When Giant Sand played Celtic Connections Blabber’n’Smoke was fortunate enough to spend some time with Howe Gelb courtesy of Maverick magazine. After the band’s soundcheck at the ABC we found a quiet space in the CCA along the road where Howe spoke at some length on various topics. The Maverick piece was for a short feature on the band and the current re releases and will be in the March edition. In the meantime here’s some of the other topics we discussed.
The interview took place less than a week after the Tucson shootings and Howe was obviously affected by this. Initially he spoke about Gabby Giffords and his reflections on Barak Obama’s visit and speech in Tucson thereafter. This led us into some talk about his on line journal where he had reported on Obama’s visit and I asked him first of all if he had any thoughts on further writing, a book or some such.
“If I do it might be somewhere hidden in the tour journals but I don’t know if it would be a book I would want to read. That’s the problem and with the tour journals nothing is more banal or boring or routine than a tour journal so that’s why I allow that challenge to attempt to make the writing leaner and entertaining because it’s virtually the same thing every day. And you know when you’re younger you get into more trouble, you don’t know what will happen, you just go off in all kind of directions and its more lusty but when you’re older you kinda know what’s going to happen, so you’re wise enough to avoid that. So therefore the challenge is to make that writing in any way easier to swallow. I don’t know if my writing is clear enough so that folk understand what I’m saying and I don’t want to overindulge either and I also hate being the main subject matter, just that its convenient. That’s all because you’re aware of yourself mostly but then you’re still trying to step out of it now. It somehow has to relate to the world or other people. If you go by the fact that you’re a character read only by a fan base then you’re failing as a writer but if you make it so anyone can read it then it’s a good exercise.”
Have you read Ian hunters diary, a lot of it is about very humdrum day to day stuff
“Yeah, I only read it a year or two ago. I found it in John Parish’s house and I read it and it finishes with a show in Pennsylvania that I saw. I still remember that show, they opened for Edgar Winter and it’s really interesting now being in a similar situation as that guy. The full circle of him going to a gig and all of the stuff you put up with and then going to that gig in Scranton Pennsylvania.”
Half the time he’s most interested in whether the hairdryer’s working.
“He’s really a sensible cool guy in there way more than……. I don’t know. It sounded like it could happen today, the way he thinks and the way he went about things, I guess his values were sound. I saw them twice in Pennsylvania the second time they were headlining, I was 16 then, first time, 15, around 72. He said something about this in the book. First time they were opening for people, Edgar Winter had that hit Frankenstein and he was playing all those instruments on stage running around. But beforehand Mott the Hoople came out and man, for all these kids in Pennsylvania, to see those guys with those huge heels and those guitars and all those crazy shapes and shit it was fantastic. The next time I saw them, it was the same year I think ‘cos I don’t think I was able to drive yet. This was after the flood, the flood was in 72, they cleaned up after the flood so I went back there. I was there with my girlfriend and I remember it got so crowded some poor kid got pushed through the glass doors and the doors opened and my girlfriend lost her shoes and there was glass everywhere so I had to pick her up. It was all very exciting. And then the opening band was Queen and no one had ever heard of them, Brian May blew my mind that night, I kept thinking this was what Jimi Hendrix must have been like, the guy was amazing.”
Well some folk go all out for rock’n’ roll. Is that sad or silly?
“No, its necessary, I’m not sure why. It’s like some kind of sonic church where you don’t have to commit. It’s really without perimeters, it will embrace you if you want to embrace it but its not demanding at all. When you feel the surge of all those people, all that energy. And then reflecting off the people that are making the music back to the people who are sending it back to the band that’s when its at its best. And the people who are making the music are the same as the people in the crowd but they just found a way of crafting their workload the same as any carpenter or tradesman. The side effect of fame could be entertaining in itself but it could also just get in the way of the workload, there’s many trappings that can take you out of the game. ”
Well in the last two years we had the sad deaths of Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkhouse
“Yeah there was also Jim Dickinson and Alex Chilton.”
Chilton was huge in Glasgow
“He was amazing, I only saw him live one time, we played with him in this tiny village in Italy and the way he constructed his songs was unlike anyone, really old school, a dying art. It was really cool how he set his melody outside of the box of the chords and songs and rhythms they used.”
Is that not something you do?
“No I wish, his was specific, mine is really non-specific.”
Well an album like Flies on Sherbet was primitive, not polished. not hit song after hit song. Some of your albums have been criticised for snippets of sound, sonic tomfoolery. Neither of you were looking for a number one hit.
“I don’t see anything in common but that’s OK if you do ‘cos the whole idea of any of this stuff is you put it out there. Just going by your own gut instinct and you’re trying to hand down something you think is good that someone else hasn’t got wind of yet. That’s how it seemed like it was when I was receiving that information from people when I was growing up and so when I didn’t get enough of it so I tried to overcompensate. Get more of it and that sustains a lot of the music, all those bits and pieces but there’s not enough time. Always seems like there’s never enough time. There’s all this stuff and I want to give all this stuff to as many people as possible in as little time as possible and that’s been what’s been dogging me since the get go. Especially as I thought when I was 28 and finally making a record that this should have happened four or five years before and now I got to catch up. There’s less time than I thought I had. Coming up with material never seemed to be a problem but within that material I wanted to season it with as many elements as possible that I thought was good, even if it was smaller moments and then switch it to this other thing. It wasn’t until way later that people started saying it was weird or all over the place or if I had any sense of where I was slotting in category wise. Its not what I call weird or strange so sometimes I pause to think about why people do but I don’t want to speculate. Doesn’t matter what I think.”
Well most folk expect an album to have twelve songs.
“If you take yourself way outside the orbit of a song, you know the orbit of a song can be molecular, could be as small as an atom especially in your world because your world is so cluttered with other stuff. So when you do hear a song it has to cut through all this other stuff. When you hear a song simply constructed with a chorus that you can hum by the second time you hear it now you’re involved with it, its allowing you in. If by the end if the song it seems shorter than it really was that’s a good sign, its easily and readily digestible and you want more. But if you look at it most of my stuff doesn’t do that. Because it’s molecular. It’s not as big as the universe. With the molecular stuff it’s the same thing goin’ on but just by application you have to go into the molecule, you’re not already in the molecule like you’re in the solar system. You got to now go into the molecule and if have the luxury of time to check out what’s happening then it will be just as effective. The bottom line, the end result is most people, the molecule whizzes by them . They don’t have the time or why should they dive into that thing when everything they need is going to hit them over the head like a solar system anyway. Waiting for a planet to hit them on the head.”
At that we had to call it a day as showtime was beckoning. The gig was tremendous with blistering renditions of older Giant Sand songs and some rip-roaring stuff from the latest album, Blue Blurry Mountain. On stage Gelb continued to be the gentleman, wooing the crowd with his unique mannerisms and elegant language. A fine night.