Recording 2012’s The Russian Wilds with Rick Rubin sounds like an intense process that took months and saw you try out dozens of songs. How did making this album [January’s Mansion Songs] compare? Instead of waiting around forever, working on a famous producer’s timeline, I just put a deadline out there. I found with The Russian Wilds—and I’ve found it to be true with most projects—that if you just leave a completely open-ended timeline, you either don’t buckle down or you can go on so long that you lose interest in each wave that you’ve been working with. You can take 10 years or 10 days, but that night before you go into the studio you write a couple of brand new songs, and you’re like, I’ve gotta put these on there (laughs).
I wanted this one to be loose and off-the-cuff, and I was playing with players that I hadn’t played with before. A lot of the takes are early takes, if not first takes, by a band that really wasn’t rehearsed and in a lot of cases didn’t even get to hear any music [beforehand]. I just said, “Here’s the basic key, here’s the basic vibe. I’m gonna roll the tape and let’s see what we capture here.”
Leaving American Recordings and swapping out the entire lineup are a couple of pretty massive changes to happen simultaneously. It wasn’t my intention to do that—I didn’t clean house on the band while Universal was cleaning house on American [Recordings] bands that don’t sell a lot of records. But once I saw that that was happening, you can say, “My God, everything’s changing all at once, and now my band’s disintegrating.” It’s intense. I was just left on my own to figure things out, and you wanna try to start looking at that as an advantage as quickly as possible so that you’re not overwhelmed by the fact that you don’t have an army to fight with. The advantage is that you can do anything and go anywhere. You can move unseen. So that’s what I tried to do: If it’s gonna force me to work from a path of spontaneity, that’s what I’ll make this record about.
A lot that I’ve read about the situation sounds pretty bleak, but the new album doesn’t feel especially gloomy to me. How would you describe your mood when you made it? I did feel a little bleak, after the dust settled and the band had dissolved and we were done with the major-label deal. I was just kind of standing there with a few poetry books and a guitar. It was kind of the first time in 14 or 15 years that I’d really taken a breath or taken stock. And then one day you have a moment where you go, okay, I’m not just beginning in this anymore; I’m 15 years into it, and that’s like three career lengths in musical terms (laughs).
I think there’s something that feels both very triumphant and also kind of depressing or distressing to an artist, when they look over their lives or their career. You feel proud, like it’s what you should be doing in the world. But it’s also tough; a lot of times you don’t make a lot of money, which doesn’t feel very good, even though that’s not supposed to be at the top of an artist’s list. You need to do it to survive, and as a regular American worker you start feeling a lot of pressure about that.
That’s not to say that [I don’t appreciate] the sense of accomplishment, the joy of making music and utter exhilaration of having the opportunities for massive change within my artistic spectrum. You look at some cats, Metallica or something, and they’ve been playing together since high school, some of them. And that in some ways is a really cool thing, but in other ways it’s gotta be a real drag. Like, I don’t wanna see my high school guy anymore; I wanna keep being challenged and not know what he’s gonna do next, just really jump off into the blue. So there was a real swirl of all these emotions, and it kind of made for a bit of a schizophrenic headspace, which can be stressful.
But, all that said, if I was feeling moments of being pretty hollowed out, I didn’t want the record to be a super downer record. I still wanted it to be a Howlin Rain record, to be raw and honest emotionally. But I wanted to also figure out, if we’re talking about despair and stress and depression, where’s the place where some irony and satire and ecstasy and joy exist within these states? I think most Americans probably live in a state of low-grade depression, mixed with bouts of despair and some small shots of joy, when they get their bonus or have their kid’s birthday or whatever. So what I was trying to reflect on the record probably wasn’t some singular emotional state that only some mad artist could understand.
Having first heard your music back in the Comets on Fire days, I wouldn’t have predicted you’d go on to record with Rick Rubin on a major label. Looking back, do you think you could have gone much farther down that path, or would that have required compromises you weren’t willing to make? Yeah, do you have to dumb down the music to sell a lot of records on that really mainstream scale? We can tell, for the most part, that the rock musicians that win Grammys and sell gold and platinum records aren’t really dealing in the avant garde, and the more they sell, it seems like, the less nuance there is to the whole thing.
I always loved rock music and populist music, and I just wanted to try everything. I love the place that I came from and the place that Comets exploded out of—making the records ourselves and then putting them out on underground record labels and then Sub Pop put them out—and I don’t think it changed us any to do that; we just got to sell a lot more records and have a little effect that way, on a lot of kids and bands that were coming up.
Rick [Rubin] changed the decision-making, because I don’t know if I would have gone if somebody from Virgin or whatever other major label had said, “I think we can get some hits out of this; let’s do this.” I wouldn’t have been quite as hot on that idea. But being on Rick’s label and working with Rick was something that was too enticing not to open that door and peer inside and say, “What happens if I step in there?” Maybe for better and maybe for worse, and now I wouldn’t know which, either.
With The Russian Wilds, we didn’t turn in a hit single. Some of the songs that people gravitate towards are, like, eight and a half minutes, nine minutes long, without repeating choruses. So I have to say that if my only intention was mass, commercial success, that wasn’t the record that should have been turned in (laughs).
You mentioned eight-minute songs. As I was preparing for this interview I Spotify’d the new album, and then your live Howlin Rain record [2014’s Live Rain] came on, which has a much more jammed-out, psychedelic feel than the studio stuff. Is that what folks can expect from the show here? Yeah, the live gig is pretty much still the Live Rain gig. The reason I don’t want every record to sound like Live Rain, a stomping, bombastic rock band firing on all cylinders at once for 70 minutes, is I don’t think that makes for a very dynamic record after a while. I’ve already done some versions of that on the early Comets records—just kicking ass and taking no prisoners—and I like the records to have different dynamics and be a different journey. But as much as possible I like a live gig to be bombastic and explosive, so the live gig as presented on Live Rain is in the zone that I want to present, though with a completely different band and with a different setlist.
Howlin Rain with The Blank Tapes, The Shelters. March 5, 9:30 p.m., $8-$10. Bunkhouse Saloon, 702-854-1414.