It’s satisfying to note that Howe Gelb, purveyor of dusty, dry, sometimes acerbic songs, is as laconic in person as he appears in his work. We meet in a somewhat smart, business-oriented Kensington hotel, and Gelb remarks that it is “a space befitting a man’s grey hair”.
If this seems a little self-deprecating, it gets more so: “Grey hair looks a little better when the hotel is nice.” Actually, the grey and distinguished look suits Gelb perfectly. He is now beginning to look a little weather-beaten, but still sharp and enduring, much like the ‘erosion rock’ concept he uses to define his music.
We meet primarily to talk about The Coincidentalist, his latest album, this time released under his own name rather than with one of his many other monikers (Giant Sand, Giant Giant Sand, Blacky Ranchette to name just a few). Immediately, the title seems intriguing. It is an invented word? “Well, all words are made-up at some point,” he remarks truthfully enough. “It’s just a matter of whether or not they end up getting used. American language has prominent use of slang too, it was actually used during World War Two to determine whether or not soldiers were American.”
But why this particular word? “It just sums it all up perfectly. Coincidences play a significant role in existence. You can read them and they point the way. If there are enough of them occurring, you can know what to do next.” In this light, is Gelb a believer in chance or in fate? “Actually,” he says after a moment of thought, “I’m not so sure there is a difference.”
The Coincidentalist is an album embellished by the contributions of some notable guests. The band features M Ward and former Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy contributes a typically engaging vocal to Vortexas, whilst KT Tunstall guests, a little more unexpectedly, on The 3 Deaths Of Lucky, and somehow sounds perfectly at home in its slightly wayward and dreamy atmosphere. Perhaps most influential on its sound, however, is the entrancing harmony and backing vocals of Gabrielle Pietrangelo, Laura Kepner-Adney and Caroline Isaacs. John Parish, a longstanding friend of Gelb’s, produces, capturing the kind of minimal, unfussy and naturalistic sound that Gelb so obviously seeks.
“These days, when I get a melody in my head, I record it really quickly, because it’s so vaporous, it’s gone so quickly. I’ll add some slipstream words…”
– Howe Gelb
“You might refer to these people as special guests, but really they’re just a group of friends I wanted to get together,” he says. “There was such a neighbourhood vibe to this record. John and I met when I was dealing with the death of my best friend (the great guitarist and songwriter Rainer Ptacek), and this has always kept us close. If there’s something I can do with John, I always want to hang out with him.” Does the personnel dictate the sound of the project, or do the songs themselves dictate who is brought in to contribute? Gelb gives what appears to be a characteristically clever (and honest) response. “A date will determine things usually, actually. A recording is really just a record of what happens on a particular day. This is usually the premise for me rather than a well crafted, laboured-over endeavor. My preference is to keep things minimal – so my recordings are a polaroid, or an aural snapshot. Nothing I plan works out as well as when I improvise.”
This ties in neatly with the way in which Gelb once described Giant Sand, his ever-shifting and mutable ensemble project (“a jazz band without the talent”). Gelb explains the peculiar paradox of making improvised music without much in the way of solos or exposition. “The improvisation in this realm is not in the solos, it’s in everything else. Jazz might be the only form of music that is based on constant evolution. In other forms of music, if you find a recording you love, you can get locked into playing in that particular way. You miss out the fact that it has already happened. You can have some fun with that but you’re missing the point of what music is. It’s a thing that has always evolved, constantly.
“When people started to record music, more people could bear witness to this. But then too much emphasis became placed on those recordings when they were really just a glimpse of something. Now recordings are more convenient than ever because of downloads, but the importance of them is still embraced too preciously. Every recording would have been different if it had been made on any other day.” It really does seem as if time and place are as significant to Gelb’s recordings as the songs he brings to the process.
Gelb also has a preference for revisiting songs at different times, re-recording them for different projects, with different personnel involved. “Well, a song is probably the lowest form of art,” he quips. This is quite a big statement for something that initially seems like a throwaway remark. He seems more than prepared to justify the provocation, however. “As far as craftsmanship goes, it’s three minutes and full of words. Every other form of art is laboured over way more than that little song! And sadly, perhaps, a song gets out there and communicated way more than those other forms of art. That’s an irony that’s entertaining in itself. But what you do with a song – that’s where it starts to get interesting – there’s a trajectory involved.”
So why, if it is such a ‘low’ art form, has Gelb been so driven and prolific a songwriter for so many years now? “Well it’s precisely because it’s a low art form. It’s not too demanding! I’ve just been reading Sylvie Simmons’ book (I’m Your Man – a biography of Leonard Cohen) and he takes ages to let a song go. I’d really like to work more like that, if I have the time. Some of the songs on this record have actually been sitting around for seven years or more, I just hadn’t found the time.”
Cohen is actually one of the points of comparison that springs most immediately to mind when listening to The Coincidentalist, not least in its dry humour and in the vocal contributions of Pietrangelo, Kepner-Adney and Isaacs. “You’re right, of course,” he admits, “although I read the book after I’d finished recording the album and only then did I start to make the connections. With the singers, the idea was for me to join them on a night that they were playing – so they reached out to me, and clearly there was a reason for them doing that. I was enchanted by them finding the melody at every turn.”
It’s also possible to detect the influece of Cohen in the wry opening lines to Vortexas, the song that raises the curtain on the entire album (“Well, welcome to the desert/It’s becoming increasingly more expensive/It used to be much cheaper/To find a love and to keep her…”). “That was a sweet little tease about my hometown (Tucson, Arizona) but Leonard would be much more elegant,” he says, again sounding more than a little humble about his own work.
It is, however, not the only point on The Coincidentalist where Gelb delivers a completely killer opening line. In an almost offhand manner, the superb Picachu Peak begins with the words “I haven’t flown in my dreams, since I was at least eleven/So now I sleep when I fly, just to get even.” It’s a brilliant moment, one that seems to capture the magic of childhood and the adult experience of being a touring musician all in one sentence.
Gelb then goes on to describe driving past the majestic peak that provides the song with its title, coming up with the words as he goes. There’s another wonderfully dry joke too (“I hope to remain so severely talented, for at least another mile or two.”). “It’s driving at night between Phoenix and Tucson, and it’s dark,” Gelb explains. “The looming peak is black on the black of the night sky, but you can tell it’s there because the stars disappear. So I called a friend – we’re still allowed to use our phones in Arizona – and asked can you write these words down for me, because I can’t do it? Again, it’s that slipstream of consciousness that makes more sense later. It was recorded at home. That piano is really old, and nothing else sounds like that piano. The older an instrument is, the more unique it sounds and feels.”
Gelb’s music certainly has a worn-in, mature feeling to it and he has described it as “erosion rock”, a term that might be helpful, but which might also lend credence to the stereotypical music writers’ descriptions of Giant Sand as being ‘desert’ music, pigeon holing that Gelb has also professed not to like much.
This thought prompts Gelb to muse not just on his sound, but also on his approach to the songwriting process: “These days, when I get a melody in my head, I record it really quickly, because it’s so vaporous, it’s gone so quickly. I’ll add some slipstream words. Sometimes I get a line, and the melody is embedded in that line. When I listen to a slipstream of consciousness, I’m more interested in how that happens – the impossible collection of those words together. Initially, they don’t seem to make sense but eventually they develop some kind of logic. If we hear something and see something and like it – later, you can figure out the why and it actually attaches to you and your world more accurately. When I think of the name Giant Sand, I think what does that mean? It would be like the beach at Brighton – big pebbles. What do I play? I play rock – but that rock changes, like erosion changes real rocks.”
A consistent theme in Gelb’s conversation is the spontaneous, unplanned nature of his work, yet some of his projects seem so organised and clearly defined (the collaboration with Andalucian gypsy musicians on Allegrias, or the incorporation of a gospel choir on ‘Sno Angel Like You). “Well, if I’m allowed to quote Bob Dylan, the short answer is that ‘I can’t help it if I’m lucky’,” he responds dryly. “I guess I just follow my gut – you gravitate to certain situations and you don’t know why until afterwards.” It seems Gelb’s thoughtfulness most often comes in defining and understanding his musical movements after they have occurred.
“Well, a song is probably the lowest form of art…”
– Howe Gelb
In fact, The Coincidentalist is one of two albums Gelb has released during the past six months. The other, Dust Bowl, is a more low-key release. “Those are pieces and scraps collecting in the house of me recording alone. I realised I’d never put out an album of me recording completely alone and I felt that needed to be out there. I can just make this available now because that’s how easy it is these days.”
Has the ease of releasing new material proved liberating for him? “Well that album is really intended for fans. It’s been available on tour and it is still available through the website. But The Coincidentalist is really something else. It’s intended for the friends of fans. It’s a more user-friendly document for those fans that are always claiming they can’t explain why they love the band so much! There is a lot more emphasis on melody on this record generally.” It’s not in any way a stretch to concur with Gelb on this, particularly as his half-spoken, deep-voiced singing style often requires the melody to be unpicked a little. “That was the great thing about working with those vocalists,” he says. “They can quickly recognise what I’m trying to do, find the melody in it, and nail it every time.”
This prompts some consideration of Gelb’s distinctive singing style, and some other unconventional or untrained singers who have come to have defining musical careers. “When we think inside our heads, it has the voice of Bob Dylan singing or Neil Young singing, we attach to those voices in a way we can’t so easily with technically great singers, like Elvis Costello or Bing Crosby.”
There is an argument that mainstream culture is becoming bombarded with the rather absurd idea of the perfect voice – one without pitching or projection vulnerabilities. Gelb seems to think this is in part due to the nature of contemporary society. “In the human race, competition is such a daily principle, especially in cities. You can hear the competitive values in someone trying to out-sing someone else. This is not comfortable for some people but for people who live their lives competitively, it’s something they can recognise and understand.” Gelb’s more understated, storytelling delivery suggests that he does not value competition as a motivating force quite as much. He’s aiming for something spontaneous but, curiously, something that also endures, eroded but very much still there.
Howe Gelb plays at London’s Islington Assembly Hall on 7 March 2014. The album The Coincidentalist is out now through New West. More on Howe Gelb at howegelb.com