Rock And Sun: The Legend of Giant Sand
“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear–the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break….I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”
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Thus wrote Edward Abbey in his seminal book, Desert Solitaire, a testament to the profound wisdom that comes to a man who spends too much time in the arid American Southwest.
One might suppose Abbey would’ve had a lot to talk about with the mirage-like musical shaman known as Howe Gelb, who, along with his desert orchestra Giant Sand, has returned with yet another freewheeling blend of dusty Americana, sun-baked rock and jazzy piano lounge.
Thirty years since their debut, Heartbreak Pass is just another volume to the wonderful eclectic mix that has become Giant Sand’s trademark over the last three decades.
Gelb founded Giant Sand in the dry heat of Tucson, Arizona.
Their album debut Valley of Rain fit well with other guitar-based bands of the time – R.E.M, The Dream Syndicate, Thin White Rope and Naked Prey – but the project soon evolved into something more than your typical rock group. Giant Sand became more like a gathering of family and friends, where everyone can participate for the cause of a greater good.
Thus the “band” is has fluctuated between in more lineups than most with Gelb including his children and wives next to a huge cast of characters throughout the years. John Convertino and Joey Burns (later of Calexico fame), the late Rainer Ptacek, John Parish, Neko Case, PJ Harvey and M. Ward have all been part of this circuit.
Giant Sand have never been easy to categorize, a fool’s errand that gets harder every passing years, as Gelb & Co. have freely embraced new and disparate stylings into their seesawing sound. But whether it comes out as roots rock, gospel, jazz, punk, latin or lo-fi, it always comes out with the identifiable signature, with characteristic beatnik rhythms, shrewd lyrics and a warm, charismatic personality.
For Heartbreak Pass, Gelb has travelled halfway around the globe and back.
Gathering old and new friends, he invited Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Grant Lee Phillips, Jason Lytle (Grandaddy), Dutch band The Common Linnets and Danish pedal steel guitarist Maggie Björklund to participate on the new album. The cast is so big this time around that they’re not Giant Sand, or even Giant Giant Sand, but what Gelb himself has called Giant Giant Giant Sand.
We talked to the incomparable Howe Gelb about the making of Heartbreak Pass and the history of Giant Sand, concluding in a poetic guide us through the album’s realization.
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How would you describe this incarnation of Giant Sand?
Responsible for the task at hand. Able and willing. Strong and vigilant. A swarm of self editing indulgence. Natural.
You have said that Heartbreak Pass consists of three volumes representing two lives for 30 years. Can you elaborate on the structure of the album?
The advent of these volumes lies in their particular cluster. Volume 1 begins the album for the first four songs. A louder volume with intended abandon. A lesser than… A buoyancy… A happiness.
The next four songs represent the second volume at a steadier pace. Pressing forward. Quieter and more understated with hidden strengths. Pedal steel alerts the listener to what they now call ‘Americana’ as well as a directness in lyrics. A clarity.
The final seven tracks lie in volume 3. This is really how the album first started being recorded, songs within a whisper. The heart in turmoil between the worlds at hand. A hushed tone, a moan, dangerously close to a sophistication. A ponder, a prayer… something down there under the surface layer.
You couldn’t have laid out this framework in advance, could you?
An album grows out of itself, like a plant. It’s impossible to know how it will branch out once you’ve seeded it, but you must be confident it will bear fruit. You can trim it along the way if it sprawls, entice growth with the right soil and watering – when the right season comes to harvest you will then know well the bounty you’re taking to market. But not until then.
How would you describe the atmosphere of Heartbreak Pass?
Worthy of a breadth.
As a musician you have always been very progressive, never replicating yourself, and you have never struck me as nostalgic when it comes to your art. Thirty years down the road, do you ever look in the rearview mirror of your career?
I like the past just where it is. There’s just no future without it – and that’s my present for you.
A lot of your friends were involved in the making of this album, and it came to life in various countries and cities. Can you piece together the puzzle of Heartbreak Pass?
First came an attempt in Spain of a new song (“House in Order”) with my friends, the gypsies of Cordoba. But the song hadn’t yet become what it wanted to be, so we ended up surprising ourselves with a one-take wonder live in Tucson with just the three of us: Gabriel Sullivan, Thøger Lund and myself.
…but not until we first toured one last time as Giant Giant Sand, which included all the Danish players – Peter Dombernowski, Anders Pedersen, Nikolaj Heyman, Asger Christensen, Dr. Iris Jakobsen and Maggie Björklund – along with all the Arizona players: Gabriel Sullivan, Brian Lopez, Jon Villa and transplant Thøger Lund.
There in Belgium JB Meijers of The Common Linnets lined up a studio for us, engineered by my friend ‘Hoss’ from Mexico. We managed to keep two new songs from that night (“Every Now and Then” & “Done”) which I would later add the gospel choir I once used for the ‘Sno Angel [Like You] album in Canada.
At that point the band doubled in size again to number 20 members; Giant Giant Giant Sand… or
After which the session in Tucson continued with just the three of us rendering some of the brooding piano pieces (“Pen to Paper” & “Gypsy Candle”). both of which Ionna Kelley would magnificently adorn from Phoenix, and an old nugget (“Man on a String”) that The Common Linnets help out on from the Netherlands.
When back in Europe, on tour in 2014, we spent the day off in Berlin at a studio, writing another new song there in the morning and tracking it that afternoon with our intended track (“Song So Wrong” & “Home Sweat Home”).
On summer holiday with the family in Portland, dad (me) spent some time hangin’ with Jason Lytle [Grandaddy] in his studio with a track he produced (“Transponder”)
…and also harvested an instrumental piano track from a live house gig there he recommended (“Bitter Suite”).
When back home for 5 minutes, a moment allowed me to scrawl out another new song in about 12 minutes and thusly recorded it there and then at Tucson’s own Wavelab studio (“Eye Opening”).
Then came a tour in the Balkans later that summer, along with Italy, that spawned another new song (“Hurtin’ Habit”) that featured Steve Shelley [Sonic Youth] on drums with backing band Sacri Cuori featuring guest vocalist Lovely Quincess from Croatia.
In September, during an invitation assisting Vinicio Capossela in Calitri, Italy, another new song was recorded having him wax poetically on (“Heaventually”) and which would be further guested by the harmonies and slide of Grant-Lee Phillips from Nashville.
Finally the last song added to the album’s collection would be done back in Tucson after a series of texts with old buddy Leslie Feist (“Texting Feist”) in the momentary studio of Tucson band Chicha Dust, including Brian Lopez and Gabriel Sullivan, along with Thøger Lund and myself, but most especially featuring original drummer Winston Watson from the very first Giant Sand album 30 years ago.
In between all of that, one day at home my 12-year-old daughter, Talula, came up with a song along with her daddy (me) that we immediately recorded on the iPhone (“Forever and Always”). But that’s just a family tradition.
Just before everything was collected up for mixing, the husband and wife team of Asger and Iris brilliantly recorded all the rest of their string parts on the isle of Crete.
These proceedings were then handed over to a one John Parish along with assistant Ali Chant who, besides throwing down the odd drum or two, mixed the entire batch there in Bristol, U.K.
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Besides writing and curating for TIDAL every day, Editor Bjørn Hammershaug was appointed Grandmaster of the Norwegian Chapter of Giant Sand Land in 1989 by Howe Gelb himself.
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