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Comets On Fire - Interview

  by Dominic B. Simpson

published: 31 / 7 / 2008

Comets On Fire - Interview


After a one-off gig at the Luminaire in London, Dominic Simpson speaks to Erthan Miller from much acclaimed Californian garage/psychedelic act Comets on Fire about his band and its members' other successful projects

There’s a buzz at the Luminaire in West London – a relatively small venue for Californian garage/psychedelia freak-out merchants Comets on Fire to ply their trade. With various members of the band engaged in other projects – Ben Chasny spearheading Six Organs of Admittance, vocalist Ethan Miller touring in his Howlin’ Rain outfit – the gig is billed as a very special event indeed. The one-man support act, Voice of the Seven Woods, taps into the current mode of ethereal folkiness, beginning with a looped wash of guitar haze before alternating dynamically between wah wah-inspired dense walls of noise and acoustic fingerpicking, evoking both the ethereal acoustic haziness of Espers and the heavier acid trip freak-out of tonight’s headliners. Chasny loiters at the side, listening intently. The presence of a large number of beards among the male contingent tonight confirms to me just how much Comets on Fire are rooted in much of the music released during the 70's. Not only do they bring to mind the heavy bad acid trip vibe of Hawkwind and Krautrock acts such as Amon Dull II and Ash Ra Temple, but you can also hear the influence of the Stooges, the Cramps and the MC5 in their sound. Together with the likes of the Sunburned Hand of the Man and MV & EE with The Bummer Road, Comets’ sound harks back to that period just before punk tore up the rule book – roughly the period 1970-75 – of free festivals, beards, tripped-out music, and flutes in rock music, yet updating that period for the present decade. The band themselves eventually appear and launch into virtually a greatest hits set, with the likes of 'The Bee and the Crackin’ Egg' and 'Pussy Footin’ the Duke' from 2004's 'Blue Cathedral' ferociously aired alongside new material from the following album 'Avatar'(2006), such as the intense freak-out of album opener 'Dogwood Rust'. With Noel Harmonson on stage right manipulating FX contraptions and his famed Echoplex, it’s the tall, towering presence of Miller who commands the most presence in the room, blurting out the vocals with sweat running down his eyes. Utrillo Kushner on drums, meanwhile, remains an outstanding musician, his playing effortlessly sounding like two drummers combined, every song propelled by his urgent pounding of the kit. What’s surprising is just how close the songs live are to on record, with the boogie of 'Sour Smoke' – introduced by Miller with the warning “we’ve never played this live before” – eerily close to it’s recorded version. Much of this is down to the band’s technical proficiency, but it also indicates that Comets are very much a live band, with their albums a representation of a band jamming rather than deeply embedded studio creations. The encore not only brings on Rick from Voice of the Seven Woods but also esteemed drummer Chris Corsano, part-time member of Sunburned Hand of the Man and countless other out-there acts, who proceeds to join Kushner in bashing seven shades of hell out of the drum kit while the band pile on the riffage, the set ending in a monstrous closing jam as various members of the band end up climbing the amps and drums. The Luminaire feels rocked to its very foundations; I leave a happy man. The next day I get the opportunity to put some questions to Ethan Miller. PB : The last time that I interviewed you for Pennyblackmusic was around 2005. What's changed since then ? EM : What's changed since 2005 ? The climate is much warmer. PB : I thoroughly enjoyed your set at the Luminaire last night, and that of the support act Voice Of The Seven Woods. What was your impression of it? EM : I enjoyed Voice of the Seven Woods. Rick Tomlinson is an awesome player--I like that little touch of blues he puts into his acoustic playing. He is a great dude. It was a fun show all around. It is always great to share a stage with Chris Corsano too. If even just for a few minutes. He has great energies. It's been a while since Comets on Fire have played together and I feel like the band had sounded the best it ever has on the last four dates of this mini tour. PB : I was intrigued at the gig last night to find out what the box of wires was that Noel Van Harmonson was using. EM : Noel uses an oscillator, a ring modulator, an echoplex, a delay sample pedal, a compressor, a mini mixer, a vox wah pedal, a distortion pedal, maybe some other stuff. That's what I can remember off the top of my head. PB : How do you see your sound as having changed since the first, self-titled album, 'Blue Cathedral' and then 'Avatar' ? EM : Construction and speed. With each additional album we took more time to work on the albums and recordings and song writing and worked to construct each subsequent album more and more leaving us with the last album 'Avatar' being the most architecturally creative album. PB : Relatively speaking, 'Avatar' had a slightly more song-based, conventional feel to it than the freak-outs of 'Blue Cathedral'. Are you planning on releasing a new album at all ? And if so, will it be more similar to the former or the latter ? EM : Personally I believe there will be another Comets album. But it won't be this year and maybe not next either. And it will stand on its own. It won't be like any of our other albums. PB : Do Comets on Fire generally write songs together in a democratic mode or is it more the product of a main songwriter in the band ? EM : I wrote the songs on the first album ('Comets on Fire', 2001-Ed) and most of the songs on 'Field Recordings from the Sun'(2002) and then on 'Blue Cathedral' and Avatar we worked as a team for writing with myself and Ben Chasny bringing the majority of the major riffs in and Utrillo Kushner bringing the basis for the piano songs and the entire band working them from there. PB : Do you think your side-project with Howlin' Rain has affected your main work with Comets on Fire, and the same with Ben Chasny's work as Six Organs of Admittance ? How would you say Howlin' Rain differ to Comets on Fire ? EM : I think that Ben Chasny and I would both say that because our touring and livelihoods are now based around Six Organs and Howlin' Rain that those are certainly the focus of our musical lives and have been for the past few years. They are by no means side projects. The similarities that I can see between Howlin' Rain and Comets on Fire is my presence in both groups and that at times they both fall into the "psychedelic hard rock" genre. PB : How did you get to know Burning Star Core, with whom you have recorded a number of songs? EM : I don't remember exactly. I think it might have been when we toured through the mid west we gigged with Spencer Yeh from that band. One night our encore song 'Ice Age' ended in a free for all on stage with Spencer up there playing violin and getting tackled by Chasny and Utrillo. From there we ended up in our jam space in the city one year when Burning Star Core was on tour out west with the tape rolling. PB : What do you think of contemporaries in the Californian scene such as Devendra Barnhart, Wooden Shjips and Vetiver.? Is there camaraderie between these bands or do they generally operate in separate 'scenes'? EM : There is camaraderie over a few beers when we run into these people at festivals every 2 or 3 years but I don't think there is a huge scene connection or anything. I like the above musicians as folks and like their jams but the music they make does not affect the music I make. Except that I stole an echo technique after watching Wooden Shjips at a festival in Texas for a guitar solo in a live rendition of a Howlin Rain song. PB : What do you plan to do next after this European tour has finished? EM : I am in the middle of a tour cycle with Howlin Rain. This weekend Comets are going up to Seattle to help honor the 20th anniversary of Sub Pop records and then I'm off on tour again with Howlin' Rain and the Comets creature rests again. Ben Chasny is working on recording and doing different Six Organs related projects over the next season. Ben and Utrillo and Noel are also in a band with Elisa from the Markers called Dirty Stealers that is a biker rock group. PB : Thank you.

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Comets On Fire - Interview

Comets On Fire - Interview

Comets On Fire - Interview

Comets On Fire - Interview

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Comets On Fire - Interview
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