My conversation with Comets on Fire singer/guitarist Ethan Miller begins with him carefully describing the subtleties of the Echoplex analog delay unit. It’s a simple device that allows the user to record short slices of audio, then play them back and manipulate the frequency and number of repeats. From Elvis’ trademark slap-back vocal effect, to Jimmy Page’s use of the device with Led Zeppelin, to the more experimental use of the device by Carlos Santana, the Echoplex has influenced the sound of many now classic recordings.
Comets on Fire, however, are not interested in recreating those sounds. “We try to use it in a new way that people haven’t heard before,” Miller explains. In Comets on Fire, Miller’s voice is fed through the unit expertly manned by Noel Harmonson. The vocal is manipulated, encrypting and encoding the sound until it becomes a wild abstract instrument in it’s own right.
In a way the Echoplex story reveals a lot about Comets on Fire; knowledgeable and studious about the development of music yet still determined to offer a unique contribution of their own. In an age when so many bands try to refine and restrict what they do, Comets on Fire push the boundaries of their own creativity, ultimately producing far more rewarding results.
In August 2006 the band released their fourth album, “Avatar.” Sometimes sparse and gentle, often raucous and unhinged, the record is always fascinating. Clear in vision and assured in execution, it is the sound of a band exploring the limits of their abilities and consistently delivering inspired results.
From the frenzied opener “Dogwood Rust,” to the inspired guitarwork of “Jaybird,” the challenge is keep up and absorb it all. “Sour Smoke” is built around an infectious, tribal groove, underpinning layers of electric piano, haunting vocals and the fascinating textures of the Echoplex. Instantly engaging yet abstract and elusive, “Avatar” compels the listener to explore.
The band’s plan for the record was to “to try to make a record different from the last one and to still have the core and essence of the band intact.” Taking a year off from touring to focus on the record, Comets built the foundation of the record from lengthy jam and improvisation sessions. Honing the material and encouraging it to evolve, the band developed their material until it was ready for the “carving out the stone phase” of studio recording. The result of those the lengthy preparations is a stunning blend of tight composition and performance while remaining “loose and off the cuff.”
The band formed in 1999 Santa Cruz, Calif. as an informal experimental project. Deliberately using minimal preparation, Miller explains the idea was to “see how quickly we could make recordings; to make rock music in its most basic elements. Our point was to try to do it too fast to f--k it up with a bunch of over-intellectualizing.” The success of this instinctive approach produced their first record and the formation of Comets on Fire as a fully functioning band.
The goal from that point was to release the record commercially. Under the guidance of Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance (now a full-time member of Comets on Fire) the band set about set about planning the release of the album. Chasny suggested a do-it-yourself approach would be a useful process in learning about the business side of music.
“He said to us, you should do this because it’s an invaluable experience,” Miller explains, “Knowing how records are made, knowing how to get records out into the world, and what goes into that, every single step of the way.”
The band ordered an initial run of 500 copies, with Miller and his wife silk-screening and assembling each record themselves. After managing to secure distribution through Revolver in San Francisco and selling out of the initial pressing, the album was eventually reissued by Jello Biafra’s label Alternative Tentacles.
A second record “Field Recordings from the Sun” followed in 2002, this time released by Ba Da Bing, before Comets on Fire signed with Seattle’s legendary independent label Sub Pop. “Blue Cathedral,” 2004’s debut for Sub Pop and the new record “Avatar” have both been met with critical acclaim and commercial success.
While appreciating the support the band has received, Miller suggests Comets’ success has not been without challenges. “There are a lot of pressures and issues … whether you can follow up artistically, moneywise, families, jobs; all the s--t that is working against a band staying together, producing the goods over and over and creating a legacy for themselves.”
However, Miller notes that response from the press and public has been “a weird supportive instrument” enabling them to successfully battle destructive elements. “As you keep progressing, having things work successfully is an incredible gift to a band, from wherever it’s coming from and however it’s getting to them.”
Recently included in Spin Magazine list of “25 top live bands,” Comets on Fire have built up a reputation for their stunning live shows. Miller points to seminal punks Bad Brains’ early performances as a benchmark for their live show; “that’s eyes and ears, those guys were not concentrating on the exact notes, but on blowing your mind, through all your senses.”
It is that drive to provide a spectacle along with producing the goods sonically that sets Comets apart from many other contemporary bands. Miller suggests that with many other bands “it seems like the most you can hope for is to seem them play their songs really well, and you hope to hear something good with your ears. But I think we all really love it if you hear something good with your ears and see something incredible with your eyes, too.”
Apart from the actual shows themselves, Miller loves the opportunity to share music with his bandmates. Each band member travels with an iPod loaded with diverse music, and the chance to explore and discover music is welcome relief from what can be a physically and emotionally rugged experience. Miller enthuses, “sharing music with each other and sharing the experience of discovering music is one of the great pleasures of being in the band.”
The breadth of music the band listens to clearly feeds into the band’s own work. Instead of the influences being a crutch, they trigger creativity. In doing so, Comets on Fire achieve a balance of the familiar and the new. Miller explains, “That’s been a long term project; to try and skate that fine line between being able to have classic rock impact and still sound fresh and creative and taking chances at any given turn or any given riff.”
With such stunning results, Comets on Fire provide a lesson in the rewards of opening yourself to new music and being inspired.
Learn more about the band at their official Web site: www.cometsonfire.com.