Despite a 23 year head start, the prodigious Bob Dylan has only outpaced Howe Gelb’s album total by a dozen or so. Gelb’s been mainly busy with recordings under his own name and of his band Giant Sand, but has lent his sandblasted world view and short, terse guitar work to a number of collaborations with many artists, including PJ Harvey, M Ward, Neko Case, Kristin Hersh and Steve Wynn. Gelb’s new home at New West Records resulted in the excellent The Coincidentalist and finds him with a new sense of purpose and strategy. After a decade-long drought, he finally returned to Boston and I caught up with him over a plate of sushi before the show.
Howe Gelb Walking back from a bitterly cold night, maybe we should start with the easy questions.
Tim Bugbee What’s the difference between a solo record and a band record?
The band records all have the same guys involved so how we attack the music is very much about them attacking it. And so it’s the same guys.
Do you fall into a set formula?
No, its never that. But its just that those personalities involved give it the flavor it has. When I’m solo I’m not beholden to that sound so my instinct then is free to literally gravitate to a different source that I can’t figure out until after I do it.
In both situations are you the main driver for the song ideas and the lyrics or when you are with the band do you feed off of stuff?
Anybody I play with has gotta be inspirational because that’s kind of why I ended up with them. You have to be really good to hang with. That’s the primary qualification, and second from that is that they have to inspire, and it’s not that they have to try to do that, it’s that they just do that.
I noticed that you were working with Will Oldham on this record. Obviously he is a pretty inspirational figure, and he’s got plenty of creative muse that he’s put to good use over his career. How did you start working with Will?
I don’t really remember. I met him back in 2001 or so, and we don’t really stay in touch or communicate but when I go to record I utilize it as a reuniting of friends or people I haven’t seen that I would like to spend a little more time with, and with Will I saw him before that sing with his latest line up and that was so impressive.
With Dawn McCarthy? That one?
He wasn’t playing guitar he was just singing and he really impressed and inspired me. I wish I could sing like he could sing and when I put this song together, I thought to myself, “What I should do with it after it was recorded?” I thought he would be a good foil to have as a kind of homage to Merle Haggard and George Jones….Yesterday’s Wine, an album from the 70’s. A Billy Sherrill production. And kind of had that attitude, that take on it. When I talked to him about that, he instantly knew what I was talking about.
So it really clicked right from the start.
Yeah, and he did such a beautiful job.
You have also worked in the past with PJ Harvey and Neko Case.
They were friends. The further from the appointment it makes it look like there was something more professional or collaboratory but I don’t think it’s ever that, it wasn’t that. I genuinely care for them, and like them, I just want to hang out. So it I think everybody kind of knows that it’s the only available time where the rest of the world also lets you alone for a few minutes is that time when you’re gathering to maybe do some recording or writing or something. But it’s really more, I think in my case, in all the years its really been visitation privileges, so to speak, you know? Or some kind of makeshift family reunion, sonic family reunion.
So that comes together pretty quickly? You record your spot and you are gone?
Yeah, it’s all very quick most of the time. In the beginning I labored over production values and I didn’t like the outcome, but then I stopped and listened and realized the stuff I liked was the stuff done very minimally and i wanted to make it even more minimal, like the least, I want to see how minimal I can get it, to where I still like it, still love it, think it’s good to hand over to somebody.
When Fire did the big reissue program a few years back, how was it revisiting some of the older recordings?
Some of it was daunting. And then I had to put myself in the headspace of why it was ever done, and then I remember clearly when i stopped to think in the 80’s the trends sucked so badly that –
With the gated drum sound?
At the least, and then the heavy reverb on the vocals and just the way they mixed it. I was a fan of 1972, the things that got recorded in 1972 when I was 15 is what I guess sort of inoculated my <loud crash from the kitchen>
That crashed right at the same time, perfect…my palate.
So stuff like Roy Harper and things like that?
More like Sticky Fingers. I have often considered the most perfectly produced album. A little too slick, but ok because the Stones were such a wild card. And when we started making records nothing was like that, except for some Sonic Youth, who many people didn’t know about at the time. How the guitars come in, they are the most essential ingredient, they are the orchestra, the distortion pedals is the vibrato and it was hard to get even our engineer to allow that to happen. They would record us and I would hear it that way, but the mix they would ask us to leave the studio to save us from ourselves and they would work on the drum sound for three hours. And these are great people, these weren’t bad people, they were just trying to like reflect the state of the art at the time and provide us with- and their friends, everybody has peers that they have to own up to or show off to and they readily admitted that their names were going on this and it has to sound good. And I had to realize then that you gotta get a backbone and figure out where your art lies cause your art isn’t just, what do you do, hand over your songs? Am I just a songwriter and I am playing it back now and you are mixing it the way you want to do it and the producer would put his stamp on it and stamp it up how he would like it to be?
Was this the Homestead years or the Imago years?
All those early records, starting with Valley of Rain, and then into Homestead. We had no producers but I would always give the engineers production credits because they were physically helping produce the sound, but they really believed that. I don’t think they understood that the sounds that I wanted when you play guitar in the amp and is behind you and it’s the loudest thing you hear and thats how you see the world. so when they mix it and the guitar is way too little and the drums are at the top it’s like, that, i don’t know what that is. and so when we would mix them we had to do these things in just a couple days. I learned how to make records really fast in a day and a half if I had to the whole album,and when we would mix those guys we would be wrestling as the tape would rolling by like a train, pulling down faders shoving things up and back this is going louder, and they would go no…in the red!
There was a story I read about when Devo recorded with Eno and Mothersbaugh was on the side messing around with some of the sliders because he wasn’t hearing what Eno was hearing and wanted his own thing.
It’s like, I don’t know what you call it, its not a duel, but it’s like you are both battling the elements at the same time and you are not sure you trust each other. It’s a swashbuckling affair where you are going after the duende spirits and those duende spirits, when they are inside a song they make the song, they breathe life into it and it’s something that will last for eternity if it’s captured correctly. But when it’s not, its running havoc, there’s this…
At the very best, and it could get a lot worse. Wires go to crap and things break and it’s like all kind of crackle pop and if you can work with that, or be okay with that, instead of like letting it go. I’ve always embedded that inside because I know its worth. I have appreciated it since the beginning and it wasn’t until I played with flamenco gypsies in Andalusia and Cordoba that I understood, talking about this thing duende.
You still tour quite a bit in Europe?
Well, yes up until recently when I made a conscious decision to stop. And that’s before I ran into a fellow from this new label on the plane, in security…it connected us and that’s how I got signed to New West.
Even with the flight upgrade, I just hurt from flying so much to work. The commute was killing me. I thought “OK I am gonna do this for another 5 or 10 years then I am gonna get a strong stateside label to assist explaining where I’ve been and if I mattered and then coming back when I was connecting on that plane in February the guy behind me called my name and I turned I didn’t know who he was and he said he was Gary Briggs from New West Records and “Well I am interested in putting out this new record” and we had a 10 hour meeting, flying to Dallas. There were signs there that had been building telling me that I gotta not go there so much. I love it but now it’s becoming a …
A little harder?
The mortality factor is starting to show through.
You are asked by NASA to go on a spaceship for the next 10 years. As you leave the door there are your Bob Dylan records and your Neil Young records and you can only take one. What do you grab?
Who says I can only take one?
Then he’s gotta die. <Laughs>
<Laughs> Alright, fair choice!
When he’s not looking, the door is gonna shut. That’s Sophie’s choice right there.