Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Amazing & Incredible...HOWE GELB!!

Another Howe Gelb collaboration!
SLIT:  How did you first get interested in being a musician?  What was your first instrument? Lessons?

HG: Well sir .. I think I severely needed an escape when I was a kid. Music was it.

There was a boring tv show when I was 8 called "The King Family", which was a sing-along style affair like Mitch Miller. In the middle of the program was the segment I would impatiently wait for: "Alvino Rey and his Singing Guitar". He would come on and play a slide guitar and make the notes form almost human phonics, much like a talk box effect that emerged in the 70s.

Alvino Rey was my first inspiration.

When I was recording up in Canada on the 'Sno Angel recordings in 2003, I suddenly remembered Alvino Rey, but didn't know why I had just remembered that at that point. 'Sno Angel drummer Jeremy Gara went on to join 'The Arcade Fire' and it was then I learned that the Butler Brothers' grandfather was thee Alvino Rey.

Back in Pennsylvania, my first instrument was a piano I never practiced on. "Polly Wolly Doodle" stumped me and reading music drove me nuts. One day my mom "antiqued" the piano in white and gold and I would not even go near it after that. So then the big flood waters of the great Susquehanna River rose up and pulverized that piano when it poured 6 feet over our house. Moved to Arizona after that. The year was 1972.

Giant Sand (2010)

SLIT: What are some bands you've been in?  What was your first band?

HG: Whenever I would go back to Pennsylvania to make money in the factory, and get some of that free recording time, I’d always make up a new band name. (Later when I began to make real records, I was sorely tempted to change the band name on every album and just keep the same title… but alas it didn’t come to pass.) I was under the mistaken impression that the songs I wrote in my bedroom would be easily constructed by other players in a recording session when they hadn't ever heard the songs.

So very wrong was I.

"Wow & Flutter" was an original music duo that played out a few times, kinda country. But my first real band was "The Stains"; a punk outfit fronted by a fellow who emulated Johnny Rotten and we'd do mostly Ramones, Pistols and Dead Boy covers, except for a furiously fast blazing redo of the Wizard of Oz's "If I Only Had A Brain". That was 1978 during a Pennsylvania winter, when i was stuck there and broke. I was only the keyboard/farfisa player in that outfit. Didn't sing or offer any songs.

SLIT:  How many instruments do you play?

HG: Not to be difficult, but I am not sure if how I attack an instrument is actually defined as "playing". I think maybe I coax it it into thinking I'm playing it, until it realizes what is really going on, then its too late.

So. If that's the case, I suppose piano and guitar is it. Maybe a little blues harp. I had to play bass sometimes in Giant Sandworms and I've been known to assimilate a drum loop banging a small broom handle on a plastic water cooler, only when need be.

"The tone that begs the bone to moan!"

SLIT:  What are some fave recordings that you've played on?

HG: I don’t understand the question.

SLIT:  Musical influences?

HG: Rainer, Jimmy Rodgers, Mott the Hoople, Thelonious Sphere Monk, Otis Span, Neil Young, Hank Williams, Todd Rundgren, Memphis Slim, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, David Alan Coe (thanks Jon Tucker) and David Bromberg.

SLIT:  How did you first get involved with Tucson's music scene?

HG: When I moved here, I began playing piano again on my new step sister's piano. I also enlisted in the Art program at U of A for a spell, but dropped out soon enough to try my hand at music full on. First attempt was an audition at Cushing Street Bar. Too  nervous so I played some Dylan song way too fast and didn't get the gig. Then I noticed a flyer for a place called ‘The Basement Café’ (run by Roger Hooker who actually gave me my first gig here in town playing at the open air stage in Armory Park, about 1975). Anyhow, on that flyer I noticed a fellow going by the name of 'Rainer' for some reason. These smoky moments of “notice” often play out for me later in a future fire.

During the end of a 3 day acid trip in 1976 I was introduced to him by a Canadian girl who had her camper parked on my curb. It was at the Helen Street Cafe. I lived on Helen Street. Her name was Helen. Was introduced to Rainer while he was in the middle of his set there and me still quaking from ‘window pane’. He called me up to sit in on piano. I hoped he was playing in G since it was about all I could handle. Turned out his whole guitar was tuned in G. We played for 45 minutes because I was deathly afraid of stopping and having to face the crowd, so I kept playing until the place closed and everyone was kicked out. Rainer didn't seem to mind that at all. That was the beginning of our friendship.

I waited until he was freed from his band to try one with him. In the meantime I would return to Pennsylvania to work in a soda factory and make some money to live back in Tucson. Also began to learn to record there at a free public radio station that offered 3 hour session time by George Graham. Started with a country duo called "Wow & Flutter" with Keith Evans. Then a variety of other projects, eventually ending with a rock opera. And that's when Rainer and I got together to form the Giant Sandworms. He met Billy Sedlmayr, who in turn brought Dave Seger to our first meeting/jam in Rainer's living room. By now it was 1979 or 80. Our first gig was at a gnarly lil' joint called 'Tumble weeds'.

SLIT:  What kind of guitar to you play?  What was your first guitar?

HG: Neil Young’s electrical guitar sound was my inoculation and so I sought out a Gretsch thinking that’s what he had used. But once I saw Billy Zoom handle his, the deal was sealed. So that was my first real guitar, and after imprinting it on the first 20 records or so, I’ve handed it down to my daughter now, which was a wonderful feeling. That piece of lumber had been through a lot. Rainer repaired the head stock on it after I threw it across stage one night a long time ago. So I finally bought myself a beautiful red Gretsch waiting for my mid-life crisis instead of the red porsche that they say happens.

I have always enjoyed buying beat up guitars no one wanted or would think of stealing. Seemingly cheap guitars back when no one discovered the wonderful tones of such yet. These were often beast-like to control and handle but so divine, like Harmony and Kay or Silvertone and Lark, and especially EKO. My favorite was a 75 dollar Harmony and was the only guitar I’ve ever had stolen. Joey Burns borrowed it for 2 years to teach himself, and then just after he gave it back it got snagged in New York City. I felt like a plebe.

Once I approached 50 I allowed myself some real machines like Fender and Gibson. Each one funk-a-fied and crumpled, but with excellent tone if you know how to ride it.

And come to think of it, I think almost every guitar I got was sold to me by Harvey Moltz at Rainbow. He always seemed to know what would appeal.

SLIT: Do you tune your guitar in any special way? Are there any effects that you're fond of?

HG: There was a moment when Al Perry and Loren Dirk and me got together to record a few songs and we were apologizing to each other about how we tuned our guitars, until we realized we had them detuned the same way.

Maybe it’s a Tucson thing, but the guitar used to get more and more slack. First it was regular tuning in E, then it went to Eb. Sometime after that it shifted to D. Then Db. Before it got down to C.  I just bought a baritone instead.

When I thought that phase was over, we bought an old piano in Prescott and discovered it was also tuned down a whole step so C was Bb. It was from 1888, before they established “concert pitch” of 440.

As for effects, I keep it pretty minimal these days. But there is a fellow in Phoenix who makes a mod for me that incorporates some defunct Digitech pedals from the 90s. And I have a distortion box made in Denmark, for good luck. . . just that and the old red analog delay from the 80s.

SLIT:  There's an arty/avant garde side of your music that no-one really talks about (e.g. songs like "Muck Machine" sounds like it could've been on Ralph Records back in the day) Where's that stuff coming from? Do you have an urge to simultaneously create and destroy (with your songs)?

HG: yes.

SLIT:  How has Rainer and his music affected your music?

HG: He has influenced me in more ways then I have yet to discover. But he was there to inspire having a family life within the confines of our job description, which seemed impossible otherwise. When we played together it reminded me of sounding the way an Escher print looks. To be able to jam on one chord for an infinite amount of time and not allow it to get boring.

To keep it real and to really let it go.

We would experiment within the boundaries of tradition and celebrate reinvention beyond anything already categorized.

Howe Gelb & A Band Of Gypsies!

SLIT:  What are some milestones in your career as a musician, singer/songwriter, etc..??

HG: Never stopped to figure those out exactly .. .

But it would have to be the players I’ve had the pleasure of jammering sonics with over the years. that has been the single most thrust of gust to float my boat.

Just being able to get out of Dodge, even if it took a flood to get it all flowin’.

SLIT:  What keeps music interesting for you?

HG: The flow and the flood; the brilliant tangle of erosion as Nature intended and how the heart tangos in simpatico beat.

The tone that begs the bone to moan.

Check out Howe Gelb's website:


  1. Hey Howie, I had the pleasure of getting up on stage with Howe again after all these years in London last month...really had great time and his newest version of the band is just wonderful...

    All the best,

    Scott Garber

  2. Hey Howie !

    I had the pleasure of getting up on stage with Howe and crew last Month in London. Really wonderful time. The newest version of the band is really great and in the true tradition of change on a dime classic Giant Sand.

    Hope you are well, All the best,

    Scott Garber

  3. I wana be Howe when i grow up!