Like anyone who has ever played in a band knows‚ sometimes things go horribly wrong. What everybody doesn't know‚ is that sometimes when things go horribly wrong it's just the first step in everything turning out right. Ethan Miller has spent the last decade writing and playing guitar with Comets on Fire‚ a band that at times can produce positively terrifying bursts of hard psychedelia. He'll be the first to admit that sometimes things would develop into "some K-hole of jamming‚" but that awfulness would create a new species of live energy all unto itself.
In recent years‚ wanting to explore new territories of pop and rock‚ and test his true vocal capabilities‚ he started the classic rock side project‚ Howlin Rain. A true testament to both Miller's guitar prowess and to his ear for great music‚ Rain is far more structured than Comets‚ and his licks and tones are focused in a way that seems near impossible to come from the Comets on Fire guitarist. As amazing as his sonic destruction was in that band‚ his phenomenally smooth touch is even more mystifying in Howlin Rain. Their second release‚ Magnificent Fiend‚ is a showcase of possibly his most brilliant songwriting and guitar playing to date‚ and a showcase of the wonder that can arise in testing new waters. I recently took some time to talk with Ethan via phone in Oakland. We talked about what keeps pushing him forward‚ why metal heads should listen to Mozart‚ and why we should all praise God that Jimmy Page stole from Jeff Beck.

We're big fans of the new Howlin Rain album [Magnificent Fiend] over here. We rock it a lot. So I was wondering‚ when you first started Howlin Rain a few years ago‚ what was the intention? Was it a side project to get away from Comets On Fire for a little while‚ or were you thinking of something to maybe take a lot more of your time up‚ or what was it?
Yeah‚ you know‚ I guess both of those things. After you make four albums with a band over like eight or nine years or whatever it is‚ you realize that there's certain musical truths to the group and exploring certain pathways just aren't going to be on the table. Comets is never going to go into a more pop realm or something like that‚ or mixing super modern sound‚ which Howlin Rain doesn't do either‚ but just as an example that you realize‚ hey‚ if I want to do this‚ if I want to explore these territories‚ it's proper and more true to the group if you go somewhere else to do it. And a group like Comets just in its own living entity as a five-piece just sort of rejects what it doesn't want. So there was that‚ and I thought‚ Well‚ it takes so long to make records. [Ben] Chasny has Six Organs [of Admittance] and stuff‚ so it wasn't always fully functioning. Yeah‚ I guess for purposes of exploration and control‚ and just spending more time working on music and stuff‚ all those things.
So is Comets still happening? Is it on the back burner or what?
Yeah‚ it's kind of on the back burner‚ but we've got some shows in France coming up‚ and‚ you know‚ we'll see. We talk about doing some more recordings and songs. Right now it's a little overwhelming trying to fire on multiple engines.
I bet. But everybody in both bands are still blissful with one another? There's no animosity from the Comets people that you're taking time to do other things?
You know‚ I'm not sure‚ but I would hope not.
So you're writing most of the music for Howlin Rain‚ right?
Do you have the full vision of these songs when you bring them to the table‚ or is it sort of like you have an outline of things and the sound is coming and developing from the rest of the guys in the band along with you? What kind of process is going on there?
It's a little bit of both. I try to just push myself with the songwriting and use experimental techniques for myself. They're not experimental to a lot of people‚ but what I mean is I try not to rely on my old tools -- whatever it is I usually do. At this point‚ I've managed to spread myself out enough that I'm trying to write in different ways all the time‚ and then I fall back on standard tricks if I'm drawing a blank. So sometimes the songs‚ I present them to the group and I've got them envisioned down to the details‚ and they come out fairly like I imagined. And other times there are some big blank open holes in the song‚ and all I've got is a verse and a chorus and the feeling of the movement or something‚ and we put them together and they become a whole different animal.
Sometimes you get in there and you've got your little turnaround‚ and the drummer sits down and plays the beat backwards of what you were thinking‚ and all of a sudden your song doesn't go like you've thought and you're like‚ "Holy shit‚ that's fucking cool." It's a whole new song‚ you know? All that stuff happens. And I'm not sure if it's a sign that you've written a better song when you can take it in and everybody's like‚ "Yeah‚ sounds done here. We'll just play behind it and fill it out‚" or if you've written a better one when you take it in there and it's a whole different animal when you're finished. It's like‚ Jesus Christ‚ that's not even anything I would have thought‚ you know? It's definitely more thrilling the second way.
Yeah‚ both have their magic‚ though. So a lot of people in describing Howlin Rain‚ they throw Faces and Clapton and Traffic and stuff like that. Are you thinking about those reference points when you're writing songs‚ or is it just sort of this is this time of your life‚ and that's when these songs are coming out of you?
I often write on the acoustic guitar‚ and they sound like a particular kind of song‚ but I don't necessarily think they sound like a Faces song or have the same kind of rock 'n' roll feel. And then we kind of inject that into them. I really try not to… I'm aware of the things that people say we sound the most like‚ because I hear it from people when I do interviews or I read it in the press once in a while. And when I hear people say‚ "You sound like Rod Stewart‚" or something like that‚ I totally try to… You know‚ I love Rod Stewart‚ but I try to not study his thing or take anything from him. If I'm already doing that naturally‚ I don't want to do it any closer. If I already kind of sound like that -- his voice‚ my voice‚ we use the throat in the same way and stuff like that -- it's like I need to study some other stuff.
So‚ you know‚ if you're a heavy sludge rock band or something like that‚ I suggest you leave your Sabbath record on the shelf for Saturday night‚ and on Tuesday morning when you're working hard on your songwriting‚ take a look at some other things to try to learn‚ because you don't really need to beat the dead horses of your natural affinities. But at the same time‚ sure‚ if there's a part all of a sudden where somebody's playing it and getting kinda raved up‚ there's a piano honkin' away in the background‚ like a barroom piano and it's like‚ "Hey‚ that kinda sounds like the Faces‚" it's all right. We don't take things out because someone says it sounds like our influences that we're trying to avoid. [laughter]