Tony Smiley has always wanted to play rock music, but he doesn't want to be in a band. He's been there, done that and the rock band dynamic just isn't for him. This would be the end of the line for most aspiring rock musicians. Time to clip on the Guitar Center nametag or start giving guitar lessons to Nirvana-loving junior high kids, right?
Smiley is indeed still playing rock music and he still doesn't have a band. The 37-year-old Hood River-native now based outside of Vancouver, Wash., is making the best music of his career and he's doing it all on his own with the help of a few loop pedals and an arsenal of instruments ranging from keyboards to drums. His appeal here in Central Oregon has boomed in the past year and he plays one of his most notable shows in the region on Thursday night at McMenamins Old St. Francis School. At this show - and all his shows, for that matter - Smiley is surrounded by a tangle of wires, guitars and, of course, effects pedals, and takes his audiences' initial confusion and molds it into an all-out raging dance party when he sees fit.
But Smiley wasn't always a lone wolf. Growing up in Hood River, he came to music early and with a fierce passion. His parents laid down $25 for a garage sale drum set when Smiley was just eight years old and he made quick work of putting the set to use. When he was eventually grounded from the drum kit (likely to his folks' audial relief), Smiley found his dad's guitar and begin playing around, which was the first in a series of musical experiments he'd embark on. By high school, he was playing in bands with names like Thrash Cactus... but things never ended well.
"I've been in a bunch of different bands and they'd end up splitting up. It would be a big, ugly nasty mess," says Smiley last Friday over the phone as he prepared to head out for weekend gigs on Mt. Hood and in White Salmon, Wash.
As loop pedal technology improved, Smiley realized he could make actual rock songs - not just the bouncy jams most loopers heavily rely upon - while also stretching the limits of his own creativity. The result has been original rock music that ranges vastly in style, but is never light on energy or excellent songwriting.
"I didn't want to play with a band, but on the other hand, I wanted to make a living through music. I knew I could play all the instruments, so I knew I could play this music by myself," says Smiley, who has since earned the appropriate nickname "The Loop Ninja" for his mastery of his mainstay technology.
He has also recorded three full-length albums and will offer up another in the coming months. Acknowledging that part of his appeal is his constantly evolving live sound, Smiley nevertheless continues to go into the studio and says this next record is far and away his best.
Smiley isn't the only musician to use loop pedals to create a high-tech one-man band. Keller Williams employed loops to launch his solo jam band career, inspiring many other tie-died riffers to follow suit. For Smiley, though, the aim is not to just stand up in front of a crowd and say "hey, look what I can do!"
"I don't want to be a novelty. It's cool to watch someone up there doing all the instruments, but songwriting is much more of a spiritual thing for me. I want to get a point across. I don't want to just sit up there and solo over a riff that I wrote," says Smiley, who goes on to say that he's always insisted on keeping any prerecorded sounds out of his set. In other words, he plays everything you hear live before it's recycled through the loop effects.
Even if he wants the songs to stand alone, Smiley's live shows do, however, draw plenty of curious onlookers who are wondering how in the hell this one guy is making all that noise. Being in complete control of the music also allows him - much like a techno or dubstep DJ - to feel out his crowd and shift up a gear if he's got an especially dance-thirsty crowd. But if he feels the need, he can go acoustic with a true singer- songwriter set. Just don't expect him to stay at that level for long.
"There's a certain way to get people's attention and then slowly build it up. If people are super mellow, I have a full-on mellow set I can play," says Smiley. "But then I can do a Snoop Dogg cover right after that if I can tell people are hungry for fun."
7pm Thursday, January 5. McMenamins Old St. Francis School, 700 NW Bond St. Free. All ages.