BY Michael Casper
Night Ranger’s beginnings are traced to the San Francisco Bay area in the early 80’s when bassist Jack Blades, drummer Kelly Keagy, and guitarist Brad Gillis started as a hard rock trio called “Stereo.” Not long thereafter they added keyboardist Alan Fitzgerald, and another guitarist, Jeff Watson, and changed their name.
They cut several albums, shot videos that rocked MTV in its heyday, and had hits like, “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” “Sing Me Away,” and their signature anthem “Sister Christian,” which peaked at #5, that solidified their popularity with fans who couldn’t get enough of great guitar-driven rock and roll.
Thirty years later, they’re releasing another album, “High Road,” and still wowing audiences with their high energy shows.
I spoke with Night Ranger’s guitar virtuoso Joel Hoekstra about their having just returned from Europe and shifting gears to start a summer tour in the states, and specifically – Fond du Lac.
Joel: We were just outside of Milan, Italy and played a concert at a festival for our record label, that was amazing. Just being over there with all the bands, Tesla and Stryker, and all the Frontier’s artists. It was really a cool experience, just the camaraderie of it all and getting to hang out, and having to be at the top of your game because everyone else is watching. (Laughs)
Michael: What are European audiences like compared to the U.S.?
Joel: Well, Night Ranger doesn’t do as much European touring so there’s a cool element going on. They’re really hungry for us over there. But we certainly love the good ole’ U.S. of A. We are pretty much just a straight-ahead American rock band, in a lot of ways. With our anthem, “You can still rock in America,” that says it all.
Michael: Now back in the states, then overseas again?
Joel: Yeah, to Japan to support our new album. And on the way back we loop through Hawaii. And then we head to our annual pilgrimage to Epcot in October. That’s become a big thing for all the die-hards to come to. We play a lot of songs in our setlist down there that we don’t during the rest of the year and that’s always a great experience.
Michael: Tell me about your musical upbringing.
Joel: Both of my parents were musical. It was really helpful growing up having music in the house all the time. I think it developed a lot of my fundamentals to the point where they’re second nature. They had me playing cello when I was 3 and piano when I was 7. To be honest, it felt like torture at that point. I didn’t really enjoy it much, but when I decided that I wanted to play electric guitar on my own, a lot of those fundamentals carried across and that really gave me a nice jump start.
Michael: And it was AC/DC that got you going?
Joel: Yeah, man! I saw AC/DC and I was like, “Dude, that’s it. That’s what I want to be.” That was my moment. I know a lot of guys had that with KISS. For me, rock and roll came a little later. As a kid I was kind of into sports. I really wanted to be a baseball player and thought that’s what I wanted to do with my life. But as soon as I saw Angus Young, everything changed.(Laughs)
Michael: Tell me about your first band back in the day, Outcry.
Joel: Oh man, you did your research prior to this, huh? Holy cow. Well, I think I joined it when I was 15 and played in it through maybe 17 years old. It was a great experience, man. All the other guys were a little older so we’d have the occasional gigs where we were in these 18-and-over clubs. I was clearly underage. I was up there playing a bar gig when I was like 16 years old and the bars would say, “It’s fine, just get him out of here as soon as it’s over. Get him up on stage and get him off as soon as the last note is played.” But, it was a blast. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to come up through that time period where bands could still play gigs. I just want to see that opportunity continue for some of the younger players coming up now because that’s really where you get it all together, is on the stage. You can practice as much as you want in your room, but you have to get out and perform for people.
Michael: When was it that you started with Night Ranger?
Joel: Well, it actually has midwestern roots because I grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago and I ended up hooking up with Jim Peterik years ago, who is the co-founder of Ides of March and Survivor. He would have these events once a year called World Stage, where the house band would play and he’d invite a lot of artists out. He had a lot of great artists; Alan Parsons, Rick Emmett, Kip Linger, and Don Barnes from .38 Special was a mainstay. But Kelly Keagy, our drummer from Night Ranger, would come out and do the Night Ranger hits and I was in the house band. So I would see Kelly once a year for a good 7 years. And he came in one year and I was talking to him and all of a sudden he said Jeff wasn’t playing with them any longer and I kind of got in Kelly’s face about it that night. “Hey, man, you should have called me!” (Laugh) Turns out, he took me pretty seriously because a couple days later, they had an opportunity for a gig that the interim guitar player, Reb Beach, couldn’t do. And they said, “Hey, do you want to do this show with us?” Because of the logistics, they were coming back from Japan at that time, we weren’t going to be able to rehearse. So, I was scared out of my mind. We did it on a very limited sound check and never really rehearsed. It was exciting! It was like jumping out of a plane not knowing if your parachute was going to open…or even knowing if you had a parachute! Then the ‘parachute’ opened, and it was a beautiful thing. The rest is history, 7 years later with these guys.
Michael: You not only play with Night Ranger, but you’re often times on Broadway with Rock Of Ages.
Joel: Basically I am the lead guitarist of “Rock Of Ages.” Luckily, they’re totally cool with me taking off whenever I need to go do road dates and what-not. Basically, any day I’m not playing with Night Ranger, you can find me in New York City playing Rock Of Ages. There are 8 shows a week and it’s going really strong. It’s been a really life-changing event because it’s given me the opportunity to really get myself on my feet financially, to be able to gig every single day and it’s given me a chance to meet everyone from those bands, who have come through and watched the show. Too many good moments to even really put into one article, it’s be a real blast. I’ve done The Tonight Show and Conan O’Brien and America’s Got Talent with them. I remember one night in 2011 when Night Ranger was out with Journey and Foreigner, the tour stopped here and I had been out of the show for 3 months, but that night I went in and played the show and everybody from all the bands and the crew came to the show and that was just so fun. It was like stopping in and having everybody from Journey and Foreigner to watch the shows, and of course the Night Ranger guys, who have been big supporters the whole time. So, it was a blast!
Michael: You are through and through a rock and roller, yet you have a couple real nice acoustic solo albums.
Joel: Actually, I have two instrumental albums that are rock fusion that I put out and then my third one was kind of a departure from that. I was doing a lot of co-writing with musicians in New York. I ended up with a lot of these simple ‘chord melody’ tunes and they’re not really “show-offy,” they’re just nice tunes. I decided rather than throw them all away, I thought let’s get these down and track them and make them instrumental. It’s ended up being the favorite of a lot of the rock fans. It’s a great album to drink your coffee to in the morning or when you’re driving and winding down. It’s not your typical rocker album, but I’m proud to have in my catalogue. I think versatility is huge for any true musician.”
Michael: Coming off that Italy trip, now a Fond du Lac, Wisconsin gig? How do you keep that energy up?
Joel: One through five with this band, all of us love what we do. At this stage of the game, that’s what it’s all about. No matter how far you get in the game, rock and roll is still fun. It’s still a great time and we like to get out on stage and enjoy ourselves. We’re not about getting on there with scowls on our faces or standing still. We don’t take ourselves serious to the point where we can’t have fun with music. And rock and roll is totally about that. We’re not doing this for the paycheck, we’re doing it for the love and for the fans and we’re just so happy to be out playing. It’s really the greatest way to make a living in my humble opinion. So you have a duty to the fans to kick ass and you have a duty to yourself to kick ass because you’ve been given an opportunity to have one of the best jobs you could ever ask for.”
Michael: We’re looking forward to your visit to Walleye Weekend!
Joel: Thank you, we’re really excited, man! We’re going to come and rock you guys!
Night Ranger takes to the 96.1-TCX Main Stage at Walleye Weekend, Saturday night, June 7th.