A Conversation with Tim Hockenberry
When Tim Hockenberry opens his mouth to sing, you can usually count on all heads turning in his direction. This singer/songwriter has an astonishingly emotional voice, reminiscent of Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Louis Armstrong and Tom Waits. Long a staple of the Bay Area music scene, Tim was exposed to wider audiences when he recorded and toured with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, known particularly for singing their cover of the Savatage power ballad "Believe". After an album and four tours with TSO, Tim connected with Grateful Dead legend Mickey Hart, recording and touring the nation with his brand of freeform, hippie rock. And then in 2012, Hockenberry made a splash on the America's Got Talent television talent show, making it to the semi-finals. As Tim is about to release his first solo album of all original music, he and I got together to discuss his amazing musical odyssey: his musical background, his love for jazz and the trombone, his time spent with TSO and Hart as well as the wonderful new songwriter's delight that is his new self-titled album.
Dan Roth: Tim, you are known in musical circles not just for your gravelly voice, but also for your keyboard and trombone playing. Which came first?
Tim Hockenberry: The trombone. I was born in upstate New York, but I didn't really get into doing anything musically until we moved to Michigan. My Dad played the trombone - he played in a lot of Dixieland bands - and he threw one in my direction when I was about 12 years old. I continued wrestling with that until I was about 16 and we moved to Minnesota. It was then that I decided that I wanted to be an orchestral trombonist and started studying it seriously. I went to the University of Minnesota, going for a classical performance degree but also studying jazz while there. I had a really incredible teacher there who was also the principal trombonist with the Minnesota Orchestra. He got me a couple blind auditions in Detroit and Kansas City. It was there that I discovered just how competitive it was to score a position with a major orchestra - over 500 trombonists auditioning for these positions.
DR: Wow. That's some great experience though. Did you do anything in the jazz world?
TH: Actually, yes. Clark Terry, who is a legendary jazz trumpet player, came to my school. I was playing in the jazz band at the time, Clark hired me and a saxophonist from the jazz band and we hit the road, touring the Midwest USA in 1983. We got on so well that he scheduled a year in Southern Europe and wanted to take us along. It was such an amazing opportunity. I was only 19 years old at this point. I had to quit school to make this happen. Unfortunately, two weeks before I was supposed to leave for Cork, Ireland, Clark Terry came down with a devastating pinched nerve in his spine and had to have back surgery. When that tour fell through, it really devastated me. This was really my next step to making a living in music and being a professional trombone player.
DR: That is disappointing, considering what a break it was to be touring with someone as legendary as Clark was.
TH: Yeah, so I had already quit school and didn't have any housing so I got into the restaurant business, waiting tables to make money. That was kind of eye opening too - that there was a job that actually paid money! Playing jazz is great but there was not a lot of money in it. [Laughs] So while I was making a living waiting tables, I started playing in some funk bands in Minneapolis until my brother invited me to come live with him in Virginia.
DR: Did you continue your musical path there?
TH: No, I actually wanted to make a living and got into the serious restaurant business, working at this famous restaurant called The Inn at Little Washington for a few years. From there I eventually moved to New York and then New Jersey, waiting tables and pouring beer. My music had just stopped. I basically hadn't been involved in anything musical in about ten years.
DR: Today, you are a pretty well-known musician in the Bay Area. How did you wind up there?
TH: A couple deadheads that I got to know while working in New Jersey wanted to move to California, and they asked me to drive one of their cars out there. I loaded up my dog - I had a 160 lb. St Bernard Malamute - and all of my musical stuff and moved to California with these guys. I had planned to come back but wound up settling in Sonoma Valley. I got a really hot-shot waiting gig at Auberge du Soleil, which was a very fancy restaurant in the Napa Valley.
DR: Were you doing anything musically at this point?
TH: No, but I really wanted to get back into it. I actually went out and bought a trumpet. I always wanted to learn trumpet, so I started spending some time with that, just to get back into music. I wound up bartending at this Irish bar in Napa Valley and they had really bad live music there. So on Halloween night, I dressed up like Michael Bolton and sang, "When a Man loves a Woman" with a small Casio keyboard. I had never sang or played keyboard in front of anyone at that point, and I was almost 30 years old.
DR: Well considering your voice, that had to have surprised some there.
TH: Yeah, I got a lot of love from that moment. It was like "Damn! The Bartender can sing!" [Laughs] The next day the owner of the bar fired me and told me that he would rehire me to sing there instead. I told him that I only knew like two songs and he told me that I had better learn some more. [Laughs] Then a couple of my regular customers that drank there all the time went out and bought me a full-sized keyboard!
That right there stopped my whole restaurant career in its tracks. I locked myself in a room and learned how to play keyboards and sing at the same time. So now, I had this new singing gig at the Irish bar and I started playing Sundays at this wonderful bakery owned by Alexis Handleman. Alexis didn't pay me, but she did feed me, which was major - I was literally a starving artist at that point.
One thing led to another and I met a guitarist, formed a duo with him and started getting gigs around town. And from there I got into the society thing in Napa and San Francisco. That led to more gigs around San Francisco and forming a couple different bands.
DR: Sounds like a late start, but a start nonetheless, to a promising music career.
TH: It did. Except right around then I got married and we had two kids right away. For the next fifteen years or so, I continued to plug away and play the area but I stuck close to home to raise the family. That got me into my 40s.
DR: I know at this point you had some regional success with a Christmas song, and had a couple independently-released solo albums under your belt. Were you making a living with music?
TH: I was scraping by. I performed in various clubs as a solo act, and sometimes with other musicians. I also got some guest spots working with people like Bonnie Raitt and Sammy Hagar when they needed some trombone. But that "Christmas by the Bay" was a song written by Clark Sterling and Nolan Gasser and it was attached to an entire album. The rest of the album was more Broadway style singing but this song wound up going viral on the radio and now every year it gets massive airplay on three big radio stations here.
DR: Speaking of Christmas music, at what point did you hook up with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra?
TH: I'm a member of this Bohemian club in San Francisco. It's basically a men's art and music camp that gets together for three weeks every year. I was up there one summer, I was about 46 or so, and I met vocalist Kelly Keeling. Kelly was brought in as a guest and he and I really hit it off. We did a couple gigs together and he asked me if I had ever heard of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he told me I should check them out. They are not my thing, as I am not into that sort of sanitized metal.
Six months later, he calls me and asks me to email some of my song files to [former TSO Talent Coordinator] Dina Fanai. I asked him what it was for and Kelly says that Paul O'Neil is recording this song called "Believe" and he wants someone that sings just like me. My first response was, "I'm an atheist. Does that matter?" [Laughs] and Kelly says "No, just send the files."
DR: What did you send Dina?
TH: I sent one of the songs that I had recorded recently. Paul heard it, got in contact and told me that he was emailing over a file of the backing track to "Believe" and he wanted to hear me sing the song over top of that. I didn't care for the demo that he sent; it sounded like everything was real synthetic and I had trouble singing over it. I sat down with my piano, played and recorded "Believe" and sent that back to him. He sent a plane to come get me two days later.
DR: To record the song?
TH: Yeah. He flew me to Florida and we recorded "Believe". I think we did 140 takes in two weeks. [Laughs] Even after all of that, they went back and used the original recording that I did in my garage for the first half of the song. That's what made it on to the finished record. They then combined that with the parts that he liked for the second half of the song that I recorded in Florida.
DR: I am sure you heard the original Savatage version sung by Jon Oliva before recording your version. Did Paul give you any particular direction when recording?
TH: He just really let me do what I want, but I had to really honor the melody. I could not jazz it up it all. He really didn't want me to sound like Jon. He really wanted me to sound like myself. Frankly, I always thought Jon sounded like Al Stewart on that song. Paul wanted somebody with this gravelly voice to bulldoze his way through the song. I just followed Paul's lead on that. It was always "More stones, More gravel, More chest, More throat!" [Laughs] It was actually a really difficult studio session for me because this literally went on for 8 hours every day for two weeks.
DR: So you never had an audition?
TH: Those two weeks spent in the studio recording that song was my audition. I never auditioned for anybody.
DR: This was in 2008. Did you sign on for the tour at that point as well?
TH: No. I really didn't want to do the tour. Paul paid me well for the recording and I flew back to California. A few weeks later, one of their managers calls and asks me if I will head out on tour with them. He made it sound really good - "You only have to sing one song, maybe some backing vocals, comfortable bus, this much money a week. But you are out for three months." I was like, "Three months? That's all the holidays right there away from my kids." At this point, I had a little girl along with my two boys.
DR: Pretty tempting though. TSO was at it's height of touring popularity around this time.
TH: Yeah. They also kept on promising how they were going to do real radio promotion for the song and use my name and really blow the song and my name up big. Their manager kept assuring me that they were going to do things for me that they had never done for any other artist on the tours. None of that ever happened. All they did was the early morning radio to promote the tour and get people to buy tickets.
DR: They did run an online video contest for it. Were you involved with that at all?
TH: No. They were very careful not to put my name anywhere but on the very inside of the liner notes of the record. [Laughs] Trans-Siberian Orchestra is very much like Disneyland. As a performer, you are kind of like Donald Duck. No one knows who you are and they keep you in the shadows. They want 'The Show' to be the star - the lights and the fire.
DR: Did you enjoy the tours? Their music is much different than what you had been performing up until this point.
TH: The first year was fun. I had a blast. Luckily, I had let my hair grow out - they are all about hair - so that definitely helped. I had fallen in love with the violinist they had at the time. We had a real good time, but then I found out that she falls in love with a different person every tour. [Laughs] But then I did another tour and another tour and I was not getting along well with the guys from Savatage at all. They all really disliked me because I was out there singing a song that was sacred to them. To them, it was Criss Oliva's song and Jon Oliva was the only one with the license to sing it. To make matters worse, Paul loved me and my voice and he would always make a big deal about me when he would come to a show. The Savatage guys were kind of resentful towards me. Plus I didn't fit their idea of a metal rocker, which I clearly wasn't and didn't aspire to be. [Laughs] They tried to metal me up, but I wasn't really having it. I really don't gravitate to that sort of music. I'm all about R&B , Soul and Jazz. But I definitely did what Paul wanted done on the song. I wasn't taking any liberties.
I enjoyed the Beethoven's Last Night tour the most. Bob Kinkel wrote so much amazing music for that album and tour. And the singers - Chloe Lowery just tore it up. And Rob Evan - they were both fantastic.
DR: Sounds like you at least had a good relationship with Paul.
TH: Yeah and Jon Oliva. Paul was always nervous that I would say the wrong thing. We would do live radio, they would have us introduce ourselves and I would say something like "Hi I'm Tim and I'm an alcoholic." [Laughs] Everyone would laugh but I hear Paul would cringe when he heard it.
DR: Besides "Believe", you recorded three other songs for TSO: "Sparks" which was on Nightcastle. "Someday" which wound up coming out later on the Dreams of Fireflies EP and they also had you re-record "Dream Child". Any special recollections from those sessions?
TH: I never got "Someday". It seemed like such a dirge to me. It was actually hard for me to do. It was really out of my range. When I sing, it sounds like I have this big low range, but it's not there. I'm a first tenor. Paul wrote that so low for me. I hear Kayla Reeves does a great job with it on tour.
DR: Why was "Dream Child" re-recorded with you on vocals?
TH: I asked the same question. The singer on the original (Joe Cerisano) sounds great! Paul gets on these trips of "Lets repackage this and send it back out". They had me sing it live at a few shows in 2010. I was very nervous performing it live; it was really difficult to memorize that one.
DR: Sparks is one of my favorite songs off of their Nightcastle album.
TH: Sparks was a lot of fun. And that high 'D' on the record - that scream - is Jon Oliva, not me. I could not hit that note. Anything more than a high 'A' and I am done. But Oliva came in and crushed it. He still has it.
DR: So after those four tours, did you leave on your own?
TH: It was somewhat mutual, I think. During the last tour I was on, in 2010, things were getting really tense between me and some of the other guys on the tour and it just wasn't enjoyable. I went to Adam Lind, their manager, and expressed my concerns. He convinced me to finish out the tour and told me that we would talk again in the Spring. I never heard from him again, which was totally fine by me.
DR: Are you bitter at all with your experience working for them?
TH: Definitely not bitter. For the most part it was a pretty good time. I did get to experience a major tour and sing in some nice-size arenas and the fans were great. There were just some things along the way that were very disappointing to me, however, and the music itself really isn't in my wheelhouse.
DR: And from there, you hooked up with Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart?
TH: Yeah, I helped him finish his album and we toured the US.
DR: You are all over that Mysterium Tremendum album. I really enjoyed that.
TH: It's a cool record! My buddy Ben Yonas produced it. We had a lot of fun putting that together. Then we hit the road and had a blast touring that record. We had a great band. Gawain Mathews joined us on guitar - he is a genius. Eighty-percent of that tour was really fun, Twenty percent was a nightmare. Talk about the opposite of Trans-Siberian Orchestra! No catering ever, the bus slept 12 and we had 14! [Laughs]
DR: But musically you were much more involved and it seemed to fit you a bit better.
TH: Yeah, and we had so much fun. I told Mickey I wanted to play trombone on the tour. He said, "You can play trombone as long as it never sounds like a trombone!" [Laughs] So I bought a pedal rig for it, so every time I picked up my trombone it sounded like a spaceship landing. [Laughs]
DR: I noticed that you co-wrote about half of the album. With Robert Hunter writing all of the lyrics, where did you fit in?
TH: We would all get in a room together as a group and threw stuff against the wall and see what stuck. It's the kind of music where you can do that. We weren't a bunch of hired guns to perform Mickey's music - we were a band that collaborated.
DR: One song that always stands out to me is one that you co-wrote, "Let there be Light". It's only four minutes or so on the album, but you really would stretch it out on tour.
TH: I really like that one too. "Cut the Deck" is another that I was very fond of. I really liked doing that tour for the most part. Mickey's one rule was that there were no rules, so we got to try a lot of different things and nothing ever sounded the same twice.
DR: Now having recorded and done some nationwide tours with Mickey Hart and TSO, what did you take away from those experiences that help you going forward?
TH: I learned how to really go on tour; how to live out of a suitcase. I also learned how to preserve my voice. Some of Mickey's concerts would go on for three hours so I learned how to pace myself vocally.
DR: I would like to switch gears and ask about your appearance and run on America's Got Talent. What led you to going on that show?
TH: I never thought about going on there, to be honest. I always felt I was too old for something like that. I got a call from Natasha Miller, who is now my manager, and she offered me a VIP slot to audition for the show. I had no interest but my 9-year-old daughter, Lola, told me, "This show is the one that takes old people." [Laughs]. So I told Lola that I would do it if she came with me. We went down to the Bill Graham Auditorium and we were ushered into this room with 12 people sitting there. They asked me to sing something, so I asked Lola what I should sing. She said sing "You are so Beautiful". I sang that with her sitting by my side. Things just sort of progressed from there. They kept moving me on through the audition process over several weeks. I knew things were getting serious when they started filming me backstage and asking me about my background.
DR: The running storyline that they kept pushing each week was that you were almost 50 and a recovering alcoholic. No mention of your prior work at all.
TH: During interviews, I mentioned to them that I had times where I was in rehab and worked through it. The producers told me to continue talking about that and to make that my backstory. At the time, I wasn't drinking, so I went with it.
DR: As you appeared each week, you certainly had the support of many TSO fans who were actively promoting your appearances. However, there was quite a loud faction of TSO fans on social media that felt you shouldn't have been on there since weren't an amateur and you had already been successful by touring with TSO.
TH: Successful? Where's my mansion? Where's my big car? Doesn't some sort of financial security come along with being successful? [Laughs] I get where they were coming from though because I have had some success compared to most musicians in the world. Compared to the successful ones though? No. I certainly had not achieved any fame behind my name, but the show wanted to promote this rags to riches story.
DR: I know you only got 90 seconds for each performance, but did you ever consider singing "Believe" on the show?
TH: I actually did. It would only be the front half of the song, and not singing the back half would be a little weird to me. Also, I was a little resentful. TSO lured me into their show with all of these promises about how much they were going to promote that song and me as the vocalist. Since they never did their job, why should I turn around and promote their song to 14 million viewers? In retrospect, it might have been smart - there are many TSO fans out there.
DR: Did you ever tire of the Joe Cocker references?
TH: I get it - we have similar style voices. But I don't think I sound a thing like Joe Cocker. I knew when I sang "You Are So Beautiful" the kind of comparisons that were coming. Billy Preston wrote that song and sang it first. But as soon as anyone hears someone that remotely sounds like Joe Cocker sing it, those are the only comparisons you hear. They kept bringing it up. That was a struggle to overcome that every week.
DR: Were you enjoying yourself through the process? You made it to the semi-finals. Were you getting excited about winning?
TH: I was until I finally read the contract that I had signed. The contract states that if you win, they own you for seven years. You are signed to work for them in Las Vegas, six nights a week, for $1000 a week. They own 75% of all of your publishing retroactively for ten years. I talked to my lawyer about it and he told me that I need to get off the show. [Laughs] At this point I certainly had the competitive spirit and wanted to win, but not at that cost. So for the next song, I chose John Lennon's "Imagine". The first line is "Imagine there is no heaven", which right there should kill most of the Midwest vote. I knew it would not go over well because of that first line and I wanted to be voted off the show, and that's what we did. I was happy about that.
DR: That was a great performance though, with Dave Eggar on cello.
TH: Yeah, we tried a couple different versions. I flew my guitar player out and he was going to play with us as a trio. Then we tried something really stripped down with just me singing to the cello. The producers stepped in and said they wanted me to play the keys also, so I agreed to that. We wound up doing this really minimalist arrangement. I was so nervous - if you listen to the first note that comes out of my mouth, it is out of tune.
DR: You have a new self-titled solo album that is all original material. I know you have had a couple previous albums that consisted mostly of cover tunes. What made you want to release a record of all of your original songs?
TH: My manager, Natasha Miller, was encouraging me to release a new album and she was pushing me to write some new songs. I was going through a really bad breakup at the time with my girlfriend and I sat down and wrote a couple songs about that. I also had been writing another song about the relationship I had with my ex-wife. In addition, I had a few songs that I had written while on tour with TSO. I had a couple songs that I wrote with James Lewis but they didn't make the cut for this album.
DR: Did you record the album in the Bay Area?
TH: Yes. I recorded the whole album with Justin Miller, Natasha's incredibly talented brother. We did the whole album in his apartment. I was pretty much hands-off. I would come in and play the piano or sing the vocal track and Justin would sculpt the whole thing. He is an amazing musician and I am so impressed with the job he did on this record. He brought in some musicians he knows from Nashville and the Bay Area and it really came together well.
DR: How is this album different from your previous solo releases?
TH: Well my first album, Pennies from Heaven, is a straight jazz record. I had hired this great jazz band called The Blue Room Boys that played jazz classics from the '20s and '30s and were fantastic. I sang and added trombone. We recorded a bunch of classic jazz tunes and the whole thing took eight hours from start to finish.
My second record was Mostly Dylan, an album of mostly Bob Dylan's music that I did with Tom Corwin and Bonnie Raitt's band. My favorite track from that record was a song called "My Back Pages", which is a song that I wrote for my son who was being picked on at school.
My next record was Back in Your Arms with George Daly, who was a major record industry executive. It's a long story but we were supposed to be signed to a major label for this one but things wound up falling through. I recorded it entirely in my basement. George Marinelli from Bonnie Raitt's band came in and played most of the guitar work on there and did a great job. I really liked this album; it was a mix of cover songs that I enjoyed playing and a few originals.
Then my last record was The List, which is all cover tunes. That was sort of a boutique thing, where my friends from the Bohemian club helped fund that. It didn't have a label behind it; we just released it as a download. I think my favorite track from that album was the remake I did of Billy Joel's "And So it Goes".
DR: You mentioned some of your favorite tracks from your previous albums. Do you have a favorite song on the new album?
TH: I really like "Little Angel". I love what Justin did with that one.
I really like another song on there called "I've Got Nothin (Better To Do)". That song came about from one day I called my manager and asked her if she was busy. She said, "Now Tim, You know I've got nothing better to do than you." That was such a great line that I went and wrote a song from that.
"This Time By Me" is a song that was on my Back in Your Arms album that I wanted to remake. I was never happy with the way it came out on that album and then a couple years ago my co-writer on that, Tim Johnson, passed away. It's a great song that I wanted to be re-recorded and Justin did a great job on that.
DR: Tell me about "Carrying You", which really stands out on the album and is a favorite of mine.
TH: Each year before I would leave for TSO rehearsals, my daughter and I would pack up a bike with sleeping bags, ride up Mt. Tamalpais and we would spend a night in up in these cabins at the top of this mountain. In 2009, after we spent the night up there, I took her to school and then flew to Omaha for rehearsals. I wrote "Carrying You" while on tour that year with TSO, thinking about carrying her up that mountain. I try to stay away from corny, heartfelt, human-interest songs, but this one just sort of fell out of me while I was on the tour bus. I left right before Halloween and came back right after New Year's. That was rough as I was thinking of her that tour.
DR: There are two songs on the album that you co-wrote with your sons. "Me and You", written with Maxx is a great album opener.
TH: Maxx and I wrote that on Christmas Day 2012. He was having some relationship problems and I suggested we write a song about it. Within an hour, we had finished the song and we put it up on YouTube - just he and I on guitars and Maxx singing it.
When I went to record it for this album, Maxx originally had sung the second verse. We wound up taking it out though and replacing it with mine. His voice is so remarkably different from mine that it sounds a little out of left field on there. The mandolin on here is played by Gawain Mathews, from Mickey's band.
DR: I love the line in there "We're just an ordinary version of a complicated situation"
TH: [Laughs] I think that's his line. He is such a brilliant songwriter but he doesn't want to do that for a living. He has more sense than I do. [Laughs]
DR: "If the Sky Was to Fall" was written with your son Jack?
TH: Yes. I wanted to call it "Down on You", but got shot down. That could imply something else entirely. [Laughs] Jack wrote about eighty percent of the song. He wrote the lyrics and the melody. I wrote the bridge. That song sort of just fell out of him. He has a pretty cool sense of melody.
DR: Any plans to tour to promote the record?
TH: I'm not sure. If something breaks, then yes. Our strategy is that we are going to shop it hard not just to radio but also to Hollywood for movie soundtrack placement. I wrote mostly about relationships on this album - relationships with my daughter, with my girlfriend, with my ex-wife. There is a lot that could fit into the Hollywood world.
DR: Thanks for taking the time for this, Tim.
TH: Thank you! Enjoy the new album!
Music & Arts Interviews with Dan Roth
A Conversation with Tim Hockenberry
February 18, 2016