Giant Sand, the iconic band fronted by luminary Howe Gelb, celebrates 30 years of freewheeling and ever-evolving music making on new album Heartbreak Pass.
‘I find music a celebration of existence and whatever I am now – this is where it ends up. For anybody who wants to follow along, I’m assuming they have the same mindset; but I’m nothing special and maybe this is what they would be doing if they made time to do it.’
Well I guess you can’t blame Tucson for making the most of it. Not every American city can boast a Cold War era titan missile silo turned museum. And in a way the lurking menace is appropriate. Perched on the edge of the 60-mile stretch of the Sonora desert that separates it from the Mexican frontier, Tucson started life as a wild west town and as first stop for the “illegals” who tried to cross the border 24 hours a day – and it is now right back in the action.
It’s an edgy kind of place, and when you think of it, an ideal hang out for Howe Gelb. If you haven’t come across Gelb and his amorphous band Giant Sand, then let’s begin by saying Howe is not your average musician.
Categories? Forget them. Like the shifting Sonora sand, and with more than 50 albums, Gelb’s music has meandered through just about every form imaginable; punk, rootsy rock, jazz, gospel, and Spanish guitar music have all surrendered to his creative lust. Along the way, he’s worked with a dazzling array of guests including Lucinda Williams, PJ Harvey, Victoria Williams and Vic Chesnutt, all seduced by his aptitude for coming up with the unexpected and occasionally weird.
His new album Heartbreak Pass finds the master on fine form, 15 tracks that begin with Gelb solo on acoustic guitar, before taking the listener on an aural trip involving a Cretan string section, a Canadian choir, “a wall of sound in Berlin, a little noodling in Italy, a dash of Nashville, the rest slowly simmered in Tucson.” Amazingly, it all hangs together, and undoubtedly long time devotees are in for a treat. To like Giant Sand and its main man, is like being part of some giant musical freemasonry.
The cultural shift from a lonely gothic mansion in Devon, to Gelb’s adobe house in Tucson is something of a quantum leap, but I began our talk by mentioning to the quietly spoken Howe that it was in that particular creaky old venue I once caught his friend Rainer Ptacek in action. A mesmerising slide guitarist who came up with beautiful soundscapes unlike anyone else on the block, but in the iniquitous way that the music industry functions never received the acclaim that was his due, Rainer formed a band with Gelb in 1980 that they dubbed the Giant Sandworms. Rainer died long before his time in 1997, but can be seen as the sonic architect for much of what has followed in Gelb’s career.
‘Yeah, I remember, I played there too, full of crop circle chicks. But let’s use Rainer as our base. I met Rainer back in 1976, I was 19 at the time and Rainer was five years older; it was the 1970s and there was plenty of room for psychedelics,’ Gelb laughs. ‘Somebody insisted that I meet this guy in town, and it turned out he was playing at this little joint down the street. I got there and he invited me – as a way of shaking hands – to play piano with him on stage. We immediately started jamming, and that’s how we bonded, that was our dialogue. I couldn’t play that well, could only really play in G, but apparently his guitar was tuned to G, so that was perfect. We began to play, but because I was still tripping, I had a real problem facing the audience, and just kept playing until I could figure out what to do, playing for about 45 minutes without stopping. This was okay with Rainer – it made sense to him – and our blues pattern kept morphing and changing, turning into something else, going back around. Eventually the place closed and everybody had to leave – and then it felt ok to stop. That was our sonic blood brotherhood, and from that point on because my dad wasn’t around, he became the older brother I desperately needed in my life. We had a way of subtly informing each other about information we each had, and Rainer would teach without really teaching by pointing the way and underlining a few things. He became the most important male figure in my life.’
Longevity – in career terms – seems to have always been part of your mindset. ‘When we began to actually make recordings, Rainer turned to me and he said, “Let’s not make an album that’s going to embarrass us 20 years from now” – and that’s been my template ever since. To the best of my ability, I try not to adhere to any current trend, because trends come and go and then they sound embarrassing later. So I’m going to hand the responsibility over to Rainer for all of that.’
You’ve been quoted as saying Giant Sand is a “large town where everyone is welcome to come in and play”. How has that worked in practice? Do you find it easy to find other musicians that share your kind of vision? ‘Basically, what I set up was a publicist’s nightmare – a free artists colony from the get-go, a place where the door was wide open. If you could come in and play, then the important thing was finding out how comfortable we were with each other. If we could hang out with each other, then in doing so the music could click.’
‘When I look back on it and wonder about all the people I have played with, my theory is that there’s possibly a kind of rhythm in everybody’s heartbeat that more seamlessly hangs with certain people. The people you can’t play with so well are the people whose heartbeats are slightly out of sync, they make too much of a polyrhythm. If you can hang out with someone, play, and jam, then the music follows. I’ve never looked for people who might happen to be technically advanced in their instruments.’
As any listener to his albums will quickly realise, Gelb is the antithesis of a Pro Tools worshipper. Spontaneity rules. ‘I started out being an artist, and what I noticed in my drawing was that I’d like it more when there were fewer lines; sometimes I thought I’d ruined drawings by drawing too much. So when I started making music in the mid-1970s, the same rules applied. Often, there was just too much stuff. I found that when I was settled with restrictions like having to record on a four-track, the results were far better. I was coming up with stuff I could listen to over and over again. Finally, I realised that this minimalism was more conducive to my comfort zone.
For some years, Gelb has divided his time between his home in a Tucson barrio, and his wife’s home in Denmark where he has a band of Danish musicians who regularly back him up on the road. It’s an arrangement that seems to work well, particularly as he eschews any notion that his surroundings influence his music.
‘People always try to blame the desert on my sound, and I always try to shrug that off. They thought I was milking the desert idea, and I was dangerously close to calling these people liars. Sure, where I live adds a kind of symbiotic nature to my sound – a kind of wide open, vast emptiness. But, if anything, it also has a high erosion content. Things change here everyday according to extreme conditions. I like to keep sounds wide open, which is about the only correlation I can come up with.’
Quite apart from his Danish wife Sofie, Gelb’s love affair with Europe almost began by accident in the 1980s when his first album was released through the now defunct Demon label, a record company that thrived on the obscure and wonderful.
‘I had two different bands at the time – a rock band and a country band – so I had to learn right then and there how to record fast on a four-track for free; I made those early records in a day and a half each. And when people wanted them in exotic places like England and France, that got me going over there to tour. Once I saw that on the continent there were arts councils, socialism, people employing art to be important to everybody’s growth and existence – and there were sound systems superior to the States and England – I felt free to concentrate on the music, and not the difficulties of touring so much.’
And 35 years on from when he recorded his first makeshift album, it’s a tribute to Gelb’s ingenuity and talent that he’s still out there.
‘I have a tin-ear, an incapability of covering anyone else’s material, which is why I started writing my own stuff so I’d have something to play. If you take your cue from following your heart, those primal elements of existence and artistry, then you’re going to be okay as long as you don’t try to constrict it by demands of a plan or some intelligence getting in the way. This is all I can offer and it’s allowed me longevity.’
One thing’s for sure: Gelb’s never been concerned about lack of mainstream success. ‘No – that never really had that much appeal to me to begin with. But in the interim I’ve bought a couple of houses, have a couple cars that are paid off, raised three children and I’m kind of a blue-collar indie rocker. This is how I exist. I made a joke one time that planning is an insult to the future, and I believe it. When you involve yourself in some kind of artistry, it’s all about sensitivity, emotions – not about strategy or intelligence. What you do with your art afterwards might benefit from those things. If you listen to your gut, your heart, and you learn from the beginning how important these things are, it’s everything.’
Giant Sand’s album Heartbreak Pass is out now on New West Records.