Howe Gelb interview

2015 marks 30 years of Giant Sand, the protean band that has been the primary vehicle for Howe Gelb’s restless sonic journey over three decades. Through various incarnations from duo to 12 piece (aka Giant Giant Sand) Gelb has steered the band’s unique path and also found time to release solo albums and recordings under various names (including The Band Of Blacky Ranchette, OP8, and Arizona Amp & Alternator). Heartbreak Pass, released on New West Records on 4th May is the latest Giant Sand offering with Gelb explaining that the album is an attempt of sorts to celebrate the band’s twists and turns. “There are three volumes of 15 songs here representing living two lives for 30 years” adding “Don’t do the math. It doesn’t figure.” Featuring the current Giant sand line up along with contributions from artists scattered across the globe (Tucson, Portland, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Bristol) much of the album was recorded at pit stops as Gelb criss crossed the Atlantic over the past year before being mixed by John Parish in Bristol. Over the course of the album Gelb is joined by the likes of Grant Lee Phillip, Steve Shelley, Jason Lytle, Maggie Bjorklund, Sacri Cuori and The Voices Of Praise Gospel Choir. Gelb was back in Bristol earlier this month for a preview showing of another project he’s involved with, Out Of The Desert, a documentary of the last Giant Giant Sand tour filmed by Peter Triest. We managed to hook up with Howe by telephone as he travelled back to London by train the day after the screening. Despite a poor connection and a lot of background noise Howe began by talking about the film screening the previous night.

It was really good, it went down well. It was a preview, testing to see the audience reaction….how well it’s coming along. He’s (Peter Triest) put it all together with his own money, his own investment before he does a kickstarter or whatever you do now to finish it properly, get a final edit. The first half of last night was me doing a solo set with John Parish on drums and the second half was the film screening. It’s a film of the tour we last did with the big band and then there’s my narration over it. He took excerpts of me reading my tour journal, each passage relating to a show. Now he has to see how it works, maybe trim it down a little bit. I think if he wants it to have a broader scale he needs to make it a film that doesn’t just preach to the choir. I think it’s a hard job to make a film like this entertaining.

Heartbreak Pass is being billed as a celebration of 30 years of Giant Sand. Was that in your mind when you were recording it?

Well I think it was in my mind in the way that I was thinking of how much time I’ve put into it, how much time has passed. I don’t think it’s obvious but I was trying to assemble it with material that warrants three decades, I didn’t want to put in stuff like I did in the beginning. Back then I would put in stuff that was unwarranted so to speak, more playful. I didn’t mind killing time, wasting some time to go to battle with the eighties for example but now I have a shorter story to tell, it’s more to the point

The album was recorded in several locations, often as you passed through on tour.

Yeah, I think that’s the natural way to do things. It might make a lot of sense to just spend two weeks in a studio to make an album, it worked maybe many years ago but I don’t see the merit in it now. That’s the beauty of it, recording wherever you are lets you capture the lightning bugs in the jar at the moment they’re around.

Lightning bugs?

Yeah, those little insects that light up in the night, fireflies. The songs are the fireflies and the album’s the jar.

I get a sense in some of the songs on the album that it’s describing you as a global traveller, missing out on things like family, kids growing up etc. Is it time to do less of the travelling and spend more time at home?

Well the thing is you can’t afford the family without going to work so this is the impossible nature of trying to this… this particular job. It’s a job without retirement or security so all I can do is reflect on the impossible nature of it, not with regret or even celebration that it happened at all or that I’ve been able to do it for thirty years and that three children can be raised up. I think I’m able to pause and consider all the ramifications but at the same time I don’t think I’m ever that obvious in my lyrics, I understand what those songs are about but the listener can just take from them whatever they need

Do you see yourself then as being on some never ending tour, a bit like Dylan?

Well I think he stands as a symbol for just being around so long. I think he decided to just stay on the road to keep him from going senile. If you’re forced to be sharp by staying on the road then with that kind of challenge then you’re not going to get dementia. I think he needs it for an exercise. For me, I’ve taken the blue collar route. You have to tour in order to make a living, I enjoy it more than ever but you have to recognise that travel takes its toll but then if I worked in construction I’d have congested lung.

You spent much of last year on tour with Grant Lee Phillip

Yeah, we just finished a couple of days ago in Florence, Italy, after a year of doing it. We’ve talked about getting together again to record some songs.

Talking of Italy, Sacri Couri appear on one of the songs on the album.

Yeah on that song, Hurtin’ Habit. Well I was in Italy and I just started to write it and they were there so they helped me out.

Getting back to the 30 years anniversary I noticed that at SXSW you joined up with some previous collaborators, The Psycho Sisters, Winston Watson and Scott Gerber. How does it feel when you’re catching up with folk like that from the distant past?

Well life gets so crowded that you can’t spend as much time or at least the time you would want to with people you’ve met along the way. Like with Winston, it was so great to play with him again, it feels so familiar but it gives you a new pulse.

Can I ask you about Lonna Beth Kelley who does a wonderful job on the vocals on Pen To Paper?

Lonna and I have been very good friends for a long time. I adore her, I love her voice and the way she carries a song.

The album’s out in May and I believe you’re coming back to the UK to play some shows with Giant Sand.
In May we’re touring through Europe, Switzerland, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. We’ve got some UK dates lined up in June . Liverpool, I’ve never been to Liverpool so it’ll be good to be there. The others are at The Brudenell Social Club, a great venue in Leeds and Union Chapel in London, one of my favourite places.

With that Howe’s train sped on and we gave up battling with the onboard announcements. Since then Giant Sand have been confirmed to play at The End Of The Road Festival in September. Heartbreak Pass is released on 4th May on New West Records and the progress of the film Out Of the Desert can be followed on its Facebook page

Giant Sand website

Tour dates




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