MISTER (GIANT) SANDMAN Howe Gelb (Pt. 2)

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

 

Ed. note: we continue our conversation with Howe Gelb.
Read part one from yesterday here.

 

 BLURT: Do you
still live part of the year in Denmark?

 GELB: We have been going there ever since our
last baby was born eight years ago, and live there for the three months they’re
out of school, but that’s not going to happen this year for the first time.

 

 What did you think
of that survey that found the Danes were the most contented people in the world
because they had such realistic expectations?

 I believe it was “low” expectations. Yeah,
they’re the people that invented common sense. I like to generalize – not quite
stereo-lize; is that a word? – in a sweet manner, the different countries in
the world, their cultures. The Danes seemed to have cornered the market on
common sense. And the fact that one of them, a student, just mentioned that, it
wasn’t a collective, just this student being interviewed one time, said ‘I
suppose it’s because we have low expectations,’ everybody latched on that.
Because it makes total sense, right? If you’re expectations are low, then
you’re going to be satisfied most of the time, aren’t you? You’re not setting
yourself up. So that was kind of a lovely little thing when we saw that happen.

 

 So what’s going on
in the Giant Sand universe?

 Well, later this year we are going to put out
a Giant Sand record one way or the other because this year also marks the year
the 25th year since our first Giant Sand record — not since the
beginning of the band, because Giant Sandworms started in 1980. The first
record didn’t come out as Giant Sand until 1985 – I think we became Giant Sand
in ‘83, or we lost the ‘worms,’ and then in we recorded it ‘84 and it came out
in 85. So if you need to celebrate 25, which seems a little less ludicrous than
26, then I think what we’re going to do is release a new record and bundle it
with the re-mastered first record.

      That first record had a little history to
it because the tapes were stolen. I’d decided to move to L.A. and drove out there, because I’d had two
records I’d recorded and each one found a home. Ten minutes before the Giant
Sand record, I put together a country record called the Band of Blacky
Ranchette, and a guy in France wanted to put that out and a guy in England
wanted to put out the Giant Sand record, as well as Enigma Records here. So I
had both tapes in the car, had decided to move to L.A. in my van, and the night
I got there I had a feeling the van was going to get ripped off, and I took all
my stuff out of it, but I forgot about the tapes, they were behind the couch.
And sure enough the van did get broken into, and they stole a bunch of stuff of
my bass players. And I thought I had taken everything out, I was really happy,
and then later I realized, “fuck, the tapes are in there.” And the funny thing
was I forgot that a friend of mine, a radio guy named Jonathan L, had given me
a cactus to take out to a friend of his, and the cactus saved two of the reels
because whoever was rooting around there in the dark obviously got spoinked by
the cactus. So some junkie or something stole two reels, which was the final
mixes of the first Giant Sand record, so we had to remix them. We have since
found a cassette of the original mixes, so it’s just like a little interesting
aside. Not an important thing, but it’s nice to hear it on cassette, and it
sounds good, so we’ll release that version of it.

 

 Is the new
material written and recorded as well?

 Oh, yeah. That was done up in Denmark, so I’m
going up in June to wrap it all up, make sure it’s all completed.

 

 Given the tectonic
changes in the music industry over the last few years, I’d wondered how it
affected you given that you always had this little on-line cottage industry
with Ow Om…

 Well, the internet is the songwriter’s best
friend. It just totally cuts out the middle man; if people want to find the
music, they can always find the music and it can always generate live shows
whether the music’s gotten for free or not. The only drag is that the sound
quality of an MP3 sucks overall, so it’s convenient, and it should be utilized.
But you should also back it up – it’s one thing to download music for free to
get the word out and find out if you like it or not, or to buy it and take it
with you in those convenient iPods and things like that, that’s all really good
because CDs are bulky and they just comparatively don’t make much sense. But
CDs and vinyl still sound way better than MP3s when you play ‘em at home, and
that’s the place for that. So in a way, you kind of need both. Whether or not
people can afford both, or do that, but I think for the best records, the
records they know and the music they know is going to stick around with them
for a while, you should definitely invest in both. It makes live shows usually more
populated because the word gets out better now.

      But I went the route early on of being —
too independent? Or fiercely independent,
is the poetic term. I licensed everything, which makes any label interested in
that is only going to get involved so much because they don’t own it. But the
thing is, if they own the music, then one of two things happen. One is that
they get behind it wholeheartedly because it’s an investment or it’s something
they believe in or it’s something that they want to work or it’s something they
always want to have in their catalog, etcetera. The only thing wrong with that
is that most people working for those kind of labels won’t be working there in
two years time, or a year and a half – the mortality rate is usually about 18
months for those jobs. Or, the other thing that happens is that, because of
that, you never hear from it again. They have it, they don’t care about it, it
gets buried there under the next thing.

      So what I chose early on was to just
license everything, regardless of the amount of success it can acquire by only
a license. Just to hang on to it. I can’t say if it was for better or for
worse, or it if would apply to anyone else’s method, but I’ve enjoyed it.
That’s what Ow Om is, it’s just an excuse to house all that old stuff if I want
to put it out. Then when a friend or a discovery comes along, like when M. Ward
came along, I was able to put out his first record. It was just a good demo CD
that somebody gave me that seemed like it made sense. But it’s not really set
up like a substantial label.

 

 Did your
experience at V2 kind of confirm all that?

 The exact same thing that happened at V2
happened at Imago about five years before. Each label, ironically, reached the
three-year point where they had a reconfiguration within the label; in Imago’s
case, BMI shut ‘em down. They just bought out the contract to go away because
they weren’t making any money – right when our record was supposed to come out,
so that’s why #Glum# didn’t see the
light of day. And then the same thing happened with #Chore of Enchantment.# V2 didn’t go away, but they completely got
rid of a ton of bands and people that work there because they were losing
money. We had made the cut, so our record was coming out and they had pressed
up like 500 promos and it was ready to go. And then, unforeseeably, at the last
moment, the president of the company in America left because he had a severe
ear problem, and they got some new guy in temporarily, who said ‘that sounds
too indie, we’re not going to get behind this.’ So he just made the call and
that got cut. So in each case the record companies supplied the cash to get a
huge production like those records done and the time to do them, but in each
case the follow-through wasn’t there for the release.

      And what my initial plans were, and I
thought long and hard about this each time we were pursued, was if I can get a
record out with a label that has an office in every territory on the planet,
then when we get dropped that will raise our visibility up a few points. [So]
when we go back to doing things ourselves, we’ll sell a few more records and
have a few more audience to count on when we’re out there working. So that’s
what I was counting on. Give ‘em a couple records, one or two, let them get the
word out, the name of the band out there, and then when you get dropped the
amount of records you sell will increase by a few points, and that’ll be just
enough, it’ll be fine. But that never happened because the labels folded or
whatever before the records got out.

 

 

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