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Joel Hoekstra

As the world is starting to show signs of improvement, the music industry continues to spawn out incredible creations. Guitarist Joel Hoekstra’s second solo album RUNNING GAMES is definitely one, and displays a variety of hard rock from heavier to more melodic, that’s inspirational, entertaining and all out enjoyable. His creative genius is not just heard in the guitar work, but throughout all aspects of each song that compiles this record.

Hoekstra’s resume is quite extensive ranging from rock to pop to theater to television, film and Broadway. He has worked with many world renown artists and is currently playing as dual guitarist in Whitesnake, a member of Trans-Siberian Orchestra and is also in Cher’s band. This all-around extraordinary musician shares his knowledge and experience in videos and even as a magazine columnist.

Catching up with Hoekstra just after RUNNING GAMES was released on February 12th, he revealed some details of his music, what he has been working on, and what fans can look forward to.

SFL Music: What inspired you to make RUNNING GAMES? Is there a theme? A lot of the songs seem to be about life experiences.

Joel Hoekstra: Yeah, not really. The theme came together later on it for me. I didn’t really set out with any kind of main theme in mind. I tend to write choruses first for songs, and I think just because I was touring so much and going all over the world, that that tended to be a common theme, but in terms of why I wanted to do it. It’s really just having the opportunity to write songs. Not just the guitar riffs, but the vocal melodies and the lyrics, and be able to be the person with the final say so in the mix. So, I’d say a situation that sounds like a band, but I kind of get to be the boss for a minute.

SFL Music: Is that what drove you to do the (Joel Hoekstra’s) 13 projects?

Hoekstra: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I had three solo albums out years ago that were instrumental guitar albums and kind of all over the map in terms of styles. Rock fusion and funky and you name it, but I think for this, I started to become more well known in the hard rock scene joining Night Ranger, Rock of Ages, Trans-Siberian Orchestra and then Whitesnake, and so I had a lot of fans saying, “well do you have any solo albums that are rock stuff?” They were kind of like, “what’s the deal man?” So that made great sense for me to put something out. So, I guess the vision was here, give them all something that they could sink their teeth into and have an opportunity to prove myself further and seen. And like I said, it gives me an opportunity to do that, but kind of I guess, be in charge for a minute.

SFL Music: The guitar on the album is amazing and the layering is very intricate and detailed. Obviously, you played all of that, but did you work on the production as well?

Hoekstra: Yeah, I mean, my Mix Engineer Chris Collier is a great, great mix engineer, but he’s also open minded and will endlessly tweak with me which is fantastic because I’m the type of guy that will continue to say, “let’s try this, let’s try this, let’s try this.” I feel like mixing in itself is really an instrument, so yeah having him on the team is huge.

SFL Music: Speaking of team, how did it come together with the musicians that you have on the album? Some come from Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Was this something you talked about with them previously?

Hoekstra: So, I just had finished doing a project called VHF with the bassist, Tony Franklin, and I gave my idea. I said, “look. I really want to do something that sounds like a band, but I really want to write everything” and I said, “would you be into it?” He was and I said, “who would you want to use on drums?” And he recommended Vinny Appice. I thought that was perfect in the spirit of what I wanted to do which was just take things back to hard rock which got me started in music. Back to my roots, and Vinny is a drummer I grew up listening to in (Ronnie James) Dio and Black Sabbath, and so I said, “great! Perfect!” And right at that time Russell Allen was joining Trans-Siberian Orchestra and I thought, here’s a perfect singer. He sings the Dio style great, but he can also sing Foreigner and Bad Company and Whitesnake and other bands that have been a big influence on me that I wanted to incorporate stylistically into this. Then from there, Derek Sherinian was just a no brainer as far as a keyboard guy to go to because, I mean, he’s got great sounds, plays the perfect parts, can solo. Plays a perfect foil for me especially on this album as a soloist. Somebody I can go back and forth against. Then my friend Jeff Scott Soto helped me out with the background vocals. I mean, he’s definitely the most overqualified background vocalist in the world. He’s an amazing singer and certainly could have sung lead on this whole record, but he’s my friend and he kind of honestly needs another project to sing lead on like he needs a hole in the head. So, it was wonderful to have him on this though, and all kidding aside, he definitely elevated the sound of this record. I think if I had done the background vocals, it wouldn’t be near the record it is. He’s amazing at it.

SFL Music: That is definitely heard, and on a couple of the songs the violin and cello are heard?

Hoekstra: “How Do You” had cello and violin on it. My friend Dave Eggar who I guess I really got to know through my Trans-Siberian Orchestra friends. He played on my 13 acoustic songs solo album and so we’ve known each other since, and he does a lot of work with Amy Lee from Evanescence. He got me on a track on one of her solo albums. So, we’ve been working together back and forth for a while and then recommended Katie (Kresek) on violin to get a little higher register happening on “How Do You”, and then Dave played on the final track called “Running Games”.

SFL Music: What is “How Do You” about?

Hoekstra: Oh gosh. Do I have to go into that? I love to leave it where people can find their own meaning to these songs.

SFL Music: Oh, ok. What would you say inspires you when you write your music though?

Hoekstra: It can really be anything. I always start with a chorus when I write a song and sometimes that could be actually the melody when I’m walking around without a guitar in my hands, or a lot of times it could be the guitar riffs simultaneously with the melody. That tends to be the way I work ‘cause I’ll play the guitar riffs and always be singing what a vocal melody would be. I find it very hard to only play the riffs. If that makes sense. I always need to know what’s going to be going on top to figure out how’s it going to make sound, but I like to build the song’s chorus out kind of, you know, the way a lot of pop people do or country people. I guess more that school. More than just like, hey let’s come up with a cool riff and just do our thing.

SFL Music: Yeah, you can hear your various influences in songs like “Cried Enough For You” and “Take What’s Mine” and “Reach The Sky” or “Lonely Days”. You come from a musical family. Your parents were classical musicians, but what drew you to become a musician?

Hoekstra: Yeah, they had me doing Cello when I was three and piano when I was seven. I didn’t really care for it. I was like well, can I just play baseball? Then I saw AC/DC and I was blown away. I always like wanted to be Angus Young. So, that really got me into it. All that hard rock stuff when I was a kid. Heavy metal. AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Scorpions, Ozzy (Osbourne), Dio. All that stuff was really big in the very early days.

SFL Music: Has that changed now?

Hoekstra: Yeah, it definitely expanded a lot from there. I would say getting into bands that were lighter but with more melody like Journey, Foreigner, Boston. Progressive bands like Rush and Yes and I would even throw Queensrÿche into that category, but then I would also be into the classic rock bands. Like I would say (Led) Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix are the first ones that come to mind. Older bands that aren’t necessarily in that 80’s genre. This is all generalizations. I mean, there are certainly other ones, but then the guitar records were a big thing too. Growing up being into Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai and Joe Satriani and Steve Morse. Those guys were all big influences, so If you put all that stuff together, I mean (he laughed) you kind of get what’s going on in my head.

SFL Music: Now you’re originally from the Chicago area, but you moved to New York? What drew you to move to New York?

Hoekstra: It was a gig. I came out here to play in a theater show called Love, Janis that was about Janis Joplin. I had been playing with this girl Cathy Richardson in the Chicago area and she got the gig as playing Janis in the show and I ended up getting in the band as the guitarist and came out to New York expecting it to run for like a couple of months, which is how long it ran in Chicago. So, I told my friends, I’ll be back in a couple months and anyway, it ran for two years, and so by the time it closed, I felt like I was kind of here and settled in. So, I just ended up staying.

SFL Music: You’ve done Rock Of Ages on Broadway and some TV as well as worked with many (well known) musical artists. What would you say you took away from all of those experiences? What do you like the most when you’re doing Broadway vs, what you like the most when you’re playing with Whitesnake or a rock band?

Hoekstra: Well, the way I’ve gone about my career is you just work hard and let life guide you to these places. I think you can never be too specific about what you want to end up doing because sometimes it’s going to be something you never expected, but it’s going to be this great amazing thing. Like I was definitely not eleven years old playing Black Sabbath songs saying someday I’m gonna play with Cher, but I ended up working with her in the last few years, and then that’s this amazing experience, and playing shows for 23,000 people, stepping out with a pop icon. I mean, that’s like stuff that you go, “ok. I’m glad I didn’t necessarily limit myself in terms of what I was open minded to and what can happen,” and Rock of Ages definitely on Broadway is another example of that. I never pictured myself playing on Broadway, but if you just remain open minded and work hard, life will take you to these places that you never would’ve imagined.

SFL Music: What would you say you’ve learned from working with Cher and working with David Coverdale?

Hoekstra: Oh, I mean, I think you have to have a sense of respect for people that have built these amazing careers and done what they’ve done. So, that kind of comes naturally for me. I think that my career took a long time to build and it’s definitely got a process of going step by step. So, I don’t think I’ve ever lost sight of that, I guess, respect for what they’ve done because for me, it’s been like wow! I mean, it’s been so hard earned for me to get even where I am. And then I look at them and everything they’ve done and think geez. What must they have gone through? So, for me it’s pretty easy to keep that mind set, and I’m just really grateful for the opportunity.

SFL Music: How did the bonus song come about?

Hoekstra: Once I ended up sequencing the album which I didn’t think about as I’m writing it. I don’t really write it with an album sequence in mind (he chuckled). I sequenced it out and I had the name ‘Running Games’ in my mind as an album title, but I sequenced it. I was like “hmm. This album is ending with like four or five mid-tempo rockers in a row” and I thought it seems like a strange way for this album to end. It’s like the last twenty minutes you’ve been listening to mid-tempo rock songs. So, I thought, this needs something to tie it all together, and so I ended up writing the title track last. The song “Running Games”. I thought ok, lets write a song called “Running Games” because I already had in my mind what it could be about. So anyway, that ended up being the perfect bow I think to tie it all together.

SFL Music: Is there anything you were striving for with RUNNING GAMES? Is it more like you say, that you want people to be able to enjoy and relate to the songs as they hear them?

Hoekstra: Yeah, I just hope they enjoy the songs. That for me is the goal with this. I think that, from the response I’ve seen so far, it’s pretty cool. I’ve seen just about every song listed as somebodies favorite. That’s a great feeling. I mean, I’m obviously gunning for all killer and no filler as they say. I would love people to be able to put on the album and listen to the whole thing and go, “boy every song. I liked every song on it.” So, that’s really what it’s about more than me putting out an album to prove what I am as a guitar player or anything like that. It’s more about just giving people a great rock listening experience.

SFL Music: Well, I definitely liked every song! On your web page you have some promotional stuff, but were you going to put out any videos for any of the songs?

Hoekstra: So, there’s an animated video for “Finish Line” up right now that people can check out. That’s about it right now. I guess in terms of promotion for this, we just kind of looked at it like hey, there’s like nine million of these quarantine videos things happening right now, but I have done some of those. I just wanted to do something unique this time around, so I thought the video for “Finish Line” was something cool and different.

SFL Music: Were there future plans with Whitesnake? Hopefully Trans-Siberian Orchestra can play live again even though what they did this year (live stream) was really cool. Is there anything in the works?

Hoekstra: I think everybody’s just trying to get the world open at this point. David has been putting out the compilation trilogy over the course of the last year or so with The ROCK Album, and LOVE SONGS and The BLUES Album is just coming out. So, we’re still kind of waiting to see what he’s got in mind. What’s next, and certainly be there to support him, and with TSO I mean, strange not to have our annual tradition in 2020 of doing the winter tour and fingers are definitely crossed and get back to that in 2021.

SFL Music: We’ll look forward to that. I did read that you are also a writer. You write a column for Guitar World Magazine?

Hoekstra: Yeah. Guitar World is something that, gosh, I don’t know now. I need to think about how many years that it’s been, but on and off, I’ve been a monthly columnist in the magazine for I’d say the last five, six years. Something like that. So, a column called the “School of Rock” where I can be just anything. Just teaching rock fundamentals or sometimes its little bits of songs or whatever. It’s definitely great to work with those guys. Guitar World has been great partners and really helped get me a new level of exposure for a lot of these guitar fundamentals. I think there’s one of my videos for them teaching just pentatonic stuff. It’s 800 thousand views or something crazy. I think it’s the most viewed video of me next to the Whitesnake stuff online.

SFL Music: That’s very cool. Are you doing any teaching or just the videos?

Hoekstra: Yeah, I do. During Covid that’s really been a big part of what I started to do to kind of redefine how I’m gonna pay the bills and not watch my savings dwindle away. So, I’m doing one on one lessons via skype. Thirty students a week and master classes for Rock ‘n Roll Fantasy Camp and some other outlets. Doing Cameo personalized appearances. Messages for people where I play a bit, and I’ve been writing a lot with people during this time. Just turned in the riffs to my friend Michael Sweet for our project with Nathan James that should be out later this year, and co-writing a bit with my friend Jim Peterik for an album he’s producing right now. So, definitely just trying to stay busy. There’s quarantine videos we talked about. I’ve done quite a few of those that people could check out on my website. They can just go to Joelhoekstra.com. All that stuff put together actually in addition to finishing this album and doing all the press for it. It’s definitely made me more busy than I would be if I were out touring for sure. I’m (he laughed) really, really busy. It’s just a totally different brand of busy, but I’m glad to still be able to be productive every day. I think in the end that’s what it comes down to as a musician. You have to keep moving forward and stay productive all the time. It’s just such a difficult thing to make happen in your life, so I think any weakness and it’ll just die on ya.

SFL Music: Are you looking to do some touring with this band?

Hoekstra: I would love to. We did do one show in support of Dying to Live (Hoekstra’s debut solo album) on the Monsters of Rock Cruise and it went over really well. People really loved it. It made for a fun set when you have Vinny Appice in there, that means you can have some Dio and Black Sabbath in your set and because I’m in the band, obviously a couple Whitesnake songs scattered in there. So, it definitely was a set that people really, really liked. I’d love to make it happen. I think at this stage of the game, let’s get the world open and I’ll take it from there.

SFL Music: That sounds good. Is there anything else you want fans know? Anything for them to look forward to? You just mentioned a couple of projects that will be coming out.

Hoekstra: Yeah, I have a quarantine video. A quarantine jam video I’m working on that’s going to be fun. Got some big names on that. Hopefully that will be out soon, and the project with Michael Sweet and Nathan James, but in general, I’m just gonna keep working really hard and let life take me to these places. Right? You never know where you’ll end up.

SFL Music: That is very true. Well, all the best to you and was there anything else you wanted to add?

Hoekstra: Just thank you to everybody who’s supporting. If you’re streaming or buying or coming to a show. I appreciate it. You’re helping me with my dream, so thanks.

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