Howlin’ at the sun

Pub date May 30, 2006
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer


SONIC REDUCER Something wicked this way came, right in the middle of last week’s spate of strangely beautiful, beastly hot days, as I sipped a pint on El Rio’s back patio with Comets on Fire vocalist-guitarist Ethan Miller. You can bet with 6/6/06 plastered all over town, prophesizing an ominously large marketing onslaught for The Omen that wickedness probably involved horror movies. And you’ll be right. Because Miller is happy to talk about the fruits of Howlin’ Rain, a solo project aided and abetted by Sunburned Hand of the Man’s John Moloney and childhood Humboldt County pal Ian Gradek. But Miller gets really "fanned out" when the subject of mind-gouging, low-budg cinematic howlers like his all-time faves Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Beyond, Maniac, Suspiria come up. I can dig it, but do all rockers really bond over the joy of having their eyeballs violated?

"My wife doesn’t want to watch it with me," he says jovially. "I’m, like, ‘Babe, I just got my copy of Cannibal Holocaust in the mail! And she’s just, like, ‘No! Fuck that! No! No! You have to watch that after I go to bed.’

"I had this one friend, I thought he and I had the same taste, and he just wasn’t really speaking up, and I kept giving him films to watch, and he was, like, ‘Dude, I told you. I hate that. That was fucking traumatizing.’”

For all his movie-collector madness, Miller can be reasoned with and likewise is perfectly reasonable. The Comets’ de facto leader and cofounder tells me their fourth full-length, Avatar (Sub Pop), is ready to go after what sounds like a grueling but fully democratic process recording with Tim Green at Prairie Sun in Cotati. "It’s hard to know if you’re in control of the macro-organism or if it’s in control of you," Miller muses. "Like a minidemocracy, you can’t steer it more than your one-fifth influence. These are real social people wed to each other through their art and music and now through a band."

The Howlin’ Rain project, meanwhile, was quick and dirty, spat out in about eight days, and driven solely by Miller, relying on two trustworthy friends from far-flung parts of the country, with Moloney in Massachusetts and Gradek in Kauai.

Dust demons of fuzz and growling guitar tone still crop up, but here Miller has conjured his own ’06 version of early-’70s "mellow gold" rock ’n’ roll, pulling from the Allman Brothers, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Neil Young without resorting to outright … cannibalism.

"I tried to pack it full of the psych you could have from this vantage point right now," he says. "Not make a record that’s, like, ‘Fuck, that sounds just like Sabbath. I mean, just like Sabbath.’”

Keep your bloody Sabbath instead a laid-back, sun-swept blues-rock vibe, edged with moments of darkness, comes in as clear as a rushing river. You can hear Miller’s relatively effects-free voice, for once not screaming over the maelstrom as if flesh were being ripped from his bones, cushioned by the occasional harmony, which he describes as "Simon and Garfunkel on a bad trip or something."

Nonetheless, Miller isn’t ready to forsake the power jams of yore. He sees Howlin’ Rain and Comets as populist entertainments, much like those beloved horror films. "The best ones succeed in an absolute emotional manipulation that’s kind of a ride, like listening to Queen or Mahavishnu Orchestra, music that’s made for an absolute thrill ride. It’s just so dense and thrilling, and they don’t make you sit around waiting for something to happen. Though maybe Mahavishnu wouldn’t appreciate that because their shit is supposed to be more spiritual …"

Stinky no more What’s it like growing up rock? Ask XBXRX, or Gaviotas’s Simon Timony, who had his share of alterna-cool attention at a very young age: The 22-year-old San Franciscan led the Stinkypuffs which included his onetime stepfather Jad Fair of Half Japanese, his mother Sheenah Fair, Gumball’s Don Fleming, and Lee Ranaldo’s son Cody Linn Ranaldo. Fronting and writing for the most notable child-centered supergroup of the early-’90s alt-rock scene, Timony learned guitar from family friend Snakefinger, was home-schooled by his parents, who ran Ralph Records (his father Tom was in the Residents), and eventually befriended Nirvana when Half Japanese opened for them during the In Utero tour. "I was actually trusted to go wake up Kurt before a show," Timony says wonderingly today.

After notably performing with Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, together for the first time after Cobain’s suicide, at the 1994 Yo Yo a Go Go fest in Olympia, Wash., Timony grew disillusioned with music at around age 13. But he picked up his moldy guitar again after discovering Korn and now he’s making Gaviotas his full-time job. He performs at a suicide-prevention benefit May 31. "My dad and my mom were, like, ‘If this is what you want to do …,’” Timony explains. “‘As long as you don’t suck!’ My dad is a very honest person too honest sometimes." SFBG

Howlin’ Rain

Thurs/1, 6 p.m.

Amoeba Music

1855 Haight, SF

(415) 831-1200

Also with Citay and Sic Alps

Sat/3, 9:30 p.m.

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF


(415) 923-0923

Gaviotas with Crowing and Habitforming

Wed/31, 9 p.m.

Annie’s Social Club

917 Folsom, SF


(415) 974-1585



Play nice with Chloe and Asya, those übertalented but otherwise normal preteens in Seattle’s Smoosh. Their new album, Free to Stay, is here to stay June 6. Eels headline. Wed/31, 8 p.m., Fillmore, 1805 Geary, SF. $25. (415) 346-6000.


Frontperson John lays down his Foucault — and likely won’t set himself on fire — for a few choice shows celebrating the release of Scrape the Walls (Alternative Tentacles). Fri/2, 10 p.m., Annie’s Social Club, 917 Folsom, SF. $7. (415) 974-1585; June 9, 8 p.m., 924 Gilman, Berk. $5. (510) 525-9926,