The Howe Gelb Archive – Part: The first
What changed Giant Sandworms into Giant Sand? Was it simply the personnel? Or had the Sandworms come to a natural end?
“It’s possible that all ends are natural, even the unnatural ones. We as Giant Sandworms became chopped in half when half the band preferred not to relocate to Los Angeles. So this half wiggled onward.”
How did The Band Of Blacky Ranchette run concurrently with Giant Sand or was that totally separate? Was there a different vision?
“The original intention was to have a band with Rainer. He smartly bailed when we moved to NYC. On the return I concocted another band to invite him in, which was Blacky’s band (There was no Blacky), and I also very much wanted to play with the rhythm section of Tom Larkins and Jacob Martinez. This is where I was able to apply all my country tunes. I heard the punk in country music and the righteous tones and attack.
“Once we got that album going I thought it would be a fine idea to have a different band name for every album and keep the title the same. But upon the release of the Blacky album the title ‘Code Of The Road’ (given to me by my step-mom) was mistakenly left off the album art.
“Giant Sand then followed with ‘Valley Of Rain’.
It was already getting too confusing with two bands when talking to promoters, agents and labels. So I stopped that idea.”
It’s loosely referred to as a country album, but it’s Nashville with a unique twist, what was your view of country music back then?
“It was mostly overlooked by our crowd, but Rainer was into it too. He was five years older then me, and I was a few years older then most of other kids forming bands here in Tucson. We had been able to absorb the thrust of country when it had a more deliberate and derelict impact akin to punk rock: Jimmy Rodgers, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, to name a few… right up to the snarling phase pedal guitar of David Allen Coe.”
You’ve often been called the Godfather of alternative country, does that weigh heavy on your shoulders?
You were based in Tucson, how much of the romantic image of the desert inspired your music back then? (In 1986 it was somewhere most Europeans had only seen in films.)
“I never understood that mentality. When you live in a place you never think of the geology as being a call to arms in your music. If anything it offers an allowance to become whatever you are going to become and doesn’t hinder the process. In this case it also grants plenty of space; an emptiness which is a comfort. What you guys were dying for was a Calexico to echo the Ennio Morricone brilliance of a sound never heard before. Ennio was uniquely masterful and along with Sergio Leone concocted a fairy tale of the way it never was but how we so needed it to be subconsciously.
“Me… I was busy mingling with the elements, the devastation of thorny wind and the singe of sun fueled by high voltage salsa. Maybe that’s what you mean. I dunno.
“We’d get stoned a lot on dirt weed.
Was there a local hangout with a jukebox that underpinned what you were listening to at that time?
“Not really. Any old unattended jukebox had tons of old stuff that seemed like it would always be there.”
Was Valley Of Rain a symbolic idyll you were aspiring to visit? Here in rainswept England the juxtaposition of a valley or rain and the heat of the desert seems far removed.
“The position was precisely juxt… contrast has been the key element from the get go.”
I read you telling a good tale of losing the original tapes of Valley Of Rain and the Fire re-issue being based on a cassette dubbed from the original sessions. Are there still parts of the original that are lost?
“Those early records were made in two days for $400 on a reel of used tape. There were no second takes. Nothing extra. It was sonic guerilla tactical maneuvers I picked up from trying to record too many ideas on a four-track in three hours at a local NPR station back in the ‘70s.”
It always seems that Giant Sand albums are a moment caught in town, the mix of ideas, sounds and subject matter essential to the whole, is the song writing process something that comes in moods or themes?
“Songwriting comes every which way.”
If you were tasked with re-recording those songs now would you vast interim experience completely change what’s in the grooves? Would you bring in other guests and attempt to broaden the sound?
“We just re recorded the first Giant Sand album to see what we could see. We did it in two days like the first one. We had the two original drummers (Winston Watson & Tommy Larkins) and the newest member, 23-year old Annie Dolan, along with Thøger Lund, Gabriel Sullivan and a dash of Brian Lopez. I hope to send some of it for Scott Garber to add his signature sound on too. We are just mixing it now to figure out if it’s worthwhile to release or just an exercise old fuckers do for their heart.”
In the 25 year repackage there’s a live album plus several rarities. How did those early songs morph on the road with an extended band?
You hit on the perfect DIY band concept early, recording quickly then licensing material out across the world, was that through necessity? Or was it a masterplan?
“The plan was unplanned. It befell me like a ball mistakenly tossed into my hands so I just ran with it.
“I had to get drunk enough to hand a cassette tape of my first recording (The Band of … Blacky Ranchette) to the manager (Joe Nick Patowski) of a touring band (Joe King Carrasco) stopping in Tucson for a gig. Months later Joe Nick called me to say a French label (New Rose) was very interested in releasing the recordings.
“They offered me $1000 for a three year license. The recording cost me $400. That made sense and that’s how it started. I’ve done the same ever since. The result is that I own my entire back catalogue of 50 +/- albums, which is currently licensed to Fire for a five-year term.
“This is exactly how I was able to assist in the discovery of Grandaddy when Jason Lytle got drunk enough to hand me a ‘demo’ style cassette of his band that would end up being their first album. It should be noted that that tape got stuck in my truck’s stereo and was the only thing I could listen to for months without fixing it… But I didn’t mind.”
There’s a moment on October Anywhere when your guitar goes tangential, roams around the melody, it’s a unique HG ploy that’s recurred in subsequent years, an off-key signature that has always fascinated me. At once you’re wandering off then suddenly back on track. Where did that come from?
“Well, you’re the therapist. Lemme know when you do.”
When you decided to move to LA did that change your vision of what Giant Sand could be? Were there pitfalls as well as the positives?
“LA is close to the desert. We would venture out to get a dose. I never had a vision of what Giant Sand should or could be. It was a process of elimination of what it should never be.
“And there’s always upsides to the downsides otherwise I’d have never found Tucson.”
Still in 1986 you recorded Ballad Of A Thin Line Man that, from the get-go, sounds like a chunkier band, was it the live shows that hardened the sound? Was this the LA effect too?
“Maybe so. That album was half-baked. I tried to have both drummers on it at the same time, but they only ended up together on a song or two. I was recording a great Blacky album during the same time called ‘Heartland’. Maybe that got all the love. ‘BOATLM’ ended up being mostly regurgitation of so many influences. I hear Zeppelin and T-Rex and Mott The Hoople and James Gang in it. Stolen licks that snuck in there without me knowing till, well, a year or two later.”
Again, it was recorded mainly in one session, do you ever look back at that technique and wish you’d had more time?
“That’s what ‘Glum’ was. More time. ‘Chore Of Enchantment’ was even wayyyyyy more time.”
The title track has a tempered, echoey violin section, that’s like a psycehedlic Morricone thing, where did that come from?
“That was a cellist we invited in to see what we could see and what he could do. Once we got going, it was too late to turn back. Morricone should be left alone. No-one is going to be able to do Morricone.
When revisiting the tracks live was that kind of space harder to keep?
“Maybe. I don’t even understand the question.”
You cover Hendrix/Dylan and Johnny Thunders but manage to make them your own, was it important to nod to some predecessors/influences?
“If there’s one thing i picked up along the way is to allow some clue to those coming up behind of the path ahead. A sonic thread is in play when offering up covers from those that offered the same for us.”
There is some magnificent guitar on ‘Body Of Water’, a veritable hail akin to Neil Young at his most dextrous, do you see some lineage to his feedback days?
“Neil’s guitar on ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ inoculated me when it came out. I was 14. That kind of squelch made as much sense to me as Thelonious Monk’s plunk. The tone and the attack timing in both cases were rudiment in my learning of the trade.”
‘BOATLM’ is a heavier album that then drops in an almost gospel moment in Graveyard. By this point you’d also been “more country” with Blacky Ranchette and perhaps more acid folk on the GS debut in places, it always feels to me that your albums could go anywhere. Do you start with a blank sheet of paper? Does some of it come from jamming? Are you playing lots of records to each other or over hearing a fine selection of radio shows?
“Slipstream is a slippery slope. Empty your head so the ideas circling the tower can come in for a landing.”
When you start a project, is the end result pretty mapped out? Or is it a journey, a voyage of experience? If that’s the case do you listen back and wonder how you got there?
“There’s a scent to follow. Something’s burning up ahead. I don’t figure it out till a year or so later.”
By the end of 1986, who did you imagine your fan base was? You played a lot in Europe, how do you think the band’s DNA was understood? (Tucson is a long way from Oslo, Berlin and the north of England…)
“I didn’t know. I never stopped long enough to consider the whys and whats. But it did dawn on me along the way that the reason we were not so popular in the states was because no one understood what I was trying to say, and the reason we were way more popular overseas was for the same reason.”