Interview by Victoria Llewelyn
JOEL HOEKSTRA AND BRANDON GIBBS DISCUSS THEIR FRIENDSHIP, THE UPCOMING UK SONGS-AND-STORIES TOUR, AND THEIR RESPECTIVE CAREERS WITH SOME OF THE WORLD’S BIGGEST ROCK BANDS.
Although conceived fairly recently, the Hoekstra-Gibbs duo acoustic shows have blossomed into a particularly special experience, both sharing a wealth of material from the bands they’ve played in over the years and adding their own characteristic touches to bring a new life to some familiar classics. Combined with tales from the road, the show is soon to reach the UK to be performed in specially chosen small, independent music venues and is sure to delight fans across the country.
MGM: Joel Hoekstra and Brandon Gibbs, you have such incredible careers behind you in the music industry – Joel, we saw you last year touring the UK with Whitesnake, and Brandon, you’ve been equally busy having joined Poison on their 2022 stadium tour with Def Leppard and Motley Crue as a vocalist. Alongside all this you’ve constructed this beautiful ‘tales by the fireside’ type tour of acoustic songs and stories from your lives in music. Targeted at small venues for an up close and personal experience with the audience, how did this come about, and did you expect it to be such a popular event?
JH: We’re both Iowa boys, I was born there but I’m currently in New York City, and Brendan is in Iowa now. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we get on so well! People have the impression we’ve known each other all our lives but we actually met each other on the Monsters Of Rock Cruise six years ago.
BG: One of the guys that organizes that cruise had paired us up together to do a meet and greet, where the fans could jump off the boat for a day. Great White were doing one also, Joel and I did this together and I hadn’t met him before. I knew all about him. I wanted to meet him, and then I got the slip under my door – ‘This is what your itinerary is today’. We went to do the meet and greet, and they just so happened to have a Devil City Angels record playing, so I was like, yeah, that’s some of what I do! We traded numbers, and once the cruise was over, a promoter actually asked us if we would think about doing acoustic shows together, and we just started doing them. And here we are, maybe six years later.
JH: It started out kind of casually. Brandon asked me if I would be up for doing it, and I’m usually up for anything that’ll make me better as a musician, as long as I enjoy the people I’m working with. Anything that provides me with real world opportunities to get better at music, not just practicing scales at home or things like that.
We did great, and I enjoyed the shows. We have a nice, cool, casual thing that clicks! We can go out, and it’s just the two of us with no crew, no band, and we get on great, and the shows have a cool chemistry because of that.
The shows are this wonderful mashup of Brandon’s experience with Poison and Devil City Angels, Brandon’s solo music and my solo music, and of course, some Whitesnake, because of my history and involvement with the band, and then some covers that we both dig. We each play some solos. You get this cool mix of storytelling with acoustic playing to songs that are more artistic driven, and important to us.
BG: We’ve spent a lot of time together, especially on this last run, we did nine shows in a row. Like Joel said earlier, we don’t take out a crew. We usually have a merchandise manager somewhere, but we don’t take out a crew, so we’re very hands on with our instruments. We’re changing strings in the hotel room, telling jokes. I have a great time. We’re both dads, so we have that in common. And of course, our love for the guitar. And we have a lot of mutual friends, so we could talk right up until we go on stage.
JH: We started off really casual about these shows, and they have picked up momentum; we never pushed them but all of a sudden more people started showing up. There’s been more demand for it. I think people are starting to see it as something that we do, we each do, and our fan bases are wanting to see it, and the next thing, it’s going international. It’s very exciting. We’re taking it around the world now. I don’t think either one of us would have thought we’d be coming to the UK and Ireland, and to know that tickets are selling, and people are eager to see the show, that’s thrilling.
MGM: How would you describe these shows and what are your feelings about how different they are from that which you’re usually known for?
JH: The vibe of the show is like sitting in a living room with two guys, they are intimate and cool; it’s not meant to be some grandiose rock show with smoke and pyro and all that kind of stuff. It gives people an opportunity to hear us banter between songs. You usually get to hang out with us and meet us also. This has all been very organic, nothing has been forced, it has grown by itself. It’s going to be exciting to tour the UK in such a manner for me, because I’m used to the big venues with Whitesnake and such, and that’s wonderful. I love that, but it’s also cool to really connect with the people that come; these are, like the real fans, the people that really are into us and follow our music. These are the people that you want to spend time with and connect with. There are people that actually have our solo music, and want to get to know us a bit, so to have that opportunity to hang out, it’s a little bit more like every night’s a casual party, and Brandon and I are playing your party.
BG: I would say it’s like dinner and a movie with Brandon and Joel. We’re proud of the show we put on. Here’s an Iowa thing – ‘if you build it, they will come’. That’s what we did, and not really intentionally, we didn’t set out to do anything like this, we just lassoed the momentum, and we’re very grateful for that.
We didn’t expect to go overseas or have any of these plans, but this year it’s just opened up we’re blessed, and we’re going to run with it. We’re having a great time doing it and again, meeting people and hearing the stories of how they came across our music or shows that they’ve been to. And Joel is such a wonderful guitar player. I feel like I get a private lesson from him every single evening, so I’m getting better!
JH: It’s a microcosm of my entire career. I stay open to ideas and try to put the work in, try to do a good job, try to respect these gigs, respect the people that are showing up. I rehearse and work hard to make sure I know everything, and we try and give people the best show we can. That’s the way my entire career is working. Some things go like this and fade, and some things just go like this. You can find yourself doing some really cool things in music if you just put in the time and are willing to stay open minded to ideas.
MGM: In completely stripping back your on-stage personas, despite the warmth that must come with being close to your most dedicated fans, do you get a sense of vulnerability going out there as just yourselves with your guitars?
JH: There’s a lot to be said for the intimate show and it being acoustic, too, which strips it all the way back, takes a lot of the veil away. It comes down to asking yourself are you happy when you’re out there? Do you find yourself happy with the situation? And the answer, for me, has always been yes. With us, every single time I’ve gone out, I’ve come home and been like, you know what, I had a good time. It’s nice to just show up with a couple of acoustic guitars, do our thing, be able to feel more casual with the fans, it allows us to be more of ourselves than some of the more grandiose things that I do.
BG: I think Denzel Washington said – ‘Fail Big!’ We’re naked up there, but by God, we’re going to do it big. We’re going to fail big if we do, so we’re not scared.
MGM: We’re seeing a lot more of these smaller, acoustic shows in recent times, with performers such as John Corabi, Ted Poley and Kip Winger. Is this becoming the new trend for the recognised rock giants do you think, or is it because we’re all getting older and can’t stand for six hours in a packed stadium any more?
BG: At the end of the day, we’re songwriters and we’re blessed to work with great bands; Joel with Whitesnake and Trans-Siberian Orchestra, myself with Devil City Angels and Poison. I’ve got to run with those guys for quite some time. Sometimes it’s good to go back – this is about introducing who you are, about writing songs, and you don’t have the big hoopla. You’re basically hoping and praying that this group of people are going to love what you personally put out as an artist; in order to do that, you go back, you start again and that’s exciting. We started this project playing honestly, we played bars. We’re happy to do it, play bars. And the next year we’re doing some theatres and then a few years go by, and we get to come see you guys and play some wonderful places in the UK. I think maybe there’s a lot of us trying to find what our sound is and explore who we are along with these great blessings of playing with other bands. It’s kind of like being a kid again.
I get to go introduce new music. I don’t know if it’s a trend or not or if people are trying to just explore what they have inside and haven’t been able to do before. Also, we finally have an opportunity to play our solo stuff as well as the stuff from the bands we’ve been with, to kind of go back to the drawing board.
A taste of what to expect
JH: It’s evolved organically, like the rest of the show. I don’t know that we’ve ever really discussed it. There’ll be times where I’ll chime in and just start talking to Brandon and he’ll be like, oh, Joel’s talking. The next show, he’ll probably know, oh, Joel might say that thing again before this song. Brandon has done far more acoustic solo shows than I have, and so he already has his flow. I’ve just found ways Tetris myself in there, to figure out, okay, how can I do that instead of his way and throw in a bit of my personality. I think that’s something that’s different for me, for a lot of fans that know me, they don’t ever get to hear me speak on the microphone between songs. I don’t do that with Whitesnake, I don’t do it with TSO. I didn’t really do it with Night Ranger, I never did it in Rock Of Ages. All these gigs that built my name and built my career are not necessarily things where people get to hear me talk at all. I get to sing lead here and there at these shows, and that’s something I don’t do anywhere else either. It’s showing a little bit of a different side, too.
Brandon is a far better storyteller than I am, he can talk a lot!
BG: That’s my problem. I talk too much! Before each song, I think to myself – all right, where was I at mentally when I started writing this song? And that’s usually the precursor to the song. I have an interesting background with my twin brother. We were in a band together and those memories of traveling around in a van before he went off to become a law enforcement officer, I have a song about, that I talk about. Sometimes we don’t rehearse this stuff, so you’ll catch me laughing a lot because Joel will say something that I hadn’t heard him say before or come up with a funny story. We learn a little bit more about each other each gig because it’s off the cuff, it’s from the heart.
MGM: You do play some very nice guitars between the two of you. Do they get their own tour bus and their own hotel room?
BG: I’ve been rolling with my Gibson J 180 custom for about six or seven years well, since the start of this project, really. I also have a Gibson L-4 cutaway that we use for a backup. Joel is with Taylor, is that right?
JH: Yeah. I’ve had a long-standing relationship with Taylor that really began with Jack Blades. Jack Blades and Tommy Shaw had a relationship with them, so when I joined Night Ranger, that became the introduction – the band basically works with Taylor, are you cool with that? I said – I’m cool with anybody that’ll give me the time of day. Who am I?
They’ve always been really cool to me. Tim Godwin over there has been awesome, and Robin Stout, they’ve had my back for many years. I’m taking a Builder Series out on this tour that I’ve been digging on. I could try and go with something a little thinner, but I like having a real acoustic guitar on me. Something about that I kind of cling to, I wouldn’t choose a Chad Atkins or something like that where there’s no sound hole. I like the feeling of actually playing an acoustic on these shows. It’s authentic, and as long as it plays well and I don’t feel like I’m compromising anything there, I can still pull off some virtuosity at times if I need to.
Brandon’s got more of a blues-like, soulful approach. Our styles, they complement each other nicely. We sound different from each other, but that’s the beauty of it. He’s great with the foundation rhythms on the majority of the songs and real solid; keeps the pulse of the song going. And I’m good with all the little fancy ornamentation around it, the higher chords and whatnot, to complement some of that. And, of course, he’s concentrating on singing lead the majority of the time, too, so our styles fit together really well.
MGM: When putting your set list together, how did you decide what you wanted to play? You include songs from your other bands, some covers, some solo material. Was there anything you particularly wanted to try out an acoustic version of, or play around with to see what you could come up with?
BG: We’re on it right now talking about that! We want to build the song list and maybe have some different things to pull from this year, but certainly some of the older stuff will be in for the UK. Sometimes it just comes down to cool covers that we might both like, too.
Taster number two
MGM: You seem as surprised as anyone at the unexpected success of these shows, so congratulations on scoring such a hit! What, for you, is the best thing about doing them?
BG: I’ll tell you, we truly weren’t expecting this, and because of the attention that this tour is getting in the UK, some of the shows in the United States are picking up. I just got a call today that one of our shows in Indiana was sold out, and it was close to being sold out the last time we were there, but now it’s sold out. I so want to thank you guys.
JH: These shows, they make me happy. You ask yourself – are you happy in a work situation or are you not happy in a work situation? I come away from all of this happy, feeling like, yeah, I had a good time, you know, and that’s what it’s all about. At the end of the day, you need to have a hole in your head to get into playing guitar if you want to get rich. I mean, there’s so many easier ways in life to get rich. So, at the end of the day, I’m in this because it’s what makes me happy. It’s in my soul to be a musician so long as I’m happy doing it, and that’s been the case.
BG: Anytime you can work with somebody that has a great attitude, it’s not work anymore. We try to wake up every day, get the coffee and give it another go, and we don’t try and recreate the show the same way. It’s just a natural thing. And that’s exciting, too. What’s going to come out of this show this evening? More laughs, more music, maybe some different riffs that we surprise ourselves with, what’s not to love? We get to travel the world and meet people like yourself and play what we feel like playing. That’s our reason.
Tickets for the Hoekstra/Gibbs UK shows are onsale now
Tour dates – April 2023
11th – Bannermans, Edinburgh
12th – Ivory Blacks, Glasgow
13th – Underworld, London
14th – Brickmakers, Norwich
15th – The Music Room, Ipswich
16th – The Patriot, Newport
18th – The Station, Cannock
19th – Trillians, Newcastle
20th – Yardbirds, Grimsby
21st – Whittles, Manchester