Howe Gelb Talks Giant Sand’s 30th Anniversary + Shares Exclusive Stream of ‘Heartbreak Pass’
Thirty years ago, alt-country rock pioneers Giant Sand released their debut album, Valley of the Rain. In 2015, they not only celebrated that record's anniversary with a Record Store Day reissue, but they're also unleashing their latest full-length effort, Heartbreak Pass, a disc packed with 15 new tracks that capture the band's evolution over the last three decades.
One constant throughout that evolution is the presence and guidance of co-founder and mastermind Howe Gelb. As he geared up for the release of Heartbreak Pass, Gelb took a few minutes to chat with us about his band's 30th anniversary, recording fast and improvising in the studio, and why the '90s were, to put it simply, awful.
Check out our exclusive conversation -- and then stream Heartbreak Pass in its entirety -- below:
First things first: Congrats on Heartbreak Pass. How does it feel to have this album wrapped up?
I have a habit of constructing these albums well in advance. The threat is always that they might not hold up months after they've been assembled. Thankfully, this one is still holding up nicely for me. So, I feel pretty good. It's a good way to test its resiliency, because the earth goes through many changes. Sometimes when you listen to what you've done months ago, it doesn't add up. You hear it now and you go, "No, no, no. I need to add something, I have to change something up." In this case, though, so far we're good.
When you get to the point where the album is out and you can't go back and change things, do you move on from it and look forward to your next project?
I go in and out of listening to it. I do step away from it. I started it in November 2013 and finished it about six months ago. I’d put it away for months and then I’d listen to it again with fresh ears and I was able to pretend it’s not mine and make some determinations about what needed to be nipped and tucked, or songs that needed to be added or deleted. A separate art form is the sequencing of any album. It’s one thing to put your good tunes up front in order to get some airplay ... like a movie, trying to grab your attention within the first 10 minutes. It’s another thing for the person to read it all the way through like a book and not be able to put it down and not feel exhausted at the end of it. There’s a trick to that where the songs flow; no matter how many minutes, the songs flow in a certain way and provide an atmosphere. From key change to key change, from subject matter to subject matter, there is something there that keeps you entertained for the duration. That’s a whole other art form.
Over the course of 30 years, do you feel like you’ve perfected that art form?
Oh, we never use that word. [Laughs] You get better at anything just from doing it so much. It’s like the piano. I can’t walk past the piano in the house without playing it a little bit. I’m not doing it eight hours a day, but I might play for a minute and 38 seconds now. [Plays piano] Those minutes add up and you can’t help but be good after awhile.
I picked up Valley of the Rain on Record Store Day. It’s a great package. In the liner notes, you said you did the album for $400 and recorded it in a day and a half. In fact, you say you recorded it fast and that you improvised during it. Do you still record like that?
I try to use that method -- that’s one of my things. You get an arsenal of techniques that you draw upon to capture the firefly, so to speak. If the songs are the fireflies and the album is the jar, it’s like trying to get them in there. I still enjoy using that technique, I love that technique. I started doing that in the ‘70s by accident. I didn’t know how to do anything. There was an NPR radio station where I lived back in Pennsylvania. This guy there, George Graham, he’d set up a few hours of recording time on a four-track tape machine to come up with about 15 minutes of music for his weekly radio show, Homegrown. My first experiences with recording were there.
I had no idea what was going on. It was just like, “Well, let’s try this thing.” My first lineup, my first band, was called Wow and Flutter. It was with this guy named Keith -- I guess he was Flutter and I was Wow, I don’t know. [Laughs] We went in there and we did some songs. The way we did it, what I learned from doing it so many times there, the less I tried to incorporate too many ideas, the better it would sound. It was a guerrilla tactical maneuver. You get in, you get out. It’s like painting with broad strokes. But not for the sake of it -- you want a pleasing result. You want a satisfactory result, you know? Don’t we all go after a thing, we don’t know how to define it yet, but a kind of place that we find comfort in, a kind of music that speaks to us? So when we’re making our own music, it will feel right when it hits that same inner sensation. The only way to really do this is when you look back, you have to make some notes. You reflect on what you listen to, you figure out what works. It’s all about the power of your imagination. You don’t worry about the ramifications. A tightrope walker doesn’t think about falling -- you just step on the wire.
I like that you use the word imagination. I saw you at the Continental Club at SXSW and it definitely seems like you have an imaginative personality on the stage. At first I thought, "Oh, this is a guy who has been making music for three decades and he's just having fun," but when I go back and listen to Valley of the Rain, you've always sounded like this. How have you maintained that type of creative perspective?
A long time ago, I started this band with Rainer Ptacek. I got together with him in the ‘70s and he has since passed away, he passed away in 1997 from brain cancer. He was my older brother -- when I found him, I realized this was the guy who was going to be the most significant male in my life. My dad wasn’t around and Rainer was five years older. He gave me a lot of good advice and I heard things from him, I needed to hear these things rather he meant to teach them to me or not. I would pick up what he was putting down very subtly. He has a lyric in one of his songs called “The Farm” where he says, “Somebody taught me without really teaching,” and I was like, yeah, that’s what happened.
One of the things he said that I listened to was, “When we start recording, when we make an album, let’s not make an album that’s going to embarrass us 20 years from now.” We get seduced by the trend of the day. You can see in music how trends have changed over the years and what songs sound embarrassing later in life. If you can avoid that temptation, especially in the f---ing ‘80s, then that might be the right path. I think we’ve done that. If you listen to Beyond the Valley of the Rain, especially what our band sounded like live, it sounds like that band could be out on the road right now. That is a huge comfort.
The downside of that advice that he put forth to me was he asked if I would be better at any one of the genres of music that I was playing, instead of remaining so scattered with so many different kinds of genres. I didn’t know how to do that. I would have a song that was total country and then another song that could’ve lived in David Bowie’s neighborhood and then another that was trying to be Thelonious Monk and then another one that was a Neil Young squelch. There’s a qualifying point where music connects; you maybe can make your living discerning that quality and explaining it to the innocent and trying to inform us, but I never felt like I needed to figure it out ... I just needed to apply it. I think it was scattered from the get go and it remains scattered now.
You mentioned music’s changing trends; obviously the industry has changed immensely, you personally have gone through things ... in the last 30 years, what’s one of the biggest obstacles you’ve overcome?
The beginning of the ‘90s was really great. We won the war of the ‘80s. We survived, we were all in tact. When we got into the ‘90s, all of a sudden we were welcome by like-minded individuals that were in various sequestered camps scattered throughout the globe that were doing the same thing. The ‘70s had returned to the ‘90s and the ‘80s were abolished, finally. I’m talking about the production trends, the fashion trends ... they didn’t know which way to go. They were horrendous. Setting the snare so high, dousing vocals in reverbs, the asinine Casio keyboards, that stuff drove me nuts in the ‘80s. I was very thankful that the ‘70s returned. The ‘90s had promise. It was great.
Then when they started calling rock and roll "grunge" -- I didn’t care what they called it, I don’t care that they use Americana as a term now, those names are always changing ... at the time it was so great to hear that sound, you know, to hear Sonic Youth out of the closet and Nirvana and bands like Nirvana. We heard them in discos, it was such a relief, it was so great. Then it all went to hell for me in the mid-‘90s. We had our first big deal on a label and it was promising because we had signed to Imago which had Paula Cole, Henry Rollins, Amie Mann, it was such an electric mix. It was great! Right when our record was going to be released, the label folded up. They lost the distribution probably because of all those artists. That was the beginning of the disastrous ‘90s.
Just after that, my best friend Rainer came down with brain cancer. About the same time, my ex-wife had personal problems which meant the child that we shared custody of, I had to take sole custody for awhile. Between that and my friend and dealing with him and his family, it was devastating. He lasted for 20 months, and now I’m a single father -- it really limited my careless abandon. I couldn’t fly by my gut as I was apt to do from the get go. And then, my band kept getting younger as it kept changing lineups from 1980 on. In this case, the members were 10 years younger. They were hungry with ambition and they wanted to get going, and I couldn’t set anything up, I was stuck being a dad with a best friend who was hurt so bad. They utilized everything they could to keep going, and that eventually became Calexico. These three things combined were the perfect storm that made the ‘90s so disparaging, at least the second half of the decade. I was held in place by responsibilities that I had somehow managed to avoid all my life and now I was given a heavy dose of all this stuff.
The loss of my friend, I didn’t know how to cope with that. I had to deal with being a father, and then re-marrying and having more kids because the universe was obviously demanding such. And then, I had to deal with letting go of those guys in the band because it got to be impossible to keep them both together. They offered this competitive value within the camp that I had always avoided my whole life. Those things bundled up to be the worst time to survive. Come the new century was a new awakening. It was great. It was much better from that point on.
You survived and kept releasing albums, and are celebrating Heartbreak Pass in 2015.
The funny part is that I just got done with a year of touring with Grant-Lee Phillips. We were on the same parallel timeline in the ‘90s, except his records did come out and he went on to some commercial success. He did really well. The funny part is that 20 years later, it didn’t matter which way he went or I went, because now we’re touring together playing to the same people to the same crowds. There’s no lament, there’s no regret, and it’s been extraordinary. I can’t believe it’s been 30 years. I feel blessed and extremely lucky to be looking at the next 30 years.
Stream Giant Sand's 'Heartbreak Pass'
Giant Sand's latest record, Heartbreak Pass, is available now via New West Records. You can pick up your copy here. Giant Sand have a number of gigs scheduled across Europe; check out their full tour itinerary at their official website.