Interview: Derek Hoke on keeping americana fresh with ‘70s and ‘80s keyboard sounds

Learning stagecraft from Ricky Skaggs and channeling Muddy Waters, Tony Rice, Buddy Holly, and the early Beatles.

Derek Hoke has released a steady stream of well-crafted albums that while receiving critical recognition, haven’t managed to do much commercially. His fifth album, ‘Electric Mountain’, is an attempt to change that for a musician who is a well-known figure in Nashville, and who has probably played with nearly every major americana artist at his own frequent local shows. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Derek Hoke at his Nashville home over Zoom to discuss ‘Electric Mountain’ with its genre-bending sounds and use of various keyboard sounds, including that icon of early synthesisers, the Mellotron. The challenges of establishing your own sound so that you are able to stand out from the crowd of the many capable musicians who live and work in Nashville are discussed. While Derek Hoke has a broad palette of influences, including non-country and non-americana artists, he shares his love of bluegrass, particularly Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice, and explains that the simple and direct songwriting of Marty Robbins helped him develop his own sound. 

How are you? 

Things are good at the moment. 

You’ve picked a hard profession and a competitive town, Nashville, to practice in despite having very limited support in your formative years in South Carolina, what made you want to become a musician? 

That’s the thing, how do you stand out? I always equate it to an act in Hollywood, they don’t need more they have enough, Nashville doesn’t really need more musicians and in a way, I had to start over. I was like, OK, what do I do, how do I stand out in this town of musicians and songwriters, how do I become distinctive enough, and hopefully I’m getting there.

What made you want to become a musician in the first place? 

It may be a cliché answer, but I love music and when I learned I had the ability to play music, and I had a gift for picking out songs on the radio, and I was teaching myself to sing and play at the same time, which is very difficult when you start getting into that. Then I started writing little songs and it became addictive, I just kept wanting to do it more and more. I never had stage fright or that kind of stuff, so I got up in front of people to see if they liked what I was doing. Eventually, I got out of my little town, and I went to see if I could do all that here in Nashville. It wasn’t easy going but persevering is a good word to use, just going down the road. 

You have a new record out, ‘Electric Mountain’, and it is fairly eclectic mixing folk, country rock, and electronic sounds. Did you sculpt the album or is it just a collection of songs? 

There was an element of putting keyboards on there instead of traditional piano, none of these songs are re-inventing the wheel, we were thinking of the production more, like what if we wrote a blues song with no blues guitar on it, and things like that were our little mantra when we were doing these things. So, people like Peter Gabriel were in the discussion just as much as country music. We were like what if we could get away with blurring the lines of what americana music can be, and I think we achieved that.

You have some retro keyboards on the record, how did that come about? 

I think I played one note on a keyboard on a song, but the producer, Dex Green, who I’ve known forever, has got a studio just down the street from me, and he has a lot of keyboards. He has an old or rather a new re-issue mellotron, you know those things from the ‘60s, and we were just like finding sounds that weren’t going to take over the song. We weren’t making an Emerson Lake & Palmer record, so you have to let the song still be the thing but put different textures in there that I like hearing in other people’s music. So, we just tried to apply that to my music.

Who got the musicians together for the record, was it Dex or yourself? 

Both of us, I mean we are spoilt rotten in this town. A lot of it is what I like to call coffee shop rollcall like we will go to the coffee shop and see who’s there and it is like what are you doing later, haha. It works like that, it is really crazy, so we would get somebody over to play guitar and bass, and we got Lillie Mae to come over and sing and play a little fiddle, and this guy Mike Daley who plays pedal steel with Bocephus, you know Hank Junior, and he is an incredible country music pedal steel guitar player but he also loves Radiohead and My Morning Jacket, and those kinds of bands. He is perfect for blurring the lines of what this music is, this is how it should be played and how it has been played, but what if we took it this way and used delay pedals and what have you, and just make it bigger. We did get lucky with the musicians, yeah, we sure did, haha. 

Are all the songs fairly new, and how easy were they to write? 

I probably wrote thirty songs for this thing, and we kind of kept editing them out, you know, this one isn’t good enough, this one is too keyboard-heavy, this is for our own enjoyment, it is too insider, and I like making music everyone can enjoy, So we just kept shaving it away, and if we ditch one I would write more, you know one or two more, and hopefully they would’ve been better than those I walked in the door with. The ten-song thing always seems to be people’s attention span these days, I think thirteen songs is getting into double album territory, especially if they are five-minute-long songs. Also, these are some of the longest songs I’ve written, this is no longer Buddy Holly singles anymore, this is a little bit more expansive. 

Who made the call on which songs made the final cut? 

We would all kind of vote, but it was mainly me because when you are listening back to it over and over like I’ve heard these songs a bunch, and if I can listen back to it twenty or thirty times and I’m happy with it then I think we’ve got something. If you walk away and something is bothering you about it then someone needs to speak up and say this can be better or we need to move on. It is pretty diplomatic that way, and I’m open to collaboration and I don’t necessarily have to have the final say, I will agree with the group if it is something I’m just not seeing I will take my time and try and see everybody’s point of view. I think we all got there. 

So, you are happy with every song, are there any you are particularly pleased with? 

I’m really happy with ‘Wild and Free’ which is the first song, and it has a lot of pedal steel on it, songs like ‘Hush Your Mouth’ which are more direct driven which I’ve never really done before because I’ve always tended to keep my emotions to myself, and I’ve tended to have songs that are just a little bit more fun, I think. So those songs where I was harder and more direct were new to me, I’ve been singing into the microphone a little bit harder than I had before, and all that. I was like I know what I can do let me see what I can do now with some things, instead of making the same records over and over again. Let’s have some adventures with lyrics and sonic tapestries, so I can be looking back on it in ten years and think hey, good job, hopefully anyway, haha.

By the sounds of it you have about twenty songs in your back pocket, what are your plans for them? 

I don’t know whether they will resurface, or whether they are just in the bubble of what this is. I’ve always got things cooking for the future, and I’ve kind of got this whole Mississippi thing in my head right now, and hopefully, I will do something with that in the next year or two. I still want to make a straight-up bluegrass record with all the people I’ve met around here, I will just strip it all away, no keyboard, haha, just eventually get back to the roots of it all. 

Some people may be surprised that Ricky Skaggs had an influence on your early career, what was all that about? 

I used to sell merchandise for him, so I was in the lobby of the theatre he would play so I would sell CDs, T-shirts, and stuff, and I would hear him play these bluegrass sets that were like Miles Davis. The musicianship was just blistering and articulate, it was just the highest level of playing that kind of music that I had ever heard. I learnt a lot of things through osmosis from being around those guys about musicianship, showmanship, stuff I didn’t really learn in South Carolina sports bars, and stuff like that, because it didn’t matter. I learnt a lot about how to just be a professional musician from him, and I was making mental notes when I moved to town, these guys were a big musical influence on me, I mean I had always enjoyed his music, but I learnt how to do this, how to present music, how to make records with care and thoughtfulness. I still think about that stuff, you know.

He is more than simply bluegrass. 

Yeah, I don’t know what he is up to these days, I don’t really watch interviews with him anymore, but back then in the ‘80s and ‘90s he was a really talented person, really talented, and a good guy as well. 

When you were in South Carolina who were the musical heroes that made you want to become a musician yourself? 

I hate to say it, but it wasn’t really anybody around me, it was things I would see on television, it was always over there. Who are these guys, and what is that band, so the closest to Carolina would be Athens, Georgia, things like REM and that kind of stuff that bled into music around the South, Drivin N Cryin, and groups like that. I had a record collection that was kind of like Clint Black, Garth Brooks, The Pixies, and Fugazi. I didn’t think anything of it, other than it was good music, and that is how I still think about it, I’m bad at categorising things. I’m like I want to listen to that, and I want to listen to that, and as a guitar player you are pulling from all of them, but as a songwriter, I always go back to the simple way of doing things, more the Marty Robbins old school country, just say what you want to say and get out of there. I’m not trying to be Tom Yorke or be weird lyrically, I’m always trying to bend the thing of how do I write a simple song but we may be overcomplicating the structure of it or the musicality of it so that it doesn’t sound like something that has already happened.

How important are your lyrics to you, are they just part of the overall song structure, or do they mean more than that to you? 

They are the jumping-off point, and I always call these songs napkin songs because they are really short and to the point, and when I can play them on an acoustic guitar, I will be happy with it. We will then rehearse it a few times and just build it. So, if it is a really simple song let’s keep the band simple, and if it is a more descriptive lyric let’s create some atmosphere around it. So, I enjoy making music that way, where the song dictates how the rest of the instrumentation is going to go, but the heart of it is just a dude on a guitar singing some words that rhyme, haha. 

Are you touring in 2022 and 2023, and any plans to visit the UK and Europe? 

I have some things I’m going to do around town, and I’m trying to position myself to be the opening act because I’m a strong forty-minute set kind of guy. So hopefully, I will get somethings going with that. Making it to the UK is hopefully in the future. Those are the plans, but they change, and I tend to try not to get my hopes up too much, but people know I want to do things out there, let’s hope that things will fall into place sometime.

When you play around town do you play with a band?

Yeah, I have a bassist and a drummer, and then I will have a keyboard player to play some of these parts for this stuff, and it has been a blast. The keyboard player has a Nord so she can do all the sounds, and she plays it all through a delay pedal, and I will have my electric guitar, so we are sort of re-interpreting the record in a way to present it live, but all the elements are there. Sometimes I will have someone else play slide guitar because I’m not good at slide guitar and there is a lot of slide guitar on that record. Or I will have a pedal steel player, and that is always fun, so it is fun to just change it up because it keeps it fresh.

If you go out with somebody, do you have a band or are you solo? 

I try to do that as a trio, with just a bassist and a drummer, where we can travel light and get in and off the stage pretty quickly. So it is more like a courtesy band that doesn’t interfere with anything the headliner is doing. I’m better with a band than solo because I like instrumental breaks and stuff in songs, and that is hard to do as a solo performer because I will start whistling or playing bad harmonica or something, so I like the band thing and I like playing the guitar a lot and I like to stretch out on that stuff.

You said you haven’t been over to the UK yet, is that a soft intention or is there something firmer there? 

I have a firm intention to come over, it is more how and when to do it, and that probably would be solo. It would be nice to have a body of work that I could spin to spend like a month over there and have enough songs I could play, and just see what happens, and not lose a lot of money and all that stuff, otherwise, I could just go to the UK on vacation and play guitar maybe, haha. Let’s see what happens. 

At Americana UK we like to ask interviewees what they are listening to now, top three artists, albums, or tracks? 

Something new would be this band happening in Nashville, Twen, and they are amazing. It is kind of a pop rock thing, there are these young guys and a female singer, and it is like they are out of time, and it is 1983, brilliant stuff and it is brand new. It is like my favourite thing right now, and I’m really hoping for the best for them. What I like is old jazz and blues music and so ‘Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill Broonzy’ is always on the turntable in the other room, and that is a go-to out of hundreds of albums because it is always good. There’s another band out of here called Illiterate Light, and they are a duo who sound like U2. I don’t know how two people can make that much sound, but it’s great. So, I’m always rooting for those bands.

You mentioned Mississippi earlier and you’ve mentioned the blues and Muddy Waters just now, so how much blues influence is there in your own music? 

Well, as a Caucasian dude it is like I am just a lover of jazz and blues, because at the heart of it there is so much to pull from as far as feeling, and authenticity, so you take that away, but not trying to emulate the blues because I don’t like people who do that, and I try to incorporate elements of that music into my music and mixing it with bluegrass. I mean, Tony Rice was a great flat picker that I steal from a lot, but I put that stuff on an electric guitar, so that way nobody really knows what I’m doing, haha, if you play it on an acoustic guitar, you will know what I’m doing. Playing Van Halen on the banjo you are kind of tricking people into thinking you are doing something new. I’m always trying to sponge things, learn things without emulating anything, and try to make it my own at the end of the day. You want to one day influence someone yourself, that is kind of what hopefully I will do.

Tony Rice was a big fan of George Benson’s guitar playing. 

Yeah, and he would do like Miles Davis tunes in his sets, and John Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’ at backwoods bluegrass festivals, and it would just go over most people’s heads, but that is what he wanted to do. I love all that stuff because it challenges you as a musician to get involved in other kinds of music instead of just kind of repeating yourself. You are already really good, and then it is like how can you be better? So, I’ve always kind of thought about music that way and take all this music I like and put it in a pot. I don’t know, but why not try at least?

If you don’t try you certainly won’t progress. 

Exactly, it would feel like doing the same thing over and over. I do tend to go back to the same well of music which is Muddy Waters, Tony Rice, Buddy Holly, and old Beatles stuff, and I like catchy melodies or earworms or whatever you call it. I have a short attention span which is probably what’s really going on, haha. That is the music I’ve always gravitated towards though.

What did you learn from trying all the new stuff on ‘Electric Mountain’? 

I learnt I could be a serious musician; I take it all more seriously now than I had been. Song presentation, I had been writing a lot of tongue-in-cheek songs in the past, things you could kind of dance to I guess, like Texas two-step kind of numbers. There’s a love song on this record, and I’ve never written a love song before, it is called ‘If You Need My Love’, so it was things that are more honest, I guess, more vulnerable and more direct instead of let’s just have some fun and I will play some fast guitar or something. That may be fun to do live, but I don’t want to hear that right now. It is just challenging yourself to try new things but also always trying to still have your voice in there, I still want it to sound like me, and I think we got there. 

Is there anything you want to say to our UK Readers? 

Thanks for listening and if anyone is ever in Nashville come look me up, and hopefully I will see you all soon over there, haha. Keep listening to and supporting americana music. 

Derek Hoke’s ‘Electric Mountain’ is out now on 3Sirens Music Group.

About Martin Johnson 401 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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