A long question

 

A long question is a section of single-topic talks with musicians in which instead of making the interviewee dizzy with several questions about a thousand and one things there’s only one topic of conversation. Each month we will publish an interview with a musician especially chosen to discuss that specific issue.

By Nando Cruz

HOWE GELB:

soundwriter
in the desert
.

Illustration by Oriol Malet

His aspect doesn’t reveal it, but Howe Gelb has been recording albums for more than three decades, at a rhythm of almost two per year. He’s a figure of sober renown in the most heterodox American rock, a sort of reference point in the trade, since all these years he has been in contact with hundreds and hundreds of musicians.

Talking to this accidental cowboy is always a pleasure. In this occasion, the topic of conversation is neither a record nor a tour, but the influence that the landscape, the desert to be precise, might have had in his repertoire and in his way of composing. The meeting took place with a Gelb just landed in Spain, so the jet lag had a clear effect in the distraction shown in some of his answers.

You were born in Pennsylvania. How did you end up living in Arizona?We had a flood in Pennsylvania after a hurricane called Agnes. That was in 1972. It took over two rivers. A particular river that we lived near, called Susquehanna, came knocking at our door. The water went two meters over our roof. My dad was living in Arizona. I was in Pennsylvania with my mum and we started going to Tucson. I went there for the first time that summer. I was 15. We moved there in 76.

Do you remember the first impact the desert had in you?It was like Mars, mostly. Pennsylvania was good but it was dark and wet, the land was tortured with coalmines. We went to Arizona and people smiled! It was summer all the time and people reflected the weather more. They were very laidback. And there was no dark at all. I don’t remember anything happening out there, except taking hallucinogenics like peyote and going out to the desert just to get lost. We thought things happened but I don’t know if they did.

Maybe that wasn’t the desert but the peyote.It was definitely the combination of the two. One comes from the other. But it was the 70s. And the 70s were so slow, and there was so much space in between things… If you see action movies from the early 70s, they’re so slow! There’s not much action. So you could fill up the space with things like tripping.

Did you think Arizona would be a good place to inspire your music?You know? In Pennsylvania, very good players told themselves they couldn’t do things. Their attitude was: you’re not good enough at what you’re doing. Compare that to the desert, where nobody cares what you do and you can do whatever you want and you think everything is possible.
Although down there we didn’t get that much information about music. That’s why we had to make our own music. We couldn’t go and buy it so easily.

Years ago you told me you understood at a very young age that you had to accept the environment where you lived because you feed that place and that place feeds you. Tell me more about this.I think you have to live in a place that makes the most sense to where your mind is. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough. You get to work, you do what you do, and everything leaks into what you do. Some places just allow you to do it with no interruptions. Especially when I lived in Joshua Tree. There was more space and no interruption. I think I wrote better songs and better material there.

Are you thinking of Center of the Universe?Yeah, exactly.

Is that the only album you made in the desert?I did Ramp (1991) there too and Long Stem Rant (1989). That’s when I started going there. But then, from being out there, songs started coming during that time. In the songs from Center of the Universe (1992) you can hear the result of me not having a TV. Just one little room cabin, out in the middle of nowhere.

I once interviewed Victoria Williams and she told me she also went to write songs in a small cabin out in the desert. How do these places work? They’re cabins in the middle of nowhere and then you pay a rent to the owner?Yeah. The guy who bought the land owns a studio where I used to record in. It’s in Venice Beach, out of Los Angeles. I lived in LA for a few years. He bought a piece of property out there at the end of the road in the Joshua Tree area. I was living in Hollywood with a two-year-old baby. Me and my wife got divorced and she was living somewhere else in town. That guy knew I was divorced. And they were going to make a studio out there in the barn, we didn’t understand him, we set up time to record and then we arrived and the studio wasn’t built yet, so we took a bunch of wires and equipment to record the album anyway because we had made up our minds that we were going to record there. At that time we were just a two-piece: me and John Convertino. The engineer recorder was Eric Westfall. I had my 66 Plymouth Barracuda and Eric had his 64 Valiant and we just drove our cars out there. It was getting dark and we didn’t know where we were going. And very far out there we see this bar in the middle of nowhere. It was bizarre that there was this bar. We almost thought it was a mirage. We pulled over. The bar was empty. Could have been a bikers bar. And this guy, Puppy, comes out. He offers us a beer, we tell him what we’re doing and he immediately… I don’t know… He became really important to us. So we drove up another five miles and there were these four little one-room cabins.

Enough for you three!Nobody had lived there yet. The guy who bought the property wasn’t there, but his partner was. So for the next few days we began recording the Long Stem Rant record. And we were going down to Puppy’s for beers. It was perfect.
They couldn’t do the studio up there. Dusty Wakeman, who was engineer for Dwight Yoakam, Lucinda Williams and other people, was the other partner. He was going to keep the land anyway, so he asked if I could go there, keep an eye and be the caretaker for those four cabins. And I said: alright. I’d had enough of Hollywood. I had divorced. Out in the desert sounded nice. I liked it out there!

So you didn’t rent the cabin. You worked there!Yeah! And I just lived there for free. I could live there and if someone wanted a cabin, just came there and I rented it. Later on it got popular, but back then nobody really knew how to find the place. It’s where the paved road ends in the desert. There’s nothing out there. So nobody really knew about it. It used to be 30 or 35 dollars a night. Now it’s like 200 dollars a night. I lived there for a few years until my daughter was ready to go to school and then I moved back to Tucson.

So you took your instruments to record things there.Well, just to play. Just to live. It was cheap living there. That’s the main reason.

Victoria Williams and Mark Olson also told me that they had to move away from LA because they couldn’t pay the rent and they went to the desert.Yeah. And that’s what Tucson’s all about. It’s so cheap living there. We have this thing called swamp coolers. We don’t use air conditioners. They cost 30 dollars a month and they run all the time. And back then Mexican food was so cheap. That’s why I could live there and not having to get too many real jobs. And then your music just develops.

It develops not just because of the environment, but also due to the lack of distractions and because you have more time to yourself.Yes. Less clutter, more room… There’s no new music radio. Places like Seattle or Athens have college radios. We have a college station, but they just play jazz. So none of us had a clue of the new music being made.

Some people think this is bad: your music doesn’t get fresh air.It was a bad thing back then, but now you think that and this is probably why so many bands made their own music. They just needed it. You couldn’t get that anywhere, so you made it and it didn’t sound like anybody else. That’s what happened. So all the bad things become good things.

Did you think back then that Tucson was a good environment to make music? Somewhere to get ideas you couldn’t get anywhere else?No, I wasn’t that clever. I never figured that stuff out. You just go with what you got and when the stuff goes wrong you kind of get used to it.

You say the desert is the best place to drive because there’s nothing you can crash into. And also, a good place to record music because you can put the microphones anywhere you want and the sound won’t hit any wall. But can you hear this space between the instruments and the microphones in other people’s recordings?Yeah! When we were developing our likes and dislikes in the beginning and we were recording out in LA, there was one or two studios in every small town that were trying to match the sound of LA. The engineers were great but they were overdoing the recordings trying to match the sound they were hearing on the radio. They just felt success was trying to sound like that. And that was a big problem cause they had some bad habits. You didn’t even know they were bad habits back then but they thought it was the technical procedure. And for us…

You just knew you didn’t want to sound like that.For us it was useless stuff. The drum set had ten or eleven mics. It was insane! We were trying to record something and that would kill off any spirit. And then, when they were mixing the song, they sent the band away and worked to get a good drum sound for three or four hours. This is what it was like in the 80s! And then we came trying to bring everything down and the engineer would try to lie to us saying he had turned it off when he didn’t. It was frustrating. They wanted the songs to sound… important. Something that would get played on the radio.
You hire people to work for you and then they turn around and make you feel you don’t know what you’re talking about because you’re only a musician and they are scientists. That’s when I started putting my hands on the board.

Have you ever recorded songs outside the studio, in the open space?Yeah.

Is it a good way of testing the songs?Yeah. I tried it for the first time when we were in that barn recording. We set the mics there to get the sound of the space of that barn. That was actually before I went to Tucson to record. Actually, we went outside of the barn because it was so beautiful that we said: ‘let’s just take the mics out there’. I sang the ‘Loving cup’ song for the first time. I wrote that out there. That place gave me a lot of songs.

Any example of a song that could not have been born anywhere else?I don’t think my songs are an important thing. I always think that the tone is the important thing. The songs are just something you have to do to be able to play. I wanted to play, so I had to write songs because I wasn’t able to learn how to play other people’s songs. So the songs, sometimes, are not very well thought out and they don’t have that much value. Songs are not that important until years and years later, when you look back and you see pictures and you remember how cool were things back then but didn’t really know it.

You don’t consider yourself a songwriter? More like a soundwriter?That’s a nice thing. Good term, too. A sound man, a soundwriter… Thanks!

Which sounds were you looking for back then?The ones coming up in your head. I mean, you can’t really play the sounds you hear in your head. That never happens. You just enjoy the sounds you have in your head. But you leave the door open for accidents to happen. Cause the accidents get closer to the sound in your head, that sound nobody heard before.

Going back to the desert, is the desert a good place for…For accidents? The desert is a good place for accidents! Really! And the desert is a good place for making good use of disabilities. The desert allows that. But the desert is no more remarkable than Spain. You’ve got your deserts and wide-open spaces. Look at those Sergio Leone films. New Mexico is a lot like Spain.
I made a record in Canada. We were at -43 degrees, which is the same in Celsius and Fahrenheit because they meet at -40. And that is painful. They have warnings for any exposed skin. Even if it’s a piece of your face that you haven’t covered up, your hands, ankles… And they say: if you leave this part of your skin more than three minutes without covering it up you’ll have permanent damage. My point’s that even there is as fascinating and inspiring as the desert.

Does ‘Where the wind turns your skin to leather’ talk about that?That was Joshua Tree. There’s this wind that blows that really aches. It’s a beautiful wind, a steady wind coming from the mountains and going across the desert. I love the wind, but you can see how it cracks you like an old wallet.

You don’t have the face of someone who’s been living in the desert.Those people worked outside a lot all their life. Being a musician, no matter how much you are outside, you live so much in the night.
You know? In the early days in Arizona I remember hanging with Dan Stuart from Green On Red. They were younger than I was. And funnier. They shaved their heads. When I got Giant Sand in Tucson I remember Dan Stuart, really funny but always complaining. He was at war with himself, especially when he drank liquor. But I remember an interesting attitude he had about the desert. He was not into bragging that he lived in the desert and feeling special about that. I loved that idea. For me it was like I don’t wanna blame the desert cause I kinda like it. But then you have the other extreme: when I brought John (Convertino) and then Joey (Burns), they arrived with fresh ears and eyes and intentionally capitalized that so-called sound of the area and now they have the reputation of being the sound of the desert as Calexico. It’s interesting to see the example of Dan Stuart, who lived there much longer but decided not to do the obvious. And then, John, who is from California, from the beach, actually, who did the obvious but with massive ambition was able to make it fly.

Lots of musicians from California made this trip consisting in ‘let’s go to the desert, breath the air, feel the spirit, record an album and quit’.Yeah, run back to LA and have a drag. You know what? The only reason I do interviews is because it’s affordable therapy. This must be what a therapist does. Then you hear yourself answering things that you normally never even verbalize. And sometimes you just have a breakthrough. I realize, for example, that the reason why I record so many songs is because this Pennsylvanian thing where everybody kept thinking that they couldn’t do things. I was stuck into that mud and now I over concentrate on doing things that are intentionally not good enough and believing that they are.

That sounds interesting…Listen, do you want a real good story about the influence of the desert in my life? This one I’m going to tell you is written in the diary I have on our website. It tells how the desert saved my life on tour one time.

Go ahead!We did a show in Holland. We were in an overnight sleeper bus so you travel all night and you pull up in another place next morning. As I’m waking up the bus is parking, I look out the window and I see a dry canal. I’ve never seen a dry canal in Holland before. I don’t even know how it’s possible in Holland. But the water level was down to the bottom and the ground was covered with leaves. It looked like it had been dry for a while. So I made a little note of things to do during the day and one thing was go down the canal and check out what’s there. Maybe walk around and follow the canal to see what’s there. So, I get dressed, I jump out of the bus and it’s freezing could out there. Unbelievably cold! And because I’m a scatterbrain I forget about the canal. I go out walking thinking to go and see the canal when I get back. I go back but we have to do a sound check and I realize that we’re part of a festival celebrating Texas music.

You didn’t know that?This happens when you’re on the road, especially if you don’t have a manager. You’re just there combined with all these bands that are from Texas or play Texan music. I like Texas but I don’t know why we’re there. Arizona is not Texas.
Anyway, we were ready to do our set but we had to wait 50 more minutes. We asked for some whisky while we were waiting. The promoter looked at me very worried. He didn’t want to give us the whisky. He was worried we would get drunk. Whatever. The whole thing was getting more and more uncomfortable.
We went out to do our set intentionally not wanting to sound like Texas. I had all these new songs and we only had 45 minutes so the songs ran into each other. We were playing really good, but the people didn’t respond. It was one of those nights you’re not fulfilled from playing. You start to feel really mad about things, you start to get angry with yourself. The only thing I wanted to do at that point was drink beer, chase the night away and get rid of that feeling.
I started drinking beer and then this girl comes up to me dressed like a biker chick. She looks like she’s from the States but she’s from Amsterdam and she starts telling me how much she loves Texas and she loves to go there. She is very talkative, very opinionated and very… loud. I don’t care, I just want more beer. The festival ends, the night is over but the bus is not leaving for a couple of hours. And she says: ‘Some friends of mine have gone to a bar near here. I’m going to that bar to have more beers there’. I’m still trying to find how to end the day. So I put on my coat, go to this bar, we can’t find the bar… But the cold is too painful. I wanna go back to the bus. I haven’t even enjoyed talking about Texas.
As we were going back, in the dark, she sees the dry canal. With the light of the moon we could see the leaves and she said: ‘Let’s go down!’ And I said: ‘That’s what I meant to do at the beginning of the day!’ But then, the Arizonan in me has a freak hesitation when there’s any possible water. I just stopped. She went in and completely disappeared in the canal covered over with leaves.

It wasn’t a dry canal!No. She thought it was dry but at the last moment I didn’t trust her. There was no way you could tell that the canal was not dry. But the Arizonan in me said: How the fuck do you know it’s dry? The leaves and the mud were so thick that when she went in the water she didn’t even splash. She just disappeared. Gone! Silence! Finally everything was quiet. It was even lovely for a moment.

What? Did you leave her there?I questioned if she was really there. I was so full of beer and all that happened in just five seconds. Did she jump? Is she still there? Is she underneath? I mean, it was so still that it seemed like nothing had happened. There was no ripple. She was gone. I was fucking freezing and I was like: what should I do next? Maybe I had to jump. But that’s gonna be death. It’s like when you have an accident and you have a lot of thoughts in a second: it seems that a lot of time has gone by.

So was she there or this entire story was just a beer hallucination?She was there. She surfaced. And then couldn’t get out. If I weren’t on the shore she would have died of hypothermia. I took her out and then she was in shock. I went back into that festival and it was completely empty. There was just that promoter who didn’t want to give us whisky because he knew we were going to be trouble. I told him what happened. Somebody told us to have a shower. They gave us some towels and then I had to give her something to wear.

Maybe a Giant Sand T-shirt?Hell, no! Some record company guy gave me a Tom Waits T-shirt. I love Tom Waits, but I don’t wear those T-shirts. I also got clean boxer shorts, because nothing else would have fitted her. She went from looking like a Texan biker chick to looking just like a girl in Arizona even if it wasn’t summer.

You say you have a diary. Why?I’m not sure why. I think it’s because the end is near or relatively near. When you approach 50, you know that you don’t have much time left. Suddenly, you start looking like that middle age character that usually gets killed in the movies.