MISTER (GIANT) SANDMAN Howe Gelb (Pt. 1)

With a
new solo – flamenco! – record out in Europe and another Giant Sand album en
route, it’s 25 years and counting for the desert-and-Denmark dwelling maestro.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

Howe Gelb, the iconoclastic architect behind the prolific
Giant Sand/Band of Blacky Ranchette/’Sno Angel/Arizona Amp & Alternator
empire, views his second half-century as an “ambassadorship.” The 54-year-old
was referring to his solo shows — “a discussion with a collection of tunes
attached,” he calls them — but the honorific suits Gelb’s recent global
endeavors, too.

 

After the dissolution of the longest-running Giant Sand
lineup in 2002 saw Joey Burns and John Convertino leave to concentrate on
Calexico’s growing profile, Giant Sand’s new roster took on a Euro bent when
Gelb hired a trio of Danes to fill out the band for 2004’s Is All Over the Map. (Gelb is married to a Danish woman, and they and
their children spend each summer in Denmark.) Then came Gelb’s
Montreal-based ‘Sno Angel project, an unlikely blend of the secular and
spiritual featuring a Canadian gospel choir adding their traditional sounds to
Gelb’s self-described twangy “muck.”

 

And now Gelb has turned recent tours to Spain into his next eclectic
project – an album of Gelb compositions recorded with a trio of Spanish Gypsy
flamenco guitarists. Called Alegrias,
the recording was released in Spain at the end of May (Gelb says he’s in
talks with U.S. labels about the record and Has another Giant Sand release
already in the can; for now, Alegrias is available on the Spanish label Eureka through PIAS distributors at http://company.pias.com/en).

 

Blurt recently spoke with Gelb at his Tucson home about the
new record, the contended Danes, Giant Sand reissues, the record business, and
various other Gelb arcana.

 

***

 

BLURT: It’s
good to talk with you again Howe — what have you been up to lately
?

GELB: There are several things – there always seems to be that.
The most correct form is to specify a particular work that you want promoted or
marketed, but I’ve never gotten that straight. So I’ll just lambaste you with
several clumps of sonic plops and you can discern, remove, edit, whatever you
want. So, at the moment I’m sitting on a live ‘Sno Angel CD and film, all packaged in one CD/DVD thing (#Winging It#). That obviously was
stemming from the 2006 ‘Sno Angel posse, which was a record made in Canada with all Canadians, the
drummer who went on to be the drummer in Arcade Fire, and an entire gospel
choir attached. That turned out so well, and turned so many heads, that as a
memento, we followed up with this live thing and the filmmaker was Maria
Mochnacz, who does the PJ Harvey stuff (#PJ
Harvey On Tour: Please Leave Quietly#).
We just assembled that and put it
together on our own, kind of a little on-going, tour-only thing and also
available at our website, Ow Om.

      The next thing
up is recently completed, and exactly similar to the ‘Sno Angel project in its template. Since 2003, I’d been going to Cordoba Spain,
and over three years I’d finished this record in the same exact manner as the ‘Sno Angel thing. Except instead of a
gospel choir, there are flamenco gypsies attached to it. These guys play guitar
that just continue to blow my mind every moment we sit down together.  And they play without wires, they play like
they invented the guitar – because they did. And I can’t pretend to have ever
attempted those rhythms. I can’t play those rhythms, those rhythms totally make
me dizzy. They give me a buzz, and I love ‘em. But I can’t ever figure ‘em out;
I can barely handle 4/4.

 

 It must be kind of intimidating…

 No, here’s how it
went down. At the moment of impact, this is my opinion, I don’t really know because
my Spanish really sucks – I speak some Sonoran, but it’s nothing like Castilian.
But we don’t rely on actual words – we have discussions, but it mostly has to
do with melody, and emotion inside that melody, the texture of the growl, and
the yippity of laughter. And then of course with guitar none of that applies.
Anyway, this guy had asked me to come and hang out in Córdoba and record – and
I get that invitation a lot from different parts of the world, and it’s very
sweet, but you never know if you can make time for it or what to gamble on and
all that. But then he mentioned the word “gypsies” and the more I began to hear
him out and hang with him, the more I liked him. Then I went to his place – and
his place is incredibly like Tucson,
except more dense. More Tucson than Tucson. Exact same
climate, same kind of tastes. I stayed at his house, it was like an old wobbled
barrio, very similar to where I live here in town in Tucson. And one by one these gypsy fellows
would show up, and they’d throw down some guitar, and I’d go, ‘man, that’s the
shit, that’s where it came from.’ That’s like when you recognize the source of
the Nile. I had to think quick there – I
thought, ‘well, I can’t do that. I can’t go anywhere near that.’ But then I
know I can play something that will completely boggle them – or so I hoped.

      And that was
some stride piano. Because they can play every instrument, these guys, including
piano. But the rhythms in stride were as curious to them as theirs were to me,
fortunately. And that’s when all of a sudden the smiles came out, and once that
broke the ‘let’s see what you’ve got’ austerity of the moment. We all want to
hang with each other anyway, peoples of the world, but there’s that moment
where you go, ‘wait a minute, I just can’t be a sap or be taken advantage of,
or why should I spend my precious time here with you’ or whatever. And then you
realize there’s something going on here. And then it’s all about, ‘let’s work
together to see what this thing is and where it can go,’ not where it can go on
record, but where it can go just within the moment of playing, or will it be a
complete train wreck. So that’s how it kind of started, and then it began
escalating and escalating and escalating, and then I would just go there,
supposedly to record, but for the sake of just living there for a little bit, because
it just felt like my life, it felt like my home. The end result was this
record.

      The players who
kept showing up to play and kept appearing just kept getting more and more
incredible until finally the grandest player of them all showed up. Raimundo
Amador, the first guy in the late ‘70s to combine flamenco with the blues.
Anyhow, what I came to learn was that through the years flamenco was
redelivered to the counter-culture in the ‘70s the way Led Zeppelin redelivered
the blues to our western counter-culture. It was done with this two-piece
group, Lole y Manuel, and this woman and this guy came up with this full-on
flamenco but adorned with the sensibilities of the era, to the counter-culture.
They are folk heroes. Raimundo was a kid of 14 or 15 on the streets, and he
would go and hang out at their house, started playing within their camp.
There’s a lineage, then he started playing with this guy named Tomatito, and I
happened to discover Tomatito in the ‘80s when we were on the same label with
him as Giant Sand (Imago Records). I would play his record when I lived in
Joshua Tree in the late ‘80s – the only three records I’d play were him, #Swordfishtrombones# by Tom Waits, which
had just come out, and this Miles Davis record, “Ascension to the Gallows” (#Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud#), was the
English translation of it, it was a film soundtrack. So, anyway, when Raimundo
finally showed up and he played, he did a few riffs that reminded me of that
time-frame and took me back to Tomatito, and it turned out that Tomatito was
getting his juice from Raimundo, they were playing together all that time way
back then, so it was a wonderful full cycle-event for me to meet this guy. And
he’s a national treasure, you walk down the street with him and everybody in
every walk of life knows his name.

      The record is
called #Alegrias#, which is a form of
flamenco, but also taken from the root word meaning joy, alegria. So, anyhow, I
just did what I do, and they applied themselves accordingly, the same way that
the gospel choir did. I just play what I play. I took some old Giant Sand
songs, like I did with the choir, that seemed to have the chord structure that
was similar, or aligned to, the chord structure to what I thought gospel was,
and in this case with what the flamenco chord structure was. Then I wrote a
whole bunch of new songs just from being so titillated and tantalized and
downright inspired by the event that all these new songs started popping up,
just like the ‘Sno Angel thing. It’s
coming out in a couple weeks in Spain
first because the Spanish are embracing it like sort of the indie rock version
of whatever the counter-culture thing was with Lole y Manuel. A few times flamenco would be reinvented
for the decade, or the period of time, it doesn’t happen every decade, for
those that we used to call the counterculture, the subculture, the underground,
whatever. Where it’s not really forced, it’s not a tourist thing, it’s not
like, ‘oh, I’m getting old now, let’s go make the blues record’ kind of thing.
It’s the same sensibilities that can be discerned – it’s encoded, you can hear
it – but it’s utilizing a big part of that culture. I don’t understand that,
it’s not my part, I just saw how much I loved being there with it, and with
them, and surrounded in that sound, and how it really just juiced me – it was
the same kind of dizzy thrill I would get from them playing as I got from the
gospel choir. That makes me know that I’m in the right place – and what comes
out of it I never have any idea before.

 

 We talked when
shortly after ‘Sno Angel, and you
said of the collaboration that you ‘knew when to get out of the way’ and let
them do their thing. Did that apply here as well?

 Yeah. It’s so good that way. A lot of times I
have to lug everything along. It started feeling that way in the ‘90s for me, I
don’t want to be the guy lugging it along so much. I want to be part of the
fabric where the thing starts up and you just get to enjoy it. You get to be
Duke Ellington and only play a few chords in the song and then just enjoy the
sonic swarm that’s occurring. Because it’s such a fantastic feeling – the best
feeling in the world is just to be surrounded by players and not to be on one
side of the PA system and just get sort of a relatively flat representation of
what’s going on. In a circle on stage, or in a rehearsal room, when you’re in a
circle the music has so much dimension.

 

 How does that
change the idea of the audience?

 The thing with an audience is that it has an
energy all its own. You pick up on what people are thinking and feeling when
they’re in a multitude like that. You know, I don’t know if everybody realizes
it sometimes, what’s going on in their brains, but you’re receiving these
signals, whether or not you count them as that or not, or you acknowledge them
as that. Way back when, when I first started, there was a thing called demo
tapes – and you used to have to play a demo tape for an A&R person to see
if they wanted to sign you. This was before we made any records. And I would
find myself in these offices, I don’t know how I got there, I was very young,
and I would give them a cassette and they would play the tape. And at the end
of the meeting with them, I would get visibly ill, really sick to my stomach, I
would have to leave there and felt like throwing up. What I didn’t realize is
that there was something going on where I was receiving their signals from
their brain listening to the music I had handed them. I would hear the music
completely differently if they were listening to it. I think it happens to
everybody, I think some people just discount it or they don’t understand what
it is, or they just shrug it off or maybe they’ve got a thicker skin, I don’t
know, but it fucked with me.

      Anyway, then later, it would translate
into a more positive manner on stage because you would be hearing everybody
hearing what you were doing, immediately, and it has this kind of cyclical
reverb echo-y thing going on, and it will totally direct where the music goes
for any given evening. So, I guess what I’m doing is over-explaining the aspect
of having a live audience. I’m just saying that what we’ve all grown to accept
when we go to hear music or the presentation of music is, there’s a stage, and
it’s almost like a flat-line, and the crowd is on one side the line, and the
band is on the other side of the line. And that just works, so people just
accept it and that’s how it is, and it’s still sounds better that way than any
MP3 or even better than any form of recording – it sounds different, better,
more alive and vibrant. But to be on the stage, regardless of who’s watching,
it doesn’t matter, just to be in a room with no audience, and to be in a circle
of people playing is the thrill. It’s the thing that gets me off. It just
happened the other day, I realized it, too. We wrote some pieces for a string
ensemble, and I was just in the room and they were all around me, and wow,
every time you turn your head  you’re
hearing it in a completely different impossible way because of the panning of
your head. That kind of texture is wonderful. Like, for example, when Lambchop
asked me to sit in for the first time, I thought it was the greatest thing I’d
ever heard because being in the middle of 14 people playing music was
unbelievable. It’s very symphonic. But that’s what it was like with the gospel
choir and to be surrounded by gypsies.

 

 How do your shows
differ then,  as solo artist versus the
band?

 I think that’s changed over the years,
depending on what era we’re talking about. These days, I think it’s more of an
ambassadorship – I tend to think that I can show up, I can play guitar, I can
sing a song or two, if there’s a piano I can be much happier, and then just
have what’s almost like a discussion, you know? A discussion with a collection
of tunes attached. Because when you’re over 50, you’re in a different mindset
with it all. You can form conclusions, whereas before, you don’t really know
the answers to things and you don’t really care so much, either. You’re just
like throwing it out there to see what happens and you’re going by your gut all
the time. Now, you can decide what your gut was correct with and what it was a
little bit incorrect with, and you can make all kinds of conclusions about things,
life, people and all that. So when I go to play, it’s almost as a surprise to
me to be there – this might not sound tempting – it’s like you appear, ‘how did
I get here?’ Almost like a ghost or a phantom, or like you’re in a different
time zone – literally, where  you show
up, you just materialize, and then you absorb your immediate surroundings and
they mix with your luggage, the things you carry with you, meaning your songs,
your ideas, the thoughts in your mind for the day. And then whatever happens there
happens there.

 

 

 Does that mean
your setlist is rather…

 Translucent? The only time I ever had a
setlist was when I was with the choir – I should qualify that by saying I’m
doing the same thing with the gypsies, too, because there’s enough possibility
for confusion as it is. And when I’m with a regular touring band I never have a
setlist because I know there’s a trick to developing telepathy. It’s not that
hard, it’s just a thing that players figure out and I think it’s more fun that
way, it’s more jazz that way even when you’re not playing jazz. With the choir,
because I adore them, I don’t want to throw them. Though we play a little bit
of hide and seek, but not much. It’s ‘this is what we’re doing, so you guys
know.’ Because it’ll be a complete, domino train-wreck if I don’t. And with the
gypsies, out of respect, especially because of the confusion with the language,
I don’t want them to not know what the hell is going on either.

 

To be continued. Tomorrow, in Pt. 2, Gelb talks about Denmark, Giant Sand,
operating a grassroots indie label, and the ups and downs of being signed to a
major label.

 

 

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