Four years ago, after his sophomore record with Howlin Rain was released, bandleader Ethan Miller approached his mentor — Rick Rubin, who had signed him to American Recordings — with a question: When and how should he begin work on its followup? Studio vet Rubin didn’t pull any punches. “He said, ‘Start writing songs now, and I don’t want to hear the next two good songs. I want to hear your next 40,’” recalls Oakland-based, retro-minded Miller, 35. The singer-guitarist did just that for nearly two years, at last satisfying his boss with the bluesy new “The Russian Wilds,” featuring spectral perambulators such as “Cherokee Werewolf” and “Phantom in the Valley.”
If you could revisit one musical era, which would you choose? I think any jazz lover would think it’s pretty primo to go back and check out the Village, Miles and Coltrane, somewhere in that ’55 to ’65 zone. Just getting into those small clubs and Harlem joints would be a pretty impressive moment to witness.
Any one historical session you would sit in on? It’s easy to say rich, labyrinthine albums like “Electric Ladyland” or “Bitches Brew.” But at the same time, it might be a bigger thrill to sit in and see The Troggs record “Wild Thing” or something — some trashy two-take sessions where these guys who didn’t know what they were doing went in and banged on something for 10 minutes and had their A-side. And somehow, they just hit on total magic.
You seem in touch with another era. Ever had a past-life regression? Everybody thinks they were someone kind and special in another life. And then you go to the hypnotist, and it turns out you were actually a dog breeder for the Nazis. But yeah, I’ve definitely got my own way of seeing and hearing things.
Some of your lyrics sound archaic, almost colonial, right? Yeah. I try to bring an element of high literature to it, plus elements of pulp and low art. And granted, you don’t hear words like “abbatoir” used that much nowadays. But while I was working on this record, I read Melville’s “Moby Dick” and “War and Peace” by Tolstoy.
While you were hunting your own white whale? Yeah. I got to a point where the book made sense to me, because we were — perhaps not artistically lost — but so deep in the woods that I wasn’t sure what I knew for certain. So reading something like that, about a journey that’s unmapped and nonsensical, yet highly passionate? You really learn your lesson about how such obsessions can end. — Tom Lanham