30 Life Riffs, Hacks, and Jams That Have Delivered Howe Gelb’s Music to “Now”
It’s possible that Howe Gelb invented what we’ve come to call alt-country. At least he’s among the few who never denied it. In 1980 he gathered a pack of desert punks to record a sweet, original country song, “Curtis, John and Sue,” now lost to time.
Gelb’s improvisational approach to words and sounds paints desert topography and locates temporal impressions of life’s unfolding drama. It also demands personal bests from any accompanist. And it has generated a European cult.
His inner circle and jamming buddies include such avatars of the genre as Victoria Williams, John Doe, Vic Chesnutt, Freakwater, and Alejandro Escovedo, not to mention Robert Plant. His band Giant Sand spawned Calexico and OP8 and has tirelessly promoted peerless slide-guitar blues artist Rainer Ptacek. He now consorts with bandmates 20 years his junior who feel privileged to be in his company.
“Now” is and always has been Gelb’s best time to make music, the time he is best for, the moment his whole life has circled. “Now” is the time that has held his focus through every distraction.
It’s been 30 years since Gelb made Giant Sand’s debut, Valley of Rain, but that’s meaningless in its constraints of clock and calendar. I asked him to consider 30 ways life’s jazz has improvisationally led to his May 5 release, Heartbreak Pass. These are his responses.
1. The Alpha of Rainer
Rainer Ptacek was born in 1951 in the darkness of walled-off Soviet East Berlin. Thus came to life Gelb’s greatest creative and personal influence.
Gelb was born in Wilkes-Barre, PA, in 1956, the year Rainer came to the U.S. Gelb’s father had left by 1958, and although they would remarry each other in 1963, his folks had split for good by the late ’60s.
Gelb’s dad found a ready-made family with a Florida widow and followed them to Tucson, AZ, while Gelb stayed in Pennsylvania.
“He was a very good guy, but it wasn’t a good marriage. He grew up an orphan in an orphanage, so he didn’t have, really, the template to figure out how to have a family of his own.”
2. The Saga of His First Piano
When Gelb showed an early interest in music, his parents bought him a piano and provided lessons. It did not end well.
“There’s something wrong with this eye [his left] from birth, so I couldn’t read music right. My whole way of thinking was fucked up from the way I look at things. Literally. I could never get the black note in ‘Polly Wolly Doodle.’
“[And] it just didn’t sound like what I wanted. How do I get that radio sound? How do I sound like Abbey Road? Like ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’?”
Stuck with a large piece of useless furniture, his mother simply refinished it into an antique. Gelb never touched it again.
In June 1972, when Gelb was 15, Hurricane Agnes swept the eastern seaboard and smashed the piano to bits, along with his childhood home and much else from New York to South Carolina. He headed out to be with his dad.
“The Susquehanna River ran up six feet over our house and that did not seem like a bad thing at the time. I was very young. I came out here [to Tucson] and I had four beautiful sisters instantly. My stepmom was great, and she had her mom living with her, so it was six new women in my life.”
Rainer moved to Tucson that same year, although he and Gelb didn’t meet until 1976. With his mom and younger brother, Gelb was relocated to Scranton, where he returned every school year.
3. High School Band Washout
In Gelb’s opinion, 1971 to ’72 were the best years of rock and roll, though he also appreciated the great country, blues, and soul music he was exposed to by his local radio stations.
“I had a clock radio, so I was latching onto certain bands that, you know, did it for me. [Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s] 4 Way Street, [Neil Young’s] Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and the long guitar jams between Stills and Young, the dialogue of the two guitars. When it would combine it was slightly cacophonic, but there was this vibrant energy, very tribal, too.
“The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers was one of the best-produced albums, the truest album ever for me because it was so much a part of that time period. I even had a little Grand Funk Railroad and a lot of Led Zeppelin, the band Cactus, a little Foghat, The James Gang and a lot of Dylan. ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’ held me entranced, just the sound of that recording.
“With the flood relocation money, I was allowed to buy a Univox electric, so I started playing that all the time, trying to teach myself.
“I was trying to get into a band with my keyboard and nobody would have me because nobody recognized the cover songs I learned. That was a problem because that’s when you realize you don’t really have talent. I would try to play ‘Riders on the Storm.’ It’s pretty much one chord, but nobody recognized my version of it.
“So, I had no ear, had no talent, but it wouldn’t leave me alone. It was the only thing I liked. But the only thing I could do was draw.”
4. Stella and Dawn
“Eventually, I bought a guitar or I was given a guitar. Somewhere I got a bad guitar – a Stella – and tried to learn to play it. The action was really high, and I didn’t even know the difference in action. It was tough.
“Since nobody recognized me channeling other people’s songs, I then wrote my own first song, called ‘Dawn’ for a girl I sort of liked. It was probably a pretty good song, just a very primitive kind of a blues in A minor. It throws in a G every now and then.
“The others had ability and talent. They could learn, they could play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ so it sounds like ‘Stairway to Heaven.’
“Because I wanted to play something so badly, I just start coming up with my own songs. They forgave me for having such a terrible ear or lack of melody or whatever because if it was my own, you can’t argue with that.”
5. An Unexpected Co-Conspirator
After graduating high school, Gelb went to art school at Kutztown State College in Pennsylvania. Pivotally, in 1975 an unlikely high-school pal joined him there.
“This guy, Gary Scheuch, was the captain of the [high school] basketball team. He was very popular and was a natural athlete, but he was very unusual because he grew his hair long, which nobody did then, and he took his portion of experimental drugs. He was also this amazing guitar player.
“We started jamming and things started clicking, because you need somebody better than you to jam with for you to aspire and start to become. So I would get better and we would jam for hours on end.”
“While I was there, I also got to be the manager of the radio station, so I was getting more and more sucked into it.”
6. Every Town Needs a George Graham
On breaks from art school, and the gaps between Tucson visits, Gelb found people to jam with in Scranton. Eventually he also found a mentor of sorts in George Graham, a man so important to Gelb’s music life that Heartbreak Pass is dedicated to him.
“I got wind of this little NPR station in a tiny town called Pittston, in the middle of the forest, between Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. George Graham had a weekly radio hour called ‘Homegrown,’ and he would invite anybody within earshot to come in and record for free for a few hours if he could get about 15 or 20 minutes of material to put on his show.
“So the first time we went in there, I had a friend named Keith Evans and we [had] a duo called Wow and Flutter [a technical term for distortion of analog output]. It was pretty cool to see how the process worked. [Graham] had a four-track reel-to-reel, and he would engineer the whole thing.
“I hadn’t ever worked with a band before, so I invited other people down to play other instruments for [another] recording. I thought that when you’re a musician, when you’re so good, since I was so not a musician, I assumed that they knew. Whatever I would bring in there, they could play it.
“It was so painful! I did about four or five of these sessions, and every time I would work up this impossible shit and it would just get more and more haphazard and confusing. [There were] personality clashes among the different players and they were looking for me to lead them and I didn’t have the criteria. I think I left my body at that point, I just hovered over the whole event and watched the complete chaos down below.”
When erstwhile big man on campus Scheuch was able to join in, things were easier. Besides guitar, he played drums and bass. His drumming provided a framework for the other musicians, and he could return to the studio later with bass parts. Scheuch also knew much of the song suite Gelb was considering his “rock opera.” Some of it had evolved in their jams.
Was Gelb happy with the way the recordings sounded after all of that?
“They kept me going because then you have some hard evidence of what the hell is happening. You can study it and begin to understand what it is you’re doing. Until that point you don’t know. It’s like talking to yourself.”
7. Rainer and the Bond
Gelb abandoned art school in 1976 and moved to Tucson. He continued to return to his grandfather’s soda company in Pennsylvania to earn money for everything he wanted to explore the rest of the year in Tucson: music, open spaces, and the science of psychedelia.
One day at Gelb’s neighborhood café, Rainer was onstage with his National steel resonator guitar. A mutual friend introduced the two and mentioned that Gelb played piano.
“I was on the tail end of a three-day [psychedelic] excursion, and I was cripplingly shy, but there’s a piano against the wall so he called me up to join him.
“I couldn’t really play piano that well, and I told him, hoping to get out of the ordeal, that I could only play really in G. He was comfortable with that. I didn’t realize that his guitar was tuned in G.
“Then I sat down and we just played a three-chord blues for 45 minutes because as we were playing I couldn’t stomach the notion of facing people. If you’re on acid, maybe it’s amplified. So when I’m surrounded by people now, the idea of ending the song seemed like it was a problem.
“I just kept circling the air field on the piano. Now Rainer had no problem with that. This was our bonding moment from the get-go. He kept playing, and I kept playing, and we would start to change and morph into something else and we continued together.
“We had just met, and that’s a long time to be jamming. I’m sure there was some humor in there, and there was some actual rhythm in there, and a lot of improvisation, and mostly it was this energy that was holding us both in play, until I heard behind me a guy shout out ‘Thanks everybody. Got to shut down.’
“That’s where we cut our sonic palms with a G-blues knife.”
8. Giant Sandworms Learn to Crawl
Gelb and Rainer began to work together in two projects. The first was a country blues duet, with a revolving cast, called The Band of Blacky Ranchette. The other, Giant Sandworms, became a hit in Tucson clubs. It was a punk-spirited hydra, in which all the members contributed songs.
“In 1979 it was time for me and Rainer to hook up with an actual band. He was with a band when I met him – just a three-piece under his name. Eventually he would call his lineup Rainer and Das Combo.
“Rainer said he had found a drummer. That turned out to be Billy Sedlmayr, and Billy brought his buddy [guitarist and bassist] Dave Seger with him. They were in a punk band then called the Pedestrians. So we all got together at Rainer’s living room.
“We jammed and I had the things I recorded in Pennsylvania, and I was learning to write songs in every genre, even though they were terrible. I had a piece that was kind of Tommy Flanagan-esque jazz, but horribly primitive, but then there’d be this piece that sounded like David Bowie’s toilet, and then there would be some David Bromberg-inspired-like bluegrass, but it was again, terrible.
“This is just me trying to find my way you know, but just wanting to do it no matter what. That’s the only thing is the tenacity. The talent was not knowing how to stop.”
9. If You Can Make It There …
“By the end of 1980 it was like, ‘We’ve got to go to a real city to see what we can do!’ I felt we should go to New York because that’s where all the best guitar bands had just come from – Patti Smith Group and Television, Talking Heads, Ramones, all the great bands from ’77 and’78. The age at the time was, I think, Dave was 19. Billy was 20, I was 23, Rainer was 28.
“Rainer at that point decided to bow out. He thought we sounded like mashed potatoes, and he was right. Every song sounded different. You couldn’t get one of our songs and have it represent the band. We had a great energy, but we were a four-headed beast.
“Three of us went to New York. That was a huge adventure in itself. We found a place on the Lower East Side, so dangerous an area that the taxi drivers wouldn’t come down. We shared a fifth-story walkup with this playwright. The front door wouldn’t even lock and it was above a Puerto Rican bar.
“We each got jobs, but the thing was that we got really good as a band. We played CBGBs a bunch of times, but the sound in New York had changed. That was the biggest problem. It was now Soft Cell- sounding bands, like ‘Tainted Love.’ It was that sound everybody was copying. Casios every which way. The dream was over. We got there too late.”
10. Eureka! $20/Hour 8-Track Recording Just Eight Driving Hours Away!
When Gelb returned from New York, Tucson musician and cartoonist Ned Sutton invited him to tour the Black Hills of South Dakota for a few weeks as a member of his band, The Rabbits.
“Then I came down from the Black Hills and the boys had gotten a fourth member in the band, [bassist] Scott Garber. Up until then, David and I would switch off playing bass. So then Giant Sandworms started all over again in ’83.
“Susie Wren [a Los Angeles friend of Chuck Prophet, then in the band Green on Red] had put together this country punks album, and since I had this Band of Blacky Ranchette going, I went out there with that first. So it was me, Rainer, and (bassist) Jacob Martinez and drummer Tommy Larkins [Jonathan Richman].
“Tommy and Jacob played in a band called The Nationals with Chris Burroughs, and they were just a stunning rhythm section, so I was able to steal them for this country thing. I also had Rainer again, and the energy was fantastic!
“We went out and she turned us onto the studio [Control Center Recording, Hollywood]. It was so great to be in there for a couple of hours, and when you played that tape on any stereo it sounded the same. I was like, ‘Whoa!’ So I went back out there with the same guys, and in a day and a half recorded the first Band of Blacky Ranchette record for $400.
“That’s when I knew how to get Rainer out there and produce, so-called producing, his first record. [Rainer had] been playing over at Cushing Street [in Tucson] at that period so I knew his stuff inside and out and how great it was. Ricky Mix [Novak] engineered. I only knew how to get the right guy and connect the dots.
11. Licensing Like a Now-and-Later
“This is the most significant thing about all this. With a few hundred bucks, we came up with this recording of The Band of Blacky Ranchette. That was my first, and it was getting late, now, in my 20s, and I still didn’t know how to make a record until that moment.
“Then we began figuring out how to license the shit. Ned Sutton had a record out in Germany and I was like, okay I guess that’s possible. I don’t know what that means. That was the frustrating thing of being [in Tucson]. Until that moment, there was no information.
“I would get drunk enough one night and a band would come through town called Joe King Carrasco, and I gave it to their manager, whose name was Joe Nick Patoski [No Depression contributor, biographer of Willie Nelson, etc].
“Then a couple months later my phone rings and it was Joe Nick and he goes ‘Hey, would you be interested in licensing your record to this guy in France who has a label called New Rose?’ His name is Patrick Mathé. New Rose had The Gun Club, it had The Cramps, it had a ton of American treasures.
“I didn’t know shit. Somebody wanted to actually make this tape a record in France. And they wanted to give me $1,000 for a three-year license. It cost me $400 to make the thing, so I was, like, ‘Okay, yes!’
“That set up a template for all my years with Giant Sand. I would get five grand, ten grand, and 25 grand to license for five years. We would record for half of whatever it was, and then we would split it up the rest with the band. We stayed alive by using that front money and then going on the road. This is why I made so many records, because every six months or so, we needed some more money.
“The main thing is we want[ed] the record to be out. We want[ed] to tour behind it. We want[ed] to get the name out. This is instead of being signed, because everybody wants to get signed. I’m 28, and I need to get out there. I’m getting too old.”
12. Westward on the Road to World Domination
“We had a gig in L.A. at Long Wong’s. Dave didn’t really want to leave town. I was like ‘I’m going. I’m getting too old. I’m gonna make this happen.’ Scott, the new guy, who I didn’t really bond with yet but he was a good bass player, came out with me to L.A.
“So two days after Giant Sandworms broke up, we recorded Giant Sand [Valley of Rain] the same way, $400, day and a half. Winston [Watson, a Tucson drummer with a national reputation] sat in on the first session. He was living out in L.A.
“Now we have two different records at the same time that somebody wants to put out. France is dying to put out The Band of Blacky Ranchette, and California, through Enigma records, wants Giant Sand. And then, all of a sudden out of nowhere comes this guy from London named Andy Childs. He had a label called Zippo that was on a bigger label called Demon that was owned by somebody named Elvis Costello. He was putting out all this, like, American music. I said ‘Okay’ and we’re like, finally we’re going here!
“I have two bands and two albums.”
13. Discovering the Sound of Discovery Is the Sound of the Next Record
At this point, Gelb knows how and where to make records, to get them out and to tour behind them. But there’s such a thing as too much of a good paradigm. He was never fond of covers, even his own. And while musicians commonly change up a tune in live performance, he took it to a whole new level.
“I was always good at making up songs. I can make up songs out of nothing, right now, if I wanted to, and just believe they’ve been here forever and then boom! There they are.
“The thing is to best represent the product by ‘reassimilating’ it in front of everyone. But it seemed like, instead, there were all these other possibilities and variables and things that happen. Like what if we played it this way tonight instead? Or, you know, when you get something recorded you get the frozen snapshot of a recording, but really that’s only how it happened that one day.
“So when you’re out there live, you go, ‘Okay, here’s your compass.’ You can kind of see where you’re coming from, but [you’re] not going to stay here. … so you allow [the song] to move again, to evolve and let it evolve in front of everybody because you can’t explain music, you can’t.”
14. Incidental Zen and the Tone
Gelb uses the term “disabilities” as shorthand for anything that must be overcome, barriers real or imagined, physical or otherwise, driven by mistakes, accidents or fate. There was the flood, the unavailability of his father and his sense that he couldn’t really sing or play music the way others did.
“I was aware of my disabilities from the very beginning, but they didn’t feel punishing or bad. Even the disaster of the flood didn’t feel like it was a dreadful thing. Maybe I was detached, you know, psychologically, from the get go, from that whole family thing.
“And then I came out [to Tucson], and it was like, ah, everybody’s smiling. That doesn’t happen much in Pennsylvania. Really, the heat didn’t even seem to be an issue. Just coming out here in summers, it all just seemed like this is pretty good.
“And music at some point, creating something within music that I was okay with, even if I just had scraps – here you could live on scraps. And here you could make music and you didn’t have to worry much about the future.
“I didn’t want anything. I didn’t want a home. I didn’t want success. I didn’t want anything. I sort of was becoming some kind of Zen guy without knowing what Zen was.
“I just didn’t have ambition, and the only desire I had was that there’d be something about a tone, making a certain sound that would just nail me and make me dizzy. I liked that feeing … through a repetitive process, you can’t help but get better than you’ve been on anything.”
15. The Earliest Formation of an Inarticulate Quest for a Gospel Choir and, Incidentally, a Solid Bassline
“So I leave here, get out of town to go live in L.A. for a year, and during that time, I meet Paula Jean Brown [The Go Gos].
“The way Dylan used background singers was so appealing to me, because my voice had such little melody and they would find the melody in songs. So when I went out there, I was asking around for background singers and somebody mentioned these two girls. I went to meet with them and one of them was Paula. Paula also played bass.
“I was kind of taken with Paula and then I noticed her record collection. I thought that was the coolest record collection I’d seen from a girl, and I don’t mean hip stuff, I mean like Stevie Ray Vaughn stuff, and Jimi Hendrix stuff. And then, I heard her play bass.
“Scott was a good guy, but he played a fretless bass and [it] has a different sound. It was very unique, and kind of cool, but I’m kind of a simpleton, myself, I think.
“Anyhow, Paula played a P-Bass and she has this way of playing that locked in with the drums so naturally it had a propelling groove to it. I could work off that so much easier.”
Brown returned to Tucson with Gelb in 1985, but by the end of 1986, after the Valley of Rain tours, she was missing Los Angeles. She and Gelb made arrangements to move back there.
“At the last minute moving out, the place we were going to get fell through. A friend was driving us back to the airport, and I saw a ‘For Rent’ sign in this old Spanish-style, 3-story building. It’s right in the middle of Hollywood, and apparently in the nasty section, but compared to where we lived in New York, this was beautiful.
“The apartment was a huge, really old, cool, funky, first floor. There were burn marks on the floor, from drug users, I figured, and I was thinking about how I was going to fix that up, and it was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to make this work.’
“I was the positive guy. ‘You can run down and work with Belinda [Carlisle] and I’ll work on my little thing.’ I was making a record for three thousand [dollars] and she’s working on a record for $300,000.”
They did not yet know that another critical figure in Gelb’s musical future lived in the same building: John Convertino.
16. The 1986 Tour-a-Thon
“So in ’86, Tommy [Larkins, who had played drums through most of Valley of Rain] had gone off with Van [Christian’s Naked Prey], and we’ve got this tour in Europe now. I called the guy [who was organizing the tour] and said ‘Is it a problem we don’t have a drummer?’ And he said ‘I’ll get you a drummer.’ So me and Scott went over, and we met up with the drummer from the Saints [Australian punk band], named Ian Shedden. Our first gig was opening for The Cramps in front of 3,000 people in Paris.
“That started it, and then we went over again in ’86 as me, Paula, and Tommy, I think, and we played Roskilde Fest, which is in Denmark – the only time I ever played it, and it was huge.
We were coming over again near the end of the year, but now I’ve got together a six-piece band, so it’s all four of us (Brown, Larkins, Garber, Gelb) including Neil Harry on pedal steel and Rainer. We have to fly Rainer into Germany because we realize he’s from East Berlin, and he gets to see over the [Berlin] Wall for the first time.
Fast forward to mid-February 2015. Gelb is listening to Fire Records 30th anniversary re-issue of Giant Sand’s first record, Valley of Rain.
The anniversary re-issue is a two-disc set, including Gelb’s detailed liner notes about each track, the recording process, and the related tours. The second disc features a recording of the six-piece band’s May 6 concert at the Vera Club in Gronnigen, the Netherlands.
“When I’m listening to this recording, it sounds like it’s just been done today. That was the thing Rainer said to me early on, to have that commitment before we made our first records, to record something we wouldn’t be embarrassed by 20 years from now.”
17. The Science of the Perpetual European Tour
“I always need a tour, not to promote the last record so much but to keep it going. To make sure everybody in the band had income, but to also propagate what the next record was going to become.
“It didn’t matter to me where, so I leaned toward Europe because it was more conducive, whether they understood what I was saying or not. They have more of a social system over there, so a lot of the venues have money from arts councils. When you play a venue [over there], most of the time the PA system is pretty great and the guys running the soundboard know what they’re doing. Then they put you up and everybody gets a bed or their own rooms sometimes, and you get food.
“That means that you can concentrate more on the music and we did, and also because I’m just basically that kid from Podunk Pennsylvania, that to be over there is fascinating.
18. John Convertino, Brother Drummer
Convertino was living in the same Hollywood apartment building with his whole family in different units. He had grown up playing drums in a family band, and later toured clubs in a cover band with his siblings. Gelb first met him in November 1987, two months after he and Paula had moved in.
“John and I joined up and started to play as me, John, Paula, and Chris Cacavas [Green on Red, Steve Wynn], until Paula and I started having problems.
“I didn’t love Hollywood. I was only there because of Paula and to get something going. Now it was going so I didn’t need to live there.”
Brown and Gelb divorced amicably and still occasionally perform together. Their daughter has grown up sharing time with both.
19. Camelot in the High Desert
“The studio called Mad Dog in Venice Beach, we did a lot of records there with a guy named Eric Westfall. Mike Dumas who ran Mad Dog was partners with this guy Dusty Wakeman.
“I never saw Dusty much but then he bought this little piece of property in the middle of nowhere up at Rimrock in the high desert of Joshua Tree, near Pioneer Town, and he just asked me one day if I wanted to live up there for free but watch over the place.
“I said ‘Wait a minute, this place is in the middle of nowhere? I’m in! I moved into cabin #4. After so many months, John [Convertino] moved up to Cabin #1, and those three years I lived up there were like what I call Camelot. Going to Europe to tour and coming back and having that isolation was like the best time in my life.
“John and I became a two-piece for a while, and then we decided to bring somebody into the band. John was now 26 and I was 33. We decided if we can get a third guy who played upright, then we could play country and we could dabble in jazz as well as other shit. I needed to begin the band again for Giant Sand and, to expand, we needed somebody who could handle this telepathy thing me and John had worked up as a two-piece.
“Through a mutual acquaintance of John’s, we hear about this young kid named Joey Burns, and we find him and kind of audition him a little bit, and he was okay playing hide and seek with us and with our songs.
“I wouldn’t have to tell John what I was about to play because he was playing drums. With our telepathy I would just change things and John would go right into it. He doesn’t have to know the chords. Now Joey had the hard task of trying to keep up with like, what are we doing?”
A recent graduate with a degree in classical bass, Burns had been working a bit at Radio Tokyo and playing music with several projects including Nothing Painted Blue, a short-lived, energetic indie-pop outfit that allmusic.com reviewer Greg Prato later compared to Weezer and Pavement.
20. The Tucson Sound Compound
“My daughter had to go to school so I decided to move back to Tucson. We lived at the Hotel Congress in Room 214. It was haunted by a monkey in a bellhop uniform.
“I was back smoking a doobie with Rainer every morning, having a cup of coffee after I dropped my daughter off at kindergarten. It was idyllic and fresh from that exceptional circumstance of three years up there at Rimrock.
“John came almost that same year. A little bit later, I think ’92, we got Joey to consider moving out here with us. He was just loving it, everything! Then we moved down [to Barrio Viejo, downtown Tucson], and all lived across the street from each other. We were just doing this thing.”
21. Were ’90s Label Deals the Devil?
In 1992, Giant Sand released the hard-rocking Center of the Universe, with Convertino sharing drum credits with Frank Orral, and Swerve, featuring the Gelb/Convertino duo. The latter was recorded in several places with guests Chris Cacavas, Juliana Hatfield, Steve Wynn, and members of Poi Dog Pondering. The 1993 release Blackout was the first to credit Burns, who also played on ’94’s Ramp and guest-heavy Slouch.
“In the beginning of the ’90s Giant Sand was a buzz band, meaning the ’70s had returned in the early ’90s. And then all of a sudden Nirvana and Sonic Youth were on major labels. And that sound. The guitar was back, louder than ever. The ’80s were finally fucking gone.
“Labels came calling [but] I was getting 25 grand per record to license it for five years, and I could make the record for ten or twelve grand, then split the other 15 grand with the band.
“Then I met Kate Hyman at SXSW, and she was trying to woo the band. She worked with a label called Imago that had Henry Rollins, Paula Cole, Aimee Mann, all signed by Kate Hyman. Very eclectic. Most bands wanted to get signed. I had found a different way [of] getting licensed, so I was in no hurry.
“I took months, then I thought, ‘Give it one good shot.’ It would be the first time we’d have a better release program, because it was hard to license the record to be out in different places at the same time without all those territories arguing with each other.”
Gelb’s thinking about the contract assumed that Joey and John would be included. But as the process came to a close in 1993, the two declined to be locked inGelb feared that would jeopardize the deal.
“That confused the fuck out of me. Like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I had to go to the label and say, ‘What if I’m the only one to sign? Is that going to be okay with you guys?’ They were fine with that. So then I went to these guys and said we’d still split the money with them, ‘I understand you guys might want to do something else and you’re younger.’
“That was the beginning of when things started to go to hell. Where we weren’t so much of a band anymore. It was becoming two contingents. I love those guys. Joey was like a little brother. Sometimes maybe he took offense to that.
“So we do this record [for Imago], a demo in Daniel Lanois’ studio in New Orleans with Malcolm Burn. It’s going to be called Glum, and right when the record’s about to be put out in ’94, the label [goes] under, so the record didn’t come out. I got the rights back eventually because I had a good relationship with Terry Ellis at Imago.”
Touring continued, and at some point, Gelb says, Burns and Convertino encouraged him to ask Bill Elm along as a roadie. Gelb began to invite him onstage because Elm’s pedal steel recalled the singing guitar of Gelb’s early idol, Alvino Rey.
“I remember thinking back then I wanted help being a front man because I only took the front man position when Giant Sandworms broke apart. And finally when Bill joined up and he played the [pedal] steel, that was a voice. It was like, ‘That [instrument’s] the lead singer.’
“It was so much fun, and I [wasn’t familiar] with the songs. I couldn’t handle the chords and I would just make some noises, background production with my gear, but the contrast was cool. We worked up a whole set.”
Bill Elm’s band Friends of Dean Martinez, featuring Burns and Convertino among others, debuted with Shadow of Your Smile on SubPop in August 1995. Burns had songwriting credit on six tracks, Convertino on three, including a co-write with Burns and Gelb on which Gelb overdubbed some characteristic noises.
Meanwhile, Burns and Convertino had begun working up a set of their own material, and, as Calexico, they opened for Giant Sand on tour. In late 1995, following an acrimonious split from Elm, they recorded a demo tape, called Spoke, that was picked up by a German label. Some of the songs on Spoke had been intended for Friends of Dean Martinez. As Calexico gained traction, Gelb began to become frustrated by what he regarded as Burns’ lack of commitment to Giant Sand.
22. OP8 and SOS
“In ’95, I had this idea to start the band completely over from scratch so we’re all on equal terms. I came up with name OP8. Each one of us will be 25% of the band, and we’ll bring in a fourth rotating guest. We talked about that and didn’t do anything about it until all of a sudden we were approached by Lisa Germano, who we had met at Daniel Lanois’ studio while we were making Glum. That became OP8, and it was like [CSN&Y’s] 4 Way Street.
“It just felt easy, because I know what it felt like when I had to do everything – deal with the label and the budget, the studio time and all the details of producing and the accounting. Now, I was in my late 30s, and it was just such a relief. It was more fun, and if that wasn’t going to save us, nothing would.
“The finished OP8 record is called Slush. Now that’s going to have a life of its own, soon, but before that happens, ’96 hits and Rainer comes down with brain cancer.”
Gelb knew he needed help, but in no way was he prepared to let go, either. He felt his younger bandmates weren’t yet seasoned enough. Ultimately, he took charge of the contract for OP8.
“The guy who jumped in there to put out OP8 was Peter Gordon from Thirsty Ear. He sent a contract out our way but I’m not going to sign the contract or even give it any time of day until I think we have some material here. I don’t like the pressure.
“And then I looked at the contract and I went ‘This is un-signable.’ I don’t even know if the other guys in the band understood this or what.
“A new label started appearing called V2, even more together than Imago, and it was the same guy that was running Virgin. But the cool thing was Kate Hyman, the same woman who signed us to Imago, now was working for V2.
“She really wanted this OP8 record but this other guy from Thirsty Ear claims he owns it. So I called him up and I said ‘Hey, Peter I know you’re about to put this record out but none of these songs are published before. As publisher, I’m not granting you permission to use them … unless you give it to V2 in Europe.’
“It worked out ridiculously well, except in October ’97, during the OP8 tour, I got the call that Rainer had what would be his final seizure, and I had to come home. We have to tell him he’s dead-not-dead. His days are limited now.
“I said, ‘You guys you don’t need me out here. I’m only 25% and there’s so much music between the three of you at this point. Just finish this tour, keep all this in place, but I’ve got to go home.’
“So they stayed out on the road and I went back, and there was a moment when the dust had settled after I don’t know how many weeks back home, where I could run back and finish the last show … in London, and I remember talking to Robert Plant backstage about Rainer, because Robert had helped me with The Inner Flame.”
To raise money while Rainer was in treatment, Gelb produced The Inner Flame: A Tribute to Rainer Ptacek, a compilation of Rainer’s songs performed by, among others, Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, PJ Harvey, Jonathan Richman, Mark Olsen and Victoria Williams, and Tina and Vic Chesnutt. It was released in July 1997. Via a limited publishing deal, Plant gave Rainer enough money to pay off his mortgage.
“After that last show with them,” Gelb says. “I came back and then stayed with Rainer until the end. We went up and recorded The Farm, and that was it.”
23. Chore of Disenchantment
Burns’ and Convertino’s obligations were mounting for producing and touring their own Calexico material, as well as that of Richard Buckner, Bill Janovitz, Barbara Manning, Michael Hurley, and others, but they remained members of Giant Sand.
As Gelb had hoped, V2 wanted to sign Giant Sand based on the success of OP8. Recording sessions were booked at Harvey Moltz’s home studio, and John Parish was lined up to produce, with his engineer, Head, beginning on January 8, 1998.
“Rainer died in November 1997. It’s the first time I got writer’s block. Up until then I had been able to write songs. I got to the point in the early ’90s where I could come up with an entire album in the studio without any preparation, and I mean on the recording in a few days, just the whole record for better or worse. Then all of a sudden in ’98 after Rainer had passed, I couldn’t think of anything.
“We’re trying to record and we’re playing old songs and nobody realizes the shape I’m in, and I don’t realize how bad off I am, and then I finally wrote this new song called ‘Shiver.’ I was so excited to record it and I brought it up to [the studio] and we tried it on what apparently was the last day of our recording. Then we have to knock off for the day, but I wanted to get another take.
“I turned to John and said, ‘How about we all come back in tomorrow?’ It’s Harvey’s house, and John Parish is going to be here for another few days, so let’s come in and I’ll do the song differently. This could be really something special. I wanted to do it more elegantly, less improvised.
“John does one of those things … ‘Aaaaaahhh. We’re not going to be here tomorrow.’ And Joey was like, ‘Yeah, we’re flying to [somewhere].’ But it was this thing where he would schedule so many things in between Giant Sand stuff and then the spontaneity was gone.
“It took a year to get that record done. It was like Rainer’s death fucked me up and I didn’t know how bad. And every time we tried to make some headway, I kept running into the Calexico scheduling thing.”
24. Howe Discovers Internet Marketing!
“[V2], finally, didn’t put it out. I was like, ‘What?’ V2 had a big change-up at the label and they gave us the record back, because they changed their president and they brought in a temporary guy who thought it sounded too indie.
“Of all the disgruntled employees that got fired from the label, one of them sent me 500 promo copies. We started offering them up online, just starting to figure this stuff out. We were able to talk to people and say, ‘Hey do you want this for $5?’ And they would do that.”
Gelb doesn’t remember the mechanics of this, but it’s likely that promotion was via international music listservs that were active at the time.
“My band, the more time I have where I can’t set up anything, those guys are gone every opportunity. Meanwhile, I’m like, ‘Okay, what can I do with this record?’ So I hooked up with Bettina Richards from Thrill Jockey, who I knew from the ’80s, and she wants to put it out. And, okay, so here we go.”
Thrill Jockey released Giant Sand’s Chore of Enchantment on March 7, 2000.
25. Icing the Last Straw
Of course, Giant Sand was not the only band ever to be undone by incompatible expectations, competing self-interests, and lopsided ambition. It may, however, have achieved new heights of creative differences. Calexico’s crack musicianship and spit-shine polished arrangements are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Gelb’s spirit-driven transmissions of whatever’s passing through the movable feast of now.
The ’90s-era Giant Sand died for longer than it lived, but did they ever have a conversation about it? Gelb says “No.” Burns says, “I don’t think it was ever our intention to stop playing in Giant Sand.”
The question is why, when so many musicians had moved through Giant Sand, live and on record, the passage of Burns and Convertino caused Gelb such pain.
Gelb hypothesizes that only certain drummers can match another musician’s heartbeat. An armchair psychologist might speculate something less metaphysical.
When they were playing music, no matter what Gelb did, Burns and Convertino kept him safe. No matter how far he strayed or whatever crazy, noisy notion he took, they were right there with him. They never left him. Not by whim or by fate; not by death or natural disaster.
When a final moment of clarity descended on Gelb at SXSW in 2002, he acted out, either via a drunken embarrassment or a ritual severance, depending on your point of view.
“Alejandro [Escovedo] had asked us to close out his traditional last night, which is always sold out and I go ‘Sure, Al.’
”And then I turn to those guys and Joey goes, ‘We can’t do it. We’re leaving right after our show.’ And that’s when I was so furious at him and it and everything, and how fucked up it was, how they went about things and how impossible it’s made everything and how more difficult with Rainer dying and we never had the fight and then they leave and I have to show up at the show without a band.”
The event Escovedo traditionally hosted on the closing Sunday of SXSW was a benefit for the SIMS Foundation, an organization that provided mental health and drug rehabilitation services to musicians, including, for a time, Paula Brown.
“I went to Alejandro’s barbecue on Saturday afternoon and I didn’t know how to tell him. Then I found [Calexico’s] gig and somebody gave me another margarita or something. I’d just had way too many all day long and it hurt so much.
“I remember getting down to the ice and thinking. I bet I could … for some reason, I would throw little pieces of ice to hit John’s cymbal. I was just like in this complete hallucinatory state, dividing myself now from my brother.
“‘Here it is …. Here it is …. Here it is ….’ I never hit him, never hit the drum, just the cymbal. Pshhhhoo over and over. It was really sad and that was it. I said something to John. I can’t remember what it was, I was so drunk.”
Reliable sources report that whatever it was Gelb said, Convertino responded, “Fuck you, Howe.” And, perhaps characteristically, Gelb never told Escovedo the band wouldn’t be coming on Sunday.
26. Those Danish Kids
Gelb had become acquainted with the Danish music community over the years he toured and spent time with amily there. He had begun to jam and work with musicians who could serve as his band in Europe and, eventually, the U.S.
The band from Denmark enabled him to work more economically in Europe; they have been with him 15 years.
“Now my band is 15 years younger than me. There are so many great players there. They do love American music and our guitars, and I was just blown away by how they apply themselves and their soulfulness and humor and their community. Their English is really good, too, because (they don’t) dub their television. So when they get an English movie it’s in English.”
27. Things Go Better with Diet Coke
“In 2002, we got way too much money for that song, ‘Shiver,’ after [recording engineer] Kevin Salem finally got it put together for the record the way I hoped. He constructed the whole song, and then I came and sang over on top of it in one take with my little noises guitar lead and my Casio loop that I got from Rainer’s loop pedals.
“The label brokered the song to an advertising company who mistakenly used it for a Diet Coke commercial, thinking they had the rights for it. Then they had to pay the maximum amount to the label, who, in turn, gave me 75% of it. It was so much money and it was just a complete fluke. I never even got to say yes or no.
“But it came at a time almost like it was opening the door saying, ‘Okay, darkness is over for a while. Here’s some cash, here’s a new band, here’s a new country and it was like the light at the end of the tunnel.”
28. Angels and Gypsies
“I was invited to a blues festival, solo, in Canada [the 2003 Ottawa Blues Fest]. I don’t understand it, but while I’m there, I get blown away by the gospel choir sound. Blown away! Finally I work up the guts to approach [some]one and say, ‘Is it possible I can work with a choir and not sing religious songs?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, if you keep it positive.’
“Boom. That sets me off to Canada at minus 43 degrees without any songs or any band to go up there and give it a shot. That was so much fun! And the universe supplied me with a drummer.
“It was bleak and desolate and beautiful and cold, and just me and this drummer, and as we would do the songs … we’d hand it over to the choir and they would apply themselves.”
The universe’s drummer, Jeremy Gara, went on to join Arcade Fire, whose principal, Win Butler, is the grandson of early Gelb idol Alvino Rey. The record he and Gelb made, ’Sno Angel Like You, was a critical sensation, and Gelb finally found the backing vocals he had been searching for back when he met Paula Brown.
“The same thing happened a few years later with the flamenco gypsies of Córdoba when this guy [well-known Spanish guitarist and producer] Fernando Vacas kept showing up and trying to entice me to come to his town. He has a studio in his house and he just thinks I need to be there. It turns out when I get there he’s got a Rainer record.
“Córdoba was so familiar to me it felt more Tucson than Tucson, except with olive trees instead of saguaros.
“These amazing guitar players would show up, and we would record in this little shack on a rooftop. All these songs are coming to me like never before from this house I’m staying in, and I can’t even sleep. I keep getting up to write this sketch down.
“Finally the king of the gypsies showed up, the big man, the guy that everybody knows that I didn’t know, and his name is Raimundo Amador. He was the first guy to combine blues with flamenco.
“When the maestro Raimundo came, I played with him and I’d make these weird noises like I’m apt to do on the guitar, and he would start laughing like Santa Claus. He’d never thought of doing that.”
Mixed by John Parish, the output of those sessions is Alegrías, by Howe Gelb and a Band of Gypsies. Vacas released it in Spain in 2010 on his own label. It’s included in the European label Fire Records’ 2013 Little Sandbox set.
29. Rediscovering Tucson in Berlin
When Gelb was inducted into Tucson Weekly’s TAMMIES Hall of Fame in 2010, he chose his backing band from a crop of talented young musicians then performing in recombinant bands around Tucson. They were Brian Lopez, just splitting off from his latter-day prog-rock group Mostly Bears; Gabriel Sullivan, whose Taraf de Tucson plies the connections between Mexico and Eastern Europe; and reigning mambo king Sergio Mendoza of Orkesta Mendoza.
Gelb invited them to play, gave them four songs, and then had them over a few times for beers and bonding. Per modus Gelb, there was no real rehearsal. The players describe the live set as a game of hide and seek – confusing and privileged.
In 2011, Berlin’s annual Wassermusik festival had a desert theme. Gelb was invited to play. Asked to comment on the event for an article in Tucson Weekly, he recalled: “Somehow the universe was waking me up to the treasures here again, and delivered me by way of Berlin [Rainer’s birthplace] an invitation to a special festival there celebrating the world’s desert regions. I’m trying to listen to the universe and I choose Brian and Gabe and Jon Villa [trumpet, Orkesta Mendoza].
“It was like throwing gasoline onto a fire to put it out. With that spontaneous combustion, Giant Giant Sand was born onstage and live in front of 1,500 people.”
Those three, his Danish band, and Phoenix singer-songwriter Lonna Kelley formed the core around whom Gelb recorded Tucson: A Rock Opera, released in June 2012 on Fire Records. A giant, giant tour ensued.
30. Heartbreak Pass
The new Heartbreak Pass may be the pinnacle of Gelb’s recent, if unreliable, evolution as a crafter of accessible, even sing-alongable songs, relatively speaking and for the time being. Gelb cannot help his disabilities, entrenched as they are in his every “now.”
That said, the Pass songs show what in a newer artist would be called maturity. Their insight into his home life and the pitfalls of disconnection from it are uniquely moving. They arise from a forgiving but clear-eyed look at his impossible balancing act between desert domesticity and the global fungibility of time, space, and relationships that define the life of a touring musician.
The music is richly arranged and broad in personality, from ethereal to intimate to chuckle-out-loud funny. Its subtext is Gelb’s enduring interest in challenging his disabilitiesWith the music he’s making right now, today, Gelb is exploring an interest in retro song structure. He noodles on the piano in his room in the manner of Marian McPartland. He speaks thoughtfully of Dylan’s Shadows in the Night. He’d like to write some standards, something Frank Sinatra might have sung.
He wants to be a contestant on the Eurovision Song Contest.
Linda Ray is a former contributing editor of No Depression, the magazine. Quotes in this article are excerpted from six and a half hours’ interviewing Howe Gelb in his Tucson home on February 10 and 17 and April 14, 2015.