THE MAN OF A MILLION MUSES: Howe Gelb

The Giant Sand mainman realizes ambition without excess energy even as he assembles a remake/remodel of the band’s classic 1985 debut. “I’m probably the laziest bastard in show business,” confesses Gelb. (Scroll to the bottom for links to some of our previous Gelb features, and go HERE to read our review of “Returns to Valley of Rain.”)

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

After more than 35 years of procuring music under several different handles and in a variety of fashion and forms, it’s not surprising to find Howe Gelb is again on the move. He’s touting a new Giant Sand album, a revisit to the band’s seminal effort entitled Returns to Valley of Rain. Originally released in ’85 on his own Black Sand label and distributed by Enigma, the track-by-track re-recording was issued on August 10 on digital, CD, black vinyl, and limited edition blue vinyl by Britain’s Fire label. (Read the BLURT review of RtVoR elsewhere on our site.)

But today’s excursion is more of the travelling kind, a trip that takes him his home in Tucson to Southern California where he’s visiting his son, a nephew, his daughters, and the children of his late friend, legendary musician and dearly departed mentor, Rainier Ptacek—who, in fact, are part of the Gelb extended family.

It’s a busy schedule, what with the many stops along the way, but Gelb takes the journey in stride, much the same way as he approaches everything else in a career that’s not only seen him bending boundaries as far as styles and sounds go, but also in a lo-fi approach that’s found him interacting with other artists as well, from those with commercial clout (K.T. Kunstall) to indie auteurs such as M. Ward, Paul Westerberg, and John Doe. Little wonder, then, that it’s hard to put a handle on Mr. Gelb, which we find, is exactly the way he likes it.

Nowadays, Gelb works under a variety of different handles—Giant Sand of course, precursor outfit Giant Sandworms, and a kind of expanded version called Giant Giant Sand; every decade or so, The Band of Blacky Ranchette; Howe Gelb & A Band of Gypsies; Arizona Amp & Alternator; OP8. And while all have some similarity in terms of an insurgent identity, all follow different directions, as dictated by whatever whim seems to strike his fancy. Likewise, he’s also released any number of solo albums, the latest of which, 2016’s Future Standards, found him exploring the realms of solo piano-based mood music, something he says he needed to do to clear the clutter both musically and mentally. (That album was informally credited to The Howe Gelb Piano Trio and featured duets with fellow singer-songwriter Lonna Kelley; a subsequent release the next year, Further Standards, was jointly credited to Gelb and Kelley and featured several Giant Sand-ers backing them in the studio.)

Deliberately soft spoken and subtle as far as his sly sense of humor, Gelb seems only too happy to share his thoughts this particular Sunday as he makes his way between stops to catch up with his kin. We suggest that he’s following an ambitious schedule, but he denies it’s taxing him in any way.

“It’s pretty easy,” he demurs. “And between all this, I get to talk to you.”

Talk it is, for more than an hour until he arrives at his next destination. Not wishing to waste any time, we get right to it.

BLURT: You’ve put out dozens of albums over the course of your career. Do you have any idea how many you’ve tallied so far?

HOWE GELB: I don’t have an exact number, but I think it’s around 60. (Ed. Note: for a comprehensive Gelb discography, including Giant Sand and the myriad side projects, check out the Sa-Wa-Ro database.)

That’s an impressive amount, and between that and all the different handles you have— Giant Sand, Blacky et. al.—it’s all the more astounding. So where does all the ambition and motivation and energy come from?

It’s none of those three things.

So what is it then? You may be the hardest working man in show business.

It may seem that way when you look at the stats on paper, but it’s exactly not that. I’m probably the laziest bastard in show business.

So how do you reconcile that with the fact that you have all these projects going on seemingly simultaneously?

“Projects” is a loose term. There’s no other qualifying name for it, so we call them projects. If you go back to the beginning of all this and look at the trajectory of how anyone gets into what anyone is doing, that usually illuminates the path they’re on, and why they’re doing it. For me, I accidentally released my first two albums for licensing purposes, but I didn’t mean to do it. That’s what was handed to me. Someone somehow got wind of my first album and offered me a three year license. I didn’t know what that was. They said they’d get me a $1,000 advance, but I only spent $400 on making the album, and they said in three years’ time, I’d get the rights back. I didn’t know anything about anything, but I knew I had nothing to lose.

So I went with that and, sure enough, the next thing happened with my next album which was a country/punk album by The Band of Blacky Ranchette, and the very next thing happened with the next record, which was by Giant Sand, and that happened overseas. The equivalent of that was where they would give you money up front but they wouldn’t pay for the recording. But it would give you distribution. That’s what set me up. By doing it that way, I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.

o no, I had no qualifying template, no issue about how I went about things. So if I wanted to release a record every few months, I could. If I wanted to release incomplete songs, I could. If I wanted to be at war with any of the production trends of the era, I could do that too. I could make a bunch of noise and jams, and it was like a license to kill. The upside is that I make all these records because I do it a different way than most people. The downside is because there are no labels that have exclusive contract—no label that buys my material outright—it’s in their best interest to market it accordingly. I’m relatively unknown, so the people that know me primarily are other musicians. That’s my legacy. (Pictured below: the latest iteration of Giant Sand that recorded Returns to Valley of Rain. L-R Gabriel Sullivan, Annie Dolan, Thoger Lund, Gelb, Winston Watson.)

So at the same time you were shifting your moniker, from Blacky to Giant Sand and back again.

At a point I just kept the name Giant Sand because it was becoming a little confusing for me.

For you? For the rest of us as well.

After a while, it really didn’t matter. What I really wanted to do in the very beginning—it was a performing artist mentality—was to keep the album title the same, and then change the name of the band and I wanted to change the name of the band to encompass every letter in the alphabet. So eventually, towards the end, every slot would be taken. That was my idea, but nobody liked it.

It might have gotten confusing. As it is, by our count, you already had released 10 or 12 albums within the span of your first five years. That’s pretty overwhelming already.

Yeah. There is a label in England called Fire Records and they put out a box set of my solo albums, and then they did a box set of Giant Sand albums on vinyl and it overwhelmed them! But it also overwhelms any potential listener. You can’t expect anyone at this point to go back and collect all those records with that big a catalog. So you have to acquire them on a curve, and every now and then go back in. You may want to sample, find something you like and then buy the vinyl for your collection. (Ed. note: In addition to releasing new Gelb and Giant Sand records, Fire has also been mounting an impressive back catalog reissue program—for both CD and vinyl— that has included the archival vinyl box Gelb referred to, The Sun Set Vol. 1, which is an 8-LP collection covering six Giant Sand titles, each bearing fresh liner notes from Gelb; two more such boxes are being planned. There was also the Little Sand Box CD box set of Gelb solo albums the label did in 2013.)

You are also responsible for discovering and developing any number of artists — Grandaddy, M Ward, Rainer Ptacek, and you also produced records for K.T. Tunstall and John Doe as well. That’s a pretty impressive track record.

There’s no explanation. There’s no real pattern. You gravitate towards circumstance, and you just don’t deal with stuff you don’t like. So whatever is in front of you that you do like, you kind of gravitate towards it.

So what do you bring to the table as far as these productions are concerned, and what do you take away? Do you come in with specific ideas?

Everything that I’ve done has been based on a process of elimination. You kind of eliminate the things that don’t appeal to you. When you build the song up, you eliminate parts of the song that don’t fit the song. Somehow, I allow happenstance to dictate. Things will come up I wouldn’t have thought of, but they’re making themselves known to me and I know what to do with them. I recognize them.

Any of those artists you mentioned that feel comfortable with somebody like me, with a mentality like mine, finds a good combination. K.T.’s material tended to be overproduced, and she needed to compensate by having something that was underproduced. What I find is that anybody can produce themselves for the most part, and so it’s really about assisting in the work flow and making it easier, and there’s a psychology involved where people come with their emotions and their troubles and their ideas and their celebrations, and you have to try to keep it all in a safe harbor, to make sure that something happens and not let anything stop it. That’s all.

That’s true for anybody. You try to treat them in a pretty loving way. We all  have so much in common I think, so that when we afford each other the time, we can congregate on the common ground.

So you’re clearly not an overbearing kind of guy. You’re very supportive and nurturing.

Thanks. That’s on a good day.

You could put that on your resume and maybe that will get you the gig.

All of a sudden that sounds terrible.

Sorry. So let’s switch subjects. We’re also fascinated by your diversity, how you seem to shift between styles with such apparent ease. What takes you in any particular direction at any particular time?

There’s this obvious thread in this kind of punk ethic. It’s always been encoded in what has become the music that lingers the longest. Johnny Cash. Thelonious Monk. Mott the Hoople. Jimmie Rogers. There’s a little bit of a dangerous coil embedded where these people did something that no one else was doing at the time, but when you hear them do it, it sounds like it’s always been there. That kind of abandonment and confidence comes about because you’re not worried about what people might think. You kind of know it’s good for you and you’re delivering it to the world at large, and you believe in it. That thing that is so many forms of music is in all genres. It’s a common thread.

It’s insurgent and defiant.

And it sticks around.

And it also kind of defines you and these other artists you mentioned. To hell with it: You’re following your own muse, and of course it makes it difficult to typecast you, which you would only want to do for commercial purposes anyway.

Yeah, I gave up on that a long time ago.

With all these handles that you operate under, how do you decide what’s going where?

(Pauses and sighs) I kind of do it ass backwards. As I’m getting older, I changed somewhat, but I like to not know what I’m doing beforehand. I like to follow my hunch. If something is beginning to excite me, I don’t take the time to explain it to myself or anyone else. Then I go ahead with it.

These days — meaning in the last ten years or so — I often don’t record in a single session. I prefer to go in for a day and maybe do a song or five and sort things out. Or just suss things out, and I’ll collect these sessions daily and then I’ll go back and revisit them later. And in revisiting them, maybe I’ll extract a lyric or two, or I’ll take out a section that doesn’t need to be there. I’ll hear something that’s rough and realize that it was good. And then I’ll have an idea of what was happening, sort of a bouquet. It blooms and then I take it to market.

There are a few exceptions, like when I got involved with a gospel choir or flamenco gypsies, or as with my last album, the standards selections, and I’ll get focused on that flavor. Everything kind of happens and I enjoy that flavor when it does that too. Other times I like it when the songs are different and it sounds like the soundtrack to a film. There’s no coherency.

Which brings us to the new Giant Sand album, Returns to Valley of Rain….

I knew I wanted to revisit those songs because they were unique from anything I had done after that. We had a birthday party for me when I turned 60, and I invited a bunch of friends to come down. I was a little jet-lagged, and I never had a set list, and I was trying to think about who was there in the wings, and who I could bring up at the last second. In doing that, I was lucky enough that it sounded okay. We got a film too, so it was a sweet memento. One of the things that went horribly wrong was that the original bass player came in to play a song from Valley of Rain and I played it so poorly, and I played it on a guitar I had given my daughter. So when I started playing it, I realized all the things that were wrong with that guitar. It was notoriously out of tune, and so between that and the bassist not really knowing the song that well, it was one of those really typical things that happen during a Giant Sand show where things go horribly wrong. It’s kind of like a slow motion train wreck every now and then. (Below: Watch clips from the October 22, 2016 Gelb birthday show, most of which can be viewed at the Giant Sand Official YouTube Channel.) 


So the new album is a redo of your seminal set.

It’s the older me getting to produce the younger me.

The circle is complete. For some people, that might suggest a chapter is ending. Is that the idea?

It seemed like a good time to go back and do this. We started by playing one or two songs live with the band and we were having fun with that old material. It was good to go back and examine how this all began. Beyond that, there was no real plan to it.

Tell us about your daughter Patsy and her band Patsy’s Rats. Did you give her any advice, offer her any suggestions or direction?

We share travel tips mostly. That’s where the real art is. The art is staying alive. How do you stay alive with this stuff?  A lot of that has to do with touring. So how do you get through? How do you make it affordable? How do you deliver the goods? Everything else comes from proximity. When you’re hanging out with each other, you pick up on a kind of unspoken understanding. There’s not too much verbiage. You just kind of get it. That’s how I learned to play guitar. That’s how I started this band. It’s just all I know.  (Pictured right: Patsy’s Rats)

Are you a stage dad? Were you pleased when she told you she wanted to follow in your footsteps? Were you wary? What was your reaction?

I know how to survive with this. I know how to raise three kids, to have the house and the cars, so I have all that information. We saw a way to do it overseas and we’re still alive and in good standing and I’m able to teach her all this. As a parent, to be able to offer anything your kids find useful is kind of a great satisfaction. On the other hand, my son is a jock, so I get to live vicariously through him. My oldest daughter Patsy has her own sound and her mother [Paula Jean Brown] was just the coolest bass player I ever played with as far as just this simple sound was concerned. She had this way of locking in with the drums, and it was so cool playing lead guitar on top of it.

So my daughter has those elements and her own elements. My youngest daughter can dance, she can act, she’s something else. She accidentally got all the talent. She just turned 16.

It seems like you have all the crucial elements together. Your kids have direction. You’re able to make music and tour with it. It sounds you have a nice personal and professional cottage industry going on.

That’s not the essence of it though.

So what is the essence?

Exactly. What is the essence?

That’s a rhetorical question then. Are you satisfied with the course of your career, doing what you’re doing?

Yeah, I am. The only lament is, now that I get older, the new stuff is more intimate and geared towards the individual listener as opposed to the communal listener. It’s not geared towards festivals or restaurants or any place where there’s a lot of people gathering. Ii’s like when you’re traveling in the desert, or anywhere on your own, walking in the middle of town, but with your  earplugs on. It’s just there for you. It’s geared towards the solitary listener as opposed to the communal listener.

So looking back on it now, as I get older, it would be nice to do some benefits and be a little more helpful now, making some money for certain causes that need it. If I had made more headway in popularity that way, I could provide more assistance for people that need it on the planet. So basically, I ended up taking care of myself, not asking anyone for anything, working in my little corner of the world, and I’m good and I’ve struck out on my own path. But what I didn’t do is maybe going beyond that capacity—which I’m not sure that I was capable of doing or else I would have done it—and make something more resounding on a larger scale.   Maybe make $10,000 for starving people in Africa or something.

I think that when we get to a certain age, one realizes that it’s one thing to put negative energy out, but how much positive energy can you put out to not only help heal, but to help remedy the ills of existence, especially the way they’re playing out these days.

It must be really fulfilling to have had the opportunity to travel overseas and play in Europe as frequently as you do.

It’s hilarious in the sense that, once you’re okay to travel every day and putting in so many miles, you go to these places with other people who have spent so much money to get there, and you’re being paid to go there and you may get upgraded to business class because you can pick up 100,000 miles in one year. They just want you to stay alive at that point and that’s why they upgrade you. It becomes useful to them.

So there’s that wonderful dichotomy, that contrast, and it is weird. I could have had a successful job and worked my ass off and made tons of money and then I could have bought these tickets and gone to these places even if I didn’t go as often. But now I’m poor as fuck like any other indie rocker, but I have all these perks as if I had a bunch of money.

More Howe Gelb at Blurt: 

Mister (Giant) Sandman,” 2010, by John Schacht

The Howe Gelb/Giant Sand Autodiscography, 2011, by Fred Mills

The Story Of… Giant Sand’s Chore of Enchantment, 2011, by Fred Mills

 

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