Giant Sand Gives Fans the Boot

When is a bootleg not a bootleg? When it's "official." Howe Gelb explains why.

By design, bootlegs are supposed to be against the rules--people pay top dollar for the illicit thrill of hearing music not meant for world consumption. Tacking an "official" seal onto the forbidden fruit leaves a bad aftertaste, like parents telling their teenage son it's okay to smoke dope and have sex in the family room--gee, thanks, Mom.

So what excuse does Giant Sand front man Howe Gelb offer for the band-authorized "bootleg" Volume One: Official Bootleg Series, a new collection of previously unavailable Giant Sand alternate takes, remixes and live cuts on Epiphany Records?

"Well, they've just been slacking off big time."
"They" being the bootleg merchants who somehow missed all the material on Volume One, even though for years Giant Sand has been one of the most heavily booted indie bands in alternadom.

"A guy from Germany recently faxed me a list of all the bootleg tapes he had," says Gelb. "There were a lot of other bands, too, like the Grateful Dead, but the Giant Sand selection was an entire page and a half. All these little bits and pieces, like 42 minutes from this studio session, 22 minutes from that live show, real detailed shit. He even graded them A plus, B minus, depending on how he thought we did."

Part Crazy Horse, part Captain Beefheart, Tucson's Giant Sand has survived 16 years and as many albums. In the process, the band has accrued fanatical devotion and wide, if slightly bewildered, critical acclaim--it's rare to see rock critics assign terms like "lack of cohesion," "meandering," "inconsistent" and "willful disintegration" to a group's body of work and mean them as compliments.

Self-rated as "America's Best Obscure Band" and pegged as purveyors of "sunbaked surrealism" by the New York Times, Giant Sand is known for mixing, mastering and releasing the kind of spontaneous studio work that most bands furiously run past tape erase heads, as if second takes invite unhealthy calculation.

Nowadays, "real" or "unofficial" bootlegs usually come with annotation up the wazoo--identifying session dates, studios, take numbers and personnel in addition to packaging that's virtually indistinguishable from its legally manufactured brethren. But where-and-when details on Giant Sand's new "official bootleg" are in short supply. Even the lackeys at Epiphany are annoyingly vague about the origin of the tracks, providing the skimpiest bio this side of the Witness Protection Program. Fortune cookies have been more forthcoming with information.

In fact, with its hand-drawn cover and negligible liner notes, Official Bootleg Series seems like a throwback to classic early boots like Dylan's Great White Wonder or the Beatles' Yellow Matter Custard, both packaged with only a mimeographed sheet of titles slapped onto a white cardboard sleeve.

Epiphany owner Brad Singer gave Gelb carte blanche on the Series' austere packaging. "The simplicity of this cover reverts to when you were a kid and dreamed about making a record," says Gelb. "This is probably what you would dream, before you knew anything about graphics or technology or credits."

What--no thank yous to spiritual advisers and drum key grips? "It felt more natural and an extreme pleasure not to include all the fucking details that have nothing to do with ears listening to it," says Gelb. "It's for collectors to relax, just chill and listen. Don't worry about where it's from. It's for your pure pleasure, not your intellect."

Unconvinced? Lucky for you, Gelb gave up the goods. So grab a pen and jot down these data on the two blank inner panels of Official's "liner notes"--the oldest and shortest cut ("T.W.'s Forgotten Chorus") dates back to a 1991 in-store gig in Vancouver, British Columbia, while the most recent contribution ("No Name Guitars") was recorded live at New York's Mercury Lounge this spring, and features Meat Puppet Cris Kirkwood on drums. "Corridor of Love" is virtually the same song as "Corridor" (off the band's 1993 album Purge and Slouch) except Gelb sings "first-draft lyrics."

"Smokey Joe's Deep Blue Pancakes," Gelb says, is "a 13-minute blues jam I really like and never had room for on any album." The remaining tracks are outtakes from Giant Sand's last limited-edition, a radio session dubbed the Backyard Barbecue Broadcast. Bon appetit!

The seeds for the Official Bootleg project were sown even before Brad Singer started up Epiphany. Two years ago, Singer financially backed a documentary about the band by French filmmaker and Giant Sand fanatic Marianne Dissard. When it looked like the project had crumbled before the film was in the can, Gelb felt bad and offered to turn over some tapes from the band's vault so Singer could recoup some of his money (as it turns out, Dissard's documentary Drunken Bees came out this summer).

No royalties, no statements, no headaches. Epiphany pressed 2,000 copies of the disc, the band got 500 to sell on the road. The simplicity of this arrangement appeals to Gelb, whose band is currently "between labels." In Europe, where Gelb has licensing control, all of Giant Sand's albums have been readily available since their initial releases. At home it's another story--many of the group's recordings are special order only.

Giant Sand's penchant for putting out nearly everything it records has led to a sprawling discography--the band's oeuvre is scattered among eight different indie labels, most of which, according to Gelb, "couldn't get their shit together for whatever reason when we were signed to them."

"It's kind of like we're running across the ravine on one of those cartoon bridges made of wood and rope. And all these little bits of wood are falling and burning behind us as we're running.

"The negative side of being around since 1980 is that the real record companies like CBS/Sony wonder what the fuck is wrong with us, why we've never gotten any farther than this," Gelb wearily admits. "So they don't want to touch us. A few years ago, there was a buzz about us. Virgin and Geffen wanted to sign us. Now it's kind of like, 'Well, what is wrong with us?' Am I a monster? Are we so antiambitious? None of that stuff is true."

Nevertheless, Gelb is rethinking his band's strategy.
"All of our albums have been outtakes. You could probably condense all of them down to two or three records," he muses. "I don't know if I want to indulge those feelings [that Giant Sand is antiambitious] by putting out more hodgepodge stuff, or if I should just wait, and when we put out the next release in the States, make sure it's nothing short of stunning."

Still, Gelb maintains that nothing in music should be a sure thing--not recordings, and especially not live performances.

"'Come watch us fail.' That's part of our credo," he says. "Failing and being entertaining, too. How stunningly you can lose. How heroically you can slide into home and still get tagged out. The standard of us failing has risen over the years, so even when we think we're not that good, it's still pretty good. I can say that now, 'cause I'm turning 40 this year and I have the wisdom of an elder."

For a long time, Gelb has wanted to do solo work, but felt guilty about upsetting the band's livelihood, or what Gelb terms "the Giant Sand security blanket." Now everything's in a healthy state of flux, with bassist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino continuing to helm their popular outside project Friends of Dean Martinez.

"The state of the band is changing somehow," mulls Gelb. "Whether it matters on the grand scale, I don't know. We've got this inversion to Giant Sand called OP8 that's coming out on Thirsty Ear in January, and it doesn't sound at all like Giant Sand. And I'm pursuing this solo thing, which I'm liking more and more." Lately, Gelb's busied himself recording a solo album in his living room, but, he says, sighing, "now I'm worried it sounds a little too lo-fi."

As for an Official Bootleg: Volume Two, Gelb says it will probably be the recording originally slated for Volume One, an acoustic album titled Goods and Services the band put out in Germany a few years ago. Again, only 2,000 will be pressed. "People who want them, they'll get them. And they'll be gone," Gelb reckons.

Unlike Frank Zappa, Paul McCartney and Aerosmith, who have all issued their own musical contraband, Gelb says Giant Sand isn't out to "beat the boots" for their artistic and financial infractions. Why else would he ask Epiphany to remove its standard package warning: "Duplication is not cool"?

"Because," Gelb testifies, "duplication is cool!"

Giant Sand is scheduled to perform on Friday, September 27, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with Bell. Showtime is 10 p.m.

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