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Giant Sand
an interview with Howe Gelb by Jennifer Nine

Howe Gelb prowls like a lean, salt-and-pepper-hued wolf, spotted un-expectedly at an afternoon barbeque in Austin, Texas. Stun-gun-strength margarita in hand, captured grinning on someone else's Polaroid as he teasingly pretends not to know you just long enough to savour your flutter of discomfiture. Later that night, Howe stands front and centre when Calexico take the stage and throws ice cubes - hard - up at them, as drummer John Convertino ignores him with the stony-faced disapproval only one of your oldest friends can muster and Joey Burns, that savvy slippery smooth-as-silk one, cooly introduces the band and then adds, "Ladies and gentlemen, on ice machine: Howe Gelb."

Howe Gelb talks about the release of the much-delayed and possibly career-best Giant Sand album Chore Of Enchantment and its long strange tale. Three producers, four towns, at least six tracks of unparalleled heart-soaring pop magic and some of the sexiest grooves you'll hear on record this year; Juliana Hatfield's milky-toothed voice, "plastic loop spoinks" and "casio a la Love Unlimited Orchestral Manoeuvring" and ghostly, moving filaments of the late Rainer Ptacek's slide guitar. Howe uses words like "trajectory" and "orbit" and "cartoon" to describe its progress into being and says, straight-faced, that the date a record comes out depends on "what's going on in the world... literally. Release dates have their own religion. Their own archbishop."

Howe Gelb, who looks better than he ever has, frets aloud that his youthful-fortysomething body is "flaking into pieces" rather than "aging well like some treasured splendor," as Shiver puts it. He rhapsodises over the sonic lure of female French voices and Chan (Cat Power) Marshall's delicious ability to provoke sleepiness; observes that there's a subtle bylaw that requires all reviewers to use the words "maverick", "desert" and "parched" in reference to Giant Sand. Howe appears solo at the Union Chapel in London with Vic Chesnutt and plays almost no music at all, confiding that he's going to give us "some songs nobody knows..." And then, in case you hadn't got the joke about the completely incomplete way things work in Howe's world, promises to follow them with "some songs at least one of us knows."

Howe Gelb owns words no one else has yet discovered. Howe has a habit of ringing up from midnight seaside hotels in Gijon, ever-so-slightly tipsy on Galician cider, and he's full of wonder at the faces he finds in front of him and the strange hearts his songs and "words just so strong/touch just so tender" attract. Howe sums up his world - even one with peremptory death and tragedy in it - with astonishment, with great human lenience, with handfuls of eyelashes and rain and sparkling dust. And if ever there was a perfect sonic tonic for the brow of a headachy nation, it surely contains the cool diamond trickle of Sand.

Strangely - if indeed anything is strange in Giant Sand's world - the Arizona threesome's new album Chore Of Enchantment not only took longer to record than any of its predecessors, it nearly didn't greet the world at all, thanks to the changing politics and opinions of the label for whom it was originally recorded, V2. Howe recalls, I spent a year and a half on the record and I thought it was good and I delivered it. But there was some question about deliverance all along the way, he smiles, until the end. But then I knew that I felt good about it.

So when V2 gave us the axe," [Gelb fast-forwards through the Giant Sand tale of being courted, recorded and dropped for "still sounding too indie"], one of their deal points was that they had to pay us. Which was great. But they said they were going to give us part of the money and the rights to the record. And we said no, they could keep the record and keep it on a shelf, because I just didn't want to work on it any more. I said, why don't you just give us all the money and we'll just go away happy...

Eventually, we ended up taking less money and the rights to the record back, he admits. And they'd already pressed up five hundred promotional CDs, so they sent them to us. And what we did, immediately, was sell them. I had gone broke, actually, making the record because it went on so long there was no income. Because ideally you put these things out and you plug up your time during the year when you've got to work on the next one, so you can have the front money coming in and the income from touring. But this one got held up too long for its budgeted time, so when we got the promotional copies we decided to make them available to the dotcom people, to the people checking in to our website. At the time, I still had no idea if it was anything anyone wanted to hear, per se. It's impossible to know that. And if it didn't come out officially, I thought, it's not that tragic, it's just like . . . some form of MIA. But it was through the website that we got feedback that said it might have something in it. I asked for people's comments, and the feedback was so personal because of the medium of the Internet, people talking right at you, almost like poetry. So it became motivational to get back in there and try to get the record out, because people had been so sweet, and seemingly genuine and really wanting it. And saying 'Oh yeah, this is great, and my friend wants a couple of copies, too'. And we'd get orders every week. We still do.

One thing led to another, and Chore Of Enchantment would appear this year on the band's own label OW OM - Howe says, I like the way that sounds, like some kind of itchy Zen notion - via Thrill Jockey in the US and Loose Recordings in the UK.

As for the two-more-than-usual number of producers who dipped a hand into "Chore", that had everything to do with V2's search for something that could be played on the radio, Howe observes.

Onto producer number one, then.
I got to know John [Parish] right after I learned that Rainer was sick, Howe Gelb says, referring to the discovery, in 1997, that his longtime friend Rainer Ptacek had a brain tumour. They came at the same time; all these weird little coincidences. John said he'd written me a letter in February 1996. I keep the mail I don't read, and I went back through it all and, sure enough, I found a letter from this fellow in England, just a little friendly note, saying 'Your music sounds like the kind of music I'm making now.' It was kind of cool. He said he worked with PJ [Harvey] and he was into what was going on with us. He'd just heard Slush [Giant Sand's collaboration, as OP8, with Lisa Germano] and he said that he and Polly were just about to record [Lee Hazlewood's] Sand until they heard that we'd done it already. Later, he said they'd recorded Is That All There Is?, and then the next day he was in a shop and bought one of our CDs that already had [a cover of that song] on there. So I thought, there's got to be a reason he's coming around now. So I just asked him if he wanted to work with us...

The drag about working with John, though, was that when we began recording, it was too soon after Rainer's death, just seven weeks. You'd think it would be good therapy to get back to work, and it didn't make any sense to postpone it. It seemed like years had been going by, dealing with Rainer's sickness, and it just seemed like work was the ethic for some kind of healing. But we had it all set up to go in the same studio where I had recorded Rainer right before he died. So I couldn't quite... there was some indication there that something was amiss.

John, being ultimately optimistic and extremely productive, was putting things together, very confident that everything was fine, sounded great. But for the first time in ten years I wasn't coming up with anything new on the spot - I had gotten better and better at that method over the years, in which the best songs were written during the recording as opposed to before. And it was the first time I couldn't come up with anything, and that was my own little silent madness. John and Joe were starting to get more work with Calexico, too, and I hadn't seen them that much. And then I didn't like the way my voice sounded. It sounded too... latent. Too laden, too heavy. And John was standing on his head trying to get me to see clear and hear clear. And ultimately I kept going back to realising that it was Rainer's death; I was still too affected yet. Too much... indication," he says, obliquely. "And my confidence was like, gone or something. And uh some time went by and the label said, look, what about getting another producer, and going back in...

And they suggested Jim Dickinson, Howe continues. And Jim was... well, you know, Jim's more haunted than I am. It seems as though just surviving all these years, that he's had his share of disappointments; seen projects come and go, and people die and stuff.

Ironically, Jim's manager lived in Tucson. And Jim came to town and I liked him. I know he was trying to sell us a little bit - it must be so tough to try to get gigs and tell somebody really quick what you're about and trying to connect with all these different artists, like a blind date. And you only have so much time to deliver who you are. It's hard. I was aware of it anyway, so I was able to separate the snake oil salesman from the talent. The clinching moment was when I played him some of Rainer's stuff to see how he'd react, and this one song came on he knew right away that Rainer was singing some [poetry by] Langston Hughes. And I thought, that's good, okay, see you in Memphis...

The upside of working with Jim was that he was a stickler for tuning and timing. Which were two elements, Howe says slyly, that we had never considered before. And so it was almost fun. It was good to try to attempt a - I mean when you hear the original version of Astonished, which is what I call the Supertramp version [on The Rock Opera Years, available at] it's really cool, but you can hear it speed up. And it's not John [Convertino's] fault, it's all of our faults. Or us not caring so much or maybe just thinking, great, we've got to get to the end already. But when you hear Jim's version, it's so steady throughout the whole song, it's almost hypnotic. Every time we've ever made a record we try new things. So if we can find something we haven't done before, then we usually get tickled with the anticipation. But the drag with that session was the label stuff. Kate [Hyman, V2 A&R] says, 'Howe, you can do any songs you want, so what do you want to do?' And the only thing Kate has been asking for is something to be played on the radio. She isn't saying it has to be a hit, she isn't even saying it has to be in the top 40. She just says it has to be able to be played somewhere, sometime, which to me meant a beginning, an end and a middle. . .in the right order, Howe smiles.

And I thought, man, I can do that. That should not be a problem. It wasn't like some ominous threat or big shadow of doom. Okay. So it didn't happen with John Parish, or maybe it did and it wasn't recognised. Anyway, she asked me, what six songs are you doing. And I said, okay, here's six songs. And this was weeks before we even went down there. So she then makes the deal with the label who makes the deal with management who makes the deal with the producer, Jim. And then we show up in Memphis and it's like, right, here's the list of songs...

The songs did exist, Howe clarifies, but they were old material. And on the way before we got there, I had written three new ones, and I thought they were in the list that I gave Kate... I was pretty sure, anyway. But we as a band - here's the other bad thing - when we get down there all of a sudden I wrote one on the spot, Dirty From the Rain, and it got caught on tape the way it always used to when we were managing to do it that way through the years. When you hear [albums like] Glum and Faithful and Happenstance and Spun, they were all written immediately and never played before we played them in the studio. I think that's the main reason we keep at it, in fact, is that there's something about that moment of harvest when something's so brand new, and it's never existed before and you can't think about it because there's nothing to think about, it's all instinct. It's something else. It's some other way of playing music. And once we get it on tape it's great. He laughs, and adds, which means it's really a drag when you don't push the record button, because you'll never hear it played that way again. That's the point. We can never play Dirty From The Rain like that again. Because we'll be thinking about it.

So there we were with the list of six songs, and Dirty From The Rain pops up, but that was not one of the six songs. And then somewhere along the way No Reply pops up. And I was like, oh, it's coming back, finally, that spontaneity, after ten months. There's a good indication that I can do this again. And Punishing Sun has a kind of Clash-like groove, and the boys are trying to work it up and I go in the back room and rewrite it, taking the bridge and making it the chorus, and I come out and that's another song that's just wrote itself there. And then we had to start mixing, and Jim is breaking the news to me, 'Howe, we're running out of time now, we've got to get these six songs finished and then we can do these extra songs...' Which we never got to do, of course, because there wasn't enough time... Anyhow the six songs I've told Kate about aren't even important in themselves, they're the loop. If Jim doesn't do the six songs, then his manager gets upset, and they can't get the money from the contract from the label that they're supposed to get. So we left there with just a few things done, and those three new ones I talked about, really they didn't get done at all well. And that situation was to blame for that.

The second reason, he adds frankly, was probably the fact [Joey and John's side project] Calexico had been requiring so much time; by that point, they'd been touring like crazy, four or five months of that whole year and we hadn't been together at all. So when we'd come together to play Giant Sand songs, it wasn't clicking. There were definitely moments of that old time magic, though; Dirty From The Rain could have been anytime Giant Sand. It just really clicked. But the three new ones just sounded horrible. And now we're going home, we have twenty five songs recorded, and we send them all to the record company, and they don't hear the radio songs. They don't hear a radio song. They hear nothing that can be played on any radio station, somewhere at midnight in, you know, Tacoma. And I can't disagree. I listen to it and I realise the possibility lies in those three songs that we as a band couldn't nail. But now I don't even have the option of doing them, because John and Joe were gone off doing Calexico again. So more time's going by...

And that brings us to Kevin, Howe announces as we arrive at the third and final producer in our tale. And, he adds with a grin, "This is where it gets really weird, I think. Normally, I've been influenced over the years by John [Convertino]; I'm aware of what he likes, what he doesn't like, and he'll pick up on certain things I'll miss when we're listening back to stuff. And at this point, I just didn't have that option, because John was on the road with Calexico. So I'm completely alone with the responsibility of finishing up the album, and the hardest thing about that is to be objective; I'm way too subjective. And then Kate introduces me to Kevin Salem, this guy she's engaged to, who's apparently a singer-songwriter I've never heard or even talked to before. He makes mention at a dinner one night that he'd like to 'work up' this or that song of ours; I dunno, just making small talk. And then Kate says, 'You know Howe, I still don't hear anything here that can be used. All I just want is one or two songs that can actually be on a radio station.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, I know. I'm sorry. I'd like that too'. And she says, 'Would you mind talking to Kevin? He has some ideas.' And my first instinct was to get angry at this A&R person trying to get her lover involved with the project. So weeks go by, and I don't call him... so he calls me. And we end up staying on the phone for over two hours, and hitting it off. And then it started to make sense: oh yeah, if Kate likes us and signs us, and it's for real and there's a connection, then it makes sense if she's gonna marry some like-minded individual. So it's not a political thing so much as a similar way of thinking. So that made me feel better. But then he says this weird thing: he's 're-recorded' three songs of ours that he'd like to send me. And I hear him saying this and I'm not getting it. What? But the thing that hooked me, like Dickinson hooked me with the Langston Hughes quotation, is that I never told Kate or anyone what those three songs were that we failed at. But out of those twenty five songs that Kevin he heard, he mentioned those exact three songs. So I said OK - though I had no idea what he's talking about - I'm saying, yeah sure okay send them. I had no idea. How can you re-record three of our songs? What is he even trying to establish with that? And it turns out that Kevin actually re-recorded those songs with a whole different band!

And, adds Howe with a dramatic pause for effect, they're on the record, too. Talk about doing something new! For the first time, we get to record the band without the band!

Who were these people? Howe smiles. Well, I met one of them at South By Southwest. He came up to me and he said, 'Hey I'm the guy playing the drum loops on your record, on X-Tra Wide and Shiver'. And if you listen, the drummer is playing like us; he's nodding to John's style, he throws into a little snare roll the way John does. And in fact, during this process, though I don't think he made it into the final cut, Kevin used a friend of his, Mark Walton, to come in and play. Now, the strange thing is, Mark Walton used to be in Giant Sand. And Mark had no idea what he was being called into do. Again, it's evidence of like-minded thinking. And then on top of everything else, it turned out that [ex- Bangle] Vicki Peterson knew Kevin and always thought that we should get together and this was years ago. Howe shakes his head.

So he sends me this DAT of these three songs he's done, and he's not on the payroll yet, and we're running out of money for the budget. And he's not in the band. But he had the enthusiasm to go ahead and construct these songs, and send them to me. And when I heard them, I was kind of excited. I was really tickled as a songwriter that the structure was so realised; I was like, yeah, there's a good song in there. And yet you can't tell by our versions. And he sends them to me like, this is the song and I'm saying, yeah, that's it. You know, I like to try to remove myself from the proceedings when we're recording. I go through this psych thing where I forget what it is I am, what I do, and I can't remember any songs, and so when I get up there it'll all come back to me and I can apply that to the moment. Which is sometimes alarming, he adds, because I really do forget what it is I'm going to do. But it always comes back when you just put yourself in the tone, find the tone. But with these three songs, because I had nothing to do with the tracks, I was really removed, Howe deadpans.

So I took the tape, had my friend put it up in the studio, and now here I am in the same room where it started, the first session with John Parish, and a year's gone by, it's the same room where I'd recorded Rainer, and I'm going in there and set up my guitar and my two mic setup the way I do when I play solo. And I just let the tape roll and I just do the one take and make a little bit of noise. Done like Elvis... one take. The karaoke Elvis, Howe clarifies. And I send it back to him and they mix it up. And Kate was ecstatic, and the people she plays it for love it too. And it's all happening again. So they worked it out that me and Kevin could get together for a few days in a cabin, Robbie Robertson's old cabin, in Woodstock, over Christmas. It's cheap, like the old way of doing things, three hundred dollars for the week. It's not a studio, so I don't have that ugly studio thing to deal with, or a horde of engineers, it's just me and Kevin and a couple of cheap mics. And he goes through the added effort of bouncing down all the unfinished stuff from Memphis so we can finish it there. So we get to finish No Reply, and Punishing Sun, and put in little snippets of opera that Rainer loved, and all this wonderful stuff...

And wonderful stuff it is. In the end, of course, V2's enthusiasm for Chore Of Enchantment dissipated, though not Howe Gelb's, the critics or the rest of us, which probably says more about decision-by-boardroom than the album itself. And against all the odds of trajectories and orbits and archbishops, it all hangs together.

Or so that peculiar Giant Sand enchantment makes it seem.
Look, Howe argues, It's just impossible that this is a cohesive record, even though it seems like it sounds that way. That's just evidence of where the trajectory is on the planet. You can't have a cohesive record with three different producers and four different locations. This is just - this is more scattered, Giant Sand-wise than any album we've ever made. But people's attitude about what is scattered or what is incohesive has changed over the last ten to fifteen years, I think. If this record would have come out in 1980, or 1985 it might have been different. The world has changed, and maybe that's why we now seem like we're more cohesive than ever. Howe Gelb smiles mischievously. And maybe, in a strange way, we are.

CWAS #5 - Summer 2000