Joel Hoekstra is mostly known to the world as the current guitarist of Whitesnake and as the ex-guitarist of Night Ranger. Although he is “the new member” of Whitesnake who replaced the acclaimed Doug Aldrich, Joel is a busy man and has made a lot of noise in the rock scene. Before joining Whitesnake he spent 6 years with Night Ranger, he performs with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, he took part in Broadway’s Rock of Ages and his solo back catalogue consists of three instrumental releases.
Mr. Hoekstra pursues a “philosophy of trying to be productive every day” and this is clear from his busy schedule. In-between touring with legends Whitesnake, Joel will be releasing an album titled Dying to Live from his brand new side project, Joel Hoestra’s 13. The album comes out on 16 October 2015 via Frontiers Music and features amazing musicians such as Vinny Appice, Jeff Scott Soto, Russell Allen and Tony Franklin.
Joel took some time to talk to me about the new album, the number 13, the current state of rock and the music industry and new music from Whitesnake. Yes, you read that right: David Coverdale is working on new Whitesnake music.
Dom: You’re releasing “Dying to Live” in October. That is an interesting album title. You stated in the press release that it “focuses on struggles, potential pitfalls and the art of overcoming obstacles in life to finally arrive where we are meant to be”.
Joel Hoekstra: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. That’s a very extravagant way for me to put it like this. [Laughs] It’s just about like all things that we struggle within ourselves to become better people and the person that we want to be.
Dom: Where did the inspiration for this come from? Are the lyrics based on personal experiences?
Joel: A couple years ago I just said – I don’t know if it’s a mid-life crisis or what – I had a think, ‘you know, what do I wanna change? What do I wanna do better at?’. I just made a big list of all the things I want to do better and I started to write down realistic steps towards it, like every month, you know. So, all of it was, the album was recorded and written since then so it’s kind of a natural flow where my head is right now, in that kind of self-improvement stage in life, I guess.
Dom: All the songs are quite personal then.
Joel: I think. I mean some of them are fantasy, based upon the concepts [of the album]. For instance, “Long for the Day” is about somebody who blew it in a relationship – that hasn’t happened for me; I wrote a song about somebody who is dealing with these troubles [and] lets it get too far and ruin a relationship for them, if that makes sense. So, some of it is fantasy-based and others are reality-based.
Dom: When I was listening to the album I had this picture in my mind that it could be a soundtrack for someone who is changing their life for better.
Joel: Yeah, I think so! A lot of it is dark just because a lot of the struggles are dark. And in the end the album ends on a real positive note, that’s kind of intentional, the sequencing makes it so that the album ends on the most positive song and it probably starts with the most negative, “Say Goodbye to the Sun”. [Laughs] Yeah, like I said, it is very much about the struggle within yourself to become the person you want to be.
Dom: Awesome. Would you say you are an optimist then?
Joel: I dunno. People that know me might disagree on that but I don’t know, man. I think we all are optimists and pessimists, aren’t we to a certain degree? I don’t think there’s anyone who is optimistic a 100% all the time.
Dom: So, we covered the album name, now let’s move to the band name, Joel Hoekstra’s 13. Why “13”? I don’t see 13 musicians in the credits…
Joel: [Laughs] I know. I was born on the 13th so it’s been a kind of lucky number for me I suppose. And I just wanted something that could mean different things to different people. I’ve been joking lately ‘plus think about all the free advertising I am getting every time everybody sees the [number] 13’. Yeah, it just seemed the most appropriate because it could be open to interpretation.
Dom: You have a lot of good/known names in the line-up and guests. How was it working with them? What did they bring to the band? Did they add anything to the writing/recording process or did you write everything yourself?
Joel: Yeah, absolutely, I would say so. It’s a really strong line-up of musicians that helped me out on this. Russell Allen from Symphony X and Jeff Scott Soto, who everybody knows, he started out in Yngwie Malmsteen back in the day and he’s done it all since then – he was even in Journey for a bit. So, Russell and Jeff Scott Soto are singing on this. Vinny Appice from Dio and Black Sabbath is playing drums. Tony Franklin from The Firm and Blue Murder plays bass. And Derek Sherinian of course from Joe Bonamassa, Black Country Communion, Dream Theater – he has a million credits – he plays keyboards on [the album]. So, I feel very blessed. I did all the writing on it, I wrote the words, the vocal melodies and everything but the way I handled the production style and all with these guys, I just left them to do what they do best and just wrote with it. So, for instance, definitely with Vinny Appice – he took the songs into different directions than I would have expected but instead of me writing back and saying ‘hey man, can you play this instead’ I just went with it. So, what we ended up with is a result of me doing all the writing but yet everybody kind of playing with their first instinct on everything. So, it does have [everybody’s] personalities in it I think.
Dom: Awesome, so like you said, you wrote most of it but you let everyone add their own “spice” to the music.
Joel: Exactly. In terms of the production, I just pretty much let everyone do their thing. But yeah, I wrote all of it, all the words, all the melodies and everything, all of the music. That is why it didn’t make sense to give it a band name but at the same time it doesn’t really sound like a guitar player’s solo album. So, I think to call it ‘Joel Hoekstra’ would have been a little bit misleading, people would have expected a lot of guitar solos and this just sounds like rock songs. It was an interesting dilemma of what to call it. I thought in the end the project name of ‘Joel Hoekstra’s 13’ made the most sense.
Dom: Your previous solo albums are instrumental and mellower while with this album you’re taking more of a hard rock direction, something even heavier than Whitesnake, Trans-Siberian Orchestra or Night Ranger. What prompted you to take this heavy turn?
Joel: Well, I don’t know if all of the album is heavy. I think it’s diverse. I think there is some hooky stuff, like the songs “Until I Left You” and “Start Again” are very much like AOR stuff. I describe the album as DIO-ish at its heaviest and Foreigner-ish at its lightest. It’s basically the album that fans have been wanting from me. A lot of people got to know me through Night Ranger, which you mentioned, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the show Rock of Ages and now of course Whitesnake. And so, the fans go out to listen to my solo albums and find instrumental fusion albums and an acoustic album. I get a lot of people saying ‘hey, how come you don’t make an album [with] just good vocal rock songs’ – this is this album. And I always wanted to make this album, it’s not like I did it just because the fans were asking. I thought it would be really fun to just write a cool album of rock songs. So, that’s what it is, it’s just good old-school melodic hard rock. And like I said, not to go overboard on being derivative on comparisons but since people aren’t all that familiar with me in some cases I think DIO-ish at its heaviest and Foreigner-ish at its lightest is the best description I can give it for people.
Dom: I like that description, I think it’s quite accurate. You mention DIO and I agree that the album has quite a few heavy metal elements. So, I wanted to know, what is your attitude to metal? Because I know you play in Whitesnake now and over the summer I was reading Whitesnake’s biography by Martin Popoff and in their early days, they didn’t really seem to like “heavy metal”…
Joel: I’m open-minded to all music as long as it’s done well. I like music with substance, I have to admit. It takes talent to make it. [Laughs] It’s an important feeling to me. I’m not as into hip-hop, you know, but that being said I’m not gonna completely shut down…I’m open-minded to music. With this I just wrote within the genre that I kinda grew up with, hard rock. I started very much into Iron Maiden and Ozzy, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Scorpions, DIO – those were all my early influences as a kid. So, that’s all there. I think obviously when I’m playing with bands, it’s more about the sound of that band that you want to maintain. I mean, if I was going to sit down and write an album with David Coverdale (Whitesnake) a lot of these songs wouldn’t be on there, for instance. I would make it more blues-based rock and classical rock sounding. But I was writing or writing for these musicians in a sense, so writing for Russell Allen and Jeff Scott Soto, I think they are a different style of singers than David Coverdale. I’m open-minded to all things especially in the rock world. I just love rock music.
Dom: You mentioned Iron Maiden. Their new album just came out. Have you had a chance to listen to it?
Joel: Ah, I haven’t. I’ve just been really immersed in getting stuff done here. I’m sure it’s great. Iron Maiden became one of the biggest bands in the world, haven’t they. Such a huge international draw and I think it’s fantastic, what a great rock band. Nicko McBrain (Iron Maiden drummer) came to the Whitesnake show in Florida when we played there recently and what a nice guy! He is the nicest guy, he lights up the room when he enters it, such a great personality.
Dom: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone with a bigger smile!
Joel: Yep. SUPER nice guy. He’s like one of those guys that wherever he goes you think ‘what a great guy’!
Dom: Haha that’s awesome. So, back to your album. You are releasing it on Frontiers Music in October. That’s also the current home of Whitesnake and Night Ranger. Was it an easy decision to release the album with them?
Joel: Well, it’s the only place I took it to, really. I was either just going to release it on my own or go to Frontiers, maybe look around if they weren’t interested. I recorded and fully produced the first seven songs and went to them and told them ‘here’s what I have’. They don’t release EPs so they wanted a full-length album. But yeah, it was an easy decision because I have a relationship with them and I think they’re a great bunch of guys. Serafino [Perugino] is doing a great job of keeping the whole melodic rock scene alive so I’m honoured to get a chance to have a worldwide release with these guys and maybe make some new fans, I don’t know, we’ll take it from there.
Dom: Did your recent work with Whitesnake and David Coverdale have any influence on this album?
Joel: Not really, most of this was written really coming into Whitesnake for me. I guess I wrote some of it since I joined Whitesnake. But the project was already in motion, so they knew when I joined that I have this in the works and everything. Like I said, it was very much writing for the musicians that were going to be on the project too, especially the singers. So, that was more of the mind-set. I didn’t really want to make it sound like a Whitesnake album, what would be the point? I will be able to make more Whitesnake albums with David [Coverdale]. This is just its own thing.
Dom: You just finished a North American tour with Whitesnake and you will be going to Japan and Europe soon. How does this solo album fit into your busy schedule with Whitesnake?
Joel: It’s fine right now! At this point I just have to do a little bit more interviews to get the word out. Hopefully there will be a decent reception for it. If there is enough demand, maybe I can form some live support for it. I mean, really, the sky could be the limit moving forward. It would be fun to hear this line-up of musicians all collaborating and writing and be a real band as well. I don’t rule any of that stuff out. I’m eager to see how this album does. I think the challenge is going to be getting people to listen to it [because] a lot of people still don’t know who I am or aren’t familiar with me so that’s why I try to explain to people what this album sounds like. But I think it’s special from the feedback I’m getting from people who have reviewed it so far and are doing these interviews that think it is a really special album. I’m hoping that there will be a good public reception for it.
Dom: You mentioned taking it on tour – would you take the musicians who are on the record if you could?
Joel: I think I would have to actually kidnap people to make that happen. I would have to do some illegal activity to make that happen first. [Laughs] I don’t know, I would love to have all of them on new live shows but realistically it’s probably going to be logistically insane. Insanely difficult. But the nice thing about this is that there are so many known players on it that if a couple of the guys couldn’t do it, you still have a lot of players in it. It’s amazing I’m getting a lot of inquiries about [taking it live] actually from promoters and the album is not even out for another month and a half. I think it will be interesting to see where it goes, man!
Dom: Well, if you ever manage to get a gig in the UK, I’ll make sure not to miss it!
Joel: Thanks a lot. I really appreciate your support!
Dom: What do you think of the state of rock ‘n’ roll in 2015? Many people, musicians and journalists, have criticised the current state of rock and metal… and even Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones) called Sabbath a joke. Where do you stand in the debate?
Joel: I don’t know, man. That’s so silly. Why even say something like that. I think everyone should have the right to make the music they want, there’s room for all of us to make well out there, right?! I see no point in bad mouthing anybody. And the business is tough right now but the trick I think is not to focus on it because I can’t change it. It’s not like I’m going to wake up and think of a certain way to change the music business. So what you’re doing I think by repeating that you’re giving yourself an excuse not to do well or not make a living out of it. So, I think the trick is to try and do what you can with it and give your all in terms of everyday trying to be productive with things which you can control and things that you can do to be productive. And if it doesn’t work, at least you can at least say, ‘hey I gave it my all’. But to wake up every day and complain about how bad the music business is just isn’t a good mind-set to be in.
Dom: Yeah, you gotta go online, Tweet, go on Facebook and conform to how it works nowadays.
Joel: I think so. And maybe just don’t have such high expectations. Sure there was an amazing era where guys could become multi-millionaires off an album and things like that. Realistically, that stuff isn’t going to happen but does success for a musician and playing guitar mean being a multi-millionaire? I mean, not really. For me, I just want to get through life doing it. I like to not be starving, not be homeless. [Laughs] In terms of what you need to enjoy, it still is a great way to make a living. I don’t necessarily need a mansion and a bunch of sports cars. So, the business is fine I think. You can find a way to make a living out of it. That’s the way I look at it.
Dom: That’s a good answer. So, what does the future of Joel Hoekstra look like? You will be continuing the Whitesnake tour soon, going to Japan and then Europe, UK etc and then? Do you have more plans with Whitesnake or will you be concentrating on your solo work?
Joel: Well, I think just in terms of promotion and if there are holes for the solo work but for the most part I think David is looking to be really busy with Whitesnake. There’s talk of adding more dates in 2016, I can’t say too much about any of that. He has a couple different recording projects that he’s talking about as well so I think David’s very enthused about this line-up and is very excited about working with Whitesnake right now and that’s good news for all of us.
Dom: Awesome. There’s never too much Whitesnake.
Joel: Yeah, exactly! I want to get out there as much as possible. I love to work as I said with my philosophy of just trying to be productive every day. I like to do that every day, [it’s something] that makes me feel I went further. I’m super excited to play the upcoming dates with Whitesnake and hopefully we will add some more and a couple recording projects coming. It should be a fun next year too.
Dom: You mentioned recordings. Is there anything planned for 2016? Or are the details unknown yet?
Joel: Well, I gotta let David Coverdale fill everybody in on that but I can tell you that I think he is looking to be really active.
Dom: I’m sure everybody will be excited to hear that! Thanks for your time, Joel, good luck with your new album release and all the Whitesnake work. I’ll see you in London with Whitesnake!
Joel: Thanks, Dom! I really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview!