Ethan Miller likes balance in his musical endeavors.
Early in his career, he was able to indulge his noise-rock leanings with his first band, Comets on Fire, while delving into the classic rock and jam band influences he grew up surrounded by in the San Francisco Bay Area, with Howlin’ Rain, which he formed in the mid-2000s. While Comets on Fire has been inactive since 2008, today Miller strikes a similar balance between Howlin’ Rain and the noisey, Jimi Hendrix-meets-Black Flag-influenced Feral Ohms (he also plays bass with psychedelic rock group Heron Oblivion).
“Most people that know my music feel like, OK, pretty recognizable pretty quickly that it’s me,” Miller said recently from his home in Oakland, California, “whether I’m wailing and screaming my head off over huge Marshall stacks in Feral Ohms, or doing funkier, hippy-er stuff in Howlin’ Rain. I think there’s a connection through them, but they kind of have a little different muses, which keeps the creative juices flowing in different ways.”
This juggling of muses can occur even within a single project, as Howlin’ Rain’s recent and upcoming output shows. The band’s 2018 album, “The Alligator Bride” — its first since 2015’s “Mansion Songs” — features the quartet playing live in-studio and recorded to analog tape. In late August, Miller went one step further and launched a live-album series with “Under the Wheels: Live from the Coasts Vol. 1,” which the group will support with a West Coast tour that kicks off at Volcanic Theatre Pub on Wednesday.
But while discussing the live album, Miller mentioned he and the rest of the band — bassist Jeff McElroy, guitarist Dan Cervantes and drummer Justin Smith — are about halfway through recording their next studio album. This time, they went in the opposite direction, multi-tracking with producer Tim Green, who worked on the band’s first three albums.
“I don’t want to jinx anything, but it seems like it’s coming out to be a little more cinematic and epic and stuff in scope and performance,” Miller said. “Hopefully if it all goes right, you still sonically sound like you’re in the room with the band, but it’s probably gonna sound more like you’re in a big, beautiful recording studio instead of a wild, beer-soaked club or whatever. And maybe the live records … released us a little bit to follow that path, or maybe it’s because we have a little more time or a little more focus to go that direction. Maybe the live records can take care of the raw-and-ready aspect.”
Miller said he hopes to continue the live album series beyond the second volume, which is due out around February next year. The technology used to record live shows has grown exponentially since the band’s first live album in 2014, and that inspired Miller to launch the project.
His other inspiration, as with much of Howlin’ Rain’s music and trajectory over the years, was The Grateful Dead.
“I’ve always been a big fan of live records and bootlegs and just that general feel,” Miller said. “And I was just probably taking a deep dive into The Grateful Dead world of the way that they got into releasing live records. By the time that I think tapers had started just trading all their shows, and multiple, multiple recordings of each of their shows, I think it inspired them to just say, ‘Hey, maybe we shouldn’t just put out a live record once every 10 or 15 years. ... Let’s just let these things roll out and people can enjoy them as they see fit. We’re playing these songs a little different every night.’”
To that end, the five tracks on “Vol. 1” feature the group stretching on album deep cuts and rare songs such as “Goodbye Ruby,” culminating in a 13-plus minute jam on “The Alligator Bride” closing track “Coming Down.”
“I’m not sure if this is the pinnacle version of this song that we’ve ever done live, but it is one that distinctly seems different than a way that we usually do it,” Miller said. “I don’t know why we did it that night, but (it’s) worth having out there and appreciating for its uniqueness. And then there’s a few others on there, like the song ‘Missouri’ or something, that is a classic rendition of how we perform it.”
The releases also showcase the current lineup of the band, which solidified about four to five years ago. Following 2012’s American Recordings-released “The Russian Wilds,” an album at least four years in the making that saw Miller collaborate with famed producer Rick Rubin, the entire lineup of Howlin’ Rain at the time left, and Miller was dropped by the label.
“It wasn’t the first time and probably isn’t the last time that I lose a group or lose members or whatever,” Miller said. “One of the things that I started Howlin’ Rain for was that when we were in Comets on Fire, my first band, I was learning most of what I knew about being in a band from that band. It was my first band and we were getting a wave of success; we were touring, we were having a lot of fun with that, but we were also having a lot of growing pains just figuring things out with all that. And there were things about being in what was basically supposed to be a four-way democracy in that band that really were appealing and made the group really strong.”
By contrast, Howlin’ Rain is Miller’s band through-and-through. As such, he shoulders the blame for any success — or failure — the group experiences.
“When you’re the bandleader, that doesn’t … matter; you gotta pay the guys,” he said. “It is your responsibility. You’re standing on your own at most of the worst pressure points of being in a band.”