Interview: Howe Gelb a/k/a Giant Sand
Howe Gelb's Giant Sand plays the Blender Theater at Gramercy this Sunday, September 21. Tickets are $15 and on sale here.
"Every time the Republicans have been in [office], it seems like the best rock music gets made."
Since relocating from Pennsylvania over a quarter-century ago, and particularly since the death of his friend and fellow founding member Rainer Ptacek, Howe Gelb has served as the driving force behind Giant Sand (f/k/a Giant Sandworms).
Earlier this month, Gelb released proVISIONS, an atmospherically spacious collection spooky enough to stand-in for any David Lynch film with a Southwestern setting, and the first Giant Sand record in four years--an unusually long lull for a man who's spearheaded a half-dozen solo and over a dozen Giant Sand albums since 1985.
A second marriage to a Denmark native has caused Gelb to split time between the Southwest and Europe over the past few seasons, plus add two children and three new Danish band members to his extended family. On August 11--just days after Gelb returned to Tucson from the Old Country, with Gelb's legendary philosophizing playing lead--we discussed songwriting, his late friend Ptacek, his estrangement from former Giant Sand members and Calexico founders Joey Burns and John Convertino, the "Tucson sound," and the meaning of Giant Sand. -- Rob Trucks
Let's try a big, broad question to get us started. In the past, Giant Sand has been described as a one-man band with a revolving cast of characters. What's the current definition of Giant Sand?
It's always been more seasonal than any kind of cast revolution. I think it's just like, the current crop of storm huddlers, and the storm comes around every so often and we suffer through the same rains together, so to speak.
The thing is, the revolving cast, I don't think it really revolves. People don't come back around necessarily. They've all got lifetime memberships and all that, but the idea of what Giant Sand is is just like this escapade that has its own season. You know, the orbit is like a comet. I don't know exactly when . . . It doesn't come every November, or every two years, it just comes when it comes. And then I find myself in it and whoever's around me seem to be the ones in it at that time for as long as it seems to last. For better or for worse . . . I don't go out looking for members and I don't go out getting rid of members. I just let it happen by itself, and that's had its ups and downs. But that's how it's happened.
Why is proVISIONS a Giant Sand record as opposed to a solo record?
That's a good question. Because there's evidence there that it has a certain flavor that I always get when . . . Well, twenty-something years ago, 25 years ago? When I first started Giant Sand, that always seemed to be the basic rock band format. Three or four piece, sometimes a two-piece, sometimes a six-piece, but basically, you know, kind of like a guerilla tactical maneuver. You know, get in, get out, any kind of situation whether it's recording or touring. With Giant Sand it's usually like an enclave that's there for the duration of the entire record and tour. And often several records and several tours. So I don't feel like it's . . . That kind of music, when it's happening I know it. With these guys, it started out being--maybe this is too much information--but basically it started off being a solo thing back with a record called The Listener. And then on the tour for The Listener it occurred to me that the vibe I was getting, the feeling I had, the things that were starting to occur with me writing material, was just the way it's always felt like when I was with Giant Sand, and that was kind of a relief to realize. So that morphed into this band, the next lineup.
You said the enclave usually lasts for at least one record and the subsequent tour, if not longer. Is the band that recorded proVISIONS the band that will tour in September?
It's the same people. And it was like that for the last Giant Sand record, too, Is All Over The Map. And the only distinguishing quality is--and again, yeah, that's definitely too much for anybody--but with All Over The Map, we were a really good acoustic band, and I tried to see if we could go electric during that record, and I don't think everybody was comfortable with that. I mean, they were really happy to try it. And you know I'm always playing with younger people, and that's the thing I keep forgetting. But, I don't know, when you get along with somebody you don't think about the details of lifespan and experience. You just think we're kind of all connected. And then you go, 'Oh yeah, I've never known this bass player to pick up an electric guitar before. He's always had a stand-up.' Or electric bass. So we should be able to try that and see what happens, etc. And that was true with the drummer who only played cajón and he was sitting in on the drums, and the side player who plays mandolin who's sitting in on guitar now. Whatever. That's why I thought the acoustic selections on Is All Over The Map are really, really strong and showed off how we really were. And then we were trying to get electric, and that was just . . . I heard a little bit of the . . . It wasn't coming so natural.
I think they're just not tormented enough up there in Denmark. You know, the more torment in a country, the better the rock. And political environs seem to predicate the amount of distortion pedals.
Then this ought to be a really good tour upcoming then.
[laughs] Well, if you notice, every time the Republicans have been in, it seems like the best rock music gets made. And I can only remember back to Nixon, but from that point on, if you correlate the years, that's the up and down of it. Like, you know, the saddest thing in the world is Kennedy getting shot. That was the downshot. The upshot was I don't think we wouldn't have gotten Hendrix otherwise.
And I guess Carter was president when disco was at is peak.
Yeah, and Clinton had hip-hop.
Since we're on the subject of politics and since you do live in Arizona, tell me what kind of senator Mr. McCain has been for you. I get the fact that you probably won't be voting for him as President, but how's he been as a senator?
Kind of completely invisible to my day-to-day. I know him only by seeing him on TV and speaking from Washington, but I don't really get a sense that he's representing anything I do or am involved in. Even though we're talking politics, I'm not really political. I can't really put out much energy in those terms. It seems like a severe annoyance most of the time.
Then let's go back to the music. I don't usually ask about touring all that much, but since we're kind of on that subject, I know that on your solo tours you pretty much go onstage without a set list and you let the night develop organically. That seems like it'd be a little tougher to do with a band. Are you planning on going out without a set list on this tour?
The only time I've used a set list, really, was when I went out and toured with a gospel choir, out of sheer . . . not so much respect but just sympathy. I didn't want to lose them at any given turn and I wanted them to be fully aware of the situation, because that was such a remarkable thing for me. And I've never been out with so many people before. It was like traveling with a small town. There was like 14 of us onstage and I didn't want to leave anybody behind on any given twist and turn, so to speak, so that wasn't so bad. But with the band format, with any other situation, I've never used a set list, only because I thought it was . . . From the very beginning I thought that kind of practice leads to dementia and eventually Alzheimer's.
You've had a long, long career. How much material can the current band reach back for? Are they going to be able to follow along if you decide to pull something from 17 years ago?
Yeah, the thing I mentioned before, the acoustical quality and nature of the band as it was becoming Giant Sand, in years since it's developed this really lovely electrical foundation. It's really great to play with them electrically. The guy on bass now sounds like he's always played electric. The drummer has blown my mind and the slide player always keeps me amused throughout the evening. And when we all set up to play . . . You know, the more you play with somebody you develop a form of telepathy and playmanship. It's just something that happens when you improvise a lot and you kind of get to know how a person thinks in terms of their signature playability. You kind of know there's like three to five variables every now and then, every so many bars, in a song where it might change. And that's all it is. I think from the very beginning I kind of conducted myself like a jazz musician without having that talent. It was kind of like I made use of my disability in that regard, but utilized their wanderlust for improvisation to get in and get out and to have the confidence of all that. But the accidents are going to be your friends. They're not going to be your enemies.
You're playing support slots for Neko Case on the next tour so you'll have about 40 or 45 minutes to play. And I would guess that since proVISIONS is the most recent there's going to be a natural inclination to want to play a decent amount of that record anyway. But do you have any kind of responsibility to the record company to promote this record?
[laughs] That is why . . . my lack of acumen to such basic practice of promotion is probably why I'm only as successful as I am, or only as popular as I've ever gotten. But exactly why I've managed to have the longevity, too, so . . . you know, I do these things. It's never intentional. It's like whatever the night will provide, so to speak, and if I had to break it down in percentages it's usually a third to half of the night will be, you know, from the record, and then there'll be a few little bits from yesteryear, or a decade or two ago maybe, and then there's always stuff that hasn't been written quite yet. A little bit of that.
And the idea of having only a 45 minute set is a great relief. It's a fantastic quadrant of time to sort of . . . It's like refreshing. It's like a bath. You know, you get in, you get out and you feel cleaner and you don't feel like you've come out with raisin fingers. So I love that. Especially getting older, and especially liking to play earlier than later these days.
You recorded for Thrill Jockey, both as Giant Sand and as a solo artist, for the equivalent of an eternity in indie rock years. Is there an easy answer as to why proVISIONS is coming out on Yep Roc?
When I turned 50, things lined up accordingly that inspired . . . I don't know if they inspired change, but they at least came knocking on the door with a registered letter, so to speak, from the Fates, saying, 'If you're ever going to change things anymore, this is the last chance.' And across the board I had to reconsider everything. And I walked kind of slowly and carefully and just made these determinations along the way. I enjoyed my time with Thrill Jockey. And I can't say . . . There's no real details there to . . . I don't know. But I just noticed that I started changing everything around: booking agents and various territories and travel agents. Weird little things where I would deviate from what was going on, and at proper times do this and that. And the funny thing about YepRoc, it just seemed like they had all those singer-songwriters over 50 and I thought that, 'Oh, maybe that's the Hillary Clinton market share being merged with Obama down the road.' I don't know.
Well, Yep Roc does have a number of over-50 artists. Paul Weller's there and John Doe's there and Robyn Hitchcock. At the very least you could all get together and commiserate about having to play with musicians that are a decade younger than you are.
That's the other thing, too, is I've gotten to know John and Robyn really well and that was part of the natural gravitation maybe to giving it a shot, because I kind of respect how they think and what they do. And the Thrill Jockey guys are all great. I mean, it's great there and the bands are cool. They're more . . . They're not really singer-songwriter-oriented there, so to speak. They're kind of more like a gallery of different artists, you know, using different mediums, even though it's all sound. And that was fun. For a long time that was really cool.
Is there a Tucson sound? And if so, are you the man to gather the blame/credit for it?
I am part of the fabric of whatever the mess is that people think of it as, but when I was here for so many years the element in Tucson music seemed to be an affinity for meander. And I felt comfortable as a Meanderthal. Some folks have moved here since--good folks--and have less meander in their music but have tapered it down and kind of maybe custom-fitted the local sound into more of a succinct scenario. And that's okay. As long as they get their hands dirty now and again changing a cooler pad. I'm a little suspicious of any local band that's never had to mess with their swamp cooler or change their own pads.
What's the oldest song on proVISIONS?
Well, there was a nine-minute song on there called "The New Romance of Falling" that was from 1991, but at the last second . . . It's on the promos. I have it on the promo if you've got one. But I was in England, I was on tour in May, just this May, and the promos were already done and out, and I sat down with a fellow named John Parish who's become brotherly over the years. And he'd just finished a record with Polly Harvey. And he played me his and, you know, I'll show you mine if you show me yours. We did that thing that we do every now and again. And we traded each other our records about a year or so previous when we started these things. I kind of make records two or three years before they ever get released. Which is nice for somebody who's always late. So John and I had heard each other's sketches a couple of years ago and now we heard the finished products, and I was so inspired by his. It was just hitting me the right way. And sadly the older you get the more you've heard and you hear things that are new to most people but you've heard it before and it doesn't move you the same way, so when you hear something, and you still get moved by it, it's a genuine celebration. So I spent the night at his house and he took me to the train the next day, and I was late to the train and we were driving fast through traffic and he was talking slow and quiet. And he just kind of made mention that while I was sleeping in he gave the record a few more spins and he just suggested that I might want to remove the nine-minute song in favor of this new, unearthed treasure we'd just found. Because I do these things so many years ago that I forget all the little hidden places I've stashed songs, and one had just come to light and it was called "Belly Full of Fire." And then I remembered, 'Oh yeah, that's right.' I had written that song on the P.J. Harvey tour so many years ago and I never put it out. And then it happened to make sense in some way I couldn't explain, so I yanked "Romance" and that would've been the oldest one, and I did "Belly Full of Fire," which I guess is the second oldest one.
Is there a time frame when the majority of songs were written? And are all of these written in Tucson or are you doing some songwriting in Denmark or even on the road?
It's always a global endeavor, so it's in hotel rooms mostly. It's on the road. It's wherever it hits you and it's usually when you're out traveling somewhere. It used to be when I lived alone out in the desert all the songs would get written there nicely because, well, there's no interruptions. And then as I took on family involvement the interruptions come every twelve minutes or so, and if you're scatterbrained it's ill-conducive to ever get a full thought. So I tend to end up doing a lot of my writing when I'm in transit and kind of alone by myself, that way I hear the signals coming in better.
And if you're looking for a time frame I would say they all got written right before they got recorded which was at least two summers ago, so about two, two and a half years ago.
I think what I really want to know is how much geography affects your songwriting. Do you write differently in Tucson as opposed to being on the road as opposed to being in Denmark? Does the fact that now you have kids running around and every songwriting moment is more precious, does that kind of adrenalize the process in a way that maybe it didn't before the most recent two were born?
Well, trying to survive with a family, it ratchets up the levels of participation and self-involvement and how you can continue to exist with this mode of existence. It gets trickier. I've noticed I've kind of been gravitating toward people that have had children over the last ten years and been impressed with how they can continue on and still do things. You know, not necessarily make children's records or things like that, but just the path they're on, the exploratory path, and how they still manage to replenish this old planet that they're replenishing, per se. So when I'm out and about, I'm just severely, you know, scatterbrained, I think. Or at least I take a lot of different things in when they're right in front of me, and I get lost in that transition.
You know, whether it's a few moments or a few days, I'll be some character. That's the way it seems anyway. And when I'm home, you know, I keep getting reminded who I am. I can't give you a definite depiction. Because, on the other hand, my piano playing has kind of blossomed over the last five to ten years, and I think that's specifically because of family involvement. And I really like how it's been sounding, so I kind of owe them for that upgrade. But as far as me becoming these characters and writing, because the characters are inside some type of situation and I just kind of write what's happening, and then I leave that situation. And that seems to happen more when I'm somewhere else.
Listen man, the world is so small, and you know it when you're in these different places. It's weird that when you're in, you know, Makimoto or Jersey City or Ǻarhus or Zagreb, I mean, everybody seems to have the same record collection that comes to your shows. And I don't mean my records. I mean, they have the same Cat Power record and the same Will Oldham record and the same Nick Cave record and probably some Thelonious Monk in there. Seventy percent of the records seem to be like, in a way, defining their nationalism more than their geographical location, so sonic nationalism. So I don't know. The world being so much smaller now because of all that and the Internet and things. Energies and flavors still smash you in the face and overwhelm you, and when you get busy you know you're onto something. And that's usually how it works.
Well, we all have different ideas about place, and especially places we've never been to. You grew up in Pennsylvania. And while I certainly wouldn't think those songs were written by a man who was raised in Pennsylvania, I could easily see those songs being written by a man who lived in Arizona.
Yeah, I know. Isn't that beautiful? That's like the human nature of wanting to believe that those wonderful Western movies Sergio Leone made with Ennio Morricone soundtracks epitomizes the West more than the West ever epitomized itself. Because there is sort of a dreamscape embedded in every human. It's why we adore films and that whole experience, going to movies, is that there's something that feels more right than ever really was right. And who can say what that is?
But the Pennsylvania thing, for me, was it seemed like it must've been a mistake, because a big old flood smashed our house and my folks got divorced and it just seemed like, 'Okay, that was incubation.' And then I got literally evacuated out of there and began moving. Everything got erased. And that felt okay. That didn't feel tragic. So it's not like there was some horrible thing that happened that set me on a certain path to make music. Like some kind of horrible inspiration. Like something more gothic. Instead, I ended up here and I probably would've never found my way here otherwise, or I would've taken the long way. And Dad lived here, so, you know, I came out here and it seemed like Mars and Mars felt good. I think it's kind of like the music you're ever going to make, or the art you're ever going to make, is buried within you and it's gurgling up and it has less to do with outside your skin than inside your skin. And if you're lucky enough you find a place that'll feel more like home because of it. And I think that's what happened instead of the other way around.
You know, I invited John and Joey [Convertino and Burns of Calexico] to come out here. They weren't from here. And they came out here in the '90s, separately, and ended up loving it here as well and saw it with fresh eyes and fresh ears, and they were able to . . . It was interesting to see then how they developed and started incorporating a twist on our old sound and making it more of a localized thing. But also with the sensation of what Europe always really intended the West to sound like. Those intentions are just as welcomed on the planet. I like the way things change here, with the wind and the rain, and everything's shifting. And it just makes more sense how uncluttered the space is. Everything's naturally too cluttered, and I just enjoy the space. And I think, if anything, I leave a ton of it in the music. I leave things unfilled. When I was first recording it was way overfilled, and it drove me nuts. I thought, 'That's the sound that was in my head, and now when I hear it it gives me a headache.'
You mentioned John and Joey. There was some Internet sniping going on a couple of years ago. Are you all good now?
We're good enough, I think. I mean, Joe is ten years younger than me and he grew up in a different . . . not quite a different generation, but I guess usually our perimeter of involvement is usually ten years above and below us, which would make his reaching all the way down to 20 years below me, and I understand how he grew into his own personality and it was kind of cool to see it. Splinters from this camp and especially how it manifested here in my hometown. And John was an older friend than Joey was, so there's more bonding there, plus he's not quite as young as Joey is. There's more of a seven year difference. Plus John had gone through similar family involvement as I have, meaning now he has three kids, and that's what I have, so there's that connection with John that's evolved beyond music into more of this breeding reality. And I think probably if Joey kind of went through having children him and I might've been closer now. But I don't know. The only problem that occurred way back when was there was a collision of agenda, some complete lack of . . . We never really talked that much. We always hung out and we always talked within our music, I guess, because the telepathy got really thick and strong. And so when you had that separation and the splitting of the camps and then you have all the people on their side of the fence that just want all things Calexico and then you had my rather lackadaisical, really unambitious demeanor, but still trying to do this thing and all things Giant Sand with those people, then it was getting really impossible for us all to figure out how to handle it.
At first, I think the thing that made it so surreal for me and really messed with my mind was that it all happened right at the time my best buddy [the late Rainer Ptacek] got sick with brain cancer so it seemed like everything was being ripped away again. And I miss those guys. At the time, you know, they were the ones that I counted as brothers, so I miss being able to count on them. And, you know, musicians are nothing if not sensitive.
Absolutely. I would even venture that musicians might be overly sensitive.
[laughs] Amen, brother.
You spoke earlier about uncluttering. And there's a lot of space on proVISIONS and I just don't get the feeling that these songs were written at nine o'clock in the morning right after you had your coffee. But it often seems like as songwriters get older, their working hours tend to go from late at night to earlier and earlier in the day. Is there a time of day that you're more likely to get your work done?
Most songs come in that state where you're leaving one world and going into the other, so it's usually . . . the stuff I like the best and the most information I get is falling asleep or waking up.
I know exactly where you are. That half-sleep, half-awake.
It seems like that not completely conscious would reinforce the gift aspect. That these songs almost feel like presents and you just happen to be there.
Yeah. Yeah. I think it's also letting go of what you think is real. So the more you let go of concrete reality, the more you're wide open to accept the more ether-like reality. And the songs are nothing if not ether-like, that's for sure. They thrive in vapor.
Obviously songwriting's something that you do, something that you do well, something that you've done for a long time, but when they come to you in that rush, does that make you more appreciative? Like if these songs were physical objects you'd give them a hug and thank them for being there?
Yeah, normally I don't know what they are until way, way, way, way later. Sometimes years. And that's when I kind of really hug them. Like that song "Robes of Bible Black" that was on the 'Sno Angel record I remember specifically. That one came when I was falling asleep and really didn't want to get up to write it down. You always have the angel/devil on your shoulder. The devil says, 'You'll remember it later,' and you never do. And the angel says, 'You've got to get your ass out of bed now no matter how cold it is outside. Just write this down or record this little melody line on the cassette and then go back to bed.' And then the words and everything about that, I just adore, and love it more here now 20 years or 15 years or whatever it was after I wrote it. It was in the '80s. So I think the hugs come later. The welcome mat gets thrown out immediately. You say, 'Come on in. We'll make room.' And then later, later you really realize like, you know, like all things in life, like people, too, how much they mean to you. So, yeah, there's that.
And finally, what album have you listened to more than any other album in your life?
Well, the guy whose music I listen to more than any other music is Rainer, of course. My friend Rainer. And probably because he was there when I was 19 and we met and he was 24 and we began playing together shortly after that and started this band together and all that. And when I play his records now, it's just crazy. The one thing we tried to do back then was make records that would not embarrass us 20 years into the future. But the thing that those records have is like, whatever you call the opposite of a half-life, you know, every time it just gets bigger and better and more wondrous with every listening. And so I tend to keep listening to his stuff, maybe because I have all this information about him, and then when I listen to his stuff the so-called mystery isn't there about not knowing about the guy, it's knowing the guy and still being just like overwhelmed with the sensation of his ability and how he would manifest a song.
That's a special thing, to be able to have the appreciation increase even after repeated listenings.
Yeah. I mean, a lot of old jazz records do that to me, and you can hear more and more stuff, you know, the way you sort of see different things in a movie you see every five years or so. As you get older and your brain gets bigger, you see more things, understand more things. It triggers more things.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.