For Members Of Giant Sand, The Band Is A Place To Return To When The Time Is Right.
By Fred Mills
THE FAX MACHINE begins to hum. A scroll of paper slowly unfurls bearing a lengthy list of dates and venues. One-10-30-90 listings: the Giant Sand bootleg list, as supplied to Howe Gelb by a rabid tape collector. There's Vera Groningen, Holland, in the fall of '86, all 160 minutes' worth. And the WMBR-FM studios in Boston, June 1990. A DAT recording of a '94 Frankfurt gig with guest Vic Chesnutt.
"Really incredible, the amount there, and where they're from, live stuff, studio sessions," muses the perpetually understated Gelb. "People are trading tapes of us like the Grateful Dead."
Aha. What a long, strange trip it's been.
No short-term project, this Giant Sand. And in the two years since The Weekly last profiled Tucson's longest-running (since '81) and most prolific (some 26-odd records) band, well, no sight of land, either.
After getting out of a fractious deal with Imago Records (it yielded the quietly brilliant '94 album Glum), Giant Sand didn't miss a beat, issuing three indie records: Backyard Barbecue Broadcast, a radio session, on Koch; the live Goods And Services, on Brake Out/Enemy; and most recently, an odds 'n' sods collection for Tempe's Epiphany Records, called Official Bootleg Series Volume One, a title that suggests Gelb is mindful of Sandheads'--"Giant Heads" just doesn't sound right--needs.
"We've got a bunch of letters we haven't answered," acknowledges Gelb, "so now we can write back and say we have this available. We wanted to make this semi-ambient sounding record, and I opted for the luxury of not putting any credits on it. The first track is a live show in New York last year with Chris Kirkwood (Meat Puppets) on drums. There's one thing on there from Vancouver, "T.W.'s Forgotten Chorus," that's about five years old; I wanted to do something hillbilly like. And there are some outtakes from Barbecue and that live thing."
The band has also completed a record backing up Lisa Germano, due early next year and tentatively titled O.P. 8. ("smoother, kinda like what we do Friday nights in the Congress lobby," says Gelb), not to mention maybe half an album's worth of Giant Sand material in the can, awaiting a home.
But as a working unit, Giant Sand is, in fact, on extended hiatus, with its members pursuing outside interests.
For Gelb, this has meant solo gigs--he recently did New York's MAC Fest, and got his guitar stolen in the process--and writing, having contributed a pair of essays to Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama anthology.
"I'm working on a solo album here in my living room," Gelb offers. "A friend of mine came over and set up this huge four-track reel to reel, a couple of big mics, some old tube amps. It's all acoustic guitar and a lot of piano. So far I've had the occasion of two friends stopping by, Rosie Flores and John Wesley Harding, and they sang some. But (laughing ) I don't know what it's gonna be!
"As far as Giant Sand's concerned, it's on hold. Just in a natural spot. Joey and John have their thing (Calexico) and they're getting a lot of session work as Sly and Robbie, too. I don't mean "trouble in paradise." It's more like there's other stuff they want to do first, and it's the order of things happening that's instigated this 'lack of jumping on things that are Giant Sand.' "
Fair enough. Sharp-eyed locals have seen gig flyers around town for Calexico. That's Joey Burns on guitar, accordion, bass and vocals, and John Convertino on vibes, drums and percussion. Elements of noire-ish desert strum, country twang and lo-fi garage all mingle in the sound. But what of their former side project, Friends Of Dean Martinez?
Explains Burns, "What happened is, the Friends recorded a second record for Sub Pop, and right before turning the album in, Bill (Elm, pedal steel player) decided to get rid of John and me. He'd already moved to L.A. and I guess he was tired of having too many people involved. We were pretty upset at the time--but he was the one who signed the contract, and I understand that everyone needs their own space, so I'm totally cool with that."
After issuing a European-only LP under the name Spoke, then a Calexico 45 ("Spark" b/w "The Ride"), the duo approached Sub Pop themselves, and according to Burns a Calexico album is in the works as soon as legal matters are ironed out with Elm.
Burns says the new project merges ideas from both Spoke and the Friends: "John's wife Tasha (Bundy) is now our drummer, Bridget Keating overdubbed some string parts, and we even have some Mariachi trumpet players on some tracks. We'll put a few vocal songs on there as well, to show that there is a departure from the Friends."
Gelb remarked that he understood his band mates' current "fever" to make their own music. "You know, I used to be so nervous when Howe wanted me to do some of my songs," says Burns. But four months ago, John and I were in the studio with Giant Sand, then the Friends went into the studio, then we did the Lisa Germano thing. John and I did a song with Victoria Williams and Vic Chesnutt for Sweet Relief II; we also recorded sessions with Richard Buckner, Bill Janowitz of Buffalo Tom, and Michael Hurly. Everything is changing and growing."
Then what of the current holding pattern for Giant Sand?
"Playing with Giant Sand," says Burns, "you get a lifetime membership card! That's Howe's thing--Giant Sand is like a town. You're always welcome back, and I really appreciate that philosophy."
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