California psychedelic rockers Howlin Rain bring their Hendrix/Dead-flavored throwback jams to Richmond Music Hall At Capital Ale House tonight. Frontman Ethan Miller explains what goes into the band’s cosmic musical creations.
On Friday, February 28, Howlin Rain will bring their own unique brand of psychedelic rock to Richmond Music Hall at Capital Ale House. The acclaimed underground Oakland, CA-based band is touring behind a new live album series, Under The Wheels, while also continuing to push their latest studio recording, The Alligator Bride.
According to front man Ethan Miller, RVA show-goers should expect to hear ramped up “60s and 70s rock” infused with a bit of “Hendrix and The Grateful Dead.” On the phone, Miller — who’s also a member of Heron Oblivion and Feral Ohms, as well as running his own label, Silver Current Records — comes across as thoughtful and friendly, speaking in a slow raspy tone that reflects his California hippie roots. “You’ll see people making music the old-fashioned way,” he promises of the show with a laugh, “sweating blood up on that stage.”
For Miller and Howlin Rain, Friday’s show will mark a return to the city following last year’s performance at Stone Brewing’s Stone’s Throw Down in RVA festival on Brown’s Island. Miller had not been to Richmond before, but the experience last year and his discovery of the city itself was enough to have Howlin Rain looking forward to returning.
“I’ve traveled the whole world, really, and enjoy the thrill of discovery,” Miller explains. “Richmond is a place that is steeped in history. [Last year] I remember walking around Richmond going to record stores and getting coffee…and you’re walking by these major historical sites at every turn. That was a thrill and fascinating; the people in Richmond were really laid back and the city itself was really quite striking.”
For Miller, whose recent tour stretch saw him playing 22 shows in 19 days, travel and music go hand in hand. One of his earliest memories of rock music was traveling an hour and a half outside of his rustic Eureka, CA hometown with his dad to cut and haul firewood off the mountain of a family friend.
“We’d drive out in my Dad’s little white Toyota pickup before dawn,” Miller recalls, “and he’d be playing music on the cassette player and banging away on the steering wheel singing… Kenny Rogers’ ‘The Gambler;’ Crosby, Stills and Nash, the first album.” I ask Miller what makes that experience so memorable and he pauses a moment before answering: “The smell of his coffee in his cup,” he says, “and him banging on the steering wheel and singing along, and us going to do stuff that’s pretty exciting for a little boy… you know, chainsaws going, wood flying, us stacking it up.”
Miller, who has a deep interest in philosophy and literature, has spent the decades since pursuing the experience of creating and experiencing music. I ask him if he sees any similarities between the acts of felling trees and gathering firewood, and pursuing and producing music.
“I don’t know,” he says, considering the connection. “When you’re gathering firewood, you are kind of monster and master of your environment, and there’s a little bit of destructive triumph, I suppose, as an artist. Like times where you thought the music had you, but you end up doing it and capturing it, and completing the song or the album.”
Ultimately, though, Miller feels that his work as a musician and record label owner is more similar to the act of “creating beautiful photographs… knowing how to capture a moment and present it in the right way, without disturbing its natural essence.” He compares coming across an intriguing musical idea to coming upon something inspiring or unique in nature. The best music,” he says, “gets made when something worked so naturally all I had to do was not threaten the thing off… and I could capture it and present it.”
In addition to his bandmates, when he takes the stage at Richmond Music Hall on Friday, Miller will be accompanied by a significant co-creator in his efforts to produce and capture the music he shares with audiences: his beloved 1964 Fender Jaguar, originally a robin’s-egg blue that has long since “discolored to a rare seafoam green.” Miller purchased it in 1998 out of an airstream trailer of “really vintage stuff” behind Steve’s Music World in Santa Cruz, and it has been with him ever since.
Miller extols the attributes of the Jaguar’s “great tremolo system.” “Most guitars that stay in tune,” Miller says, “don’t have a radical action, and the ones that do have a radical action don’t stay in tune worth a shit. The Jaguar stays in tune even after taking a total beating doing diabolical whammy bar stuff.”
It took Miller two months of saving tips from delivering pizzas to accumulate the $1,400 needed to buy it. Since then, on the road, he’s had people offer him a lot of money, even one memorable offer of $6,000 just a few months after he bought it.
“It doesn’t matter what it’s worth,” Miller says. “It’s my life guitar… The reason I bought it is because I felt I’m better with it. It helps me go beyond my abilities. It’s got something it wants to do, too, and if you’re in the zone, it starts having a little bit of a life of its own.”
These days Miller has moved on from that white pickup of his childhood to the band’s Dodge Grand Caravan, with stowaway seats where they can load up their merchandise. When the band rolls into town on Friday, the audience will get to see Howlin Rain and Miller on stage going, with the help of his Jaguar, beyond their abilities.
“If you like high energy rock and roll shows and cosmic hippie music with a Hendrix buzz,” he says, “then I think you’ll love it. If you hate all that stuff,” he adds with a laugh, “then just come and check it out anyways.”
After the show, Miller and his bandmates will climb in the Dodge Caravan and pull off for “the next of many cities and tour stops” to come. The post-show drive to the next venue can be many hours long. “Sometimes the band goes quiet,” Miller says, looking at their phones and resting their ears. Often, though, he says they’ll “listen to music,” and Miller does more than his fair share of driving.
It’s not hard to imagine those dark hours of driving between venues: Music playing in the white van, the smell of coffee to keep the driver awake, Miller tapping the steering wheel as he and Howlin Rain move out yet again to another distant place — toward all those mountains and trees, all those cities and music that await.
Howlin Rain will be at Richmond Music Hall at Capital Ale House, located downtown at 619 E. Main St, tonight starting at 7 PM. Admission is $15 at the door. For more info, click here.
Top Photo by Erik Jankstrom, via Howlin Rain/Facebook