Perversely, although perhaps predictably so given the man's exceptional temperament, it was Gelb who came to Lopez looking for inspiration. "Brian and his buddies ... woke me up to everything I love about Tucson again," Gelb said in an email exchange. "I had become a very subtle ex pat after the turn of the century due to a very bad end of the '90s here." He refers to the death of his longtime friend and collaborator Rainer Ptacek, a sense of being abandoned by some band members, a devastating series of cancer deaths in his family, and other personal problems as having alienated him from his former life, and creating a feeling of displacement.
"At some point around 2010," Gelb continued, "I became aware of Brian and Gabriel, and I realized there was a brilliant new and vibrant generation of players here ... songwriters and multi-instrumentalists all.
"Somehow the universe was waking me up to the treasures here again, and delivered me by way of Berlin (Rainer's birthplace), an invitation to a special festival there celebrating the world's desert regions. They required (that) I bring three guests from this area. So I went about inviting Brian, Gabe and Jon Villa, who I thought best represented everything that's particular and great and true about our sonic landscape."
Naturally they never got a rehearsal as a full band; the Giant Sand Danes were on tour in Australia. When they finally convened at sound check, band members numbered 10, as Gelb tells it, the sound engineers were overwhelmed. Lopez, Sullivan and Villa performed, and then Lopez called "Cariñito" to bring in Giant Sand.
"It was like throwing gasoline onto a fire to put it out," Gelb said of the moment. "With that spontaneous combustion, Giant Giant Sand was born onstage and live in front of 1,500 people." The band ultimately recorded a CD of new Gelb music and toured the globe as a unit.
Of Lopez's particular talents, Gelb said, "His guitar ability is refreshing in that it's disciplined with a great deal of passion." Gelb waxes equally eloquent about Lopez's songwriting, and the tone and range of his voice. "The thing that holds it all together is his sense of humor and humility. (That) makes it all user-friendly and severely engaging."
Lopez regards his time with Gelb as something of a master's class in songwriting, with the new "Static Noise" its thesis.
"Lyrically, for me, 'Static Noise' is just head and shoulders above 'Ultra'. I think a lot of it has to do with touring with Howe the past two or three years, and just getting into it with his music and, I guess, his process. It's just so poetic. Whether you agree with his music or not, lyrically it's always potent stuff.
"And that was something that I really wanted to take, because I'm more of a melody-driven songwriter I think, so the challenge for me was definitely to keep the haunting melodies aspect, that I've become known for, but also just have more potent lyrical content, something that's a little bit more enduring."
Gelb hears another voice, too, that's part of his own. "When I heard the first few bars of 'When I Was a Mountain' (a sweeping epic of a song on "Static Noise"), I could hear Rainer," he said. "But that's just my damage."
In the two years since "Ultra," Lopez feels he also has cleared out the last affectation of classical training that may have cluttered the path to his most soulful expression. "I did take the basic skills and I think that's done nothing but help me tremendously with songwriting. Without that I wouldn't be doing this, honestly," he said. "It's in your best interests to learn all those tedious things in music, and then it's really up to you. Are you the kind of person who's able to walk away from that, tear it apart and reformat it in a way that suits your personality, that's filtered through you? That's something that's taken me many years.
"I've seen (music training) affect people in a negative way, where they're thinking too much in terms of musicality and structure and formal training, and they lose sense of the soul. You graduate from school and you feel like you're a musical elitist. Nothing's good. It's like 'Early Wagner's crap,' and like 'What are you talking about?'
"I was like a pretentious dick, and then years later, without even knowing, you're applying those music skills to your songwriting, and then years later, you kind of have your own voice. Especially with 'Static Noise' I feel like I'm finally (there)."