Night Ranger first came to prominence in the 1980s, selling more than 10 million albums and notching a top five single with the song “Sister Christian.” Over the years they have become one of the era’s bands that have endured the test of time, with a resurgence that includes use of their songs in TV shows, movies, video games such as Grand Theft Auto and Rock Band, and even a hit Broadway show.
The group is currently on an extensive tour with Journey and Foreigner, and have been filling venues across the U.S. and Europe, including an upcoming stop at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel.
The three original members, bassist Jack Blades, drummer Kelly Keagy and guitarist Brad Gillis are joined by keyboardist Eric Levy and guitarist extraordinaire Joel Hoekstra. Joel is a world-class musician whose guitar pyrotechnics make the lineup its strongest to date, and their new album, Somewhere In California, one of the strongest they have ever released.
I caught up with Joel on a break from the tour, and was able to get some insight into what it’s like to join a legendary band, as well as perform with musicians that once adorned the walls of his bedroom.
How do you think the music on Somewhere In California compares with classic Night Ranger music?
We didn’t really set out to make a classic Night Ranger album. I think in the past when they were recording albums, their motto has been ‘grow or die,’ where they always wanted to try new territory. This time we got in a room together, and said let’s do what we do best. It really felt like a band. We had fun. It reminded me of my first band, where we all sat in a room together, and we put the band together as a band. As far as a classic Night Ranger album? I wouldn’t want to compare it. The motto was more like, “Let’s do what we do best.”
How long have you been in Night Ranger, and how did you end up in the band?
I played in the house band for Jim Peterik from [the band] Survivor, who has written a lot of great classic rock tunes. He does this show called World Stage, where he has lots of artists sing their hits. Kelly from Night Ranger came out. He and I would see each other about once a year. One year I found out Jeff [Watson, Night Ranger’s long time guitarist] wasn’t in the band, and they were working with Reb Beach, who was going to leave to tour with Whitesnake. I asked if I could get an audition. They asked me to fill in on a show, so the way it turned out, I had a few days to learn like 25 songs to do a show with them. It was like an audition, with no rehearsal. I did that show, and the rest is history, so to speak. That was in the summer of 2007. And then Reb finished out that tour with them, and I joined full-time in 2008.
How do you feel long time fans of the band have accepted you?
I think honestly at that point, the loss of Jeff had already happened, so I didn’t shoulder any of the blame for that or bear the brunt of that. The fans have been great to me. Everybody’s been really supportive. I just try to give the fans a classic Night Ranger show, and play Jeff’s parts as faithfully as possible.
Were you a fan of the band before joining?
I grew up learning all the Night Ranger stuff. As a matter of fact, I used to have a wall in my bedroom that was cut out pages from magazines. I had both Brad and Jeff on my wall as a teenager. It’s cool to be a part of their history.
What’s been some of the highlights of playing with Night Ranger?
Definitely that first gig. It was like jumping out of a plane not knowing if you had a parachute, so just the fact that that gig went well, it was one of the magical gigs of my life. And when we go to Japan—I’ve toured Japan twice with them—the Japanese fans are awesome, so enthusiastic. And of course this year, a highlight is being on a record with them. And all of a sudden, we’re getting this outpouring of love for it. Everyone likes the album.
Any particular songs from the album that are favorites of fans or yourself?
I can’t really pick one. If I had to pick a few, “Lay It On Me” and “Bye Bye Baby.”
Who are your musical influences?
Oh man, I’ve got so many! I have great fusion influences. But the core of why I started was Angus Young and Tony Iommi, pure rock guitar players. I also love the melodic players like Neal Schon, Trevor Rabin, Tom Scholz and then there’s the—I hate using the term shredder—so all the guys like Yngwie and Steve Vai.
You’re touring with Night Ranger, you toured with Trans-Siberian Orchestra this past winter, you play in the Broadway show Rock Of Ages, and you’ve put out three solo albums. Any plans for another solo release of your own music?
I would love to. I want to write my own stuff and record the rest of my life. It’s really hard now with Night Ranger and Rock Of Ages, and throw TSO in there as well. I figure the last couple of years I’ve had about 400 shows a year. It’s hard to find the time to make an album!
Night Ranger will play the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel on Aug. 24 with Journey and Foreigner. Find more info at nightranger.com.