Since his stint in Santa Cruz's own Comets On Fire, Ethan Miller has been the Bay Area's most dependable source for primo psych rock. He's prolific, having released a new recording almost annually since 2001, and he's never chained himself to one sound for long. From the prog-meets-gospel-boogie of Howlin' Rain to the ethereal, modernized Summer Of Love rock of Heron Oblivion, Miller has your psychedelic needs covered.
But the sound that seems to serve as Miller's home base is the untamed, fuzz-fried psych rock of Comets On Fire. Comets On Fire was the band that first brought attention to Miller's skills, and for good reason: the band's first self-titled album is an absolute monster. I'd go as far to call it the Funhouse of the early 2000s.
Now, Miller has returned to his roots with Feral Ohms, his newest project whose self-titled album sounds a little like like Blue Cheer playing Black Flag songs. It's the kind of LP that once I start it, I have to hear the whole thing. With a show coming up at San Francisco's Light Rail Studios this Saturday, I reached out to Miller to ask about the Feral Ohms and his long, storied career.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
The new Feral Ohms album sounds like you're going back to the kind of unhinged psych rock you wrote for the first Comets On Fire album. Is there any reason for returning to that sound?
I don't know, maybe that's just the way I write psychedelic music. I went to write another psychedelic record and it came out kinda punk rock. Maybe I just lean that way, you know? To me, something makes sense about Black Flag and the Misfits being a kind of psychedelic music. They're this weird, shaky wall of sound in the way they played punk rock. I don't know about the Misfits, but with Black Flag you can make a really strong connection to psychedelic music. At least in interviews with Ginn and Rollins they've said they were highly interested in it, although their fans never registered that. Hendrix and the Grateful Dead were major touchstones for what Black Flag was. Maybe I'm playing with something in there?
And when you add the other two guys and what they bring to the table to help those songs come to life, it gets even more mixed up. We all have the same interests in things -- we hear Black Flag or the Pink Fairies, and we all go "Yes, we love that." Then in some of the other regions surrounding the group, in the other nuances and influences, things get shadowy and blurry between the three of us really quickly. That way it's not pure punk rock, or pure Pink Fairies.
Do you remember what inspired you to write your first song?
I'm trying to think. Probably something dumb like listening to Poison or something like and it had me going, "This is killer. It doesn't get any better than this. I wish I could do this."
Sometimes smart people look at something and know they can't do it, like playing tennis at Wimbledon. They know you can't just go out there and do that. Foolishly, my instincts are to to go, "Wow, look at that. I gotta do that." Like shooting a movie on VHS in 2017 after seeing a video at some museum. Later I find out it's not something I should've done.
But that's probably how I started off with songwriting. Just listening to whatever, being 12 years old, and being engrossed and enchanted by music. Walkmen were the craze in that era -- you know, with the little orange, piece-of-sh*t headphones -- and I'd be walking around, probably listening to Prince and Madonna records, and sh*tty L.A. glam rock bands. Sometime around then I got an acoustic guitar and that was it. I learned how to play and write. I don't even know if I consciously knew that's what I wanted to do, I just had to take a step towards that somehow. How do you get from the sixth grade classroom to making Def Leppard's Hysteria?
Was Comets On Fire one of your first bands?
I had been in bands since high school. I was 16 or something like that when I was in my first band that actually rehearsed. I had a few bands through high school, and a few bands in Eureka, the small town I was living in on and off, after high school. In 2000, I went to Santa Cruz and formed some stuff there.
Comets was after I had an epiphany and realized I wanted to get serious. This was the kind of music that we could put out our own record after recording it on a 4-track. Only certain bands or certain types of music can really fly in that environment. Somethings aren't going to sound very good on a cassette four-track. [Laughs] But we just did something on a whim. Flashman and I had a little vision for it, and we got lucky with what ended up on that cassette.
Was there a demo cassette before the first record?
No, that's the first record! It's a 4-track cassette album. We went to Tim Green's studio and he mixed it right off the Tascam through his board onto the computer. So we came out of there with a CD.
And it's still four tracks. We didn't do any overdubs in the studio. We originally recorded the drums, the bass and the guitar, and bounced down the drums to one track so we could free up one track for Noel and I to use for the crazy vocals.
And it's never been mastered, not even the version on iTunes. We didn't understand mastering -- we thought it was a ripoff.
After Comets On Fire you spent a few years playing in Howlin' Rain, which signed to Rick Rubin's label American Recordings in the late 2000s. What was it like being a small band on a major at that time?
It was okay. I mean, that's putting it lightly, because that experience altered the course of my life. I had a day job in San Francisco and all of a sudden Rick Rubin came out of the woodwork and offered me a major label deal. It wasn't a lot of money compared to what the average person makes a year in San Francisco these days, but signing the contract was enough to get me out of my day job for a few years. By the time I came out of it, I obviously didn't make millions of dollars. We didn't become the next biggest group in the world or whatever.
I should also say that after we were signed, it was the crumbling of the cliffs on the old major label industry paradigm. The major labels were going down in flames. I'm not exaggerating when I say after we were signed, our label and the other majors put a moratorium on signing new, unknown talent. They may have still gone on and signed Mastadon or somebody that already sold 100,000 records on an indie label, but as far as taking on a band that's only sold 3,000 copies, I don't think they did that any more.
But I wanted to work with Rick, I wanted to get out of my day job, and [signing to a major] was something a rock 'n' roll musician aspired to do. I was like, "this is the last chance to do this."
Do you see yourself as a lifer?
That's hard to say. Nobody knows what's in store. It certainly feels like it. I've dedicated my life to it now for 10, 20 years or whatever. You don't know where else I could go or what else you could do after you've been doing something for a long time. Sometimes those thoughts are just momentary and in a week you find yourself out on an archaeological dig in Mexico. Some career changes happen like that.
In this moment in my life I'm so consumed with music and art, I hope... yeah. If you take out the grinding and hustling for money, and financial career out of it, I'll be doing artistic work until the day I die.
Feral Ohms plays Light Rail Studios in San Francisco on Saturday, April 29. Show starts at 8pm and tickets are $10. For more information, visit the Facebook event page.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.