Whitesnake's Joel Hoekstra - Manchester, December 2015

There's a real buzz in Manchester today. It is of course the festive period and frantic shoppers are busying themselves amongst the hundreds of log cabins that make up the city centre's Christmas markets. It's not only the Manchester people who look forward to the markets each year but also the residents of North West England in general, and today their yuletide experience is accentuated by the cool, crisp air. But we aren't here to buy gifts. We are here to be part of one of the biggest rock events of the year: the Whitesnake and Def Leppard co-headlining show at the Manchester Arena. There are few bands who have achieved the level of success celebrated by these two rock giants, and tonight's show is truly a very special occasion. Def Leppard are touring in support of their latest eponymously titled album and Whitesnake their Purple album, a tribute to Deep Purple and David Coverdale's time in the MK III and IV line-ups of the band. And it's with the absolute greatest of pleasures that we catch up with Whitesnake guitarist Joel Hoekstra. As we arrive at the venue, Joel extends us a huge welcome. Standing at nearly 6 and a half feet tall and with long, flowing blonde hair, he is an imposing figure who creates a real presence. Joel also looks surprisingly fresh for someone who has been touring extensively throughout 2015 as part of The Purple Tour. Throughout our time together he keeps a relaxed posture and maintains his trademark huge smile. It's perhaps only his ordering of a black coffee that provides a suggestion of the commitment and energy it takes to deliver what's required at this level. As the spoon stirs, our conversation begins.

You have had an amazing career in rock, but before we talk about the here and now I'd like to take us right back to the beginning. What was it like growing up in Chicago and how did you come to fall in love with a guitar?

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, a place called Orland Park, and it was just I suppose middle class to lower middle class. We weren't all that well-to-do but it was fine! It was a fine upbringing and I grew up around a lot of music - my parents are classical musicians - so music was always in the house. As far as guitar, that really started with hearing AC/DC and seeing Angus Young. Back then MTV was running about 4 or 5 videos, one of which was AC/DC. I couldn't even tell you which one, I think Back in Black or Shook Me All Night Long, but it just ran constantly and I was like "that's what I want to do! I want to be that guy!" So that's pretty  much how it got started. 

What was your first guitar?

I went up to the mall with my mom to the music store and there was this Westone and it was red and it had curves on it. I'm sure it reminded me of Angus' SG but it most definitely was not a Gibson SG! It worked for getting me started. I played that thing non stop. 

Joel Hoekstra with Reb Beach

Did the impact that AC/DC have on you open the door to you exploring other artists?

It started off very much just hard rock. So I would say the list of favourites when I was really young starting out were AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Ozzy, Iron Maiden and the Scorpions. Those were the bands that I really gravitated towards first, and then as I got older, more melodic bands opened my eyes like Journey, Foreigner and Boston. I was always into Rush and of course bands like Yes, then classic rock bands like Pink Floyd, Zeppelin and The Doors. I love all those bands, and all the guitar albums were really big as I became an older teenager and through my younger 20s. So all those guys: Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and what people like to call shredders which I think is almost slightly derogatory. Players with technique all had an influence on me as well. The good thing is that growing up in that age, sometimes you learned a little bit backwards, you didn't learn how to play great rhythm guitar first. There were lots of guys who played lead better out of the gate than rhythm. I was one of them to a degree but not as bad as some! The good thing though is that you did have to push yourself. You really did have to spend hours with your guitar to even get where most people were at that time.

You have worked with the very best in the business: Sebastian Bach, Dee Snider, Brett Michaels, Glenn Hughes, Nuno Bettencourt and scores of others. The list goes on and I am only just starting to make a dent in the full list. Additionally you have worked in theatre, television and film. That's an eclectic career to say the least and one that's perhaps unusual for a rockstar in terms of the number and range of projects. What type of project to do you feel most at home with?

At the end of the day I'm a guitar player and obviously a musician. I love to write but in terms of being a 'rock star', the melodic hard rock genre, it took off for me the last say 8 years now but luckily my career didn't take off before that in a way because it did force me to learn a lot of different styles and become a more well-rounded musician. Financially it might have been nice if it took off earlier for me but that's ok! It's all good. Anyway, I appreciate all the experiences, and as long as those continue and I'm able to play my guitar for a living and play it at a high level I'm happy.

Being in a band is often described as being part of a brotherhood. Has being part of so many projects been like having one huge group of friends or has the nature of having to say goodbye to one project to start another actually been quite lonely?

Only really recently for me. There's sometimes you move on and it's a real natural thing like when I've gone on from more local bands to more national bands. That just felt like a passing in terms of career and where I needed to head. But I still value and love everybody I've played with. I'd say the first kind of experience with that just recently was leaving Night Ranger and working with Whitesnake and not seeing the Night Ranger guys as much. I was really close with them, I spent 7 years with them gigging and making albums. And this year missing the Trans Siberian Orchestra tour feels a little bit like that. I'm good friends with all those guys in that band as well but I get on great with everyone here in Whitesnake. You do tend to miss some of people you're used to seeing a little more often. 

You joined Whitesnake in 2014 following the departure of Doug Aldrich. How did you feel when this amazing opportunity arose?

I think Whitesnake is an amazing guitar gig, great guitar riffs, great guitar solos. David is great to work for. I feel like I gained a big brother in him. I've never really had anybody champion me the way he does and brings out the confidence in me. He wants me to shine onstage and off-stage, so I'm really grateful for the opportunity. All the gigs I've had I've been lucky to have and blessed to have because it's a difficult business these days, just to simply make a living playing guitar, so to have the opportunity to do it at a high level with a legendary band like Whitesnake with the pedigree of players that have been in this band is an honour for me. There were a lot of great players that wanted this gig so I was lucky to be the guy to get the opportunity. To date David and I have done great together and it's a two-way street of gratitude and that's the way it should be. I'm really happy working with him. He's been really great to me and I just want to give him my all and I think he sees that.

Joel Hoekstra with David Coverdale

With Whitesnake you have of course recorded The Purple Album, a reworking of tracks from the MK III and MK IV Deep Purple line up. The tracks on the album respectfully retain everything that's wholesome about the originals but they simultaneously appear to have been taken a step further with perhaps a more modern guitar sound and some new arrangements. Tell me about your part in bringing this album together.

My role was really just guitar player but it is was quite a bit more creative than I think people would realise because the original versions of these songs only had one guitar riff and Reb (Beach,Whitesnake guitarist) was going to have that covered most of the time. So for me coming in a lot of times it was trying to think about what would a second guitar part be to this song if this was a brand new song. We weren't going to be leaning as heavily on the keyboards so should I try to emulate what the keyboards are doing in spots, should I write a completely different part, should I double what Reb's doing? And of course we did our own things with guitar solos. I just tried to come up with as many different sounds and textures and ideas coming in, in particular the ins and outs of the songs to try and make them our own and put our own stamp on them. You can hear that on the album on the dobro set up on Might Just Take Your Life was an idea I came up with, and playing slide on that song and using talk box on The Gypsy, playing ebow and acoustic on Holy Man, the tapping intro on Lay Down Stay Down. Those are all little ideas that I was trying to come up with to try and make these our own. In the end, it was a great opportunity for me to become acclimated with this band, to come in and play on some great proven material, and I think it just gives people a second option to listen to these songs. They're kind of modernised, I suppose in the guitar tones - toughened up a bit - and sometimes that's appealing to people and if people don't want to listen to it they don't have to listen to it. We had a great time making the record, we really did. It was a great way for me getting acclimated being in Whitesnake. 

David Coverdale has a reputation for working with the world’s very best musicians. First class guitarists have been a constant throughout Whitesnake’s 37 year history, with Steve Vai, Adrian Vandenberg, Bernie Marsden, Vivien Campbell, and of course your current partner in crime Reb Beach. What does it mean to be part of Whitesnake?

I'm honoured to be included in that list. Those guys are all amazing players and it's great to be included in that list. 

I'd now like to focus on the new album from Joel Hoekstra’s 13, Dying To Live. With so many commitments, how did you find time to create such a strong record.

Basically in all the down time over the last year or two. I had released three solo albums years ago that were basically instrumental guitar albums and a lot of fans that have gotten to know me from the bands I have been playing with lately have been saying you should make a rock album. That's what I set out to do and I didn't know if it was going to be a band or a side project or a solo album. So it was an interesting dilemma because in the end I made an album that sounds very much like a band but the trick is it's not a band because I did all the writing on it. I wrote the lyrics, the vocal melodies and everything. So I gave it a side-project name. I figured Joel Hoekstra's 13 was more appropriate than calling it Joel Hoekstra because people would be expecting guitar licks all over the place and it's not really that kind of album. It sounds more like a band. Guitar solos are there and I'm proud of the guitar work but I didn't get overly self-indulgent with it and take long solo breaks etcetera. 

Dying To Live is 11 tracks of solid, melodic hard rock. Being the son of classical musicians, and recognising your work with the Trans Siberian Orchestra and your Broadway contributions, it's no surprise that Dying To Live would reflect your classical and theatrical influences. However, some tracks such as Scream and Anymore would not be out of place on a Whitesnake record. So the question is why aren't they?

I wrote almost everything on Dying To Live before I even auditioned for Whitesnake so it was its own thing. The wheels were in motion on it and I basically wrote the material on there for the people I was going to be recording with. So if some of it sounds slightly Whitesnake-ish that's probably because Russell (Allen) or Jeff (Scott Soto) have a little bit of that in their singing style, and just knowing the rhythm section with Vinnie Appice and Tony Franklin, that's obviously why there's a Dio tinge to the album as well in spots. Basically I wrote those songs for this project and I would write differently for a Whitesnake album. At that point we were recording The Purple Album so that's why they're not on a Whitesnake album! (Laughs)

Do you have any plans for new music with Whitesnake and Joel Hoestra’s 13?

Yeah, I'll have to let David fill everybody in on what's happening with Whitesnake but he's really enthused about the line up of the band right now and I think everybody can look forward to a really active next year or two from Whitesnake. I can say that in the break from the US and this leg that we're on, the Japan/Europe leg, that David and I got together for about ten days and worked on some things together.

Finally, Whitesnake are touring with Def Leppard and Black Star Riders. This is an amazing line-up. Surely if you weren't playing you would be buying a ticket to the show?

Yeah, absolutely! What a great night of rock! Black Star Riders have great harmony guitars. It reminds me of hearing Night Ranger every night. I think a lot of that Night Ranger sound came from the Thin Lizzy sound. So it's great fun to hear them, they're all great guys in that band and great to be around. Def Leppard's honestly one of my favourite bands. I tip my cap to them that everything that's played in that band is for the songs and that really means they are serving the fans and not themselves so I have tremendous respect for Def Leppard as a band and what they've achieved. Those guys are legends and to be around them backstage, talking shop with Vivien Campbell and Phil Collen is a tremendous honour for me.

As our conversation draws to a close, it is with tremendous anticipation that we look forward to tonight's show. As we leave Joel, it's with a smile that we note his immediate priority: another black coffee! Check out the official videos for Whitesnake's The Gypsy and Scream from Joel Hoektra's 13 below.