Giant Sand Returns to the Valley of Rain: A Tribute to Howe Gelb

Howe Gelb, 2018 (Photo: Gabriel Sullivan)

Returns to Valley of Rain (Fire records) is a ferocious re-recording of Giant Sand’s classic 1985 debut album Valley of Rain. Originally recorded by Howe Gelb on vocals and guitar, Winston A. Watson and Tommy Larkins sharing drums duties and Scott Garber on bass, this incarnation of Giant Sand also consists of newer members Thøger T. Lund, Gabriel Sullivan and Annie Dolan.

The album holds a special place in the vast Giant Sand catalog, celebrated by both 25th and 30th anniversary reissues in recent years. When some of these old songs started to creep back into their setlist, it seemed appropriate to give the full album another shot with the proper Fender 30 amp, made only in the early 1980s, with the intention of making the album sound like it should’ve sounded. Says Fire Records about the process: “It was re-done for $400 and the same day and a half session time as the original. Scott Garber even drove up from Austin with his fretless to play so that the album is literally the originally line up for at least half of the songs. And yes, no pedal boards were used too.”

Giant Sand have never been easy to categorize, a fool’s errand that gets harder every passing years, as Howe Gelb and his various compadres have freely embraced new and disparate stylings into their seesawing sound. But whether labeled as roots rock, gospel, piano jazz, punk, latin or lo-fi or anything in between, the music always comes out with the identifiable signature of characteristic beatnik rhythms, shrewd lyrics and Howe Gelb’s warm, charismatic personality hovering above it all.

Gelb has travelled many a long and dusty mile to get to his place of prominence as an elder statesman of freewheeling Americana and “Erosion Rock”; a brand of music changing with the elements on a daily basis as nature intended, like Giant Sand, believing that continuous evolution should be a palpable element in music, as when songs were first handed over again and again, before the frozen capture of a recording studio.

I asked a couple of Howe Gelb’s numerous colleagues and friends over the years to share some insight on the enigmatic genius. Find out why Gelb is a smart cookie, how he embrace the random and eschew the obvious and why his modus operandi is best described as inspired chaos.

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When we met…

M. Ward (singer-songwriter, and one half of She & Him):
It’s an honor to know Howe Gelb. He was one of the first real pals and confidants I had in this strange industry. I’m endlessly inspired by his piano-playing, his songs, his energy and everything in-between.

Giant Sand took me on my first-ever tour of Europe – in which I played my first and last performances of lap steel. Howe taught me that if you polish the song too heavily in rehearsals then you have polished the song too heavily in rehearsals.

M. Ward/press

Steve Wynn (The Dream Syndicate, The Baseball Project and more):
I first met Howe just moments after playing to the biggest audience of my life. It was Roskilde 1986 and The Dream Syndicate was a last-minute fill-in for The Cult. We arrived from Italy just about 30 minutes before we went on stage to 50,000 people. It started pouring as we finished and much of the crowd dispersed which was a shame since the next band was Giant Sand and they were fantastic. I watched them as the rain poured down and was instantly intrigued. Howe and I ended up talking well into the night, both exhilarated by the excitement of the evening.

Jason Lytle (Grandaddy):
I spent the first few of my “learning to write songs” years trying to sound like Giant Sand. The only problem is… I had never even heard Giant Sand or Howe Gelb. Someone I had crossed paths with in the early 90’s told me about a weird band that lived out in the desert in Arizona and was inventing their own brand of music that was sometimes punk, sometimes folky Neil Young and sometimes Thelonius Monk… and sometimes all of them even combined.

It set my imagination on fire.

It wasn’t until years later I finally bought a Giant Sand LP and was quite relieved it was as special as it was and kind of similar to what I hoped it would sound like.

John Parish (artist, producer and frequent Giant Sand collaborator):
The first Howe Gelb/Giant Sand record I worked on was Chore of Enchantment – my part of that album was recorded in Tucson in 1998, and it was my introduction to Howe’s method of working – best described as inspired chaos.

It was the first production session I did where I realized I had no control over events – the job became recognizing the inspiration within the chaos, and then making sure it was recorded, logged – before being edited down the line.

It is a challenging but exceedingly rewarding way of working, and pretty much unique to Howe.

Peter Holsapple (The db’s, Continental Drifters):
I met Howe through my friends Mark Walton and Robert Maché with whom I played in the Continental Drifters; my other bandmates Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson toured with Giant Sand promoting Center of the Universe. He seemed like a sweet guy, and if he was friends with my friends, well dammit I liked him too. I recorded a little on Glum when Howe was recording at Kingsway in New Orleans with Malcolm Burn and Trina Shoemaker. It was 1994, and it took a small slice of one afternoon.

KT Tunstall (singer and songwriter)
Howe co-produced my fourth LP with me, Invisibe Empire // Crescent Moon in Wavelab Studios, Tucson, AZ in 2012. Collaborating with him was a beautiful and formative experience for me. I had never worked with an artist-producer before, and he encouraged me to be much more experimental, less rigid about process and performance, and as we were recording live to tape, everything was much more focused on feel rather than technical perfection. I think the most memorable thing was that he invited me into his world – I stayed with him and his family during the recording, we took road trips with a guitar (one particularly memorable one to the Mexican border), so every aspect of that time was colored by his daily life, which is definitely colorful!!

As a person…

Steve Wynn:
Open. He embraces new people and new things very easily. He welcomes The Random although there is a filter and an aesthetic to the pieces of the puzzle he lays out before letting the mayhem begin.

Strangely enough, the biggest influence that Howe had on my life was teaching me to actually take control. I was still the kind of artist who just blindly went from gig to gig, record to record under the control of managers and labels, not questioning or fully understanding the process and finding myself quite helpless when the cracks in the system began to appear.

Howe was living a different life – under the radar and with the sense of adventure that I remembered from the earliest days. With his help, I reconstructed my way of making music (on the fly, on the cheap), touring (hitting the places most bands don’t go) and releasing (small, hungry labels and more frequent releases). It was an eye-opener and creatively stimulating and still is my way of working to this day.

Thanks, Howe, for teaching me to embrace the random and to eschew the obvious.

M Ward:
Howe is a shaman of music who needs no setlist nor traditional groundwork to launch his ideas into meaningful spaces. I recommend sampling all of his Giant Sand records and Howe Gelb solo records and then buying them all.

He finds uniquely rare and beautiful melodies that you can’t trace to anything prior – except maybe songs from his own prior experiments or maybe Thelonious Monk’s – and that makes you think where could this music possibly have come from except for somewhere in southern Arizona.

Peter Holsapple:
Howe is a smart cookie, and one is well advised to listen carefully to what he says. We are not cut from the same songwriting cloth by any means, but I respect and admire his expansive and adventurous creative soul, and l hear the earth and air directly when I hear his songs.

Have YOU ever seen another Howe Gelb? I haven’t.

KT Tunstall
Howe is a bona fide one-off. No-one else could do Howe Gelb. He is unpredictable; he genuinely doesn’t ever play a song the same way twice. He has a phenomenal creative brain; quite surreal, mischievous, very quick. Very funny. There is always a lot of laughing spending time with him, and you don’t always know why. It’s kind of chaotic working with him, but somehow he always manages to pull off often large scale projects, it’s most suspicious. Is he a wizard?? He’a a joy to watch perform, a craftsman and a lightning quick creator, making things happen in the moment, very exciting. One of my favourite moments in his live performance was when he would sit at the grand piano and say, in an impossibly low voice, “I think this thing takes batteries”. He would then throw a handful of 9volt batteries inside the piano.

John Parish:
Original, creative, inspiring, frustrating, spontaneous, late, curious.

John Parish, Photo: Maria Mochnacz

Jason Lytle:
The person that he is …is the musician that he is. That is…. I think he sounds like the sort of guy that he is. I do like it when that happens. It means you’re usually getting the real goods when you hear what he is working on/putting out there.

Steve Wynn:
I’ve said enough above about his lack of fear in accepting unexpected pleasures, random events, changes and following whatever path seems interesting from record to record, tour to tour and even from moment to moment. But none of that would work if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s a damn good guitarist and pianist. You gotta have the goods to back up the concept or else you’re left with nothing but a hollow manifesto.

KT Tunstall
I think Howe is very stubborn in his creative choices, and that protects him and his band from becoming creatively diluted. Lyrically, his material comes from such a singular place that it couldn’t be anyone else, so his signature sound and style will always be inimitable. He also has the most amazing baritone voice, and has found a delivery syle that immediately convinces you that what he’s conveying is worth listening listening to.

A fun fact at the end…

Peter Holsapple:
Howe taught me that time is elastic. I’ve never been the same since.

KT Tunstall
Howe likes orange things. For snacks, he would hold out a carrot and a tangerine and say, “want something orange?”

John Parish:
He likes to eat lunch at Cafe Poca Cosa.

Jason Lytle:
He came to my house for coffee one morning when I lived in Portland Oregon. I asked him if he would like sugar or agave (a plant based sweetener) in his coffee. He said: “I’ll take agave”. We sat outside with our coffees and he was surprised that what he was drinking was NOT coffee with a shot of tequila in it…. as he had a momentary lapse and mistook agave for some kind of tequila. I laughed …but was also impressed that he would show up at my home in the morning and be up for starting the day off with me over a coffee/tequila drink. (Sounds horrible by the way….hahaha!)

Steve Wynn:
I was living out in Marina Del Rey, California for a few years in the late 80’s. I had a mildewed little bungalow that was supposed to be destroyed at any moment (strangely enough, it’s still there to this day) so I was able to rent it cheaply while living just blocks from the beach in a neighborhood much fancier than my means. I didn’t have a car – a bike was enough in that beach community – but Howe offered me to take care of his hand-illustrated, graffitied grey Barracuda before he went on one of his lengthy tours. I loved it. Push-button transmission and everything. Only thing was that the rich neighbors didn’t agree. One morning I went to get the car and found a note under the windshield. “Please don’t park this car around here. It is an eyesore.” Ha-ha – if only they knew that the car belonged to and had been painted by an international rock star (and that it would show up as the cover art for a Leaving Trains record!)

Nive Nielsen: Stemmen Fra Grønland

Nive Nielsen er fra Grønland. Hun debuterte med singlen ”Room” og fulgte opp med fullengderen Nive Sings! i 2010. Plata ble innspilt i Montreal, Bristol, San Francisco, Gent, Tucson og hjemme i Nuuk, og laget i samarbeid med Howe Gelb (Giant Sand), John Parish, Eric Craven (Hangedup, Godspeed You Black Emperor), Patrick Carney (The Black Keys) og Arlen Thompson (Wolf Parade) – for å nevne noen.

Nive, what can you tell us about the song ”Room”?

– ”Room” is the first song I ever wrote. My boyfriend Jan De Vroede gave me a little red ukulele when I was studying in Canada. He thought I needed a hobby. I goofed around on it a little bit, and all of a sudden I hade made this song. It just gulped out. When Jan came to visit and I played it to him – really shy cause I never sang in front of anyone – he was real surprised. And I decided to learn how to record cause he loved it.

– A bit later, during Christmas holiday, I was back home up north in Greenland, and we recorded my voice and uke. Then Jan went to visit some of his friends in Montreal and got the idea of fleshing Room out by adding some stuff during a sleepless night with his pal. The next day it was done!

What’s it about?

– It’s about longing. And missing. It’s rather personal. I used to play it over and over in my room in Canada, missing home and my boyfriend and kinda singing myself asleep. That’s why it’s called Room. Every time I play it, and we played it a lot since that time, I can vividly see and feel that room in Canada again. And I’m so happy I’m not there anymore, but travelling and playing and living little adventures. Yay!

Could you present yourself for our Norwegian readers. Who’s Nive?

Ha… well, I come from Nuuk, Greenland. I’m an Inuk, an Eskimo. When I was a kid, I wanted to become an adventurer, yknow, like an explorer. I thought that was a real job. Playing music comes pretty close – I get to travel, see the world, meet people. That’s real important to me. Greenland is so far away from everything else. I love it there – it’s where my house is. But I also need interaction, input, experiencing new stuff.

– I studied anthropology. Make documentary films – there’s that exploring thing again. I’ve acted, too – even in Hollywood, with Colin Farrell. Adventures, yknow!

– Music is what I love most though. I really really enjoy sitting down and feeling the songs grow in my head. I love messing around with my pals, arranging them, trying to get a feel for what that specific song wants. I hope I get to play and travel for a loooong time!

How’s the environment for your kinda music on Greenland?

There’s not really a scene in Greenland, let alone different scenes. There’s a lot of music, but very little of it gets out to the rest of the world. There’s not really any record stores; and up until real recently the internet was so slow that just streaming a song took forever. So, unless you travel or have music loving friends abroad it’s hard to be exposed to non-mainstream music. It’s hard to get your hands on old or used gear, too – Jan fixes amps and pre’s and mics and old synths we collect when travelling so that we can play around with old and weird instruments. There’s little of that in Greenland. There’s no visiting bands either – or none to speak of. It’s pretty isolated.

So you’re ‘one of a kind’ over there?

– What I do in Greenland is unheard of – I’m really the first “indie” musician there. I was real afraid of what my friends would think about my songs – there’s not much back home that resembles what I’m doing. But as it turned out, everybody is really supportive and very very proud that there’s one of us who gets to play around the world!

What has been your major musical influences during the years?

– Oh, there’s been many. Definitely Giant Sand. JJ Cale. Old blues records. The Clean. Cat Power and early Eleni Mandell. PJ Harvey. But mostly stuff that has nothing to do with what I make – I listen a lot to ethnic field recordings for example, and to punk rock and things. Arthur Russell. I can be really smitten with a certain sound even though I don’t like the actual music. Or vice versa. So I’ve been listening a lot, trying to figure out how a certain sound came into being, or why a certain song makes me want to cry, or jump around.

When or how did you find the “artistic sound” of what you are today?

– I dunno – we kinda stumbled upon a sound I liked and went with it. Now, after playing live more – the record was mostly arranged on our attic in Greenland with just the two of us, so that kinda directs the sound a certain way – and also cause I’m constantly making new songs, the sound evolved a bit. I like that – I’m really open to change. But the record, that sound came basically from working with just what was lying around – broken gear, self-fixed guitars, beat-up amps… pretty much make-do and try and make that work. I’m real happy with the results.

Are you inspired by traditional eskimo music in any way?

Sure. Not directly I guess – but it must‘ve crept in. I sing in Greenlandic as well as English. There’s certain imagery that would be typically Greenlandic – ways of saying things that are not literal yet not merely metaphorical either. Does that make sense at all?

Where’s your home base now?

– Nuuk. But we’re spending a lot of time in both Montreal and in Antwerp (Belgium ) – it’s just way easier to travel like that.

How did you hook up with Howe Gelb?

– I’ve been listening to Howe since I was tiny. And I always dreamt of seeing him play live – easy if you live in Europe or the states but tricky when in Greenland. A couple of years ago I decided I’d try and get Giant Sand to come play Greenland – I was so sure that many people would love them just as much as I did. So I wrote Howe and said ‘wanna come?’ That must’ve cracked him up! But well, we met in Denmark and hung out eating watermelons and he was real nice. That was around the time I started making songs. I played him one and he was enthusiastic. A year or so later I got the chance to go record with John Parish and Howe came by to record some stuff with me. That’s how we hooked up. We later went to Tucson to do some more things.

Your up-coming album is also made by assistance of the ‘Montreal-crowd’. What can you say about your connection with those people?

– Well, I studied in Canada for a couple years. In Ottawa. Which was boring as fuck. So I went to Montreal a lot – and Jan came to visit often. We started meeting people at shows. Jan curates festivals of underground music so he knew a bunch of people already. And what we tend to do when travelling is hang out, play music, eat good food – y’know, just have a good time.

– There was a lot going on in Montreal that I liked and could relate to – and we ended up playing small shows made up of “insta-bands” – just whomever was around for that specific occasion. I still do that a lot when no money is available for flying in my band. Anyhow, we hooked up with people like Alden Penner who played in Unicorns, and Lisa Gamble (Hrsta, Evangelista) and Arlen (Wolf Parade). They liked my stuff, and we worked together whenever there was a chance. That’s how that happened.

What can you tell about how you work out your songs?

– I make the songs – lyrics, melodies, chords. When I feel a song is ready I play it for Jan. He might suggest to swap some chords around here and there, or not – and then that’s the song. After that Jan records me singing and playing – just one or two mics, in our attic or so. And then he disappears with them recordings to listen to them over and over again until he sees a certain arrangement. He’ll record that – y’know, guitar lines, a bass, or a cello, etc. – until he things that’s the vibe it should be. Then he plays it to me. And we start fine tuning it together until we’re satisfied.

Your album Nive Sings! is almost finished. What can we expect from you on this one?

– Hi-hi, I dunno really. It’s a rater diverse album, with tracks in both English and Greenlandic, recorded all over: Tucson, Nuuk, Montreal, San Francisco, Belgium. John Parish produced. Loads of people are playing on it. There’s horns. And drums. And ukuleles.

– It’s a little record. One that makes me happy!

Bjørn Hammershaug
Intervjuet er tidligere publisert på groove.no i april 2010.

Intervju: Howe Gelb – preaching to the choir

Tekst og foto: Bjørn Hammershaug
Først publisert på groove.no 13.05.09

Så, vet du hva du hva skal gjøre i kveld?

Tenkepause.

– Nei. Sadly. Det er fremdeles samme greia. Det er noe feil med meg, og det mener jeg. Jeg skal faktisk ikke engang spille i kveld. I honestly believe to God.

Howe Gelb løfter blikket over brillene. Intervjuet er over, han er på vei inn på lydsjekk og har det travelt. Han ser opp og humrer:

– Jeg spiller ikke før jeg står der oppe på scenen.

Han har vært Giant Sand i et kvart århundre, Howe Gelb i litt over det dobbelte. Vi har fått sneket til oss en snau halvtime bak scenen på Rockefeller, der han senere på kvelden skal varme opp for PJ Harvey og John Parish. Han har blitt grå i håret, tynnere i det også, blikket er fremdeles like våkent, vennlig. Han snakker lavt og langsomt med rusten twang i røsten, tenker seg om før han sier noe, og i hvert svar, i hver setning, gjemmer det seg en tekstfrase som kunne smyget seg ombord på hans egne låttekster. Det er noe genuint over hele hans språk, væremåte og stil. Gelb er hel ved, en mann som inngir respekt, men som også utstråler imøtekommenhet.

Vi snakker litt om å eldes. Gelb bikket 50 for et par år siden, og jeg undres på hvilke refleksjoner han har gjort seg rundt dette.

– Jeg kan endelig konkludere. Du spiller hver konsert som det er din siste, gir ut hver plate som det er den siste. For det er det. Til det kommer en ny. Og du vet ikke om det gjør det. Det er annerledes når man er ung, you cannot imagine demise, and you can’t feel the tentacles of… mortality. Når du blir eldre, overlever de 40, ser du at mange har gått bort, havnet i fengsel, på dop, det er ulykker, forferdelige sykdommer, og jo mer forstår du at livet spinner rundt døden – og det spiser oss. Da… skjønner du at det er et begrenset tall show igjen, et begrenset antall skiver. Du husker akkurat det når du spiller hver kveld.

Hva er bra med det?

– Man setter større pris på en del ting når man blir eldre. At man har evnen til å spille, for det vil forsvinne, the eyes’ gonna go, the senses’ gonna go, everything’s gonna go. So you evaluate and handle it in a way you’ve never done before. With a certain kind of care. Jeg har også blitt fortrolig med at jeg har lidd – og tjent – på et fravær av ambisjoner. Selv om jeg liker å lage musikk, liker å spille, så er jeg ikke ambisiøs i forhold til hva som skjer. Jeg har sett hva som har skjedd med folk som har levd for å fôre sine ambisjoner. Det er ikke bare negativt, men det er annerledes. Jeg har alltid ment at for mye suksess er vanskelig, men for lite blir også vanskelig. Man skal forsørge sin familie. Så blir foreldrene syke, alt blir tøffere. Det er grunner til at folk sjekker ut.

Han plukker på gitaren, en strofe kommer mens han snakker videre:

– So, through it all, you cut a course, and hang to the vessel that you manage to keep afloat, you pray for good winds, calm seas, but you enjoy a good storm now and again…

Accurate view
Howe Gelb tilbringer sommermånedene i Danmark med sin danske kone Sofie Albertsen Gelb og sine to yngste barn. Da har de fri fra skolen og det er mulig å unnslippe heten i hjembyen Tucson for en periode. Han mener også at barna har godt av å få innsikt i et annet samfunn og en annen mentalitet, gis en mer accurate view mens de fremdeles er små. Han beskriver årene med den forrige presidenten – som han ikke nevner ved navn – som “dark, depressive” og en periode med “lack of inspiration”.

– Vi har nyhetskanelene, spesielt Fox News som var pupetteers of that regime, and comically so, og som nå er så stakkarslige at det er rent morsomt å se på. Før stod de i skyggen av den fyren, snakket som news, kledde seg som news, de måtte være de ekte nyhetene, ikke sant? Men det var det ikke. Det eneste andre Fox har er gode tegnefilmer, som The Simpsons, men det er egentlig nyhetene deres som er tegnefilm.

Gelb avsluttet Australiaturneen en dag tidligere enn planlagt for å reise hjem og være med på valgnatten, og har sterke sympatier med Obama som han, om han ikke vil endre så mye, ”will make a dent” som han sier.

Jeg synes å spore noen tekster som visst politisk ladet på proVISIONS (Yep Roc, 2008)?

– Ja, og det var derfor vi måtte få den ut før det ble skifte, slik at vi kunne fortelle hvordan ting har vært. Etterpå ville det vært mer uinteressant. But I don’t wanna make it so apparent, so that the songs would be punished for it. It’s better he gets punished, not the songs.

I tiden fremover kan vi også se frem til en plate sammen med noen spanske flamencospillere, en liveskive – og film med ‘Sno Angel, og filmmusikk til animasjonsfilmen Mars, der Gelb også har fått en talerollen (til en skurk, kan han fornøyd fortelle). Han jobber også med et annet filmprosjekt i Tucson titulert The Lightbulb, og han ser på filmmusikk som noe han vil gjøre mer av, ikke minst for å slippe all reisingen.

Hvordan klarer man seg som musiker i dag?

– Jeg har en ganske god deal, en 50/50 splitt og alle rettigheter selv. Greia er at jeg gjør en hovedplate cirka annethvert år, samtidig gjør jeg en rekke andre prosjekter. Pianoplater, tour-only plater, Down Home-series, mer uoffisielle offisielle utgivelser kan du si. Hovedplaten selger mest, de andre selger halvparten og under det igjen. Men til sammen blir det 50 000 skiver hvert annet år. Det er ganske bra. Men det er konserter man lever på. Musikk høres ikke så bra ut lengre, men live låter det bedre enn noen gang.

Hva er ditt syn på nedlastning i et slikt bilde?

– MP3 er behagelig, men det høres ikke så godt ut. Det er greit å laste ned musikk, men hvis man liker musikken bør man gjøre seg selv den tjenesten å kjøpe en større fil. Downloading er en god måte å spre ordet på, og det er lettvint. Men jeg ender alltid opp med å kjøpe på CD eller LP til slutt selv.

I kveld skal du varme opp for andre artister, hvordan opplever du den rollen?

– Harvey og Parish er gode, gamle venner. Men det er litt snålt å åpne for noen. I am just 10 minutes to old to try to explain myself in song and application. I just wanna preach to the choir. Hver kveld står du mellom det folk har kommet for se mens klokken tikker. Man må være smart, finne det. Jeg gjør fremdeles noe nytt hver kveld for å utfordre meg selv.

Så også denne kvelden. For han kom på scenen. En kort halvtime med gelbness, on the spot versjoner av låter som Explorer og gullkorn som “This is not jazz. No clapping during soloes” og “Takk! …what are you takking about? I’m from Arizona. Tucson. Tucson talk…”

Yeah, takk Howie.