(As published in B-Side ...)
Howe Gelb, the main grain in the enduring and prolific indie band Giant Sand, is telling me via long-distance phone hookup from Germany why he'll probably never sign with a major label when my two-year-old son, deep in the throes of a tantrum, lets out a brain-rattling shriek.
"Wow!" exclaims Gelb. "Did you hear that? It sounded like he was in the shower. It was like reverb or something, just over my phone wire."
Suddenly, it becomes clear how Gelb comes up with the twisted and often brain-rattlingly loud pre-grunge guitar riffs that crisscross his songs like barbed wire: His hearing, it seems, even across the Atlantic, is naturally attuned to such frequencies.
Gelb has earned his reputation as one of alternative music's most uncompromising workaholics by releasing fourteen albums in thirteen years and touring relentlessly, especially in Europe, where experimentally inclined musicians who write and sing eccentric lyrics commonly engender larger followings than they do in Gelb's native United States. Nevertheless, one can't help wondering, after thirteen years of faithfully following his own muse and still finding himself consigned to the fringe, whether Howe's intransigence vis-à-vis the commercial aspects of his career may have hindered, if not his creativity, at least his finances.
After all, in the time it's taken Gelb to fatten his discography, lots of other square pegs have progressed from the alternative basement to the round holes at the top of major-label towers. Gelb insists, however, that his recent signing with Restless Records--a major minor if ever there was one--and their stateside releasing of the new Giant Sand album Center of the Universe has little to do with careerism.
"It's logistic," he explains. "Having Restless involved is like having a small army of mercenaries. There are twelve people working on us at any given moment as opposed to us doing it whenever we feel like it, which is pretty sporadic."
It's sporadic because self-promotion takes a lot of energy and patience, and Gelb and his cohorts use up most of theirs recording and touring. And they work as hard at the finance-management aspect of touring as they do the performance one.
"We don't get rich," Gelb points out. "We make enough for the tour to pay for itself. Then after that we make enough money to last another month or so.
"We just did a little experiment. What we normally do is go with these booking agencies. They set things up, and we do all right. But we just did an extra week of shows here [in Europe] on our own, shows that fans set up--we just went for a door cut, seventy-thirty--and we made more money that way than with the big agents."
Obviously, to tour that way, you have to have lots of fans. And to have fans, you have to put out records they like. Center of the Universe, like most of Gelb's other Giant Sand projects, ranges from the upbeat and hooky to the distorted and mad. It also bristles with the combination of backwoods surrealism and nervous singing that, along with the mangled guitars, gets Gelb compared to Neil Young a lot.
"I was vaccinated with 1972," he confesses. And one of his favorite albums from the time, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's 4-Way Street, still evokes fond memories.
"Especially the jams," Gelb says. "But since Young split, Crosby, Stills and Nash have continued to disappoint me. It was always the Young factor that was so jarring and so cool. But they did have some great harmonies when all four of them were smashing their voices together."
Center of the Universe contains some pretty smashing vocal harmonies of its own courtesy of the Psycho Sisters--a.k.a. Vicki "Bangles" Peterson and Susan "Cowsills" Cowsill. "They're fucking amazing!" enthuses Gelb, and, indeed, their singing on cuts like "Loretta and the Insect World" and "Milkshake Girl" function like oases in the album's desert-inspired sound. "They're invisibly joined at the hip," Gelb says. "There's something between those two that's so vibrant and immediate. They didn't work anything out in advance, or at least we wouldn't let them because they were perfect when they just jumped in and did it."
What will impress longtime Gelb fans about Center of the Universe the most, however, is what drew young Gelb to Neil Young: a bold combination of the jarring and the cool.
The cool parts include Dylan-like organ fills from Green on Red's Chris Cacavas and the wryly unhinged way Gelb tosses off lines like "Never need to go to Epcot Center, / happy as a clam living in the epicenter.... / Met my love at the prevention center" (in the title cut), the way he pronounces Antigone "Aunty Gone" ("Pathfinder"), and the way he begins "Solomon's Ride" with "Solomon had a barracuda" like someone remembering Three Dog Night singing "Jeremiah was a bullfrog."
The album's jarring qualities have mostly to do with Gelb's aforementioned affinity for scalding his amps with caldrons of molten guitar ("Seeded," "Sonic Drive In"). Gelb's theory as to why people like a sound that's essentially brutal and ugly goes a long way toward explaining his career.
"It sounds like you're using the instrument completely wrong, which was intended," he says, laughing. "It's like mold. It's like penicillin. It's like an accidental cure for a terminal disease.
"It's just bacteria, something you normally wouldn't want to expose yourself to, but then it turns out it'll save your life."