Howe Gelb sees…
BY LAVINIA JONES WRIGHT
Despite his chiseled looks and gravelly badass cowboy voice,
Giant Sand mastermind Howe Gelb is a chatty and thoughtful conversationalist. Speaking
where he spends part of each year with his family, Gelb brims with useful
information about the exotic nature of the Southwest, about his long and
prolific career, and about how not to
get hired by Bob Dylan as a sideman. His newest effort, proVISIONS (Yep Roc) marks Gelb’s umpteenth release as Giant Sand.
It’s a healthy, if not heroic, output-yet he’s also squeezed in numerous side
projects (the country outfits The Band of Blacky Ranchette and Arizona Amp and
Alternator; OP8 (with Lisa Germano), the gospel group ‘Sno Angel). Also, he
scores and plays “Dr. Fortunato” in the upcoming animated feature, Mars.
Whatever he does, fans everywhere gobble it up. And, despite
his hardships-losing close friend and GS co-founder Rainer Ptacek to cancer in
1997, and the band’s rhythm section to autonomy (John Convertino and Joey Burns
went fulltime as Calexico in 2004)-Gelb constantly eyes the next project.
Doggedly, he dives deep into the present, assuming that every album, song or
show might be his last.
BLURT: What led you
to release proVISIONS with Yep Roc?
I got the government notice in the mail that it is
imperative that you sign with Yep Roc as a singer-songwriter over fifty [laughs]. In the beginning, every record
was on a different label for me, so I’ve seen how they work. I like that Yep
Roc is in North Carolina and not in New York or LA. It’s also because I
realized a lot of my friends, and a lot of good singer-songwriters, are on Yep
BLURT: There’s always been a prevailing sound to Giant
It’s sort of a flavor.
It’s harmony mixed with calamity. It has to be a mix of music and hang time. So
when the band feels family-like, and there’s some kind of sound in there that’s
what I’ve always considered rock ‘n’ roll, that’s Giant Sand. Everything else
is spin-offs or side projects. But then that is the problem attached to
carrying a name around too long: eventually there’s no mystery left.
BLURT: Then why not
retire Giant Sand?
I see it as something that has its own season. It seems to
go around the sun every couple of years. And it’s always there, looming like a
satellite. Some signals you pick up for a while.
BLURT: Why is Giant Sand’s very strong Americana
flavor such a hit in Europe?
Our first records were released in Europe
and I wasn’t sure why. Then I realized that the exotic tendency of Southwestern
culture appeals to them. But I never made it easy for them to digest, because
my records don’t exploit “desert rock” or pretend to be important because of
that, and what makes it harder [to absorb] is my wordplay. It’s hard to figure
out what it is that gets under their skin, but [European fans] learn the words
and sing them perfectly.
BLURT: Do you have a
visual aesthetic in mind when you’re writing?
At times it’s exactly like that. I think that’s because your
ears develop in the womb before any other sensory receptors, and you start
hearing at the very beginning of your existence… Sounds are set so far ahead of
your other senses, so sounds will always more accurately reflect your feelings.
That’s why [films] are always more moving when they have soundtracks.
BLURT: Did you have a visual in mind
when you were writing proVISIONS?
Yeah… Sometimes you spin right into
some notion that wasn’t your own, but now you’re in it, and for a while you can
see and feel everything; you’re in that time and place. And if you’re lucky
enough, the Polaroid you’ll get of that will be a song.
BLURT: Speaking of
characters: You’re in an upcoming film?
It was filmed in Austin
last year, and it’s all about Mars. It’s animated and it’s hypnotic and
involving. All the actors worked in front of a green screen. I got to play the
bad guy, which was really fun, because all I had to do was be the cranky old
bastard at NASA control. They’ve recently asked me to do the soundtrack, which
is really exciting because when you’re making these records they always feel
like there’re soundtracks, but there’s no movie!
BLURT: Will you
continue making Giant Sand records?
Every record always seems like the very last record. It is,
literally, always the last record. You can assume you’re going to do another
one if a bus doesn’t run you over today, but it really is all you know. It’s
one of the good things about getting older, that you realize that. When you’re
on a tour you think, “This is my last show,” or “This is the last time I’ll
ever play this song…” because you really enjoy it when it’s the last time.
BLURT: Are there any musical
opportunities that you haven’t been offered?
To play piano in Bob Dylan’s band. I
came face to face with him in my favorite Mexican restaurant in Tucson one
time. There was my moment to ask him, and instead I said nothing. It kinda has
to happen without me instigating it-that’s the trick.