Whenever an artist undergoes the sort of dramatic shift in style that Pete Hofmann demonstrates on his recently released third album, Mermaid on the Rocks, you know there's a story hiding between the notes. So as I make my way eastward down Lake Street toward the 36-year-old troubadour's south Minneapolis home, I pop Mermaid in the stereo, listening again for a personal subtext in the CD's wash of beachfront imagery and maritime lullabies. I run a quick inventory of what I know about this man, a longtime steward of smart, bluesy rock 'n' roll who's currently more interested in plunking out delicate piano waltzes and cooing, "Little boat, little boat, you must wander this world...." Here, then, is what I know:
1. It wasn't always like this. Hofmann's two previous releases, 1998's Action Overtime and 2001's Crawling Tall were testaments to his bar-rock pedigree. Those albums were dominated by guitars and keys, heavy backbeats, and a scratchy, forthright vocal delivery that drew comparisons to Paul Westerberg. In contrast, Mermaid gives us pedal steel- and castanet-backed numbers that borrow from South Pacific (the title track and "Bookworm"), gin-joint jazz ballads ("She Balances" and "Your Uniform"), and dreamy sing-alongs (like the above-quoted "Little Boat You Must Wander This World"). So why the change? Did Hofmann have an epiphany while on a cruise ship with Jimmy Buffett and Van Dyke Parks? Is he trying to move his music out of the bars and into some place more family-friendly? Which brings me to the next thing I know about Hofmann.
2. For his day job, Hofmann teaches music to elementary students. He has done this since the early '90s, so that probably doesn't account for the departure heard on Mermaid on the Rocks. But it might explain Hofmann's talent on a spectrum of instruments (guitar, bass, accordion, keyboards) as well as his impressive handle on the fundamentals of quality songwriting (structure, pacing, dynamics) and effective band management (patience, direction, discipline). The line between rock musicians and seven-year-olds is often imperceptible.
3. Hofmann rarely plays out. When he does, he's accompanied by a rotating cast of players that goes by a different name just about every show (lately they've been billed as "Pete Hofmann and the Measured Doses") and include some of the local rock scene's more solid stalwarts (bassist Heath Henjum and drummer Steve Isadore). On his recordings, Hofmann is regularly backed up by producers-slash-musicians like Jacque Waite, Mike Wisti, and Tom Herbers. Friends like these might explain why Hofmann's CDs always sound so good.
4. Hofmann and his wife of eight years, Sue, have a 15-month-old baby boy named Simon. I hear this sort of thing changes you.
Pulling up to the house, I mull over these points and scan Hofmann's front yard for clues. It's quaint and well tended, with flowers in the windowsill. Hofmann greets me at the door with a handshake and welcomes me in. He's on the short side of average height, and his bright and youthful face is topped with a black mop that's entertaining its first traces of gray. Still no sign of anything to account for Hofmann's turn toward quiet, lonely tunes, however: no broken amplifiers, no ticket stubs for some exotic island getaway. Then I hear the tumblers click as Hofmann locks the front door behind us.
"I'm a budding agoraphobe," he explains. "I'm fighting it off, but I could spend three days in the house without ever going outside." He cites the number three as though it has been tested and proved.
There's an awful lot of ballyhoo over the value of inviting many cooks into the music-making kitchen--so much so that, at the time of this writing, 18 of the top 50 tracks on the Billboard chart contain the word "featuring" in the artist column. Today's artist, the listener is led to believe, is only as good as his address book. Hogwash. Give me the shut-in singer-songwriter, the loner who would just as soon skip out on the red carpet to spend a few days holed up with a four-track, phone disconnected, blackout curtains on the windows. That's the kind of psychosis that sticks to the tape. You can taste it.
Hofmann knows what I'm talking about, and he's got a story to corroborate the argument. As a teenager growing up in Cottage Grove, he and his friends learned how girls felt about guys in bands, a revelation that led quickly to the start of Hofmann's musical career. Not so long after, though, his inward nature got the best of whatever social benefits might be visited upon a young rocker, to the dismay of his bandmates.
"The band got us into all kinds of bars and parties back then," Hofmann says. As he speaks, he illustrates the air in front of him, playing air guitar when he talks about guitarists, air drums when he talks about drummers. "My best buddy Dave was trying to get me to go to this one party, I remember. But at the time I was trying to learn the guitar part to that Aerosmith song 'Dream On.' And that was the most important thing in the world to me, way more important than any party. So I stayed home and practiced."
To this day, Hofmann prefers to stay home and practice. Despite his own self-diagnosis, he's not a shut-in. He's a family man. "I've got a very solitary nature that feeds my music," he says, and family life seems to be feeding that solitude. Musicians, it seems, are always surrounded by people, and that usually makes them the loneliest guests at the after-party. Hofmann, on the other hand, is anything but alone, what with his day job, wife, and kid. It's like that old Greta Garbo quote: He doesn't want to be alone; he wants to be left alone. There is all the difference.
"My life is fuller and richer now than it's ever been," Hofmann says, as Sue busies herself in the kitchen and excuses the toddler toys strewn about the dining room. "Life with Sue and Simon is nice. I don't want my music to usurp that. I mean, music is my life, but I try to create a balance."
As he says this, Hofmann takes a sip of his tea, and I'm struck by that word "balance." I've heard him use it before--not in this dining room, though. It was while listening to his CD on the car ride over here; the lounge-style marriage meditation "She Balances," in which Hofmann celebrates his loving union with Sue by examining the ways in which that relationship unified the scattered components of his own life. While Hofmann continues to tell me about the musical milestones of that life--about how he studied classical guitar in college, and how Thelonious Monk was the first jazz musician to really speak to him, and how he's been undertaking a long study of South American guitar--I stare into the pile of toys in the corner of the room and notice a small plastic boat. The infectious refrain from "Little Boat You Must Wander This World" instantly fills my head. I look back at Hofmann, and then down at his tea, and I remember another track on Mermaid: "Mauritius," in which the singer tells the Beatniks to keep their weed, it's tea he needs.
And suddenly it all makes sense: the house, the wife, the plastic boat, the tea. Here I was, looking for some grand event, some trauma, some explosive thing that calmed Hofmann's ear and smoothed his wrinkles. But nothing like that happened. Domesticity happened. Hofmann's at a point in his life when speeding up and slowing down are starting to coincide, and Mermaid on the Rocks, with its lackadaisically multiculti charm and lovey-dovey undertones, is the record that he was bound to make.
As if to affirm my revelation, Hofmann says, "When you do things by yourself, you're forced to go as fast as the rest of your life goes.
"We, happily, are just kind of chugging along over here."