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Ethan Miller of Howlin’ Rain

Blood, Sweat and Rehearsals

It’s been nearly a year since Howlin’ Rain booked a proper gig on their home turf in the Bay Area, but the band has a good excuse. After spending most of 2008 on the road, the band is prepping its third album under the guidance of super-producer Rick Rubin. But fear not, Howlin’ Rain returns June 27th for a show at Oakland’s Uptown Nightclub. Ethan Miller (vocals/guitar) spoke with SF Station about the new project, punk rock and his Humboldt County origins during a phone interview from his Oakland home.

SF Station (SFS): This is your first Bay Area gig in almost 11 months. What has been keeping you away?

Ethan Miller (EM): We were on tour for most of the year last year, so that kept us out of town most of the time. We did a couple little things around town, like a house party and the Outside Lands Festival. Since we got back last November, we have had our heads down and nose to the grindstone working on new material. It will be nice to play again.

SFS: How is the new material coming along?

EM: It’s good. This time around we are approaching it differently. Previously I would write some stuff and we would rehearse it for a couple of days before going into the studio to record. This time, we’ve been practicing four or five days a week since February and we plan on banging away like that until we record sometime in the late summer or early fall. I think it will bring different vibes with those kinds of intensive rehearsals and more developed preproduction.

SFS: Is this your first record exclusively with American Recordings?

EM: The vinyl will still come out on [Oakland indie label] Birdman, but the album is through American.

SFS: Is that creating more pressure?

EM: I don’t know. In a way, there is less pressure because we kind of have direct orders from Rubin to write a great record and rehearse the hell out of it until it’s in a transcendent place. I’m sure every label would like to have an artist do that, but when you are on time and money constraints -- especially in the indie world -- you kind of need to just get going to do it in a timely fashion. There is a certain majesty and artistic freedom when you don’t set a date on the calendar for the studio and you record when you feel like the songs are the very best they can be.

On the other hand, we are going to make a record with Rich Rubin. It’s a little different than the usual: going in and cracking a few beers and making a record.

SFS: That must also be exciting, considering his track record.

EM: It’s exciting and he’s a fun guy to work with. Other than my relationship with Tim Green [who produced previous Howlin’ Rain recordings], I’ve never worked with a producer who has the sole job of guiding the project from beginning to end.

Rubin is really good at putting people at ease and getting them into a naturalist view for making art and music. It takes the pressure off, even though he’s got that heavy rap sheet.

SFS: How did growing up in Humboldt County shape you as a musician?

EM: It’s kind of hard to be objective about that. Eureka is a small town and Humboldt County is kind of up there at the edge of the earth in California. There is a little David Lynch-vibe around there. On one had you have a kind of small town shit-kicker vibe, but there is also a lot of art and culture. It created kind of a weird vibe.

There was a pretty amazing punk rock scene there when I was getting into my junior high school years. The first shows I went to were local punk shows that actually also had a lot of bigger bands from the East Bay punk and the Gilman scenes.

There was a real creative and nihilistic vibe to the punk scene. They weren’t virtuosic musicians but they could crank up their amps and create really amazing music with transcendent energy without a lot of musical knowledge. It was by using sheer force and will. That’s the whole deal with punk rock, and I was lucky enough to see that type of music and let it inform me and influence me to create music.

SFS: That’s interesting, considering your songs have technical arrangements and are far from the punk-rock template.

EM: Some people learn from punk rock and they just want to play punk rock for the rest of their life. I don’t feel like I turn my back on the things that I get into, but I feel like I devour the things I get into and then move on to the next. I loved Bad Brains, Misfits and Dead Kennedy’s just as much as I later loved Weather Report, Steely Dan, or whatever else. It just keeps going around and around. I like to keep walking and keep moving.

No matter how good you get, when you are self-taught though punk, I think there is always going to be a little something that will inform you. One thing that I saw was the best bands would be drenched in sweat by the end of the second song. I loved it when it looked like they were burning up every calorie in their body when they were onstage. I would rather give up a couple bars of proper music to some sweat and blood onstage. I try to keep some of that in the music as well, no matter how technical it gets.

Howlin’ Rain performs June 27th at the Uptown Nightclub. Tickets are $10 and doors open at 9pm.