Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Clip: Smokey Hormel: This Guitar for Hire, Eccentrics Preferred

Expand Messages
  • Carl Z.
    Smokey Hormel: This Guitar for Hire, Eccentrics Preferred By DAVID BROWNE Published: July 30, 2006
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 30, 2006
    • 0 Attachment

      Smokey Hormel: This Guitar for Hire, Eccentrics Preferred

      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
      original demos.

      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."
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.