Joel Hoekstra,
The TVD Interview

Joel Hoekstra is one hell of a musician. From an early age he took an interest in music and quickly excelled at classical instruments such as the cello and piano. However, it was AC/DC’s Angus Young who inspired him to pick up a guitar—and it’s been his lifelong passion ever since.

Hoekstra has parlayed that passion into a 30+ year career, playing guitar with legendary acts such as Night Ranger, Whitesnake, and Cher as well as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Bolstering that already incredible resume, he performed on Broadway as the lead guitarist for the critically acclaimed musical, Rock of Ages.  The Vinyl District recently sat down with Hoekstra to discuss all things music—including the upcoming release of Running Games from Joel Hoekstra’s 13.

How did you get your start in music?

My parents had me playing cello and piano when I was a little kid. They were classical musicians. As far as playing the guitar as a young child, it was really hearing AC/DC for the very first time. I was like, “Ooh, that’s what I want to do. I want to play that.” In terms of getting a start professionally, it was a constant series of baby steps that led me where I am today. But I have managed to make my living at it since I got out of school at 20 years old. So, it’s really a blessing to make it this far.

Who were your greatest inspirations as a young musician?

It was really Angus Young who made me want to pick up the guitar for the very first time.  However, I owe my success to some really great teachers I had right from the very start. My first taught me rock songs, and that got me hooked. After my first few lessons, I started with a new instructor who began teaching me out of one of those method books. I was initially bummed out and was like, “Oh, this isn’t what I pictured it being.” It felt like cello and piano lessons all over again. But that quickly evolved into theory and technique which was great and I was hooked on the whole process from that point forward.

Tell us about the first time you performed in front of a live audience?

I was terrified. I vividly remember having such bad stage fright that I couldn’t even move my feet.  I was so nervous, my legs were locked and was just standing there going, “Oh my god, oh my god.” So yeah, the first time out there was terrifying.

Over the years, you’ve been associated with some incredible acts including Night Ranger, Whitesnake, Cher, as well as Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Rock of Ages. Understanding each of these is unique in its own right, is there one experience in particular that stands out?

Overall, the one thing that stood out to me was remaining open to any and all career possibilities. I worked hard at everything that came across my radar as I never really knew where the opportunity might take me. The Cher and the Rock of Ages gigs were the ones that stood out as the things I never would have imagined, right? When I was 11 years old learning Black Sabbath songs, I didn’t really say, “I can’t wait. Someday I’m going to be on Broadway.”

But it happened and ended up being something that totally changed my life. I went from a struggling musician to the end of that six-year run doing that and Night Ranger and TSO and ultimately ended up with some money in the bank and at the same time actually having people know who I was. Again, that totally changed my life. Cher is another example of that. That little kid playing heavy metal songs never would have dreamed of playing alongside of Cher, but it was just through hard work and being open-minded to everything that led me to an amazing opportunity working with her.

Joel Hoekstra’s 13 is releasing Running Games on February 12th.  Tell us a little about about the album and its inception.

This one was definitely all pre Covid stuff, but some of the recording finished right after things hit back in March of last year. With each song, I basically started with riffs, chorus, and a melody that I would eventually write lyrics for. I then handed it off to the rest of this incredible band (Russell Allen, Vinny Appice, Tony Franklin, Derek Sherinian, and Jeff Scott Soto) and they would bring the songs to life instrumentally. Over the last 8 or 9 months, we worked together to finalize everything and Covid actually helped put this project on the fast track to completion. We’re happy with how it turned out!

How is this album different from 2015’s Dying to Live?

I would say that Dying to Live was me trying to figure out what the album was going to be while I was writing it. It was a little more on the fringe of leaning toward a really heavy sound that ultimately ended up not very heavy at all. With Running Games, I just tried to focus a little bit more, but the formula was still basically the same. Just melodic hard rock that’s Black Sabbath at its heaviest and Foreigner-ish at its lightest.

What is your favorite track off the album?

That’s a hard one to answer because they’re all a little different. Hopefully, there’s something on there that everyone can gravitate toward. It’s definitely going to speak to classic rock fans as it’s a straight-ahead rock album. I’m not trying to do anything fancy, progressive, or trying to prove anything. I’m just trying to come from the standpoint of what would I want to hear as a listener. It’s all about the songs collectively versus any one in particular.

Any thought of touring when Covid restrictions around the world begin to ease up?  

It’s really hard to say. I would love to. We did one gig after Dying to Live on the Monsters of Rock cruise and that went over great. And certainly, we’d love to support this release live in any way possible, but let’s get the world open and we’ll take it from there.

What do you think about the resurgence of vinyl around the world?

I think it’s great. It shows that people are nostalgic, looking back, and finding value in things that aren’t necessarily considered the current hip thing. I think that maybe we’re too obsessed with that as a culture of like, “Oh, this is the thing to do now” instead of gravitating to something like, “Hey, maybe that thing we used to do 30 or 40 years ago was awesome.” So anyway, I think vinyl and its resurgence is terrific for music.

Do you collect vinyl?

I don’t, but I don’t have a CD collection either. As a music professional, I’m not your standard music fan. I’m usually working on it eight, ten hours a day. And when my workday is over,  the last thing I want to do is go, “Hey, let’s listen to…”

Who is your all-time favorite guitarist?

That’s impossible, I just can’t answer that. There are so many ways to be great on guitar. I think that’s the beauty of it, and the one common thread is time spent with it. There’s just too long of a list to go there. Yeah, it wouldn’t be fair to everybody else. Can’t answer it, man. Can’t do it.

Can you share one thing about Cher that most would not know?

She’s really friendly, but kind of quiet and reserved. Prior to each show, we’d get into a circle where she would say some inspirational stuff while we would hold hands, and then go out and do the show. And every once in a while, she’d do something fun with all of us like take us all out to the movies. It’s kind of a neat thing when you’re out to the movies and Cher’s waiting in line for popcorn, just like everybody else.

Outside of music, what other hobbies do you have?

I’m such a normal, boring guy. I like sports, movies, and pizza. It’s the most generic answers you could ever get, right? I wish I had something really eclectic to tell you.  However, I can say I do like movies more than I like TV. The only TV show I really tune into is Family Guy, which I think is brilliant. I also like to play basketball in addition to just watching it.

Best debut album of all time?

What comes to mind off the top of my head is that first Boston album—I was just talking about this yesterday. It’s kind of insane how good that thing is.

Any final words?

I hope everybody digs our upcoming record, Running Games. Outside of that, just know that I’m staying busy, moving forward, and staying productive every day. Teaching, doing cameo videos for fans, doing sessions, writing with people, and doing quarantine videos is keeping me extremely busy. And I think if we all stay busy and remain healthy, we can get through this thing much better together. And hopefully, we’ll see a thriving music industry at the end of this whole thing.

Running Games, the new LP from Joel Hoekstra’s 13 arrives in stores on February 12, 2021.

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PHOTOS: MATTHEW BELTER

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