Howe Gelb on Vic Chesnutt, Rainer Ptacek, and other collaborations
“i like the way my sentences flow before you wrangled them.”
This is the most memorable sentence Howe Gelb wrote to me during the process of interviewing him via e-mail in September 2011. And no, the lower case “i” in his proclamation is not a mistake…
Out in the Sonoran Desert, where ancient rocks are strewn like giant grains of sand, there still exists a zealous bastion of linguistic obstinacy – in the spirit of cummings, Chomsky, Wolf and Dickinson – who eschews being edited (even slightly) and highly prioritizes a very personal orthographic preference.
Howe Gelb is both poet and innovator, and as such requires that the language used to represent him be rendered precisely in his own chosen cadence, tempo, beat and pause. He explains it thusly: “i always thought the more stripped down a writing is, the more like a rough mix it appears. and i adore rough mixes, often favoring them over final mixes.”
Howe typed the answers you read here exactly the way he wanted them to appear and requested that they be provided sans capital letters. I have thus refrained from any wrangling and am honored to abide by his requests.
Frances: In The Guardian, Giant Sand is described “as a loose, uncompetitive, mutually supportive musical collective, a place for friends to hang out and play” and you are quoted as saying, “i just liked the idea of having this kind of removed world, this brotherhood—the idea of a band being something more than a front person or dealing with the throes of fame.” How do you maintain that sense of brotherhood, quell the egos involved, keep that supportive workshop feeling and not let a famous personality or leader mentality take over so you can create an egalitarian atmosphere in which to make music?
Howe: the side effect of popularity or relative fame and fortune has never been very appealing… its outcome looks annoying… a more ‘blue collar’ approach to sonic existence seems more comfortable and i reckon that’s what we ultimately ever shoot for, that standard of comfort in this life to get the job done and enjoy the doing along the way, taking in the end of the day with an exhaustion that merits.
this template allows for an enormous amount of output as well as permits the actuality of raising a family instead of sacrificing one for the other. just enough ‘ego’ needs to be implemented to be able to enjoy the stage as a work space and not let it crush your skull or stomp your heart by its imposing loom.
members in the band will feel like minded. those that eventually don’t will be able to use the premise to spring board into their own mesh of how ambition and sonic deployment can be then tailored to suit their own needs once they leave the fold.
that said, there is a compiling strain from years on the road that instigates needed perks along the way in order to facilitate longevity. things like upgrades in air travel and better hotel rooms. a lack of stanky rock clubs in lieu of more sensible venues to dispense more properly in theater like confines. this can get tricky when the music has remained unknown enough and not easily categorized. it takes some creative promotion as the years spin by to continue delivering anything vital outside of mass appeal.
but that is the music i have always been drawn to. the rhetoric of a rehearsed set of music by bands determined to get to the next level actually makes me a little sea sick. probably an allergic reaction to honing the craft in a way so as to never allow the gamble of a unique night of music to come into play. i tend to avoid bands that work the crowd instead of expanding their sound nightly through immediate evolution where risk is a flavor and the outcome is worth it.
Frances: As alluded to in the song “Fields of Green,” you mentored and spawned many bands around the Tucson area. You “lift up” others in your performances regularly. I was in the Old Pueblo when I first heard you play live and got turned on to the wonderful music of the late Rainer Ptacek. How would you describe your collaboration with Rainer as well as your philosophy as a musical mentor?
Howe: that’s a loaded question.
when rainer and i met in the mid 70s, i recognized something in him instinctually. something i could never define till years later. when i have stumbled upon bands or band members that i’d chosen to be part of this sonic fabric, it has been in similar fashion, but none so important to me as rainer was, maybe because i was only 19 at the time, but mostly because of the spirit of the man. it’s a blessing and a curse, this sonic life, when the energy is in play, a music occurs and it’s the best of times. you can see it swirl on stage between conjuring implementers. when the energy is not harbored into play, it’s a an impish storm that confuses and sparks the room in chaos.
all rainer and i ever verbally agreed to was to make a music that would not embarrass us 20 years into the future. so we took our cues from strident elements of historical proportions and mixed them up with a state of exploratory endeavors that would serve the future the way we noticed it had gone on long before us. and along the way we collected a vast assortment of young ‘lifers’ stained with the same urgency.
Frances: You were also friends with the late Vic Chesnutt, whose passing two years ago at Christmas is still mourned by all who knew him. One of my favorite songs is “Classico,” and I love the way you have two versions on Is All Over the Map – to me, it sounds like a song Vic would write. How would you characterize his contribution to modern folk/alt music and how did that collaboration come about?
Howe: vic was the greatest american singer songwriter i have ever had the pleasure of knowing. he was the only true definition of the term i have ever witnessed. his songs were monsters, meaning massive wondrous plunks of existence, and his voice was impossibly enormous and soulful beyond measure.
he was the best. and his constant struggle in this life is never to be fully realized by the likes of us. he toured incessantly by his sheer singular will. and he was one of my favorite guitar players, attacking it in a way that was severely refreshing, making each note matter more than any i’ve ever heard, except for rainer. i loved him so. this world is less now without him, but him being here at all was a great gift and a continuous inspiration still.
as for ‘classico,’ i was still trying to write a song for marianne faithfull to sing, since my buddy polly was working on her record at the same time, but instead vic came to town and i know an omen when i see one.
Frances: I think your lyrics, and the way they work with the music, are what fascinate me most about Giant Sand. Some of the lyrics are so comical, and almost silly-seeming, that many song writers might be “afraid” to use them and therefore couldn’t pull them off. (Example: “I poured me cranberry juice there on the floor letting it flow on the mirror under the door” – I recall laughing out loud the first time I heard this song.) How does your sense of humor inform your confidence in songwriting and… yep, the age-old “which came first” question: Do you compose lyrics or music first… or is it a combination?
Howe: that’s the age-old question… but there is never an age-old answer.
songs happen when they care to and however they dare to. there is no way to count on them or formulate the process. i have the ability to utilize my disability. songs are the event once you clear yourself of everything else inside you. they are there waiting to happen.
singing songs that you make up on the spot is a matter of lying to yourself that they have been around forever, and then they sound like they have been.
humor and sex are important elements in song. to be able laugh at life and how it clobbers us is also a great way to make an otherwise difficult point to put across. to rework the essence of how we procreate as a species is the stuff that needs to be addressed more often than not.
anyhow… the song you mention with sliding a mirror under the door and pouring cranberry juice on it was a reflection of lament and dement in my time of languishing the loss of my former rhythm section, who have done well, but sadly still fail to include those two basic elements in their material. but once they read this, that will change too.
Frances: When I want to relax without lyrics, I go to Spun Some Piano and Lull Some Piano for a change. Although many of your Giant Sand songs are sans piano, you are often described as a piano virtuoso. How did you learn to play and who were your main influences?
Howe: wilkes-barre, pennsylvania is flooding as we speak. the susquehanna river is an eventual monster. 40 years ago it knocked on our door and raised up six feet over our roof. that’s what sent me to arizona where my dad was living. it also smashed the piano to bits i never practiced on. with the flood relocation money i bought me a univox electric piano and drove the apartment complex nuts we were evacuated to. but that’s where it started. i learned how to play “all the way to memphis” by mott the hoople all the while i began discovering piano players in the “cheap” bin at the record store. champion jack dupree, memphis slim, and otis spann got me started. tommy flanigan and ahmad jamal (both whom i had the pleasure of seeing live), mcoy tyner and oscar petersen, kept me following the thread, until i finally hit the payload with thelonious sphere monk.
after the two you mentioned came ogle some piano …and now this month comes snarl some piano which actually manages to free you up when in a traffic snarl, if played in its entirety. money back guarantee. i think.
Frances: Your vocals lend themselves to duos with a soft, naïve female voice. Examples I enjoy are “No Tellin” and “Love A Loser” from Blurry Blue Mountain. What characteristics work best for this type of duo?
Howe: i would have much preferred to have been a player in a band with a great singer, but I didn’t want to wait for that to ever happen, so just handled the chore myself.
lonna beth kelley is the woman you mention in those Blurry Blue Mountain songs and I find her voice such a fine smolder. we try to bring her on the road to have her open as much as possible. I adore her lip flip, but also the hang time on the road. she’s a comfort zone and a smile waiting to happen. funny as hell too.
Frances: You obviously have a loyal and astute audience who knows your disposition and irreverent approach to fusing elements from most every musical genre. What is your relationship to your audience and how much do you care/not care what they think of your creations?
Howe: it’s scary seeing how every kind of music has such similar thread. any song can be done up in any genre. it’s there in front of us. i just try and get to it as much as possible. because of my tin ear, it all just sounds like me doing up my usual muck-a-luck.
anyhow, i tend to make the same music my audience would make if they allowed themselves the time to work it up themselves. so they pay me to do it instead. like hiring a plumber.