It’s all probably a Zen thing, or that resolution of crisis and opportunity promised by a single Chinese symbol. When Howe Gelb was flat broke with a baby on the way, he qualified for the City of Tucson to foot the bill to outfit his 1902 adobe with an indoor bathroom, and to rig it up for heating and cooling (sky-high ceilings and dense mud walls having been out of fashion for climate control since the 1930s).
Immobilizing grief over the death of his close friend Rainer Ptacek in 1997, and scheduling preoccupations on the part of his Giant Sand-mates John Convertino and Joey Burns, had stalled the progress of the band’s scheduled V2 Records debut, Chore Of Enchantment. The up-front money was a couple years gone, and none would be forthcoming until the next record. Gelb was irretrievably funked out, and his sidekicks, whose Calexico project had taken off with a whoosh for some stratosphere as yet inestimable, were unavailable to support him, either emotionally or musically. There were times he thought the record would never be finished, and by the time it was, he was more than willing to give it up entirely in a V2 contract buyout.
Yet as if to validate Gelb’s world view, of which his music is the most obvious expression, those life-altering accidents of fate evolved into things unforeseeably amazing. Gelb’s family-busy home now has a positively capacious, sunny bathroom, outfitted with a grand old footed tub, and he’s begun adding on a room for a third child due in May. Rainer’s ghost continues to pervade what Gelb would call his “headspace,” but now as a friendly benefactor, an intimation of immortality. The uncharacteristically belabored Chore Of Enchantment, ultimately released in 2000 by Thrill Jockey, was a career pinnacle for Giant Sand, and just as Gelb’s growing responsibilities as a father are multiplying the mouths he has to feed, there are at least two he no longer has to worry about: Convertino and Burns.
Between the releases of Chore and the new Cover Magazine, Gelb officially released two solo projects, Confluence and Lull, via Thrill Jockey, plus another on his own Ow Om label, which he sells only on tour and via his website (www.giantsand.com). He says that while Giant Sand made two dozen records over ten years solely out of the need to support themselves, he now has the liberty to make records solely out of desire, that the last show he played with Giant Sand is always their last show, and that they played the recently released Cover Magazine for all the energy and fun of a very last record, which is exactly what it is. Unless sometime there’s another.
I. YOU GOTTA BE MORE HOSPITABLE!
NO DEPRESSION: Your music has a unique spontaneity. How did you evolve the nerve to play whatever comes into your head and trust that it would be something anyone else might love to listen to?
HOWE GELB: The very first record we made here in Tucson with Giant Sand was a record that was trying to emulate all the ideas in my head. It was too articulate. It sounded like shit. Trying to make things sound like these ideas you have planned out — it occurred to me that it was ignorant to do that. You’re not utilizing all the possibilities here on the planet if you do that. There are all these wonderful accidents that you haven’t even thought of yet that are just waiting to come pay a visit. And you gotta be more hospitable!
So I kind of developed this method of making sure I was ill-prepared for at least half the record. That I would allow me to come up with bits and pieces that weren’t planned. Sometimes the song wouldn’t exist until the moment of impact, and then you get a perfect harvest when you get it recorded the very first time it’s every played. That’s the most fun with John and Joey, and the most precious thing about their talent, that we’ve been able to lock into this — it’s like a telepathy, but it’s more like absorbing each other’s motions enough times that we know what could possibly be coming next or where it might be going. We write a new song and hopefully it’s being recorded as we do it, like a wave, like surfing a little bit. We try to get through it without ruining the song or playing it too long or screwing up a lyric.
If you listen to “Dirty From The Rain” from Chore — that is an example of a perfect harvest, where nobody knew that song was about to happen, including me, and it did, and everybody played it and got through the whole song. I said, “Now this is perfect! We’ll never be able to play it like that again.”
ND: Naturally, that makes it a bit difficult to tour behind the record in the conventional sense, but fans seem to live for the serendipities, and even the trainwrecks.
HG: We need to tour because our music has always been evolutionary — like we have the mentality of the be-boppers in New York, but the problem is with those guys, in the ’50s…they didn’t tour much back then, so that became almost fuel for the music to be able to change, because you’re playing in front of the same people, you’re playing at the same place.
If you were touring around, you could play the same thing every night. This is true to this day. This is why John, when he gets off the road with Calexico — everything with Calexico is all great, but it gets a little stagnatious because he’s playing relatively the same stuff every night. With Giant Sand it changes every night, and you don’t know what’s going to happen, so it’s that sonic evolution. Evolutionary — that’s its staple; that’s its creed; that’s what’s kept it alive for so long, and also what’s kept it from getting too popular. We don’t have to change every night, because there are new people hearing us every night. There’s no point to it except for us. We get off on it, because it’s exploratory, because it keeps us entertained.
II. I COLLECT THINGS LIKE A PAINTER
ND: By your own admission, Chore was Giant Sand’s finest hour. Still, it’s amazing that wasn’t the band’s last studio effort. How did you arrive at Cover Magazine?
HG: The next record was going to be something completely removed from [the ordeal of Chore]. The next one was going to be choreless, and part of the way to do that was to play other people’s material, because then we can all come together as players instead of me being tethered with the responsibility of being the writer.
I promised myself I wouldn’t overwork on it, or work on it much more than what those guys put into it. If you look at it now, on Chore I put in hundreds of hours and those guys put in maybe 10 percent, but on this one, I put in maybe 60 percent, and they put in 40 percent, and that’s normal.