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OK, Guys. This awesome guy Billy Davis sent me the interview he did with
SMOKESTACK after the Show in the Giants Stadium. It's mostly about his
old band the Blasters, but there's some stuff about Beck in here too.
it's a really cool article, from a cool person who you can get in touch
with at Davistb@aol.com or by writing to
PO box 210071
Woodhaven NY 11421
Sit back, relax, and get ready to have some science dropped on you about
Greg "Smokey" Hormel was the 4th guitarist in the Blasters history, holding the position from 1988-92. He has gained the most success of all the former Blaster guitarists recently by joining the band of Pop singer Beck. He started as the guitar player for the touring band and has also contributed to Beck's soon to be released album MUTATIONS. This interview with Smokestack as Beck calls him, was conducted in New York City on 6/8/98 a day after Beck played New Jersey's Giant Stadium to a near sell-out crowd. This is Part 1 of the interview. American Music: Tell me about your early involvement in music. Smokey Hormel: I was born into a musical family. My mother was a ballerina and her grandfather was a classical pianist. My dad played Piano as did his brother; who is the guy who invented Spam, They were the sons of the big Hormel food company. My uncle was a jazz pianist/ recording pioneer. He was one of the early multitrack experimenters. He owned a recording studio called the Village Recorders. It became big in the late 70's. Steely Dan recorded there, The Band mixed THE LAST WALTZ and Fleetwood Mac did TUSK. So I fell into playing drums and guitar. I got into the blues through the Beatles and the Stones. I barely finished high school because I was only interested in music. By the time I was 18 I had a full blown cocaine addiction and that took me away from music. I moved to New York to study acting and I worked as a waiter. I was there from 1980-84 and then I moved back to L.A.. I did a lot of theatre but breaking into movies was a lot harder than I thought. Now rewind back when I was 15; I wanted to learn jazz like Miles Davis and Coltrane. So my Dad suggested calling Barney Kessel for lessons. I did and he referred me to Jimmy Wyball who played with Benny Goodman, Bob Wills, Spade Coley, and Red Norvoe. I took some lessons from him and he introduced me to Western Swing and Charlie Christian. To me, Hendrix and Christian are the two greatest guitar players. There was nobody my age to play with so it was untapped for years. Fast Forward to L.A. in 1985; I'm a frustrated actor who meets Paul Greenstein who has a western swing band called the Radio Ranch Straight Shooters, and he asks me to join. Before we knew it we were getting great gigs opening for X and the Knitters. I first met Dave (Alvin) at a Knitters gig. It was a premiere for a western movie called THE BAD DAY. I was playing pure Charlie Christian. Me and Dave have always been friends but there has always been a competitive element there. I was totally in awe of him so I would always talk to him about guitar playing, thinking he was some big hero and he never seemed to feel that he was a great guitar player. Dave asked us to open for them in 1986. That is where (Blasters drummer Bill) Bateman saw me and decided he wanted to be in this band. We had a 15 year old drummer named Joey Waronker, it was his first band and he was just incredible. He was a neighbor of my parents and I became his friend. He was so young that we couldn't play clubs with him. So Bill was asked to join the band. It's a funny twist that I'm playing with Joey now in Beck's band. So in the winter of '86 Bill was telling me all about Hollywood Fats (Blasters Guitarist at the time) and how great he is. Then suddenly he dies and Bill is all freaked out because Fats was going to save the Blasters. Bill gets the idea that I could be in the band so he tried to train me. He totally educated me on Blues. He started playing me all these 78's. (ed. Note meanwhile, Dave Alvin returned temporarily to the Blasters to fulfill a commitment to a European tour in January and Feb. 87) By the summer of '87 Phil had asked Billy Zoom to join and they did that European tour. Bill was still trying to get me in the band and we formed a band called the Stumble Bums. Johnny Ray Bartel was playing bass and Pat French was playing Harmonica. We ended up getting a lot of gigs around town and backed up Bo Diddley and it was a lot of fun. Billy (Zoom) retired from music (July 87) and as he said "I'm rehabilitated." A few months after Billy left I got an audition. I had already jammed with Johnny so he was already on my side. So I auditioned and Phil was into it. Our first tour was in spring of '88. AM: Did the Radio Ranch Straight Shooters do any recording? Smokey: We had a song called THE NEXT BIG THING on a compilation called THE HOLLYWOOD ROUND-UP ( ) it has all country songs on it except for our western swing song. We also did a score for a David Lynch film for European TV called THE COWBOY AND THE FRENCHMEN. We just played on the film score. It starred Harry Dean Stanton. We appeared on the MTV show THE CUTTING EDGE. AM: How did you work out learning the material in the Blasters? Smokey: Basically I just studied the Rolling Rock record and the first Slash record. I just learned to play Dave's parts. It was a challenge because I was a swing guitarist. I didn't know anything about surf and knew nothing about Link Wray. But I got all the records and got into it. I was having these sessions with Phil, where he would play me records and tell me the history of recorded music. There was so much to be learned. The Blasters come from the school of mimicking exactly what was on the records. We would listen to, like a Frankie Lee Sims song LUCY MAE BLUES and we would have arguments after looking at it under a microscope - almost with fist fights! Now, I really appreciate having been really specific and looking at it with such focus. Musicians don't do that anymore. AM: Wasn't OKEE DOKEE STOMP considered your signature song? Smokey: That became my signature song because it was one of Phil's favorite guitar solos. AM: Another great song the Blasters did at that time was Precious Memories. Smokey: Oh yeah! That is a great song. There was a Carl Perkins song that I used as a model for the guitar riff. I was disappointed that we never demo-ed that song. We did a session on my birthday December 15, in 1989 that was unproductive. We were gonna start to work on the new album but a lot of fights started especially between Phil and Bill. We had a few songs like the FIRE OF LOVE and two Dave Alvin songs; DRY RIVER and BROTHER, and one that Phil wrote called 4-11-44. I was already familiar with one of those Dave Alvin songs (BROTHER). .In summer of '87 I went to Austin Minnesota, where the Hormel meat packing plant had been on strike. A friend from my acting days got me involved. He was a playwright and knew Dave Alvin when he did music for a play called LADY BETH. It was documentary play where workers would tell their own stories, about steel mills in L.A., that were shut down. Cass Alvin (Phil & Dave's Dad) was directly involved with that. So the guy's next project was this Hormel strike. Which is a funny connection again. So I was doing music for the show and one song was Dave Alvin's BROTHER ON THE LINE. AM: The Blaster version was much different than Dave's? Smokey: I liked it slow but Phil wanted to rock it out. AM: You toured Europe a few times didn't you? Smokey: In '91 we did two tours of Europe. The last tour wasn't fun because I was frustrated because we hadn't recorded anything and with Gene (Taylor) there, Bill was being really belligerent. I love Gene's playing. I was really hanging a lot with Lee. Any free time I had I would spend with him trying to find out more information about the past. I loved touring Europe with them. I had never visited Europe as a musician before. It was great to have that kind of respect. Our popularity had gone down in the states but in Europe they had a big following especially in Italy and Scandinavia. AM: I heard Lee Allen had jam sessions at his house to train you in the blues? Smokey: He would invite me down to these jam sessions at his friend George Mason's house. George was an old transplanted New Orleans musician. They would just get together on Wednesday's to play. I tried to get Bill down there, it was too bad, because they had some amazing drummers. They have this unique way of swinging that relates to that New Orleans spirit. Lee used to say to me, "Greg I'm gonna relax you." The Blasters are so close to Little Richard-- just this raging band with fast, fast songs one after another. Lee would play these simple little pretty melodies that sort of floated. His whole thing was that if you think of something pretty you can let the band do all the raging. Lee was trying to teach me to hold back a little bit. I think it sunk in because later on it became really handy. AM: How did leaving the Blasters come about? Smokey: As Lee Allen got sicker and couldn't make some of the tours, I was frustrated myself, because I felt we should have been making records and Phil was so picky and such a procrastinater. I had a long talk with my friend Ry Cooder and he convinced me to move on. AM: At that point Phil was calling the band the PHIL ALVIN QUARTET. Smokey: Yeah, they should have called the band the Phil Alvin Quartet when Dave left. I saw the Blasters play once with Dave. They got together to play a benefit (ed.-probably Barbra Boxer benefit) and that's the real band right there. That is what the Blasters are. When Bill left, I felt it shouldn't be the Blasters anymore. I was playing in other bands and just got too busy. AM: Any memorable gigs with the Blasters? Smokey: We did a gig at the Palace in Hollywood when I first joined the band. I remember I was really excited because Dave Alvin and Tony Gilkyson came up to me afterwards and were really congratulatory. That felt really good. Billy Zoom was very encouraging too. He eventually sold me one of his amplifiers that I used in the later part of my tenure with the Blasters. It was such a great opportunity for me to be in the band at that time because Phil was really into music. I wasn't from Downey and I was a little bit younger, so it was a learning thing for me. As Lee Allen got sicker and couldn't tour, Phil seemed to not have a reason to keep it together. I've always felt good about my relationship with Phil. I don't feel like we had any animosity between us after I left. In fact I played with the Blasters again two years ago and it was a lot of fun. (ed.--4/96 Smokey did 5 gigs just before Keith Wyatt joined) All the old songs came right back to me. AM: I heard you were going to put out a single with Lee Allen called Old Rockin' Chair? Smokey: Actually it was going to be a whole album. I didn't get it together. I recorded about 8 songs with him. Top Jimmy sang on it and it's really good. I started it by recording some rhythm tracks with Larry Taylor from the Hollywood Fats band and James Cruz, a drummer with JJ Cale. We recorded a bunch of rhythm tracks then I got Lee to come over and overdub sax parts. We all went in to the studio and did three more songs-- An original of mine called DRINKIN ALONG, and two jump Blues. One slow blues that is awesome; I named it BLUES FOR TINY for obvious reasons (Lee's wife's name). I have to take the time to finish it and hopefully It will come out as an EP or something. AM: I heard there was supposed to be a big tribute concert for Lee? Smokey: When Lee was sick I had a club lined up to do a big benefit for him. He was still alive and needed the money. I wanted to call it a tribute gig because Lee is very proud. The club agreed and it was booked for his birthday at the House Of Blues. We were gonna get Dave Bartholemew and his band and Little Richard. Then the House Of Blues totally fucked me over. They weren't advertising the gig. I called them and they said, "We couldn't do a benefit if we didn't advertise it as a benefit." So they decided not to do it at all. I was heart broken. It was a shame because he died a couple of months later. The last time I saw him he was in bed and he kept calling Tiny into the room and she would say "What" and he would say, "Nothing. I just wanted to look at you." He was very romantic. AM: How did you get in Beck's band? Smokey: Joey Waronker (Joey's Dad was Lenny Waronker, Vice-President of Warner Bros. Records) and I had a band called the Lotus Eaters and we were gonna do this ambitious thing of playing as an improvising ensemble that would accompany spoken word artists. We did a few performances and then Joey left with Beck. I auditioned for Beck in '95 for Lollapalooza, but I was booked for a Bruce Willis tour of Planet Hollywood's. Beck couldn't make up his mind in time so I just left with Bruce Willis. Beck's hit song LOSER (Bong Load, 1994) was already a million seller but the Bruce Willis gig was in Chakarta which was a really exotic place I wanted to see. I think Beck wasn't able to take his music serious yet. I think he was intimidated by good musicians. He felt like I was a really good musician. At the time I thought he just didn't think I was good enough. It worked out, because that tour was a disaster for Beck. So in the following year he decided to use me. AM: How was it different going into Beck which is an alternative band when you were always in traditional bands? Smokey: It was as much of challenge as it was going from Swing to Rockabilly. Playing with John Doe, I was beginning to experiment more. I always loved the feedback thing because I grew up on Hendrix. Beck is surprisingly traditional in his musical mind. He comes from a country blues back ground. When he was a kid he taught himself to play like Mississippi John Hurt. He listened to a lot of Jimmie Rogers so we have that in common. In fact we recently did a couple of country gigs where we had J.D. Manis playing steel and Billy Pane from Little Feat playing piano. So I wasn't very familiar with the experimental guitar players like Sonic Youth which Beck was into but I learned what to play by copying it off the record. Beck likes things a little off and sloppy. On some songs, I'll even de-tune the guitar to get that vibe, approaching it like a non-player. AM: How about your equipment.. Did that change? Smokey: It's a whole new ballgame. With the Blasters I had a few foot pedals. I used a wah wah and a delay and a tube screamer. They didn't want any pedals, but I pushed it. With John Doe, I started using a lot of different pedals to try to get extreme sounds. Now with Beck, I have a rack of effects and I have a midi foot controller which has them preset. I have about 15 or 20 effects to send my signal through. My guitar tech made my amp. He started a company out of Minnesota called Savage. AM: It must have really been loud like yesterday in Giant Stadium? Smokey: We've been trying to keep the stage volume down because there is so much going on with all the samples. We played about twice as loud in the Blasters. AM: Are you on any Beck recordings Smokey: We just did a record called MUTATIONS and I'm on a lot of it. Beck's a really good player himself, so I'm really needed in the studio. I did get a couple of good solos on there. This album is more acoustic than he was planning and will be on an independent label. Then, he wants to follow it up with a pop album for Geffen records. AM: What do you remember about Lester Butler? Smokey: Lester and I were really good friends. He took advantage of me in a lot of ways with the Red Devils. Originally they got me to fire the piano player and then they blamed me. We stayed friends and were always calling each other up. I'll always miss him. I will put him up there with Phil as being an important singer. He was confused at what his strengths were. In the last six months he was sober and he was a great guy. I was hopeful for him and thought his career was going to have a second renaissance. But when I heard he O.D'ed, I wasn't surprised. He had this weird idolization of Holly wood fats and that's where he developed his drug habit. They always hung out together and he said he was going to go like Hollywood Fats, and he did. I do remember him fondly. AM: What are your thoughts on your Blaster years? Smokey: I feel really fortunate that I got to spend those few years with Phil. He is a great singer and a talented guy. Just hearing him sing every night was great. Beck is the opposite of Phil. What he lacks in technique he makes up for in fearlessness and willingness to go for it. AM: What other projects were you involved in right after the Blasters? Smokey: As soon as I left the Blasters I became John Doe's guitarist and we played together for the next 3 or 4 years until the Beck gig came along and I had to leave. The duet stuff John and I did was a lot of country stuff. John would play acoustic and sing lead and I would play electric and sing harmonies. We did X songs, John's original songs and we'd also cover some country songs and Knitters songs. It was really fun. I was also playing with a boogie-woogie piano player called Rob Rio and then there was this Blues band with Bill (Batemen) called The Blue Shadows. I was the one who got them the gig at the King King (famous L.A. blues club.) I had pushed Bill into hiring Lester (Butler) as the harp player. It was a traditional old style blues band, not too loud and like farmer blues. They got signed to a major label deal. Bill had a falling out, the emphasize was now on being like Led Zeppelin. They asked Johnny Ray's brother to play rhythm guitar in the band and I was upset because now they weren't even consulting me about personnel changes. I left the band and they changed the name to the Red Devils. AM: Did you get to record with the Red Devils? Smokey: I was on about a third of the sessions with Mick Jagger. (ed- The Red Devils recorded a full album's worth of blues songs with Mick Jagger that remains unreleased.) It's available on a bootleg CD in Japan. That was a wonderful experience. We did a session with Johnny Cash too. It was a day in the studio when they were trying different bands for his American Recording album (American, 1994). We played some Jimmie Rogers songs like T FOR TEXAS. He would sing these songs and we would feel our way through. It was an amazing session. I remember not trying to mess with the integrity of Johnny Cash. I was trying to go with the Luther Perkins sound. I don't remember Lester doing very much on the sessions, but he was there. Johnny Ray played a lot of standup bass. Johnny Cash was such a sweet man. He kept apologizing for not singing well, because he had a sinus infection but I didn't notice anything! His wife was there and she was really talkative and great. She came up to me right away and said, "Is that a Gretsch guitar? My momma had a Gretsch guitar!" and that was it, stories just came rollin' out. AM: What was next after leaving the Red Devils? Smokey: Steve Hodges and I started a band that played at the King King called the Road House Rhythm Kings. It was a goofy band with guitar, bass, drums, and tenor sax. Lee would sit in when he wasn't too sick. When the King King shut down a lot of things happened at once for me. Lee got too sick and my older sister got cancer. So I dropped out of everything in '93. I spent 6 months just taking care of her. After she died, the thing with John Doe took off doing a movie called Georgia, and a project called the John Doe thing. There are 2 CD's out of that. In fact that had the drummer from Beck's band. (ed-John Doe Thing CD's - Kissing So Hard on Rhino, 1995 - For the Rest of Us on KRS records, 1998) AM: How involved were you in Georgia and was there a soundtrack release? Smokey: Yes. There was a Georgia soundtrack (Discovery, 1995). The movie stars Jennifer Jason Leigh. We play a Seattle bar band sort of like a like Velvet Underground cover band. We're in a lot of it. I did an arrangement of MIDNIGHT TRAIN TO GEORGIA that I'm pretty proud of. Also a cover of Elvis Costello's ALMOST BLUE. I've done some work for David Lynch. I played on some of the Twin Peaks Movie. And I worked on a project of his called Fox Bart Strategy. He would recite poetry and have the band play behind him. AM: How did you wind up playing in Bruce Willis blues band? Smokey: He had hired the Red Devils to do the first Planet Hollywood opening in NY. Bruce fell in love with Lester's playing and tried to mimic him and his whole character. Bruce put together another band with me and Steven Hodges, and Johnny (Bazz). I played about 15 openings all over the world. That was agood experience. AM: How did you wind up leaving his band? Smokey: I got too busy with John Doe and was doing that Georgia movie at the time. So, Bruce had to find another guitar player. They always left it as an open door that I could come back but I stayed busy. AM: Any thing you've done vocals for? Smokey: Yes. Actually there is something I'm really proud of. On the soundtrack for Trees Lounge (MCA, 1996), which Steve Buscemi wrote and directed. I did a duet with a New York woman named Eszter Balint called COLOR OF YOUR EYES. It was just a demo and they decided to put it on the record as is. I would love to do more singing and I probably will but nothing planned. AM: Any other projects recently? Smokey: I made the 13 record with Lester (Butler) on a little break in Beck's touring schedule. Then this spring I did a gig with Tom Waits. That was a thrill for me. If he calls again I'll go running. I did a film score called There's No Fish Food In Heaven. They're trying to sell it and get distribution right now. I also played on this film called Hurly Burly with Sean Penn. I played guitar on the score. I was playing in James Intveld's swing band at one time too. I recorded recently with Juliana Hatfield. I'm also in a band in LA called Brazaville. It's a Latin Jazz and Cuban band. It's been 10 years since I started with the Blasters and I've been working steady ever since. I've been really lucky. AM: Have you ever worked with Dave Alvin? Smokey: We've jammed together at the King King where we did a tribute night to Little Walter. I'd love to do something with him. I think Dave is really special. I would love to do a country record with Dave and John Doe. I think that would be amazing. Actually I was on that Merle Haggard tribute Dave did (Tulare Dust on Hightone, 1995). John Doe and I were on there. I played a guitar that I faked to sound like a pedal steel. I'm good friends with Greg Leisz and he is on Beck's new record (Mutations) and on Beck's Odelay (Geffen, 1996) AM: What aspirations do you have for the future? Smokey: Well where can you go from Beck. I'm looking forward to writing more film scores. My goal for the rest of the year is to finish the Lee Allen record. AM: Clarify a statement from a previous interview in which you stated that the Blasters had trouble releasing the Hardline (Slash, 1985) album because the record company stated that "Horns weren't cool anymore." Smokey: That was something that Phil told me. He said someone at the record company said that "Horns weren't in." AM: How did Lee Allen deal with all the controversy in the Blasters? Smokey: Lee had been through so much that he didn't let himself get caught up in the drama. He was truly an inspiration to me. When I started with Beck I didn't get to play and express myself much so I was disappointed. Then, I think of Lee. He would have killed to play with these kids and in front of all these people. I don't think I play as well as I did when I was with the Blasters. Back then, my chops were really up there and now I couldn't do it. AM: What are the most prestigious gigs you've had with Beck? Smokey: One was playing the Grammy awards at Madison Square Garden in '97. We did WHERE IT'S AT. That was a thrill to see all the famous people in the audience chanting "Where It's At.". Another was that we did a recording with Emmy Lou Harris for Almo records. It's a Graham Parsons tribute record. We used Beck's band with Emmy Lou. So those two things, and playing on this new record, Mutations. AM: I saw the Beck performance on the MTV Music awards. I noticed you and the bassist had some choreographed moves; spins and so on going on. Smokey: Yeah! It's pretty collaborative. I've been bringing in videos of old soul programs. I had Jackie Wilson and James Brown on Shindig. We would work on that. Beck's a good dancer and he seems to be getting ready to push that further. AM: Now where did the nickname Smokey comes from. Smokey: That was Paul Greenstein, the leader of the Radio Ranch Straight Shooters. Because I smoke and because of my voice.