I'll run that transcript tomorrow. In the meantime, we'll precede that with a 2003 conversation I had with Gelb. There were two reasons to talk at that time: one was as a secondary source for a Calexico cover story in Exclaim, and the other was to promote his new solo record Howe Home: The Listener, which he wrote and recorded in Denmark.
Gelb is a very inspiring figure, consistently throwing caution to the wind, constantly in motion, constantly writing and recording, constantly collaborating and championing new talent. At the risk of turning him into a cartoon, he does have that certain twinkle in his eye that suggests his everyday life is a work of art in itself. He's charming and charismatic; it's impossible not to see how so many people get sucked into his world.
Yet I've always had more respect than love for Howe Gelb's music. His scattershot approach has produced very few albums that you'd ever want to revisit, and his live shows are alternately transcendent and tedious. Like many great artists, we stick with him because we know that when the payoff comes, it's a thing of magic and beauty.
The Listener came out when the future of Giant Sand was in doubt, due primarily to the unexpected success of the band's rhythm section, who had formed Calexico. Their last proper album was 2000's Chore of Enchantment, which underwent a long birthing process due to label trouble before it surfaced on Thrill Jockey, his home ever since. I certainly can't claim to have heard even half of Gelb's discography, but these are the two records I'd recommend to beginners. The Listener is mostly piano-based, and finds Gelb in full Euro lounge singer mode; it also just happens--by fluke, as is often the case--that it's one of his best collections of songs.
His most recent album--and apparently his most popular ever--is called Sno Angel Like You, recorded in Ottawa with Dave Draves, Jim Bryson, Jeremy Gara and the Voices of Praise gospel choir. More on that tomorrow.
Here, he discusses why he's always done better in Europe, the lucky series of coincidences that led to his new Danish life, and his approach to recording in general. For the casual reader, I'd recommend skipping right to the question about Danish band Under Byen--who now, by the way, comprise the latest version of Giant Sand--and his Danish anecdotes.
February 13, 2003
locale: phone interview from his Tuscon home
When was your very first solo record?
It wasn’t so much a solo record. There were parts where I was completely alone, but I was going about that one pretty much the exact same way I’d make a Giant Sand record. Back then, we used to come out with records so quickly, that finally our European company said that we can’t put out another Giant Sand record so close to the last one, so they called it a solo record for practicality purposes.
Didn’t the last one come out at the same time as Chore of Enchantment?
I don’t think so. For sure Confluence was worked on for a long time before, because we got slammed by V2 and it took a while to get out of the contracts and get the rights back. That all took so many months or years. I’m always recording something, so it might have seemed that way by the time it was released.
I read that this one was refined over a period of time, and I know that COE was also laboured over in different places at different times. Yet you’re known for rather being rather spontaneous.
The actual recordings of both these things were done pretty fast, in a short amount of time. After that I’ll labour over getting a better sound of them: taking mixes I already have and running them through different studios to see how they sound. Every board has its own sound, so even if you mix things down, a rough mix or final mix and put it on DAT, if you run that DAT through someone else’s board, it brings certain elements alive that weren’t there before. That’s what I did on this record.
As far as recording in different places, that’s just a conducive way of life. Instead of working one time out of the year or every two years, you work all year around, and when the time comes when you want to put out a record—or should put out a record, or can put out a record—you can take a look at what you collected. I like that. I like the different moods that each session has. Otherwise things sound too much the same.
That also means you’re never finished one until you arbitrarily say, “we’ll cut off here.”
There’s no beginning or ending point anymore. It’s more an atmosphere. You try to put enough songs together on a given album that lends an atmosphere. It’s a non-descript atmosphere, but the songs describe it and there’s something there compared to all the other stuff you have. Did you ever get the companion CD to Chore that we sold on the road? That was all from the same sessions, and it’s a good way to see how on Chore I used those songs to give the album a certain atmosphere. But if you listen to the other songs, some people liked the companion CD better. It’s definitely more fun.
I heard you quip once that all Giant Sand albums are outtakes.
Yeah, or at least first takes.
On this one, there’s a musical mood. Do the songs link up lyrically at all? Or are they just at a given time?
It’s a happenstance. But the general mood I’m in over a period might lend itself to something. If anything I was aware that I didn’t want anything to be brooding or moody. That’s almost a comfortable habit that a songwriter gets into. I was happy that there wasn’t any of that.
It’s a sexy record.
Is it? Oh, that’s good, thanks! Especially at my age, it’s good to know you still got the juice on occasion.
Are you entering your Chet Baker phase?
When I was younger, I wondered why when rock musician folks got older, they started making all these different records. Too many people go and make blues records, I guess. But I think what happens is a natural pattern of evolvement, sonically, and as you get older, certain sounds that you were toying with that were so experimental when you were younger, become more… not cliché, but they only take you so far and then you have all that information. That’s why some guys get jaded when they get older and listen to new music: “I’ve heard this before, in 1972, or 1983, or whenever.” There are similar sounds that everyone discovers and has fun with and it’s enough for you for that moment.
All that being said, I think you always gotta look for things that excite you that are usually in places that you aren’t that comfortable or aware of, so you’re trying to discover that stuff. All of those are reasons why you discover other kinds of music, and you drag everyone who’s listening down that road with you, I guess.
And hope that they’re still listening!
Yeah! But you can only worry so much about that. Other people who are getting older with you might be in the same headspace. And then there are a few who are younger who say, ‘Wow, this isn’t like any of the music I can buy in the underground.’
How old are you now?
46. But I think the key word here is sophistication. It’s a really great sounding word that has many different meanings.
What did you find in Denmark, and were you there for a full year?
It was about four or five months. I married into the country. My wife gave me the country as a wedding present. She was born and raised in Denmark. It was a great gift on so many levels. The obvious is that we went there in the summer time, and I got to wear a wool sweater all the way until June. Here in Arizona, the swelter kicks your ass from April on. That was a nice break. I can’t remember the last time I spent a summer out of the desert, must have been 25 years ago. You get a little sluggish here, you slow down in the summer time. You gotta embrace the heat and it’s cool. But to all of the sudden not have that and be in Denmark… it’s on the North Sea, where they get those little squalls during the day, those refreshing rains that put a smile on your face. They’re so cool. It’s literally the polar opposite of Tuscon, because we deal with summer eight months of the year and they deal with winter eight months of the year. And then, it was like when I was in Edmonton – in fact I think it’s on the same latitude…
When were you in Edmonton?
We have friends up there, and I don’t get up there enough. But every time I’m there it feels like I live there.
What do you like about it?
It’s a good vibe there. All the women there are beautiful and all the guys are like Neil Young. It’s heaven! We were there once during the summer to play and we spent a few extra days with our friends, fishing and stuff. The sunsets in Denmark are four hours long, and that’s the best light of the day. It’s so calming and beautiful. So, that helped! And the beer is really good, and available every 100 feet or so. There’s a real café culture. And you don’t drive – you don’t have to drive, so your mind has all this extra time. It’s like American in the 50s: the roads are small and wobbly and cobblestone. Plus, we had a baby, and it’s my third child.
Was the child born in Denmark?
The third one was, yeah. Tallulah. There’s less stress factor in Europe in general, having kids. A lot of the towns are built with kids in mind. There are all these roads that don’t allow cars on them, just bikes, so you don’t have to worry about kids getting run over. Or stolen. They have this culture where they leave the kids outside the café in baby carriages, they’ve always done it. A Danish couple came to New York a couple of years ago and did that and they got arrested for child abuse. So, it’s embedded in the culture: kids don’t get kidnapped and shit. And nobody has guns. Your mind gets freed up in thousands of ways you didn’t even realise. That’s why it was a gift.
Is that why you’re a “satiated expatriate”? [a lyric from The Listener]
Yes, that’s right! I definitely missed the Mexican food and the Arizona vibe, because I love it here, but I was pretty satisfied, yeah.
I know that you always get questions about the influence of the desert on your music, and I read a quote once where you said you always downplay that because you don’t want to blame the area for your mess.
Yeah! And then I got Joe[y Burns] and John [Convertino] to move to town and they said, wait a minute, what would happen if we capitalized on this? [with Calexico] And now they’re making beaucoup bucks!
Are you blaming Denmark for your mess?
Sure, because it’s such a happy mess. It’s not a dark and brooding too-much-time-on-your-hands crap.
Giant Sand has always done better in Europe, has it not?
Only in certain places. Certain places in America do as well as Europe, like New York and San Francisco and Chicago, and L.A. and Austin. I think it’s that way because we’ve played those cities a lot through the years. They also have a decent culture there for music. But the reason why things took off in the beginning in Europe was logistical. When I first put out a record, I licensed it; I never sold the rights to those records. You wouldn’t get any money in the early ‘80s to license a record; they called it a P&D deal. But they would give you money for it in Europe. They had a different system. They would speculate as to how many thousands of records they’d sell, and they’d give you about a buck for each record up front. And for us that was a lot of money, because we were making the records for next to nothing. Actually, we still are.
But the money would pay for your plane ticket.
Yeah. And there’s a few differences. Like when you’re on the road in America, as well as England, you’re responsible for finding your own hotel and your own food, so you shove a bunch of people into one room or sleep on the floor or whatever you have to do. Over there, everybody gets a bed and a room and a great meal, and they have a different standard for dealing with bands. It made it something to look forward to, and there was money to be made; we came back with money.
Did you ever get the urge to move there?
Hmm. Well, I don’t think I was capable of making that much coin, because most places over there are pretty expensive. Unless you go south: Spain and Italy are pretty cheap. Italy’s the best place to eat. There were urges, I guess. But I had my first kid when I was 30, and I only started making records when I was 28. So the idea of moving that far away from her was never an issue.
Are you tempted now?
I still like Arizona too much to leave it completely. But my hair’s getting grey, and I thought maybe it’s time I start doing one of these summer home/winter home things.
Who are Under Byen [pron. Onor Buen] and where did you meet them?
Okay: the true course of events. We get to Denmark, and it was fucking hard to get there. The amount of detail and the schedules of everyone in the family. Pregnant wife, teenage daughter doing good in high school—don’t want to fuck that up—a two-year old son, and then tour schedules. Then finding someone to rent our house and take care of that crap, and making it all work money-wise. Tons of juxtapositioning. We finally get over there, and it was exhausting to get over there. The family went first, then me, then the teenager. We finally get there and immediately upon arrival, we rented this apartment over there sight unseen. And it turned out to be a great place. Plenty of room, no fucking clutter. That was another thing: none of your usual crap lying about the house. It really freed my mind up enough to come up with all this new material over there and record it really quick, in a day and a half. I get there, and it feels like a perverse elongated holiday. We go for a walk to get something to eat, and we go half a block from the house and there’s this expensive French café. We’re looking at the menu outside thinking it’s a little pricy, and the guy comes out who runs it and starts speaking Danish with my wife. And he says, “You’re Sofie? Sofie Albertsen?” Yes! And he turns to me and says, “Then you must be Howe Gelb!” I went, yeah! It turns out that they play Giant Sand music every night in this café after 10PM.
But only after 10!
Yeah, I don’t know if it’s to drive people out or what, because then his friends start coming over and start drinking some really good wine until 1 or 2. All I know is that he played the stuff in there. Then it turns out that his partner, this woman, was actually with my wife when I met her 12 years ago. So right away there was this welcoming place to hang out. To the point where they had a piano put in there so I could play for my meals. For me, it was great because they don’t open until 6 at night, so I’d go in there at 11AM and learn how to use the espresso machine myself and hang out there with my friend Jannick, and it was like a couple of old fucks on the porch watching the daily promenade, sipping on really good coffee and this incredible homemade bread. Oh, and playing piano. It was like some Leonard Cohen dream.
Now that Joey and John are increasingly busy with Calexico, what do you think the future of Giant Sand is? Would you call something Giant Sand without them?
Specifically inspired by the agenda conflicts, the omens are suggesting that it had a great run over a decade, but the most conducive thing at this point would be to let the pieces fall where they may from this point on. Especially since the band was going for so long before they were involved. And when they became involved, it was one at a time. Everybody knows them as a package deal, but I know them as singular situationals.
This weekend I’m beginning to start the next record, and I know that it’s more of a band record with drums and electric guitar. I don’t know what I’m going to call it, if I’m going to give it a new name and be completely anonymous, depending on how it comes out. There’s a certain weight to lugging around the same old name.
When we put OP8 out, I was insistent on changing the perception by giving it a new name. It was the same band with a guest, but the whole purpose of that album was to start over without seniority, to be like U2 or REM where everyone does an equal amount of work. It’s a big relief to do it that way, and I think it’s more creatively rewarding. You also get rid of the old name and perceptions. The old fans will always find you. Whether this new one will be called Giant Sand or not, I’m going to wait until the last minute to decide.