Howe Gelb has spent years refining. Since launching his Tucson institution Giant Sand in the mid-'80s from the ashes of the previous Giant Sandworms, he's shaped and carved his artistic approach, whittling and honing a sui generis writing method. He's spent his career delighting a devoted cult fan base—especially fervent in Europe—drawn in by his singular songwriting, and its elusive manner of skipping across genre lines—country rock here, psychedelia there, a touch of gospel, maybe some busted up blues now and again. But on his highly anticipated new solo album, Future Standards (out stateside Jan. 27), he pares down the rock 'n' roll sprawl of the recently decommissioned Giant Sand in favor of a quiet set of sparsely accompanied piano ballads. It's a characteristically bold turn for Gelb, this shift into subdued Cole Porter, Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker and Billie Holiday territory.
But right now, at his home in Tucson on what he describes as a "perfect lazy Sunday," he's explaining to me something even more important than all that: his movie-theater popcorn technique. "That's my biggest vice and addiction, popcorn," Gelb murmurs, his voice rough and weighted. "It's a perfect food."
Personally, I pass on the butter, but Howe says he'll indulge, provided it's "the real deal. But I'll have them put it in somewhere in the middle," he says. "I start off dry, and then I get that nice surprise about halfway down."
He goes on, his voice intensifying a little. "And then also, a nice little trick is—if you can handle sticking your hand in all this stuff—get some of the jalapeños that they have out there for the nachos. Just throw them in your bag. They usually sit on the top, so you go through the jalapeños first, and then when you're sad that they're all gone, you get the butter. It's kind of cool."
Gelb chuckles to himself. I get the sense he's imagining the taste of popcorn. I am. It sounds like he's got a good system. He's got it figured out. "It's developed over age," he assures.
Gelb dwelt on age while writing Future Standards. The occasion of his upcoming 60th birthday circled in his head as he undertook the process of conceptualizing and penning the record. He pushed his piano near the doorway of his bedroom, which forced him to reckon with the instrument each time he left the room. More often than not, he couldn't resist the urge to play a little before squeezing past it. Sitting at the keys, he thought about the concept of standards and arrived at the conclusion that the form was an endangered species in the animal kingdom of modern songwriting.
"I thought to myself, is this kind of like what a dead language looks like in an art form when younger folks fail to utilize it?" Gelb says. "Titling the record Future Standards, it was tongue-in-cheek audaciousness; you know what a standard is, but if they haven't been written yet, they can only be future standards."
"I've been known to dive right in," Gelb sings on "May You Never Fall In Love," one of the original compositions that appears on the finished album. (It's the funniest, and not without substantial competition.)The lyric works well summarizing his total immersion into his chosen form. Unable to resist the pun, Gelb labels his piano playing "sub-standard," but the recordings—made in Amsterdam, New York and Tucson—are remarkable. Over brushed drums, double bass and the occasional fluttering of Naim Amor's electric guitar, Gelb makes his own idiosyncratic way into standards format. His chording is peculiar and lush, and he sings over it with an unhurried elegance, as if he's duetting with himself.
The record adheres to a specific pallet, but within it are subtle contrasts: the low-lit melancholy of "A Book You've Read Before" and "Terribly So," both of which find Gelb paring with Phoenix singer/songwriter Lonna Kelley's hazy voice, plays against the playful shuffle of "Ownin' It" and the gently roiling "Clear." Connections to Gelb's oeuvre linger—"The Shiver Revisited" picks up where the Chore of Enchantment cut left off, and it wouldn't be a Gelb album without some imaginative phrasing ("once thought unembarkable/a trip so remarkable")—but taken as a whole, Future Standards marks a shift into new territory for Gelb.
At 60, he found himself asking, "How do you take place in said sonic merriment at that junction? The cool thing about getting older is you get more sensible, almost naturally. You can't help it, just from the miles."
The new approach has yielded practical benefits for Gelb, too. "I thought, this might be a good way to tour when you're 60," he says with a chuckle. "I can pull it off now, because I've got enough gray hair."
None of this is to say Gelb's playing it completely straight. It's hard to imagine a Sinatra or Cole Porter record featuring any amount of errant dog barks (listen for them in "Sweet Confusion"). Even employing a compositional tool as strict as the standard format, Gelb bends the concept to his will. He jokingly refers to his approach as "idiot-syncratic," but Gelb's methods are those of a patient, brilliant and dedicated rule-breaker.
"Maybe it comes down to heartbeats," Gelb says. "Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Clint Eastwood, Neil Young ... those guys have a particular timing of their attack. There's this spilt-second that they pounce on a vocal phrase, guitar lick, shooting a scene, I think that has all to do with how their polyrhythmic heartbeats."
While standards are studied by music majors and meticulously composed, it always comes down to heart for Gelb. His engagement with the form is primarily emotional, and Future Standards focuses on matters of the heart, exploring and imploding the concept of love in its romantic, brotherly, and cosmic variations, gently suggesting that in fevered times, love and similarly "impossible things" are worth examining. "You know you're kind a slow and sweet buffering/Sultry release/Of the suffering from what the world brings," he sings on "Impossible Thing." "Now how, my heart sings/My, oh, my/You're my impossible thing."
"Did you see that movie La La Land?" Gelb asks.
I begin thinking about popcorn again.
"That movie is as good as my album is, meaning it wasn't great, but there's no other movie like it," Gelb says. "There's such a grand lack of competition in [films] these days that it makes it significant. At the very end of that movie—and this is often true of almost any film, there's always this part in the movie when the writer delivers that line that sums up the entire film, what you just sat through and why, a one-line thing. But in this movie, that comes with a knowing glance between both characters right before the credits. In that little knowing glance and that half-smile they both give each other..." Gelb's voice trails off.
"Well, you have to see it. But that sums up the impossible nature of love and how it infiltrates everything we do. No matter what age."