One of the keepers of modern-day psychedelic music doles out distinct styles to no fewer than five projects: There's the cavernous rawk of Comets on Fire (forever on hiatus), the Summer of Love re-imagined as Heron Oblivion, the punk-scuzz of Feral Ohms and the Beat poet solo guitar-noise of The Odyssey Cult. But Howlin Rain has always been the flyaway of Ethan Miller's wild hair.
Howlin Rain was originally formed as the melodic antidote to Comets, a place for Miller to write sangin' songs. Its discography has run the gamut from burned-out psych to bucking country-rock to folk ballads to the big-budget-blues-rock of the Rick Rubin era, which let Miller quit his day job for a few years. Point is, for an artist who regularly flies off on weird tangents, his outlet for straight-ahead rock music has often been his most unpredictable.
"Alligator Bride" is Howlin Rain in full-on Crazy Horse mode, as big guitar chords are lashed with feedback. The band's new album, The Alligator Bride, features bassist Jeff McElroy, guitarist Dan Cervantes and drummer Justin Smith; their chemistry seems loose and ragged, like an American flag weathered from too many storms. That's a natural state of mind for Miller, but Howlin Rain's music has never felt so anthemic.
Miller tells NPR that Howlin Rain's new song meditates on what it means to be American:
The song "Alligator Bride" began life as a hushed solo affair, a 3 a.m. song, all quiet palm strums and vulnerable, fragile melodies. When I took it to the guys in rehearsal, thinking maybe they could sprinkle some light emotional dust on it here and there, Dan, our guitarist, suggested we try the full-on fuzzy roll-and-tumble version that you hear now. When I got back to the border motel that night and listened to the rehearsal recording, I loved it. In its new skin it sounded like late-'70s/early-'80s live Crazy Horse to me — and who doesn't love that?!
The lyrics originally came to me while scratching out rough poetry about "America" — the past, the present, the future of the country and what it meant to be American in 2016 (the year the lyrics were written). I was trying to grapple with what it meant to still carry the dreams and the memories and myths of the collective American conscious and unconscious and to stand on the cusp of the very real ending of any semblance of "old America" while being swept into an extremely fast future experience — one that is proving too slippery for us to keep up with our very perceptions of it.
Despite some of the steps forward the country had made in the previous decade, I saw America as grappling with a very real spiritual and identity crisis in early 2016. The country was boiling over from the center with a complex blend of hope and hopelessness, idealism and consumer nihilism, joy and anger, suffering and salvation. I wanted to endow the song with the echoes of that complex soul-leakage in simple terms; the wonders of our myths, our weirdness, our fearsome and too often wrong-headed individuality, our quickness to slip into the electrified momentum of the zeitgeist and, of course, at the center of it all, The American Dream; 330 million different little flames, unique to each human in the collective, carried together in a blinding, beautiful fireball that often burns and casts off as many in its orbit as it illuminates.
By chance, we recorded the song "Alligator Bride" on the evening of the presidential election, Nov. 8, 2016. As we emerged from the tracking room at the Mansion basement in Chinatown and saw the news and the results coming in, the song and its lyrics instantly took on an entirely new set of layers of meaning and, of course, the intangible, the absolute weirdness, the bombast and the roving definition of what it means to be an American in 2016 shifted once again beneath our feet and the future continued on, faster than most of us have properly figured out how to be in it.
Miller is completely earnest in everything he creates, but when he sings with his band in unison, "The wayward mountains, the velvet wolves, the alligator bride / We all slept under a tin roof four feet off of the ground / Wasn't it loud when the rain came down," he's more exposed than ever before. Clearly a nerve has burst, and he's letting us in to study the wound up close.
The Alligator Bride comes out June 8 via Silver Current.