Erosion of Rock

Giant Sand's Howe Gelb on his band's ever-evolving sound.

Howe Gelb has been called “the godfather of alt-country,” and his sound is consistently described in terms of the desert and Southwest. So it’s not surprising that the press release for his band Giant Sand’s newest album, proVISIONS, is rife with the stereotypical remarks about tumbling tumbleweeds and dusty ravines. Yet take this lyric from the song “Increment of Love”: Molecule/Molly is nobody’s fool/Comes from an excellent gene pool/happy little cells flipping from her lip/and spend the night here screaming for the mothership. Elliptical wordplay is nothing new to maverick songwriter Gelb, but it sure doesn’t pigeonhole easily. Where are the songs about the highway?

“Whatever I’ve been a party of, music-wise, has been positive erosion,” Gelb explained from his home in Tucson, his voice raspy and a little sly. “I think improvisation is too kind of a word, because it indicates talented people playing within a jazz structure. But we would improvise in other ways, we would change 4/4 songs into 3/4 songs at the drop of a hat. I would make up songs and they would sound as if we had rehearsed them. I call it combustionable material — like subverting the song in a good way, every night. I think I should be the ambassador of erosion rock, and its reconstitution.”

Gelb’s new label, Yep Roc (a major change from his old label, Thrill Jockey), also points out that the basic tracks for the record were recorded in Copenhagen with a band of Danish musicians, then tweaked back in the States, with guests like Neko Case, M. Ward, and Isobel Campbell dropping in to help out. But again, this is a little bit of misdirected information, preying on the folks who think John Convertino and Joey Burns from Calexico are still in the band. In reality, bassist Thoger T. Lund, drummer Peter Dombernowsky, and slide guitarist Anders Pedersen have been in the band at least since 2004’s Giant Sand Is All Over the Map. (Of course the concept of the group is more of an extended family than something fixed.) One listen and you’ll know you’re in good hands.

“The thing with those guys is that they’re such brilliant players!” Gelb enthused. “Existing [as a musician] here in America, like in England, is so difficult! Out of the torment and survival tactics comes a soulfulness and involvement that I don’t think can ever happen when everything is provided for too comfortably. In certain countries where it’s government funded, they’ll put you in a school for music if you want to go. They become better players, but the thing they don’t have is that weird thread of … suffering … within that allows you to soar on occasion. They find my torment appealing, and I find their musicianship appealing.”

It could be that combination of polished players and perhaps the change of record label, but, taken as a whole, proVISIONS is perhaps the most focused thing Gelb has put out under the Giant Sand moniker. Things feel pretty tight, whether they’re hitting the groovy rock on “The New Romance of Falling” or the Junior Brown-ish honky-tonk of “Can Do.” Throughout, there are lots of little moments when Gelb’s sly sense of humor creeps out, and his instinct for contrast is stunning as always. Proof lies in the pseudo funk of “Saturated Beyond Repair” leading straight into the squalling electric guitars and horns of “World’s End State Park (Wordless),” which then just as suddenly becomes a jazzy, spaghetti-western thing.

The question that’s been on a lot of minds, especially since it’s been four years since a proper Giant Sand release, is what makes it a Giant Sand album versus a Howe Gelb solo disc? “I’ve been able to master the elements the way you master a storm,” Gelb said after thinking for a moment. “I know when to go out with the choir, I know when to go out solo. You have to have something in between, which is why I keep coming back to Giant Sand. It’s the like the rotation of a comet; every now and then I have to come back around.”

Gelb is astonishingly prolific and hardworking, continually touring when he’s not recording. Of late, however, he has taken occasional moments off in his adopted second home in Denmark. But touring always calls: “It’s coming down to the cash cow of touring,” Gelb said. “Touring is bolstered by the free downloads that are out there. More people hear the music. The only time to hear good quality music, because MP3s so far, they’re only convenient, is to go see a band play live.” And besides, Gelb avowedly loves the camaraderie that goes along with traveling with his mates. In fact, he’s frequently said over the years that hanging out with the band is just as crucial as playing music with the band.

“That’s what gives the music its importance,” he said. “The only way I know how to play is when you’re playing with people almost in conversation. When I travel with the gospel choir, it’s kind of like traveling with a town! Yeah! It’s the craziest, warmest, happiest, sweetest time I’ve ever had making music.” Then, his voice getting a bit impish: “When we go out with Giant Sand, it’s got dollop of sweetness, but an equal dollop of that lil’ devil on your shoulder coming out to play. He knows better than to come out when I’m with the gospel choir, but with Giant Sand he comes out to play and boink around and mess things up!” he said, laughing.

Throughout the conversation, Gelb points out that he’s over fifty now, implying various things. He’s been making music, Giant Sand and otherwise, for a quarter of a century, creating influence, spinning off other bands such as Calexico and Friends of Dean Martinez like children. He’s watched the world change and how that’s reflected in music. (“When Republicans are in office, rock music gets better!”) Finally, this year he recorded an album using primarily digital technology, though he usually prefers to use an old cassette four-track he bought at a yard sale for $35. As Gelb put it, he has the advantage of hindsight to come to accurate conclusions about himself and his music over the long term. “Erosion — I think that’s we used to do with the music, every night we play we would change it a bit,” he reiterated. “This stuff is just occurring to me now. If I consider what I do the erosion of rock, then the name Giant Sand suits me perfectly!”

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