Howe Gelb on “The Coincidentalist,” Being Prolific, and Bucking the System | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Howe Gelb on “The Coincidentalist,” Being Prolific, and Bucking the System

Desert Cowboy

Nov 25, 2013 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

In the last 30 years, Howe Gelb (pronounced “how” and not “Howie”) has released roughly 50 albumsalthough if you look to Gelb for confirmation of that number, he wouldn’t be able to tell you for sure. The Tucson, Arizona resident has recorded under his own name, with his collective Giant Sandworms-cum-Giant Sand-cum-Giant Giant Sand, and Band of Blacky Ranchette, to name just a few. Gelb puts his dusty, desert touch on Americana, a signature sound that has caught the attention of a number of musicians.

It isn’t so much Gelb gravitating toward other musicians as it is them seeking him out. Gelb is responsible for releasing M. Ward’s first album. He also produced KT Tunstall’s most recent album, Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon, and he’s working with X’s John Doe on his new material. Ward and Tunstall make appearances on Gelb’s latest solo album, The Coincidentalist, as does Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley. Ward’s warbling guitar and Shelley’s brushed drums back Gelb’s gravelly baritone, creating a distinct branch of alt-country. On “The 3 Deaths Of Lucky,” Gelb’s rumbling tones tangle with Tunstall’s clear ones for a Leonard Cohen-like seductive push-and-pull. He whispers his innermost feelings on the hushed “Picacho Peak,” while a stand-up bass and plinking keys steer things in a jazzy direction on “Instigated Crimes.” In contrast, “Unforgiveable,” with its bubbly chorus, is almost pop.

Gelb doesn’t spend time concerning himself with styles or how much music he is releasing during a particular stretch of time. By that same token, he releases material and moves on before the world has had a chance to digest his previous outpourings. This approach works for Gelb: he’s managed to keep the pressure off his creativity and make a living at the same time. He sounds laid-back and content on a Sunday morning, holding forth about The Coincidentalist and the life decisions that have maintained his happiness.

Lily Moayeri (Under The Radar): You’ve been making music for 30 years, yet for many people The Coincidentalist is a first exposure to you. Do you wish that were different?

Howe Gelb: Not exactly. There have been more musicians and songwriters informed of my work than people that don’t play. I was born in a very small Pennsylvania town. How I got to Arizona was because of a flood that destroyed our house. When I got out here, everything seemed much better. When I started to figure out the guitar better, then that was, like, perfect. I don’t have the natural ambition for anything else.

Yet you are very prolific.

I have this inclination to keep coming up with stuff. I assemble my future accordingly to where I can avoid the allergy I have to working for someone else or becoming trapped inside my own ambitions.

Sometimes things tend to last longer when there is less pressure on them.

Yes. There are very few people out there that have been totally embraced by the entire world. I think that it’s only because the people around them have almost written a prescription on how much the public can take of them and therefore have to limit their workload, their product, to every two to four years or longer. Then you slot yourself accordingly to only do so much and it’s all you have, so when you do something, it’s an exciting thing.

And then there is you, where The Coincidentalist is your second album this year.

That’s what I’m alluding to. I don’t spend much, or any, energy or time into marketing. From the very beginning I had the idea that if we improvise and prepare for the next record, that’s healthier than repeating ourselves for the thing we just did. That doesn’t make any sense to anyone who is trying to promote the record we just did. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve slowed down and enjoy more the stuff we just did.

How is the album that was released earlier this year, Dust Bowl, different than this one?

Dust Bowl was primarily for fans that have followed me for a while. The Coincidentalist is for the friends of the fans. We’ve had a following of about 25,000 strong, no matter what we do, on every album. It’s just enough to raise a family of three and buy some property and have a car and not worry so much, just keep working. Dust Bowl was me realizing I don’t have any representation of me playing alone, completely alone, a guitar or a piano or a banjo, so that’s what that record was. I threw it out there really quick, as an afterthought, knowing that I had already recorded this solo record with a whole band. I just wanted to get that out therenot even sell, [but] just make available for those that want it, a real solo record. So many months later I can do this other record with a band attached: a solo band record. The fans, people that have chosen us to be any kind of music to drag along their lives with have had a hard time explaining to their friends what kind of music it is. It’s not easily descriptive. This new album, I think, makes it easier for their friends to understand.

Was The Coincidentalist completed prior to Dust Bowl?

It’s like this: a painter paints, he just continues to paint, and at some point, he bundles up his paintings and he takes them to the market or the gallery, as it were, what I called harvest time. It’s just like that with recording with me over the last 20 years. As I record, I don’t make it such an event. I can record for very little. I like the sound of that better. When I do that, there are always extra pieces that don’t get used. Dust Bowl was extra pieces that have been lying around that I thought I could bundle up and have an album. It was a logistical move. In however many records I’ve made I haven’t made a record like that.

Do you think ahead of time about where the music you are creating is going to fit in with the different bands with which you are involved?

No. It gets more and more natural. Any kind of planning usually will suffer because of any kind of timing. It’s like waiting to see what the signs are to see which way to go. That can infuriate anybody who can’t grasp that kind of presence. I’m comfortable knowing accidents happen, I can readily assemble things on the fly and I get energized from it as well. I knew that Steve Shelley wanted to jam and I knew that [M.] Ward wanted to come out and do something so when the day converged that we could get them both together, I found a space in a friend of mine’s studio out in the desert and for one day we knocked out a few songs. This is how all the records sound. I don’t use obvious intelligence prior to the finishing of anything. I only explain what has happened after the fact.

The Red Bull Studio Madrid: Artist Encounters recording session with Steve Shelley is an interesting look into your creative process.

I get comfortable without using language because that seems to slow it down. If you talk too much about it doesn’t have anything to do with the accuracy of the actions about to ensue. I don’t think it does for anybody. I think people talk about things to buy time. I’m certain that it works well for certain people, the way their minds work. Again, from the beginning, I realized that I should make abilities out of my disabilities. And then it’s going to be a certain sound or a signature sound. Maybe it’s not readily explainable to the friends of the fans, but if you stumble upon it yourself, then you might not be able to explain, but it’s there.

I didn’t really choose that way. The first recordings I did, the very, very first ones in the ‘70s, I tried to put all my ideas, how I wanted them to go before we did it, and after we did it I heard it back and I thought it was terrible. So I was looking for another way to do things. Instead what I do is I try to set things up so things fly, but how do you determine which way sparks are going to fly? You just know they will fly.

You have spent more time touring Europe than the United States. What is the reason for that?

It’s the same Pennsylvania small-town hick mentality. I never thought I would leave Pennsylvania, let alone be transplanted in Arizona, let alone get to travel because I played a guitar. When you’re used to driving across the country like we did all the time, then you go overseas, it’s more concentrated, way more different and smaller personal geography. There’s so much information you’re getting from cultures and people and energies and food and the way it’s set up because they’ve been there a lot longer than we’ve been here, their territory is easy access, with railroads especially. You can take an elevator to the fifth floor or the 28th floor and get on a train and go to a different country on every floor. Consider it a horizontal elevator. It’s so easy and so accessible. They might have embraced me because I resembled some kind of exotic-natured imported beer. No matter how bad the beer is, if you import it, it seems exotic. I think that was it. “Oh, he’s from Arizona? It’s so cold and dismal over here, a little piece of sunshine,” something like that.

In the mid-‘80s we had just done a tour of the States and we were playing in front of 15-20 people, just getting going. And we go over there and immediately there are 200 people. The way they had things set up, probably because governments allow money for the arts over there, they situated you a lot better most of the time and sound systems were better, a different standard of working.

I began to have babies shortly after that, so I had to decide. I couldn’t tour here and there all the time. I had to choose territories. Once I fell in love with a woman from Denmark, it was all over. I had to lean on that territory more than this territory. It’s like anything else: if you do one territory or if you tour or if you just show up for 20 or 30 years, then you become what they now call a brand. There’s always work in any country over there for any month because they’ve known the name now for so long.

Concentrating on touring in Europe was very satisfying, allowing the music to continue to grow. Now I prefer to stay home more, or at least nearby, or at least the same time zone.

Your tour journal available on your website is entertaining, informative, and personal. It’s interesting how you manage to avoid making an account of your touring schedule repetitive.

A tour journal is hard template to write. It’s virtually the same thing every day. It’s like playing the same song every night, same beginning, same middle, same end. You never really get there. Every night the song changes, sometimes drastically, sometimes very subtly. And everything you do is reflected. When I approached the journal thing, the challenge is, how do you work within that template and you’re not allowed to be boring. It was a chance to work on my writing skills. I would always think about Bukowski. He’s one of the most elitist writers to write inside and out of his binges. He had drinking to do every day. When he wrote, he didn’t have time for any extra lines and if you read it, every line seems to count. I love minimalism. When I wrote those journals, I tried to be careful it didn’t fall into something that sounds like homework or rhetorical or just boring. And that’s hard to do with a tour journal, really hard. There’s a filmmaker in Belgium who is jumping on board because of that tour journal. He wants to do something with me writing the journal and narrating it.

It’s harder since you know the travel journal will get read, unlike a regular journal where you don’t have to worry about how it sounds to others.

That’s the same thing as playing on a stage. When I’m on a stage, I don’t think, “Oh, people are going to fall on my every signal.” It’s like being a bartender in a crowded bar. That’s the best spot to stand because they’ve got plenty of elbow room, all that space, not to mention free liquor. The stage is like that. It’s not so much people staring at you and wanting something from you, you have that collective energy, consciousness, they all happen to be looking in your direction, like the bartender, but you have the elbow room. I begin to focus in on the comfort zone of that space. I’m able to ply my trade without over-considering too much because of what you’re thinking. Instead I try to get into the zone of how the songs feel.

I’m so laissez-faire and casual most of the time. I’m never high or drunk, but people sometimes think I am because I’m so naturally wobbly. But it’s the same way with writing the journal. I don’t really think anyone is going to read this, but if anybody was going to read this, I want to be polite enough to make it an easy read or caring enough to not waste anyone’s time.

An album is exactly that, sonically. It’s a record of what happened that day. If you would have recorded the record the day after it would have sounded different. I think there’s a similar thread to all this stuff. I don’t spend the time glorifying any one item-much to the chagrin of any label that has ever put out any of my music. It’s the nature I developed along the way.


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