Interview and Live Photos by Robert Cavuoto
Joel Hoekstra will be releasing his latest solo CD, Joel Hoekstra’s 13 Running Games, on February 12th via Frontiers Music SRL.
Joel has an illustrious resume that includes being a member of Whitesnake, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and prior to that, in Night Ranger. With each solo CD, Joel showcases that he is not only a tremendously talented guitarist but a fantastic songwriter. When the magic of writing great riffs have eluded so many artists, it shines bright with Joel. He is dedicated to his craft and brings unbridled enthusiasm and passion that is apparent in his music and live performances.
This CD features the same all-star line-up of musicians that he used for his 2015 release, Joel Hoekstra’s 13 Dying To Live with Russell Allen on vocals, Tony Franklin on bass, Vinny Appice on drums, and Derek Sherinian on keyboards.
Running Games is a powerfully fierce and musically diverse CD that rips with raw emotion, killer guitar riffs, and incredible melodies. His guitar solos range from tasteful and melodic to fast and furious, depending on the song’s needs. Stand out tracks are, “Hard to Say Goodbye,” “I’m Gonna Lose It,” and the epic closer, “Running Games.”
I had the pleasure of speaking with Joel to talk about creating his newest masterpiece, his love of his craft, and what he is doing to keep busy during the COVID downtime.
Robert Cavuoto: What was it about the song “Running Games” that made you decide to use it for the CD’s title?
Joel Hoekstra: For this album, I didn’t start off with a theme like I did with Dying to Live. That album had a theme from the get-go. On this album, I had all the songs written and felt they all had a familiar theme of running away or escape, so I ended up writing the title track last. I had a couple of other heavy songs initially slated for the album but felt I needed to write this one song that would tie the album together in a nice bow [laughing].
Robert Cavuoto: When writing a melodic song like “Hard to Say Goodbye,” where the melody drives the song, did you start with the riff or the melody?
Joel Hoekstra: I had the melody first for that song. It’s been around for a while and probably the first song that I wrote for this album. I started writing that song a while ago when Whitesnake was in Japan. When we are on the road, I often walk around the area to explore and sometimes come up with ideas. I put the scratch guitar to it while we were in Vienna. When writing, I try to find a balance of songs where the melody is the main thing and other songs which are heavier and based off a guitar riff. It’s striking that balance of keeping people who like the heavier songs happy as well as the people to like the more commercial sounding songs happy. There were three or four that were melody first, and the rest started with the riff. Even when I’m writing a riff, I still have a chorus in mind. If the chorus is strong, then I can write the melody for the verse. I also tend to sing along to help find that melody. Some bands will start with only the guitar riffs, and that is something I have a hard time doing because I don’t have an idea of what the song will sound like. The process is different for everyone you work with. In the 1990s and 2000s, I worked with more Pop oriented songwriters, and they seemed to have that Nashville mindset of writing with the “chorus out.” That’s where you start with the chorus and build the song out; I tend to do that but in more of the hard rock/heavy metal world.
Robert Cavuoto: Songs like “Cried Enough for You” and “How Do You” have epic production arrangements. Were you influenced by the production values of Trans-Siberian Orchestra songs?
Joel Hoekstra: I’m influenced by the people I work with and the situations I work in, so I’m sure I’m influenced by them somehow. With those songs, I think it’s more about the personnel on the album. “Cried Enough for You” has that gloomy Black Sabbath acoustic part, which is reminiscent of something like “Children of the Sea.” Having the vocal melody follow along with the riff, give it a Sabbath vibe too. Also, playing with Vinny Appice lends itself to the vibe as well.
Robert Cavuoto: Working with so many bands in your career, tell me about the importance of finding your voice as a solo artist?
Joel Hoekstra: I feel I’ve always had a voice as a solo artist. I did some instrumental albums a few years back, but this is a different area of my voice. These last two CDs are focused on the world that I’m currently in, which translates into people being interested as opposed to my instrumental albums [laughing]. For me, it comes down to the vibe of the songs, who is singing on it, who is playing on it, and what should be the sound of it. We have Vinny Appice on drums, and he laid down the groundwork with his very unique style. Tony Franklin on bass fits in perfectly with Vinny; he was the person who recommended Vinny to be back for Dying to Live. Then you have Russell Allen on vocals who fits like a glove.
Robert Cavuoto: When we spoke in 2015 for Dying to Live, I asked if you would consider using the same band for a second CD, and you said, “Anything could happen?” I think there is something magical about the band, what is about these musicians that you decided to work with them again?
Joel Hoekstra: It’s about the brand or sound that people expect. Album-to-album, they are not going to sound completely different. It’s for consistency, and this time around, I tried to focus on the songwriting style of Dying to Live. That album went all the way from a Metallica heaviness on the bonus track, “Kill or Be Killed,” to “What We Believe,” which had a completely different vibe. The label asked that it be more focused and not all over the map. That can be difficult for me at times because I dig all over the map. I like albums where every song doesn’t sound the same. It’s important for people to be a little more focused so they can dig in and get a certain vibe from what they are expecting when they play the album.
Robert Cavuoto: Is there a song on this CD that you feel in some way was a departure from what you typically write?
Joel Hoekstra: The closest comparison that I could make to that was on the title track “Running Games.” It’s a straight-up acoustic song with percussion. Vinny and Derek are not on that track, so it’s slightly different, but I really had that in mind to purposely tie it all together.
Robert Cavuoto: Was there any way you challenged yourself with the solos that you haven’t done before?
Joel Hoekstra: Not really; I just did my thing and had some good takes. I try not to punch in too many things so it doesn’t sound pieced together. It was all about having cohesive takes. The album is not as much about the solos as it is about the songs. It was important to have passion and fire in the solos with a little shred, but the focus was on the melody above the songs.
Robert Cavuoto: Do you have a go-to effect that you like to incorporate in your songs or solos?
Joel Hoekstra: I don’t use a ton of effects. I like to use a little delay with some modulation to make it fatter sounding. I’m not a big fan of reverb or chorus on my solos.
Robert Cavuoto: Were any of the songs on this album presented to David Coverdale for his consideration to be included on Whitesnake’s Flesh & Blood CD?
Joel Hoekstra: Flesh & Blood was put together with David writing the choruses and then building off of them. He handled all the lyrics and melodies, so a handful of these riffs were probably shown to him.
Robert Cavuoto: Nowadays, musicians need to be in multiple bands or side projects for the benefit of their career compared to when we were young and it was taboo for a member of your favorite band to do a solo album or have a sideband. What do you think drove that change of mindset that it’s okay to do solo projects while still being a key member of a successful band.
Joel Hoekstra: The business drives all that stuff; maybe some people don’t want to talk about it. So few people can only do one thing because it doesn’t generate enough money. If we are expected to make a living at this, you have to keep working all year long. What bands work 12 months out of the year? Not many, and particularly now! At the end of the day, that’s the driving force. Nobody is making any money on their streaming songs, you don’t make any money recording, and now you aren’t making any money playing live [laughing]. It’s not cool to talk about it for some weird reason. People look at musicians as being greedy if they talk about it. It’s not greed; it’s just trying to make a living. I think people have it in their head that musicians are all super-wealthy, which is totally not true. I’m not saying there aren’t some wealthy musicians on the scene, but they were around back in the day and sold millions of albums. Many of us are just like anybody else out there. I guess it’s not fashionable to talk about it as you want to come off as successful [laughing]. Honestly, with me, and I’ll tell you straight up, that I do it for the love of the art form and my solo albums are an artistic outlet. They are not going to make me any money! It’s an opportunity to do what I love!
Robert Cavuoto: Will you be doing a live streaming show to promote the album?
Joel Hoekstra: Russell called me the other day, and we talked about doing an acoustic live stream show, just the two of us. He lives close by, and with two people, it feels pretty safe. It would be too tricky to get the full band together to travel on planes and staying in hotels. It’s not worth putting people at risk. Many of these streaming concerts fall apart because of a positive COVID test and not to mention the loss of money in putting it together before it all comes to fruition. It’s tricky times we live in. If we end up doing a show, it will be songs from the album and some other stuff. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t?
Robert Cavuoto: Do you have any updates on Whitesnake you can share?
Joel Hoekstra: It’s all still up in the air, as we are waiting for David to put the Bat-Signal up in the sky [laughing]. Then we all get together. I love the line-up and working with David. I’m looking forward to getting together when the time is right, and things are safe. We all have our fingers crossed that we can get back on the road again someday. That being said, I’m very much in the moment of this whole thing and continue to work like we aren’t going to tour again. That’s how I approach it, and I’ll be pleasantly surprised when we get back out there?
Robert Cavuoto: Being in the entertainment industry, do you have any insight into when touring can resume?
Joel Hoekstra: We hear things from the News just like you. The politicians are in control of it at the moment. From there, it will be up to the people if they are going to show up? We are waiting like everyone else. I don’t want to make this sound like I’m sitting around not doing anything. I’m busy as ever; finishing the album was just part of it. I’m doing weekly session work for artists and guest performing on a handful of songs each week as well. I’m doing 30 private guitar lessons a week, and I have Master Classes I do for the Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp. I have quarantine videos that I post and Cameos, which are a big thing; I do about 10-15 of those a week. Between all of that and being a Dad here at home, I’m going nonstop all day, every day. I’m also contributing guitar riffs for a Frontier’s project with Michael Sweet [Stryper] and Nathan James [Inglorious]. There are a lot of writers in the project with Michael, Nathan, and Alessandro Del Vecchio, who is also co-producing it. I’m also working with Jim Peterik [ex-Survivor] on an album that he is producing. It’s a great opportunity to work with people that I enjoy.