Comets On Fire | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Comets On Fire

Apr 02, 2005 Comets On Fire Bookmark and Share

Comets On Fire play loud, so you may hear. This seems an easy thing to point out, but perhaps that’s because it’s more difficult to pin down what exactly makes their particular blend of jazz, psychedelia and hard rock so damn good.

Straight out of Santa Cruz, CA, Comets on Fire formed in 1999 with founding members Ethan Miller (vocals/guitar) and Ben Flashman (bass), who were soon joined by Noel Harmonson on echoplex and Utrillo Kushner on drums (guitarist Ben Chasney, also of Six Organs of Admittance, was a frequent studio and live collaborator before officially joining in 2003). The group’s self-titled debut in 2001 – which was eventually re-released by Alternative Tentacles in 2003 – was limited to a run of 500, with each vinyl copy getting the “hands-on” treatment by the band members themselves. 2002 saw the release of Field Recordings from the Sun, which not only found the band expanding on its own harrowing acid rock landscape, but attracted the attention of mini-major, Sub Pop, who put out the band’s Blue Cathedral last year, a “breakout” record on all fronts that had critics buzzing and eardrums – well, ringing.

Under the Radar caught up with the band’s Ethan Miller in between gigs to discuss – among other things – playing loud, Jello Biafra, soggy beards and messy hugs.

Under the Radar: You did some shows over in the UK recently with Julian Cope.

Ethan Miller: Yeah, actually we did one show with him but it was at the tail end of an entire European tour. It was a two-week tour, so it was fairly extensive for us, not huge – we didn’t go to the Far East, but we kind of covered most of Western Europe there.

UTR: How do you guys feel at the end of a tour? You said in an interview that your teeth rattle on stage, so I have to imagine you’re pretty beat up.

Ethan: Yeah, a little bit. The worst part for that kind of stuff is the halfway point, for the actually like having your head, arms, neck and body and ears and stuff get used to that kind of abuse on stage. So after like seven days in a row of – or even five – of kinda doing it everyone sort of locks in and it becomes more natural and you become a little more stronger towards everything that you want to do, and yeah, by the end I mean we’re just like fuckin’ animals [laughs]. Somebody was getting bloodied up every night, or banging themselves into the wall or banging their head into the drum stuff. You know, because you’re kinda feeling less and less, probably drinking more and more as you go. Also, you think less about what you’re playing because you’re getting locked in from playing. Going on tour for a couple of weeks – or three weeks – is like getting six months of practice into one solid period of time. You get exponentially more and more locked into those songs. The less you get to concentrate on playing well or playing right the more you get to concentrate on becoming physically [pauses] out there.

UTR: Do you find the songs evolve a lot over the course of a tour?

Ethan: I don’t know if we’re such great artists that everything gets played differently every night just because we can [laughs]. Some of those songs are already ten, twelve minutes long and they’re really physically taxing just to play them as they are at full power. For the most part they get played the same sort of way, but there’s always somebody, like especially Utrillo, who’ll stick in little weird parts and make us take left turns in songs for fun, just to kind of put in a surprise like, “Whoops, now the song’s going in this direction, gotta handle it.”

UTR: You got a lot of media attention with this last record. Do you feel like your profile is growing? Do you sense a larger fan base when you’re on tour?

Ethan: Well, it’s hard to – yeah, for sure. [Hesitates] In the last six months we went on a West Coast tour with Wolf Eyes and it was hard to tell who was there for Comets and who was there with Wolf Eyes. The crowds were good though. Then we went to Europe and some of the shows were smaller and some of them were a lot more hyped and there were lots of people there and they were really wild and we were like “Wow,” you know, “great.” So, I definitely think the press reaches a wider audience. It’s not just word of mouth at that point. It’s also maybe indie kids who are into Sub Pop and are like “I like The Shins and I’m gonna check out these guys too,” and are kinda like “What the fuck?” [laughs]. “That doesn’t sound like The Shins.” Once in a while you see some kids at a show and you’re like, these kids maybe found out about us from Spin Magazine or something like that, which is really pretty rad. If word-of-mouth and underground press is your means, it’s always cool to reach beyond your means and touch other people who aren’t getting the common source.

UTR: What’s the one thing you get most after a show?

Ethan: I’m always in a total kinda weird haze after the show. Usually, it’s kinda like [mimics appreciative fan], “Hey, great show.” You know I got long hair and a beard and it’s all totally soaking wet so if somebody wants a hug or something they come away totally soaked and disgusting [laughs].

UTR: I know the Bay Area has been very supportive of you, being from there and all, but have you noticed any other cities that have taken a greater interest?

Ethan: Yeah, I was talking to my folks about that. San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York – when we go to those places it seems like the shows are really, um, the crowds are larger, but those are three cultural Meccas. We’ve been to some weird places like Columbia, MO [that] you know, sounds like a good place to stop – might as well play a show there. Turned out to be totally rad, met a really great bunch of people, played with a great band.

UTR: It’s always surprising to hear about the pockets in the Midwest that appreciate really good independent music.

Ethan: Yeah, sometimes in New York people see so much that they get a little bit jaded, like [imitates jaded New Yorker] “Dude, whatever, who cares, it’s not that cool,” but in Kansas they don’t get everything – not everything comes through. Not everything happens first in Kansas, so you got some kids that love to party and love great music and have really open minds just loving to hear new jams and new art. It’s such an explosive connection and reception.

UTR: I imagine there’s great anticipation for people seeing a Comets show for the first time, since the press makes such a point of how loud you guys play.

Ethan: Yeah, people talk about how loud we are, but I don’t think were as loud as lots of bands are that have huge amps. We just play with a couple of Twin Reverbs. I think our music is not just volume loud but loud-loud. You can’t bring the volume down very much – it’s just being performed loud.

UTR: Alternative Tentacles re-released your first LP. Was it cool having Jello Biafra as a fan?

Ethan: Yeah, that was cool. Jello bought a copy somewhere on the road – in the Midwest – without us knowing him or him knowing us. We moved up to San Francisco and started gigging around there – at some point he came to one of the shows and he and I kinda became friends from talking. We talked about wanting to do something with the band and he suggested we re-issue the first album. Yeah, that was flattering and cool. He’s a cool dude. [Pauses] He’s just not over it. He talks about all the groups on his label with such enthusiasm and even groups that aren’t on his label, like when we’re at a show and I’ll see him and some band – you know he’s just like “Yeah, these guys are great!” and he’s got his weird little description worked out that he lays on you about them. I just hope that I’ve got that enthusiasm and drive to be like, “Godammit, I gotta get down there, man” when I’m forty-two or whatever.

UTR: There’s been so much positive press on you guys and I get the sense that a lot of critics like to champion your music. What makes it so endearing to them?

Ethan: What I would hope is endearing about our music is [pauses], you know we’re all self-taught musicians, and these songs are written by a bunch of dudes that are into drinking beer together and hanging out. We’re not trying to solve the problems of the world, but neither are we trying to just make something really stupid and meaningless. You know, we’re trying to make art through beer-guzzling and [laughs] dude-time together, and try to play as powerfully and philosophically as we can with our skills that we’ve developed through our own mutated self-education.

UTR: Did you ever think about how successful you wanted to be?

Ethan: No, we never had a sit-down where we put all our hands in the middle and we’re like, “Let’s fuckin’ get big – let’s be famous.”

UTR: But did you ever give thought to what you wanted to achieve?

Ethan: You know, at its heart, Comets is fairly popular music. It’s not the most out-there experimental shit in the world. I think a lot of its charm and appeal is that it’s got experimental elements and some understanding of experimental and improvised music, but it’s also got – we try to provide that major pop kick that great pop music and great rock music that The Beatles or Stones we’re always conscious of providing in their songs, whereas Coltrane and Albert Ayler or something aren’t providing that at all in their music. It’s quite the opposite – it’s simply the spiritual enlightenment and not instantaneous pop kick. I think we try to make a mix of those two. So on one level I always thought that there should be quite a bit that a wider audience could enjoy in Comets on Fire. You know, it didn’t totally stun me that a wider audience above the five hundred people that bought the first album would like it, but on the other hand it’s a little bizarre that we’re on Sub Pop now and touring internationally.

UTR: Let’s talk about your voice. You do a lot of screaming, which you do very well. How concerned are you with people catching your lyrics?

Ethan: I don’t think people don’t ever hear them. It’s just that they don’t always understand them. You know when you hear a Beatles song the implications are real clear and you can kinda like say, “Well fuck, this songs about, um, you know, I wanna hold your hand” [laughs]. To me, I can hear all the lyrics really clearly. So, I think there’s a little bit of a filter going on there, because I’ve written them so I know what they say. To me it’s like, you know how when you hear early Nirvana songs or something like that, you know when you first hear them you’re like “God, I have no idea what that guy’s saying,” all the words are really ambiguous, but they’re kind of enunciated really well but you still can’t tell what the lyrics are, and then if somebody tells you the lyrics or you read them somewhere it’s so plain and in your face after that. You’re like “Oh God, I can’t believe I could never hear that.” To me, that’s how the Comets lyrics sound a lot for the most part.

UTR: How well do your lyrics match up with the tone of a given song? How do you go about creating them?

Ethan: Usually I wait until the song is – until there’s a basic essence to the song and a basic movement and power to it, then I just make my interpretation of what that song feels like. If it feels like a song about disaster, or if it feels like a song about – that brings up images of love and light and stuff like that – static joy, or something, then I kinda go down that road. And I do take a lot of time and effort into the lyrics – you know, write them, re-write them and work with them and stuff and try to put something together that is a sixth piece to the actual band that also works in the band as lyrics, but also that is something that’s supportive of the other elements. Most of the lyrics end up being kind of abstract, literary stories about something, or literary poems almost about something.

UTR: Tell me about some of the less-obvious influences on the band that aren’t being talked about in the press.

Ethan: Procol Harum was a huge influence for Utrillo. When we were doing Field Recordings, Ben Chasny and I were super into Azuma records. That’s probably been mentioned in some stuff here and there. Before we did the Blue Cathedral record, somewhere in that in-between period Chasny and I were listening to a lot of Skip James and blues guys and stuff like that.

UTR: What about Sun Ra?

Ethan: Yeah, there are dudes in the group like Noel and Chasny that are super huge fans of Sun Ra. You know, I like his thing and stuff — for me personally, he’s a super cool weird cult figure dude, but he’s not super important to me or anything. [Laughs] You know, they’d probably fuckin’ shoot me if they heard me sayin’ that.

UTR: Well despite all the different influences you’ve managed to create a pretty unique, cohesive sound.

Ethan: We do try to never have – never let Sun Ra be a more important influence than like, Stephen Stills or Slayer, or James Brown.

UTR: Do you guys cut and paste with jam sessions?

Ethan: Oh yeah, for sure. And Utrillo’s got his thing that he does on piano. He writes his own music for a solo project, Ben Chasny does Six Organs stuff, so both those guys also find stuff in their music – you know Chasny will find something in Six Organs that he wrote for something that’s never quite worked for it and he’ll be like “Oh hey, I got it – it’s perfect for this thing we’re trying to figure out – a little hook to, or something and throw it in there and there you go. Yeah, and we also record our jams. When we’re practicing we’ll have big improvising sessions and just do improvised rock jams and jam-jams, and listen to the recording and go, “Ah, there’s a great part in here – we can keep it.”

UTR: Are you guys looking to move away from the louder stuff and towards more lighter fare? There were some moments on Blue Cathedral where it seemed you weren’t just trying to melt faces.

Ethan: Yeah, they were decidedly lighter. We played with our distortion pedals off and our amps turned down so that we could play with the keyboards. I think that we’re trying to – you know, to answer you’re question straight up is to say I honestly don’t know. With Blue Cathedral we had an idea of where we wanted to go, and when we were in the studio we had the tracks down and then once we had the overdubs and the vocals down we still had no clear picture of what we had as a record and what it’s real essence was like until we made that final mix and took a listen to it – you know sat back at the mixing board and took a listen to it through and then you’re finally like, “Ah, okay, here’s what the new record is – you know, here’s how it sounds.” So I can’t say if it’s gonna be quieter or louder. I think it’ll be just as intense.

UTR: You always hear bands say that – that they never intended to make the album they did.

Ethan: Yeah, probably only Steely Dan goes into a studio to make a certain record and comes out having made just that record.


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