead singer and band founder Ethan Miller.
Congratulations on the new release, The Russian Wilds is great. It’s a pretty dynamic album, tinged with many an influence and sonic treatment. Where did you record the album, who was the engineer and how long were you tracking?
Thanks for the nice words on The Russian Wilds. We tracked the album at Fantasy Studios, a great old recording studio that’s been around since the 70s in Berkeley, and Trilogy in SF, which is another great new recording studio. Then we took the basic tracks plus most of the keys overdubs that had needed to be done while we had the access to piano/rhodes/B-3/Clavinet, etc. and went back underground to Tim Green’s Louder studio, which was still at his house in SF at that point.
We were the last band to work at the old Louder and the day after he finished mixing he moved the studio out to Grass Valley where he has built an all-new studio that is incredible. Tim Green engineered with the help of Alberto Hernandez at Fantasy and Phil Manley and Willie Samuels at Trilogy. I believe we tracked for six days at Fantasy and 4 days at Trilogy.
Rick Rubin had the role of producer. How involved was he in the songwriting process? Was he present for any of the recording? How was that relationship established?
Rick was pretty deeply involved in songwriting. We did pre-production for a long time and Rick and I went through a lot of songs, from playing for him on acoustic and us looking over lyric pages, to quick demos I’d brought to him, to sorting through final play lists of hours of full band high-quality demos to make final song lists to record for the record.
Rick would make songwriting suggestions from great to small, on one song he might say, “That’s great, I love this one, maybe it could have a little work to make the middle eight flow smoother but over all it’s great,” to “I really liked the way the chorus made me feel but the verses and the rest of it aren’t good enough” to “I think I like this one the least out of anything I’ve heard today…let’s just move on.” So from Rick, you get an honest opinion. I was actually a little surprised at how detailed he was willing to get in the work on a few of our one on one sessions working with the songs.
No, he wasn’t present for recording. Tim Green fully manned the ship for tracking and overdubs and Rick came back into the scene for mixing.
Our relationship began because he emailed me sometime in 2007 out of the blue, he’d gotten my email from Jay Babcock at Arthur Magazine, and asked if I’d like to get together with him to hang. At that point, I though it was possible he just wanted to talk about 70s Italian horror movies with a West Coast expert but it turned out he wanted to start a musical relationship and the tale unfolds from there.
I picked up underlying themes of bravery, equality and transition on The Russian Wilds as I listened to it. Any other themes you feel run throughout the album?
Loss, guilt, regret, the dark blue-black twilight just this side of redemption, but I don’t think this album actually includes much redemption. Not that I feel like it’s a downer record, there are also songs about Indian werewolves. It’s more about a deep dark Duende. Blues without the 12 bars.
You included a wonderful and rather mellow version of “Collage” by The James Gang on The Russian Wilds. What is your connection with this song?
Really not that much. I think Joel had played me a Philly soul kind of version of it that was really funky, Rotary-connection-esque, and for some reason hearing that other arrangement of the song it popped into my mind that a close harmony ethereal slightly exotic tinged version could be really beautiful and give the lyrics and narrative delivery a little higher impact.
How did you come up with the title of the album?
I was searching for a vehicle that folks could really sink into, try to figure out the meaning and how it related as a “home” to the music on the album. Where this place was in their own mind and hopefully that they would discover that that place keeps changing over time and that the meaning of the album title continues to change also.
You are about to hit the road for an East Coast tour, a west coaster and a SXSW triple-threat. What are some absolute must-haves for the tour bus?
Unfortunately, we will be in a “tour van” not a “tour bus.” Inside the van there will be a GPS named Gurtie, named after Gertrude Stein, ipods, water and books. That’s really about all that fits. Then there are often a few beers in a cooler along with a bag of chips or some utter crap like that from the gas station. When we listen to our DH Lawrence books on tape the dudes just get too horny on the long drives and it makes for a volatile environment in the van—so no more DH books on tape.
You will be in Costa Mesa, California on Valentines Day which also happens to be the US release date of Russian Wilds. How do you plan of getting romantical with your band, fans and/or songs that night?
Perhaps, just that one night we pull the DH Lawrence books on tape back out from under the bench seat and give “Sons and Lovers” one last whirl for old times sake!
Howlin Rain celebrate the release of The Russian Wilds on Saturday, February 18 at The Independent. The Soft White Sixties provide main support and Zodiac Death Valley open up with DJ Britt Gove spinning between sets. Doors are at 8:30 and tickets are $12 in advance and $14 at the door. This event is 21+.