Howe Gelb on Giant Giant Sand, and How an Acid Trip and Roman Polanski Birthed Tucson's Music Scene

Howe Gelb on Giant Giant Sand, and How an Acid Trip and Roman Polanski Birthed Tucson's Music Scene
Fire Records

See also: Howe Gelb Discusses Rainer Ptacek

Howe Gelb doesn't like to fight fate.

The Tucson-based singer/songwriter says that destiny played a big role in the birth of Tucson, the new record from Gelb's Giant Giant Sand collective. The extra "giant" was added to signify the group's swelling ranks, which includes longtime collaborators Thoger T. Lund, Peter Dombernowski, Anders Pederesen and Nikolaj Heyman, young Tucsonans like Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan, and Jon Villa, and Phoenix-based vocalist Lonna Kelley, among other players on strings and horns.

"It's sort of a dual celebration and homage of Tucson," Gelb says. "I've spent a lot of my life in Denmark and Spain and Austria, and here I am, really loving making music in Tucson again. I'm just glad that the flood delivered me there way back when."

Gelb spoke with Up on the Sun about putting together "the big band," about his moving tribute to Gabrielle Giffords, and about his "brother Rainer," and about the Roman Polanski film and acid trip that birthed the Tucson music scene.

Up on the Sun: How did Giant Sand become Giant Giant Sand? The first time [we performed] was an accident. We were invited in to play a festival in Berlin last July to represent the Sonoran Desert. The stipulation was, we, Giant Sand, come up there and bring three guests from the Sonoran desert. So I chose accordingly: Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan, and Jon Villa for their heritage, their ability, and their creative spark. I had been playing with them off-and-on for a year or so -- just alone with them -- and it was really inspiring.

Brian suggested he invite a string section, which happened to be two violin players from Denmark, which happened to be from the same town that the rest of my band was from in Denmark. One of the two string players was actually born in Tucson . . . so all those coincidences lined up to inform me we were on some path, a good path, the right path.

We never got a chance to perform live together -- no rehearsal or practice -- until we were on stage for a set. Everyone on board was okay with not having a set list, which is how I usually do it. It was a sold-out event, maybe 1,500 people, and as the set progressed it kept getting better, like sonic spontaneous combustion.

When we got done with that, we gave it one more go. At the end of October, there was a festival that had me as a curator, in Switzerland. I got the big band back together, including two other players: Lonna Kelley from Phoenix, who's been playing off-and-on with us for the past five years, whose voice I adore and whose sense of humor I need; and a pedal steel player from Denmark named Maggie Bjorklund. There were 12 of us, and it sounded more effortless in this huge band and more effective than anything I could remember.

The next day -- we didn't really know what we sounded like; we just knew how much fun it was to play in this posse -- we went into this small studio in Switzerland and just laid down four quick songs. This is probably a pretty good analogy: It took us about four hours to organize and get ourselves to the studio, but only about 45 minutes to record and then leave. That's kind of the way it's been. The getting to where we've gotta go is the difficult thing, but once we're there, it has a life of its own.

It sounded uncluttered -- no one was playing on top of each other. So that was the idea, to try and get a record together by the end of the year.

It sounds like a very organic process. Looking back on the course of my sonic existence, I've been more ruled by nature or the natural way than any kind of instigated planning, you know? That's just what works for me, or suits me. When all coincidences line up, they just inform me that this is the way to go. I don't know why, or what it's going to yield, but I approach it with a faith and a confidence that this is what I'm to be doing. Fate . . . that's what I go by. I try not to fight destiny.


Giant Giant Sand vocalist Lonna Kelley performing with M. Ward at the Crescent Ballroom.
Giant Giant Sand vocalist Lonna Kelley performing with M. Ward at the Crescent Ballroom.
Melissa Fossum

Tucson features voices other than your own -- Gabriel Sullivan, Lonna Kelley, and Brian Lopez, Jon Villa -- what attracts you to those voices? What is it about this collection of voices that attracts you? Everyone's contributions are stellar, but I'm very attracted to Lonna's out of a sense of hometown pride. She really knocks it out of the park on these tunes.

I think so. I met Lonna in 2004, but I never really heard her until 2005 or so. I was very much taken with her, her attack, and her sensibilities. [Phoenix DJ/musician] Shane Kennedy introduced me to her, and from that point on, we became friends. We would try to take her on the road as much as possible, especially overseas. I tried to do the thing I've always done, and spread the word of what we think good is. Especially when it's in our own backyard.

So, the other guys . . . It's like I woke up one day and realized how cemented Tucson was with these new young, tremendously gifted musicians. I've never seen the town so swarmed with so many great players, great singers, great songwriters. And that's part of the reason to pay homage to the town with the album title, and write a scenario based around the setting of the town with this album.

It's 2012, and rife with Mayan calendar fear and people have these wild speculations. In "Not the End of the World," you sing that world is already gone for some. What kind of people are you singing about there? Are those people the kind of characters this record is about?

I don't think it's very correct to over-illuminate who a particular line is about. I think it's almost rude to insist on who any line or lyric is about. Once the listener picks up on it, it's the listener's lyric. Part of the art -- it's a hidden art -- is to suggest in terms of poetic flair certain things and certain people. I could only be vague, at best, and say, maybe because of my age, and bearing witness to the planet, you can see that times have gotten tougher for people. Some people have fallen by the wayside, have died, are still around but have completely deflated with existence.

All I'm doing with that line is turning the phrase, redefining the idea that some have that the world is ending this year, and saying, "It's nothing new." It's already happened to some people. The world that we know, as I know it, as you know it, could end this year, but not the way Hollywood portrays it. Not like 2012 the film, with massive physical changes, but it's all in your head and in your heart when your world really does go to hell. Goes to shit. You really do feel like it's over. Whatever you felt was right before now you feel is wrong.

But that whole song is supposed to be a soothing, monotone murmur, suggesting that no matter what happens, everything is going to be okay.

Which is a beautiful suggestion, and funny. Well, there has to be laughter. When someone intones that everything is going to be okay, even when the outlook seems impossible, at that moment, things begin to become okay. It's tried and true. That simple little delivery has been engaged for an eternity, ever since people could talk to each other. Even when you're up against impossible odds, someone says "It's going to be okay," and you believe that person. You've always believed that person, you can't figure out how, but if they say it, and you believe it, in that moment things start to be okay. Okay?

  The line "adios losers" pops up a couple of times. I know this record is about celebrating a place, but it is about saying goodbye to a place as well? Yeah, it's that hard . . . the torque of leaving your hometown and thinking that there's something better out there. Because it's almost an insult to everyone you're leaving behind. Other people are envious of you, because they're bored with the town . . . you know it so well, and you need new adventure. You're not in a favorable position with anyone, and that's sort of an exploratory moment there. He's being cutting and cute at the same time, saying "Good luck, suckers. I'm out of here." And the rest of the town is saying, "Yeah, get out of here loser. You'll be back." [laughs] That's the way it goes, all over the world. That's how the journey begins, realistic like that.

The record features a version of "Recovery Mission," the song you wrote following the Gabrielle Giffords shooting for the Luz de Vida compilation. The song tied together some very big themes: a terrible tragedy, a sense of victory, an earthbound event with these cosmic ideas. The entire compilation really spoke to a sense of healing, it was an absolute success in terms of that, and this song in particular resonated with me. Could you share a little bit about that song?

Well, thanks for even saying that. That's very sweet.

It's the truth. Absolutely. [Deep breath] When something so shocking occurs, right in front of you, right where you live, and there's no way to explain it. You can't satisfy that gut wrench of "why, why did this have to happen?" Everyone is saturated with this shock and sadness, and a lot of it is not knowing what to do, and how to help those directly involved. So what happens in songwriters is that they can't help but bubble out on anything that disturbs them or that they celebrate.

It came out very soon after the tragedy -- I don't need to go into the details of the tragedy, because everyone in Arizona knows it well -- but I would just spend my days at the piano, almost in mantra form, and eventually I heard myself singing lyrics that I wasn't trying to write. When the band came to town, this song is there, or it's almost there, and I found myself recording. At that point, you don't even know what it is. There's something about the take of us playing it that one time, and capturing some essence, and the mood, in the music, and the lyrics split forward. It felt like medicine, like it was good enough to soothe in that one moment, and no more.

There was one lyric I really wanted to put in there, but I didn't want to change [the recording]. The moment of singing and playing had a certain sacred harvest to it. I don't like going in there and trying to make it more perfect; I like the feeling that came out, you can't ever get that again.

But I went to my kid's school, and I went to the classes and asked if I could get the kids singing "step by step." I pulled my daughter and her friend out of class and asked if they could sing the line "recovering, recovering." I went back with these recordings, and my coincidence or validation was that they had happened to sing in the exact same key as the song without hearing it. When I hear those children singing recovering, it ties in with what I told you about "Not the End of the World." When you hear someone older tell you it's going to be okay, and you believe it, it actually begins being okay, even if the world is ending. When you hear these children singing "recovering, recovering, step by step," you're pulled into it. You being to recover. These are elements, healing elements of connecting people together. Stepping back and really seeing us living in a planet in outer space. I'm not trying to be explicit, I'm not trying to do some sort of journalism. I want it to be poetic, but not get too esoteric or abstract with the poetry. I wanted to come up with a song that's helpful, and medicinal.


That's a good thought, that a song should be useful. That it serves a purpose. So much of it comes back to my good friend Rainer. I always tie it back to him. Surviving Rainer's death in the late '90s has a lot to do with me doing that song . . . He was so capable of that kind of healing. In fact, we're re-releasing his tribute record, The Inner Flame [on Fire Records]. It was originally put out while he was alive and it took on a life of its own. I approached Robert Plant because I knew he was a fan of Rainer, and since that first record, we've still collected other friends taking part in hopes of doing another volume. All these years later we've meshed both collections together. Now we have Lucinda Williams, John Wesley Harding, Grandaddy, and the late great Chris Whitley, and it ends with John [Convertino] and Joey [Burns] of Calexico playing with Rainer.

All of this ties together. At this age, I can be audacious enough -- at 55, I can be audacious, right?

Sure, I think you've earned it. I want to say, me and Rainer getting together in 1976 began whatever the "Tucson sound" is. The town has the grand sound, and this grand reputation. There are healthy labels, co-ops, and the indie rock way of doing it, and you just see so many young musicians who know you don't have to go to L.A. or Nashville. They can stay in Tucson and be happy and proud that they are from Arizona, and it has enough of a reputation. You can be here and make beautiful sounds and raise a family.

When we first started, we didn't have it all figured out. If you made music, you weren't sure what to do with it. That's the path-finding that we unknowingly did then. And I take it one step back, it's primarily because Roman Polanski.

How so? In '76, he made a film called The Tenant, and in the '70s I was prone to psychedelic experiences, because there was so much time between events. The '70s were so open that it was actually okay to spend your time on peyote or mushrooms, or acid. As a young man, on the night I met Rainer, I was finishing up a three-day acid trip. Almost mistakenly, I went to see this film, The Tenant. It's an amazing movie -- but seeing it on acid is almost diabolical. There's a scene and the end of movie where there's this very surreal applause. So right after that film, I walked home with a friend, and I was supposed to go meet this guy named Rainer at the Helen Street Café down the road. I was still on the edges of tripping, coming down slowly. Rainer was playing on this tiny stage, and my friend saw me walk in and said, "This is the guy I was telling you about. He plays piano." I wasn't that good, but he immediately calls me up to jam with him.

I was still in this state -- so I couldn't say no. I was worried, because I could only play in the key of G, and he said that was fine, his guitar was tuned to G. So we start playing one song for 45 minutes without stopping, because I couldn't face any applause, because of that Polanski film. So, thanks to Polanski, I just played until the place closed and emptied out. That was our birthing, our bonding. So thanks to Polanski, there's a Tucson music scene.

Have you ever had the chance to tell him that? [laughs] No, I just realized it on the last tour. I said, "Oh, this is why I couldn't stop playing with Rainer." And he was good with a 45-minute jam. You can't do that! One song for 45 minutes? Nobody can do that, I don't know how it's possible. We just kept reinventing it as we went along, and changing it and changing it. Rainer was so good with that, and from that point on he was truly my brother.

Tucson is available now via Fire Records.

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