A Biopic of Alter Egos, Starring CHRISTOPHER HOFFEE
Alter ego: “The other” in Latin. A second-self that is believed to be distinct from a person’s normal or original personality. A person who has an alter ego is said to lead a double life.
Once upon a time there was someone named Christopher (some called him Cady) who was lost in the Black Forest of his mind. He makes music by himself and sometimes the occasional friend will stop by his house and add a little noise to his songs… no one knows how the story will end but he will continue to make music and art until fate drops a boulder on his head.
Prologue [CUE THE BACKSTORY]:
The future may never come, the past may never leave…
If the world is indeed a stage as Bill Shakespeare once famously put it, then there is certainly no actor treading the musical boards in San Diego quite like Christopher Hoffee. For within the Black Forest mind-maze of contradictions, enigmas, and paradoxes of the artist, known variously as Atom Orr, Cady Truckee, and occasionally under his given birth name, there is also a giant of a dude in the possession of an impish sense of humor. To anyone paying attention his abilities as a multi-disciplined Artist with a capital A are obvious and his belief (and trust) in the process of creating art by diving head-long into the ocean of intuition and allowing his material to be shaped organically is awe-inspiring.
He’s toured every inch of the continent (and then some), his songs are licensed frequently to outside media projects (documentaries, films, TV programs, and video games), and as a producer, engineer, and musical sideman he has received notices for his work with Lisa Sanders, Cindy Lee Berryhill and Steve Poltz (to name but three). As a bandleader he stewarded the success of several key San Diego bands, including Blacksmith Union, fivecrown, and the Truckee Brothers, and he’s just about ready to put the finishing touches on his latest solo recording Flotsam and Jetsam, his eighth release under the musical sobriquet Atom Orr.
Scene #1: Peacefully Released Upon a Foundation of Constant Motion
Was told dirty little lies all my dirty little life…
Christopher Alan Hoffee was born October 25, 1967, just after the stroke of midnight in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. A self-proclaimed “army brat” (his father reached the rank of captain as a tank commander in the U.S. Army), Hoffee shared a challenging nomadic existence with a younger sister, made all the more difficult by his parents’ divorce when Hoffee was eight. By the time he reached puberty Hoffee found himself shuttling regularly between Tennessee and San Diego. “My Mom moved out here to California and my dad was in Memphis, so I was a ping-pong ball; I went back and forth.
“It’s interesting,” says Hoffee. “I’ve lived in a lot of places, all four corners and in between, but it’s weird: ‘where the heck am I from?’ I don’t know. But the two places I’ve lived the longest are here and Memphis, so does that make me a Californian? I feel more like a visitor. It’s a mindset; I spent most of my childhood in the South, so I think like that more. When I was 11 I had already moved 13 times. I was always the new kid in school and it was always awkward. And I was really tall, I’ve been six-foot-three since I was 16. I thought I was going to be a lot taller because my great great grandfather was seven feet tall.
“When I got my guitar my mind just completely changed because I was really into sports. But when I got my first guitar I’m like, ‘oh yeah, screw the sports thing, I really like this guitar thing,’ and then I’m freaked out that I’m six-foot-three and I’m 16 years old and if I keep growing no chick is ever going to talk to me because I’m going to be like a freak guy. I didn’t want to grow any more and I literally did not grow a single centimeter since.”
Over-zealous disciplinary tactics employed by two different sets of parents took their toll on Hoffee’s psyche, so much so that he claims to have had an “awful childhood” and resorted to artistic introversion as a survival tactic. “At that time I just did everything: I drew, painted, put on plays, did impersonations, built stuff. But I ended up getting more and more internal and making up my own little world because it’s nice to be able to control something.
“For awhile I didn’t get along with my dad; I didn’t talk to him for 13 years. And then I thought, that’s just a little stupid, hanging on to that for what? It’s time to set that down. Another way to set it down is to forgive. It’s an important one. I found that it was getting just a little too heavy — so when it’s heavy, set it down.”
Scene #2: Mistakes vs. Intentions
“I started with the piano when I was ten but I only had one to play for about two years and then we moved and the piano didn’t move with us,” says Hoffee. “I was really into it, learning these classical pieces for my first recital. That was a really good experience because I was doing a duet with my step-sister, who was taking lessons at the same time and harping on me to practice, because she didn’t want to be embarrassed if I messed up. When we finally did the song at the recital halfway through, she messes up and stops playing. And without missing a beat I finished the whole piece while she’s just sitting there mortified and everyone’s like, ‘yeah, that was awesome how you didn’t stop playing just because something went wrong,’ and ever since then I’m like, ‘don’t stop playing just because something’s gone wrong because: what’s ‘wrong’?” he asks, laughingly.
“What I think is interesting is just the word mistake. When people make ‘a mistake,’ it’s because their intention was not fully met. Okay, it might be a mistake for your intention but it’s not necessarily ‘wrong’ and, in fact, it might be better. There is your intent and that kind of art but there’s also letting things happen and knowing when to let things happen and to embrace that happening. Because I find that some of the best things that come out of us are not pre-meditated. Pre-meditation to me is like a lot of stop signals down the street and it’s making you go in this particular rhythm. But if you take out those signals a lot of things can happen and that’s where it gets really interesting and maybe goes to a place that you haven’t gone to before because you don’t have this light or signal or this arrow telling you that you ‘must make a left here.’ Well, maybe I don’t want to make a left here. The older I get the more I hope to get rid of those stop signs and lights and things.”
Scene #3: Continuing Education
As a teenager Hoffee attended Poway High School, learning how to play guitar in a cover band for informal student parties with his buddy, drummer Trace Smith. It was also at Poway High that Hoffee first encountered aspiring musicians Paul Painter, William Graham, and Tony Roth, who eventually hooked up with Hoffee in the quartet Blacksmith. And after occupying the drum chair in such notable groups as Feral Children and Loam, Smith reunited in 1999 with Hoffee in the power trio fivecrown.
After high school, however, at the tender age of 17, Hoffee took off in 1985 for the Guitar Institute of Technology [G.I.T.] in Hollywood. Dropping out after a year of attending classes, he arrived at the conclusion that he and his classmates were turning into a bunch of automatons. “This is the thing,” says Hoffee, “when I went there you had to audition to get in and there were all these amazing guitar players from all over the world, each with their own individual styles, and it was exciting. And then we started getting into our curriculum and after that year everybody was doing the same guitar licks. When I heard that I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’ve all turned into the same guitar player: the worst thing that music could ever be is this.’ And I quit, right then.
“I was so excited to go there because at the time I was really into being a lead guitar player. I wanted to make a living at music and be able to sight read and get gigs as a studio guitarist — to become a better artist by learning all of these new techniques. But I found that, at least for me, art is not about technique. Art is about expressing what’s inside you and finding an individual expression of you. The experience was actually quite scarring and I literally did not play guitar for two years after that.”
Scene #4: Covers or Originals?
After the G.I.T. debacle Hoffee spent the next couple of years working in a warehouse and plotting his next move: “I wanted to do music but knew I wasn’t ready because I had to unlearn what I learned. But I bought an Atari 1040ST computer and I started making these little songs on MIDI. By the time I was 20 I was really starting to get interested in music again and there was this cover band at SDSU that was looking for a guitar player. So I picked up my guitar, literally after not playing for two years, went to the audition, and got the job. It was great because it got me back into playing but after a while I went straight from there to Blacksmith Union because I hated playing covers.
“Blacksmith Union [1989-1995] was my first serious band. I didn’t sing at all; I was just a lead guitar player. We put out three independent CDs [Dependence Finest Moments, Magic Maggie Healing Doll, and Purge] and then we were working on our fourth one in L.A. [Vent], recording for Capitol when everything blew up.
“Contracts, publishing rights, lawyers… all of those things eventually contributed to our demise and I ended moving back to Memphis. To all of a sudden not be in the band was pretty weird and that’s when I decided I was going to start singing.”
Scene #5: fivecrown
After two years of sorting himself out back in Memphis, Hoffee spent the time wood shedding, working on his writing, and singing voices simultaneously. When he felt like he was ready he returned to San Diego and started up the power trio fivecrown with Trace Smith and bassist Keith Jones. The band released two CDs in its short lifespan: 1999’s Magnificent 3 a.m. and 2001’s NIAGRA, and All the Pretty Landmines… before calling it a day.
Scene #6: Enter Atom Orr
“I was always in bands and, frustratingly, they would break up,” says Hoffee. “I made up the name Atom Orr because it sounded like it could be a person or it could be a band. Because fivecrown had disbanded and I was sick of these bands starting and stopping, I was going to do this thing called Atom Orr. Because if I say “Christopher Hoffee” it sounds to me like sensitive piano music…”
After the heavy alt-rock vibe of fivecrown, the musical direction of Atom Orr is positively future-oriented: sounding traditional and cutting-edge new wave at the same time with a keyboard/drum loop vibe that places it firmly into the zone of modern texture. But Hoffee’s knowledge of traditional forms and how to construct a melodic hook succeeds at grabbing you until the material has effectively seeped into your consciousness. The first three soundtracks in the world of Atom Orr are a black and white trilogy of releases, starting with 2002’s Wake, followed by Noir in 2003 and Asterisk in 2004. And it was just about at this time that Hoffee’s musical path took a sudden jackknife, leading to the unexpected formation of the Truckee Brothers.
Scene #7: Glimmer Twins + Alter Ego #2: Cady Truckee
Blue coats moved us, raised their guns, and Black Elk Speaks and ghosts rise up to dance….
“Oh yeah, the accident,” Hoffee says, referring to the melding of forces with fellow musician and songwriter Patrick Dennis. “I mean there was no intention to make a band or to even write songs together. Patrick and I had just produced a Lisa Sanders album together [Hold on Tightly]. At the time you’d have these dual producers like the Chemical Brothers or the Dust Brothers and I had just gotten back from Truckee and said, ‘Hey, let’s call ourselves the Truckee Brothers,’ and that’s what we put on her album. Then there were some reviews with a big one in the Troubadour and Liz and Kent [Troubadour publishers] thought we were a band and asked us to play and we’re like ‘okay,’ ’cause I like to go where the energy goes…
“So we get together and I go, ‘What do we do?’ Two lead singers — do you sing a song and then I sing a song, but we’re like, ‘no, let’s sing together like the Everly Brothers but like really mess it up — let’s cross each other and go high and low and really go crazy with it,’ which was good for me because at that time I had never really sung harmonies with anybody.
“So we started singing together all these weird things, which was a really big learning experience for me. Patrick had done a lot of harmony singing; he was totally used to doing all of that so he kind of had to wait for me to get my shit together. But it worked out well ’cause we had really different voices so it was kind of easy not to sound alike at all [laughs]. We just had a lot of fun making up weird songs, fast. ‘Let’s write songs we wouldn’t write, sing what we wouldn’t sing, dress what we wouldn’t dress.’ We did a one-off show thinking that would be it and then Steve Poltz saw the show and wanted us to play for him and all of sudden we’re thinking, ‘We better get a band for that night.’ And then we just kept getting asked to do shows and we kind of nervously laughed like, ‘Heh, heh wouldn’t it be funny if it overshadowed our solo projects,’ and it completely did!”
In 2004 the duo put out two extended play discs Wall to Wall and Live! Nude! (Vol. 1). By 2005 they added drummer Hemiway Truckee (aka Matt Lynott) and bassist G.T.O. Truckee (aka Clark Stacer of Loam) to the fold for their first long-player It Came From the Speakers. Shortly thereafter G.T.O. moved to Colorado and bassist Ott Truckee (Greg Friedman) was drafted into the lineup. In August of 2007 the group’s swan song of recordings were released with the audacious Double Happiness and it’s companion EP In Pursuit Of Happiness. The quartet toured the region, performed at Austin’s South by Southwest festival and garnered rave reviews from various circles but it wasn’t enough glue to hold the enterprise together.
“That is probably the reason why we eventually broke up: because we weren’t really thinking it was going to be anything beyond a one-off and when you don’t quite make a decision to completely ditch your solo ideas and to really join as a group and to really fully commit as a group, you’re constantly wondering: should I have been doing all of these other things… and the band just kind of took control when we weren’t realizing…”
Scene #8: You Can’t Murder the Devil, Only Change His Name
“But,” Hoffee continues, “I do have to say that the Truckee Brothers were really huge for me because I was getting a bit jaded with the music business and making a living at this and the Truckee Brothers brought back the little kid in me who just wanted to do stuff ’cause he wanted to do it and thought nothing of the effects of that, the consequence or the benefits of.
“A very interesting aspect about the Truckee Brothers is that there are a lot of people who only know me as Cady Truckee. When we made up names we just did it because it was fun. I’m wearing clothes that I normally wouldn’t wear and you start feeling at first like you’re an actor, I’m playing this guy; I would completely make up stories about where I came from to everybody, because I was Cady.
“But what was the big, illuminating fact is that I thought I was playing someone else when in fact I was actually letting myself be me. Now I’ve kind of merged Cady Truckee into what I previously thought of as ‘me,’ finally letting the person who doesn’t mind having attention get out to merge with the wallflower.”
Scene #9: Populuxe and Paradigms
Atom Orr, the Truckee Brothers, fivecrown, Wirepony, Cindy Lee Berryhill, Greg Friedman, Dead Rock West, and Loam all have CDs associated with Populuxe Records, the label Hoffee started in 1999. “The only people who have been on the label are those who I’ve intimately created music with,” he says, “and who wanted to be on the label. At the time the label had a use because with a label you get distribution and distribution mattered then. Because there were CDs that people bought and albums, which, of course is no longer the case; it’s digital downloads, which for 50 dollars you can belong to a worldwide distribution system.
“We’ve got to find a different way of doing things. And nobody knows what they are and of course everybody’s freaked out about that but I kind of like that because it cuts loose some of the wannabes. It’s one thing to want to be a cool artist/musician — it’s another to keep doing it when you’re not making any money at all or losing money. That starts to separate the wheat from the chaff of who’s really sticking around and who’s not. Either way, I’m doing this until the day I die, whenever that is….”
Scene #10: I Strike Matches at the Myth, But It Doesn’t Burn, It Illuminates
After the big push to take the Truckee Brothers into the big time came and went, Hoffee returned to his fount of solo creativity with a steady stream of Atom Orr projects: Searching for Sparrows in 2008, Los Feliz in 2010, This Was Tomorrow in 2011, and Galaxies with Long Yellow Curtains in 2012. Continuity abounds throughout these recordings, being the work of a singular artist, but they each have their own personality and take you on a unique journey.
Which brings us up to Hoffee’s latest, and possibly greatest, assemblage thus far: Flotsam and Jetsam. Summoned over the past four months at his CHAOS Recorders studio, it manages to continue upping the ante in terms of songwriting inventiveness (it’s also the first time that a cover song has appeared on an Atom Orr release with a magnificently deft arrangement of “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles). The tracks sound ethereal, spacious, and deep and can be experienced through Hoffee’s blog site (atomorr.com). Check these gems out in their current state on a decent set of speakers; the pleasure will repay the effort invested.
Scene #11/Epilogue: Traveling at the Speed of If
Hoffee: “I love films; they are far more influential to me than any other medium, because I find music to be really cinematic and visual in scope. And when it comes to film there are so many types that I love, but at the same time there’s nothing like a really fast and loose movie to make you feel alive.
“But, in the end I think that whatever you’re excited about doing wins. The minute you take the excitement out of your process that’s a slow death that’s happening right there, you’ve poisoned your process. Whatever it is that excites you, do that ’cause that’s when you’re feeding what the artist wants and when you do that — actually that’s when interesting things happen…”