Giant Sand: Belly Full of Fire

By: Dennis Cook

Giant Sand
The best musicians find lines of connection between music one might never consider compatible bedfellows. In Giant Sand one hears the grappling of Skip James with Television, Hendrix with Nick Drake, the apparent gulf between bombast and hushed delicacy bridged with architectural finesse. There is an intrinsic logic to Giant Sand that is felt more than understood but it lies within each segment of Howe Gelb‘s ever-growing songbook. While it’s tough to call anything “timeless,” there’s something indefinably enduring – something of old, mean blues, calloused finger lilted gospel and crusty highway ballads – about what the revered, peer adored Arizona-based musician has crafted for over 30 years.

“When we first got together, we decided that when we made records we just wanted to be able to listen to them twenty years later. And we couldn’t imagine twenty years from that point but it seemed a good arbitrary point in the future [laughs]. It was kind of the only goal we really had – to not be embarrassed by anything we did twenty years on,” says Gelb. “The best stuff just grows, like your favorite old jazz records just get better and better with time. A lot of blues was punk rock WAY before punk rock. It’s in there for those that can hear it. Because it’s all hand me down. Once music started being put on vinyl there was literally a record of what had been done. And once you started keeping records, in the double meaning of the word, you could give people credit for this or another thing. Before that, it was one guy hearing a piece in a juke joint and remembering a line or two but not the whole song, so it changed when he played it in another juke joint across state lines. The cool thing about music’s evolution is that hand me down quality.”

There’s an ecclesiastical spirit to Gelb’s recent recordings, an inner fire that burns outward towards big ideas and big feelings. This otherworldly twitch is felt throughout Giant Sand’s latest record, proVISIONS (released September 9 on Yep Roc Records).

Howe Gelb, Patsy Jean Gelb, Thoger Lund – Giant Sand
“That’s good to hear but I have absolutely no idea why that is [laughs]. Do you think it depends on age? There’s odd bits of quandary that you think will taper off the older you get but they just sit there imbedded in the DNA. I guess you just sit there trying to figure love and loss in every aspect. There’s that weird energy of attraction,” offers Gelb, tapping into the fundamental, non-fading pull of human and even spiritual relationships. “Maybe it’s just asking yourself, ‘What do I have time for and what don’t I have time for?’ I don’t know exactly, but I do know in the old days it was really important for me to meander. I loved that, just seeing where something would go and not stopping it until the tape ran out, so to speak. These days the idea is to be more concise because there seems to be little time left.”

Gelb holds a profound understanding of how one’s mindset shifts dramatically when there’s more sand in the bottom of the hourglass than the top.

“I reckon it’s planetary, too. It’s not just us, it’s the age of man; not so much that it’s all ending but he’s cordoned himself off so much with these communication devices – the cell phone alone – that there’s not much time where a guy can be alone with his thoughts without being torpedoed by some interruption,” observes Gelb.

Some say it’s the end times and some say it’s all just begun
Some are hiding in the churches and some are hiding in the gun
Some are thinking its extinction, some swearing by salvation
Noting Nostradamus or relating revelations
You come on down, you spiral down

How Things Get Done

Giant Sand – 1986 (Gelb bottom left)
The sensitivity of Giant Sand’s current lineup really shines on the new album, where the players pick up on and accentuate the spaces Gelb builds into his music. The liner notes for proVISIONS lists Gelb on “attempted singing, played too many guitars + every piano,” while Thoger T. Lund plays “bass plunk,” Peter Dombernowsky provides “pummel + drum” and Anders Pedersen contributes “slinging slide + guitar flick.” That these guys aren’t outshined by guests like M. Ward, Isobel Campbell (ex- Belle and Sebastian) and Neko Case speaks volumes about the solidity and communication of this configuration of a band that’s gone through innumerable shakeups around Gelb over the years. One of the core appeals in Giant Sand is the sense of possibility built into the compositions, where one knows on an unspoken level that what you’re hearing in the studio is but one of many paths a song might travel.

“People have called us ‘desert rock’ over the years, and the term is so loose and inexact and also semi-exploitive in some ways. So, many bands, at some point, want to fly some sort of flag or be part of some kind of category. Instead of realizing what they are later, they shoot for it prior. It’s the difference between the desperation of survival and wanting to cling to the thing you love and stopping to see if the thing you love and feel confident will be recognized eventually without joining any sort of club OR not caring enough about those points of existence and just blithely doing what you do and letting somebody else figure it out,” observes Gelb. “The base elements in my music are there because my brain feels so cluttered most of the time. I guess everybody’s art is everybody’s fantasy maybe, or maybe what they’re not having so they come up with it in this ether world that’s a direct response to dealing with the real world. In music, I can get a bit more minimal or spacious or desert-like, just the way things change when the wind and rain hits. I think the change is immediate.”

Howe Gelb
“I live in Tucson and I’m not as happy there as I was in the actual desert, which I chose. It wasn’t like I was born there by the advent of lottery. My house in Pennsylvania got all smashed up by a flood in the ’70s, and my folks being divorced, one of them moved to the desert and I moved there after everything got erased in PA. I could romanticize it by saying destiny or fate kicked my ass out of town but it’s just life’s stumbling that allowed me a new channel to check out,” continues Gelb. “It made so much more sense to me out there because of how open things were, how much more you could see, that natural comfort. Europeans especially ask us, ‘Are you influenced by the geography of where you live?’ That’s when I beg off. If you have the choice, you end up gravitating towards the land that suits the way your mind works rather than the other way around.”

The juxtaposition of voices on proVISIONS is terrific. Gelb’s blessedly gravely, beatnik burr is placed side-by-side with effervescent songbirds like Campbell, Case, Denmark’s Henriette Sennenvaldt and even Canada’s Voices of Praise Choir, who also played a huge role on Gelb’s unbelievably stunning 2006 album ‘Sno Angel Like You, which is some of the finest workingman’s gospel you will ever hear. The liner notes on proVISIONS state, “This wonderous guest list singer-land twere so especially lovely to brave our crumpled wires and accompany our den of twirl in sweetly dervish whirl.” Each of the many guest vocalists offers palpable counterpoint to Gelb, each a strong spice flavoring the banquet.

“I tend to fall in love with them. It’s the same thing like with abstraction – it brings you closer to something but you don’t know what it is,” says Gelb. “It’s a moment of visitation, and what better way to visit than to join in one of those reinvented ether worlds. It kind of exists and then doesn’t exist and you go on your way again.”

Continue reading for more on Giant Sand…

The base elements in my music are there because my brain feels so cluttered most of the time. I guess everybody’s art is everybody’s fantasy maybe, or maybe what they’re not having so they come up with it in this ether world that’s a direct response to dealing with the real world.

How Gelb


Neon Filler

The notion of music as commerce and music as art, and the possibly irreconcilable gap between the two poles, is a ghost that lingers in Giant Sand’s house. At no point could one say Howe Gelb made concessions to the marketplace, sticking tenaciously to work stoked and seasoned by an inner flame that often requires a patient, open-minded audience to get over.

Giant Sand
“I’m kinda entertained by the notion of it all. It’s confounding. There’s that art in there that has nothing to do with actual art – the art of placement,” says Gelb, whose own work is now often referenced in the press, introduced in a way, by the better known lineage of artists that have evolved from Giant Sand, particularly Calexico and Friends of Dean Martinez, whose ranks include multiple alumni of the Giant Sand school of rock. In terms of placement, it’s the descendents that have gotten the spotlight rather than the root source, their notoriety gaining more general coinage than the many years Gelb has spent in the trenches.

“It’s a unique position, I think. That art of placement, as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown to understand it and how it’s been applied, and not always by those who understood it but just felt their way along,” continues Gelb. “In other words, it’s like you think you have to work hard all the time to make your music. You think you have to play hard and play a lot but at some point you’re playing too much. It’s better if you back off a bit, that ‘less is more’ thing. People will enjoy it more and you won’t dis-include them in the music by playing too much. If you keep it open enough and simple enough they can participate in it. You have an interesting epiphany at some point where you realize, ‘Oh, I just have to represent. I don’t have to feel like I’m working or feel like I’m threatened to make it happen.’ Then there’s others who figure it out and decide to adorn it and that’s a Christmas tree, and that’s really what people want to see. And that’s okay, too. Again, it becomes less and less about you playing and more about your taste in your art.”

There’s a way into Giant Sand’s music these days that much of the earlier work simply didn’t allow. There’s a directness and overarching veracity that’s immediate, fueled by music of great force but also great accessibility. While there’s been no drop-off in Gelb’s poetic, leapfrogging lyrics, there’s a stronger hand that enfolds us when it’s pouring out our stereos, a loving, humanizing grip. Giant Sand’s earlier work is plenty deep but proVISIONS just gets at the real meat of things quicker and more surely.

“It’s certainly been a rough eight years to contend with [referring to duration of George W. Bush’s time in the White House], overall, just the way the planet’s taken a turn and the way the government has been so pathetic and uninspiring,” says Gelb. “We got a lot of mileage out of the last World War, with all its ‘We’re the cavalry coming to the rescue’ reputation, and never being the aggressors. That all went without saying, and then everything just went to hell in the past eight years. There’s no diplomacy, no intelligence,” says Gelb. “I don’t care much for politics to begin with because I don’t believe in them that much. I don’t give them much power. I don’t think anything political lasts anywhere near as long as a song. Generations can sing some old, powerful song from 50 or 100 years ago. Politicians just come and go. Most of that’s just a sheen or a shellac. That’s why the lyrics on this record are politically charged but I can’t be so blatant as to paint too crystal a picture with any of them. For one, it’s not my style, but I just don’t believe in it. I think it should still be art; it should still be there for YOU to make what you will of it. Almost every song has something to do with either the political environment or love, or surviving both. Hey, love is politics, on a much healthier level.”

Pitch & Sway

Way out on the horizon there’s a monsoon waiting
Way out there beyond your eyes, son, there’s dreaded anticipation
With the darkness here prevailing even stars are taking cover

There’s a profound desire in many people to ascribe some overriding logic or scripted cosmic narrative to their lives. They feel adrift and long for a god that has written the story of their life down for them but most empirical evidence suggests that human existence is more likely driven by sundry, ever-changing circumstances, the end result more happenstance than destiny.

“I love happenstance,” says Gelb. “On the very first album I made in 1980 I tried to record what was in my head and it was just a mess. I didn’t like it, and what really confused me was this was what I was hearing in my head and I put it down and I didn’t like it. There’s an element of balance and torment to music, and that’s when I started using happenstance and accidents more. There’s so much more going on than you realize and you can use it if you recognize that, if you have the antenna enough to pick up what’s going through the room and enjoy it instead of trying to control it.”

“In the early years, I never gave the flood much merit or importance. Now that I’m older, I can look at it and go, ‘Oh yeah!’ I didn’t feel like ‘oh woe is me’ or depressed or horrified or scared – I was fascinated. That whole neighborhood was destroyed. They say the water was six-feet over the roof so it was straight devastating. But all that stuff seemed more of a plus than a minus,” says Gelb. “What I’m saying is I’m sure my life has had trajectory. When something changes so severely like a flood and you live through that then the small changes that happen everyday will inspire you to persevere.”

Giant Sand is on tour now. They play in L.A. tonight (10/08) and San Francisco on Thursday. Complete tour dates available here.

This is a new one for “Increment of Love” off proVISIONS, a live-in-the-studio take:

And here’s a nice live version of “Spiral,” also off the new album:

JamBase | Desperate Kingdom of Love
Go See Live Music!