Howe Gelb Interview
I sat down for a chat with Howe Gelb a few weeks ago. What a pleasure that was for me.
He’s a wonderful speaker, a raconteur, you could sit down and listen to him all night. The warm engaging quality you find in his music is all there in person too.
He was in town as part of the Giant Sand Farewell Tour which stopped off at Cyprus Avenue in Cork on April 14th. It was a beautiful day, the evening sunny so we sat on the street outside The Oliver Plunkett Bar just across the way from the venue. That's the strains of their regular Thursday night trad session you can hear cranking up in the background.
The Farewell Tour was, I gather, a decision not to take to traipsing around the world much anymore (Howe turns 60 soon), although he hasn’t ruled out festival appearances, beginning with a few in Europe this summer. And to coincide, Fire Records are releasing a slew of his back catalogue over the next while, Sun Set, starting with six Giant Sand albums from across the decades under Volume 1, which includes one of my favourites Chore of Enchantment. It’s great to hear the material collected in this way and what a breadth of material there is taking in lounge, jazz, country, Mexamerican, blues, rock n roll and psych.
I think I've been listening to his music for close to 20 years, very often as a result of a nod to the wise from my good friend Derek. The first time Howe came across my consciousness was under the name OP8. That was Giant Sand with Lisa Germano, most famously brilliantly covering the Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra classic 'Sand' adding a wonderful air of deadpan menace to the original, as part of their 1997 album Slush.
I think I'd seen him play live twice before, once under his own name and once as Giant Sand (both in Cork, Triskel Arts Centre and Cyprus Avenue respectively). Derek also went to see him in Kilkenny one time and came back with the first M Ward album which Howe released on his own label Owom Records ( http://owomrecords.com/). It's worth remembering how much other great music Howe has been responsible for putting out in the world and supporting apart from his own. At that previous Cyprus Avenue show, Lonna Kelley played support, someone who has remained part of the wider Giant Sand familia over the years. I believe that's her singing on 'Pen to paper' from last year's Heartbreak Pass, wonderfully dusky late night vocal tones.
Howe started off this interview by talking a bit about early musical influences.
"I was subjugated to what's called American standards."
His mother's music. So Frank Sinatra and the likes. And apparently, Howe has an album of standards in the works now. At the gig later, he started with a few covers as a piano trio, along with drum and bass, and it sounded fucking sublime.
He talked aswell about the influence of the radio, and how channel hopping growing up informed his "magpie" tendencies, dipping into all and every genre. I can remember the Triskel gig in 2000, Howe was at the piano (which of course he plays like a king) but he also had a portable CD player inside the piano. In between songs, and sometimes during songs, he would break off for a CD interlude which could have been Neil Young or some opera or something else.
Of course, his friend Rainer Ptacek came up in the conversation – he became like a brother to him says Howe – and how the pair figured out how to make the music they wanted to make in 1980s Tucson at a time before internet. Interestingly, it boiled down to not being able to lay their hands on the music they wanted to hear (at the time punk, post punk and the like), so they made it themselves. Rainer died following brain cancer in 1997 (something to which Howe attributes his own personal slump in the mid to late 90s) but you get the strong feeling that he’s still very much present with Howe in everything he does.
I asked Howe about Alvino Rey, a name I hadn’t heard previously which I came across in one of Howe’s interviews (he was a steel guitar player who appeared on American television in the late 50s/early 60s and kinda bridged the gap between big band, jazz and country).
This prompted an amazing story which began with his 2006 album Sno Angel, recorded in Montreal with a Canadian gospel choir, and finished with Arcade Fire, circling back to Alvino Rey in the process.
And Howe finished by talking a little about the Tucson “petri dish”, a fascinating personal/musical social history outlining how the template of indie rock (his words) developed by Rainer and himself gave rise to what we now know as the sound of Tucson.
I would have happily sat there for longer but there was a show to do (plus the trad session was in overdrive by this time). The gig afterwards was great of course, a little piece of Tucson on tour. It's the last time which is a shame but thanks for the memories Howe (and I can't wait for those standards).
P.S. Apologies for the short pause midway through the interview. You’ll hear Howe comment “multitasking”. That was me checking my phone. Very unprofessional.
P.P.S. Special thanks to the Tour Manager Christoph for his help in arranging the interview, and for his hospitality (and the beer) - he invited me to join the band while they were having their meal as we waited for Howe. The party included Gabriel Sullivan and Brian Lopez, part of the Giant Sand band for this tour but they also have their own band XIXA, who play what they call psych cumbia; Jason Lytle who was playing support on the tour; Danish pedal steel guitarist Maggie Bjorklund, who was guesting on tour with Giant Sand; and Howe's daughter Patsy, who was singing on stage as well as looking after the merch stall. It's a bit of a cliché to say but there really was a family atmosphere around the table. Here's some of their music. It's easy to see how they all fit with the Giant Sand gene pool, or "petri dish" as Howe called it.