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Howe GelbIf we were to rate artists by their consistent invention rather than by their supposed trendiness cachet, then there's no doubt that Howe Gelb would be right up there, the closest thing we'll get to a new Dylan in terms of productivity, daring and good ol' fashioned musical stubbornness...
Though it seemed last year that Giant Sand were being pushed as the latest thing on the back of the consumer friendly 'Chore of Enchantment' album, this year's release of 'Cover Magazine' should sort out the boys from the men, comprising as it does, of twelve uncompromising takes on old standards and new. Gone are the quiet, laid-back narratives of 'Chore' and instead we get Howe doing what he does best, fucking up songs you think you knew, wrenching them into new convolutions and shapes, turning them inside out, showing us what exists on the other side. Whether the fickle broadsheet-reading public will take to this album the way they did to its predecessor we have yet to see. What is beyond question is that for those who've been keeping score, this is Howe's thirtieth or so album of brilliant spark and flash, and though, this time, the songs are not his own, you'd be hard pressed to tell, sounding more like the ghosts of Giant Sand than they do their referents. Like John Henry of old, Howe persists, oblivious of outside currents, hammering away at the surfaces of the industry, creating, at an astonishing rate, a body of work as diverse, inspirational, ornery and just plain enjoyable as anybody's.
NB: Apologies must be made for the brevity of many of the following answers. Howe was pulled out of line at Frankfurt airport and forced to fill in this questionnaire while being surrounded by German cops and highly trained beagles, sniffing at his ankles. Only on completion was he allowed back onto his flight.
Has the idea of doing a covers record been looming long or was it something that just felt right at the time?
by Stav Sherez / pictures by Ben Graville
These things always choose themselves. It 'feeling natural' might have come from the notion that this might, or should be, the final Giant Sand record. A retirement of sorts.
There are not many obscure songs on 'CM' - that doesn't seem to have been your aim and yet you take these songs, a fair few of which your audience will know intimately, and do astonishing things to them. Was it more interesting for you to tackle the songs in this way or was it the only possible way you could envisage doing such a project?
A record is always a record of what went on that day. And oddly, then journalists come along and attempt to write about it. A journal of the record of what went on... On another day, the songs would be built a whole different way.
Despite the eclectic selection(s), the album as a whole seems to be very coherent, even thematic - a lot of these songs are about characters that are in some way outside of society (the normal version of) and I guess that might be what drew you to them. Is that something that informed your selection or was it only apparent afterwards?
Like all records, you/I make sense out of them way after they're finished. Hey, wait a minute, aren't all songs about characters outside of society?
When covering a song, what is it that draws you to it?
Something other than anything I would have ever written.
Are you very critical of your own work? Is that why you've always 'covered' your own songs from record to record?
My favourite captures of songs on tape are usually the first time ever they were played: recorded at the very moment they appear here on the planet. Later, the natural evolution of living with them takes place. They morph like an Escher print as they get older.
Any favourite cover albums?
I can only think of Chan's - Cat Power - which is a good thing.
After twenty years in the music business, are you happy with where you're at?
Well, sometimes it just seems like uncharted territory (literally...no chart action). When you look around and see who is still around from when I started and there is almost no one. So, I think that at this level I found a comfort zone that is conducive to the mess that I make. And I never really have to worry about the imposition of fame, aside from the odd German showing up at the doorstep, dressed in black in 110-degree heat.
The piano seems to have moved to the forefront over your last few records.
Originally, piano was what I played. In the first band I was in, a punk cover band from 1978 called The Stains, I play a Farfisa. But all along I had a Fender Rhodes, which I began to hate every time I had to move it. That's why I began playing guitar. Now, I try to insist on getting real pianos at shows. My favourite thing is to lock in with John's drumming. A piano is percussion too. And it's so unbelievably nice showing up to play without having to bring anything. Piano is furniture.
Were the pieces that ended up on 'Lull' recorded as full pieces or as sketches and audio notes for compositions that never got written?
'Lull' was a practice of song structure improvisation instead of the usual solo improv. within a given song.
Will the first Band of Blacky Ranchette album ever be re-released?
I had a call from the original French label who suggested it. I said OK. Then I didn't hear from them for a while. Then I did. Then I didn't.
Will there ever be another Blacky album or do you feel that strain is now amalgamated within your main body of work?
With all this alt.country hoopla, it might be redundant.
I had a great birthday last year, September 11th, watched skyscrapers collapse. How do you think things have changed?
Your birthday? Nice. You are now a symbol of the earth replenishing itself on a day it lost some of its most valued inhabitants: parents. And yeah, everything is different now. We adapt. We watch our back. I get pulled out of line for my beard and I say, 'Good job, Bub.'
Finally, what's next?
It's almost done. A solo one with more band personnel on it than the Giant Sand record. More and more piano. The blur of black and white keys feels at home with all my grey.
CWAS #10 - Spring 2002