OUT IN THE SOUTH WESTERN DESERT Tucson’s veteran “misunderstood genius,” Howe Gelb has been pushing various permutations of Giant Sand to make the finest mesh of country, punk and free improvisation available for two decades now. But his last album, Chore Of Enchantment, is arguably his most focussed and direct recording to date.
If you’re not already familiar with it, seek out a copy and enjoy Howe’s hickory smoked vocal feeling its way through the music concrete/grunge hybrid of Satellite, the piano bar desolation of Bottom Line Man, the slinky desert twangs of Dusted, and the old time Americana of Raw. Unlike most Giant Sand albums Chore sounds, for once, like some kind of considered sequence, rather than fascinating random pastings from a torn scrapbook But Chore very nearly became one of those famous lost recordings; much talked about but never heard. The year preceding its completion saw the death of Howe’s long term, on-off collaborator; steel guitarist Rainer Ptacek. and the gradual withdrawal of services of sidesmen Joey Burns and John Convertino, who drifted away to concentrate on their snowballing side-project Calexico. Then, in June 1999, V2 records dropped Giant Sand on the eve of the album’s release, leaving a broke Howe with the choice of buying Chore back without being reimbursed for his work, or getting paid and abandoning it forever: “I’ve known Howe for a number of years so I was quite sad about this. This is not an easy business,” said a V2 representative.
But a year after the event Howe is philosophical, and the potential disaster seems to have forced him to re-evaluate his entire career in positive way, a change of heart which he explains in his typical meandering; free associating fashion. Howe Gelb speaks like he plays. So deal with it and read on. Here goes:
“Sandy Sawotka atV2 was great. She was the one who made sure we got all the promo copies. We made them available to the folks who would check in at our web site (www.giantsand.com), and it was their feedback that prompted me to get the record back. At first V2 offered us three quarters of our settlement money and the rights to the record, but I was done with it. Spent. I knew I had come through something. So I figured it was better to just let them stick it where the sun don’t shine and cough up the entire settlement money. It seemed like it was high time to chill for a while and get on with more current meanderings, get back to the old meanderthal roots.”
Salvaged promos were sent out over the globe in little plastic wallets, some adorned with the hand-scrawled missive, “Chore Of Enchantment makes a great coaster.” How did this air of fatalistic resignation transform into the euphoric realisation that Chore was actually little short of a masterpiece?
‘Well, after Sandy sent them promos back and we sent them out to folks all over the planet, the response became a tincture of motivation to continue on with this matter of Chore. Dust settling as it tends to do, the air is clearer and easier to breathe in. It’s obvious in this clear light to see the positive side of said dropping… like the refreshing return of doing things the way we once did them… and not having to waddle through the ‘luggage of the loop’ of a large label.”
And in the final reckoning. the financial restrictions also lifted, as if Chore’s difficult birth was somehow guided by angelic protectors.
“V2 just offered to return the rights of it if we didn’t take all the money they owed us for them breaking off the contract. And this was kinda nice either way, but since the record took two years of my life to gather, I hit the poverty line waiting for it all to come to a head. But it feels good again to be able to do whatever you want without flying it up the company flagpole. And it’s great having all the folks at Thrill Jockey and Loose records (Giant Sand’s new UK label) very much into it, without having to check with an endless array of higher-ups and such. As a
result I plan to release three more records this year; and that doesn’t even include the new Calexico record, or the OP8 album (the second Howe/Calexico/Guest Vocalist project, following the brilliant Lisa Germano debut) we started with Juliana Hatfield. And it was inspirational to hear first hand from the folks who sent in for Chore. Then, it was fun putting together another Giant Sand record that we recorded just moments before and in between the cracks of Chore. This will be an excellent companion piece to Chore, but we will only offer it through the web site again, since that worked out so well, and at live shows, as a form of tour support. It will be tagged as Volume II in a series of official bootlegs; The Rock Opera Years. It has Evan Dando and Victoria Williams singing back up a bit as well. Other than that, I’m finishing up another solo record, Confluence, and an ambient piano record.”
Chore’s production duties were overseen by a dream team of Jim Dickinson at Ardent studios in Memphis, PJ Harvey’s John Parrish in Tucson, and ex-Dumptruck guitarist Kevin Salem in New York, whose fantastic playing you’ll recognise from various inspired sessions, including contributions to Freedy Johnston’s You Can Fly. His solo on Chore’s Punishing Sun dovetails beautifully with Howes distinctive guitar tones. But, who was best?
“John Parrish had become a good friend and it was a treat to finally get to do something with him in a studio. His take on tonal calamity suited our sonic soup to a T, but the overwhelming tragedy was Rainer’s death less than two months before we were scheduled to record. The very place we had planned to record the record was the same place I had worked with Rainer days before he died. I couldn’t hear past the drone seeded in my tone, the groans in my bones. It sounded too heavy and maladjusted to have to live with that for the entire life of the record.
I couldn’t hear clear at all. John would be so into it and I was such a bummer: He was coming up with fantastic edits of our general mess…But the material was also sounding stale to me. Stuff that had gone unrecorded for far too long now seemed to fester, to want to just be left alone. It was the first time I wasn’t able to make songs up on the spot. I was hampered and in a state of ill repair, bent on semi-hidden despair. Unbelievably Rainer just wasn’t there.”
“Months later, through the urging of the record company, we hooked up with Jim Dickinson. It
seemed like a worthy notion to get to continue working on the whole smatter, and it tickled to do it with someone even older then myself; which is getting harder and harder to find. Jim was even more haunted then I was and was such a curious stickler for things like tuning and timing. That was a novel approach for us. And we very much enjoyed his taint of soulfulness and the savouring of his yarns. But as a band, we were more removed then we had ever been in all the records we had done before. Not enough time spent with each other due to imposing agendas. Still, there were a few moments of that old time magic which got captured. And for the first time in way too long, some songs started popping up and writing themselves on the spot And John and Joe (now best known as Calexico) were right there with the pocket most of the time. Still, the completed record had alluded us.”
“Now with Kevin, he had done something that I couldn’t ever imagine. He had fully re-recorded three of the songs, without us, that we didn’t nail just right in Memphis. It startled me that he picked the very same songs that I thought we failed at. And as a songwriter, this was very appealing, to get to hear the songs so realised, but it was impossible to imagine anyone outside the band going through such lengths. The results were nothing we couldn’t have done
with John and Joe, if they weren’t gone so much with Calexico around that time. So Kevin would send me stuff he constructed in New York and then I would smash my parts onto them, and mail them back to him. Now we as a band have always managed to come up with new ways to record every time we get to, and this was about the only way we hadn’t tried yet; to record the band without the band. What a furious fantastic notion. When the tapes would arrive, I’d just waltz in there like Elvis with a bent guitar and nail a sucker like Shiver in one take. It was a great relief to have someone involved, so late in the game, with that much enthusiasm and willingness about the project He had the wherewithal to help me tie it all together. There were some excellent crinkled pieces from Memphis we could now straighten out. And the stuff we did in the beginning with John Parrish was now making more sense to me when tucked in with all this other contrast. Putting these things together is not unlike raising the flag at Hamburger Hill. A lot of good songs get shot down on the way to taking the hill. There is a formation waiting in the wings, however; and finally a declaration of intended ambience.”
The cross-fertilisation from different locations informs the whole record. The soulful vlbe of X-Tra Wide, with its subdued gospel backing and lazy beats, sounds like it should have emerged from the Memphis sessions, but is actually accredited to the New York song batch: “‘X-Tra Wide was almost done at Memphis.. It started to occur there, but we ran out of time to work it up. This is a prime example of the “luggage of the loop” at larger labels; Our A&R person, the wonderful wunderkind Kate Hyman, asks me what songs do I want to do in Memphis way before we get there. I give her six titles to chew on. Now she goes and makes the deal with the manager or the producer who now has to make sure these six songs get completed so they can get paid. But once we get down there, and these new songs start to rear their heads, we can’t spend the time to go after them completely until we finish up the six songs that the producer needs to hand into his manager who needs to hand them over to the A&R person that gave the titles to to begin with. And that just doesn’t leave us enough time or room to go for the gold in titles I didn’t know existed when the whole plan got set up; a tragic expensive display of expansive organisational skills. But there indeed was a moistness in the Memphis vibe that Jim had promised. Astonished is thick with it. And the singers he brought in were worth the price of admission alone. He even made me go out and fetch me a new clean shirt for their appearance. I instead managed to find a fine green sharkskin suit from a thrift store that was also steeped in said moistness and vibe.”
Howe’s personal voice is so distinctive and pervasive he manages to make Jim Dickinson seem anonymous. Even under guidance of star producers he’s still making very much his own music.. .. Conversely, the Calexico albums don’t give much of a sense of his old collaborators Burns and Convertino as individuals. They serve the greater notion of the group sound. Calexico sleeves include anonymous cartographic symbolism, and arch vistas, whereas Giant Sand sleeves nowadays are miniature snapshots of tiny details from Howe’s life; a doorway in his home, a ring of lighted candles, a Polaroid of someone’s wedding.
“Well, it occurred to me a while back that the more singular you tap the source, then the longer the longevity will be since you always know where the source can be found. The down side is blatant self indulgence. But, on a universal note, it seems that anything anyone goes through can not be truly singular. And by that notion, if you take note of such occurrence, it is more than likely the same will be happening to others anyway at some point or, in all likelihood, already has. Meanwhile, arch vistas are cool too. I love maps. Especially aerial photos. That’s probably what I would’ve been doing if I hadn’t cluttered up my days with these doings.”
Given his concession to the notion of Giant Sand as self-indulgence, it seems perhaps John and Joey had to leave and found Calexico, in order to find their own voice outside the overwhelming individualism of Howe’s style.
“I think it has to do with ambition more that voicings. I certainly don’t consider my voice, in any regard, as overwhelming or so distinct. It is actually just a map of where a real voice should be. An aerial view. The final irony is that I always wanted to retire the Giant Sand band name to an actual town. There was a speck of one for sale called Rice. It would have been perfect, located in the middle of the Mojave, miles in between the I-10 and the I-40, between 29 Palms and Vidal Junction, way out in the middle of nowhere, just two buildings (which were eventually torched and pummelled) and a railroad track. A chance to be put on the map. A dream. Maybe I should’ve picked a town like Calexico and cut to the quick.”
Howe’s desire to turn his band into a town is the last remaining vapour trail of the despair and resentment that reached its head when the initial loss of Chore looked inevitable. And the fact that Giant Sand spin-off Calexico are enjoying a success which always eluded him has perhaps hit him harder than he might care to admit directly.
“One night after a sad fight with an old girlfriend, I went out to feel better. I happened on a friend’s gallery where Calexico were playing. The tones were warm and fuzzy and too familiar. Besides John’s specific drum sound, which over the years had become synonymous with the Giant Sand sound, Joe was playing my old Harmony electric guitar through the exact amp I used when John and I were a two-piece ten years ago. It was all the same exact sounds. It felt like I must’ve died for that sound to be re-represented so. There’s just no other bands splaying that exact combination of tones. (yes… splaying).”
“That was a few years ago. Last month when we were touring as Giant Sand, we did a show in Chicago and it was arranged that Calexico would play just before the Sand set. OK. Joe had asked to borrow my guitar for the night, the old red Gretsch. OK. But during their set I grew oddly unaffected and tired. I waited backstage and realised I am the only one in the whole place who is having a negative effect. That creeped me out as well. By this time I took the stage to do the Giant Sand set, it had seemed like there was no point. The tones in this camp have always been an inspiration all their own. Now, they lacked such momentum since they had been going on for the previous hour, and the weird evidence afterwards, when we finished the set, was when a fan came up to me and asked me why I hadn’t played the red guitar at all during our set, as he had been waiting for it. I laughed at his comment cause I was certain I had, and then realised the false memory of that was caused from hearing it for a full hour before I too the stage. Freaky.”
“If Joe would have gone off to do his own trip without John, or vice-versa, it would not be so strange for me. But to have two-thirds of the band doing things all the time when you’re not with them is bizarre at best. At the same time, it’s a wonderful feeling to acknowledge the lineage, to understand it would not exist without all that time spent in the Sand camp and see something so healthy carry on after all these years. The funny thing is that over the years I have tried to downplay the effect of the ‘desert sound’ on our particular brand of messings. But they, in turn, have decided to capitalise on it, and have managed to mix it up within a fine batch of aesthetics.”
Maybe seeing John and Joey succeed in Calexico by applying a little of the organisational skills usually absent from Giant Sand has subconsciously raised Howe’s game. Could the emergence of Calexico be responsible, in a way, for the tighter focus of Chore?
“We have always found a measure of inspiration from each other on a fairly constant basis. So when they’re not around, I have to fill that void. And that kind of gap seems to get wider. And yeah, there is competition, for time and attention. And a side effect of competition can be a measure of taste, a higher watermark due to speculated growth, like sonic real estate development.”
Even though Howe has philosophised away a possible conflict with Calexico, on a more profound level the death of Rainer, from a brain tumour, cast a cloud of despair over Hisser, the solo album that preceded Chore, and on Howe’s attitude to continuing with Giant Sand. But working through the trials of Chore seems to represent a moving on from mourning.
“Well, Rainer called me last week just to talk about nothing,” says Howe. “Sounded just like he used to do about five or ten years ago. All the while, I kept thinking; ‘This can’t be Rainer… can it? He’s dead, right? Who is this then…?’ So I just tried to keep this guy on the phone till I could figure out who it really was. And yeah, I was asleep at the time and dreaming, but I still thought it would be insane of me to ask if this was Rainer, when it was obviously him and he was obviously dead. And then, the phone went dead… So I woke up. Made me cranky all day.”
When things fell apart with Chore the first time, Howe’s response was typically poetic and resigned:
“The pendulum, she swings
We all do a dance to avoid getting clobbered by the swing.
Once u figure out it’s a dance it’s much better on the system
At first you think you are ducking it, jumping over it, expecting it,
Juggling it, judging the speed of it but then when it hits you,
It hits you, you are just dancing around it.”
But now there’s a life-affirming humour that undermines his fatalism. One of Chore’s highpoints, Dirty From The Rain, features an impressive atmospheric contribution credited to The Ardent Studio Foundation. Will Howe be working with the fountain again, or can it be expected, like John and Joey, to pursue a solo project and enjoy particular success in continental Europe?
“What makes you think it hasn’t already?” says Howe.
Chore of Enchantment
The Rock Opera Years Volume II
available from www.giantsand.com