Rock Cellar correspondent David Peers recently caught up with NYC guitarist Joel Hoekstra (Whitesnake, Night Ranger, Trans-Siberian Orchestra) for a career-spanning chat about inspiration, guitar and a lot more.
Rock Cellar Magazine: I was in Florida last April. Went to this thing called Rockfest 80’s. Walking up, I hear Nelson playing. I’m like, OK, Nelson, these songs sound good. I turn the corner and who do I see but my tall drink of water, Joel Hoekstra. I’m like, Joel, what are you doing here? What’s the Nelson connection?
Joel Hoekstra (laughing): Well I’ve been friends with Matt and Gunnar for a while. I kind of got my start from them. I started out playing with a thing called Scrap Metal that they had together with Mark Slaughter and Kelly Keagy, and playing with them was part of my pathway into Night Ranger. You know what, if I have free time and they’re doing a gig they usually ask me. I really like those guys. I think they’ve written some great songs and they’re just good friends of mine.
It’s weird ‘cause I hadn’t heard the songs in a really long time and I think “After The Rain” was playing, and I’m thinking, man, these are really great songs!
Joel Hoekstra: Well back in the day they had a really phenomenal band, I mean, some really talented guys. Paul Mirkovich, who was their keyboard player, is now the musical director for The Voice, and somebody who I consider to be one of the best guitar players in the world, Brett Garsed, was their guitar player, who’s a dear friend of mine, but he’s also a hero of mine. The guy just plays amazing guitar. So, on that level, it was always fun for me. And of course, Bobby Rock on drums, who’s an animal. They really had some talented musicians in that band.
So I was a little remiss because… (Pause) I love your Night Ranger era stuff, love the records, but I’m there expecting Kerri (Kelly, Joel’s replacement in Night Ranger), but then you’re there, the whole thing is so incestuous, I think I could have pointed to the entire Whitesnake lineup either past or present over different stages on the weekend.
Joel Hoekstra: Yeah! I know, I guess that’s just the way it goes. I guess enough time goes by. That happens in a more accelerated fashion with crew! You see tour managers work for ten bands! It’s just a product of having that scene aging, really, is what it is. I mean, I was with Night Ranger for seven years, so I think if that were the heyday it would be like, “whoa, whoa, he’s from Night Ranger!” but I guess it happened like that since the resurgence of tha style of music. I’m known, but it’s also not enough to have it be “I’ve made millions of dollars, and sold ten million albums, and I’m set for life in my mansion.”
We all need to keep working and get out there and do it, and really, at the end of the day I just consider myself a guitar player and I like to play, and that’s how you get good. I still aspire to be a much better player than I am. I don’t want to rest on my laurels at all. So, if I have the opportunity to work with someone I like as people and I think they have talent, that’s always a prerequisite for me, I do it! You get paid, and you get better!
Does it ever get weird, running into people? You seem like a pretty stable-headed guy.
Joel Hoekstra: I think fans perceive that stuff as more of a big deal than it is when you’re in it making a living at it, and it’s like professional moves. You mean is it weird with any of the Night Ranger guys? Now that I’ve moved on to Whitesnake?
Joel Hoekstra: No! I don’t think so. I talked to Jack Blades earlier that day, he came and said hello. Kelly, I think was late getting in on a flight that day, barely made the show, otherwise I’m sure we would have hung with him. And Brad Gillis and I are still good friends, we talk on the phone and text each other all the time.
Do you ever see going back, if the situation presents itself?
Joel Hoekstra (hesitating): I mean, if it made sense, I have absolutely nothing against those guys, I learned so much from them. There’s no ill will, I think, on either end. I don’t exactly know how to answer that, I mean, I’m really happy playing with David in Whitesnake, and doing everything I’m doing. But look, if Kerri needed a day off from the tour if something happened on a personal level, I’d hop in and fill in, definitely.
The records you did with Night Ranger, especially High Road, were great. Can you tell me a little bit about the process, how the songs came together, your favorite songs? Just give us a bit on High Road.
Joel Hoekstra: The way it usually worked with the Night Ranger guys was that Jack, Brad, and Kelly would get together first and start cooking up some riffs and song ideas, and the core of those albums would start with those three.
Then they would take in some ideas from Eric and myself, and check it out, so some of the stuff on there, like “I’m Coming Home,” that was Brad and I. Really I pretty much wrote all the guitar stuff and Brad had the little opening riff (sings lick). I kinda wrote the other guitar riffs and the basic idea of what the chorus melody would be, and we showed that to Jack and Kelly. It’s a very collaborative process with Night Ranger. It’s not like once guy writes the whole song and presents it to the band. There’s a lot of working on it together.
Jack had this great studio in Santa Rosa that was built into his property during the Damn Yankees days. It was a great place for us to sit and work on the songs together.
Is that where the DVD was recorded?
Joel Hoekstra: Which one?
The 24 Strings and A Drummer thing?
Joel Hoekstra: No. Close, though. That was Bob Weir’s studio nearby. No, it was just great ‘cause you could stay on Jack’s property there at that time and kind of all meet in the studio and work on stuff together. Like I said, I was included on the writing, but the bulk of it was the three original guys, ‘cause it’s their baby. It’s their band.
What was the song you had a co-write on?
Joel Hoekstra: ‘I’m Coming Home.” What else is on there? I’m trying to remember (laughs). Obviously the “LA No Name” song, the acoustic song with Brad, there’s one other on there, if you show me I can probably remember. It’s not coming to me right now, for some reason. Oh, I think I wrote the bridge on “Brothers.”
“Brothers” is such a great song. It’s moving.
Joel Hoekstra: Jack had that, he’s like “I was kicking this around.” I was like, “well that’s really awesome.” It’s totally not a normal thing, it was more his Beatles influence, or the seventies R&B thing Jack has in him; he’s a great writer with stuff like that. “High Road,” oddly enough, I had all the guitars done for the other songs…
Oh, I know, I had a co-write on the bonus track, “The Mountain Song.” But “High Road,” Jack’s son Colin had come up with, and that ended up being the last addition to the record. I was out with TSO at the time, 2013 or 2014, they ended up sending me the track and I ended up doing the tracks on a direct recording unit in my hotel room (laughs). Somewhere, I don’t even remember where I was. It’s like the one that I didn’t even use a real amp on; I had my Avid 11 rack, but it was cool. I love that song. I like “High Road” a lot. I played along to it for quite some time just out of enjoyment.
Do you ever wish that you could play more than one song from a new album? You know, when you go on the road, you’re playing the hits, do you ever lobby for a deeper track?
Joel Hoekstra: Well, yes and no. On an artistic level, yes! Because you just got done making it and it’d be really fun to play the stuff, and, from a fan reaction standpoint, no (laughter)! Because you’d be playing it and people would go, “what are they doing?”
Ugh. That bums me out, man.
Joel Hoekstra: That’s just the way it is in the classic rock scene.
Joel Hoekstra: So if you have established hits… And there are fans that complain about it, well, “we hear the same songs every time,” yes, but you have to understand, for the most part you’re playing for an 80% new audience every time. There are people that haven’t seen the band a million times and they just wanna hear the stuff they’re familiar with and the hits…
Right. I get it…
Joel Hoekstra: It is what it is. Its the same problem with every band in the classic rock scene. I think we probably all share that same thought like, yeah, new songs, that would be a lot of fun. But, the positive side is that you get to make albums and still do get to make new music.
I should touch on Whitesnake. From reading Classic Rock Magazine, it seemed like, 2017, 30th anniversary of the 1987 album, and maybe, that was it. But now, David has said, “I’m not stopping.” Do you have your year planned with them already?
Joel Hoekstra: Obviously, David has got to fill everybody in, but I think he’s gone on record as saying that we’re working on a new album. So, that’s kind of what’s happening and, we’ll take it from there. Definitely excited on working on some new music with those guys, and this line up. David, he’s having a good time with this lineup, on the road, I think that kind of took him by surprise. It’s rejuvenated.
Obviously, Tommy Aldridge still steering the ship, and Reb Beach who’s been a long time band member, so David’s got that deep connection with him that he still has. You know, those guys have been around a while, and the new guys, like myself, and Michele Luppi, bring a little excitement and enthusiasm to the camp ‘cause we’re geeked to be there. And Michael Devin is somewhere in between. He’s been there, but he’s also got a real upbeat, positive attitude about it all.
Whitesnake toured with The Answer…
Joel Hoekstra: They’ve been out with us a couple of times in the U.S. They’ve been with us on the Purple tour, and, they were with us on some dates of the Greatest Hits tour, so, I definitely know those guys.
They came to a music store I own in Maryland the morning after they finished up with you guys in State College, PA. They recounted how they’d watch Tommy Aldridge, playing outside at these sheds, and how the bugs would get in his hair (laughing)…
Joel Hoekstra: I don’t know that, actually, firsthand, but the best comment I ever read was that Tommy’s hair should have its own Twitter account. It’s amazing. It’s all real too. I don’t know how old Tommy is, but he’s in his sixties, and he’s still got quite a head of hair (laughing), for that stage of the game, and David too! We should all be so lucky!
You worked with Tony Franklin. How did that come about? Were you friends? Did you listen to The Firm as a kid and go “wow?”
Joel Hoekstra: No, it started with that VHF thing project. A buddy, an old roommate of mine said, “hey, I’ve got these drum tracks with Tony Franklin playing bass, and I need someone to turn them into songs.” So I said, “really? So you’ve got, like, full songs?” And he said, “well, they’re in song form, but it’s just kinda like riffs…” And I said, “really, well why don’t you give me one and I’ll see how it works out…” And it was cool, but it was a lot of work for me. A lot of guitar tracks, a lot of interesting overdubs to make it into something. We could have added a keyboard player but the goal was to keep it a trio.
So you knew of Tony…
Joel Hoekstra: Yeah! He’s one of the best out there. I love his sound, and the whole fretless thing gives him that growl and grit. He’s got a great style. We did the VHF EP together that’s out there, and people can check it out. And of course when it came time to work on my album, Joel Hoekstra’s 13-Dying To Live (Frontiers), he was the first guy I asked. I said to him, “Who would you want on drums?” and he recommended Vinny Appice.
Right at that time, Russell Allen had joined TSO, and I thought, “This guy’s outrageous.” He can sing the Dio thing, and I’ve got Vinny Appice and Tony Franklin, so, he’s the guy! I asked Russ to sing on it, and got Jeff Scott Soto to do some backgrounds on it, and Derek Sherinian with some keyboards. Jeff Scott Soto ended up singing some lead on it ‘cause, he’s Jeff Scot Soto, and what am I gonna do. Have this guy only sing backgrounds on it? So, it ended up really being a cool album that I got out, and we’re gonna have our first live support gig for it on the Monsters Of Rock cruise, which is cool.
Kind of a heavier record, I think.
Joel Hoekstra: Dio at it’s heaviest and Foreigner at it’s lightest is how I sort of looked at it. A lot of that was the personnel. I’ve got Vinny Appice on drums, I’m not gonna do I-IV-V major pop stuff that’s light. I just like music. I feel like I can write in any style, or make an album in any style, within reason. But that’s what made sense, with those guys.
Your Wiki says that you moved to New York in 2001, which begs the question, pre or post 9/11?
Joel Hoekstra: Oh, pre. Top of the year. January. When I moved to LA, the Rodney King riots happened, which was insane. I was a kid. So that was very traumatic and scary, and when I moved to New York, 9/11 happened, and I’m like, “Man, having bad luck when I move to cities.” It was a crazy thing to go through. I lived on the Upper West Side. I was working a show called, “Love, Janis,” about Janis Joplin, down in the village, and you could smell it there for a long time. The first time going back there, I think it was two days later that they resumed the show, getting up off the subway and seeing all the pictures of the people missing. It was intense.
And now, you’re in DC just in time for Donald Trump’s inauguration. Soon, anyway. So. On the Night Ranger DVD, 24 Strings And A Drummer (Live & Acoustic), you do this rap before “Sister Christian.” What is that? Is that a Chicago guy? A Brooklyn guy? What brought this very funny rap about? Did anybody look at you sideways when you did it? Whose idea was it?
Joel Hoekstra: It’s all part of the internal band dynamic and jokes. The guys in Night Ranger would always really laugh at my Chicago accent that I do. That’s where I grew up, the suburbs of Chicago. When we would do radio they would always encourage me to do a little of that, and be goofy and silly. So, it was at Jack’s, that studio I talked about earlier, we’d sit around to work on stuff, and we were trying to come up with an intro for it (Sister Christian), and we started with that mellow vamp, so I just got on my mic and started doing that to crack everybody up. Not in a million years did I think they’d say “do that on the DVD.” But Gillis is the guy that likes to be a little more adventurous in that department and do something to crack people up. It was just our sense of humor in the band, at that time.
It’s really funny. Did you ever do it at shows?
Joel Hoekstra: Just for the DVD. That was a one-time thing. Probably with good reason. It got pretty vulgar as I recall. But that’s just a little insight into they way we were when we were just hanging out.
My favorite part is when you talk about how Eric (current NR keyboardist) looks just like Fitz (former NR keyboardist).
Joel Hoekstra: Yeah (laughing), I know. I winged it. It was loosely shaped. Do the Chicago guy, maybe say this, and maybe say that. It was like, here I go, and whatever happens happens. I figure they could always edit some of it if there was something they wanted to cut out.
Well, it’s very funny and readers should all go out and get it. Joel, thanks for your time.
Joel Hoekstra: Hey man, thanks for having me out.