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
or by writing to
American Music PO
box 210071 Woodhaven NY 11421
Sit back, relax, and get ready to have
some science dropped on you about SMOKEY!
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.