No tricks here — just honest, hard rockin’ blues from Gary Hoey
By Gary Graff
July 29, 2016
Gary Hoey has the blues — and that’s a good thing. The guitar prodigy from Lowell, Mass., who as a teenager used to lurk outside the Berklee College of Music and who dropped out of high school to play (and teach), staked his claim as a shredder during the ‘80s, while his Ho Ho Hoey holiday music collections have become Christmastime staples. But with his last two albums — 2013’s Deja Blues and the just-released Dust & Bones, Hoey is dipping deeper into his blues, using both his instrumental and his singing voice to express himself in ways that might be surprising to those who heard Hoey in his ‘90s band Heavy Bones or on albums such as Get A Grip, Animal Instinct or the fiery Hocus Pocus Live. But he sounds as natural playing blues as he has anything else during past 25 or so years, and both of the last two albums have been welcome additions to his catalog and complements to the still ferocious instrumental work he does for the likes of ESPN, Disney and No Fear. Hoey has anything BUT the blues when talking about these endeavors, of course, and we caught up to him in Lowell before he hit the road to bring Dust & Bones out on the road…
FGPO: This is two blues albums in a row for you. Been feeling a little down the last few years?
Hoey: [laughs] I’ve always loved the blues. It’s always been part of my sound and everything, but I started venturing in this direction on the last album Deja Blues. After producing Lita Ford’s record [Living Like A Runaway] it was like, “I just wanna do a blues record,” ’cause that was a pretty long album project. And then after going out and touring the Deja Blues record, I realized I loved the blues. I still love the rock sound, but the blues is…something I could grow old doing. And the timing was good to reinvent myself, too.
FGPO: What is the musical allure of the blues for you?
Hoey: I think the blues, first of all, it has this die-hard audience that really loves that kind of music. And for me it’s kind of a freedom. When you play it, it’s very expressive. Every time you play it, it’s very different compared to some of my instrumental songs that are really crafted to be arrangements with everything in its place. The blues is just the opposite of that. It’s just a feeling.
FGPO: Did you feel more comfortable doing it the second time around?
Hoey: Definitely. On the last album, Deja Blues, I was trying to prove to myself I could play authentic blues, being a guy from Lowell, Mass. — not Mississippi. On this album I tried to take my rock roots and push it with the blues and do something that was more of my own sound. I really think I found that.
FGPO: Where does the blues fit in terms of your own influences?
Hoey: A lot of my first hero guitar players were guys who sort of drew from the blues, like rock guys. In the ‘70s I discovered Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin. Jeff Beck was really big for me; his music really hit me a lot. But it was guys playing with blues influences — Eric Clapton was big for me, but I didn’t realize how much Eric Clapton was trying to sound like Freddie King ’til I heard Freddie King. I was like: “Omigod, that guy sounds like Eric Clapton!” Then Stevie Ray Vaughan was hired by [David] Bowie to put stinging blues in the middle of this song called “Let’s Dance.” I was really captivated by Stevie Ray Vaughan; He reminded me that you could play less notes but play with a lot of feeling. There was B.B. King, for sure, Elmore James, Freddie King, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson — those are, like, the big ones for me.
FGPO: The homages on Dust & Bones are pretty interesting.
Hoey: Well, “Steamroller” I did as a tribute to Johnny Winter, obviously, ’cause he passed away not that long ago. He influenced me growing up as well. I got to play with him a little bit; we did some shows together. The guitar I play is called the Highway 61 from Replica Guitars out of Austin, Texas; the prototype of that guitar is something they designed for Johnny. It’s got a smaller body on it. I played that guitar in the studio and it really inspired me; When you listen to me on that song, I’ve never played like that before. I think the spirit of Johnny came through me, even the way I sing that song. It was like Johnny coming through me.
FGPO: “Born To Love You” sounds like you’re channeling ZZ Top.
Hoey: Yep. You got it right on the head.That song was a simple song; I wanted a simple lyric and I got this vibe of the ZZ Top feel from it and the way it felt. The riff in the middle of it sounds like a Jimi Hendrix jamming with ZZ Top kind of thing. I was really tired when I did that; I had been recording so many days in a row and my voice was totally burned and roached. But it was the perfect voice for that song.
FGPO: “Soul Surfer” is a nice mix of the surf-style stuff you’ve done in the past with blues.
Hoey: It is, yeah. I just picked up a 1978 Super Reverb Fender Amp with four 10’s and reverb for days. I was playing my guitar through the amp and a riff came out and started the song. I was like: “Man, I’ve got to pay homage to my surf world.” Y’know, when I scored Endless Summer II I got to work with Dick Dale, and the surf thing has always been part of what I do. The song was just feeling like a connection between that and the blues, even though there’s not that much connection with the blues and surf music. But the riff has that I-IV-V progression with the hook, so it goes back to that.
FGPO: Is there any new Ho Ho Hoey holiday music in the offing?
Hoey: Well, we’ve got the tour already halfway booked for this coming season. I’m gonna be going back out. I’ve already done 37 songs, so I’m not sure what’s left. I was talking to my wife this morning, and she said, “You should go in the studio and record a bluesy Christmas album, ‘I Got the Blues For Christmas’ or something like that. So I’m thinking about doing a twist on a bunch of the old Christmas classics, use a slide or something like that. It’s been a long time since I put out some new [holiday] music.
FGPO: Did you ever think the holiday music would have the kind of life it’s had?
Hoey: No, not at all; if we thought of that I probably wouldn’t have done it on an eight-track in my bedroom. [laughs] I did it literally for fun, in my bedroom, played all the instruments. I didn’t think it was gonna do a whole lot. But I love that it’s become a staple in so many people’s homes. I think we realized that nobody had taken rock arrangements to Christmas songs the way I did. I didn’t know we were treading new ground or doing something that would become a tradition with people. It’s an honor to be connected with Christmas like this, but IF I thought about doing it it would’ve come off as too challenging.
FGPO: You’ve been a counselor at the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camps over the years. What’s that like?
Hoey: I started out doing the camp counselor thing and moved into being the music director after Kip Winger did it for a long time. I like helping pick the repertoire. I like working with the different campers that come in and make ’em feel good and give ’em a good time. My style is absolutely to lift people up and find what’s the best thing for them and make them have a good time as opposed to some of the counselors who grill them and grind them — “No! You played that wrong!” That becomes more like work; maybe they’re better musicians in the end, but I want to make sure they have a good time.
Gary Hoey uses GHS strings.