The other day, I was playing our 11-year-old some Giant Sand. “Who’s this?” he asked. “Only the greatest unsung rock’n’roll band of them all,” I told him. He then asked what I meant by “unsung”, and I told him that Giant Sand had only 40,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, and how I’d go to see them in the 90s and seem to recognise everyone in the crowd. My friend Al introduced me to them, via an article in Richard Norris’s mag Strange Things Are Happening, and for a while it seemed the people who turned up at their gigs were offshoots from the family tree of folk who’d read that article; I can’t remember NME or the radio going anywhere near them.
It wasn’t always easy. I remember a gig at the Mean Fiddler going so badly that Juliana Hatfield refused to go onstage with them; there were boos from the beery lads who wanted the disco to start. But how could you not love a band whose approach to guitar was so wayward that they consulted on the Bill & Ted films to show them how not to play? An act who responded to members leaving by recording as a guitar-and-drums two-piece a decade before the White Stripes were a thing. A band who, in one improvisatory segment, confused their collaborator so much, he wailed “I ain’t no improviser, no scat musician; that was just weird music!” – and left his complaint on the record for posterity.
It’s my firm belief that Giant Sand’s askew alt-rock is every bit the match for Sonic Youth and their ilk, but they went on to do much more – recording with a gospel choir, Spanish Gypsy flamenco guitarists and Pappy Allen, a septuagenarian lounge singer (he’d never left Arizona; they took him on a European tour). Happily, by the time they played the Barbican in 2001, they were starting to get their dues. Members of Grandaddy and Lambchop played with them that night, plus Polly Harvey, Evan Dando, Mark Linkous and Vic Chesnutt. It was the kind of tribute you usually only get when you die.
And since then it’s been business as usual – forming an entirely Danish incarnation of the band, recording rock operas and solo piano records, and reverting to life under the radar. If you’ve never dipped your toes in, here’s a concise 59-song best-of. Would be good to hear from any of the Massive who are part of the 40,000, or have memories or strong opinions on this truly great band.