Ethan Miller on Burroughs, Capote, ‘Starman’ and Flirting with a Triple Album for Howlin Rain’s ‘Dharma Wheel’

Dean Budnick on January 7, 2022
Ethan Miller on Burroughs, Capote, ‘Starman’ and Flirting with a Triple Album for Howlin Rain’s ‘Dharma Wheel’

photo credit: Kristy Walker


“I think 90% of the music that you hear on The Dharma Wheel was tracked the morning after we were onstage,” Ethan Miller says of the new Howlin Rain studio release. “On Saturday night we’d load out at 2:30 AM and by 11:00 AM the next morning we were tracking these songs in the studio on our day off in the middle of a tour. We thought, ‘Let’s get them fresh, just like they’d be on the stage.’ I wanted to chase down something that was very natural to our state as a band. I think it adds a command to them.”

The resulting album is a six-song, 52-minute kaleidoscopic chronicle of a cracked American landscape. Miller, the group’s singer/guitarist and principal songwriter, who founded Howlin Rain in 2004 as a more melodic counterpoint to the bombast and distortion of his group Comets on Fire, cites William Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon as reference points for his storytelling.

“You get the feeling that some of these characters were created solely for the purpose of getting them into outlandish, fiendish, little troubles—things that will entertain me as a reader,” Miller explains. “Those are nice reference points for songs. It’s hard to create a character like Anna Karenina, who takes 800 pages for Tolstoy to endow with that level of humanism and resonance and universalism to the human experience. That’s not what we have time for in music. Basically, we’ve got three verses and the third one might be abstract. So you need to get your characters into some kind of trouble as quickly as possible. And, even then, it may or may not resolve itself by the end of the song.”

As it turned out, Miller’s plans for this new record did not resolve in the way he had initially intended. He originally hoped to follow up 2018’s The Alligator Bride with an epic two-hour recording that might have become a triple album. However, after Miller and his bandmates—Jeff McElroy (bass, backing vocals), Justin Smith (drums, backing vocals) and Dan Cervantes (guitar, backing vocals)—began recording these tracks on the road, they were ultimately forced to shut things down due to COVID. Still, Miller says, “I don’t view it as a failure that we weren’t able to put out this giant two-hour thing. Who knows if that was even a better idea? I mean, should you do that when you could make a great 52-minute record? I love the way this came together. It sounds like a great record to me.”


One of the things that came out of working with Rick [Rubin] on The Russian Wilds is that he changed my approach to writing for a record. Previously I would eke out just enough material and then go in. He was a big proponent of writing a ton of stuff, choosing the best of it and seeing what fits together. You make a jigsaw puzzle out of it. For the most part, I’ve carried that with me.

So we probably had 30 songs for this one. But—even though we approached this record with so much material—for whatever reason, I woke up on the last day of the main tracking session that we did and said, “I think this would be a cool record to have an intro on.” So I sat down and wrote out the chord progressions and these little parts and brought them to the group. We ran through all of that stuff a couple of times before Tim Green—the studio owner at Louder, who was a producer and engineer—came in. We recorded it a couple of times and we had our intro.

That’s a good example of the complete opposite of everything I just said about preparation. It was done at the last minute. But sometimes all the planning and rehearsal and writing in the world can’t substitute for when you say to yourself, “I want this idea to become real. Here’s how we could do it.” However, I think all that prep gives you the flexibility to do that kind of stuff without pressure.

When you go into a studio and you only have a few songs, then suddenly realize you need another one, that can be frustrating. But when you’re really in a creative flow, you’re like, “This is not a big deal. We can add a song last minute. Let me sit down and write it.” When everything’s firing— when the juices are flowing and they have been for six months— you’re like, “We got this.”

Originally, the record was more expansive. There were more shorter songs, more longer songs. It was very epic and it closed with this 20-minute prog suite called “The Suite of the Underworld” that was going to be the end of what was going to be a triple album.

The whole idea was that the prelude would open up the beginning of this epic thing. You would go into this universe through the prelude. You’d go into the world of The Dharma Wheel and then ride through this crazy expansive album that takes over two hours to get through, and come out the other end into this big multi-part prog fusion suite.

In the end, we didn’t use the back end of the album because COVID hit—along with the funding needed to finish a triple album. Luckily, enough of it was done that I put some of the songs together and I said, “We could release this in two volumes, and it will still make sense together later if we do that. But this also sounds like a great record on its own.” And we kept the prelude at the beginning of it because it was still a great portal to enter into that world. And the world still felt expansive enough that it could use a portal like that.

Scarlet Rivera also did some beautiful violin playing on “Prelude” and Adam MacDougall added some beautiful keyboards. They brought this deeply emotional orchestral feel. She’s got this kind of knife-like violin, just cutting the heart strings at the beginning of the prelude. And then Adam brings in this almost orchestral choir of Moog angels.

Don’t Let the Tears

We worked really hard as a band on “Don’t Let the Tears.” There are a lot of different little micro-elements to that song. We tried to create a funky, joyful pop song that’s got a little bit of a disco feel, and it was kind of complicated to get all that in. I was really proud of what the band came up with. Then, when Adam came in for the overdubs—he did this killer ‘70s keys stuff all over it—he made it his own and sounded like a member of the band.

Under the Wheels

This one is a little bit of a nod to some of the early-‘70s, Joe Walsh stuff—Barnstorm and some of the songs off So What with the big loping drum fills and the chiming 12-string over the pedaling bass feel. That early-‘70s Joe Walsh stuff has been a longtime favorite of all of ours, including Tim Green. So once I had that little chord progression on the verse, I was like, “This could be a fun spot to place a little wink-and-nod homage to Joe Walsh.”

Lyrically, there’s a little bit of Burroughs, a little bit of Capote’s In Cold Blood. It’s tracking these characters who are wandering through the American experience as predators; there’s this mix of unbridled masculinity, violence and dumb luck. These guys aren’t rocket scientists, which is something that Capote was dealing with in his book. There’s this fountain of male violence and brutality that springs somewhere from the darkest parts of the spirit of America. It’s sort of ingrained in us—kind of mythologized and sometimes glamorized. That’s what’s going on with these characters.


This one was fun for us. It’s sort of a boogie shuffle that has a little bit of a Moby Grape feel to it.

It’s an interesting song because it’s eight or nine minutes long, and it’s got verses and choruses and all these different changes. But they’re all within the bounds of the Bo Diddley theory of “This is going to be a one note song.” A lot of different things will happen here, like a normal song, but it’s basically one note, one feel, one rhythm.

I think it was kind of liberating for us, especially given the way that we usually write longer songs. We put no time limits or boundaries on them. We’re typically like, “I don’t care if this song’s got four different bridges and the third chorus doesn’t sound anything like the other two.” At that point, you’re almost wondering if you can still call these things bridges and choruses. Of course, you don’t get backed into as many corners because you’ll just write a crazy new part. And, if it feels good—if it takes you onward into the natural geography of the song— then you know that you’re on the right path.

But, a one-note song with a boogie shuffle feel brings back something that Bo Diddley probably dealt with in every song that he ever wrote, which is: You don’t get to just write a new part where you change the rhythm. You’ve got a structure that you’re working within. We’ve always done that in some ways but, in this case, it’s really tightened down, and we’re abiding strictly by the same foundations as these blues artists. We’re following the same 1-4-5 progression that some of them followed throughout their entire careers. But still, they figure out how to make song after song creative and new within this highly structured template. So it was fun for us to do that and feel like we succeeded with it. But we still managed to encapsulate Howlin Rain’s roving energy within that tight one-note structure.

Lyrically, it’s got this character that’s almost been beamed down from outer space, kind of a Starman thing, where he appears as this charred full[1]sized embryo on the courthouse lawn. Once again, this is a larger-than-life mythological character who’s both terrible and mutated from all that should be right at the center of our spirit. But, as Americans, we can’t help but be in awe.

I wasn’t thinking that closely about a Trump figure, but it was written in that era and it was kind of tickling that sort of thing. It’s not specifically about Trump; it’s just the way that, even if we say we stand for something else, we end up gravitating toward these fearsome faulty individualists, who—at the expense of all else—are earth[1]crushing and people-crushing. They’re sort of bad for our health in all ways.


This album is a real group effort. I came in with the basic songs but we collectively worked on the arrangements or the band pushed me to write additional parts.

“Annabelle” began as more of an Allman Brothers-country song. But then Jeff and Dan and Justin brought in their influences and pulled it away from that. Justin’s a big fan of electric British folk—Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span kind of stuff from the early ‘70s. That’s what he heard could be done with it. He said, “This could be like a Pentangle kind of song. We could give it a little more of an Albion feel.” And from there, Jeff said, “We could use some of the overlays of the chords to give it a hint of a Celtic feel.”

So those guys really started pushing the arrangement in this new direction and giving it this harmonic and melodic complexity that I think is richer than what I started with. There are still a few moments in there where you can hear an echo of this late-night, country-music lullaby. But it’s an interesting mix. I think they really brought it to a place in the arrangement where the music matched the hushed-tone reflection in the lyrics—that sort of raw nerve, emotional resonance. Then, Scarlet came in and played the beautiful violin on there to seal the deal.

Dharma Wheel

We’re really proud of this one; it’s a very accomplished tune for us. Originally, it was going to be the middle point of the whole thing. So this would be an epic middle point, but not the most epic point, if you can imagine. [Laughs.] I thought it would be a perfect middle point as a multi-part suite about death and regeneration. But, in the end, it turned out to be the final point, and it works just as well in that way. It’s a song that I had written the riffs for and developed very briefly with another band of mine called Feral Ohms, maybe in 2011 or 2012.

When we put together the basic arrangement, it was a much more simplistic tune— both in feel and in execution. But some of the ideas were already there and I’d always kind of had it around. But, when I played it for my friend Jay Babcock back then, he told me: “That’s a Howlin Rain song, not a Feral Ohms song.” And I said: “You know what, we’re kind of gravitating away from it.” So I tucked it away for a rainy day.

Then, just for kicks—because I was bringing like 30 songs to the band—I decided to pull that one out too. When I played it for them, they thought it was cool, so we got to work on it. It kept expanding and we kept refining it, adding our details and arrangements.

It encapsulates the feel of the album in that it’s epic, it’s episodic and it has all these different things going on, but it still feels like a natural path. It doesn’t feel like we wrote a song that was 17 minutes long for the sake of writing some epic thing. We took pen and paper, turned the amps on, started playing the riffs and stopped when we felt it was finished. I didn’t know how much time had passed.

That’s kind of the way that we do things and it’s especially the way we did things on The Dharma Wheel. I hope that people listen to it that way, too. I hope they’re like, “Man, I’m not sure if I just heard seven minutes, 17 minutes or 70 minutes. I was in there taking the journey and it felt natural.”