Howe Gelb – It’s that sonic evolution
When you’re writing stuff, you’re responsible because it’s your stuff, so you gotta make some decisions here. But when you’re playing somebody else’s stuff, it’s so much more fun because you’re just a player and it’s already a given what this stuff is. So the idea was for this record to be as fun as possible and to see if there was any fun left between me, John and Joey in the studio.
I didn’t even know it was going to be a cover record until we started playing it. I was just pulling out these songs that happened to be covers and we were goofin’ around having a good time with it and it was happening very quickly, so I was realizing that’s what was to happen.
ND: It’s not like you turned yourselves over to the songs, though, is it? I mean “El Paso” [the Marty Robbins classic] has absolutely never sounded like that!
HG: The notion behind that was just that maybe that’s the same song as [Neil Young’s] “Out On The Weekend”. Before I checked too closely, the chord structure seemed the same. If you slow the “El Paso” chords way down, then you kind of had “Out On The Weekend”, so that was the fun — and then the trainwreck that you hear is what happens when you do that.
ND: All of a sudden, more than twenty years into your career, you have made a piano record. What possessed you?
HG: I have always played piano. I picked up the guitar out of necessity. It’s just that now I have the clout [makes an amusing face] to demand a box out on the road.
ND: From the liner notes to the Lull album, it looked like you’d been commanding boxes all over the globe — London, New York, France…
HG: That’s how I record anymore. I collect things like a painter. I just keep doing it. Instead of one special time of the year, you do it all year round. It’s just the work you do, so you do it more than ever, and you collect these paintings and when the house gets so cluttered by them you have to get rid of them, you have to let them go, and you decide which camp they’re gonna live in. They kind of talk to you, they kind of let you know, you get kind of get a feel like “this is a solo, even though the band is on it.” And usually the solo records, even thought the band may be on it, is determined by how much extra time I put into it.
III. I HAVEN’T FOUND A WAY TO STOP MAKING RECORDS
ND: Has the Internet changed your life in terms of how and when you can sell records to generate income?
HG: All I know is that when we press these things up, we only sell a few hundred records through the website, four or five hundred records, but then when we go live, they seem to go.
It has [had an impact] though. If we didn’t have the website, I would never have released Chore. I was opting that V2 stick it where the sun don’t shine. I was so done with it. I used it as sort of an exercise. I was writing the whole thing off and could not wait to let it go, before we ever entertained the idea of Thrill Jockey or anybody putting it out. I just wanted to have all of the money, because they were only going to give some of the money if they gave us the rights to the record back. I said, “No, you keep the record. I’ll take all the money because I am so broke, it’s been so long, and I don’t care if the record ever comes out.” I know what it is; it is what it is, and I couldn’t tell if it was better or worse than anything else at that time.
And then, what they did do — the label sent me four or five hundred of the promos. They had pressed up promos! They had gotten that far ahead with it. So that’s when we decided to experiment and make those promos available for about ten bucks on the website to the fan base to see if anybody wanted them. We sold a few hundred of them there, and we started getting input on how people felt about it. That’s what inspired me to take less money from the label and go ahead and find a label for Chore.
ND: Averse as you are to planning, you must have some ideas about what your future holds musically.
HG: I haven’t found a way to stop making records. In my head there’s a list of things to do. It still seems to be kind of a long list. So in the meantime, all these beautiful accidents occur — unforeseen things start to re-engage the whole operation or add to it.
ND: And you’re working on more Rainer projects?
HG: We’re working on getting the rights to the record [The Inner Flame tribute disc] back for [Rainer’s widow Patty Keating] so we can re-release it properly. All the proceeds, every dime will go to her. I’m asking four or five other artists to add to it. Lucinda Williams just recorded “The Farm”, which is one of the last things he wrote before he died. Greg Brown is doing it with his daughter, Pieta, and John Wesley Harding just recorded “Storyteller”, which sounds fantastic. Grandaddy’s gonna do it, and possibly Sparklehorse. Then we’ll re-release it. It never even really came out in Europe, so this will ignite the whole thing again and then it’ll really pave the way for all of Rainer’s stuff, because it still hasn’t come out in the States. And maybe we’ll start with his last recordings, which we just finished.
When Rainer and I first started making music, we had a similar — we had very few rules, but one of them was we wouldn’t make music that would embarrass us later when we listen to it. We were hoping it would stay around for ten or twenty years or more, like Creedence. When you hear a Creedence song it still sounds timely. And his stuff, it sounds better than ever, now, even stuff he made when things were at their most horrendous in the ’80s. I still like my stuff, I’m not down on it; but Rainer’s stuff, the trajectory just sounds more vital and fresher than ever. It’s not like we’re just trying to get the stuff out there for no good reason. It’s good for the unsuspecting world at large.