You could be forgiven for not knowing of Joel Hoekstra before he showed up this summer electrifying audiences around America with Whitesnake’s shockingly successful ‘The Purple Tour’. His rise in the world of rock has been a slow, steady climb that saw him go from a Broadway show (Rock Of Ages) to MTV hitmakers Night Ranger, then to even bigger stages with the Trans Siberian Orchestra, before he landed his first true star turn as a member of David Coverdale’s long running legend of Whitesnake in 2015. His overnight success has at last arrived after thousands of gigs.
Words: Tony Conley
“I do believe you can create your own luck to a degree through hard work. The harder you work, the luckier you get.” ~
Hoekstra will be the first tell you that luck may be a small factor in this equation that has seen his star rise, but he’d also tell you that it’s really all about the work – whether it’s a basic love for playing the guitar, or the desire to be a part of something larger than one’s self, it will all go to naught without great bits of perspiration, the choice lubricant of dreams.
No sooner than Hoekstra has wrapped up his debut tour with the ‘Snakes, he is now overseeing myriad details as Frontiers Records prepares to launch his latest solo project, ‘Joel Hoekstra’s 13 – Dying To Live’ on October 16th 2015, that includes a group of musicians (Tony Franklin, Vinny Appice, Derek Sherinian, Russell Allen, and Jeff Scott Soto) that certainly ranks as powerful a rock machine as you could imagine. The album is a straight up, no chaser hard rock album that is in Hoekstra’s words, “Good, solid rock stuff, tastefully played by great players.”
We spoke a great deal about Joel Hoekstra’s 13, and the route to getting there, but first I asked Joel to summarize his experience on ‘The Purple Tour’, which turned out to be one of the summer’s great successes:
Joel Hoekstra: “Well, we just finished up a three month run here in America, the first leg of the tour, and for me it exceeded all expectations, it was amazing.
“David was singing great, what a great lineup to be a part of; Tommy Aldridge back there on the drums, being part of a guitar team with Reb Beach is just amazing, it’s great fun for me. Everybody knows Reb is a ripping lead player, but the guy plays great rhythm guitar, too. So it’s really fun locking in with him on all these great Whitesnake riffs.
“It was just all smiles onstage and off, man.
“We had a great opening run, and we’re looking forward to more of the same as we head off for Japan and Europe, then finishing with a big run in Ireland and the UK with Def Leppard.”
‘The Purple Tour’ was an unqualified success – I saw the show here in Northern California, and it was great. It was very exciting to watch David Coverdale fawning over, and egging on his band as he took the audience into a rock rapture with his charm and vocal prowess:
Joel Hoekstra: “There’s something great happening when everyone feels they’re individually getting what they want from a scenario, and collectively, as well.
“David really feels there is something magical with this lineup, in terms of the chemistry. Reg, like you said, is very generous, he’s not overly aggressive in the guitar department. He is the band leader, so technically, he could say, ‘Hey, I’m going to play all the solos,’ but he just picks out the ones that he feels I would do a good job of playing, and he gives them to me.
“Look, I come from always being in a guitar team, with Brad Gillis (in Night Ranger), Chris Caffery in Trans Siberian Orchestra, so I’m not that aggressive in that department either. I just want to play rock on a high level – I’d be happy to just be the rhythm guitar player.
“I feel like I get to do a ton of guitar work in the set, and I think Reb is the same way. I’m just as happy playing rhythm behind his leads as I am playing solos. It’s all good. It’s all about playing, and we feel like we are firing on a all cylinders right now.”
So, just how do you go into a situation with another hot guitar player, and avoid the possible pitfalls of ego and competition?:
Joel Hoekstra: “Well, it’s different in every scenario. With TSO, it’s pretty much up to the music director to determine who is going to pay what, and divvy that up and keep everybody happy.
“As for working with Brad, he was kind of the same way as Reb – he just gave me what Jeff Watson was doing on the old stuff, and with the new stuff we just kind of both wrote solos or sections into songs, and that’s how we’d do it live. I never had any issues with Brad on that, either. He was always very generous, and gave me lots of the spotlight.
“Like I said, I just enjoy playing more than being ‘that guy,’ or any of that stuff. I don’t need that to make me happy.”
It’s a big jump going from playing significant roles as a sideman to taking the reigns on a project from the ground up, as the guitarist has done now with Joel Hoekstra’s 13:
Joel Hoekstra: “Just in being creative, and being able to do exactly what I wanted on it – it was a really big learning experience just to see all the behind the scenes stuff that goes down to make a record and put it out.
“I mean, I’ve done solo albums on my own independently before, but this was a lot more work, to work with a label on a worldwide release. There was a lot more weight put upon me, I feel, but it was great for me. It was a big learning experience.
“Production wise, I just let everyone play what they wanted to play, and just went with that. That way, you have everyone’s personalities on there. So, despite the fact that I did all the writing, I still feel like I got a great sound out of everybody with their personalities on the album.
“I’m really excited about the positive feedback I’m getting on it here in the early going.
“It’s definitely exciting to have this opportunity, for sure. I’m grateful to Frontiers for giving me the chance to put something like this out, worldwide.”
‘Dying To Live’ may have been recorded by an outfit that had never played a show, but to hear the record, you’d think they’d been a band for twenty years. I asked Joel what went into his duties as project leader and producer to get such a cohesive, well worn sound with no rehearsals:
Joel Hoekstra: “In terms of how the lineup came together, I had just finished a project with Tony Franklin, and I said, ‘Hey, would you be into doing a straight ahead rock record with vocal songs, nothing too progressive, nothing too wanky on it?’
“Tony said he’d be into it, so I asked him who to use on drums if we did this, and he recommended Vinny Appice, and from there, Russell Allen had just signed up to do the TSO tour that I do, and I had never heard Russell sing, I had never checked out Symphony X, maybe I had heard an Adrenaline Mob song, but I really hadn’t heard what a great vocalist Russell is, and I was totally blown away by him, so I thought, ‘He’s just the guy for this.’
“So he sings on the first seven songs that I was doing, then I called in a favor from my friend Jeff Scott Soto. I said, ‘Hey man, I know you’re way over qualified for this, please don’t be offended, but would you help me out and sing some backgrounds on some tracks?’ Thankfully, Jeff was nice enough to do that, and when it became clear that this was going to be a project, I said, ‘Dude, I want you to sing lead on this, too!’
“For me, this just brings more fun to the party, I’ll have two of the best singers in rock today singing on this. So, Jeff sang on the second half of the album, and even after I had laid down all my guitars, there was still room for keys, and that is when I asked Derek Sherinian, and he said he was willing to do it.
“Honestly, dude, I never set out to do a superband album, or anything like that. I just wanted to do a cool rock album with singing. It just came together piece by piece, and holy crap! I’ve got like one of the most amazing lineups ever on a classic rock album. It’s just totally cool for me. I owe a lot to these guys for bringing these songs to life for me.
“Obviously, I did all the writing, the lyrics, the vocal melodies, so it wasn’t fair for me to call this a band, but like you said, you put it on, and it doesn’t really sound like a guitar player’s solo album, there’s not a lot of fancy guitar playing going on all the time, so I gave it a project name. Joel Hoekstra’s 13.”
Along similar lines, I asked Joel how he went about demoing and presenting the songs to the players:
Joel Hoekstra: “At first it was just me, laying down scratch guitars down for a track, and also a guitar playing the vocal melody – that went to Vinny (Appice).
“No matter what Vinny put down, as long as it was fundamentally sound, I went with it. Even if it was completely different than what I had pictured, I thought that was cool, because it captured what he would truly do, and so I went that way with all the musicians. That way you kind of get everyone’s personalities on there, and there is kind of a band sound.
“I tried my best not to micromanage everybody, and to give it a band like sound.”
I found this to be an intriguing way of working, and I wondered if it had anything to do with Joel’s last recording project, Very High Frequency by VHF – a project that saw a record being made from the ground up in a very unique fashion. It was one of my favorite records 0f 2014:
Joel Hoekstra: “VHF was basically the brainchild of Todd Vinny Vinciguerra, he’s an old roommate of mine from Hollywood.
“We go way back, and he just said, ‘Hey man, I’ve got some tracks of me playing with Tony Franklin, and I need someone to play to it.’
“I said, ‘Well that’s strange!’ He said, ‘Yeah? I did the drums first, how about that?’ I said, ‘Really?’
“So – he’d play a song form, then let Tony make up riffs to what he’d done, and then I got this very cool, very basic riff oriented track for all the songs, I basically got to do whatever I wanted on top to turn it into a songs. It was like building songs in reverse. I think the results on that record are pretty unique.
“It was a cool experience doing that EP, it’s called VHF for those who want to check it out, it’s like psychedelic instrumental rock, and that is how this project, Joel Hoekstra’s 13 got started.
“From there, I talked to Tony – he just blew me away on that project, I loved his sound, his playing style, and as a person he’s just the greatest guy to work with, so he was the starting point for this album.”
‘Dying To Live’ is an album full of straight ahead rock that is brought together by the number 13:
Joel Hoekstra: “13 – it’s been a lucky number for me, nothing more than that. I was born on the 13th, and a lot of life events seem to fall for me on that day, so I just went with it for a project name.
“As far as the album title, which is ‘Dying To Live’, I’m going to stop way short of calling it a concept album, but the album’s lyrics have a theme, and it’s just about all of us trying to overcome the obstacles in our life that keep us from where we want to get to, and prevents us from becoming the people we want to be. It’s really where my headspace has been for the last couple of years. A couple of years ago I laid out a laundry list of things I wanted to do better with my life, got on a real self improvement kick, and that’s what a lot of it is about.
“Some of the songs are fantasy based, dealing with that kind of stuff, and some are directly from my life.
“Some of them are from the standpoint of the obstacles, like the song ‘Say Goodbye To The Sun’, and ‘Scream’, ‘The Only Way To Go’, basically like your vices or demons, or obstacles in your life singing to you, and others are just anthems about overcoming that stuff.
“There’s definitely a common thread to it all, and it gave the album a sound and a style.
“Chris Collier (Lita Ford, KXM, Lynch Mob) did a great job of mixing it, and helping give this album sound! It’s a very diverse album, I would describe it as Dio-ish at its heaviest, and Foreigner-ish at its lightest.
“To get that all on one record and sequence it properly, and have a nice sound, a lot of that came down to having a consistent mix engineer, obviously using the same instruments and amps on all the songs. I really wanted it to have diversity, but I also wanted it to have a sound, if that makes sense. I didn’t want the album to sound scattered, like each track was recorded in a different studio, and things like that.
“This record was something that a lot of fans who have gotten to know me over the years with Night Ranger and TSO, and now, of course, Whitesnake, they’ve asked me for this. ‘Why don’t you put out a solo album we can listen to a bit easier’, hahaha!
“I always wanted to make it, it was just a matter of finding the time. I’ve had an incredibly busy run for the last seven years, so over the last year or two during the down time, I finally got this done.This one is really for the fans, and for myself, in terms of what I would want to listen to as a rock fan. I tried not to get too self indulgent, I didn’t take any real long guitar solos, and I tried to avoid all the things that would have it cater to only musicians, I wanted this to be good, solid rock stuff, tastefully paid by great players.”
Thousands of gigs successfully played, endless touring and recording, and still Joel Hoekstra has no intention of slowing down this path that has lead him up to all of this. I asked Joel about his Herculean work ethic, a thing that not every guitarist has in their tool kit:
Joel Hoekstra: “Uh, thanks. I think it’s just out of desperation!
“It’s a tough business, right? To make a living in?
“Number one, I think I fought really hard to gain any momentum, to have things begin to kind of break and work out, and then once things do, then you feel enthused by that, and you feel like if you can put that much more into it, it will go further.
“I mean, I do believe, obviously, that a person can be the victim of circumstance – if you’re standing on a street corner, and a truck comes along and runs you over, you’re a victim of circumstance. However, I also believe that you can create your own luck to a degree through hard work. The harder you work, the luckier you get!
“So, if I expect to have a decent career in this insanely difficult business these days, I’ve got to be willing to put in that time and effort. I feel like otherwise you’re just setting yourself up to fail.”
I finished up by asking Joel about the hindrances he has encountered along the way to a burgeoning solo career and a gig with one of the classic rock bands in history, and how he has dealt with them:
Joel Hoekstra: “Oh man, how much time do we have, hahahaha!!!
“I don’t know, just probably having a confidence problem from being a kid, kind of being raised to have modest expectations, and to not expect too much from yourself. I didn’t always believe in myself, I didn’t really feel like, ‘I can do this.’
“I think there is a big thing in our culture that says to be successful in the music business, you have to be in the right place at the right time, you hear that phrase growing up. There is so much emphasis placed with luck, and I mean, there can be a little of that, but you can also create the opportunities that give you that luck.
“As a direct representation of that, I think I created the opportunity to get Rock Of Ages through hard work. I think you mentioned that I had subbed for a friend of mine for pit stuff here in New York, which was a lot of hard work for a little money, quite frankly. I busted my ass, probably well below minimum wage in terms of the hours I put in to do that, but I challenged myself and ended up creating an opportunity, because the keyboard player from one of these shows became the music supervisor for Rock Of Ages. Then, he hired me for that show. There’s an example of hard work creating luck.
“But then I think there is a luck factor involved that Rock Of Ages ran for over six years, so I got really lucky in terms of the show being super successful.
“But, I think confidence – to answer your question about obstacles I had to overcome, and then as things began to work out, it’s sort of like being given the keys to the car. You need to learn how to drive!
“Just keeping myself in check, making sure that I’m working as hard as I can, and that I’m bringing my A-game to every performance, remembering that the fans are spending their hard earned money to be there, and I’m damned lucky to be here.”