A woman at my table shouts out, "Violent Femmes!"
"Nah, don't think I know anything by them," says Arch Hooks, his booming, jovial voice going a mile a minute as he talks up his audience, from the front table all the way to the back of the long bar that defines Tony's on North Tejon Street.
But then, seemingly by instinct, as if all he needed was to remember a fleeting bit of the song, Hooks starts hammering his hefty fingers into the trademark bass riff that identifies the song, "Big Hands." Dum da-da-Dah-da, Dum da-da-Dah da, as people at the tables and the bar provide the appropriate two-beat staccato accent: Thump-Thump, thump thump!
The girl at my table goes nuts as Hooks, who obviously doesn't know the words, launches into an hilarious, and appropriately whiney, improvisational impression of the Femmes' lead singer, Gordan Gano.
It's just one of dozens of songs that Hooks will play in a non-stop, two-hour set that careens like a tornado through every era of music since ragtime: from disco to Motown faves to '80s rock to blues. People laugh, shout out tunes -- a good time is being had by all.
Adorning Hook's strong voice is some very impressive piano chops, which the musician lets loose like a dose of God's wrath, particularly during fast bluesy numbers. Both this hands fly over the keys like two, massive break-dancing tarantulas. All the while he smiles, makes faces, cracks jokes, like it's no big deal. Hooks picked up these impressive chops during years as a dueling piano player, a popular genre of nightclub entertainment he helped invent. But lately, he's begun to focus on his own music.
The Indy caught up with Hooks after a recent gig.
A lot of performers play different styles, but on your recent CD, Piano Talk, you put a lot of styles into each song. Yeah, well, I really like a lot of different styles. There's no such thing as bad music. There's music done badly, but no such thing as bad music. Some people will go for grunge or techno, or this and that, they fit into a particular category, you know? I kinda like to go for everything, Led Zepellin to P-Funk -- whatever.
I was going to request a Bach or Rachmaninov, but I figured I'd give you a break. Nah, I wouldn't be making any money if I did that ... I play that stuff, but I've really been playing rock and roll piano, professionally -- no day job -- for the last 12 years.
Well, how about your own music? I've been spending so much time playing other people's music, now I want to start working on my own. I've been writing stacks, I just haven't had time to work on it.
You're obviously very comfortable up there, rapping with the audience...Well I got my degree in theater, and the communication thing, you just work on that. But I've had bad times too. I got out of college and I couldn't get a job at a McDonald's. Me and my roommate got evicted and I lived in my car for about a week ... I was down to 175 pounds. But a year later, I broke $40,000 and beyond as a musician. I made really good money. I did a lot of sing-alongs, dueling piano bars, this was back in '88. Alley Cats was the first one, and I was like one of the first guys who started there. But there's only so far you can go with dueling pianos. So I want to start selling my own music now and, so far, it's going real well.
Arch Hooks' CD, Piano Talk, is available at Media Play and Independent Records. Catch Hooks at Tony's this Thursday and Friday, from 6 to 8:30 p.m., before he takes off for a tour in August.