Mike Jackson (left), Ethan Miller, Garett Goddard, Joel Robinow and Ian Gradek have a kinship with producer Rick Rubin beyond personal grooming choices.
HOWLIN RAIN with QUEST FOR FIRE at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Monday (October 13), 9 pm. $12, advance $10. 416-870-8000. howlinrain.com.
If singer/guitarist Ethan Miller wanted to put some distance between the psychedelic excess of his previous group, Comets on Fire, and his current work with Howlin Rain, ditching the echoplex was a very good place to start.
But it would take more than a change in effects and a few cross-country van tours for Howlin Rain to find their classic West Coast sound, which relies less on the pulverizing power of the almighty guitar riff and more on Miller's developing skills as a vocalist and composer.
His songs on Magnificent Fiend (Birdman) still rock - there's just a higher premium placed on meaningful lyrics and memorable melodies.
Evidently, the album didn't come together quite as effortlessly as it may appear from the easy-flowing blend of Allmans-style Southern rock and old-school soul.
"After finishing the first album," explains Miller from his Oakland home, "our drummer, John Moloney (of Sunburned Hand of the Man), left to do his own thing, so I decided to reinvent the band from the ground up.
"I spent more time than I ever had before on crafting the songs prior to going into the studio to record Magnificent Fiend. Once you get what you feel is really great material, you have much more confidence during the sessions, like, ‘How wrong can things possibly go when starting out with songs that are this good?' The difference between a great album and a terrible one often comes down to the quality of the songwriting."
Although Magnificent Fiend just appeared on shelves in March, Miller and crew are already thinking about what they'll do for an encore, since Rick Rubin expressed interest in producing it - once he finishes making ZZ Top's "comeback" album.
"He was a fan of Comets on Fire, and when I started Howlin Rain he wanted to meet. He liked the whole Howlin Rain vibe and the energy we were putting out. As a label owner and a serious music fan, he's always on the lookout for something unique, and he said what we were doing didn't sound like anything else he's been hearing lately. Eventually, talk turned to working together, both in recording and releasing music."
If the group was thinking of bolstering their studio sound to match the raging attack of their performances, this could be the perfect opportunity to cut loose with the watts.
"What's great about Rick's work as a producer is that he always seems to be able to bring out the best side of whichever artist he's with at the time. If you go into a studio with someone like, say, Phil Spector, you might end up with a great album that shows off Phil Spector's best side. Rick's approach seems to be more about serving the group's artistic legacy.
"The last time we spoke, I threw out a couple of ideas I was considering, but we haven't mapped anything out. It's not like we're on our 20th album and desperately need someone to help us reconnect with our essential sound.
"For us, I think the songs themselves will ultimately determine the direction of our next album. But I guess if the new material I were to write all sounded like heavy metal, Rick might say, ‘Umm, we need to have a talk about what you guys do best.'"