And after dozens of albums, his band--which plays a unique and slightly askew version of alternative rock and country--has become, if not rich and famous, well-known to aficionados of homegrown music the world over. And the Giant Sand recipe for making music is one that emphasizes spontaneous, explosive expression as much as it does carefully delineated composition.
Although Howe (he engenders first-name familiarity) is known to play classical, jazz and blues piano, he still operates instinctually--making music by the seat of his pants.
"There is no formula or healthy rules to abide by. It's all feeling your way in the dark," he says. "It doesn't have anything to do with intelligence or sophistication. You just go by the gut."
We caught up with Howe on a recent Sunday morning in the 1902 adobe house he shares with Sofie Albertsen Gelb, his wife of seven years; daughters Patsy, 17, and Talula, 2; and son Luka, 5. On the breakfast table were spinach omelets and thick, European-style coffee. Nearby was most of a dark-chocolate cake left over from celebrations of Howe's 48th birthday.
While speaking with visitors, Howe hops up intermittently, wiping away Talula's tears after she takes a tumble; popping in a videotape of a 1986 performance in Cologne, Germany; and trying to enlist a band member's aid in figuring out a Transformer toy.
Also in the house were the other members of Giant Sand--guitarist Anders Pedersen, bassist Thøger T. Lund and drummer Peter Dombernowsky hail from Denmark--as well as Pedersen's girlfriend, singer Marie Frank. All were resting up in Tucson for a few days between the European and American legs of the band's fall concert tour to promote its latest album, Giant Sand Is All Over ... the Map (Thrill Jockey Records).
However, the tour--including a scheduled home stop for a record-release concert Friday, Nov. 26 at Club Congress--was curtailed by the death of Sofie's mother on Nov. 12. As of our press deadline, Sofie and Howe were in Denmark for the funeral. The concert is expected to be rescheduled, but a new date has not yet been set.
Howe Gelb was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the eldest of two sons. (Younger brother Rick is also a musician and lives in Tucson with his own family). Howe first came to Tucson in the early 1970s. He was 15 at the time, escaping a cataclysmic flood in Pennsylvania and visiting his father, who had recently remarried and settled in what was then a quiet desert town.
Back in Pennsylvania, Howe was starting his own "guerilla" musical experiments, grabbing free recording-studio time when he could finagle it. "You come up with a lot of stuff when you're left alone a lot," he says.
Howe moved to Tucson the late 1970s and began playing in the Giant Sandworms, an edgy, sorta-New Wave rock band that haunted Fourth Avenue nightclubs and is still fondly remembered as one of the pivotal groups in local music during the early '80s.
The Sandworms made a couple of records, most memorably a white-vinyl 7-inch with five songs that came packaged in a Ziploc bag. Nowadays, it's incredibly rare and a valued document of a fertile period in Tucson music.
Howe, however, remembers the recording session differently: "It was a fucking mess. There were too many ideas, not enough time and application. I was trying to sing too much like David Byrne. We were trying to make our version of 'Murmur' by R.E.M., which was one of the most relatable records to us that we thought was underground."
He remembers the musical culture of Tucson as being based on a pioneering, do-it-yourself spirit.
"Back then, Tucson was its own little corner of the world," Howe says of the town during the early 1980s. "There was very little information about the music world here. There were only a couple of good record shops. Tucson didn't have a cool radio station--the college stations only played, and still only play, classical and jazz." Local musicians, he says, had to fend for themselves, away from many of the influences of the outside world.
In the Sandworms back then was Howe's friend, Rainer Ptacek, who later made name for himself here and in Europe as a brilliant blues-oriented slide guitarist. One of Tucson's most loved musicians, Rainer died from brain cancer seven years ago, but is still always with Howe.
"I met Rainer in 1976 through these two girls from Alberta, Canada, at the Fourth Avenue Street Fair who needed a place to park their camper. He had what I was missing--he was the older brother I never had."
After the Sandworms disbanded--the players scattering to other bands and influencing many others--Giant Sand was born as a vehicle for Howe's songs and a collective through which many talented Tucson musicians circulated. Among them have been such notables as Tom Larkins, Winston Watson Jr., Scott Garber, Paula Jean Brown, Neil Harry and many others.
Over the years, Howe repeatedly took twangy detours from Giant Sand to front an all-star honky-tonk group called the Band of Black Ranchette, which has released four albums, the most recent being last year's Still Looking Good to Me.
Giant Sand has a new line-up these days, which may seem unusual for recent fans but makes all the sense in the world to those who have followed Howe's music throughout his career. Granted, when you thought of Giant Sand during much of the 1990s, it was core group Howe, bassist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino, but that is not the only familiar manifestation of Giant Sand.
Burns and Convertino's outside project, the increasing popular indie-rock act Calexico, evolved into a proper band, has released several acclaimed albums and now is so successful and consuming that Giant Sand has gone on without them.
Giant Sand circa 2004 features Gelb and the three aforementioned Danes, whom he met a few years back in the Danish city of Århus, where he and his family had briefly moved. (He's also spent periods decamped in Hollywood and Joshua Tree, Calif.)
Howe's 2003 solo album, The Listener, grew out of a series of Wednesday night workshops at an Århus club. The artist to whom that album is attributed is neither Giant Sand nor Howe Gelb, but a new appellation known as "Howe Home."
"That was supposed to mean that it wasn't just me, but it was a place where lots of different people were," he says. "Nobody got it."
He and the Danes toured behind The Listener last summer. "During that tour, it just became apparent that, with John and Joey busy with Calexico, it seemed obvious to let this version of Giant Sand grow into more than a summer fling," he says.
So, as summer closed last year, Giant Sand entered recording studios in Århus and Copenhagen with musician-producer John Parish to begin work on Is All Over ... the Map, eventually finishing it last fall in Tucson. It came out this past September.
Howe's solo work and Giant Sand albums have long been released by his own labels--Amazing Black Sand in the past and Ow Om Recordings these days--and licensed to other independent labels for distribution.
Always prolific, Howe also records three or four records a year--including his "official bootleg" series and CDs intended to be sold only at concert dates (on Ow Om), as well as recordings by other artists such as his friends M. Ward and Naïm Amor. Earlier this year saw the release of Ogle Some Piano, a solo piano CD.
He only allows outside labels--lately, it's been Chicago's way-hip Thrill Jockey Records--to issue one proper Giant Sand album a year, "Because the press can usually only handle one CD during a year."
He notes that licensing his recordings, rather than selling the rights outright, has allowed him to earn a decent living over the years.
Already, Howe has another record in the can, consisting of him and a small band performing his tunes--old and new--with the backing of a Canadian gospel vocal group. He plays some cuts from it, and they are absolutely beautiful. That CD, tentatively titled 'Sno Angel (as in " ... is no angel"), will be released in the fall 2005.
Family plays a large part in Howe's life; his band is like family (staying in his house), and his family sometimes is part of the band.
Wife Sofie usually sings a little on each album, and ex-wife Paula Jean Brown, a former full-time band member, occasionally still performs with the group.
Teenager Patsy (known to fans who peruse liner-notes as Indiosa Patsy Jean Gelb) has appeared on most of her dad's records since she was old enough to talk. She turns in a credible interpretation of The Sex Pistols' song, "Anarchy in the U.K." on Is All Over... the Map, as part of the song collage titled "Anarchistic Bolshevistic Cowboy Bundle." On that tune, the ever-postmodern Howe also intones, "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Tolstoy."
Sometimes the extended Giant Sand family can feel like a unique, self-contained universe, Pedersen says. "It's really a mix of all aspects of life. It's what also makes it special to be a part of. Everybody is different each day, and every show is different."
Friends and family wander into and meander through the Gelb home day and night--artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians.
Bill Carter, a photographer, filmmaker and writer, has experienced just that. Although he lives in Bisbee these days, Carter has been a friend of Howe's for years and lived across the street from him for a while.
The director of the documentary film Miss Sarajevo, Carter also has shot two Giant Sand music videos, done numerous photo shoots with the band and seen it perform countless times. He respects Howe's spontaneous approach to art.
"I'll steal this from P.J. Harvey, who I interviewed once. She said this of Howe: 'Some nights you're there, and he's playing, and its pretty miserable, and the very next night--and that's the strange thing; it's the very next night--the band is just pure magic.'"
Carter has observed Howe's home life and work habits first-hand, and he thinks some casual fans in Tucson might take the musician's presence and work for granted.
"It's very hard to do this year after year after year--maintaining a recording career, and a band and a family and a label and somehow keeping everything going. He has created a cottage industry for himself, and just lets it be what it is. He kind of approaches music as a blue-collar worker and has a tremendous amount of respect for it as a trade."
Howe has worked with a wide variety of musicians during his career, and hung around with even more.
Vic Chesnutt sings on the new record. The group Granddaddy has recorded half of an as-yet-unreleased CD with him. With Convertino and Burns, Howe backed up singer-songwriter Lisa Germano on a project called OP8. He's played and/or recorded with such acts as Evan Dando (Lemonheads), Bill Elm (Friends of Dean Martinez), Steve Wynn, Neko Case, Juliana Hatfield, Kurt Wagner (Lambchop), Chris Cacavas, Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Lucinda Williams, Malcolm Burn and Victoria Williams.
Producer John Parish says, "If there were only one person allowed to contribute further to the over-stocked pool of recorded music on this planet, it should be Howe Gelb."
Looking up from Bob Dylan's recent memoir, Chronicles Vol. 1, bandmate Pedersen talks about Gelb's approach to creating music, "He's exploring chaos. He's always keeping the doors open for unexpected things to happen. And during the recording process, weird things happen all the time that you can't explain."
Pedersen describes the recording of "Classico," a track from the new album, during which Gelb's malfunctioning effects pedal emitted a strange, squalling howl out of the blue. The band kept it on the recording. It never happened again, and it has been impossible to recreate.
"It was a gift," Howe says simply.
Howe often talks of his road trips, of wandering down dusty roads, unsure of where he'll end up, looking for a peace of heaven, "the center of the universe.
"I think it's good to meander. I'm a meanderthal."
Then he follows the dog outside to check on the kids.