©July 2015 Stefania Ianne – All rights reserved. Twitter @stillarte
Howe Gelb’s main band Giant Sand was born in 1985 with the release of Valley of Rain, officially starting the so-called ‘erosion-rock’ trend. Recently, the veteran of US alternative music scene and his mutating band have released yet another musical creation on New West Records: Heartbreak Pass. The release marks the 30th anniversary of the more or less intense activity of the band centred around the charismatic persona of Howe Gelb. A native of Pennsylvania, Gelb has found his ideal environment and his muse in the desert of Tucson, Arizona. During the last three decades, Gelb’s muse has experienced mixed fortunes but it has never weakened. On the contrary, thanks to a new line-up of artists emerging from Tucson’s music scene (Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan) and to the contribution of a number of famous guests (Jason Lytle of Grandaddy, John Parish – producer of Howe Gelb, Giant Sand, PJ Harvey, Eels – Grant Lee Phillips and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth) Giant Sand continues to surprise, entertain, inspire and enchant. Following an exceptionally good concert at the Union Chapel in London in June, Gelb has granted me an intimate and enlightening, exclusive interview.
SI: A new record to mark a thirty-year anniversary with Giant Sand: congratulations are in order, first of all! Was it all planned? How did it all come about?
HG: It’s never planned… an album should develop the way a painter paints… every so often as the impulse hits, then you should be able to get into the studio at that moment and record your sonic painting.
SI: Heartbreak Pass is the title of your celebratory record. Can you tell us more about the title? Does it refer to a personal landmark? It sounds like a personal landmark to me, the end of a heartbreak maybe. Were the previous two incarnations of Giant Sand cause of heartbreak?
HG: The most important thing is what it means to you… Once an album is finished, the songs and their meaning belong to the listener… but I can tell you that none of the heartbreak implications have anything to do with the band or previous bands… The meaning has to do with love.
SI: This is just trivia, but did you know that there is a novel from the 1970s (and a film) named Breakheart Pass? I know nothing about it, but my Internet browser, when searching for Heartbreak Pass, constantly tried to take me to that novel and that film. Any connections?
HG: I hope there is a connection that I don’t know about… yet. Thanks for the clue. I will look into it. In Arizona, a pass is a way through a mountain… a road that gets you beyond the difficult or impossible path of going around the mountains. On that road, heartbreak is a most probable thing…but that too will pass.
SI: It is a difficult title to translate…
HG: Heartbreak should be translated as when the heart aches… like when love goes wrong and your heart breaks from the ache. And pass can be a play on the word, meaning it is over and done, something that is in the past. Or it can mean a way through a difficult mountain range: to get through to the other side, you have to find the path… or what we call a pass.
SI: Let’s go back in time. You started in the 80s. What or who inspired you to make music then and what inspires you to make music still?
HG: Bob Dylan. Neil Young. Led Zeppelin. Rolling Stones. Thelonious Monk. Jimmie Rodgers. Hank Williams. David Bowie. Johnny Cash. The Ramones. Sex Pistols. Mott the Hoople. These days my inspiration is right at home with the new, young players and songwriters of Tucson and Phoenix: Gabriel Sullivan, Brian Lopez, Lonna Kelley. But to this day, my main source of inspiration was and is still Rainer Ptacek of Tucson, born in East Berlin, raised in Chicago, the South side.
SI: I know that your admiration for Rainer Ptacek is well documented in your previous interviews. You were talking just now about your admiration for your younger colleagues from Tucson and Phoenix. Could I ask you what type of contemporary music do you enjoy listening to and influences you? The main reason I am asking is because many people dismiss contemporary music and are stuck in a sort of golden musical timezone that changes depending on their age, and their attitude towards new music is: ‘all the rest is rubbish’. There is much more music around these days, but it feels that far too many musicians were invented as money-making machines: all façade, no content. What is your view on younger generations of musicians?
HG: Every young musician deserves to find their own path, to make their own choices along the way of what they will or won’t do… to dial in their sound according to what they think is good. It will define who they are and what they contribute to the sonic kingdom. When a young songster (I don’t like the term ‘musician’ or ‘singer songwriter’) busts forth with an undeniable emergence, it is always inspirational. But we all like different things and agree to disagree on what we think ‘good’ is, and that is what makes the world go round. It is only natural that the elders amongst us tend to see the growing value in the material they heard long ago that inspired them… but it’s just as important that the young among us find the same inspiration in what is happening currently around them. But now I’m sounding as if I was ancient so, I gotta go chill!
SI: Many musical trends have come to pass. How would you describe Giant Sand’s evolution through time? How have the different decades and musical trends influenced you?
HG: We started by not having a clue in Tucson, we made the music we couldn’t buy, we had no radio or any way to get news or buy new music, we were too remote. So we came up with what we came up with, not horrible, but not whatever was happening anywhere else. My ear is very bad… or rather I have what I call ‘a forgiving ear’, which is why I had such difficulty in learning other people’s songs (and still do) and that is the secret why I had to write my own, so I could have something to play.
SI: I have always admired your musical integrity and it has been amazing to witness your smart, sarcastic presence at the fringes of the music circus over the years. Has it been a struggle? What kept you going? Ambition? Fame? Or just the need to make music?
HG: Songs are the small worlds of reinvention that held me from the start. The constant reciting of them can also become like a prayer and work the same way. Songs are important to qualify the heart and to ease the mind. The problem is I’ve always had very little ambition, practically none. Most times I’ve had to remind myself to have any at all. I think it might have been easier if I had more. I’m sure it’s been a struggle, but not one I really notice much or think of it as one. It’s more like a way of life, it goes with the territory… like anything worthwhile. Fame always seemed like it would be an annoyance, but I know we need some to continue the work. And the work seems wonderful… so it’s worth it. But whatever it is that keeps me going… is a secret to myself. I don’t really know, I am possessed by tone and the exploration of lyric.
SI: I see that Heartbreak Pass was created, recorded and mixed at various places and that you have collaborated with quite a few musicians, from Grant Lee Phillips to Steve Shelley. Does a place inspire you or is it other musicians? Where does the music come from? Is it all improvised?
HG: Do you know what a ‘divining rod’ is? It was used centuries ago to find water under the ground. But all it was, it was a carved branch of a tree that would begin to shake when you walked around and held it while looking for water. And when it would start shaking, that meant you should dig in that spot to find water way down below somewhere. It’s exactly like that. I really don’t know how it happens or why, we can blame it on a muse, but something happens like that that delivers the songs. Sometimes it’s inside a certain house, like when I lived in Córdoba, Spain. Sometimes it’s being beside a person, like an actress I knew once from the Netherlands. Other times it comes from hearing someone else’s music and it stirs the creativity to do something. Maybe the most important thing is to empty yourself of everything that isn’t a song and then the only thing left in you will be songs. But yes… music, like life, should be improvised.
SI: Howe Gelb exists in various incarnations. I am intrigued to know how do you decide whether a song will be a Howe Gelb or a Giant Sand production, for example. What makes the difference?
HG: I don’t know why so many people ask that question… there is no difference between them. The only difference is what day it is … and who is around to make the music.
SI: I see. I missed your tour with Grant Lee Phillips and I am still regretting it… How did you get together? Phillips was the frontman of Grant Lee Buffalo, a band that was quite successful during the 90s. Have your paths ever crossed in the past, or was this tour the result of an encounter in recent times?
HG: We toured together 20 years ago and we haven’t really seen each other since. His albums back then were released on big labels and his beautiful voice and hooky melodies did very well, whereas my big label albums both failed to be released in the 90s and I continued going the way I had been going before that… and here, way up in the future, no matter what happened to us in the 90s, we are both in the same place. I very much enjoyed my time with Grant Lee, he is very funny off stage. I’ve always admired songcraft like his and a voice like that, but I don’t do it like that. I very much like being as late as possible when I’m travelling and he likes being as early as possible [laughs]. It was fun surviving each other!
SI: Grant Lee Phillips is credited in one song on Heartbreak Pass, ‘Heaventually’. I believe that an Italian artist, Vinicio Capossela, also contributed to the same recording. You seem to be a magnet for many disparate and very creative artists. In the case of these two artists, are these isolated collaborations? Have you contributed to any of their recordings?
HG: I do not know why I am so lucky that way. Maybe there is a purity of song we all share and recognise in each other like a brother… and sometimes like a lover. Maybe it’s like a river we tend to swim in, to survive the current and enjoy the buoyancy. And as time goes by, the river moves faster and faster… heading for the waterfall. Anyway, yeah, I’ve contributed something to Vinicio’s newest recording he’s been working on. I very much enjoy his company… and I love his mother’s cooking.
SI: Your musical output is truly impressive in terms of variety and volume. Because of your ability to magically create songs even from simple daily events, somehow I get the impression that your life is like a musical. Is your life like a musical or should I say an opera? Do you sing to your family instead of talking to them?
HG: [Laughs] … Hell no!
SI: And do they sing back? I was thinking of your duet with your daughter Talula in ‘Forever and Always’.
HG: Well, I think all music in our head is a soundtrack to our existence that started when our ears first started working inside our mother’s womb. And some decades later, after we are born, we find a way to apply the music outside our head too. I noticed my youngest daughter has that ability, so I just wait for a sign. And when she came up with that lyric, she didn’t know it… but I recognised it as such… and pointed it out to her… so she got real into it then and we continued together.
SI: Can I ask one more question?
HG: Your English has enchanted me… a real artistry. So, ask whatever you want… I will try and respond clearly, sometimes I fail.
SI: A quick one: is your musical journey with Giant Sand over as you mention on your website, or will there be room for a new incarnation of Giant Sand?
HG: I was only suggesting that every incarnation of Giant Sand that came before was over and this is the new version now and the one that needs my attention. Giant Sand is not a band. Giant Sand is a time and place it’s a season. A comet. A thing that comes again and again to visit or consume and that’s just fine by me. In between Giant Sand visits … I arrive somewhere else. Giant Sand is dead…long live.