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Howe Gelb on Vic Chesnutt and other musical collaborations

23 Dec kittycat howe 2010

THIS INTERVIEW ALSO APPEARS ON THE NO DEPRESSION WEB SITE

“i like the way my sentences flow before you wrangled them.”

This is the most memorable sentence Howe Gelb wrote to me during the process of interviewing him via e-mail in September 2011. And no, the lower case “i” in his proclamation is not a mistake…

Out in the Sonoran Desert, where ancient rocks are strewn like giant grains of sand, there still exists a zealous bastion of linguistic obstinacy – in the spirit of cummings, Chomsky, Wolf and Dickinson – who eschews being edited (even slightly) and highly prioritizes a very personal orthographic preference.

Howe Gelb is both poet and innovator, and as such requires that the language used to represent him be rendered precisely in his own chosen cadence, tempo, beat and pause. He explains it thusly: “i always thought the more stripped down a writing is, the more like a rough mix it appears. and i adore rough mixes, often favoring them over final mixes.”

Howe typed the answers you read here exactly the way he wanted them to appear and requested that they be provided sans capital letters. I have thus refrained from any wrangling and am honored to abide by his requests.

Frances: In The Guardian, Giant Sand is described “as a loose, uncompetitive, mutually supportive musical collective, a place for friends to hang out and play” and you are quoted as saying, “i just liked the idea of having this kind of removed world, this brotherhood—the idea of a band being something more than a front person or dealing with the throes of fame.” How do you maintain that sense of brotherhood, quell the egos involved, keep that supportive workshop feeling and not let a famous personality or leader mentality take over so you can create an egalitarian atmosphere in which to make music?

Howe: the side effect of popularity or relative fame and fortune has never been very appealing… its outcome looks annoying… a more ‘blue collar’ approach to sonic existence seems more comfortable and i reckon that’s what we ultimately ever shoot for, that standard of comfort in this life to get the job done and enjoy the doing along the way, taking in the end of the day with an exhaustion that merits.

this template allows for an enormous amount of output as well as permits the actuality of raising a family instead of sacrificing one for the other. just enough ‘ego’ needs to be implemented to be able to enjoy the stage as a work space and not let it crush your skull or stomp your heart by its imposing loom.

members in the band will feel like minded. those that eventually don’t will be able to use the premise to spring board into their own mesh of how ambition and sonic deployment can be then tailored to suit their own needs once they leave the fold.

that said, there is a compiling strain from years on the road that instigates needed perks along the way in order to facilitate longevity. things like upgrades in air travel and better hotel rooms. a lack of stanky rock clubs in lieu of more sensible venues to dispense more properly in theater like confines. this can get tricky when the music has remained unknown enough and not easily categorized. it takes some creative promotion as the years spin by to continue delivering anything vital outside of mass appeal.

but that is the music i have always been drawn to. the rhetoric of a rehearsed set of music by bands determined to get to the next level actually makes me a little sea sick. probably an allergic reaction to honing the craft in a way so as to never allow the gamble of a unique night of music to come into play. i tend to avoid bands that work the crowd instead of expanding their sound nightly through immediate evolution where risk is a flavor and the outcome is worth it.

Frances: As alluded to in the song “Fields of Green,” you mentored and spawned many bands around the Tucson area. You “lift up” others in your performances regularly. I was in the Old Pueblo when I first heard you play live and got turned on to the wonderful music of the late Rainer Ptacek. How would you describe your collaboration with Rainer as well as your philosophy as a musical mentor?

Howe: that’s a loaded question.

when rainer and i met in the mid 70s, i recognized something in him instinctually. something i could never define till years later. when i have stumbled upon bands or band members that i’d chosen to be part of this sonic fabric, it has been in similar fashion, but none so important to me as rainer was, maybe because i was only 19 at the time, but mostly because of the spirit of the man. it’s a blessing and a curse, this sonic life, when the energy is in play, a music occurs and it’s the best of times. you can see it swirl on stage between conjuring implementers. when the energy is not harbored into play, it’s a an impish storm that confuses and sparks the room in chaos.

all rainer and i ever verbally agreed to was to make a music that would not embarrass us 20 years into the future. so we took our cues from strident elements of historical proportions and mixed them up with a state of exploratory endeavors that would serve the future the way we noticed it had gone on long before us. and along the way we collected a vast assortment of young ‘lifers’ stained with the same urgency.

Vic Chesnutt is on the far right of this group of friends at the Barbican 10 years ago.

Frances: You were also friends with the late Vic Chesnutt, whose passing two years ago at Christmas is still mourned by all who knew him. One of my favorite songs is “Classico,” and I love the way you have two versions on “Is All Over the Map” – to me, it sounds like a song Vic would write. How would you characterize his contribution to modern folk/alt music and how did that collaboration come about?

Howe: vic was the greatest american singer songwriter i have ever had the pleasure of knowing. he was the only true definition of the term i have ever witnessed. his songs were monsters, meaning massive wondrous plunks of existence, and his voice was impossibly enormous and soulful beyond measure.

he was the best. and his constant struggle in this life is never to be fully realized by the likes of us. he toured incessantly by his sheer singular will. and he was one of my favorite guitar players, attacking it in a way that was severely refreshing, making each note matter more than any i’ve ever heard, except for rainer. i loved him so. this world is less now without him, but him being here at all was a great gift and a continuous inspiration still.

as for ‘classico,’ i was still trying to write a song for marianne faithfull to sing, since my buddy polly was working on her record at the same time, but instead vic came to town and i know an omen when i see one.

Frances: I think your lyrics, and the way they work with the music, are what fascinate me most about Giant Sand. Some of the lyrics are so comical, and almost silly-seeming, that many song writers might be “afraid” to use them and therefore couldn’t pull them off. (Example: “I poured me cranberry juice there on the floor letting it flow on the mirror under the door” – I recall laughing out loud the first time I heard this song.) How does your sense of humor inform your confidence in songwriting and… yep, the age-old “which came first” question: Do you compose lyrics or music first… or is it a combination?

Howe: that’s the age-old question… but there is never an age-old answer.

songs happen when they care to and however they dare to. there is no way to count on them or formulate the process. i have the ability to utilize my disability. songs are the event once you clear yourself of everything else inside you. they are there waiting to happen.

singing songs that you make up on the spot is a matter of lying to yourself that they have been around forever, and then they sound like they have been.

humor and sex are important elements in song. to be able laugh at life and how it clobbers us is also a great way to make an otherwise difficult point to put across. to rework the essence of how we procreate as a species is the stuff that needs to be addressed more often than not.

anyhow… the song you mention with sliding a mirror under the door and pouring cranberry juice on it was a reflection of lament and dement in my time of languishing the loss of my former rhythm section, who have done well, but sadly still fail to include those two basic elements in their material. but once they read this, that will change too.

Frances: When I want to relax without lyrics, I go to “Spun Some Piano” and “Lull Some Piano” for a change. Although many of your Giant Sand songs are sans piano, you are often described as a piano virtuoso. How did you learn to play and who were your main influences?

Howe: wilkes-barre, pennsylvania is flooding as we speak. the susquehanna river is an eventual monster. 40 years ago it knocked on our door and raised up six feet over our roof. that’s what sent me to arizona where my dad was living. it also smashed the piano to bits i never practiced on. with the flood relocation money i bought me a univox electric piano and drove the apartment complex nuts we were evacuated to. but that’s where it started. i learned how to play “all the way to memphis” by mott the hoople all the while i began discovering piano players in the “cheap” bin at the record store. champion jack dupree, memphis slim, and otis spann got me started. tommy flanigan and ahmad jamal (both whom i had the pleasure of seeing live), mcoy tyner and oscar petersen, kept me following the thread, until i finally hit the payload with thelonious sphere monk.

after the two you mentioned came “ogle some piano” …and now this month comes “snarl some piano” which actually manages to free you up when in a traffic snarl, if played in its entirety. money back guarantee. i think.

Frances: Your vocals lend themselves to duos with a soft, naïve female voice. Examples I enjoy are “No Tellin” and “Love A Loser” from “Blurry Blue Mountain.” What characteristics work best for this type of duo?

Howe: i would have much preferred to have been a player in a band with a great singer, but I didn’t want to wait for that to ever happen, so just handled the chore myself.

lonna beth kelley is the woman you mention in those BBM songs and I find her voice such a fine smolder. we try to bring her on the road to have her open as much as possible. I adore her lip flip, but also the hang time on the road. she’s a comfort zone and a smile waiting to happen. funny as hell too.

Frances: You obviously have a loyal and astute audience who knows your disposition and irreverent approach to fusing elements from most every musical genre. What is your relationship to your audience and how much do you care/not care what they think of your creations?

Howe: it’s scary seeing how every kind of music has such similar thread. any song can be done up in any genre. it’s there in front of us. i just try and get to it as much as possible. because of my tin ear, it all just sounds like me doing up my usual muck-a-luck.

anyhow, i tend to make the same music my audience would make if they allowed themselves the time to work it up themselves. so they pay me to do it instead. like hiring a plumber.

Learn more about Howe Gelb and Giant Sand here.

Please also read my Sept. 11 interview with Howe Gelb here.

Howe Gelb remembers Sept. 11 in “NYC of Time”

10 Sep wtc1998-web

THIS INTERVIEW ALSO APPEARS ON THE NO DEPRESSION WEB SITE

“NYC of Time,” the second track on Giant Sand’s 2004 offering, Is All Over the Map, pays homage to the resilience of New York City and delivers a deeply felt encouraging word to all who were affected by the devastation of September 11.

Now based in Tucson, Arizona, Giant Sand’s front man Howe Gelb is no stranger to The Big Apple. I interviewed him recently about the city, the song and the events of ten years ago. Howe is both a poet and an innovator, and as such desires that the language used to represent him be rendered precisely in his own in cadence, tempo, beat and pause. This interview was conducted via e-mail, Howe typed his answers exactly the way he wants them to appear and requested that they be provided here sans capital letters. I am honored to abide by his requests.

Frances: You lived in New York City not one but three decades ago, when you were heading up your first band, Giant Sandworms. What was your experience like and what do you remember most about living and playing there?

Howe: i lived there in 1981 in the lower east side with my band for a year when living there was a daily danger. it was like a city attacking itself back then, but it always made more sense somehow than any other violent place. that time there lent itself in a way that made everywhere i’ve ever been since, easy by comparison. it was a training grounds to survive the time there then with our fledging band. adventures like being mugged and playing cbgb’s and wandering the streets all night became part of strength and fiber needed for continuance in me. i loved the time spent there then, no matter how tough it was, now only respect the place more since that day 10 years ago that dared to show what its people are made of and how to deal with horrors beyond anyone’s imagination.

Frances: One of the most compelling tunes on Is All Over the Map, “NYC of Time” makes the acronym “NYC” into the word “nick,” as in a cut, scratch, gash or dent – and as in the adage “in the nick of time.” Its climax contains the ironic yet triumphant line, “New York, there’s more to you now that something isn’t there,” which I take to be a direct reference to the city’s way of coping with the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

Howe: of course it is. the horror of that day was of biblical proportions. we as a species deal with it and continue finding ways to fall in love and live on no matter the consequences of this existence. new york being as intense as it always has been is probably the only place on earth to take it on the chin and continue to be even greater than before. it’s like what happens to martyrs; they become more powerful after their destruction.

Frances: How do you feel looking back to 10 years ago and how do you hope people who hear the song “NYC of Time” will interpret what I and many of your fans consider a bright, powerful and uplifting tribute?

Howe: i still say prayers for those that were on those planes. to envision them in that ordeal and send them the kind of thoughts and real energy from this life in hopes of some connection and embrace beyond this place. especially the mothers and children and the words they must have spoken to comfort each other in those final moments. the babies and the mothers on those planes, how they embraced each other in a way of representing the best quality of us as a species and the love that binds more than anything. then to all the countless people from such immensely varied cultures in the towers that only new york could ever accumulate, and how they then had to cope with their final moments and plunge into the next world with such conviction they never knew they had in them until that moment.

the song “nyc of time” pales by any comparison, but its thrust is there to help move it all ahead to a better time and place, and a dance to get us there.

nyc of time

new york, big city of dreams
take a bad time and make it better
there on the sidelines
you redefine, redefine, redefine.

n y c… spells nick to me
adjust in space
and just in time
you redesign, redesign, redesign.

in the nick of time
in the nyc of time

new york, it’s good to have you there
there’s more to you now
that something isn’t there
see it shine. see it shine.

in the nick of time
in the nyc of time

Listen to the song here.

Learn more about Howe Gelb and Giant Sand here.

Image credits: Howe Gelb by George Howard; Twin Towers by Cynthia Cusick.

Yin and yang in the Old Pueblo

10 Nov IMG_2486

Honoring death and survival in the American Southwest

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.”   ~Emily Dickinson

Raven

Joy

I am writing this week from Tucson, Arizona. My journey here was undertaken to visit two friends – one a 50-something African American gay man named Raven, the other a 26-year-old female adventure travel guide named Joy – both of whom have taken time from their busy lives to show me around this remarkable region and shared equally vital wisdom about life, love, spirit and survival in the desert. Just as these two friends look vastly different when placed side by side, so this journey has presented itself as a study in contrasts – and in learning to exist with balance among them.

The trip was timed around an annual celebration here, the All Souls Procession, which honors the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. The signature procession through the streets of downtown Tucson, which anyone can join, attracts roughly 20,000 people, about half of which are costumed in elaborate face paint and colorful skeletal garb reminiscent of Grateful Dead iconography. Joy and I walked in this mile-and-a-half-long procession together, at times somberly, at times with gleeful elation. This was, after all, a celebration – but a celebration of death! We, along with thousands of others, were there to honor and remember those who had passed away – or even passed out of our lives, for one reason of another. We were there saying, along with Kurt Vonnegut’s protagonist Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse Five: “Farewell, Hello, Farewell, Hello.” This was an event so compelling that I would like to make it an annual pilgrimage, returning each year to the desert, where life can be a struggle for all beings.

Bobcat at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The day after the procession, I visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a wonderful fixture of this arid region, where visitors and natives alike can learn about the flora and fauna that have miraculously learned to thrive throughout the centuries under harsh, inhospitable and unforgiving conditions. At once a peaceful outdoor area with hiking trails, a natural history museum, a botanical garden and a zoo – albeit in the very best sense – this amazing attraction allows guests to see local mammals like the coyote, javelina (collared peccary) and bobcat; birds such as Gila Woodpeckers, Gilded Flickers, road runners, owls, hawks, falcons and hummingbirds; as well as butterflies and a host of reptiles and amphibians. Gracing the beautiful desert landscape here are a myriad of desert plants, shrubs and trees, among them the Saguaro Cactus – state flower of Arizona and symbol of the desert southwest – found only in the Sonoran Desert.

Gilded Flicker in Saguaro Cactus by Warren Lynn

Much has been documented about the efficient way the saguaro stores and utilizes water to keep itself and the ecosystem that depends on it alive. “The saguaro has a thick waxy skin that restricts loss of moisture. The outer surface is covered with pleats, which allow the stem to expand during water uptake, preventing the cactus from bursting. A mature saguaro can soak up 200 gallons of water during a single rain storm. A saguaro is typically more than 90% water. Water is needed for survival, but also plays an important role in heat regulation. The water within the cactus heats slowly throughout the day (preventing the cactus from cooking), then releases its heat at night, keeping the cactus warm.” Source: Todd’s Desert Hiking Guide. Like all life in the desert, the saguaro has to be efficient in every way in order to survive.

And survival can be an issue here for any living creature. Tucson is only 60 miles from the border with Mexico, where new immigration policy is taking its toll. “These walls being erected have their consequences on the environment,” said Joey Burns of the Tucson-based alternative country-rock band Calexico. “Regardless of the human border, the local wildlife has to be able to travel back and forth; it’s important for their survival. But they’re also having a hard time because of all the traffic that goes through there: drug smugglers, immigration, border patrols, vigilantes, humanitarian aid-workers trying to prevent these immigrants from dying of dehydration in the middle of the desert… Putting up a massive wall isn’t the solution to any of these problems. It’s certainly not going to stop desperate people from trying to cross, and it sure doesn’t help the relations between the United States and Mexico.” Source: Anthony Carew at About.com.

November 7 All Souls Procession through downtown Tucson

Border issues notwithstanding, one of the most compelling aspects of Tucson, known to locals as the Old Pueblo, is that, unlike so many homogenized geographical regions in the Unites States, it retains a palpable and dynamic culture, an authentic sense of place! This is brought out in traditions like the Day of the Dead, where Mexicans and Americans come together for a communal celebration of both life and death. And it is also reflected in the Latino influenced musical traditions that have naturally emerged in border regions such as this one. Calexico – whose concerts now traditionally close out the annual Day of the Dead festivities – represents that blend of cultures and musical genres perhaps better than any other border band in the southwest. The concert they gave as the finale to the All Souls Procession at the historic Rialto Theatre, the locus of Tucson cultural history since 1920, benefited the non-profit organization Many Mouths One Stomach, a Tucson-based collective of artists, teachers and community activists who support “festal culture,” the fulfillment of human needs through public celebration, ceremony and ritual. The performance not only fused many world genres, especially those that inspire the southwest, but also brought together in celebration many cultures in one uplifted community spirit. Calexico’s music, which has been called “desert noir,” and described as “a melting pot for country, indie rock, various Spanish rooted sub-genres, jazz, and many other musical styles,” will be the subject of an upcoming interview I’ll post here in the coming weeks.

Calexico's Dia de los Muertos concert at the Rialto Theatre

I started this entry with a quote about hope, for hope represents one of the greatest mechanisms of balance we can employ in times of challenge. No matter where we may live, like creatures in the desert, at times each of us is faced with the perils that threaten our survival in a harsh climate. And yet, hope is the thing that keeps us moving on, traveling to new places, alive and celebrating life, even in the face of difficulty and loss, each and every day. The yin and yang of coexisting cultures and of death and survival in the desert are nothing if not testimonials to hope.

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