NIGHT RANGER – Taking on the High Road
Early MTV years circa 1983. Back when the video channel played all music videos, all the time- I remember seeing and hearing the sounds of this California band and their debut video for "Don’t Tell Me You Love Me". Sure looking back the visuals may have been a little goofy on a train and the slow motion effects- but you couldn’t deny the melodic vocal hook from bassist Jack Blades or the lead break competition between guitarists Brad Gillis and Jeff Watson.
Night Ranger would gain the major spotlight and being a strong headlining run thanks to their second album "Midnight Madness" and the monumental top 5 ballad "Sister Christian" – but the band has always had a strong hard rock meets AOR template that the long timers prefer over the suits and ties corporations who tried to steer the band into that safe, ‘ballad’ act that merely would pump out hits.
Fast forward to today, and "High Road" is their latest studio album – another fun hard rock record filled with the hooks, harmonies, musical interplay, and perfect to take in on a highway ride or at a summer barbeque. Preparing for a series of summer dates in the US with Boston and .38 Special depending on where you are at, I reached out to guitarist Joel Hoekstra for this interview, and let me tell you he is one of the most engaging and friendly musicians I’ve had the pleasure to speak to in my 25 years plus writing about music.
Growing up in a family of classically trained musicians, how helpful and nurturing would this environment be for your own development musically?
"It helped me immensely, because even as a young kid even though I necessarily didn’t appreciate it I was developing a sense of pitch, rhythm, harmony, and a better ear because you are listening to so much music. Also a sense of creativity, my sister and I could pick out melodies my parents were playing on the piano and coming up with silly song lyrics with them. It helped to cultivate a whole bunch of musical fundamentals."
At what point did you pick up the guitar, because you starts at first with other instruments, correct?
"My parents had me play the cello when I was 3 and the piano when I was 7, but I didn’t take necessarily to either one of them. My sister who was two years older than me, she was going a little further ahead so we had that sibling rivalry and you are young and it’s frustrating to you. At the age of 11 I thought about rock and roll, and I thought Angus Young was the coolest person in the world so that’s when I started to play the guitar."
"High Road" is the new album, and seems to have a similar plug in and play vibe as its predecessor "Somewhere in California". Where do you see this album in the Night Ranger catalog, and what were some of the highlights of the songwriting and recording sessions in your eyes?
"Honestly in terms of where it sits in the whole catalog I feel that it’s kind of too early to tell. That’s going to be up to the fans to figure that out, and we also need time because we’ve just separated from the creative process of making the album. We are really proud of it and very excited about it, but in terms of the big picture that always tends to develop a little later down the line. "Somewhere in California", the previous album, we didn’t know what to think of it and the fans digested it, really thought about it, and have told us it’s one of the best Night Ranger albums we’ve done in a really long time. We hope this one the fans feel the same about. On this album there’s a little more diversity, the classic Night Ranger sound is still alive and well within it but it’s going to challenge people a little more as we really expressed ourselves musically with this one."
I love some of the guitar groovier aspects of "Knock Knock Never Stop" that brought me back to the early 80’s while "Don’t Live Here Anymore" as a ballad has a lot of 70’s meets Beatles elements. Can you tell us a little more about the creation and performances within these 2 songs?
"I mean "Knock Knock…" is a classic Brad Gillis riff getting that song rolling. Then you’ve got some kick ass driving/ ripping vocals on there, Jack and Kelly do the trade-off which is a signature thing for Night Ranger in terms of the vocals. That was a fun song to write. And then "Don’t Live Here Anymore", I think a lot of that has Kelly in it, it’s a personal song for him and he’s speaking and singing from the heart on that one. We had the piano and acoustic stuff first and then Brad came up with the signature volume swell thing a la "Rumors in the Air", which I thought was very interesting to put it in a ballad. It really helped to bring the song back to Night Ranger. With that song it’s very emotional and we just wanted to jam it out a bit at the end. We made it epic as people say nowadays."
Do you see any significant differences between how you approach guitar for Night Ranger in comparison to long time cohort Jeff Watson?
"People are people- and it’s always going to be apples to oranges in terms of comparisons. It’s my job to kind of keep Jeff’s legacy alive. I’m a Jeff Watson fan and I do my best for the people to deliver a classic, live Night Ranger sound and a classic Night Ranger concert. That being said, there are going to be certain tendencies of mine that come through. Brad and I have great chemistry together as a guitar team, I’m proud to be a part of the records and a part of the big picture."
If you had the chance to add a song or two from the catalog that the band hasn’t played in a while, which songs would excite you the most from Night Ranger to try in the set list?
"Oh man, well you know- we’ve done a lot of them, it just so happens we add them in when we go to Japan, especially if we play Tokyo 2 or 3 nights back to back. What would I want to do- I always miss doing "Man In Motion", I think that’s a cool track- I wouldn’t mind seeing that come back around full time."
How was it to have special guests like Bun E. Carlos (ex-Cheap Trick drummer), Ace Frehley, and George Lynch join Night Ranger on stage last weekend in Turlock, California? Are there any particular musical heroes you would love the chance to record or jam with?
"That was a total blast. Bun E. Carlos was so together and so nice, George was just mind blowing with everything he does, style and flair- and Ace is Ace, the Space Man. He came in and took over the room. The vibe was larger than life. He made me a huge fan, going through the process of jamming with him I learned how much I love his style. I would love to sit around just for fun, not on stage or in a band, and play guitar with Angus Young because he is the one who made me want to start. People that I would love to write or record with, Johnny R. of the Goo Goo Dolls, and I guess Arnel Pineda from Journey too, he is one of the best singers in rock today."
You are preparing to play some special shows with the Randy Rhoads Remembered tribute next month on the East Coast. Can you tell us some of your favorite Randy memories through the years and how has it been going through his catalog of material?
"As a guitarist for one of these shows, thankfully I only have to learn a couple of the songs because if I had to work on the whole catalog my hands would fall off. As far as going back into the memories I literally remember walking to the mall as a kid, going into Musicland and buying the cassette of "Blizzard of Ozz" because back then it was all about how cool the cover art looks and taking it home and hearing the opening riffs of "I Don’t Know" and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, it was so cool. I love everything that Randy brought to the table as far as versatility, I love the fact that he brought classical elements into the guitar and made it cool for everybody to accept the sound of classical music into rock and roll, I think he had a lot to do with that. Him and Ritchie Blackmore- learning the licks again and getting them down is a lot of fun, you get to hear the music in a different way again- you start to listen to music when you play it for a living in more of a professional and engineering way, the magic can begin again as a kid when you listen to this for its overall spirit and sound. That’s interesting to do that, this is an honor to learn Randy’s stuff and pay tribute to the hard rock greats."
Where do you stand on bands who end up pumping in backing tracks to enhance the live performances?
"You are putting the ball on the tee for me to bash that- in Night Ranger we don’t do it at all. Truth be told, I don’t have a problem with necessarily anybody doing anything, I just want everybody to have an opportunity to play music and make music and make a living playing music. The big picture of supporting the arts and supporting the music matters more than whether someone is pumping in backing tracks. As long as people are working on their musical skills which I think unless you are a pop artist where it can be all backing tracks, even then to a degree there has to be some musical development. Even American Idol- are these the next great vocalists? Not necessarily – I think the fact it does expose America to the ability that these people can sing may inspire some people to practice their skills and want to sing. It’s not a home run but it might be a double (laughs)- how’s that for your sporting analogy?"
Are there times when younger musicians ask for your advice- and what do you talk to them about, because it seems to be a tougher road to establish yourself now in the music business?
"The most important thing to realize is you get back what you put into it. You have to approach this like a job if you want to make a living at this. A lot of people just inherently view this like a hobby even if they really like playing music. Truth be told even Jimi Hendrix talked about the fact that if you are going to make a living at this there are going to be times that you hate playing your instrument, but you have to be playing. Especially when it comes to rock ‘n roll, you have to treat it like a job, stay busy and work, work work- even if some of what you do is for free or minimum wage. If you wake up and go after things, things will be alright."
You are performing in multiple situations in the music scene between Night Ranger, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and the Rock of Ages musical to name just a few of your endeavors. How do you maintain a work/pleasure balance without overextending yourself to the point of burnout?
"I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I do different things. That gives me the opportunity to keep things a little fresh. Just when I get to the end of January and February with the Broadway show, let’s just say I get a little bored and things start to get busy with Night Ranger, the travel and different things. Then I can get away from that with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I like all my gigs and I love the fact that I get to do this for a living, I’m not burnt out at all. If anything I am trying to push harder right now- during the week I have opportunities to write music for some television shows, Duck Dynasty and the Wahlbergs, an instrumental album of my own, stay productive as a person."
Can you tell us some of your all-time favorite albums in the hard rock/ metal genre- and where do you stand on the digital versus physical media platform now when it comes to music consumption?
"Some of my favorites- there’s a whole lot. Going way back to my childhood- AC/DC "Back in Black" is an all time favorite, a perfect hard rock album. I got into really melodic players from there, and bands like Journey and The Eagles- their greatest hits. Trevor Rabin and Tom Scholz are both influential guitar players- I love Trevor’s solo album "Can’t Look Away". All the great shredders- guys with more chops like Yngwie, Joe Satriani, heavy stuff- Metallica’s "Ride the Lightning", Pantera – I love all of their stuff. A wide variety there.
I don’t know if I have a stance on it- if people are loving music and respecting it that’s fine, I hope for a little bit of a resurgence where people who make the music can actually get paid and compensated for their work. I think that is important- the record industry really had their head up their butts when it came to everything related to file sharing, they ignored the reality was coming. You don’t see this to as much of a degree in other fields like the movie industry, they cracked down harsher. It’s almost like Metallica made a bad name for themselves with the Napster thing, basically telling people that musicians should be paid for their work. Somehow we’ve gotten to a point in our culture where it’s a sin and musicians will do all the work for free, but its work and I think if you are good and put the time in you deserve to get paid."
Speaking of record labels how do you feel about your current relationship with Frontiers?
"They are the best in the melodic hard rock/ AOR genre- we love our label and totally appreciate their support."
What does the next 12 months look like for you in terms of performances, recordings, etc. – either within Night Ranger or other actitivies?
"We are going to be out supporting the new album "High Road" on the road, which we are very excited about. We are playing the states this year, and going to Japan in October. November and December I am slated to do the Trans-Siberian Orchestra tour, this will be my fifth year doing this. I have the VHF EP, my side project coming out that I hope people will check out. I played on a film score with Amy Lee from Evanescence, that was great… more of the television stuff, the beauty of the music business as a whole is everything could take a left turn at some point. I am having a good time doing what I’m doing."