Smokey Hormel: This Guitar for Hire, Eccentrics Preferred
By DAVID BROWNE
Published: July 30, 2006
ON a recent afternoon in a cramped studio in downtown Manhattan, the
Brazilian band Forro in the Dark was doing what came naturally. Made
up of musicians who tour with the likes of David Byrne and Enrique
Iglesias, the group was banging out the effervescent, percussive rural
Brazilian music that gives the group its name.
The guitarist Smokey Hormel recording soundtrack music for the Nick
Jr. cartoon series "The Backyardigans" in a New York studio. His
playing can also be heard on two albums that reached No. 1 this year.
One musician, however, stood out: a stocky, sideburned non-Brazilian
with the air of an affable New York bartender. Cradling one of his
vintage guitars, Smokey Hormel bounced on his toes and plucked twangy
notes while joining in on a track so loud he had to don headphones to
hear his parts. "I've never heard this song before," he said gamely,
with a grin.
It was not the only incongruous situation in which he has found
himself lately. Several times a year Mr. Hormel, the go-to studio
guitarist of the moment for various styles of roots music, receives
calls from Rick Rubin or other producers, and, on a day or two's
notice, flies from his home in Hoboken, N.J., to Los Angeles. So far
this year Mr. Hormel has already appeared on two albums that entered
the pop charts at the top: the Dixie Chicks' "Taking the Long Way" and
Johnny Cash's "American V: A Hundred Highways." And he may well do it
again when "FutureSex/LoveSounds" — on which Mr. Hormel backs the
boy-band refugee Justin Timberlake on songs steeped in vintage 1970's
soul — is released in September.
Left to his own musical devices, Mr. Hormel leans toward the esoteric
or eclectic. He periodically sings and plays in his own Western swing
band and has dabbled not only in Brazilian jams but also in off-center
bossa nova (when he was half of Smokey and Miho, with the former Cibo
Matto singer Miho Hatori). As either musician or composer, he has
contributed to movies ("Chuck and Buck," "Y Tu Mamá También") and
television (most notably Nick Jr.'s animated children's show "The
Yet it is his work with some of pop's most idiosyncratic musicians
that has caused his name and reputation to spread (and paid his bills;
he can earn up to $1,500 a day when recording with the likes of the
Dixie Chicks). Anyone who scrutinizes CD credits will recognize Mr.
Hormel's name from albums by Beck, Tom Waits, Neil Diamond, Beth
Orton, K. D. Lang and Marianne Faithfull, among others.
"I wouldn't call Smokey a studio musician," Mr. Diamond said in a
telephone interview. "He's just a broadly based musician who can play
many things. He's very quiet and laid back, more like a Southern
musician. He knows what he should be doing, and he does it right
almost every time."
Like his career, Mr. Hormel's life has been crammed with colorful
characters. His great-grandfather George Hormel founded the meat
company of the same name; his grandfather J. C. Hormel invented Spam
in 1937. Born in Los Angeles to a German-Irish father and a French
mother, Mr. Hormel, 46, learned to play jazz guitar as a teenager,
although his music career was sidelined when, by way of a relative who
owned a recording studio, he became addicted to cocaine while still in
his teens. After overcoming his addiction, he moved to New York, where
he studied dance and acting in the early 80's.
Music eventually re-entered Mr. Hormel's life; returning to Los
Angeles, he began playing in a swing band and later worked with the
retro rock group the Blasters. A fellow musician remarked that Mr.
Hormel had a "smoky" singing voice, and the tag stuck. Mr. Hormel, who
was born Greg, is now legally known as Smokey.
"In this business half the battle is getting people to remember your
name," Mr. Hormel said in his combination office and instrument
storage space in Hoboken, where he has lived for six years.
In 1994 Mr. Hormel heard a single, "Loser," by a mysterious newcomer
named Beck Hansen. "I was like, wow, everything I've been thinking
about, this guy is doing,'' he recalled. "The way he was using
technology and traditional music and rap together — it was
mind-blowing to me." Through a connection with Beck's drummer, Mr.
Hormel was eventually hired for Beck's band to tour behind his 1996
breakthrough album, "Odelay."
Working with the inscrutable, musically restless Beck helped teach Mr.
Hormel the art of adapting to unusual circumstances. "On the 'Odelay'
tour there were times when we'd have to follow him at the blink of an
eye," Mr. Hormel said of Beck. "Even though he's smart and has a great
vocabulary, it was still hard for him to describe to us what he
wanted. You learned through trial and error."
Although Mr. Hormel performed on Beck's two subsequent albums,
"Mutations" and "Midnite Vultures," Beck's stylistic shifts (and
desire to play guitar himself) increasingly left Mr. Hormel with
little to do. In 1999, when Beck declined to put his musicians on
retainer, Mr. Hormel left the group. (Beck declined to comment.)
Mr. Hormel's tenure with Beck proved useful during the next phase of
his career, when he had to learn to adapt, fast, to unusual requests.
In 1999 he was hired by Mr. Waits: "He said to the drummer, 'You're
the plumbing.' To the bass player he said, 'You're the electrical.'
And to me said, 'And Smokey, you're the drywall.' I'm thinking, 'O.K.'
" Onstage with Beck in 2002 (Beck reunited his old band for the morose
"Sea Change" album), Mr. Hormel had to improvise "dinner music" when a
hungry Beck was served food on stage.
Mr. Hormel also played on an unreleased Mick Jagger blues album, but
only after signing a waiver saying he would be paid $200 and would not
talk to the press about the project. It was at this session, though,
that he met Mr. Rubin.
Among his experiences working on productions by Mr. Rubin, Mr. Hormel
had to adjust to Mr. Diamond's approach to recording the album "12
Songs": "Neil sometimes feels his first take is the best performance.
So he's playing us the song, and we've never heard it before, and the
tape is rolling." He also had to cope with the Dixie Chicks'
disapproving looks whenever he played a part that differed from the
Mr. Rubin's 2002 sessions for Mr. Cash's "American IV" (including
"Hurt," which featured Mr. Hormel) were the most demanding. Mr. Cash,
battling the health problems that would soon lead to his death, could
sing for only two or three hours a day; since he was not able to
rehearse songs with the band, it was left to Mr. Hormel, who has a
similarly deep baritone, to sing lead during run-throughs.
Mr. Hormel also witnessed Mr. Cash's vulnerable side. One day when Mr.
Cash came in to record "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," Mr.
Hormel recalled, "I said, 'How you doing?' and he said, 'Oh, I miss
June so much,' " referring to his wife, June Carter, who had stayed
behind in Nashville while the album was recorded in Los Angeles. "Then
he sang that song. I was reduced to tears."
This January Mr. Rubin reassembled the musicians to record posthumous
accompaniment for some of Mr. Cash's uncompleted final tapes, heard on
"American V." It was an experience Mr. Hormel called "eerie and
Mr. Hormel's next assignment is a sequel to Mr. Diamond's "12 Songs."
Surprisingly, Mr. Diamond said he had only recently learned that Mr.
Hormel was a member of the meat-manufacturing family. "Fortunately
he's not involved in that," he said. "He's more valuable as a great
guitar player than as a Spam man."