THE STORY OF… Giant Sand’s Chore Of Enchantment

A deluxe, expanded
reissue of the 2000 Sand classic prompts us to flip through our back pages.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

With British label
Fire Records’ ongoing overhaul of the Giant Sand back catalog – several “25th Anniversary Edition” expanded remasters were released this year and more are
due in 2012 (details here) – now seems like the perfect time to celebrate anew
Chore
Of Enchantment. Originally released in
2000 by Chicago’s
Thrill Jockey, this month’s Fire reissue (a sprawling two-CD version, no less)
finds it having endured the test of time to become one of the core artifacts in
the Sand oeuvre.

 

Point of fact, it’s
long been one of yours truly’s favorite recordings, and at the time of
Chore‘s initial arrival, I was living in Tucson
where the members of Giant Sand lived so it was easy for me to drop in on band
founder Howe Gelb to talk about the record and the tangled (to put it lightly)
circumstances surrounding its creation. A truncated version of the story that
follows originally appeared in issue #45 of
Magnet magazine but the magazine published such a drastic edit that many of
Gelb’s most revealing disclosures – and indeed, details key to understanding
the inner workings of the band – were left on the cutting room floor. As a
result, several years later I opted to place the complete, unexpurgated version
on Britain’s
desert rock-friendly Sa-Wa-Ro website; what you’ll read below is essentially
the latter take, with some slight tweaking. Be aware that since 2000 many
changes have taken place in the Giant Sand universe – for one thing, Joey Burns
and John Convertino are no longer in the band and now concentrate full time on
Calexico – but as a widescreen snapshot of how things stood at that particular
point in time, I think it still can prove valuable to any true fan of the
group.

 

Incidentally, today on
the BLURT website we’ve also got a detailed Howe Gelb-narrated autodiscography from the same year that, likewise, should be of interest to Giant Sand
aficionados. I hope you enjoy both pieces. – FM

 

***

By most standards, Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb should
have thrown in the towel in 1999. That was the year when, coming on the heels
of the death of Gelb’s best friend, an unexpected clash within his band and a
lingering bout with writer’s block and artistic self-doubt, his record label
delivered the mortal blow in the way of dropping him from the roster — right
after he’d turned in what is arguably the most enticing and fully-realized
record of his 20-year career. Same old “independent artist slams into the
major label brick wall” story? Not quite. In the Giant Sand world, things
tend to turn upon their own idiosyncrasies, and those whims rarely align
themselves with the goings-on of the mainstream music biz.

 

Or, as Gelb himself characterizes his band, “It’s been
a training ground for an attitude and healthy perspectives. It dealt with the
not clinging to most of the things that other bands cling to. It didn’t have a
great ambition or a great description of what it was — it tried to sidestep
all of that.”

The Story Thus Far

Even to the outsider, Giant Sand has tended to appear more
familial, almost communal in nature, than musical projects marked by the usual
get-in-the-van boys’-club rock band mentality. Things did start off
traditionally enough for Gelb: Arriving in Arizona from Pennsylvania in the
late ’70s, he soon formed a new waveish garage band, Giant Sandworms, with three talented Tucson musicians,
including RainerPtacek,
who would come to figure heavily in his personal and professional life. But
that group turned into, by Gelb’s own admission, a “four-headed beast”
that quickly saw Ptacek depart following the release of an EP in 1980 and a
decision by the others to temporarily relocate to New York. The move turned out disastrously
(the twin specters of heroin and financial destitution reared up within the
band), and upon returning to Tucson, the Sandworms, through happenstance, initiated
a revolving-door membership policy which would extend beyond the group’s
four-year lifespan and pick up steam in Gelb’s subsequent musical incarnation.

 

The Giant Sand story proper picks up in ’84 when Gelb,
during another temporary exodus from the Old Pueblo, landed in L.A. in order to
live in closer proximity to both his favorite recording studio and Enigma Records, to which he’d recently signed and was set to
release the inaugural  Giant Sand album, Valley
Of Rain
.
Recalling his first night in L.A., Gelb says, “In the van
I had the tapes of both that record and the The
Band Of Blacky Ranchette
album [a country-rock side project he’d
initiated a few months earlier with his old chum from the Sandworms, Ptacek],
and I had a feeling it was gonna get ripped off so I’d taken everything out of
the van but I forgot the tapes! We had the pre-mix and the rough-mix of each
session, and we got back and sure enough, they’d ripped off the van — they’d
somehow stolen one reel of each, leaving me with the rough mix of Blacky and the pre-mix masters of Valley Of Rain.
Those tapes became the two albums. The next day we went down to this ghetto
area and suddenly Scott
Garber
[Giant Sand bassist] goes, ‘Did you see the shit that guy was
wearing?’ And it was a Giant Sandworms shirt that he must have stolen!”

Undeterred, Gelb soldiered on, and with the 1985 release of Valley Of Rain the Giant Sand star
quickly rose among aficionados — including some extremely rabid fans overseas,
such as England’s venerable Bucketful Of
Brains
 magazine (whose review of the record, ironically enough, was
how yours truly first heard of Giant Sand — of the then-burgeoning American
guitar-band scene. Subsequent albums throughout the ’80s and on into the early
’90s solidified the group’s reputation even as Gelb was diversifying his
position. Giant Sand could veer from an introspective folk tune to a full-on
Neil Youngian skronk-fest to a sweet, acoustic guitar/pedal-steel country
number in less time it took to flip an album over on the turntable, and this
unpredictability comprised a major portion of the outfit’s appeal. Gelb clearly
relished the options afforded by letting go of preconceived notions of what
constituted a core “sound.” At one point in late ’86 he even took his
own Rolling Thunder-styled revue to Europe, a morphing six-piece that might
start out a set as Giant Sand, become Blacky Ranchette midway through, and by
show’s end turn into The Band of Giant Blacky or some such imprecise appellation.
A few years later, readying a new Giant Sand release, he consented to issue the
record as a Howe Gelb solo album because his label complained there was too
much recent Sand product to market and promote already! (Gelb: “We’d been
putting them out every six to eight months and they were saying, ‘Please, can
you wait longer between releases!'”)

At any rate, this is old history that’s been recounted in fine detail many times
in the past. In any event, we’ll let Gelb himself touch on selected aspects of
his tenure himself [see the sidebar]. What’s important is where Giant Sand
stands today.

With Gelb, it seems, a working combo or stylistic vision is only as fixed as the
chemistry churning within. And over the years — sixteen and counting for Giant
Sand, which boasts more alumni than Menudo and is now on its 15th album (24th
if you include compilations and side projects) — the Giant Sand chemistry has
yielded some volatile products indeed, the results of a catching-lightning-in-a-bottle
creative aesthetic and a deeply-felt appreciation for how different
combinations of personalities can offer new, challenging, artistic
possibilities. Gelb, as the founding member, songwriter and proud patriarch of
Giant Sand, provides the kind of easygoing, guiding hand — he calls it a
“lack of ambition” — which paradoxically allows a flexible structure
to grow and flourish while still maintaining a necessary philosophical
consistency. Members of the Giant Sand extended family have been known to
wander off and busy themselves elsewhere on other projects; but they’ve always
been welcomed with open arms upon return. The very nature of the beast means
that it can twist around and bite itself on the leg, and, in fact, that’s
precisely what happened without warning in the last few years.

Still, to cite Gelb quoting that paragon of paradox, Buddha, “If you know
you
are walking on a trap, it will be pure joy.”

Tucson, Arizona, 2000

It’s a sunny, beautiful March day in Tucson, and today, at Gelb’s bright blue adobe
digs located squarely in the middle of Tucson’s colorful Barrio Viejo district,
“family” is the operative word. I’m here to probe Gelb about Chore
Of Enchantment
,
the latest Giant Sand album which has just been
released by Chicago’s
Thrill Jockey label. As I wander in the front door I’m warmly greeted by his
wife Sofie, who introduces me to her mother, currently very far away from home
(Denmark)
and visiting her daughter and son-in-law for a spell. Accepting an offer of
fresh coffee, I sit down at the kitchen table, which is occupied by a pair of
visitors with whom I’m already acquainted, Patti and Lili Keating, widow and
daughter of Rainer Ptacek. Sofie ducks into the bedroom to check on the baby,
emerging in a few minutes holding son Luka, who’ll turn one in a matter of
weeks.  Brushing sleep from his eyes, Luka reaches for his juice bottle
and, after a few cursory sucks, glances around the room and smiles winningly
for mom, grandmother and journalist.

By now family pooch Rosa has also
sauntered into the kitchen. Rosa sniffs suspiciously
at the intruder, examines the other occupants of the room for any potential
food handouts, then darts out the door into the back yard where Papa Howe is
finishing up trenching out irrigation basins for the trees and shrubs. Soon
enough filmmaker Bill Carter (of Miss
Sarajevo
fame and currently assembling a Giant Sand documentary) drops by,
as does Giant Sand/Calexico drummer John
Convertino
and young daughter Mia, who wants to watch
“Teletubbies” with Luka and Lili. Numerous times over the course of
the afternoon the Gelb phone will ring: Thrill Jockey label maven Bettina Richards,
reminding Gelb of an interview slated for the following afternoon; guitarist
Nick Luca, recently added to the Giant Sand touring lineup, inquiring about
details regarding an upcoming appearance at South By Southwest.

So it’s no wonder that what started out to be a simple discussion about the new
album winds up turning into a rambling six-hour session with numerous
interruptions. None are unwelcome, however, and an impromptu father-son jam
session (on upright piano and cardboard box drums — you may figure who played
what) is particularly touching. Gelb clearly dotes on the kid. He’s neither
upset nor fazed when Luka, crawling furiously across the floor of Gelb’s music
room, almost knocks over a hi-tech-looking guitar effects box.  Gelb
scoops up his son, smiles, and says, ‘That’s okay. If he breaks it, he’ll just redefine it.”

Major Prospects

“My ultimate goal was to have, for the first time, a universal release
with a company with good distribution,” explains Gelb of his decision to
sign with upstart major label V2 some 3 1/2 years earlier. “We took
months, considering certain things like ‘is the deal applicable and how so is
it?’; I’d met people in four or five offices in different countries and liked
99.9% of those people. It was a brand new company, they had high ideals, really
free-minded, and they were good about paying us health insurance. Everything about
it was healthy.”

Or so it seemed. In a sense, you’d think that Gelb would have been gun shy about
hooking up with V2; his last experience with a major label ended in disaster
when Imago, which issued 1994’s Glum,
collapsed prior to the release of the album in Europe,
traditionally a Giant Sand stronghold and a solid source of touring income for
the band. During the next couple of years a handful of Giant Sand one-offs,
mostly comprising live material, appeared on indie labels. But Gelb, who freely
admits to being fascinated with the way the music business works, still
hungered for that increased exposure for his band that a worldwide release
would bring. Says Gelb with a laugh, “Even if we eventually got dropped,
even the smallest percentage that would still seek us out would be larger than
anything we’d done before — and then we could use our website to reach
them.”

Prior to signing with V2 there had already been an upswing of activity in the Giant
Sand camp: Burns and Convertino’s side project Calexico (nee Spoke); the Sand-Lisa Germano collaboration OP8,
which yielded the critically-acclaimed Slush album; a Rainer Ptacek tribute-benefit album, The Inner Flame, which Gelb and Robert Plant initiated
to help out their ailing friend Ptacek, who was recovering from a brain tumor;
and the beginnings of a Gelb solo album recorded in his living room, primarily
acoustic, with contributions from assorted friends such as Germano, Grandaddy,
Winston Watson, and of course Burns and Convertino (this would eventually be
released on V2 in ’98 as Hisser).
Then, right as a creative nexus seemed to be just over the horizon for Giant
Sand, tragedy struck. Ptacek’s cancer had returned with a vengeance, and was
deemed untreatable. Gelb, who was in the midst of a European tour with Burns, Convertino
and Germano, raced home to Tucson
to help care for his dying friend.

 

At a memorial for Ptacek, held a week or so after his death
in November of  ’97, Gelb and Burns got
up in front of an overflow crowd of mourners crammed into Tucson’s San Pedro Chapel and performed a
gentle, moving song in the late guitarist’s honor. Afterwards, walking up to
Gelb to offer my condolences, I noticed his hands were shaking as they gripped
mine. His voice, too, seemed to have an uncharacteristic shakiness to it.

Back in the present and listening to Gelb recount his friend’s ordeal, I again
detect that same quiver in his voice, at least momentarily, as he nods at a
portrait of Ptacek hanging on the wall next to his piano. “That motherfucker!”
he exclaims, then allows a wry smile. “That’s the taint of it all. He provided
a balance. We could toy with each other’s sensibilities and get tickled by it.
Then, when he was gone, I was spinning out of balance. It was just too weird.
Things didn’t have worth any more. I couldn’t have imagined it beforehand. Once
it happened… [trailing off] … I just didn’t have that ‘juice’ and
confidence: ‘I don’t have it in me now — why is that?'”

Sessions for the next V2 album began in January of ’98 when John Parish (of P.J.
Harvey fame) arrived in Tucson.
By all accounts the relationship clicked — Parish would even wind up choosing
the desert on the outskirts of Tucson
as the site for his wedding — but from a recording standpoint, somehow the old
Giant Sand magic proved elusive, something Gelb freely admits. “I didn’t have
the conviction to say, ‘I’m behind this 100 percent.’ I was still fucked-up
from Rainer’s death, and the recording was in the same place where I’d recorded
Rainer’s last things just days before he died. So I was hearing stuff in the
music, or maybe too aware of my own participation. And the camaraderie in the
band was low because there were different agendas. I didn’t know for sure what
we came up with.”

Indeed, while it was purely happenstance that Gelb’s low ebb coincided with Calexico’s
rising star, one unfortunate result of the confluence was tension that would
remain unresolved for some time to come. Burns and Convertino’s increasing
commitment to their side project, not to mention their sometimes hectic
schedule recording with Victoria Williams, Richard Buckner, Bill Janovitz,
Michael Hurley, etc., meant that Giant Sand duties had to be slotted into that
schedule. Whereas previously Gelb would take his band out on tour, work up new
material on the road, then return home and hit the studio, he now had to
contend with an unintended by-product of the free-wheeling Giant Sand modus
operandi.

And while Gelb now jokes that “it was the damndest thing — the enemy came
from within!”, it’s clear from talking to him that the paternal pride he genuinely
took in seeing his friends growing as musicians and artists was tempered by the
realization that he was now having to compete with 2/3 of his own band.
“The thing about Giant Sand,” says Gelb, “was that it was a
haven or sanctuary away from competition. Didn’t matter what any other band was
doing. We could do anything we wanted and we became our own flavor. And I loved
that! ‘If you want these tones, this attitude, you can only get it here.’ So it
began to aggravate me. The upside of this competition: the quality of the material,
the playmanship and the aesthetics got better. The downside of course: it
fucked with the sanctuary of certain things I held dear, the removal of all
things that had a non-competitive nature, the non-descriptiveness.”

———-Interlude 1:  Burns &
Convertino————–

 

Giant Sand always
seemed flexible enough for each player to enjoy ample space, both within the
group and without. Why, then, do you think your recording and touring with
other artists and doing Calexico messed with the
equation?

Convertino: In a way, I think it was
a relief for Howe, knowing that we were doing music and making a living while
he was still working through Rainer’s death. But then, for so long it was like,
‘What’s up? Are we gonna go on tour?’ It was causing him trouble with us being
gone so much. That trouble being, ‘not together’. We weren’t playing as much as
Giant Sand, and you lose that consistency of what it feels like to play.

Burns: The pressure might have been
on him in another way too: “They don’t need me.” OP8 was on tour,
then we got the call about Rainer, so he leaves the tour. We didn’t know what
we should do, so we carried on and finished the tour, and it was good. So maybe
that OP8 thing started that whole self-doubt thought process, about how much he
was needed. I’ve gone through this myself, carrying a whole ball of low
self-esteem around. You always doubt what you do.

Yet at the same time, the V2 deal should
have been a source of challenge: time to get on with life, look forward to this
new album. Did the label ever fully understand what Giant Sand was about?

Burns: Hell no. Kate Hyman [Giant
Sand’s A&R person at V2] did to an extent; she had the experience of
working with the band for Glum, which is a great record. But at the same time,
maybe she had ideas as far as what she wanted out of the band but couldn’t
verbalize it for Howe. The ideas weren’t being met.

Convertino: Doing this record, there
was a lot of outside influence from V2 and from the producers. For example,
we’d do a take and I’d think I’d like to try it again, but the producer would
say, “No, it’s great.” And it seemed like the record company was
having such a struggle with the band, this dialogue about needing a radio
single and stuff that was going down.

Burns: Howe was trying to get them to
like what he was doing and figure out how we could meet them somewhere in the
middle. It began to feel more like the major label  ideas were being
thought out in New York and paid for in New York. That seemed to
be the furthest extension of what V2 or major label land is all about:
“Whatever it takes.” Well, then you’re crossing state lines as far
where the band is coming from and what the band is all about.

How did you feel when you heard V2 had
dropped the band?

Convertino: I figured as much. The
label, which had been going three years by then, hadn’t had a big hit and it
would have to downsize. So that was the timing. Our record had taken long
enough to finish that we’d crossed that deadline when they had to downsize. And
we were one of those bands.

Burns: I felt bad, mainly for Howe,
because I knew he’d sunk his heart into it. On the other hand, I was like —
“Great! Now let’s do something from the heart. Let’s come back to
something really good.” I didn’t know if anything could be salvaged from
the sessions or not; I figured we’d just go back in and re-record everything.

 

—————————————————

“Too Indie-Sounding”

If things didn’t go immediately from bad to worse for Giant Sand, the group’s orbit
was definitely in the decaying stages.  Gelb, Burns and Convertino wanted
to do a West Coast tour then immediately hole up in Seattle
to record new material; instead, V2 sent them to Memphis in August to record with legendary
producer Jim Dickinson. While Gelb is quick to point out that he was tickled by
the opportunity to study at the feet of an acknowledged master of his craft
(“Just his history, his vibe — he’s part snake-oil salesman, but that’s
okay!”), the sessions were frustrating for the three musicians. Part of
the problem was that Gelb had given the record company a list of six songs he
wanted to concentrate on in Memphis.
When Giant Sand arrived, those were the six songs Dickinson was intent on nailing; Gelb, by
contrast, as he grief had begun to subside somewhat, was emerging from his funk
and coming up with new material. As a consequence, both communication and focus
suffered, and for a second time, Giant Sand left the studio with the
unsettling feeling that something crucial was missing. The record company,
which had been hoping for at least one song it could pitch to radio and didn’t
hear any, was getting nervous. “We didn’t come up with the goods,” is
how Gelb succinctly summarizes.

Enter Kevin Salem. At the suggestion of V2’s Kate Hyman, the noted New York
singer-songwriter and producer rang up Gelb one night. Recalls Gelb, “So Kevin
is talking to me about the record, and out of the blue he said, ‘I want to send
you something. I’ve rerecorded three songs.’ Now the thing that got me, aside
from the fact that some guy I don’t even know has rerecorded my songs, was that
he had picked these three new songs I’d written that I really liked: ‘Blue
Marble Girl,’ ‘X-tra Wide’ and ‘Shiver.’ I’d started ‘Shiver’ in Tucson but in my despair I couldn’t get the track; we’d
tried doing all three in Memphis
but it had no magic.

 “So the DAT from Kevin showed up in the mail; he’d added some guys,
some bass, guitar, extra drums. I took the DAT up to the studio, put down new vocals,
and it was so great to do something brand new — I could waltz in there like
Elvis and just sing because the song was done. I guess I got a thrill out of it
because, as a songwriter, I used to come up with material so we’d have an
excuse to play something, but there would be times where I’d come up with a
good song that I didn’t think we had ‘realized.'”

Tweaked by Salem’s audacity and inspired by his
enthusiasm, Gelb traveled northward to Woodstock
over Christmas where he and Salem
hunkered down in Robbie Robertson’s old cabin studio and put the finishing
touches of the album. For Gelb, this third and final round of sessions went
quickly, “just the way it used to be in the old days, just one other
person there pushing the button and capturing it. It was kind of like we’d been
evolving this way and then I took a deep plunge for other reasons, and now I
was back to where it would have been if we’d continued on. With Parish and
Dickinson, I was inspired by both of them, but I never thought I brought to the
table as much as I could have. But with Kevin, it was long enough after
Rainer’s death, and I was healed enough, more ready for something — and Kevin
was right there to catch it. The juice.”

Call it tragic fate or simply — as Convertino pointed out above – the financial
vicissitudes wrought by the record industry, it is nonetheless darkly ironic
that once Gelb had an album he could live with and be proud of, V2 decided to
cut the tether. The label had already issued Gelb’s Hisser CD and had invested time and money into a two-album Giant
Sand deal — to the point of pressing up advance promos of Chore Of Enchantment. Yet literally, on the day before Gelb was
supposed to fly to New York
and start hatching out release plans with V2, he received a phone call from his
A&R person: the band had decided to drop the band from its roster.
“They had brought over a British guy to ride shotgun over the proceedings
in New York,”
recalls Gelb with a grimace. “That was our demise, ultimately. The record
was ‘too indie-sounding.'”

A Happy Ending

Well, as any good family story should have a happy ending, I’m glad to report that
this one does. (Funny: just as Gelb is getting to the post-V2 portion of our interview,
a small rubber ball rolls from under the door and into the room. Looking down,
I spot a tiny hand reaching under the door as well, accompanied by a loud burst
of giggling. When I glance over at Gelb, he’s giggling too, and sticking his
fingers back under the door. Like father like son…)

Following a period of denial during which Gelb was inclined to simply walk away
from the whole project (“It was enough to be happy about the final delivery
of the thing. I did the work and got through it. I can move on.”) and let
V2 buy the band out of its two-album contract, he eventually decided he wanted
to see the release of  Chore Of
Enchantment
through after all. Demand for the record was already exceeding
his supply of advance promos, which V2 had given Gelb and he was selling via
the Giant Sand website. And while obtaining the rights to the master tapes
would mean accepting less money from V2 in the contract buyout — this at a
point in time when a child was on the way, some much-needed home repairs were
looming and Gelb basically had no steady source of income other than a Tuesday
night solo gig playing piano at a local pub — he would be free and clear to
shop Chore.

At one stage, Atlantic Records expressed interest in Chore; Yves Beauvais, who’d A&R’d the Ptacek The Inner Flame project, was very eager
to work with Gelb again. But ultimately a deal was struck with Thrill Jockey,
whose owner, Bettina Richards, had been friends with the members of Giant Sand
for years. “They’ve got a good sensibility, a good aesthetic and the good
energy to keep the label going,” says Gelb of Thrill Jockey. “They’ve
are a true team who know what’s going on. With Atlantic,
you had a lot more money, and Yves, I love him because he made life so
wonderful for Rainer. But he pointed out how in reality, the people in the
Atlantic marketing department, there’s all this political nonsense. You know
how it is at a major label: when they talk to the artist they have to ‘rephrase
things.’ With Thrill Jockey, there’s no agenda crunch, and there’s no
backpedaling.”

Make no mistake, both the band and its new label came out ahead with the deal; Chore Of Enchantment is, in a word,
enchanting. Seductive. Lush and meditative, sonically fulsome yet with just
enough of the band’s trademark wobble ‘n’ whine to indelibly stamp it
“Giant Sand.” From the slinky barrio
noir
of “(well) Dusted (for the millennium)” and the darkly
ominous, Tom Waitsish “Wolfy” to the funky soul of “Temptation
Of Egg” and the sweet ’50s waltz of “No Reply,” Chore is every bit as satisfying as
Giant Sand’s previous classic, 1994’s Glum. Lyrically, too; while Gelb steadfastly sidesteps attempts on the part of the
interviewer to pin him down about any overriding theme to the album, it’s hard
not to see it, at least partly, as a chronicle of the group’s ordeal. After
all, it begins with a guy who’s been “Dumped by what he thought he knew/
Now he sits slumped and don’t know what to do” (from “Dusted”)
and ends with the narrator reflecting, “When I woke it was a new morning/
I was only sick from the night before.” (The record is dedicated to Rainer
Jaromir Ptacek; touchingly, samples taken from a tape of Ptacek’s favorite
operas are woven into a couple of the songs, and a snippet of Ptacek playing
slide guitar closes the album.)

Another stroke of irony, this time good irony, arrived in the Old Pueblo the very
day Gelb got the call from V2. Bill Carter, the maverick filmmaker of Miss Sarajevo fame who served as U2’s
European war correspondent on the Zooropa tour, landed at Tucson
International Airport
intending to shoot a video with the band for “Shiver.” Undaunted,
Carter proposed turning the project into a Giant Sand documentary.

Gelb: “So I said, ‘If you want to just capture this matter that’s going on
around here, figure out what to do with it later…’ It was an omen, him getting
on the plane the same hour we were dropped. And I needed his energy and take on
life in general. He is all amped-up with energy; me, I’ve always been a low
blood-pressure kind of guy.”

Carter, who wound up moving to Tucson permanently, shot footage of Gelb, Burns
and Convertino under numerous conditions, from candid at-home scenes to live
clips; he also interviewed numerous Tucson locals — detractors included — as
well as such notables in the Giant Sand sphere as Evan Dando, Victoria Williams,
Emmylou Harris, Richard Buckner, Vic Chesnutt, plus producers who worked on Chore and previous records. As Gelb puts
it, the film is to be “entertaining, but in a nonspecific say. I don’t
want people who see this to have to already know anything about the band.”
And as Carter was on hand to capture the band during an admittedly tense period
in its evolution, the film promises to have its own dramatic arc for those who
are familiar with the Giant Sand saga to date.

———Interlude 2: Burns &
Convertino———————

What holds this band
together? Do the members have to invest themselves emotionally to work
together?

Burns: That’s a tricky thing because
— how much do a person’s emotions factor in to creativity? Quite a bit,
really. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Howe, and if there is any
tension from time to time, it does help with the creativity and the energy.

Convertino: You know, Howe and I did
a tour of the States and Europe as a two-piece
in ’89. It was a kind of bash-it-out energy, let’s see how much noise we can
make sort of thing. Now, with Joey, through all these different kinds of music
we’ve been playing, especially the Latin influence, it’s about being able to
tone it down and play the space more. I think the melody is sometimes the
anchor; when Howe goes off, I’ll go off with him, but keeping the melody in my
head so I’ll know where we’re going. And Joey will throw in little splashes of
the melody so we’ll know where we are! There’s a lot of concentration, a lot of
listening.

Burns: One thing we’ve learned [from
working outside Giant Sand] is perspective. You see how different people work
— Victoria Williams, Richard Buckner, Bill Janovitz, Vic Chesnutt, Michael
Hurley… Then we come back around Howe and it’s great because he’s giving us
signs with his guitar almost like a conductor, and we’ve learned them because
we’ve worked with him so long. You learn someone’s language and someone’s cues,
and it just gives you a better perspective, not only on where Howe’s coming
from, it makes you appreciate what he does and how he does it.

Convertino: Giant Sand is so much
what Howe is, you know? We just try to tap
into the spontaneity of it. I know that for people who have seen the band, the
shows are really different from night to night. For me, that’s the fun of playing
in the band. You make the best out of whatever’s coming out of Howe at the
moment. Just try to jump in there.

—————————————–

Moving Forward

What’s next for the band? Following this year’s South By Southwest appearance —
make that “appearances,” as both Giant Sand and Calexico performed –
the band embarked upon a West Coast and Canadian tour. Then in May, a new Calexico
album entitled Hot
Rail
was released, accompanied by a Calexico tour. While Burns and
Convertino were off promoting their record, Gelb used the break to do a series
of solo shows in England and
Europe.

In the meantime, Gelb has several projects in store, not the least of which is
the release of  the second volume of the Giant Sand official bootleg series,
entitled The Rock Opera Years, on his Ow Om label and available
about the time you read this. The 13-song CD includes alternate versions of
songs that appear on Chore (the
Thrill Jockey vinyl edition of Chore also includes a few of these) and material recorded in Tucson — including a cover of Neil Young’s
“Music Arcade” — prior to the V2 deal. Then there’s a forthcoming Gelb
solo album initially intended as two separate sets, one of piano music and
another of songs, but now housed under the inclusive title Confluence. A previously scrapped second OP8 project, this one
recorded a couple of years ago with Juliana Hatfield instead of Lisa Germano,
may eventually see the light of day. And judging by the number of tapes
littering Gelb’s office and spilling out of boxes stacked up in a backyard
storage room, as well as the unreleased material he previewed for me during the
interview, he’s got enough backlog to keep any aspiring, detail-minded
archivist busy for a long time.

For now, though, Gelb is clearly relieved to have lived through his ordeal — this
is a man who once characterized his work to me as being of the “that which
doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” nature — and eager to reestablish his
group’s equilibrium.

“We’re always looking to capture that lightning in a bottle,” says
Gelb. “When it works, it’s invaluable. So that right there is the crux —
and it’s why we suck  sometimes, too. We
know it’s out there and it can happen. When it does, we’re not even that
conscious it just occurred; that comes way later, so we’re just aware that
something feels pretty damn good at the time.

“I do have to contend with being a decade older than the boys, and also
being ‘hampered’ by the things I love. These chores of enchantment. I’ve
collected this house, and now that I have it all, it stops me from going out
and doing as much as I used to do. I kind of miss my instinct, knowing this is
good and trying to maintain it instead of going off with my instinct like I did
so many times before.”

Standing up and motioning at the walls, and, by implication, what lies in the other
rooms, Gelb grins broadly and adds, “But you know what? When I think about
all this, it’s astonishingly great.”

 

***

My conversation with Gelb is starting to wind down when Sofie Gelb knocks softly
on the office door and tells her husband that Patsy, Gelb’s almost-teenage
daughter from his first marriage called and needs a ride. Talk about extended
family — young Patsy’s vocal dexterity was often heard on Giant Sand records
in the late ’80s and early ’90s, while her mother, Paula Jean Brown, served an
extended stint as the Sands’ bassist and continues to this day as a frequent guest
on the group’s records.

This seems a fitting enough juncture to signal the end of the interview so I thank
Gelb for his time, the ladies for the fish tacos, and Luka for the floor show.
Leaving the house, I glance back over my shoulder. Sofie is handing Howe his
son, who clutches daddy with that soft determination peculiar only to babies.
And maybe it’s just the angle of the soon-to-set sun’s rays, but from my
vantage point, it looks like everyone in the house — father, mother, son,
grandmother — is aglow.


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