Howe Gelb on Giant Giant Sand, and How an Acid Trip and Roman Polanski Birthed Tucson's Music Scene

Categories: Q&A

Fire Records
See also: Howe Gelb Discusses Rainer Ptacek

Howe Gelb doesn't like to fight fate.

The Tucson-based singer/songwriter says that destiny played a big role in the birth of Tucson, the new record from Gelb's Giant Giant Sand collective. The extra "giant" was added to signify the group's swelling ranks, which includes longtime collaborators Thoger T. Lund, Peter Dombernowski, Anders Pederesen and Nikolaj Heyman, young Tucsonans like Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan, and Jon Villa, and Phoenix-based vocalist Lonna Kelley, among other players on strings and horns.

"It's sort of a dual celebration and homage of Tucson," Gelb says. "I've spent a lot of my life in Denmark and Spain and Austria, and here I am, really loving making music in Tucson again. I'm just glad that the flood delivered me there way back when."

Gelb spoke with Up on the Sun about putting together "the big band," about his moving tribute to Gabrielle Giffords, and about his "brother Rainer," and about the Roman Polanski film and acid trip that birthed the Tucson music scene.

Up on the Sun: How did Giant Sand become Giant Giant Sand?

The first time [we performed] was an accident. We were invited in to play a festival in Berlin last July to represent the Sonoran Desert. The stipulation was, we, Giant Sand, come up there and bring three guests from the Sonoran desert. So I chose accordingly: Brian Lopez, Gabriel Sullivan, and Jon Villa for their heritage, their ability, and their creative spark. I had been playing with them off-and-on for a year or so -- just alone with them -- and it was really inspiring.

Brian suggested he invite a string section, which happened to be two violin players from Denmark, which happened to be from the same town that the rest of my band was from in Denmark. One of the two string players was actually born in Tucson . . . so all those coincidences lined up to inform me we were on some path, a good path, the right path.

We never got a chance to perform live together -- no rehearsal or practice -- until we were on stage for a set. Everyone on board was okay with not having a set list, which is how I usually do it. It was a sold-out event, maybe 1,500 people, and as the set progressed it kept getting better, like sonic spontaneous combustion.

When we got done with that, we gave it one more go. At the end of October, there was a festival that had me as a curator, in Switzerland. I got the big band back together, including two other players: Lonna Kelley from Phoenix, who's been playing off-and-on with us for the past five years, whose voice I adore and whose sense of humor I need; and a pedal steel player from Denmark named Maggie Bjorklund. There were 12 of us, and it sounded more effortless in this huge band and more effective than anything I could remember.

The next day -- we didn't really know what we sounded like; we just knew how much fun it was to play in this posse -- we went into this small studio in Switzerland and just laid down four quick songs. This is probably a pretty good analogy: It took us about four hours to organize and get ourselves to the studio, but only about 45 minutes to record and then leave. That's kind of the way it's been. The getting to where we've gotta go is the difficult thing, but once we're there, it has a life of its own.

It sounded uncluttered -- no one was playing on top of each other. So that was the idea, to try and get a record together by the end of the year.

It sounds like a very organic process.

Looking back on the course of my sonic existence, I've been more ruled by nature or the natural way than any kind of instigated planning, you know? That's just what works for me, or suits me. When all coincidences line up, they just inform me that this is the way to go. I don't know why, or what it's going to yield, but I approach it with a faith and a confidence that this is what I'm to be doing. Fate . . . that's what I go by. I try not to fight destiny.

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Sorry, but he bore's me to tears. Rainer was the real deal, Howe is A glorified amateur.

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