The dressing rooms backstage at Amsterdam’s Zonnehuis – a charming old town Hall that has been recently renovated – are sparse affairs, though someone has attempted to cheer them up with some homemade Christmas decorations. Even the large clothes rail, which takes up half a wall, is almost empty; one shirt, three suits, and one tie hang forlornly in the middle. But on a table sits a large, cream Stetson hat, an unmistakable emblem for the man sitting in the corner entertaining a friend and her child.
That man is Howe Gelb, indie Elder Statesman and all round bon vivant. But he’s not here with Giant Sand, the band that virtually invented Americana and has defined him for nearly 30 years; instead, he’s touring new album Future Standards, a collection of jazz piano songs that are his personal contribution to what he calls “a dying art”. It’s a far cry from his usual fare, but the change of pace – both musically and logistically – is suiting him just fine. “There’s no gear, no loading and unloading,” he tells me. “The venues provide the instruments – we just turn up and play”.
With a voice like warm chocolate, and an equally charming turn of phrase, “jazz standards” seem like an obvious genre for him to explore. “Piano for now. Songs forever” was his explanation back when the project was announced, and there’s plenty of wit and delight spread over the record’s twelve tracks. On stage, he is still charm personified, cracking jokes and gently poking fun at himself, his band members, and even the venue’s out-of-the-way location (“Is this still Amsterdam? It might be…might also be Groningen.”). He even has the good grace to crack out an acoustic guitar and run through some of the many classics from his extensive back catalogue, a much-appreciated touch by those in attendance.
Prior to all that, we sat down to talk about the magic of duets, the language of the blues, and if it really is the end of Giant Sand.
DiS: So what drew you to jazz?
Howe Gelb: I think it had to do with the piano because that is what I was stuck with when I started playing music. I started looking for music that incorporated the piano and I would just blindly buy stuff; I started with Blues for Piano Players and Champion Jack Dupree, Memphis Slim, Otis Spann… And eventually I just braved a jazz band and it was always cooler down there. I didn’t know what those guys were doing, but I could hear that connection of the three-chord jam. They would have all these extra chords; like, how did they get from that to that?
So, I just stumbled around on my own trying to figure out like, “What is going on?” Then someday, hopefully, when I get grey hair; I will be able to handle this stuff.
So, was it something that was always in the back of your mind, to perhaps do a jazz album at some point?
I mean, I loved it more and more. Especially from that era, the late fifties and early sixties. How they got things done in the studios, the way they placed the mics. So, yeah; I thought if I was lucky I would end up there for sure. But on every album we have been with people who lend themselves to that direction, and wanting to go and try and signal to say: “Come on. Come visit for a while.”
Then, around 58 I think I was wondering how to behave when I turned 60. I thought this might be a good time to really go for it, but I knew I needed the material. So, I set up a piano in my house, right behind my bedroom door and I couldn’t leave the bedroom without walking by it and when I would do that… I have this ability, or what could be a trait of the fire monkey in me. One of the fire monkey’s traits is, say there are these carrots in a bowl in the middle of the table. I find it difficult to impossible not to just reach over and snag a carrot and start chomping on it.
When I find these things I have to trick myself, so I put the piano right by this narrow passage way, where I have to walk by it to get in and out of the bedroom. The bedroom is a room you have to go into in a house; usually several times a day. So, every time I go by, I can’t walk by it without snagging a carrot from the bowl in the middle of the table, which in this case is an actual piano. So, I reach over and snag a few runs on the piano and then keep moving. Those few minutes a day turned into hours and those hours became songs, then eventually we had enough to put on an album.
I also thought all the piano standards artists raised under the umbrella of that genre are dead, or in homes and don’t remember anything and it’s like a dying art, or a dead language now; nobody is playing it. So, I thought maybe that is the direction to go in and how do you even make a standard, what are the elements; I have to figure that out.
Was it easy to figure out?
Way back in the day, when John Convertino joined the band – which was in the late 1980’s – him and I both had a love for these old jazz recordings; John was a big Max Roach fan and I became a huge Thelonious Monk fan. We were throwing little pieces and little jazz spurts out there; they would bubble up out of nowhere and we’d jump on it and then it would go away. I was never sure what the hell we just did.
Then when Thøgur joined the band fifteen years ago, he had a background, or at least an ability, to figure out how to break the stuff down; why things were put together, and he knew the complexities of all the chord variations. He would always think it was funny when I would learn a song, any cover song; he’d tell me that I had got it completely wrong with the chords. That has been my problem since the very beginning, and that is why I make up my own songs.
As you get older and you think you want to utilise the stature of the elder statesmen in any endeavours, whether it is just telling people that things will be ok and then they begin being ok, or actually expanding on any kind of experience. I cracked the door open a little bit to gospel choirs ten years ago for ’Sno Angel Like You, a sound that I normally didn’t know how to get to. A lowly Indy-rocker, I went and followed that path to see where it would lead and then did the same things with these flamenco guitar players; these gypsy fellows in Adalucia which was really great. The greatest guitar player that I have ever seen sat this close, and it was mind numbing how great they were; Raimundo Amador was the guy!
Again, it just opened the door a little bit for the lowly Indy-rocker to peek their head in and see if they could get an earful of this. I keep saying “Me too” because this is the thing; when you think you are on the trail of something good you just want to offer it up. And now the same thing is happening with this.
Most people might have started with an album of pre-existing standards. It’s quite a common thing now, to do a jazz covers record…
Well, to do that you have to be a qualified singer and you have to actually be able to play jazz, you have to be a player. I’m none of those things. But I decided the craftsmanship is not going to be in the singing or the playing, but it could be in the constructing of the actual songs, with a sophisticated chord structure and some lyrics that follow what I think the standards utilise; again, the elements. A lot of it has to do with love, mostly the celebration of it, sometimes the lament, but none of it ever gets too precious. It gets poetic enough and frivolous; it is always kind of cavalier.
And after I wrote the songs and I began playing them , I had to play them as if somebody else had written them; that was another trick of the mind. When you sing them, you’ve got to sing them like you are putting yourself in that place; that state of mind where you can have a little fun with them. You play within the character of the genre without being fake; there is a way to get into every character and a way to get in to every place you want to be. When you get in, it really is what is happening; you are that and you become it.
It’s interesting you say that with typical standards it tends to be more about the celebration of love, rather than the lament. You look at some genres, such as Country; it tends to be desolate, and more about disaster and strife. Why do you think traditional the lyrics of standards have been more on the positive side as opposed to the Blues or Country where it seems inspired more by tragedy and sadness?
It will always be in your best interest to write that book that you have been thinking about writing, or one of them. I have several in mind. One of them would be to do with the psychology in music, the genres and performers. There are so many ends to that, that you could write about.
But, what you just said, you might be onto something bigger. In the Blues, it is virtually all lament and the struggle with it, while in country, it’s the surrender to it and the: “That’s why I’m drinking, I’m drinking again! There is a tear in my beer.” Done-me-wrong songs from women and men. When it gets nasty and revengeful, or at least like “I’m not going to take this shit anymore!” then it starts getting distorted and angry, more like rock. What you just pointed out there is that there are those qualifications for those genres and the piano standards are more… I like the word “cavalier”, I think that sums it up, but you could also say “off-handed”.
You could also see how people dress for those genres, that tells you something too. So, if you throw on a decent suit, or a tux or gown, then you look like Julie London or Frank Sinatra, all dolled up and singing this stuff. You are not going to get too dirty!
With the Blues, it’s seeped into the language; “I’ve got the Blues” and “Why are you blue?” It’s so linked to sadness or stuff going wrong, not working out the way that you wanted.
Well, you know those mast heads, where they put those figure heads on the bow of a ship? The Vikings would put a big horse head, or whatever that thing was, to chase away whatever giant animals might be lurking in the great unknown, in the water, the darkness, the fog and the depths. That kind of mentality is still there; it is there with tattoos and it is there with the distortion battle. It’s there in the blues.
How did you decide upon Lonna Kelley? How do you know her and what made you decide to put her on a couple of the songs?
What if everything you ever needed to do in your life was put before you and you just had to have the good sense to recognise it?
Life would probably be a lot easier!
Well, Lonna Kelley was put before me about ten years ago. It was dark, the darkest venue I have ever been in; I don’t think I could even see her face. It was Giant Sand and we were in Phoenix where she lives and she was introduced to us by a band called Shane Kennedy. I didn’t know if she could sing, I think she was 24 or 25 at the time. We just played a set and I don’t even know how many people were there because we couldn’t see, it was so dark; very surreal. So, she was put right in front of me for some reason and then I kept hearing about this girl and that she could sing, and I kept thinking that I probably ought to hear her because she was put in front of me. That’s just the way it goes, you just don’t realise.
So, eventually I did and it took a while. I was with M. Ward at the time, she opened up for him or something. I kept missing her and then finally I heard her one time and that is all it took. Whenever I stumble upon somebody it does something, you qualify what good is, you don’t know why you like it but, you know you do. It’s kind of like your human divining rod. Do you know what that is?
Yeah, or you get the rods that cross when you hold them, when you walk over a lay line
Something like that happens when I come upon somebody like that. Actually, everybody who has ever been in Giant Sand it happened with. Tommy Larkins, Winston Watson, Jeremy Gara and Peter Dombernowsky who was one of the drummers; they had the thing when I was with them. And often when that happens you are not playing with them, it’s beforehand and you get the vibe that there is something here with this person that either you connect with or recognise; maybe your heart is beating in sync, or whatever.
Then comes the playing. The playing is always a given and I have never been disappointed, once I liked that person and can see hanging with them and doing something. It was there with all the other guys that filled up the ranks of the band; all the bass players and all the others. The other thing with Lonna is that we slowly became closer and closer. Intermittent conversation, never a lover, but we would conjoin in song, which is an exceptional place to hang out because within song you feel the essence of all those sensibilities. I think that is why people always assume, no matter who is up there, whether it is Dolly Parton, Porter Wagner… they must be lovers. They have to be, look at them. Look at how they react when they are singing.
Nick Cave and PJ Harvey actually became lovers, but there is that thing where you possess each other outside of song and within the ranks there, you definitely at least have a dance. This is part of the fascination with duets. Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell.
Or M. Ward and Zooey Deschannel.
It’s funny how you always think that, even as we are band members and we know better, at least half the time that it’s not like that. Still, when you go and see somebody, it is how your mind works. The mind forms patterns anyway, and often patterns of involvement so it just applies itself accordingly.
It’s probably the tension thing as well. Look within great bands; if there is one figure head then there is a kind of tension going on between whoever it is, Mick and Keith being a prime example.
Or the Oasis dudes.
Exactly. There is that tension going on; you can feel it, you can see it. Sometimes it is from family, like with the Kinks and the Davies brothers who ended up hating each other.
That is easier to do. In this case, it is like the thing where you really want to be with each other and you will drive each other crazy. With this, she really feels like a sister to me and maybe more so because I have lost my sisters, so she fills the void nicely and that could be really why she was put in front of me because the fates knew that it was going to get dark up ahead with the loss, and they deliver you what you need in advance.
I just adore her, the way she handles the song. The only reason she only sang on three is because it is all we could get together for before the album had to be done, but there could be two more there and if she had sung on anymore then we wouldn’t be able to tour without her and she is not that available right now because she has a couple of kids. But I was very happy with any amount she could give and the way she sang on that one cover, ‘A Book You’ve Read Before’; she has never sung like that before, I have never heard her do that before and it was really interesting to watch her do this take and how she did those descending lines, it just became that recognisable thing. She just became the perfect singer for that song, as she sung it.
What did you learn first the guitar or the piano?
The piano, but it was too problematic, I couldn’t even handle the B (flat) Polly Wally Doodles, so I didn’t practice it. Plus, it was so heavy to move in the 1970’s when they weren’t electric pianos, so I started playing the guitar.
I watched a really interesting interview with Nick Cave where he said that when he went from piano to guitar for the Grinderman stuff, he suddenly realised “Oh, that is why guitar songs sound like this because you play it like that! Some chords are easy and go together and it works like this”, as opposed to him normally writing at the piano. Given that you play both, do you see it from both sides? Like, “The way that I write if I’m sitting in front of the piano is always, or has to be, different from the way I write when I am with a guitar?
Yeah. The piano is more sophisticated and the guitar is more minimal. The piano is more social in a way, like more… It integrates qualities in the way our brain works whereas the guitar is more animal. The guitar is definitely more country and the piano is more city like.
You said back in February that it was going to be the end of Giant Sand, but now you are Giant, Giant, Giant Sand….
Well, that was what we were on the last album and then we had to underline that puppy. If I was going to stop then you can’t just play your show in one place, you have got to play a live show out of respect, you have to play a last show in every place. We took almost a year and a half to accomplish that. In Tucson we played four live shows because there were needed benefits that kept popping up, and the last one was my birthday party which was just the benefit of a man turning sixty.
So we have played the last show everywhere I think, or we gave it a good shot. Most places that we have ever played so, that is good.
But is that properly the end? To never be revisited?
I still want to play with those guys, I just don’t plan on calling it Giant Sand. I’ve loved this last line up over the last couple of years. Not only has it all returned back to Tucson – and I adore playing with the Danes, they brought a kind of merit and a life savingness at a time when the band was busted up; it was splintering in the late 90’s – but for it to be wholly Tucson is so easy for me. That kind of sensibility and how everybody thinks, humour and things. Sensuality and laziness, the same aspirations and shit, that is how it started back with Rainer and everybody else. Slowly it began to get convoluted with other players.
Also, you get more sensible as you get older, hopefully. Isn’t it better to stop it while it is so good and not pulling like a Robby Robertson when he thought maybe it is best to stop the band in 1978 because they had been doing it for sixteen years. How long can you go? It’s not like that; I’m sixty and he was much younger then. All the elements are there to be a healthy end. A nice round number of thirty years too.
But then sometimes it is very tempting. Someone like LCD Sound System came back, your old friend Jason Lytle….Granddady have got a new record coming out next year. It’s almost like you can put it down for a little while, but you come back to what you know.
The ages in the band go – I’m 60, Winston’s 55, Thøgur’s going to turn 44, Brian Lopez is 34, and Gabriel O’Sullivan today turned 29. That math has something to do with why it has been so good and it is kind of like, if we were all the same age at any one of our respective time zones, we would be hanging together; that spirit that is in us or applies itself is not affected by any of the ages.
Age is just a number, right?
It’s more than that. In music, when something is so ancient, I guess – eternal or spiritual – then you see it as a river. Everybody can jump in that water and when you are in that water, nobody really sees how old you are, or young.
There was a girl who was 22 named Annie Dolan and she is my favourite guitar player in Tucson. She doesn’t use any pedals and plays this hollow-bodied Epiphone and she attacks the thing, it has a sound like I heard when I was 14. So, if I were to do something again then I would have to bring her on board, never mind how to handle four guitar players in one band.
That could be interesting.
Yeah, if it sounded right. If we do something then like I said, I would like to play with these guys. I don’t know if that would be as Giant Sand again, I don’t know. But, if it did then it would be called Greatest Hits, but it would have to be all new songs.
That would be quite a confident move. I think somebody has done that before.
I was just told that Phil Oakes did that. So, it’s time has come again! But, if we are going to get audacious, titling something Future Standards then you have got to go one step forwards. Anyway, this damn thing is really all I can think of right now and it suits me. Just everything I have told you about the travelling life is; the club provides all the gear, there are no real amps, there is no real sound check if you don’t want one. One mic, you just show up, you travel with a small carry-on bag, like a real person.
What might come next then? Do you have any idea what your next musical endeavour might be? Or might involve?
Well if you get too far ahead of yourself then all you do is talk ideas. You become almost like the way the internet is; it is just frivolous banter with nothing to back it up. You don’t have to back it up. So, if you are dealing with actuality then it is better to stay where you are, while you are there; instead of already finding replacements for yourself.
So, this is it. This is just beginning.
So you want to do more piano based stuff, like kind of minimal?
Near the end of this record, stuff like ‘Mad Man At Home’, it was like: “Woah, that is it! It is a standard and I can hear that. That is going to be a standard sooner than any other one of these tracks.” So, I think this record might have just been becoming the thing and the next one could be really utilising it and upping the game.
It is quite possible I have become at one with it!
Future Standards by Howe Gelb is out now on Fire Records. The Howe Gelb Piano Trio play in London at Café Oto on Saturday 10 December. For more information and tickets, click here.