This is how an interview with Howe Gelb begins. Question: How are you doing?
Gelb: (17 seconds of silence.)
Q: Did I wake you up?
Gelb: No. I thought you were talking. Then you just stopped.
Q: I was. I said, 'How are you doing?'
Gelb: Oh. You needed a reply.
Q: Uh, yeah.
Gelb: I'm fine.
You don't get an average conversation out of Howe Gelb, but then, Howe isn't your average musician.
In case you didn't know, Gelb is the fecund mind behind Giant Sand, a band from Tucson that is respected in America, worshipped in Europe, and is to pop/country/noise music what Sun Ra was to jazz. Which is to say that over eight years and 14 releases--some as part of Sand, some solo--he's become a master at fitting sounds and words together that lesser heads might say are, well, at least disparate.
The hell with those heads. Gelb is up there with Tom Waits and Alex Chilton and the Frogs, up there where the clanks and grunts and mumbles mean as much as the traditional rules of song-making. Giant Sand offers a musical game that moves as it plays; you never know what you're going to hear next for the plain and simple reason that the band doesn't know what it's going to play next.
"It's about going in with a supreme and sublime attitude of not having anything in your head," says Gelb of his work. "We aren't arguing with the absence of intelligence--we crave it.
Sand is shifting north this week for a rare Phoenix performance that will benefit the Shanti Group, a nonprofit organization founded in 1986 to provide AIDS/HIV health-care services. Shanti filed for bankruptcy last October, yet is still--for the time being--operating around the clock.
Just don't ask Gelb to tell you about it; on a planet filled with grief-stricken celebs soapboxing about saving things, he's refreshingly quiet. "I'm not one to speak too eloquently on the nature of causes," he says, speaking eloquently. "Just that there is one, and it's such an obvious one, and it just makes fine sense, and you don't think that much about it other than, 'This can work.'"
Not everybody will think Purge and Slouch works; yet fans and other open minds will not be disappointed in Sand's latest release. It would be unfair to call it country, unfair to call it blues--unfair not only to both genres, but to the band, too. It's spare, mostly acoustic music that evokes sunrise on the desert as much as it does a decaying motel room at 3 a.m. "We thought this record was going to be a full-on purging," croaks Gelb in a voice that rarely sounds fully awake. "That was going to be our premise, just go up there and make our noise record, a big flushing, and instead this ridiculously quiet record happened. Which wasn't surprising; we started to calculate too much."
Purge and Slouch was recorded in a living room and on a porch in Tucson owned by a production novice named Harvey Moltz; his lone qualification for the job was that he runs a guitar shop. This organic setting, an absolute necessity in the Sand creative process, allowed things to fester and grow that most bands would have erased without a second thought. Keep in mind we're talking about a man who describes a new song as being "barely a vapor" up until the tape machine is turned on. But don't think Gelb and company are pretentious art-trash types foisting their every fart and whimper on a naive public that confuses "good" with something it can't understand. The band edits itself, and actually eliminated a song (Smokey Joe's Deep Blue Pancakes") from the original lineup. "It was 13 and a half minutes long, so we decided to delete that sucker," Gelb admits. "It's okay the first time you hear it, it actually sounds like we can play blues. Which is cool to know, but not to beat somebody over the head with."
In the gap, he stuck a song called "Corridor" that originally had typical stream-of-Gelb lyrics. "Aw, hell, it was about me trying to record the washing machine in the backyard and a friend getting a haircut at the same time and this neighbor and her voodooesque treatment of the little bits of hair on the ground. It was just completely stupid." The song changed into a story of life in the Tucson barrio--the streets just seem like one long hallway"--and features the background vocals of ex-Bangle Vicki Peterson and Susie Cowsill. But wait, there's more. The original track is now a Danish promotional single. Called "Corduroy Door."
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"Sometimes you have a scrap or a line that you're thinking about; most of the time you just have a perspective, and you imagine yourself in that perspective while you're coming up with something, and you hope you don't fall on your face," Gelb says. "But if you do fall on your face, it's kind of entertaining."
When your entire artistic premise is built on an anything-goes foundation, it's got to be kind of hard to fall on your face, a fact that's not been lost at the band's live shows. "We'd like to think we can just set up a table onstage and play cards for an hour and that would be okay. We've kind of got to that point in Europe,
" says the guitarist. Most of Sand's income generates from countries abroad, and the band tours in Europe at least once a year. "It's comfortable there because we maintain that Route 66 type of disposition," says Gelb, referring the 60s TV series that featured characters Buz and Tod, who crisscrossed the country in a Corvette on an exciting, ongoing trip to nowhere. "We're in a little car and we go from town to town, we work for a bit, and we see actual faces and hang with them, then we get back in the car and split again. It's more like an episode of Route 66 than some type of rock formula.
" Of course, everybody knows Europeans love weird American stuff.
They sorta like the absence of pretense," Gelb offers. "Whatever they're going to get is unique for that evening or location, and everybody in the crowd could make a difference as far as the mood swings for what we play."
Which is a good indication that Gelb can give no indication of what Giant Sand will be playing at the Shanti benefit. "We haven't played in a long time," he says. "It'll just be a collision of mistakes. But that's okay." Giant Sand will perform on Friday, January 7, at Tony's New Yorker Club in Tempe, with Piersons, and Slims. Showtime is 8 p.m.