ethan

Ethan Miller has been living a frantically creative life in Oakland, CA since 2002. His passion for constructing new musical experiences is insatiable, as evidenced via his work in Comets On Fire, Howlin’ Rain, Heron Oblivion and, most recently, Feral Ohms. With the Ohms album on the horizon (3/24), we caught up with Miller to discuss, among other things, his litany of bands, the importance of a DIY subculture and his recently released book of poetry.
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Aquarium Drunkard: Let’s jump right in with Heron Oblivion. 2016 was a big marker with the release of the group’s self-titled debut. You’re in a lot of bands – what’s rewarding to you about this one in particular?

Ethan Miller: Well, for starters, they are all killer musicians. There is a lot of amazing chemistry in the band. Originally we all kind of got together because we’re all close friends. Those three people (Noel Von Harmonson, Charlie Saufley, Meg Baird) are some of my closest friends and I think they would say the same. When Meg moved out to the West Coast, I think we partially wanted to do something fun, improvised and musical together, because Noel and I would get together and have these little improvised jams. Also, with our busy lives it was a nice excuse to spend a few hours a week together just hanging and stuff. I think we were a little surprised by the group’s chemistry, like, okay I guess we need to make a band out of this thing.

AD: Was it a conscious effort to come up with this sound you have, this ethereal hard rock, or was this just a process of figuring out each others strengths as a whole?

Ethan Miller: That’s kind of what it boils down to. Before there was singing we were just jamming – it was a noisier affair, you know? It sounded more like The Dead C or something like that. Then we had some pieces and parts, after pulling a part out of like an hour-long jam and saying that could be a cool root to a song. Then once we said, “well, let’s see what it sounds like if Meg sings over it,” it gets ethereal, pretty fast (laughs). I mean, her vocals are so strong and beautiful that you’d be a fool not to place it at the top of the mountain of your music. I think, partly, we tried to still maintain some of that noisy, underground, improvised feel, but that doesn’t always allow for a lot of space for that kind of beautiful singing and stuff. At some point, pretty quickly, we said, “how do we merge the two of these?” It was kind of happening naturally and we guided it.

AD: You play bass in the band, whereas you are usually a guitarist and/or singer. What is your relationship with bass and how do you approach playing in Heron Oblivion?

Ethan Miller: There were a couple things that took me to bass. One, walking in there with four guitarists, I mean… Meg also played drums in Watery Love so we knew she could play punk rock drums and stuff. Let’s get her over there on the drums and let’s get Charlie and Noel on the guitar because that will be fun and I’ll take bass. We didn’t need a third guitarist and I do love playing bass, I played in high school and I loved it. In my mind, once we started Heron Oblivion as a group I really liked the way Noel and Charlie’s guitar chemistry worked and I thought it sounded really awesome together. I think they felt it too, but as being someone on the outside that wasn’t one of those two assessing their own thing, I really felt strongly that it should stay intact and that they were saying things on guitar in a really nice way.

AD: Is there an idea of what you want to do next with Heron Oblivion? Is this an open-ended project?

Ethan Miller: Well, it kind of weaves in and out of our daily musical lives. When we released the record we committed ourselves, doing those gigs — focusing on that and letting it take priority. Then, at the end of the year, we start looking at other projects and how Heron Oblivion fits into the cracks until it’s time to make the next record. That is the game —  finding the zen balance of staying busy and working all the time, and also not neglecting any of your musical endeavors, trying to work them all in harmony. I think we did a pretty good job of it this year.

AD: You mentioned you were mixing and mastering a Howlin’ Rain record. How was the recording process this go round?

Ethan Miller: It was good. I had my live band come in. The last record was basically Heron Oblivion as the backing band (laughs). I worked some of the tunes up myself from scratch so it ended up sounding more like a solo record than a big rock band record. I liked the way that came out, but I like to keep doing different things. After touring that album with the live band and being really hot out there and really blazing it up, I thought I wanted to capture that feeling in the studio. So I brought the live band up from LA and we went in the studio for four days and recorded the album. Most of what you are going to hear on the record are live performances. I redid some vocals because it was a really small room to be singing vocals in live, but the performances and solos are basically what was coming off of the stage.

AD: Let’s talk about the Mansion Trilogy. This upcoming record is the second entry, and from interviews I’ve read with you, you’ve said these songs came pouring out of you in the headspace you were in at the time. Did you transfer songs over from the recording process of the first album or is this a whole new batch of songs?

Ethan Miller: There are a few things that I recorded, then got a little distance from. The first Mansion Songs album, I started recording and recorded a little bit in LA and some in San Francisco. At a certain point I looked at Eric, the guy that runs and owns the mansion, and said, “man, we’ve got too much material here. I need to make some decisions about this being one album and not two records or whatever it is.” So we set aside the stuff we weren’t using. At this point I still have some things here or there that’s actually fully formed from those sessions. But some of the other tunes I took and reworked them again because I had this new, particular band and wanted to make sure they had the same feel. There are a few things that came from songs that I was going to put on that record that ended up in a new and improved form on here. And there are songs I wrote specifically for this record and songs that I kind of wrote the blueprints for 15 or 20 years ago and just took a little hook out of it and reworked it. For this one, tt’s songwriting that spans across time.

AD: You mentioned your live band, who was in the recording session for you this time?

Ethan Miller: Jeff McElroy and Dan Cervantes are the bass player and guitarist that were touring on Mansion Songs, and a new drummer named Justin Smith. He is a great drummer, was playing with The Dead C and stuff among other groups that are still going. It’s great chemistry between us.

AD: Let’s talk about your band Feral Ohms, as you’ve got a record coming out next month.

Ethan Miller: There is something a little looser and crazier and louder in that band than anything I’ve ever done. It’s more strictly punk rock more than anything I’ve done. Like the first Comets On Fire album, it’s definitely touching in that zone. I think Feral Ohms stuff is a little more Black Flag and Comets is a little more Misfits, but punk rock of that era is at the core of Feral Ohms, along with big, underground, psychedelic rock from the 60s and 70s. Just by nature that stuff is exciting, it’s loud and we play with big amps. I’ve never played in a band this loud with huge amps. Comets was a loud band but we weren’t playing through humongous amplifiers and crazy levels of volume and Feral Ohms is doing those things. That in and of itself is kind of exciting and if you’ve never done that before, taking that whole sound bath at high speeds in a rock band, it’s exciting (laughs).

AD: When I listened to the band’s first live album, it had the tenacity of a P-51 Mustang fighter jet from WWII. Did you want to take that same sound and feel into the studio? I know in the past you’ve tried to keep studio work a little separate from the live experience.

Ethan Miller: That was something that was a little bit tricky. We wanted the feel to be different. We pretty much had the same set we were dealing with. Only half the songs that are on the live record are on the studio record. For one thing we only had to worry about half the record, cause the other half is something you haven’t even heard before. Then in those songs how do you present that? Our idea is that the Live in San Francisco album and the studio album would both be an introduction to the world of the band. A one-two punch. Like sister records that would coexist, without one being, you know, I already have that record so I don’t need this one. I think we pulled that off.

One, the live record was completely raw, just the three of us, drums, guitar, vocals, bass. There were no overdubs. It’s not perfect playing and not my proudest moment on earth for trying to sing on key on top of gigantic amplifiers (laughs). But the thing we captured, we can’t mess with that, the whole thing is larger than its pieces. It’s just one giant fireball. Part of it is just shouting and we’re are trying our best just to hang on and it ended up sounding a lot more in control than I thought we did on stage (laughs). The studio album is still a pretty raw experience. But we said, “this song is just very raw on the live record and on this album it can have overdubs.”

Having recorded in a controlled environment changes the feel of a power trio a lot and it makes it a different experience. Where you couldn’t hear the vocals on a live album you can hear them here, or vice versa. I think we tried hard to make them two companion pieces that were necessary for the avid, or even passing, fan that likes the band and make sure one wasn’t just a side-piece to the other. I think we did that pretty well. If you were a fan you could listen to those back to back and they would have everything at the core of what you like about the band, though two different, sonic, visceral experiences.

AD: In addition to your own music and label, Silver Current Records, you found time to release a book of poetry last year. How does that stack up to releasing new music, something you do all the time?

Ethan Miller: That was pretty special to me, I really enjoyed doing that. This might seem obvious to say but it is a much quieter experience, instead of working with all of these people on something – talking to a label, your manager, the fans, etc. Writing is such a solitary experience, especially putting out a book of poetry yourself on your own screen printed press (laughs). It’s pretty calm and quiet and pretty solitary in a really nice way after all that noise and decision making in groups. For me, after a really busy couple years, the process of writing in the first place was calming and the way you produce and create writing and prose and poetry is just different. There is something a little stressful to me about the creation and writing process of music and things get more and more stressful as you go. It’s all of these layers of stressful decision making that can go wrong. I just found the quiet way in which prose is done to be calming. Especially poetry because it is abstract, you can’t really force the center of the thing. It’s either working or it isn’t, its taking shape or it’s not. You can hone it with craft, but all of that is a much quieter process in your mind. It was a very wonderful thing.

I’m planning on, after the Howlin’ Rain record, to try and take some time to do the next one. I actually wrote a lot of poetry over the last couple years, and, for better or for worse, I felt like I would publish music-life oriented stuff initially as I felt that people who might be interested in my poetry who are already my fans would gravitate towards that kind of stuff first. But I have poetry that spans all walks of life and I plan on revisiting some of it. Try to find a little quiet space in my mind and rejuvenate.

AD: You’re from Oakland — with the recent Ghost Ship fire, and as someone who has played a lot of DIY gigs, I was curious as to your thoughts at the time and, to you, what is the importance of DIY shows?

Ethan Miller: Something like Ghost Ship was my whole musical life for 20+ years since I started doing gigs in high school and playing in places like that when I was 16 or 17 years old. I think Ghost Ship itself was a pretty extreme situation of the worst case scenario. Everything went wrong and that was a terrible, terrible thing. I have also been in a lot of places like that where I thought that if there was a fire in this place it is going to be really tricky thing. Obviously, when you pack into those kinds of places for a party and a lot of them are kind of outlaw living situations, it’s hard to keep track of safety regulations or safety ideas.

Whenever I’ve walked into a place or DIY space or even clubs…I mean the rock club circuit, especially in Europe and before the Great White fire in Rhode Island here in the states, you’d go to the back and they’d have the back door chained up or put you way down in the basement in a green room and the place would pack up, heaters blasting and people chain smoking everywhere. You kind of look around and take a minute and look at things and consider what you might do if it came to that.

We kind of move through life from one event to another without thinking about all these different aspects. What happens if you fall off a bridge into icy water? You’re not thinking about that until you are in the water. You hope the people that are maintaining that bridge do consider that stuff. You have to put your faith in people that are running things like Ghost Ship that they’ve considered those things. And if you look around when you walk in, you’ll know pretty quickly whether they have or have not. If they haven’t, have a conversation with them, maybe before the party gets too big, especially if you are the entertainment.

As far as why DIY shows are important, I wouldn’t know life or have had my experiences without them. Oakland has always had a great warehouse party scene. Its felt like DIY music and off the grid entertainment has been incredible over the last 10 years here. In some ways it’s kind of reached its peak here because of the Ghost Ship spotlight. The mayor seems like she’s trying to consider that, that it’s not San Francisco, it’s not anywhere else really. That is part of the Oakland thing.

AD:  Looking at where you are in life at the moment — be it personally, spiritually, professionally — what stands out to you as “this is who I am right now”?

Ethan Miller: In my public life, I think that what I am producing and the rate at which I am producing it is speaking as loudly as I can about who I am and what I am. In the last couple years I’ve got Howlin’ Rain, Feral Ohms, even did some stuff with Comets On Fire that went to the back burner, put the Heron Oblivion record out, a poetry book out, the Silver Current label that put out Feral Ohms studio album. In a pretty condensed fashion I guess I’m working as hard and as frantically as I can to publicly express who I am and make it as diverse a portrait as possible. That’s why I want to stay interested.

In the past I’ve worked really hard and focused on one band for years at a time and in the end I felt like that wasn’t enough artistically. This whole thing is about trying to maintain a creative life. You gotta try and balance that with work and little bit of music business so you can survive and still be as creative as possible. In that way I think I am saying it. Personally, that is always a more complex question especially when you are overworking, you know what I mean (laughs)? I probably have to catch my breath and write another poetry book (laughs) and center myself enough to be completely sure of who I am when I am just in a room by myself. I feel pretty good about it though, I am not overthinking it (laughs).  words / g bethmann

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