King of another country

Howe Gelb, the cool name on everyone's alt. lips

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FOR THE BEST part of the past decade, Howe Gelb has been known as the godfather of
Mention the title to him, however, and he bursts out laughing.

“I made music for years,” says Gelb, a solo artist and singer with the cult band Giant Sand, “and no one paid any attention.
Then one day, for a reason I’ll never understand, someone decided I was cool. Next thing I knew, I was part of a scene.
I wasn’t doing anything different and I wasn’t even sure what the scene was, so how could I have started it? It’s nonsense.”

It’s not just labels that Gelb doesn’t like. The 48-year-old singer, songwriter and multi-faceted musician from Tucson, Arizona,
has little time for any of the conventions of the modern pop game. The new Giant Sand album, Is All Over . . . the Map, won’t
be his only release this year. He has already put out an album of piano ballads, and a collection of songs recorded in Canada
with a gospel choir is on the way.

Oh, and there are also sessions completed recently with Grandaddy of California — one of the better-known bands inspired by
Gelb — which will come out under an anonymous name, plus a live tour CD.

“Record companies don’t understand artists like me any more,” says Gelb. “They have a plan that says you release one album
a year to give them time to promote it.

“I don’t work like that. I write every day and I can produce a dozen good songs a week, but none of them may sound similar.
Of course I want people to hear them, so I put all of them out as different projects. I don’t think that confuses fans. I think my fans
are smart enough to know what they want to buy and what they don’t.”

Gelb’s prolific output does mean his albums are unlikely ever to reach the charts — his small fanbase may have exploded in size
in recent years, but unless they all choose to buy the same album, Gelb won’t be having any hits. Not that he cares. He claims that
since he first picked up a guitar in his teens he has never wanted fame or fortune.

“I didn’t grow up dreaming about being in a band,” says Gelb, who spent his early years in a tiny town in Pennsylvania, after his
parents divorced. “I didn’t even like music as a kid. We had a piano in our house, but I rarely played it. Then the floods came,
smashed the piano to pieces and washed it away. I wasn’t even sad when that happened.”

Eh, pardon? “The great flood of ’72,” continues Gelb, as though casually telling a tale from the Bible. “The water came six feet
over our house. It washed the whole town away. It was like a giant eraser.”

After Gelb was washed out of his home by the freak flood, his mother moved to a different town and he was sent to Arizona to
live with his salesman father. It was there he stumbled across a guitar and decided to join a covers band.

I tried to join lots of bands,” Gelb recalls, “but none of them would have me. My covers never sounded quite right. So I gave up
trying to play other people’s songs, formed my own band and wrote my own material.”

The band began as Giant Sandworms and by the time it became Giant Sand in 1980 Gelb and his ever-changing line-up of musicians
had a healthy following around Tucson.

Despite the or Americana title slapped on Gelb’s songs more than a decade later, they always owed more to experimental
rock and punk bands such as Television than to traditional country music. Unfortunately, for a long time no one outside Arizona
understood what Gelb was trying to do. Even a year-long trip to New York in the 1980s sent the band running back home without
a record deal.

“New York was awful because you need money to live there,” says Gelb. “In Arizona we survived on cheap Mexican food and
the rent was next to nothing. We didn’t want to be a chart band, we just hoped people might be interested in our songs elsewhere.
We soon gave up on that idea, though.”

In the early Nineties, however, Gelb suddenly found himself being cited as an inspiration by a new breed of bands, not just in the
States, but here in Britain

“That was odd, but a real relief,” says Gelb, who by then had a daughter. “Suddenly labels wanted to release our records and we
could go out on tour and make some money. On the downside, we weren’t the only band making that sort of music any more, so

there was lots of competition.” Indeed, many of the bands Gelb inspired have come closer to the charts than Giant Sand. Lambchop,
Sparklehorse and even Calexico — a duo formed by Gelb’s band mates in Giant Sand — have all enjoyed more commercial success
than the godfather himself. Gelb claims not to care, although he’s not altogether convincing.

“All music is rehashed,” he says. “You can’t complain about that, but when it’s by musicians who were once like your children, who you
taught everything you knew to, it’s a weird one.”

Still, no one gets respect like Gelb. Some of his projects have featured contributions from Robert Plant, Lucinda Williams, John Parrish,
Emmylou Harris, Juliana Hatfield and Lisa Germano, while a Beyond Nashville night he curated at the Barbican in London two years ago
drew the likes of P. J. Harvey, Evan Dando and Kurt Wagner, of Lambchop.

Gelb’s new-found success has even persuaded him to leave Arizona, at least for part of the year. He was recently married to a Dane,
with whom he has two young children, and they spend several months each year in her home town.

From this month, however, Gelb will be back out on tour, this time perhaps with his favourite collaborator, his daughter Patsy, a Kelly
Osbourne lookalike who guests on the new album.

“Patsy sings on a version Anarchy in the UK,” says Gelb, proudly. “It’s a song I used to play her as a baby. Come to think of it, I may
be more influential than I thought. Never mind Godfather — an influential father will do just fine.”

  • Is All Over . . . the Map is on Thrill Jockey Records; Howe Gelb and Giant Sand play Bush Hall, W12 (020- 8222 6955), on Thursday