Joel Hoekstra – Interview

I recently interviewed guitarist Joel Hoekstra in anticipation of the upcoming Broadway Rock of Ages concert at Carteret Performing Arts Center. This performance was born out of the Broadway jukebox musical Rock of Ages, built around classic rock songs of the 1980s, which successfully ran from 2009 to 2015. Broadway’s Rock of Ages showcases the songs from the Broadway musical, played by musicians from the original Broadway show, including Hoekstra, who performed for the duration of its Broadway run. Rock of Ages is just one of the many bands and musical projects Hoekstra has been involved with, and continues to be, throughout his extensive musical career. Hoekstra has been a member of Trans Siberian Orchestra since 2010 and with Whitesnake since 2014. He previously spent several years with Night Ranger, has done stints in Foreigner and toured with Cher. Hoekstra has written and recorded music for his side project Joel Hoekstra’s 13, releasing two albums with a third coming this summer. He also performs annually on the Monsters of Rock cruise, has been a counselor at Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp and the list goes on and on…..

Interview & Photo by Rebecca Wolf.

Rebecca Wolf: I know you have a lot going on, especially with the Broadway’s Rock of Ages show this Saturday. Having performed Rock of Ages on Broadway for so many years do you retain all the songs or do you have to practice them all?

Joel Hoekstra: The arrangements in the show were a little different than when we do the full band shows. The full band shows are the full lengths versions of the songs, so a little bit more like the original versions, with some twists and turns here and there. But, in general I’m a guy who prepares for everything. We’ve done enough of them that I’ll run through everything a couple of times before a show and then we have soundcheck and any last minute stuff…mainly the solos for me. I go through all the solos to make sure when I’m cranked on the PA that I sound OK!

RW: I’m sure it must’ve been different performing for a Broadway audience as opposed to a typical concert audience.

JH: They’re definitely two different animals, although Rock of Ages as a Broadway show came as close as you can get to a rock concert vibe. We did have a crowd that partied pretty hard and got pretty loud and raucous at times for a Broadway show. But there’s definitely differences. This is a little more liberating in that there are real amps on stage and the band is the focus rather than the storyline or the actors.

RW: It’s amazing that you’ve always managed to juggle so many different bands and musical experiences. Do you tend to thrive on doing lots of different things at the same time?

JH: I’m the type of person that thrives on feeling like I’m working hard at what I do to try to advance and move forward, not just professionally but musically. It’s good for you to play your instrument quite a bit. I’ve always been one of those people that thrives on having a real world reason to do so, rather than “Hey, I’m just going to hang out and practice scales tonight.” I definitely enjoy staying busy. I feel like I’ve gotten further than I pictured as a kid…. doing some of the things that I’ve been able to do. So, for now it’s kind of fun seeing how far I can go with it all.

RW: Is it different being in large ensembles like TSO vs bands like Whitesnake vs your acoustic Campfire Tour?

JH: Yeah, they all have their own guidelines and things that make them special. I just try to figure out things that make sense in terms of time spent, in terms of if I’m making a living doing it, and am I having a good time doing it. Those are all things that go into it. The good time thing is actually first. Realistically, I can’t justify doing things musically if I’m not enjoying them, that’s huge. Then, obviously it has to make sense financially. As long as it fits into those two realities then I’m in.

RW: So, is there something you enjoy more than another?

JH: That’s a difficult question because I always feel lucky to have the opportunities I get. Certainly at the moment Whitesnake and TSO are the big gigs I have and then putting in things I enjoy doing surrounding those, like playing with Brandon Gibbs on the acoustic shows or playing with Broadway’s Rock of Ages. Those things make sense. Then, when there’s an opening in my calendar I can fill more with that, so I’m not just sitting home because I don’t have a gig for three months. In general, that’s the way I like to approach it, so I have something everyday. Whether it’s a gig or I’m recording or writing, those are all things that contribute to furthering this whole dream I’ve been able to live. I know that sounds cheesy but realistically I decided to do this when I was eleven. There aren’t many people who get to do what they decided to do when they were eleven. That’s like, “I want to be a baseball player kind of stuff!” So, it’s worked out and it’s cool and I don’t want to take that for granted. There’s a direct correlation between the amount of work you put in and how far it all goes. I just want to make sure I’m doing that.

RW: You’re right. Many people aren’t lucky enough to get to do what they dreamt of when they were young! I know you have a new album coming out very soon with Revolution Saints. How did that collaboration come about?

JH: Well, Doug Aldrich and Jack Blades decided they’d done what they wanted to do with that project and Deen Castronovo, who’s the lead vocalist and drummer, and plays for Journey, was interested in keeping it going, as was the label, Frontiers. I was a little hesitant at first because people associate that with Deen, Doug Aldrich and Jack Blades. So, I texted Doug and said, “Hey, what’s up with this? They’re asking me to do this.” He said, “I don’t want to do it anymore and recommended they get you.” So, that took away any weirdness and made it an easy decision at that point. Then having Jeff Pilson step in for Jack Blades….Jeff and I know each other from when I played with Foreigner for a bit, filling in for Mick Jones. At the end of the day I had an opportunity to play with Deen Castronovo and Jeff Pilson. What guitar player says “no” to that?

RW: Did you enjoy it? Was it what you expected it to be?

JH: Absolutely! I was really pleasantly surprised how great the first album turned out with the new lineup. When we’re recording it’s kind of a work in progress. Deen’s vocals aren’t on it yet. But, as soon as you hear Deen singing on everything he makes it sound so great. He really is one of the best singers in rock today. It’s almost unfair to us mere morals because he’s really one of the best drummers in the world and then this dude decides, “Hey, I wanna sing,” and he’s one of the best singers in the world. He’s a remarkable talent. Jeff and Deen were really good to me. We had a mutual experience where we toured together in 2011. I was with Night Ranger, Jeff was with Foreigner and Deen was with Journey. That was the same tour where I filled in for Mick Jones in Foreigner for a bit. The three of us really bonded and I was by far, and still am, the smallest name out of the three of us. They were always really good to me and I always remember that. Those guys treated me with respect long before I had any kind of name in this business. So, this made sense on so many levels. They are both good dudes, great musicians and it was an opportunity to do something musically that makes me better and keeps me playing with other talented people.

RW: I’ve always wondered when I watch guitar players, especially someone who plays in so many different bands, how do you remember how to play so many different songs? Do your fingers just know where to go?

JH: I do a lot of prep work. I run through everything, some things more than others. It can be challenging at times because you need to think ahead when you have a gig on the calendar and say, “When to I need to start working on those songs. When does that need to be a part of my daily existence?” Then I sort of set that time around…, I do a lot of teaching remotely these days. So, I’ll run this set; I’ll teach these six lessons; I’ll record this. My day is always mapped out mentally in terms of how I’m going to get it all done. There’s definitely a lot of prep work that goes into playing anybody’s set. If I’m going on tour with Whitesnake or TSO I’ve been playing that music for a long time before anyone sees the first show.

RW: I saw you also just did Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp. Did you enjoy mentoring the campers?

JH: I’d say it’s a good mix of that feeling of being a teacher and actually getting up and playing with them. Some actually play quite well and it’s musically rewarding. There’s also the experience of bonding with the other counselors for those four days and seeing everybody. The one I just did in LA, Vinny Appice and Tony Franklin, who both play on my albums, were there and it gives you a chance to hang with them and some people who I’ve started to get to know. Kim Thayil from Soundgarden headlined and that was the second time I saw him and we started to get to know each other again and bond. Mike Kroeger from Nickelback stopped by, even though he wasn’t counseling and I saw Stephen Perkins from Jane’s Addiction at the airport going there. You get to know a lot of people in the business through doing it. I hate to sound businesslike… but it’s good networking. The more you get to know other people in the business, the more friends you have and the more opportunities you have. So, I think it’s helpful on that level, too.

RW: Tony Franklin was at the Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp that I recently photographed and I loved taking photos of him because he was so animated.

JH: Yeah, Tony’s amazing. We sort of became friends doing a project called VHF together and since I decided to start this rock side project of mine, Joel Hoekstra’s 13, which has a new album coming out this summer, so look out for that, Tony and I’ve been working together quite a bit. We’ve now played on four full albums together and he’s a Whitesnake alumni.

RW: For Joel Hoesktra’s 13, do you write the music for each of the instruments?

JH: It’s not like that. I write the guitar parts and then I write what the singer is going to sing basically and from there everybody just plays what they want. Vinny is going to play what he wants on drums and Tony is going to feel free. I rarely ask them to change anything. Same with Derek Sherinian on keyboards. The singers have a guide vocal from me, basically singing the whole album. They just listen to it and then sing it a whole lot better than me.

RW: Well, you do sing a little bit on the Campfire Tour.

JH: Yeah, I definitely sing a bit on these albums. I’ve had Russell Allen, Jeff Scott Soto and now Girish Pradhan, from India. These guys are the best rock vocalists in the world. So, when it comes down to whether I want to sing on an album to satisfy my own ego and have it be okay or want to have somebody else sing and have it be great, I’ll take the great. I know my limitations!

RW: When did you first start writing music?

JH: I’d say I was fourteen years old when I had my first songs and my first band. I have recordings of myself as far back as fifteen in the studio with my first band, really young. We were terrible.

RW: Were there any people you considered as mentors as you were coming up in the industry.

JH: Oh yeah, I’ve had lots of them. Specifically, TJ Helmerich, who was my second guitar teacher. I’d only been playing for about a year and taking lessons in this mall in suburban Chicago and they hired him as a guitar teacher. He really went on to become very prolific with the eight finger tapping that I’m kind of known for these days…the two hand tapping. A lot of that came from taking lessons from him at a young age and just having that be the norm…that my teacher could play like that. TJ would fall into that category and then we made friends in LA, when we both lived out there, with Brett Garsed, who’s remarkable with legato and hybrid picking. Those are a couple of other techniques I gravitated towards based on my own strengths and weaknesses. So, definitely influenced by Brett in my own way. A lot of times it’s just the people I work with, like joining Night Ranger and learning to get it together on stage. I learned a lot from those guys. I was pretty green. All the way to working with everybody in Whitesnake.

RW: Are there any musician or bands you’ d still love to play with?

JH: As long as it’s on a high level and it’s positive people I’m into it. I’d personally rather play any style, to be a chameleon and mold myself, and to have it be at a high level, than to say, “This is what I do, and this is all I do.” I’ve been trained to try to fit in due to music changing throughout the years. I’m a bit more into trying to adapt to situations, especially when it comes to playing other peoples’ music. There’s always recording my own and having the mentality of, “Well, this is what I want to do. I don’t care what anybody else wants.” That’s kind of what the Joel Hoektra’s 13 albums are for. I’ve been through so many things and have done a lot of things people don’t realize. I’ve played bass in The Turtles foe two years, playing “Happy Together.” I’ve played in Big Brother and The Holding Company, and I’ve played in acid jazz bands and I’ve played in hip hop bands. People often just think, “This guy has his long hair and joined Whitesnake,” but it didn’t really work that way. I was in a billion things leading up to that. The story kind of continues. You keep going and you keep trying to stay active musically and stay open minded. You never know where life is going to lead you. You’ve cited two of the prime examples of that in this interview…including playing on Broadway, which no way when I was a kid was I like, “Someday I’m going to be on Broadway!” But, Rock of Ages ended up being a very big break in my career. Having over six years of eight shows a week, where I could still play with Night Ranger and TSO totally transformed my career. I went from not being known to being well-known, to not having money in the bank to having money in the bank. When you play more gigs than there are days in the year for over six straight years that’s a big period in your life. The other one would be Cher. No way was I eleven, playing Black Sabbath songs, thinking someday I was going to play with Cher. But, it worked out and that ended up being something that really was a lot of fun and a great example.

RW: How did you end up in Rock of Ages?

JH: It actually came up in a very roundabout way that people don’t expect. They think it was because I was in Night Ranger. But, I was doing stuff in the pit, subbing in Broadway musicals as a pit musician. Then, one of the keyboard players ended up getting the music supervisor gig and he was like, “I remember this guy who was kinda like a rock guy.” So he reached out and I had actually just joined Night Ranger and he said that was amazing because they had a song in the show so, it became this natural thing where two worlds collide.

RW: It must’ve been such a different world at first to suddenly be on a Broadway stage.

JH: Luckily I had kind of been trained in that. When I came to NY it was to be in a show called Love, Janis, that was Off-Broadway in The Village. It was a show about Janis Joplin. So, I got my feet wet with theater at that point, doing eight shows a week, for two years. Afterwards, the director had me go on the road with that and do these regional theaters, like Tucson for a month, Phoenix for a month, Kansas City for a month, Seattle for a month and about seven other cities. That was really good for me. I was playing with The Turtles, so I’d get a sub and fly off to play with The Turtles, so I’ve always been juggling a few things, which takes additional work but it always pay off.

RW: Are there any artists or bands your fans would be surprised you listen to?

JH: Probably a lot. One that seems to surprise people a lot is I like the Goo Goo Dolls. I like a lot of those songs…that jangley, 90s pop as well as The Gin Blossoms and even some of boy bands. Some of those song are really great songs and well written. I like pop music. I gravitate towards more retro pop. That’s always surprising to people. They think I’m just hard rock. In general, I’m pretty open-minded.

RW: What do you like to do outside of music in your free time?

JH: I like kind of basic stuff. I’m a pretty normal human being outside of the music thing. It’s usually getting away from music, so basketball, which I play and watch and I watch baseball and movies…just boring stuff. I try to avoid any hobbies that could injure by hands or my wrists. You won’t catch me skiing anytime soon! One wipe out and I could be out off commission for a year!