After four years of labor, Howlin’ Rain is in the final stages of releasing its third full-length album, under the care of legendary production savant Rick Rubin.
“It’s getting to the end of a long journey,” says frontman Ethan Miller. “I’ve always wanted to have a larger budget for a record and be able to take my time.”
Miller says the band will tear through many of the new tunes – several are epic suites with running times more than eight minutes – on Saturday at Keigan Skydecker’s free acoustic/electric series at Carbone’s. (Yes, free. It will be packed.)
Though Howlin’ Rain is notorious for its raucous live performances, charged by dueling electric guitars and Miller’s gritty rock-and-roll voice, they can definitely pull off the same material unplugged. In its past acoustic shows, Howlin’ Rain has even thrown in some unexpected covers like Vanilla Fudge’s “Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which is usually played at an eardrum-bursting volume.
“Playing acoustic and harmonies is not much of a stretch for us,” Miller says.
The more intense performances do require some strategic self-preservation, though. Miller says there are two keys to keeping his ripping rock-and-roll voice intact: one, only drink room temp liquids before he performs; two, avoid speaking loudly for extended periods of time after performances.
On tracks like “Riverboat,” Miller and the crew bust out into three-part harmony in between spacey Emerson, Lake and Palmer-inspired synth riffage.
But for the most part, the Bay Area outfit – which was formed in 2004 while Miller was still in the Santa Cruz-based noise rock band, Comets on Fire – will focus on getting its new jams into the heads of its fans as the final touches are applied to what its frontman sees as the band’s greatest studio effort.
“When you work on something for this long, it always takes on a life of its own,” he says. “You could only do so much directing and so much perfecting and it still turns out different when you step back and see the big picture.”
Meanwhile, the opportunity for Howlin’ Rain to work with Rubin places them in an exclusive club that includes the likes of the Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash and Run-DMC. Miller says the Buddha-like producer has opened his eyes to stuff he’s never considered in the past, like the importance of song order.
“Rick is big on sequencing,” he says. “It’s important to get that right, even though people often listen to iTunes these days and aren’t sitting down to listen to full albums as they once did, with headphones on.
“The sequence can change the whole body, feel and shape of an album,” he continues. “You have to put that sh together right to create a real journey that flows. A lot of sequence rules used to be based on flipping an album over with an A and B side, like [Springsteen’s] Darkness at the Edge of Town. These days, two of those four songs are just songs in the middle of a CD.”
The week before Howlin’ Rain hit the studio to record its third LP, they decided to make a three-track EP as an intro to its forthcoming full-length that Miller describes as a “trilogy that presents [its] own unique journey and sonic arc.”
Until the LP is released – it has a tentative release date of February 2012 – Miller says the group won’t be committing to any of the large-scale gigs that it has played in the past, like Bonnaroo and All Tomorrow’s Parties.
“We’re just going to have fun until [the album] is released,” he says. “It’s been a long fking trip.”
HOWLIN’ RAIN plays 10pm Saturday, July 9, at Carbone’s, 214 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey. Free. 643-9169.