Our Longshots series returns with two of the more prolific voices working in music today — Wooden Wand’s James Jackson Toth and Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb; both of whom just saw album releases this year, Blood Oaths of the New Blues and Tucson, respectively. The artists, left to their own devices, below.
James Jackson Toth: So, with Tucson, you’ve created this very compelling narrative about this strange character that seems, to me, equal parts Don Quixote and The Gunslinger. Did the narrative give birth to the songs, or was the narrative written around the songs?
Howe Gelb: The liner notes were made up after the fact. Every album is a bit like a Rorschach blotch and we all kinda, in our mind, figure out what’s going on and what the songs are about. You know, like Ziggy Stardust, where there’s an obvious story there, even though there never was one. It was never offered up — your mind just sorta puts it together. Anyway, when we got all the songs done I just looked at ‘em all and thought — is there an order here? Do they tell any kind of a story? Kinda like reading tea leaves.
JJT: That’s kind of amazing, that you did it backwards, because, as far as concept albums or rock operas go, it’s a pretty cohesive story. More so than, say, Quadrophenia or something.
Howe Gelb: The way that my mind works, that made the most sense to me. I thought “Why presuppose in advance and set yourself up for all of that stress and potent failure?” But if you allow it to just happen by itself — which is what I try to do in most of these situations, let nature handle what nature handles best — then you can use your mind to see the pattern. The storyline was written in less than two hours, all that stuff, because…well, my daughter really wanted to go for a bike ride. So everything you just described, the whole Don Quixote / Gunslinger thing, that’s probably in your mind. That’s the part you’re playing in the whole thing.
JJT: In his new book, Neil Young says “Songs are like rabbits, and they like to come out of their holes when you’re not looking, so if you stand there waiting they will just burrow down and come out somewhere far away, a new place where you can’t see them.” Are your songs rabbits?
Howe Gelb: I just saw on Youtube where he was chosen to induct Tom Waits in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And when Tom had his chance at the podium, he compared writing songs to fishing — you gotta be really quiet to land the big one. Sometimes I can sit down and force myself to come up with one. And they’re pretty good. But there’s other times where you’re doing something and all of a sudden a song’s coming and you don’t have time to put it down. You have to stop everything and be late, so to speak, because it’s like a weather condition, it just comes upon you, and you just have to deal with that storm. It knows no timeframe or time zone. And you gotta be open to it.
JJT: I always say that the Muse is sort of a pest. Sometimes you’re really comfortable in bed and you have to jump up and scrawl something on the back of a receipt, or pull off to the shoulder on the interstate or something, but keeping your mind open to first lines and titles and things like that, I think that’s the difference between songwriters and people who are the able to write songs. And all the greats, from Dylan on down, seem to speak of that same experience, of being a sort of medium, or a vessel. Sometimes I think maybe this compulsion we have is…like a mutation.
Howe Gelb: Yeah. I also think that those that do this kind of work tend to smell a smoke from a future fire, and they can write things that are just about to happen. Could be 12 minutes into the future, or the same increment in years, but they’re picking up on something that’s coming. In that regard, we’re not unlike antennas.
JJT: It’s great that you used the word antenna, because that’s how I always describe it. You just listen and wait. But when I have a song brewing, I can barely drive a car. I’m just so possessed and distracted.
Howe Gelb: Yeah, the “idiot savant” thing.
JJT: Exactly. Tell me about “the perfect harvest.”
Howe Gelb: That game used to be just to record a song the first time it’s played. Where you have the simmer of the song in your head but it hasn’t allowed itself to materialize in any form yet, but it’s there, and you know it’s there. And it’s always trickier if other participants are involved, so you need a band you can trust, or people who know where you’re going, or where you might go. The way my last band were set up, I had built that band to accommodate harvest time. And they were good with it.
JJT: During these sort of improvised first takes, are there charts, is there a dry erase board, or is it more based solely on intuition, like a jazz combo or something?
Howe Gelb: It’s more like a telepathy that has implemented itself, from becoming aware of each other’s system of logic. So you kinda know where each other is going to go. It doesn’t seem as infinite, so much as it’s like “well, if he’s going this route, there’s only four or five possible ways he’s gonna turn.” And so that’s kinda how it used to go down. As long as you felt confident, or brave enough, or stupid enough to go for it, the tape was running. Those songs, though, have a certain quality to them — a purity — but they’re also pesky because you never learn ’em. So then, if anyone in the future asks you to play them, on tour or something, they’re the most difficult! You assembled them like you would a painting – they just came out, and you got through it, like a surfer trying not to fall. And then you go on the road and people are requesting that song because they’ve picked up on that purity. There’s something about that track that resonates with them. And I think it’s when you’re completely flying by the seat of your pants that you tap into something, that purity that certain people recognize, that feels good in a different way without the tether or gravity of intellect. Because when it’s all by your gut, they can kinda feel that. But then when you gotta play it for them again, it’s like “oh, man.”
JJT: You once referred to touring solo as “rather similar to being dead.” I love this, and I agree. It’s a weird zone. I did the better part of 53 days by myself a few years ago, and I was telling people it was like a cross between The Brown Bunny and Vanishing Point, with all the associated tedium. David Berman also told me once that if World War III broke out, the last people in the world to find out about it would be bands on tour. I remember us trying to find a hotel in Louisiana right after Katrina hit — the city was still smoldering from the interstate. We had heard about Katrina but had no idea the magnitude. We turn up in our straw hats and jean jackets and the desk clerk is like “are you guys fucking kidding me?”
Howe Gelb: Wow. Well, when you’re out there, it definitely does feel like you’re in a bubble, especially when you’re on a sleeper bus, you’re so contained in your mothership, and every day feels like another planet, and you’re emerging to take samples.
JJT: Your piano stuff — prepared and otherwise – is very interesting to me, and, as a big fan of Monk I appreciated the reference in the title “Monk’s Mood.” Did you read Robin Kelley’s biography on Monk?
Howe Gelb: No.
JJT: It’s exhaustive. Pretty much the final word on the man, but there’s info in there about, like, who drove him to each gig and stuff.
Howe Gelb: Yeah, that type of writing is too leaden for me, I can’t get through (things like that).
JJT: What draws you to his music, over, say, Bud Powell’s or Red Garland’s?
Howe Gelb: Well, back in the 70s, I started buying cheap albums in the cut-out bin, and there’d always be these (albums by) blues players like Otis Spann and Champion Jack Dupree, and I would just pick up an album, get a vibe from it, and as long as it was in the cheap bin, I’d take it home and find out what it was I discovered. I was trying to make sense of the piano back then, before the guitar. I couldn’t find a teacher, and I tried to take lessons but that wasn’t working, and so I stopped. But these blues guys are really starting to charm me, you know? So I was finding my way in. And eventually ventured to the realm of jazz. And I didn’t have the luxury of an older brother back then, or somebody at home to turn me in to anything. So I’d just discover it on my own. And there was a lot less music available back then — you weren’t overwhelmed by choice, especially in a tiny town in Pennsylvania. And you go to the one record store, and they don’t have so much in the 99 cent bin. Eventually I bumped up to the $1.99 bin, and the music in there was more sophisticated, and that’s how I discovered these jazz guys. And then I’d try to go see ‘em if I happened to be in New York or something, and I caught a few of them, just trying to wrap my head around it. I always had a problem playing with the black notes, they just seemed too difficult. And most jazz is all up there. Finally, as I got grayer, and I was just getting embarrassed that I couldn’t handle B flat or A flat, I figured it was time to take the plunge. What helped was I bought this piano about 15 years ago that was tuned down a whole step. It was from 1888. So C was actually B flat. So I could play all these things I used to play when I was younger in these pedestrian keys, but now they sounded like jazz, because they were in the right key. And I wondered if that’s how it evolved! Anyway, when I heard that guy from Rocky Mountain, North Carolina play, there was something there that hit me the same way Neil Young’s guitar hit me when I first heard it. It just made the most sense. And then I just tried to understand it myself. I can’t say that I can play like him , but I might be the only guy in indie rock band that slouches toward his neighborhood. And it’s just the damage of loving him so much. In the same way that my guitar might have sounded like Neil way back then. That’s what I was able to decode somehow, that’s what got to me.
JJT: Well, like Tom Waits says “whatever you absorb, you eventually secrete.” It’s one of my favorite quotes. Did Rainer (Ptacek) listen to jazz?
Howe Gelb: Yeah. Rainer came to me right before I left my teenage years, and he was just old enough, you know? He was five years older. And I didn’t realize how fucked up I was back then. Plus, I always had a vision problem that I never realized or owned up to. I always thought, you know, the colors you see, you think everybody sees those same hues, but then you realize later that everyone sees different shades, everyone tastes different flavors. Everyone unites at some similarity of them, but it’s never the exact combination, you know? Everybody’s a little different. And when I met Rainer, I just knew that he was what good was, without knowing what good is.
Howe Gelb: And it was very fulfilling for me because it filled a huge void I didn’t know I had. And when I met him, it was so immediate. Whatever the equivalent is when you meet a woman, and you have love at first sight, it was kinda like that, but with a bigger brother. I didn’t know until a decade later what his roots were, that he was born in East Berlin. He had no accent at all, you know, he moved to Chicago when he was five. And he started playing the dobro up there because of his Czech roots, the dobro being invented by the Dopyera brothers, who were Czech. So it all made sense. He was a brilliant combination of intellect and instinct. He had massive hands and a blinding smile. And there was just this calm around him. And then when we’d play, we’d play endlessly. On one chord, or sometimes two, and the jam would easily go 45 minutes before we’d stop. So we were putting ourselves through these rigorous exercises without knowing they were rigorous exercises. And the jam would change, it would evolve, it would morph. And it wouldn’t often have solos in it, so we’d be messing around with rhythm and things, and even the chord, seeing how you could pull apart this chord and have it still be this thing. We were on to something, but we didn’t know what. We couldn’t compare it to anything. And Tucson was really remote back then. It had no normal college radio – it had a jazz station and a classical station, but no ‘new’ music. And we had one record store that got punk rock and post-punk and experimental stuff, and that was it, and they only had a copy or two of the album you wanted, so if you didn’t get there on time, it was gone. You’d have to sit there and listen to the owner’s s copy of it. So that’s why we came up with our own thing, our own sound. I was born in-between things. Too young for hippies…not too old for punk, but I just caught punk rock as I was getting a little older.
JJT: And you guys got to New York just when the CBGB’s scene was pretty much just wrapping up.
Howe Gelb: Yeah, we got there, sadly, five minutes after Soft Cell hit the airwaves, and became the order of the day. But the town was still mean and nasty, and we lived in a really tough neighborhood, the Lower East Side, when it was really tricky to live there. Taxis wouldn’t even come down there.
JJT: My dad grew up in Brooklyn, and to this day, when I tell him I’m playing Williamsburg or something, he says “be careful down there, man.” He has no idea how much it’s changed.
Howe Gelb: It was real territorial back then. You just have to watch Death Wish or The Warriors to get a sense of what was going down there.
JJT: Talking about jazz with you makes me want to ask you about your feelings about genre tags. In the early oughts, I made some acoustic-sounding records with some, you might say, ‘conspicuous-sounding’ psychedelic elements, and at some point journalists caught up with this and corralled what I was doing in with what some other people were doing and called it “freak folk,” or “psych folk.” Now, even if I make a minimal techno record or something, those phrases will pop up in reviews. I bring this up because you just recently made a record with flamenco musicians in Cordoba. Your band is mostly Danish. And yet it would be difficult to find a review of your music that did not contain the word “Americana.” Why do you think this is?
Howe Gelb: It’s probably my song structure.
JJT: But you’re not really a 1-4-5, cowboy chords kinda guy, though.
Howe Gelb: Well, I can’t sing outside the box so easily. And I think really old school songwriters like Robyn Hitchcock have that ability to use the chords as harmony, and sing all around them, instead of within them. Most indie rock songwriters fly by the seat of their pants, and every now and then somebody comes along who knows harmony theory, who works it a little differently, or who grew up with that being the order of the day, and they attack it more sophisticatedly. But yeah, the Americana thing. We grew up with American radio, you know, what you said about secreting, we absorbed all of that. So I think it’s pretty much the song structure (they’re talking about).
JJT: Does that bother you though, the lazy journalism?
Howe Gelb: Well, very few rock journalists are really good, like Lester Bangs, you know, or Sylvie Simmons, where they’re just good writers. There are very few of those out there. You can’t fault ‘em, because I believe being lazy is a kind of art form. It’s just better realized when you’re an actual songwriter than when you have to write about the songs.
JJT: My favorite Wooden Wand album is always the last one I recorded, or the one I’m in the process of recording. Do you have a favorite Giant Sand album, or one to which you have great memories attached?
Howe Gelb: Well, that’s a barometric thing. It depends on the air pressure of the day, there’s different ones that stand up better to the wind on some days than others. Some surprise me. I stumbled upon one the other day, and…you think you know it. You think you remember it. It’s a photo album, for better or for worse – at least mine are. And you give it a whirl, you dip back into it like an old swimming hole. You test the waters, put your foot in, and say “Is this any good? How does it feel?” And then you submerge yourself, and you either think the water’s good or you go “oh, there’s some warm pockets here,” like when you’re swimming in a pond you find those warmer pockets. And it all reminds you of what was happening during that time. The good stuff stands up through the ages and still offers information, like any really good old jazz record. Like way into the future you can listen to it and go “whoa, I just realized what he’s doing there.” But because I’ve been doing this for so long, I have to consider the year it was done, and that’s a curious little phenomenon. Like, when I listen to a Big Star record, I can’t enjoy it unless I realize the year it was done. Because there have been so many bands that have sounded like Big Star since Big Star, it just sounds like stuff you’ve heard over and over. But then you consider the year it was done and you go “oh, nobody sounded like that back then.” Then when we go back and listen to our own records and we go “why did this song go on so long?,” we remember “oh yeah, because back then, all this crap was going down and this song was that long to intentionally counterpoint the sound of the day.” But now it just sounds like it goes on too long.
JJT: It is 2013 — does The Pathfinder have any new year’s resolutions?
Howe Gelb: “Pathfinder.” (chuckles). Umm, no. resolutions are useless.