INTERVIEW: Giant Sand | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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“we are a fabric. a stitch in time. sonic threads woven by our space age muses”

Thus concludes the typically idiosyncratic and poetic press announcement from Howe Gelb calling time on three decades of ‘stylistic curveballs and sun-damaged songcraft’ with the inestimably influential and wonderful Giant Sand. The obvious first question is: why now? Is this something he’d been planning for a while, or something that just feels right given the 30(ish) year anniversary and the fact the latest album and tour were so well-received (‘quit on a high’ and all that jazz)?

“It’s been so good these last five years or so playing in Giant Sand,  better than I remember it ever being,” Gelb explains, “starting in 2010 when we broadened our membership, and then these last runs where we were lean and mean in particular fine spirit and sonic zing. It all culminated with the most perfect album Giant Sand has ever assembled (Heartbreak Pass) where we hit all our various genres in perfect stride. It then occurred to me what a fine time it is now to put the brand to bed. 30 years is a fine life cycle, so probably best to leave it with such good feelings and memories instead of a period where it might be less than that…now is a perfect time to pause and look back. Being 60 is what that is all about before I start the next 30 years with whatever is coming next.

“And ‘all that jazz’ is exactly what I’ve been attempting for the next solo album,” Gelb continues, “a desire to play piano jazz standards, but due to my lifelong lazy ear, I will be writing my own ‘future standards’. It’s the right timing when October reveals 60 years on the planet, so I’m so very much looking forward to touring as a jazz trio (piano, bass and drums) with no backline, just real instruments and no wires…to show up at a gig and not lug a guitar or backline…to soak in the natural acoustics of any given night.” Although Gelb then mischievously adds, “… at this point I won’t mention that I accidentally started a band last week that’s something louder and faster with a 21 year old guitarist here in Tucson…no way man…there’s no plans for releasing the couple songs we’ve just recorded…nope. No way.”

The farewell tour is a co-headliner with Jason Lyttle of Grandaddy, who Gelb discovered (a question about onstage collaborations is met with a simple “It would probably be too difficult not to”). Gelb has always been a prolific and generous collaborator, both within his own band and in any number of side-projects. It’s clear Gelb gets creative nourishment through the process of collaboration.

People are like edible paint too, they have colours and flavours to them, and part of the process of painting songs is to utilise a splash of colour here and a touch of flavour there.

If I have to stop to consider the pesky red tape of their inclusion, the inspiration falters, so I hope everyone understands. It’s been part of the wondrous perk of being alive here and now and having such stunning visitation privileges.”

To coincide with the farewell tour, Fire Records are issuing a series of lavish boxed sets, the band’s studio back-catalogue in alphabetical order (perhaps to scupper any attempt to impose a narrative on their career?) “I like the word scupper, thanks. I’m dazzled by the organisations and sensational art in packaging that comes along with this vinyl heft. I am totally tickled that Fire Records wanna do such a thing. It was their idea to do it alphabetically, it made no sense until it made all the sense. It’s the only way to get that funny kind of bundling of titles from the various years of release, and to my aesthetics this is severely pleasing because it mixes it up the way I’ve always tried to mix up the songs on an album and wake up the ear from track to track.”

Above my bed I have a poster for possibly the greatest gig I was ever lucky enough to attend, the Gelb-curated Upside Down Home at London’s Barbican, where Giant Sand (who then included Calexico) were joined by a bewildering array of guest for a truly magical night. The fanboy in me had to ask Gelb about it. “Very sweet of you to mention it…That was a special moment for me too, especially since it was within two months of 9/11 and no one was traveling. It’s in those moments that playing in a band becomes something more than just playing in a band, it adds a positive energy to a deadly season, like all the bands that played in Paris just after the recent attacks…it becomes an imperative thing, a usefulness, an honour. All the folks that showed up for the show that night became family in that instant. Now with the heavy reality of Vic Chesnutt and Mark Linkous [Sparklehorse] missing in action, it remains a tremendously severe and soulful memory, thanks to John Parish, PJ Harvey, Evan Dando, the Calexico boys and Kurt Wagner, with all the wonderful band members, that made it so fluid and dream like…what else are we here for ?”

Giant Sand play Sage Gateshead on Tuesday 12th April.

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