It is not easy to pin a label on the group Giant Sand. Though Chris Morris in Billboard dubbed their sound “desert dream-rock,” it has also been frequently described as alternative country, as it combines country with folk, rock, psychedelia, and acid rock. Bandleader and songwriter Howe Gelb provides the image-rich lyrics, eclectic blend of musical styles, and nasally vocals, as well as playing guitar, keyboards, and bass at various times. A revolving door of musicians provides the backbone for his visions. Joan Anderman in the Boston Globe summed up Gelb as “the mythical American cowboy spray-painted in strange, muted shades. Think art-school Neil Young, or Lou Reed wandering the Mojave Desert.”
Gelb’s verve for doing what comes naturally does not always translate into commercial success: All of Giant Sand’s releases until the mid-1990s were put out on independent labels and many were marketed to fans directly through mail-order. But the band’s fans appreciate this kind of free-form, rootsy approach, just as they eagerly await whatever new direction the band might take with any given release or performance. “We don’t go in thinking what we’re gonna do,” Gelb commented to Jud Cost and Fred Mills in Bucketfull of Brains, located on the Giant Sand Pages web site. “You feel a hunch and just make the stuff up as you go and see what you’ve got later.”
Gelb was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, around 1956. In 1972, living in Wilkes-Barr, Pennsylvania, his family lost everything in a flood. His father had moved to Arizona and remarried that same year, so Gelb began to go visit him and relocated to Tucson in 1975. There, he met German-born guitar virtuoso Rainer Ptacek, who was playing at a small local cafe. Soon after, Gelb returned to Wilkes-Barr and worked in a soda factory in order to earn enough money to make a permanent move to Arizona. Meanwhile, he started writing songs and remained in contact with Ptacek, talking to him often on the phone about starting up a band. Gelb also played briefly with a punk band in Pennsylvania called the Stains.
Shortly before Gelb moved back to Tucson, Ptacek assembled a group with drummer Billy Sedlmayer and bass player David Seger to form the Giant Sandworms. They put out the EP Will Wallow and Roam after the Ruin on the local Boneless label in 1980. Two decades later, Gelb confessed in Magnet, “I’m totally embarrassed by this sort of David Byrne-style of singing I was latching onto.” After this debut, the Giant Sandworms moved to New York City, but Sedlmayer’s drug abuse forced them back to Arizona in 1981.
Soon, Ptacek quit the group as well, and Seger left to join Naked Prey. Gelb replaced Seger with bassist Scott Gerber, and changed the band’s name to Giant Sand. From here on out, Gelb would be the driving force of the group. In 1985, Giant Sand recorded their
Members include Paula Brown, bass, guitar; Joey Burns , bass; Chris Cavacas , piano; John Convertino, drums; Howe Gelb (born c. 1956 in Scranton, PA; married Paula Brown; divorced, late 1980s; married Sofie; children: (from first marriage) daughter, Indiosa Patsy Jean; (from second marriage) son, Luka), vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards; Scott Gerber, bass; Neil Harry, pedal steel guitar; Tom Lar-kins, drums; Nick Luca, guitar; Rainer Ptacek (born June 7, 1951, in East Berlin, Germany; died November 12, 1997, in Tucson, AZ), guitar; Billy Sed, drums; David Seger, bass; Mark Walton, bass.
Band formed as the Giant Sand worms, 1976, in Tucson, AZ; released debut EP, Will Wallow and Roam after the Ruin, 1980; relocated to New York City, 1980; returned to Tucson, 1981; released first full-length album, Valley of Rain, 1985. Gelb has also released projects under the names the Band of Blacky Ranchette, Dreaded Brown Recluse, and OP8.
Addresses: Record company —Thrill Jockey Records, 1501 West 18th St., Chicago, IL 60608.
first full-length release, the alternative country-rock Valley of Rain, with Naked Prey drummer Tom Larkins and pianist Chris Cavacas from Green on Red. In addition, Paula Jean Brown, formerly the bassist for the Go-Go’s, pitched in on bass and guitar. She and Gelb were married and had a daughter, Indiosa Patsy Jean.
Right away, critics compared Gelb to Neil Young for his rough-edged guitar sound and similar vocal style. Indeed, Gelb has freely admitted that he admires Young, and has said that other influences include “almost anything that was released in 1972: Hellhound Train by Savory Brown, Smoking by Humble Pie, … anything by Mott the Hoople and [The Rolling Stones’] Exile on Main Street” as he recalled in an interview with Cost and Mills. He also has tipped his hat to David Bowie, Todd Rundgren, Jimmy Rodgers, Thelonious Monk, and Bob Dylan.
The year after Valley of Rain was issued, Giant Sand put out the acoustic Ballad of a Thin Line Man. It again featured Brown on some vocals, and included some intriguing cover songs, such as Johnny Thunders’s “You Can’t Put Your Arm around a Memory” and the Jimi Hendrix classic “All Along the Watchtower.” Giant Sand’s two first releases were later issued together in 1996 on the Diablo label. After this, Gerber moved on to join the Sidewinders, and eventually teamed again with Sedlmayer in Los Cruzos.
In the meantime, Gelb took the helm of Giant Sand, as he began to record and tour with a changing lineup of musicians, including Ptacek, who reappeared several times in the lineup. He was a close collaborator and friend of Gelb’s until his cancer-related death in 1997. In 1988, Giant Sand issued two albums back-to-back, Storm and The Love Songs. Cohen wrote in Stereophile, “The Love Songs is simply stunning, a white-hot, soul-stirring mix of hazy blues poetry, rollicking keyboards, searing guitar licks, groovy backing vocals and sexy, sweaty, bittersweet songs.” Cohen added that this release was the first to reveal Gelb’s affection for styles as diverse as Motown, Jim Morrison, and Thelonious Monk.
Meanwhile, Gelb began releasing efforts under the name Band of Blacky Ranchette. These works are more strongly country-flavored. Jason Cohen commented in Stereophile on the Giant Sand Pages web site, “As Blacky, Gelb’s writing is stronger, sweeter, and more evocative. He delivers land songs, road songs, and Civil War songs as panoramic country aches, with minglings of string, voice, and melody on the one hand and skanky moonshine blooze on the other.” The Band of Blacky Ranchette came out in 1985, followed by Heartland the next year and Sage Advice in 1990.
In January of 1990, Giant Sand came out with the improvisational Long Stem Rant, featuring Gelb, bassist Mark Walton, and drummer John Convertino. This effort was much more experimental, venturing into Captain Beefheart territory. It was recorded in the Mojave Desert near Joshua Tree, California, and Gelb stayed on afterward as a caretaker for some cabins there. He and Brown had just been divorced, and he enjoyed the remote location away from the glitz of Hollywood.
Gelb’s next project, Sage Advice, 1990, was a Band of Blacky Ranchette album, and it included Neil Harry on pedal steel guitar and Steve Graham on bass. Gelb wrote the songs on a drive back to Tucson from California. Also in 1990 he released Swerve, a Giant Sand project featuring Juliana Hatfield, Poi Dog Pondering, and Evan Dando from the Lemonheads. The next year, Gelb and his band came out with an album under the name Dreaded Brown Recluse. “We’d been putting Giant Sand records out every six to eight months,” he remarked in Magnet, “and the label folks were saying, Please, can you wait longer between releases?’”
Gelb followed up with more Giant Sand releases, including 1991’s folk-rock Ramp, which Cohen considered to be perhaps the band’s nadir. He wrote, “It’s one of the best discs of the ’90s, a timeless, emblematic early artifact of the so-called ‘No Depression’ scene.” It included Gelb’s longtime collaborators such as Ptacek, Convertino, Harry, and others, as well as Duane Jarvis, Victoria Williams, Dusty Wakeman, and Pappy Allen, owner of Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Roadhouse near Joshua Tree, California. After Ramp came 1992’s Center of the Universe, which featured Sue Cowsill of the Cowsills adding vocals; 1993’s Purge and Slouch and Stromausfall (outtakes from Purge and Slouch), and 1994’s Giant Songs: Two.
By 1994, Giant Sand had a strong following in Europe, playing to crowds of several hundred at a time, but they were still relegated to obscurity in America. Devotees included rock critics and fellow musicians, and the band was attracting a reputation for their free-form stage shows “that resemble communal acid trips more than concerts,” according to Nisid Hajari in Entertainment Weekly. In fact, Giant Sand’s works even in the studio were so improvisational that Gelb would not know how to recreate them until he listened again to the albums. But some criticized Gelb for this kind of approach, citing guitar riffs that tended to fade away after a good start and lyrics that got jumbled or lost. Ted Drozdowski in Rolling Stone, for instance, called Purge and Slouch “lazy,” stating that the collection of tracks should have been “kept in a drawer until its bones could be picked for ideas.”
However, in the mid-1990s Giant Sand landed on a major label when they signed with the BMG imprint Imago and issued Glum. This effort, recorded in a New Orleans mansion, raked in more positive reviews. In fact, in the issue of Rolling Stone following his Purge and Slouch review, Drozdowski wrote that on his good albums, “Gelb crafts some of the best oddball pop around.” Most of the tunes on Glum focused on lost love and featured Gelb’s trademark grand guitar lines. Following this, in 1995 Giant Sand issued Goods and Services, mostly culled from live performances, and Backyard Barbecue Broadcast, created from two live appearances on a New Jersey-based radio show. Also in 1995 Giant Sand put out another effort much like Purge and Slouch, only live, titled Official Bootleg Series Volume 1, which in fact contained several tunes from the earlier release. Cohen in Stereophile called it “an odds ‘n’ sods affair that sounds like it could have been recorded in a single session.”
In the mid-1990s, Gelb moved back to Tucson after two earthquakes hit the Joshua Tree area. Though he was on the road at the time, it frightened him because a little girl was killed in one quake, and the aftershocks continued for months. In 1997 Gelb teamed with Robert Plant to spearhead the effort Inner Flame, a tribute album to Ptacek (at the time recovering from brain cancer) that included an array of guest talent such as PJ Harvey, Emmylou Harris, Jonathan Richman, Evan Dando, Vic Chesnutt, and Victoria Williams. That same year, Gelb and his group teamed with Lisa Germano to issue Slush under the band name OP8.
Later, Giant Sand landed a contract with Richard Branson’s new label, V2, which he formed after selling his Virgin label to Capitol-EMI. In 1998, Gelb released a solo record, Hisser, which has a dark, melancholy feel due to the effect of Ptacek’s 1997 death on Gelb. The selections were done on a four-track, thus giving the “hissing” sound that led to the title. After this, in 1999 Gelb also put out Upside-Down Home, which was compiled mostly of outtakes from Hisser. Subsequently, Giant Sand completed its next effort, despite Gelb’s initial bout with writer’s block and his continuing grief over the loss of Ptacek. But at that point, V2 decided Giant Sand was not commercial enough and dropped the band’s recording contract. However, Chicago-based independent label Thrill Jockey then picked up the group and put out the album on Gelb’s Ow Om imprint.
In 2000, Giant Sand’s Chore of Enchantment came out to positive notices. The title alludes to welcome, pleasant responsibilities, such as owning a home and having a family. (Gelb had since remarried to a woman named Sofie, and they had a son, Luka, and bought an adobe-style house in Tucson’s Barrio Viejo district.) Though this disc, too, was dedicated to the memory of Ptacek, the cuts were more diverse, ranging from country-pop (“Shiver”) to poetic surrealism (“Raw”) to meandering blues (“Way to End the Day”). Collaborators on this effort included Joe Burns and Convertino. Other performers included guitarist Nick Luca, Hatfield, and a host of premier Tucson and Memphis musicians such as Jim Dickinson.
After this success, though, Gelb was not sure where the group would head next, telling David Veitch in the Calgary Sun that he was not even sure Giant Sand would remain an entity. Burns and Convertino had also been recording and touring with another project, Cal-exico, but the commitments of having two bands was wearing on the members. “Now we have these tours lined up that are starting to crash into each other,” Gelb explained to Veitch. “We’ve tried to meticulously—for us, anyway—combine agendas, but heads get bonked.” Little is certain about the future of Giant Sand, but Gelb will undoubtedly find ways to keep producing his unique sound.
Will Wallow and Roam after the Ruin (EP), Boneless, 1980.
Valley of Rain, Enigma, 1985.
Ballad of a Thin Line Man, Enigma, 1986.
Storm, Demon, 1988.
The Love Songs, Homestead, 1988.
Giant Sandwich, Homestead, 1989.
Long Stem Rant, Homestead Records, 1990.
Swerve, Restless, 1992.
Ramp, Restless, 1992.
Center of the Universe, Restless, 1993.
Purge & Slouch, Restless, 1993.
Stromausfall, Return to Sender, 1993.
Glum, Imago, 1994.
Goods and Services (mostly live), Brake Out/Enemy, 1995.
Volume One Official Bootleg Series (mostly live), Epiphany, 1995.
Giant Songs 2: Best of… (import), Demon Records, 1994.
Backyard Barbecue Broadcast, Koch Records, 1995.
Valley of Rain/Ballad of a Thin Line Man (import), Diablo, 1996.
Official Bootleg Series Vol. 2: The Rock Opera Years, Ow Om/Thrill Jockey, 2000.
Chore of Enchantment, Thrill Jockey, 2000.
Band of Blacky Ranchette
The Band of Blacky Ranchette, New Rose, 1985.
Heartland, Zippo, 1986.
Sage Advice, Demon, 1990.
Under other names
(As Dreaded Brown Recluse) Dreaded Brown Recluse, Houses in Motion, 1991.
(With others) Inner Flame, 1997.
(AsOP8) Slush, 1997.
(as Doug Gelb) Hisser, V2, 1998.
(As Doug Gelb) Upside-Down Home, Ow Om, 1998.
Billboard, February 3, 1996, p. 69; January 26, 2000, p. 75.
Boston Globe, January 14, 2000, p. D6.
Calgary Sun, April 21, 2000, p. G4.
Entertainment Weekly, May 28, 1993, p. 66; June 24, 1994, p. 75; September 16, 1994, p. 121; January 26, 1996, p. 58.
Guitar Player, May 1996, p. 127.
Magnet, June/July 2000, p. 41.
People, September 5, 1994, p. 21.
Rolling Stone, August 5, 1993, p. 28; August 25, 1994, p. 92; September 8, 1994, p. 78; April 13, 2000, p. 132.
Washington Post, January 19, 2000, p. C16.
“Giant Sand Interviews,” Giant Sand Pages website, http://www.sa-wa-ro2.freeserve.co.uk/GiantSand-Pages (August 21, 2000).
“Giant Sand,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 8, 2000).
“Giant Sand,” Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com (September 8, 2000).
“Giant Sand,” Sonicnet, http://www.sonicnet.com (September 8, 2000).
"Giant Sand." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 13, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/giant-sand
"Giant Sand." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved December 13, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/giant-sand
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