Q&A With Howe Gelb

Arizona-based musician Howe Gelb is no stranger to Normaltown Hall. He’s made a couple of visits to the cozy venue since his last record, The Coincidentalist, was released on New West. The enigmatic songwriter will enjoy an extended stay in the Hall this week, playing there Nov. 19 & 20, with Wednesday’s show featuring Mothers and Don Chambers performing Thursday. Both nights will also feature Grant-Lee Phillips.

Flagpole caught up with Gelb via telephone.

Flagpole: The last time you were in town, you picked up a guitar at Scott Baxendale’s shop.

Howe Gelb: I remember the day well. Steve Shelley was talking about the shop. He was playing drums for us then. I remember that I almost didn’t go out there, because I vowed not to buy any more guitars. I failed at this about a year before, when I ran into a 1947 Epiphone. So, I said, “OK, that’s it! That’s the last guitar.” Then, six months later, I ran into a ’58 Kay. I said, “OK, this is the last one.” [Nobody] needs that many guitars, and, occasionally, your wife will remind you of this.

But, there I was—I found myself at Baxendale’s, just happy that I wasn’t going to buy a guitar. But, it was an outstanding collection. The vibe there is pretty exceptional. So, that was it. I was just sitting there admiring how he refurbishes these great old guitars. Old Kays, old Larks, stuff that was made out of this good wood but was never assembled very well. He’s got this great technique; it’s really fascinating.

So, I was picking them up and playing them for a little bit. I was sitting there, just glad I could enjoy these guitars in this zen-full moment, and that I didn’t have to buy one… Out of nowhere, Scott plucks this Silvertone and it goes right in my lap. And I remember mumbling to myself, “Oh, no. Oh, no.” Sure enough, he plugged it in, and I fell in love with the fucking thing.

A lot of songwriters don’t want to associate themselves so closely with one particular region, but your music is very much in line with the Southwest. Is that a conscious effort?

It’s one of those things where, no matter how you [cut it], it’s the way people think. I do the same thing, even though I don’t think it has anything to do with my sound. At the same time, I will hear something from Scandinavia and tell myself, “That sounds like it’s from a place with cold, dark winters.” I just think it’s the way our brains are patternized. There’s a certain logic. With that said, since people want to insist that it has to do with some region, I’ll just say that music is reflective of the comfort zone of where you choose to live. 

So, if I wanted to think about that correlation, there’s something minimal about that area that I enjoy. Maybe that accounts for the minimalism in my material. Maybe more than that, maybe the erosion [has something to do with it].

Your work has a refreshing wit to it. Where does that humorous element come from?

That’s probably a personality tic. Nothing is ever that intentional with me. So, if you’re able to see a pattern or see that something is in there, I would have to give it a little bit of thought. In fact, let me give it some thought and call you back.

[At this point, Howe hung up the phone and called back a few minutes later.]

I think it might be kind of a pressure valve. It just sort of applies itself. I mean, everyone would prefer a laugh rather than a cry. Rumor has it that it’s a similar kind of biological release. It could just be that it comes with age [laughs]. But, thanks for saying that. I’m glad it works, or that there’s something there.

Can you talk about performing at your label’s home office? A lot of artists might find that to be a nerve-racking experience.

I find it to be a creative alternative to the norm, and extremely convenient. It offers you a comfort zone that is somewhere between playing in your living room and playing in a venue or bar. For example, last night we played at the City Winery in Nashville, a stunning new venue. But it’s so new that it doesn’t have the vibe yet. It’s got great promise, and I wish there were more places like it, actually.

There’s something minimal about the Southwest that I enjoy. Maybe that accounts for the minimalism in my material. Maybe the erosion has something to do with it.

Some places that you play have a healthy haunting to them, a soul. And you pick that up onstage, especially without a setlist. You feel what the room wants you to play—the room itself, not so much the people in the room, although they definitely have a voice in it.

So, [Normaltown Hall]. Everything about the way that that place is set up is very much like a dream. You walk in and it’s ambiguous. You turn right and you’re in a furnished apartment there and it’s like home. If you turn left, you’re in a perfect little Lynch-like dream that should only exist, literally, in your dreams, like some murky, impossible scenario where you wake up in the morning and wish [it] could be true.

I was thoroughly charmed and tickled by whomever’s idea it was, especially if the whole company got behind it. I thought it was really brilliant that the company went for it.

New West seems to really position itself outside of arena-pop country.

In a world of arenas, I see New West as a safe harbor. I see New West as a roster of people that really know how to put a song together. I see them as a stable of constructionalists that know how to put together verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, which is a fascinating form of song construction that I’ve not spent most of my life in accordance with. I still dig it when I see it. Rodney Crowell? How does he continue to manage that?

The way my brain works, I’ve been able to make abilities out of my disabilities from the get-go. If anything, I allow—well, I offer—a corner of deconstructionism. And they’re cool with that. At my age now, a lot of my more adventurous edges have been worn to a comfortable hue.

Thanks for chatting, Howe.

One thing more. Since you brought up the Silvertone [from Baxendale’s shop]: It’s become my favorite fucking guitar [laughs]. Whatever power Scott and Pam Baxendale have, he knew something. He has a killer instinct, and I can’t help but take that thing everywhere I go now. It’s so light and sounds so good. We were born the same year; it’s a ’56. I always take it on the plane. It’s my lap child. 

howe silvertone.jpg

Photo Credit: Pamela Baxendale

Howe with his prized Baxendale Guitar purchase.