Four years ago, as Ethan Miller was releasing his sophomore album, Magnificent Fiend, with his retro blues-rock outfit Howlin Rain, he requested a quick meeting with his mentor, legendary producer Rick Rubin, who'd signed him to American Recordings. The frontman wanted to find out how and when should he begin work on the next album, and he was stunned by the response.
"He told me, 'Start writing songs now, and I don't want to hear just the next two. I want to hear your next 40'."
Still shell-shocked, the Bay Area native duly buckled down and got to work, regular connecting with Rubin to present him with his latest material. The process wasn't easy — it lasted for nearly two years, during which Miller drew inspiration from classic templates like Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, Steely Dan's jazzy Gaucho, and Springsteen's furious, roiling masterpiece Darkness on the Edge of Town. Eventually, Miller and his outfit emerged with The Russian Wilds, a new 11-track album that manages to sound like music froze somewhere around 1971.
Miller, who'd previously played in the noise-rock band Comets on Fire, did a lot of homework to achieve such brassy rockers as "Cherokee Werewolf," "Beneath Wild Wings" and the flamenco-bridged "Phantom in the Valley," which are all delivered in his Chris-Cornell-stormy wail. He bought the remastered Darkness box set, closely studied the making-of documentary, and spent entire days just perfecting the sound of a single drumbeat.
"At that point, I could really relate to the no man's land those guys were in," says Miller of the meticulous work that went into his heroes' albums. "Both the no man's land of not being able to move forward, and the no man's land of working too long, hard and obsessively to make one album. And to actually end up like that — where you don't need to record another drum shot, but you're like 'Well, I'm gonna do it anyway!' And you're just standing there, repeatedly hitting the snare, and it's still not sounding quite right. That's just a really weird mind-frame to find yourself in."
Miller is also a rabid bibliophile, and his erudite lyrics reflect that. (How often does one hear the word 'abattoir' in a modern rock song?).
"While I was working on this record, I read Melville's Moby-Dick," he says of the classic novel that resonated with his own metaphorical quest for a Great White Whale. "We were so far into this thing that we were perhaps — not artistically lost — but I wasn't sure what I knew for certain. So to read something like that, about a journey that's unmapped and nonsensical, but highly obsessive and passionate. Well, you really learn your lesson about how such obsessions can end."
Meanwhile, Miller readily admits his affinity with musical eras of the past. He would have loved to have sat in on Miles Davis' Bitches Brew sessions, or to have witnessed the Troggs sloppily nailing "Wild Thing." So is Miller ready for a past-life regression, to figure out exactly where he was and what he was doing in some halcyon era?
No way, he says with a laugh. "Everybody thinks that they were someone kind and special in another life. Then you go to the hypnotist and it turns out you were actually a dog breeder for the Nazis."