THERE'S A SPOT on the northeast tip of the San Francisco Peninsula where three streets—Washington Street, Columbus Avenue, and Montgomery Street—come together. It's just a block or two from Eric Bauer's bustling Bauer Mansion recording studio.
Frontman Ethan Miller made the new Howlin Rain album, Mansion Songs, at Bauer's place, and every week for six months he'd walk through that intersection on his way to the studio. It became the inspiration for what Miller now describes as "a love letter to... what was beautiful about the down-and-out side of San Francisco"—a side that's disappearing.
"This spot is pretty magical," Miller says. "There's three neighborhoods that basically meet on this corner: Chinatown, the Financial District, and North Beach. I would always park over by the water and walk through that intersection, and there was something really poignant about that spot. You can stand in it and really get these three neighborhoods' resonance."
The diversity of the area, with its old Chinese men, its wandering hippies, and the Transamerica Pyramid towering nearby, took Miller back to the San Francisco of his youth, when the city had considerably more of what he calls "outlaw, Wild West spirit" than it does today.
"That was the battle cry of the city," he says. "This is where the fucking poets, the hippies, the revolutionaries, the gays, anybody who didn't fit in anywhere else could come to the end of the earth here. Maybe it's true, maybe it's not, but I think people that had known and loved that San Francisco felt like it was being wiped out and traded in for giant tech institutions."
The intersection grounded Miller at a time when he needed grounding. Formerly of the revered psych/noise band Comets on Fire, Miller started Howlin Rain in the mid-2000s to pursue a more melodic, soulful sound. After the first Howlin Rain album in 2006, Miller signed with Rick Rubin's American Recordings, which put out 2008's Magnificent Fiend and 2012's tight, muscular The Russian Wilds. When it came time to record a follow-up, Miller found himself without a label, without a band, and without a plan.
He just had songs. And he decided to go against the well-rehearsed nature of the The Russian Wilds sessions—Rubin "likes the way a band sounds when they've been on tour for a year and half," Miller says—in favor of working quickly, recording with an unrehearsed band, often keeping first takes by players who had never even heard the songs.
"I just told 'em, 'This is the key. This is the basic tempo. Just follow me. Let's see what we capture,'" Miller says. "It was like, how much can I control this thing? I don't have a band right now. I'm in sort of a state of flux. I need to capitalize on the fact that I'm standing on really fluid ground and make that the thing, because otherwise it's gonna work against me if I try to control it."
The goal? Not perfection, but to capture "the explosive birth of an idea," and to return to the less structured recording style he was used to before Comets on Fire took off. As a result, Mansion Songs crackles with life and spills over with wild-eyed soul, while also retaining the bluesy swagger, folk-rock romp, and '70s influences that made Howlin Rain a mainstay in the West Coast's psychedelic scene.
Miller knows some fans of The Russian Wilds may struggle with the new record's "ragged, staggering, damaged" aesthetic. And he's okay with that. "It's just something different and I hope they say, 'I gotta lean in a little bit and let this thing sink in. I'm a little disoriented,'" he says. "As long as it pays off for the listener, I think that disorientation is one of the great rewards of putting out a new record."