By Tiina Liimu
VANCOUVER — Imagine a script dropped on a desk with a black-and-white photo in place of a treatment. An image of figure off to the left in stark white contrast back dropped by towering slab of modern architecture.
Not far off from this concrete skyline, Ethan Miller finds himself in the basement studio of San Francisco’s Chinatown to work on the 2015 release, Mansion Stories. A locale historically steeped in the poetry, the cutups and the essence of the beat writers and poets.
This time he is working as a solitary member of Howlin’ Rain. “At the start of this record, every former member of this band was gone,” says Miller. “Walking into this thing alone starting with a clean slate. This was a very different dynamic from the collaborative energy of creating as a full band.
“At the beginning of the record there is nothing there but words,” he explains. “A lot more about the poetry and the lyrics. Figuring out ways to say things literally with your voice in a different way than a big rock band bashing out a song and having lyrics that work over the top of it.”
This became an exercise in elasticity and growth as much as operating with minimal basics. “The lyrics have always been a real big deal to me, in that I started off in life as a writer first and foremost, then I learned to play and came from a punk rock back ground, in a lot of ways, just taking the simplest tools, the power chords and just trying to translate just a raw energy and raw story,” he says.
Punk rock, early blues, words of the beats all share a primitive sense of freedom. “What the real deal is, I saw in the blueprint that is punk rock music is it wasn’t very far from the blueprint of great writing, poetry and prose, which is to get the energy, to get the story, out there, making the narrator powerful through what those little pieces of print are on the page,” says Miller.
Like free flowing Kerouac pounding away at his keys to the rhythm. “Punk rock did it the same way, in that typewriter, that snapping typewriter, words just going up on a white background in black. That’s the way it feels, just like the way when you listen to Black Flag, just the energy of a super powerful typewriter pounding the stories into your head, the energy, sometimes it’s overwhelming to the point that it’s the visceral energy.” As if the building windows and grid work of that B&W photograph were marks of text against a white page
Like a Robert Frank film, they recorded with the spontaneity of the beats. Leaving room for improvisation and for things to go off kilter. He would invite musicians including members of Miller’s other band Heron Oblivion with Meg Baird, Charles Saufley and Noel Harmonson, also Cyrus Comiskey (Saviours) and session players using only the first and sometimes a second take.
Miller would visit the subjects from Howlin’ Rain songs. “The down and out, the colorful characters, a lot of times they have a story, there is novel in there somewhere in between the lines,” he recalls. “Obviously there are a lot of chapters in there, we’re just getting just a little overview or a tiny round up of emotional resonance.”
Miller’s inspiration draws from a collage of postmodern fiction, J.G. Ballard’ s writing (Highrise, Crash, Empire of The Sun), dystopian near-futures, sci-fi, films of Tarkovsky, hints of Fellini, mobsters, grainy images and surveillance footage. Photographer Alissa Anderson truly captured this essence with her work with Miller on the album cover and accompanying visual assets.
The result was so productive that it shaped a trilogy of recordings. Mansion Stories is the first and produced by Eric Bauer. The live tour will showcase new material and draw from the robust Howlin’ Rain rock ‘n’ roll catalogue.
Howlin’ Rain performs at the Hindenburg on February 28.BC, British Columbia, Hindenburg, Howlin' Rain, Mansion Stories