When Ethan Miller describes Howlin Rain’s fourth album Mansion Songs as “the journey from nothingness back to creation”, it’s more than just a sound bite. Waving off the line-up from 2012’s The Russian Wilds – along with his major-label deal (with American Recordings, home of the Black Crowes)– the bandleader found himself contemplating a blank page. “That’s what made it exhilarating,” Miller considers, of this rougher-edged, often heartbreaking return, “but also what made me a little fearful.”
Mansion Songs feels like a line in the sand.
A lot changed. We ended the relationship with American [Recordings]. The band I had for The Russian Wilds went in different directions. I mean, it should be said that most records are a line in the sand for this band, because they’ve almost all had the line-up turn over. I didn’t plan that to happen, but for whatever reason the bands have dissolved, come apart, people moved on.
How do you feel about leaving the major-label world?
Good and bad. Howlin Rain got into it at exactly the moment the crack at the top of that giant glass ball came all the way down the side and the whole thing started to shatter. It’s a weird place to be. It was terrible for the people working there, they were getting fired left and right. Howlin Rain may have been the last relatively unknown band to be signed to a major as a development. After that, labels thought: “We need to sign bands that have already sold 100,000 records,” rather than grab the next big thing off a back-alley stage.
What were the album sessions like?
First day in the studio, I took a second, like: what am I doing? I haven’t rehearsed a single day. Nobody playing on this record has rehearsed a single note. This may be too much. Maybe it’s too risky. But then I said: fuck it. I’m gonna test this risk factor. I tore up the song I was gonna do that day and wrote a new song that morning. As I took little risks here and there, they kept paying off.
It’s a certainly a very spontaneous-sounding record.
There’s playfulness in the way this album is so ragged. Instead of being a really rehearsed album, most songs were first-take performances by a band that’d never heard the music before; a dialogue with The Russian Wilds, which is glossier and rehearsed like crazy. With Restless, I told the guys: “You need to play like you’re these big glass spiders that are really dangerous and ominous hanging over the whole song.”
Is the raw production a reaction to the Pro Tools era?
I didn’t try to be super-reactionary. But last year I saw that the indie music being written, captured and portrayed sounded mainstream. Even the mainstream sound is much more artificial now, compared to what we thought was super-glossy in the eighties. I wanted a different voice.
Do you care if Mansion Songs sells?
Listen, I’d like it to. Because I’m not making a lot of money and I could use just a little more to survive. I hope it does well enough to satisfy that. And I’d love to see it do even better.
Mansion Songs is released January 27 on Easy Sound Recording.