We’re stoked to have an interview with ETHAN MILLER of the most exciting new band we’ve heard in a long time FERAL OHMS!
Ethan Miller is already a vet of the truly aces Comets On Fire and Howlin’ Rain but when I heard the latest instalment in Castle Face Records Live In San Francisco series by his new band, the three piece Feral Ohms I was literally blown sideways, like being blasted by General Electric turbofans as opposed to speaker stacks. It was the most exciting blast of music I’ve heard since I first got played a C90 of Nirvana. I got in touch with Ethan and was doubly pleased to hear that in addition to the full Feral Ohms debut, he’s also been recording with HR. But it’s Feral Ohms that intrigue me the most…
…the opening of the Live In SF with its demands for the crowd to chip in with boisterous animal noises that had me hooked. There is a primacy that radiates through their morass of sound. It’s viscous, it’s visceral, it’s eviscerating. I had to know more, so I am chuffed that Ethan’s here to fill us in (the band have also chosen a “Lucky 7” but more of that later…)
Here we go…kick out the jams…(my bit’s in bold)…
What have you brought from your previous bands into the Feral Ohms mix and how is Feral Ohms different?
E: Well, I brought my guitar playing, my songwriting my voice and my energy. That’s quite a bit in a trio! Ha ha. Most of what I personally brought (though I think this is true for each member) is an interpretation of the different touchstones of heavy music that I fell in love with at different points of my musical journey.
From Misfits and Black Flag at a mid to late teen age to High Rise and Mainliner a few years later to Krautrock and international underground scuzz and biker heavies that I’ve dug up or been turned on to along the way. The very first Comets album reflected some of that stuff but it was at the first moments of my turning on to the PSF/ Japanese world and uncovering the lost underground slime records.
At this point I’ve had a decade and a half to absorb and appreciate those things and for them to fade back in to my musical DNA instead of being this super hot light right in front of my eyes and ears. Feral Ohms is an unrelenting interpretation of all that stuff. At least for the Live in SF and the first studio album the idea was that the foot never comes off the gas.
What is the aim of Feral Ohms?
E: To play to the chemistry of the three of it’s members. There may be moments where it’s so loud, too many beers, improvising, so that it sounds like we’re playing three different pieces of music but you’ll never hear a moment where it sounds like we’re trying to make three different points. When we fire it up it’s a single expression. We’ve boiled down Feral Ohms to a very simple, relentless explosion and that’s what we aim to express when everything comes blasting off the stage.
What made you choose to make your first full length release a live one?
E: We had both the Live in SF record finished and the studio album finished at the same time so it was a toss up. In the end we just thought it was kind of the rawest, most stripped down way to introduce ourselves and say “this is what we are”, without a single overdub, fix or pretense. Just the four elements: Drums, bass, guitar and vocals gunning at high volume and high speed. I think having the Live In SF come out as basically a sister album to the forthcoming studio album (which is set to release 5 months after this March) freed us up a little to take a few more liberties with the production of the studio record. It’s still very raw and the sound of a power trio but had there been no live record we may have been temped to try and present the studio album much more like live in SF with just the 4 elements and no overdubs. In that way it was kind of a fun challenge to figure out how Live in SF could be one thing and the studio album could be another so that a fan could listen to them both back to back with different experiences and yet the two would still be twins of sort.
Howlin’ Rain’s live album was obviously very well thought of, how significant was this in deciding to capture the spirit of Feral Ohms live?
E: Really not much except that I brought with me some of the things I learned about preparing and performing for a live album from having done that one and various other ‘one shot’ live multi-track recordings.
How does it compare with the other Live in SF Castle Face series?
E: I think it stands with any of them, and there are some phenomenal albums in the series. The recording team did a great job capturing us. The louder the band the harder it is to get a good recording on these things. Listen to the White Fence album, I guarantee you they had their amps at a sane level in that tiny club and as a result the recording is incredible, every instrument sounds so good, the drums have their own space, the guitars have their own space, the vocals in their own space. You start going for massive volumes out of the amps and the clarity of that sonic picture begins to blur significantly. In our case that’s ok, that’s sound of the band coming off the stage and Woodhouse did a great job of mixing it in a way that captures what the audience heard: high impact sonic chaos. It may seem a little counter intuitive but heat and volume and chaos are not such an easy thing to capture and express in this kind of live recording scenario.
What’s your favourite live album by another band (Castle Face aside)…? What do you think of MC5 Kick Out The Jams?
E: Love Kick Out the Jams. that’s a pretty great example of a pretty weird sounding live record but those characteristics being part of the heat and excitement of listening to it. Live environments are faulty by nature, it’s magic when engineers can really capture everything that was wrong with the sound in a live space and make it feel so right when presented the right way with the right mix. It can really make you feel like you are right there experiencing all the great, dangerous, overwhelming imperfections of the space and performance. I’m a big fan of bootleg live records and the big, overdubbed/re-recorded live productions of the 70s (and beyond). I love liver records. Who Live at Leeds. Flag Who’s Got The 0 1/2. Pink Fairies Finland Freakout, Santana Lotus, The late 60s/early 70s live Elvis records, The Dead live stuff, on and on. I bootleg bands too all the time at shows and listen to those on heavy rotation.
You ask the audience to make a load of animal noises cos it’s being recorded, what’s the normal audience participation level and do you feed off this?
E: Of course. That’s the do or die for recording a high energy live record. We were playing in front of Thee Oh Sees sold out crowd at the Chapel in SF and it was a young audience. I doubt they really knew who we were but they were young and hungry and their ears, eyes and hearts were wide open. That’s the finest thing you can hope for in an audience. Though beating old, jaded music cynics to a pulp with your music and totally flooring them can equally be fun~ though a taller order as you’re starting with a stand off. I do think it does help people to cut loose and really get in to the moment when they know they are going to be part of a record and get to actually be a part of the captured performance~ that’s exciting, it puts something on the line for their performance and expression as an audience and I think that in knowing that most audiences want to live up to their role the best they can.
What can we expect from the first studio album? How can you ensure it captures all the spirit of the band? Will it / has it been recorded as live, or are there overdubs etc?
E: If there had been no Live in SF record we probably would have tried to make the studio album super super raw but because we decided to release the live record and the studio album as a one/two punch to introduce the band to the larger world we had to consider how they could both be honest to our sound and expression and yet different enough from each other that people would want and need them both as a fan. So yeah, there are a few guitar overdubs, that’s one thing. It’s still pretty raw sounding but with the use of a few extra tracks and a semi-controlled recording environment I think we were able to make the studio album sound a little more overwhelming and perhaps more focused in attack. Also about half the songs on the studio album were not on the live record so really those were the only songs we needed to make sure and present in a slightly different light.
I haven’t felt as excited at a record like Live At SF since hearing Nirvana, how can you reassure me the debut will be every bit as incendiary…?
E: Thanks! That’s a wild statement. I doubt I could reassure that kind of enthusiasm with a solid promise. But I’m sure you and the world at large will love it!
You have a song called “Super Ape” how big a fan are you of Lee “Scratch” Perry?
E: Big fan. Naming the song Super Ape was kind of a nod and a wink to Perry only because one of his greatest albums goes by the same name but our song really has nothing to do with him or his music. It’s a song about the end of the human age and humankind going out violent and thrashing instead of with much ‘human’ dignity.
On the “Living Junkyard” 7” you are listed under the pseudonym Boat Dog, what’s the thinking behind that?
E: Raj Ojha who played drums in Howlin Rain in the Russian Wild era gave me that nickname. I don’t know why. But at the time I thought it was funny and had a hair-brained idea that Feral Ohms membership would remain anonymous. Well, that lasted about 1 gig in the youtube/ social site era and anonymity was abandoned. I don’t know why it made it on to the 7”.
“Love Damage” is an unusual tale about a love lorn friend being lobotomised right? How many of your songs are specific to your friends/accomplices and real life stories?
E: They are all fantasy extrapolated from life experiences or real events to some extent. The song titles each pretty much begins a crazy micro story. “Living Junkyard”. “Teenage God Born To Die”. “Super Ape”. etc etc. They are just mini stories shouted and screamed and blasted out of a cannon too fast to really dwell on. They are the literary equivalent to a shot of whiskey, down the hatch, a lot of heat, a grimace and wince, a bit of shock and ecstasy rolls through your system and then gone.
There’s definitely a psych feel to what you do, any contemporary psych bands you listen to? Or do you avoid contemporary music?
E: I absolutely do NOT avoid contemporary music. I love music. Music being made presently (in the contemporary) is so powerful to engage with because it’s beaming out of the unknown and there’s only that one fleeting moment that it comes from the unknown and then it’s aging and we begin to look back at it and something else is taking it’s place as ‘new’ or from the unknown. I’m fascinated by that moment and what it feels like to engage with music in that fleeting ‘just from the unknown’ NOW. How could you not be? It gives me joy and life. It’s bigger than genre or an era, it’s bigger than our world and ever expanding. People that say that they don’t care for any music made after 1975 or whatever the ridiculous cut off point is that you hear quoted too often must only be interested in a mental vacation to the same tiny island over and over again to revisit the same thought process and feelings that are trapped in amber. To fall through the unknown in music and experience shock, surprise, epiphany in the least expected places and moments, that is the real transcendent joy of music for me. To get lost in it and to experience it without being able to fully contextualize it because it’s still in the fleeting state of ‘now’, that can be a very real, mysterious joy.
That said, most of what gets categorized as ‘psych’ music is rat shit these days. Though I do like Spacin’ and Sunwatchers. A lot of those East Coast bands starting with “S” are really good right now. Mary Lattimore put out an amazing harp psych record last year, one of my favorites of the year called “At the Dam.” Now that’s some heady psych!
Feral Ohms, “Live in San Francisco” is available now from Castle Face Records, Feral Ohms “S/T” available March 24th from Silver Current Records.