It's a bright Friday afternoon and Howe Gelb is on the roof of his Barrio Santa Rosa home, tools scattered, working on his swamp cooler.
A lanky dude in an Arizona Feeds cap, Gelb is the leader of Giant Sand and one of the few Tucson musicians who can sell thousands of albums a year and make a living solely from music.
He's performed at massive European music festivals alongside acts like Arcade Fire, Eric Clapton and Metallica and collaborated with artists from Neko Case to PJ Harvey to M. Ward.
Nearly 25 years after the first Giant Sand album was released, Gelb is constantly working. He'll release his third instrumental piano album next month. Also upcoming is a compilation of live material drawn from his 2006 solo album, "'Sno Angel Like You," and a new Giant Sand record.
On this day up on his roof, there's no sign this is a guy who retains worldwide status as a cult icon. Howe (pronounced how) Gelb is just another 51-year-old Tucsonan trying to get a jump on the impending heat.
In America, and even in his hometown of Tucson, where he will play St. Philip's in the Hills Episcopal Church tonight, it's mostly "Howe who?"
Suddenly, he stands and points to the skyline.
The heat is making the side of one of the buildings look like the spotty, black-and-white fuzz of television static.
Gelb says his mind is similarly scrambled and scatterbrained.
"I need two full days to have one complete thought," he says.
In conversation, Gelb's voice is close to his singing voice, which he says he's "barely put up with" all these years. It's with this slow, gruff, off-kilter enunciation that he plays philosopher and poet.
His music can be something of an acquired taste: think Beck's eccentric wordplay meets Leonard Cohen's gruff, slithering delivery with Lou Reed's hushed enthusiasm.
"It's amazing anyone likes the mess I make at all," Gelb says.
Gelb always seemed ahead of his time, successfully independent before that became a quality that musicians sought.
"He's maybe our most quintessential Tucson musician," said David Slutes, entertainment and booking director at Club Congress and a singer with veteran Tucson band The Sand Rubies. "He's one of our treasures in town."
Gelb estimates that about 85 percent of his income comes from across the Atlantic, where there's a craving for Southwest artists.
"They don't have that flavor over there," says John Convertino, a former member of Giant Sand and current drummer for Calexico.
In the States, Gelb can pull in as little as $600 for a gig; in Europe, he commands as much as 4,000 euros (about $6,300) for festival performances.
The singing guitar
Sitting in his '65 Barracuda in his dirt driveway after shopping for vintage vinyl, Gelb says he was inspired to pick up a guitar from watching a '60s TV program, "The King Family Show." As a child, he was mesmerized by the musical variety show featuring the King Sisters and their extended family of musicians.
The show's grandfather character had a "singing guitar," which made vowel-like sounds that captured the imagination of a young Gelb.
He recently learned that the grandfather's real-life wife stood offstage and helped make those sounds with some kind of voicebox.
"That's true love," Gelb says.
It's interesting that he was so captured by a television program about a musical family.
Gelb's parents divorced when he was a baby, and he never thought of himself as the type to start a family.
But his view on family life changed shortly after he met his first wife, a bassist named Paula Jean Brown. She enjoyed some commercial success in the '80s, when she was briefly a member of the Go-Go's. She also played occasionally in Giant Sand.
Their daughter, Patsy Gelb, now 20, sings on some of her father's records, and so does Gelb's current wife, Sofie Albertsen Gelb. She's a jewelry maker whose work can be found at The Jewel Smithery, 299 S. Park Ave., and Bon, 3022 E. Broadway.
Howe and Sofie have been married for 11 years and are raising two children together: Luka Ry, 9, and Talula, 5.
"He definitely has an unusual approach," Sofie says. Gelb teaches his children to live in the moment and enjoys drawing and playing basketball with them. He also tours with his family whenever possible.
Luka and Talula haven't had any formal music training, but that hardly stops their dad from bringing them onstage to sing backing vocals now and then.
"The kids absolutely love it," Sofie says.
Gelb says that the 2004 animated film "The Incredibles" is the "greatest movie ever made," as it sums up what it takes to hold a family together.
His domestic routine, which includes getting the kids ready for school, is far from the gritty rock-star life he imagined for himself when he first began visiting Tucson in 1972.
That was the same year Gelb's home in Pennsylvania was destroyed by a flood.
His parents weren't musicians, although Gelb remembers his father often talked about wanting to play drums.
"He might have had something inside him that he never had time for," he says.
The Ptacek family photo
When you walk through the front door of Gelb's house, one of the first things you see is a collage of framed photos of family and friends.
One shows Gelb looking vaguely disoriented outside legendary New York venue CBGB's, where Giant Sand has played.
Another photo is of Rainer Ptacek and his family.
The German-born Ptacek moved to Tucson from Chicago, where he was exposed to the blues, a genre he would innovate and perform to great acclaim. He became known internationally by his first name (pronounced Rye-ner).
It's hard to articulate Rainer's impact on Gelb's life.
After briefly attending art school in Pennsylvania, Gelb relocated to Tucson for good in the mid-'70s. He was 19 when he met Rainer, and although Rainer was five years older, they immediately clicked and began jamming together.
Together they helmed The Band Of Blacky Ranchette, a country act that made an album in the early '80s that attracted the attention of a French record label, New Rose. The Blacky album was the start of Gelb's cultivation of an overseas fan base.
Europe made sense to Gelb from the beginning. The labels there were more willing to let him keep the rights to his songs, which he retains to this day, lessening the chance of exploitation.
Artists are treated better there than in the States, he says. Plus, in the time it takes to tour from here to Austin, you can just about cover Europe — leaving more time for yourself or someone else.
Gelb faced a choice when Brown became pregnant with Patsy in 1987: break new territories with his music or spend more time raising his first child.
"She just became the most important thing," says Gelb, who looked to Rainer for inspiration.
Rainer was raising children with his wife, Patti, while continuing to build a music career.
"He was a total mentor," Gelb says. "He put his way of life before the music."
While his marriage didn't work out, Gelb remained a devoted father and eventually gained full custody of Patsy.
"He was always there for me," Patsy said. "He's really one of my best friends."
Rainer was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 1996 and suffered a seizure several months later while Gelb was on tour in Europe. Gelb flew home to Tucson and, alongside Rainer's wife, told his friend that the cancer was going to kill him — "the most difficult thing I ever had to do."
Rainer, the best man at Gelb's second wedding, in the summer of 1997, died that fall. He was 46.
The loss shook Gelb to his core.
"Even those who I thought were closest to me probably couldn't figure out how f----- up I was," he says.
Luka Ry Gelb's middle name is a tribute to Rainer Ptacek.
Howe being Howe
It's around 10:30 a.m. on a cloudless Wednesday, and while most Tucsonans are at work or school, Gelb is quietly picking apart the arms of a green wicker chair.
His cluttered backyard displays bird cages of every variety, a basketball hoop and building materials from bricks to pipes from a delayed extension to his house that has been hung up by city bureaucracy.
There's blue skies overhead and birds chirping while the lanky musician is dressed in black jeans, a gray T-shirt and black zippered boots. He's got freewheeling but thinning salt-and-pepper hair, a distinguished-looking goatee, expressive eyebrows that seem to encompass the better part of his forehead and intense brown eyes.
While chomping on raw carrots, he talks of wanting to teach an indie-rock course at Pima Community College. He's not a big fan of digital recording and prefers both his whiskey and coffee strong.
In casual conversation, Gelb often drops Howe-isms such as "meanderthal," "spoinking" and "lumbersome."
With little hesitation, he can recall the full names of people he briefly met even decades ago, a skill he began developing around 2005.
The trick, he says, is to find something about each person he meets that he likes or even loves — be it a smile or a pattern of speech. This makes it easier to remember individuals, especially when he's on the road and faces tend to blur.
Gelb, who is between labels, was on the phone one morning with an English representative at Yep Roc Records. Gelb left Thrill Jockey after "'Sno Angel Like You," and the Englishman was giving his best pitch for joining the label.
Even in business mode, the discussion never sounded anything like a job interview. It was similar to a laid-back chat.
"As much as I've done, I've always been more lazy than ambitious," Gelb says later. "Which is kind of why I like living here."
Notoriously late to just about everything, he says "it's my curse, not my disability."
He was an hour and a half late to a recent recording session with local musician and engineer Nick Luca, another former member of Giant Sand. Luca, who has been recording with Gelb since around 1995, promptly shrugged off the lateness: That's just Howe being Howe.
That's the kind of pass you get when you've been such a lasting presence in the local music scene.
Luca says there are bands in town that probably don't even realize they're influenced by Gelb's music. He said a group like the alt-country Golden Boots are "Gelb protégés."
Golden Boots singer and guitarist Dimitri Manos said Giant Sand was not a direct influence and that he hadn't heard of Gelb until he moved to town.
"I've become a huge fan of him," Manos says. "I can see where a parallel could be drawn, but I think if anything it was definitely coincidental."
The desert Zappa
On his way to a thrift store, Gelb was back behind the wheel of his vintage Barracuda. He's a conscientious driver, which was not always the case.
"The way I play guitar is the way I used to drive my car," he says.
This could mean almost anything, because Gelb's music has transformed so much through the years. He's gone from '80s gothic to country to mystic rock to gritty folk singer and jazz piano player.
Yet Gelb's most likely referring to his frantic and speedy guitar playing of the late '80s and '90s, which Giant Sand archivist Jim Blackwood says recalls the minimalism of the White Stripes at times.
Blackwood says one of the things that struck him about Gelb was his intense musical output. By casting a wide creative net around listeners, Gelb is able to appeal to almost anyone's tastes.
"If I heard something I didn't like, it was surely outnumbered by stuff I did like," Blackwood says.
Gelb isn't the kind of artist who needs a lot of time to find his muse — he could be the hardest working musician in town, constantly producing material.
"When I get dizzy, I know it's good," he says.
To facilitate his flow of releases, Gelb created his own label, OW OM, an oblique reference to "Howe Home," he says.
Overall, there have been at least 27 Giant Sand releases since the mid-'80s, four from The Band of Blacky Ranchette and 15 various solo endeavors, including a side project called Arizona Amp and Alternator.
Gelb says for every "official release," he creates three side projects for OW OM. He'll tour and do press for an official release, but not for the side projects, which sell up to 10,000 copies worldwide per year.
And when he's not making music, he's turning others on to it.
Gelb is credited with discovering the popular but now defunct psych-rock act Grandaddy. Indie folkster M. Ward's first album, "Duet For Guitars #2," was released on OW OM.
The pink Band-Aid
It's just after lunch at Gelb's favorite restaurant, Little Cafe Poca Cosa, where he was greeted warmly. Through some friends, Gelb help arrange for Bob Dylan to eat there before a 2006 show at Tucson Arena.
Gelb, who is eating a plate of "the best chiles rellenos in the world," sports a pink "Hello Kitty" Band-Aid on the knuckle of one finger.
It's tempting to say the look was his idea, but his youngest daughter, Talula, probably had something to do with it.
After more than three decades playing music, recording, touring — and all the things that accompany that lifestyle — Gelb is satisfied with where he's at.
"Some days it seems like it never even happened," he says.
A self-described "thousand-aire," he still runs out of money from time to time. But it's during those struggles that he remembers what Rainer's life taught him about prioritizing.
If Gelb had kept touring with Giant Sand in the early '90s, he might have been in a more comfortable financial position today.
But the downside to that kind of life, in the long run, is as apparent as the pink Band-Aid on his finger.
"There's nothing to hold onto," he says.
Gelb is leaving Tucson next month for his annual summer retreat at a rental home in Denmark. He'll tour venues in Europe with his family by his side.
"Every day with them is just remarkable," Gelb says. "Even when they're annoying."
In life, Gelb believes, there isn't a plain choice between right and wrong decisions. Not with the existence of happenstance, he says.
Happenstance is when a child appears when you weren't prepared. Happenstance is when your best friend dies of cancer before his time. Happenstance is when your former rhythm section builds on your guidance and eclipses your fame domestically.
It's also when you make your most successful album decades into your career, after having made a beautiful family and becoming the embodiment of what everyone strives for: doing what you love, surrounded by people you love.
"He exemplifies the tough guy," Convertino says. "The guy who's weathered the storms and stuck to what he believes in and what he wants to do no matter what anyone told him."
Gelb talks about how he's only got so many years left on the planet and how, partly because of that, "the quality control has been upped."
And yet, looming even greater is the continuing embrace of chaos: all that must accepted but cannot be harnessed.
"It's from the power greater than me," Gelb says. "Figuring things out."
Howe Gelb in concert, with Kate Maki
• When: 7:30 tonight.
• Where: St. Philip's in the Hills Episcopal Church, 4440 N. Campbell Ave.
• Cost: $15, $12 for members of KXCI (91.3-FM). Tickets available at KXCI studios, Antigone Books, The Folk Shop and online at kxci.org.
• More info: howegelb.com.