Fear not, Howe Gelb is back, and is once again picking up the reins of the Giant Sand moniker for his new LP proVISIONS. Gelb’s last album, the gospel heavy ‘Sno Angel Like You was one of our favorite album of 2006. Now with a new label home, at Yep Roc, Aquarium Drunkard phoned Gelb to discuss, among other things, the various interpretive meanings of the title of his new LP, the history of Giant Sand and the eventual Calexico offshoot, retaining one’s muse, and his well known love of the Arizona desert country. Giant Sand’s tour begins September 15th in Omaha, NE with Neko Case.
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Aquarium Drunkard: The new record, Provisions, is the first Giant Sand record since 2004 and it’s also your first record for Yep Roc – even your most recent solo record was on Thrill Jockey. Why the switch in labels?
Howe Gelb: ‘Cause I turned 50 and when my AARP card came in I was notified that all the singer/songwriters over 50 are at Yep Roc. It’s the Hillary Clinton market share – she seemed to draw in voters over 50.
AD: So you’re excited to be there?
HG: I think Thrill Jockey was good. It was more of a real interesting mix of – I like variation and I like contrast and Thrill Jockey was kind of like a gallery of completely different works by artists. There was some similarity in its collection, but I could never figure out what it was. I enjoyed the mix-up. Yep Roc though seems more focused on the singer/songwriter, so I think I’m going to enjoy that actually. Especially at this age.
AD: Giant Sand is known for having this rotating cast of people – who was the lineup for the new album?
HG: Yeah, the same as the last record. These fellows from Denmark. A trio of dudes. Peter Dombernowsky on drums, Anders Pederson on the other guitar and a fellow named Thoger Lund on bass and these guys I’ve been playing with since 2002. They helped me with a solo record called The Listener and it was during that tour that I realized that sound was becoming the flavor of Giant Sand, so that’s what we did for Is All Over the Map. They’re a very stunning acoustic band – they kind of blew me away acoustically. And after that, through the years, we worked up more of an electrical sound which is on this record now and I enjoy the simple grooves we can lock into. And it’s still there to muck it up a bit and find our way back home – which is the Giant Sand credo.
But you know, the lineups over the years have been kind of seasonal with the seasons lasting maybe 5 or 8 years. But the last season there was a stalled severe weather front and it kept the season from changing because things went south, so to speak, here because my friend got very sick and eventually died. His name was Rainer [Ptacek]. He and I started things back in the late 70s. That, with the Calexico guys, was the lineup before this – the drummer, John [Convertino], who I’d met in the late 80s and Joey [Burns] who I took into the band in the early 90s and then right there in the mid 90s is when my friend got sick. So I couldn’t really focus the way I used to focus. I kind of stepped out of it and did this thing called Opiate which was a way not to be so involved, but at the same time, if you’re a lifer, you gotta do something. OP8 was good because it only involved 25%. [laughs] But in that interim, that’s when I brought John and Joe to Tuscon and then my friend got sick and that was so consuming that I couldn’t keep setting things up for the band. Then we did the OP8 thing and those two would keep playing on their own while I was preoccupied with my friend’s changes, life and subsequent death. So really, that whole lineup changed then, but when we played as Giant Sand, or when we tried to – it lasted the rest of that decade – it wasn’t wholehearted.
AD: Was that the impetus of how they started doing the Calexico thing?
HG: Yeah, ’cause John wouldn’t have met Joey otherwise and neither of them would have ever come to Tucson without me dragging their asses out here in the 90s. I’d met them both out in California separately. I always loved Tucson. I full-on moved out there in ’75, ’76 and I met Rainer then and that’s how that whole thing got started. I would always leave and go to California, some other place, New Mexico, New York, but I would always come back to Tucson. When my daughter turned 5 and she needed to go to school, I decided I wanted to go back, so I left the high desert of California and I got John to come back and then Joe, you know, to check out the town and they settled in nicely. Then that’s when in early ’96 was when Rainer got sick and my attention was called away. I was a single dad and my best friend had gotten brain cancer, so that’s when Joey began leading the charge to occupy himself.
AD: You’ve had all these projects over the years – you mentioned the OP8 thing, your solo records and the occasional Band of Blackie Ranchette record – you talked about the sound of your current lineup coming from your The Listener solo record – so I guess my question is, how do you tell the difference between a Giant Sand record and any of the other things you do? Does one inform the other?
HG: Nah, it’s real simple. I know things get all convoluted when things get all packaged and marketed somewhat and no one has a whole lot of time to figure things out – you just kind of look at the label, assess and move on. But for me, Giant Sand has always been a user-friendly band system. A small, compact method of sonic travel. Drums, bass and hopefully another guitar player. Sometimes it’s a three piece. Back in the day when John and I were at it alone as a two piece in the late 80s, but it was a six piece before that in the mid-80s and it started off as a power-trio [laughs] in the early 80s. So it just depends on the availability of happenstance – what’s delivered to you, so to speak. It’s just a practical motorcycle gang. The entourage. The posse. The get-it-up-and-go boys. Guerrilla tactics. Get in and get out. It’s something you can count on. And the most essential ingredient – the hang time. I wanna be able to hang with these guys. It has to feel as good being with these guys as it does being alone. And the playing stuff – when it starts to click, both those elements are in place and it’s what Giant Sand ever was.
AD: So how does the nature of working with other musicians – what does that mean for the individuality of your own work? When you take something that is done under your own name which is, ostensibly, your uncluttered, direct vision of whatever it is and you bring it in and work with other people, how does that change things?
HG: That just wakes you up. Because you know, you’re at war with complacency and routine. They are your enemies – they conspire. They are sent by the evil gods of gravity – that’s the thing that the battle is against all the time, is gravity. Because when you create music, you deliver buoyancy at best. So when you’re playing on any given night, you’re hoping for buoyancy, you’re hoping to punch a hole in the weight of gravity. Complacency and routine tend to slow you down and establish roots – they’re often good things, but for many people, depending on your restlessness and your particular attention span, a change of anything is good for you. It just wakes everything up. It gets the self excited again. That’s important stuff. That has to happen, too – for me at least. Depends on what you’re comfortable with. There are all kinds of possibilities out there and you just have to be open to them.
The most difficult part is that the world can only handle so much output and even then, barely. So your so-called official band releases, really you don’t want to do more than one every two years, ’cause you can’t tap into the notification, you can’t get the media involved because there’s too many other bands. So in between the cracks you fill it with these other so-called projects. But really you’re like a painter, you paint all year long, you record all year long, you just find yourself visiting people and making music all year long and then at some point you bundle up selected pieces at a relative harvest time and call it a record. Whether or not you promote it is something else, because you have to stay out of the way of the every two-year release schedule that everyone sort of agrees on. That’s a mouthful, I know.
AD: Well, that leads me to the fact that you’ve been recording for over 20 years – you talk about working with all these different projects – is that how you find things to excite you? Like any other job, how does it not become routine or static?
HG: There’s an arc of transition as you get older and as you travel along that arc, certain things inspire you that won’t at other times. They’re all of substance and are particular to the arc of your growth. So the things that keep me going now aren’t necessarily the same things that kept me going 5, 10 years ago and certainly not 20 or 30.
There’s a few elements that are true from the very beginning. Like, why did it ever happen? That’s weird. Why? I can guess. Anyone can guess, but I don’t think anyone really knows why they pick up their first instrument and dance like a monkey for their dinner. I don’t know. But you kind of recognize that in other people and the poetic explanation of that is that they “had no choice.” But another explanation would be process of elimination. What can you do to exist here? What do you want to do or what do you think you can do? And you cross off that list all the things you can’t seem to do. Guitar player comes somewhere near the bottom of the list probably. Once you find it and you realize it’s something you can’t stop doing, then you become a lifer. So one way or another, it’s what you’re going to do. Whether you take it out of your living room or not is totally secondary. That’s when it gets a little convoluted. Whether people know about you or not is all secondary. Fame is a side effect of success and some degree of success allows longevity in what you want to do.
The best thing you should do at some point is figure out what you’d like to be associated with, music wise, if that’s what you’re doing – where do you feel comfortable? And then, in that realm, what will allow you to continue to do what you want to do? And then you’ll be just so successful, you know, or accordingly. I don’t think you’ll be under successful or over successful. I don’t think talent has a whole lot to do with that. It’s the amount of ambition that you naturally have. If you’re a naturally ambitious person, then you’re going to do things sort of like an appetite, to acquire more and more. And if you’re naturally unambitious, you’ll do things that way, but still enough to exist with it. Everything else just falls into place then. I have always been severely lazy and unambitious, but I love to do this stuff – I do a lot of it. And that’s my dichotomy. That’s why I live out in the desert. You can be really removed and unambitious and still have a healthy display.
AD: The title of the new record – the obvious thing, or at least to me it was, was that there are potentially two letters missing from the front – that it’s a play on improvisions…
HG: Oh, yeah? That’s different…you know, that’s why when you do something, it can’t ever be fully thought out or articulated. There’s no point in that – especially paintings and songs. It’s reactional imagery and it’s not – the guy who does that stuff, his intentions are not more important than the person on the receiving end. So if you’re coming up with “improvisions,” that’s pretty good, ’cause then you have the I M which stands for “i am provisions.” I’m pro-visions. There’s so much good stuff in there. [laughs]
AD: There’s the fact that on the art work itself for the album, the word “visions” is in all capitals and the “pro” is in lowercase..
HG: Well, that’s just, you know, you write down the word…If I give you my thought on that particular day where that title hits me, then the thought is not like a stain that it should be there for everybody to think that that’s what – you know, it’s a Rorschach blotch – you know, my thoughts are not necessarily your thoughts and it shouldn’t have to be. The things we put out there are enough for people to make out of it what they want to, to hear the lyrics or wordplay how they want to, or the inflection in tone or the guitar lick, you know, it all means something different to everybody, which is what’s so wonderful about it. It’s not force feeding anything, per se. That’s also why I don’t like to make things too well-constructed – I like deconstruction. It allows everyone’s individual brain to reassemble this – some assembly required. And you get to make it your own that way. So, bands that construct pieces of music that are so well put together that you can enjoy them for their craft, for sure – it’s like furniture or a nice building that makes sense – but my music is more like furniture that is put together with different pieces, different eras. My buildings are like adobe because there are no right angles – that’s just how I like things. That’s my particular environ. Songs on the record, that’s what they are. They’re provisions. You’re providing provisions. With any luck, they are pro visions. It all made sense somehow on that day.
AD: And it’ll make a different set of sense on a different day.
HG: Yeah, well everything does. It’s like the chore of enchantment – you know, when you finally think you have it together, man, it’s going to take some work to keep it together. That’s the chore of enchantment, whether it’s your family or some other treasure you’ve happened upon. words/ j neas
MP3: Giant Sand :: Increment of Love (new)
MP3: Howe Gelb :: But I Did Not
Amazon: Giant Sand – proVISIONS