Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Howe Gelb has jet lag. In fact he spends so much time touring and traveling between Europe and his hometown of Tucson that he has taken up residence in his wife’s native Denmark four months a year. Often labeled the “godfather of alternative country,” Gelb, with his ever-evolving band Giant Sand, has remained under the pop radar while exerting a heavy influence on many of today’s more interesting artists: Grandaddy, PJ Harvey, Neko Case, Calexico, and numerous others. Although it’s his poetic, at times hilarious lyrics that draw the listener into his music, Gelb’s widespread effect on others can also be attributed to his ability to conjure a feeling or image with his masterful command of the sonic realm. His guitar licks seem to weave somewhere between the dream world and reality. And just when you thought you had it all figured out, he sits down and plays some piano. Or even more confounding, he plugs in a walkman at a show, plays some obscure song for a few minutes and then takes a bow.
In more than 19 years and 35 albums, Giant Sand has had many incarnations with various backup players—Gelb has described the band as a “large town where anyone is welcome to play”—and this year will see the (now-Danish) band’s long-awaited album Giant Sand Is All Over…THE MAP out this summer, preceded by Gelb’s solo piano album Ogle, a follow-up to his first piano record, Lull Some Piano (2001), and followed by another solo album, titled Howe Gelb ’SNO ANGEL Like You (all on Thrill Jockey), on which he collaborates with a gospel choir.
Refusing to be pigeonholed almost seems like a sport to Gelb, who spends most of his waking hours tending to his kids or fixing the latest broken item in the 100-year-old adobe home where he and his family live in Tucson. I have gathered more than 100 hours of Giant Sand footage for my documentary of Gelb and the band, and still at times it’s easy to forget that he is one of the music world’s most prodigious artists and certainly one of its most prolific. I have known him for several years—we met as neighbors living across the street from each other in the barrio—and not once have I seen him write down a lyric or so much as practice his music. Yet when he arrives in the studio to record it’s as if he has been playing for months. Pure genius and usually chaotic, Howe Gelb is a cottage industry unto himself, and there seems to be no end in sight to his ability to create new music.
We recorded this conversation in his music room, a recent addition to the house.
Bill Carter So we’re here in the music room. Tell me about this room.
Howe Gelb Well, it was inspired by the birth of my third child. The former music room had become the nursery, so we added on this extra room, and because the whole reason we live here is that adobe houses sound better, it had to be made out of adobe.
BC Has it become the sanctuary you always wanted? It doesn’t look like it.
HG I know.
BC It’s a little bit cluttered.
HG Yeah, but it’s my brain that’s cluttered. My room always ends up cluttered. And I haven’t been able to spend much time in here since I’ve been back in town.
BC You just got off the plane from Europe last night, right? And you’re headed to Japan at the end of the week?
HG Right. I finished the MAP record on Tuesday and then stopped in Ottawa on the way to Europe to finish the follow-up solo album, which is much more minimal—mostly just guitar and drums with a 10-piece gospel choir.
BC That one feels almost like a subconscious healing of what you’ve been going through with the Giant Sand record, your first album in about a decade without your usual John Convertino and Joey Burns rhythm section. And this solo effort with the gospel choir? How does a person who’s been spending a lot of time singing into minidiscs in hotel rooms, recording in his car, waiting for spontaneous musical guests to wander into his house for impromptu recording sessions, suddenly walk into a room with gospel singers? That seems like a pretty big leap—they’re in a different world from you; it’s such a different sound.
HG They’re just wonderful. Last summer I was surrounded by several gospel choirs at a festival in Ottawa. I began wondering if it was possible to have that sound without religious affiliations. Just harboring the spirit of spirit. I arranged to fly back up there to record with them, and was so excited I wrote the bulk of the new material during the flight. But I also drew upon some older Giant Sand songs for the final album that I thought were made for such a sound. And then I threw in some old Rainer songs. I think you can hear the positive vibes and fun of juxtapositions.
BC So by the time you’re getting the Giant Sand record ready to go you’re already in Ottawa and going for the next one with gospel singers?
HG Yeah. And there’s a piano record coming out in March.
BC How’s that one different from Lull, your first solo piano record?
HG There’s more accompaniment involved. And perhaps it is the last time John and Joe and myself will be together on a record, think it goes with an atmosphere you wrap yourself up in when you’re alone, or with a loved one, I suppose. At the very least, something to eat to, and enough left over to do the dishes to.
BC And the songs just keep writing themselves?
HG It seemed like the songs were coming. And you just can’t really lay these things out. I don’t see the point in laying them out in a more meticulous fashion that would make sense to my record label, or anyone else for that matter. I’m just striking when the iron is hot. The songs are coming in; they’re landing now.
BC Let me get something straight, for the record: How old are you?
BC How old were you when you made your first album?
HG 28, I think.
BC So let’s do a little math here. That’s 19 years.
BC All right. 19 years and you’ve made how many records?
HG Counting the ones I’m doing now?
BC Sure, why not? (laughter)
HG Somewhere between 35 and 40.
BC That’s almost two records a year.
HG Listen, I could be wrong. It could be more. I don’t know if I’ve counted those bootlegs or not.
BC For most people that’s an insane rate of production.
HG In the music business, there’s no need to ever consider how wide the spectrum is. You could be in one little corner of it over there existing in what appears to be the music business, but it’s not like you’re actually taking part in anything that’s on the other side of the spectrum, anywhere between Britney Spears’s mansion on the hill or Bruce Springsteen’s…penthouse?
HG In Jersey.
BC So what you’re saying is you approach it more like a day laborer.
HG I don’t think it’s such a big deal, is what I’m saying.
BC Do you ever feel like you’re giving the people who are buying your records too much? Does it make you want to hold back? That’s a marketing thing they do in the big world of records, right? A little bit now, a little bit later.
HG I think that there’s a senility that occurs, a dementia, when you don’t work enough, in any work you do. I think the less work you do, eventually your brain shrivels up and you’re not the same old used to be. If you keep working you’ve got a better chance of staying somewhat vital, if not necessarily coherent, and reflective of what’s actually happening on the planet.
BC So are you the guy working so hard to shape his own fate that if you ever stopped you’d feel like you’ve got nothing? People do that, you know: they try to make their perfect record and they never do but it keeps them going, it keeps the drive going.
HG Anything more than what I know about here in this little room would be sheer speculation. So I can only talk about the gravity, you know, what the weight of this stuff feels like. (loud rattle)
BC Jesus Christ.
HG That was Rainer’s rattle, his foot rattle.
BC Tell me a little bit about Rainer, his influence on you as a friend and a musician. He’s obviously still a big influence on your whole life, though he died in 1997.
HG I’d been in Tucson off and on for two or three years and then I finally moved here when I was 19. I was going to art school but it wasn’t working, and I was getting ready to drop out. I was trying to get a gig in town and I saw that there was a guy named Rainer playing at a place called Basement Café. And so I hooked up with Rainer and just kind of took him on as an older brother, since I didn’t have one. He was five years older, and he was as influential as an older brother would have been, aesthetically and creatively: the way he lived his life, what he thought was important. It’s that trajectory you take on when you’re younger, it aligns you. We had these endless jams where we’d try to play a song structure as minimally as possible and get the most out of it. He was one of the more masterful human beings I’ve met here. He seemed to have a handle, a sweet kind grip, a soulful stance; he was funny and dear and good. He had no negative energy.
BC And he was probably a big anchor for you here. I know that you’ve been spending a lot of time in Denmark. Is the center of gravity for you now shifting and allowing you to live somewhere else without having to feel like you’re missing something here? Tucson has always been such a center spot for you, though you’re originally from Pennsylvania.
HG I left Pennsylvania after the big flood of ’72. My dad had already moved out here, so I came too. I met Rainer in ’76. Then somehow I got back to Pennsylvania and got into my first band in ’78, a short-lived punk band called the Stains. We had good energy; it was a big relief. I kept driving back and forth cross-country and hooked up with Rainer to actually get a band going in ’79, Giant Sand Worms, and then finally came out with it in ’80. And the history is—
BC Well documented. I was listening to the conversation you had today with your record label. You were saying, “I’m not after the mythical next level in the record company—you know, if I can make four records in two years and make x amount of coin, I can feed my family.” Some people put a record out and they ride that for two to three years; that’s not really your gig.
HG But I also like things more minimal. I think often when you listen to a song—it’s not quite exhausting, but there’s a lot going on in one song. A lot happens in three minutes. But my stuff tends to have more air in it, more space. I am always craving more space; things always get cluttered up and so I enjoy minimal production.
BC It’s quite hilarious to me that you profess that. If you walk into your home—
HG Help me.
BC (laughter) You’ve got your daughter Tallulah banging on the door. You’ve got the dog—
HG It’s the reverse psychology of it all.
BC I mean, what’s a typical day for you?
HG Oh, you know, I get torpedoed every 12 minutes or so by the kids. It’s a loving torpedo, a toying hit, but since I’m a scatterbrain to begin with…You’ve just got to keep adapting, trying to figure out ways around the things that trip you up.
BC It’s very much the focal point of your total mental existence to be sparse, to be uncluttered. Tell me more about that, because it’s one of the things I really liked about you when we met. It’s something we have in common. Sometimes I believe that I could do what you do, but I know I couldn’t. I don’t mean musically, I mean life-wise.
HG I’m actually really lazy. And I have to work so hard to be able to be lazy. Which is the dichotomy, right?
BC That’s true. But I don’t think lazy is the right word.
HG Well, I could disguise it as Zen, but I really like doing absolutely nothing in a room where there is nothing.
BC Okay, when’s the last time you did that?
HG It doesn’t happen.
HG Yeah, maybe in a hotel. But even then it gets silent enough and I start getting an idea for a song. You can buy those little portable speakers now for 13 euros, and they really put the TV to shame. You set up a minidisc in the room with your discman and it makes a world of difference. Really, the minidisc player has allowed me to record anywhere anytime. I plug in a small microphone, hit record and when I play it back, it’s all there. Sometimes I use the minidisc to edit the sequence of albums. I can plug it into some headphones and walk around a strange city while getting a feel of the order of songs.
BC And hotel rooms offer a fine modern-day sound studio?
HG Yeah, but that’s also where the songs are coming in. That’s the only time I’m isolated; it’s a nice little box. The less you bring with you the better. I’m getting to the point that if it weren’t minus 43 in Ottawa when I was just there, I wouldn’t have brought the suitcase at all. Otherwise I’m thinking I should be able to go out there with just the two guitars. There’s so much stuff everywhere, it’s sick. You’re flying over these places and you’re looking down and you’re thinking about soap companies and clothing companies and cosmetic companies—they’ve got everybody buying their stuff. And it’s really just too much to think about.
BC Let’s not, then.
HG Okay. And if you travel with nothing, even more songs come. The less crap you think you need and have to lug with you on the road the better.
BC You know, in all the time I’ve known you I’ve never seen you write down a word. Ever. I’ve tried to spy on you. With a camera even, for the documentary. And I’ve never seen you write down a lyric. Yet you generate an insane amount of songs. Where do you do it?
HG I’ve got a theory on that too. There are words written down someplace.
BC Do you just record them and then they’re in the recording device? Is that how it works?
HG Early on I started thinking that anything you’re going to come up with is already in you somewhere and maybe you just have to go out there and have an experience that allows it to come out of you. But it’s already in you. So if you can just get rid of all the clutter that’s in you then you’ll find these little things disguised as dust bunnies somewhere inside your infrastructure. That old line of, I listen to the paper to hear what it wants me to draw. Or I get rid of all the parts of the stone that don’t look like the statue that it will become. If you’re quiet enough, the day-to-day stuff that saturates your focus doesn’t really apply.
BC Your friend and collaborator John Parish likes to call your music structured chaos. It’s like you’re on the verge of falling apart. I remember I interviewed PJ Harvey and she said the reason she loves watching you play is there are times when you do fall apart right on stage and it’s miserable. But then the very next night, the spontaneity hits and all of a sudden you’re doing something you could never do if you planned it.
HG Yeah, that’s the gambler mentality. I’d rather take the chance and fail, and you do fail sometimes. If you do the same show every night there will be certain successes and you can mold it and have it do what you want it to do, but I like when it does what it wants by itself. I like the dizzy feeling you get. I’m addicted to that buzz. It’s like when it gets a little painful and the endorphins kick in. You know what I’m talking about: it must be the same when you go on those cross-country runs you do.
HG So to make it a little harder on yourself and not get too comfortable, you throw yourself a curve, not to mention the band. You get off on it more when you make it work right. In the studio the way to do that is to try to come up with songs you’ve never played before, let alone taught the band. And that was one of the cool things I had with John Convertino, who played drums on most of those early Giant Sand records. After playing together for so long we established a telepathy. I mean, everybody has a pattern of the way their mind works or how they choose to go about their life; there are always four or five different things about to happen, and I would know what John was about to do and I’d be able to change what I was going to do depending on that. It was just like shuffling the deck and coming up with different combinations of these things. We would create impossible accidents, and that would give the illusion of it being really together. Plus he’s on a non-melodic instrument. There weren’t going to be too many collisions with my melody.
When we’d get in the studio then, I wouldn’t need to go over new material with him beforehand. I’d apply it right then and there, for the first time, and get that excitement, which you can hear, of somebody not thinking about music but feeling it. So you’re feeling your way in the dark and it’ll never get played like that again. It’s a drag: I can go through songs on all the records that were made up for the first time when they got recorded, you know, first-take stuff, and the next time I play it I’m going to be thinking about it and it won’t sound the same.
BC I remember you have a name for that—
HG It’s called a perfect harvest.
BC Nice. Now, tell me about these Danes you’ve been playing with, the new configuration of Giant Sand. The last show of yours I saw was the best show I’ve seen in years. It was the most fun I’ve seen you have on stage too.
HG Yeah. I don’t know if they’re nasty enough to get loud and electrical, but they’re a lot of fun to play with. Their musical ability is enormous and they’re great to hang with and they allow for a spontaneity that hasn’t been present in Giant Sand for many years.
BC Where’d you meet them?
HG I met them while living in Denmark. The three of them didn’t have a band but played together on a bunch of songs on my album The Listener. And then slowly it turned into what it is now, which is me waking up to realize that this must be what Giant Sand is, because it has all the credos of spontaneity and being able to hang out and come up with material that it ever had.
BC And this new Giant Sand album? Why is it called Giant Sand Is All Over…THE MAP?
HG Well you have two songs written in Italy, one in Germany, another in New York, one that should have been in France; a bunch were written in Tucson; Canada is in there and the band is from Denmark. The producer is from Britain. The thing is just all over the map.
BC And the sound?
HG Mostly of a band playing live. It has an acoustic sound that morphs into something louder and electrical.
BC What do you think about this title you sometimes get saddled with, “godfather of alt country.” What the hell does that mean?
HG It’s one of those things. I don’t know where it came from. I think it just an excuse: when someone’s been around for too long and they won’t go away, you have to tag them. What do you get for a five-year wedding anniversary, paper? And 10 years is pencils. And then 15 years must be something plastic.
BC You’re probably right. It’s hard to survive in this business.
HG And the backlashes occur the same way, when anyone is in the public focus too long. You just get sick of it. You get sick of the color green after loving it for too long; you’ve just had enough of green for a while and then later you love it again. That’s one of the drags of any sort of fame, no matter how fleeting or small it is: you’ve got to contend with public consciousness. And the bigger you are the more violent the backlash will be or the more the odds are stacked against you. The older you get the more you start to see the patterns of attention in the media, when to get behind something and when not to, when to try to be ahead of the curve just enough that people will remember you’re ahead of the curve but not too far ahead or behind.
BC What do you think the most misunderstood thing about your music is?
HG You know, I probably don’t understand it myself. I don’t stick around long enough to understand it. If I’m getting dizzy from it I know that it’s good. Then I’ll move on to what’s next and later I’ll read about what other people are thinking. The album Chore of Enchantmentsounds really good and is mastered really well because it was done with big-label money so we had the ability to garnish it. And it was culled from over a year’s worth of selections, but in that sense, it was the most painful and monotonous kind of record to make. The new album was done for a fraction of the budget of Chore and was easier to make so I don’t know. I never know about that stuff until later. And I don’t want to understand it completely either. Criticism becomes like sonar; you get the beep coming back at you.
BC What do you hear from those reviews that makes you say, “That’s not what I was doing.” I know for one you’re a wordsmith, so you’re actually really funny. I don’t think people always get that.
HG Well, that’s because words are pathetic, in general. Words just never really hit. Words only come close to describing someone’s true feelings but they never really do. Then the luggage of a linguistics is too much baggage. I try to turn it in on itself. It’s a bit like the time I put a black widow in another black widow’s cobweb—it was the most frightening thing I ever witnessed.
BC What happened?
HG They fought each other with such intensity and then eventually one had to lose. I tried to stop it but it was too late. The victor wrapped her prey up and gave her a little peck and then toted her up for all her babies to munch at. There was just something so horrific about how fast they attacked each other.
BC That is the analogy of words fighting each other, letting words tangle.
HG Yeah. Thrown in the same sentence or song or just caught in their own web. Your documentary film, Miss Sarajevo, is a web about a half hour long, culled from 40 hours of footage shot when you were living in Sarajevo, 1993 to ‘95. We can see now with the Iraq war how anything that gets televised becomes edited and manipulated. But you gave the Sarajevo mystery some real information. If you watch that film, you get out of it how it must feel to actually live under siege in those conditions and still thrive, or have a love life. Just fetch water and have that take up the whole day. Impossible things that you can’t imagine or you never get enough information about.
BC I’ve just written a book, Fools Rush In, which is also about Sarajevo—it’s all true, a nonfiction story, but it’s really about highs and lows of humanity and people and love and loss, and about tenacity, the perseverance to do something. War just happens to be a kind of extreme backdrop to it all. And I’m off to London and Dublin this weekend for two weeks to do publicity for the book.
HG Going to Sarajevo too?
BC Yes. There is a book launch there as well. And I’ve also put out a special DVD of Miss Sarajevo, which has the film, a director’s commentary and the original interview with Bono that began the satellite links between the city and their tour. And the first actual link is on the DVD as well. Nice to have it all coming out at the same time. And the wild part is it’s been 10 years since Miss Sarajevo first aired.
HG It’s interesting to see what people think about films or records later or how they apply them to their everyday. I usually think that how well a record gets received depends on whatever’s going on in the world. And you can never tell. Things will keep changing until the moment the record hits the stands.
BC But you’ve got albums coming out right around the time things will be getting pretty hot in this country in terms of the election.
HG But none of that will matter. You’re talking about weather conditions.
BC Okay, what about coincidence in relation to spontaneity?
HG Well, there are no coincidences. Or I don’t know what they are. I don’t know what they mean. If there are a bunch of them going on, that’s how I know things are going okay. All I can celebrate is the analogy.
BC I know from experience that a great deal of your day is spent not so much anticipating coincidence but responding to it. “Oh, I guess I’m gonna go here now or I gotta go there now.”
HG That’s why I like touring Italy, because that’s the only country that can handle that. Twice when I was over there this time they set up gigs the same day and they could pull them off, whereas Germany needs three months prior notice.
BC Just give me a little insight on this one. That’s how you run everything.
HG I think it’s actually the most natural order of the universe. You don’t know which way the current is going to pull you until you’re being pulled by it. You can assume what’s going to happen, and you think you know, but you don’t really. There are no right angles in nature. I’ve found the more I try to manipulate the future the worse off I am every time. And the more I let it go and am ready to change with it, the more momentum and distance I get.
BC Don’t you think that is really, in so many words, the core of creative processes? Because creative process is making sure that you stay innocent.
HG That’s the core of enchantment.
—Bill Carter is a filmmaker, writer and photographer who has lived and traveled in more than 40 countries over the last 12 years. He has written for Gear, where he was reporter-at-large, Men’s Journal and Spin. The director of the award-winning documentary Miss Sarajevo, Carter is currently editing a short film on Howe Gelb and Giant Sand. Carter’s first book, Fools Rush In, a nonfiction account of his time in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, was released in February from Doubleday.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.