The first time I’d attended a Halestorm show was a decade ago in their home state of Pennsylvania. In a packed club painted black, this young band drove through songs with unabashed confidence. It all felt new…and old. Their full-throttle attitude harkened back to ‘80s rock, yet, their sound was fresh. Halestorm showed serious chops coupled with the guts to be themselves. This was a “hallelujah” moment. Then, Lzzy Hale powered through a delicious ballad called “Rose in December”, her hair dripping with sweat. This refreshingly badass frontwoman put everything she had into that song for a room full of gritty club-goers. I stood in awe and relief. Transfixed faces watched her bang on the piano as they closed their eyes each time she hit sweet vocal heights. Soon after, Joe Hottinger attacked guitar parts on “It’s Not You” with a mighty intensity, and the crowd absorbed every moment. Still, I wondered for a second if this band could “make it” beyond bigtime local fame if they refused to conform or sell-out.
After the show, each member of Halestorm stood on the floor where fans lined up to meet them. This was no $150 VIP ticket. It was, simply, a band willing to meet their fans. They graciously posed for photos and answered the same questions repeatedly with a smile on their face. It continued for over an hour. This band was different. They greeted people with sincere gratitude, which, I believed, would attribute to their ascent. Perhaps, I thought, this unique combination of talent and appreciation may set them apart after all. I was right. Fast-forward a decade or so, and not only did they “make it,” they did so without losing the sacred foundation from which they came.
Since that particular Pennsylvania club gig, Halestorm has ripped through the music scene amassing countless accolades, including a Grammy for Best Hard-Rock/Metal Performance. Meanwhile, the four members that include Lzzy Hale on vocals and guitar, her brother — an entertaining beast on drums — Arejay Hale, Joe Hottinger on lead guitar and Josh Smith on bass, continue to progress in the unforgiving, salacious space of rock ‘n’ roll. One of the rare female-fronted rock/metal bands of our time, Halestorm will command audiences, once again, as their tour hits the Stone Pony Summer Stage on August 6. With their fourth fierce album, Vicious, coming out July 27, it is clear there is no stopping this Storm. In fact, at the conclusion of this tour leg — which also includes another female-fronted band, In This Moment — Halestorm will embark on their third leg of the tour, adding New Years Day to the bill.
Recently, I spoke with an upbeat, down-to-earth, Joe Hottinger about the process of the making Vicious and Halestorm’s ability to find the moment within the music.
We’re excited to see you guys soon at Summer Stage in Asbury Park!
Hopefully we’ll be able to do it this time.
When you return to the area, near Pennsylvania, do you get a chance to hang out with family and friends? Josh, our bass player, is the only one with any family left in Pennsylvania. Lzzy and Arejay’s parents moved out eight years ago, I’m guessing, maybe in 2012. My parents left before that. Neither of us have family there anymore, so we see old friends, and Josh’s family comes out, which is cool. But, otherwise, it’s just an old-friend hang.
The new album, Vicious, coming out at the end of this month, feels like the band is really leaning into the metal genre. You’ve always been categorized hard-rock/metal, and now it feels as though you’re embracing the metal sound. Was that intentional?
I love that. No…and that’s what we’ve been hearing. So, you’ve obviously heard the record. That isn’t what we were going for, honestly. We weren’t going for anything. We didn’t know what to do. We were kind of lost in the beginning of the record-writing process, and, thank god, we did it with Nick Raskulinecz, who is one of our heroes and, also, just a great guy, producer, musical soulmate, and musical brother.
We wrote a bunch of songs at the end of the last record cycle, and they were good. But we weren’t excited about them. I know they would’ve done fine. They would’ve been on the radio, but a lot of it sounded like “I Miss the Misery (Part 2)” or “I Get Off (Part 2)”, you know? It just seemed a little half-baked…I don’t know. We weren’t real excited about it, that was all. We wanted to challenge ourselves and, in turn, our fans and the genre…like, how do you do that? That was the question.
We showed Nick those songs in the studio last January, and we were like, “Man, this isn’t really what we want to do.” He said, “This is not the record I want to make with Halestorm.” So it was, “Cool, we’re on the same page…so, now what?” He was like, “Have no fear! [Laughs] This is what I do. You guys set up all your gear right here in this little room (in the studio). Who’s got a riff?” Famous first words, “I’ve got this riff…” We started playing, and he hung out with us and kind of became our fifth member. We got our mojo back. It took us a little bit, but it was, “Oh, we got this. That is actually really cool-sounding. Let’s just keep doing this and keep moving forward.” We did, and we kept writing over all of last year and recording.
We had the luxury of time — which was awesome — for this record. We kept recording things and re-recording them until we got them right and made the moments. It’s funny that you say it’s “metal…very heavy and more metal-sounding.” We’ve been getting that. Some of the journalists over in Europe have been saying the same thing, and it was surprising to us. You, the journalists, are the first ones who have heard the record outside of our circle, and we didn’t go for that. I guess that’s just what excites us or excited us when we were writing. It’s funny. It’s cool…I’m not mad about that at all [Laughs]. There are some excellent guitar stylings on the “Killing Ourselves To Live” track. Then there is the balance with the acoustic songs “The Silence” and “Heart of Novocaine”. Do you enjoy playing the ballads as much as the heavy, driving guitar in some of the other tracks?
Totally. “The Silence”… I love that song. If it catches me at the right time, it can still tear me up a bit. Lzzy did such a good job singing on that. I’d had that music written for five years now, the guitar part, the melody…I just didn’t know what to do with it. Every time I’d pick up an acoustic I’d tune to open G and kind of play that and say, “Remember this, Lzzy? We’ve still got this…”
[Laughs] We tried a few things with it, and it never worked out. The lyrics had to be right, because we really felt the music was powerful. One night, writing with her, she just started putting down some words. It was like, “There it is.” We got the title, “The Silence”, and she blurted out the rest of the song. That vocal is actually from the demo that we made. It was so well done and so in the moment that there was no need to do that again. She killed it. It’s just so personal for her, and it’s such a sweet song, you know? … death and love, true love. It’s beautiful, I think. And, like you said, the juxtaposition of that and “Black Vultures” or “Skulls” [Laughs] … it’s different sides of us. We were just chasing what got us excited, and in “The Silence”, that raw emotion…in “Skulls” that riff in the bridge and that vocal intro into the blusier riff, that excited us. So, we did it. As long as there were moments being made, that’s what I like about music. Good moments are good moments, and that’s all you need.
Into the Wild Life solidified Halestorm. And Vicious is definitely an evolution of your sound, individually and collectively. It feels like an old-school album with an arena rock/metal sound with a couple ballads thrown in there. It’s interesting that you say it wasn’t intentional…
It’s what we do. It’s what we like about music. It’s how we play. This is absolutely the most “Halestorm” record. It came about the most organically. There was just the four of us in the room for the majority of this record just jamming, writing this stuff out, working through it, combing through it, ironing it out, and fixing the kinks. I think the record has, like, two guitar solos on it, which I didn’t even realize until we were done. I did a ton of guitar solos, but most of them are on the B-Side, it turned out. Oh, well! It’s fine, because, to me, it’s service the song first. I don’t need to play a guitar solo if the song doesn’t need one, and a lot of these songs don’t need them. I made some other moments on guitar that are in there.
There’s a tasty little intro on “Painkiller”, speaking of those moments. As far as your playing goes, are there other genres you delve into? Jazz, maybe? Or…
I don’t play…but, we always call it “playing jazz” when I really screw up and keep going with it [Laughs]. But, I listen to a lot of music. There was great night in Nashville this past Monday. We went out to Motown Monday and had the best time. There’s this cool bar downtown where people really get into it and dance. I just really like listening to the music. They play old videos and stuff. That Motown music is so good, the old soul and funk…I get off on that stuff, too. There are so many amazing moments.
It’s all about moments. That’s what we talk about all the time, whether it’s live or in the studio. There are totally different moments in both. To me, that’s the art. How do you create this in the studio? How do you create the moment live? We were talking about writing, and how you incorporate those moments into hard-rock.
We get so excited about music sometimes. We listen to everything, if it’s good. There’s some really good country out there…I don’t listen to it a lot, but there’s some really good stuff where these guys are saying something that matters — Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill. There are some bona fide dudes out there. If it’s good, it’s good. That’s all I care about, and that’s all we were going for on the record. We just happen to play rock ‘n’ roll best [Laughs]. It’s what we do.
It seems like anything with an element of truth is what you guys resonate with. Even when you came on the scene, you refused to be superficial. Hence, this new album doesn’t sound like anything else out there at the moment.
Thank you, and I agree. We didn’t want to sound like anything else. There is not much that is inspiring us right now. There are a few things here and there in all sorts of genres. But, in our genre in particular, some artists…I won’t say they’ve given up on rock, however, they’re incorporating different sounds as an experiment. Maybe that’s just what they’re into, which is fine. I’m all for experimentation, that’s what we were doing, too — but we wanted to make sure that our experimenting was in the realm of hard-rock or rock & roll in general…big guitar, you know?
We were recording with Nick, and he knows how to record drums and guitars. That’s becoming a bit of a lost art form these days. And, I get it, man. We’re in the middle of a conversation — Lzzy, some of my rock ‘n’ roll friends and I — about listening to new music. I listen to new music when it comes out every Friday, especially hard-rock or metal on Apple Music or Spotify, and some of it, maybe it could be a good song or a good band, but it sounds terrible. It’s really bad, a lot of it. You can’t blame them. To record drums properly, the production is expensive. It’s no joke, and you’ve got to know what you’re doing. And then you look at alternative music or hip-hop or even pop — you could just spend two-hundred dollars on some software, and it sounds perfect. You just put it in the computer and barely have to mix it. It sounds amazing. You’ve got the right samples and all this stuff. Whereas, if you’re just some kid in a rock band in a garage — like we were — we didn’t know how to record. I mean, we’re still learning, and we’ve got way better at it. Obviously, we use a team – engineers, Nick, our producer, the mixer, the mastering and everything that goes into it.
There aren’t many rock records out there today that just sound amazing. I think that’s pushing a lot of people away. But, I think, also, there’s a whole history of rock ‘n’ roll that does sound amazing. You get a kid like Greta Van Fleet coming up, and they get it. It sounds good. But, even with that, you’ve got to turn it up, crank it. It’s not meant for little headphones. You want to hear the room and the vibe of the band…I don’t know. There’s no conclusion to this, it’s just something that has been an ongoing conversation trying to figure out why more kids aren’t doing rock ‘n’ roll. I think it’s the entry-level…you’ve got a computer, and it sounds amazing. You can show your friends, “Check this out!” But, to be in a band, that’s tough…that’s work.
Is there any gear from the early days that you’ve held onto?
Yeah. I still have my red SG today. When I joined Halestorm, I had just sold all of my hard-rock gear. I was in a band in college. We didn’t get along so well. It didn’t really work out. So, I moved back up to Pennsylvania — I was going to college in Virginia — I moved to Philly. I had a PRS and a Half Stack amp or something. I sold it and got a Telecaster and a Reverb Combo, because I was obsessed with Jeff Buckley’s Grace. It changed my life in 2002 or 2001, and that was all I cared about.
That record is still my standard. It changed my life in terms of music. That record showed me that music can actually move muscles — it can create bumps on your skin. It can move you. It’s that powerful…if it’s done right. If it’s tackling and addressing the right emotions, it can destroy people. How insane it that? When you listen to Jeff Buckley singing that song “Grace” when…he’s holding that long note out, and he’s changing all the different timbres in his voice. That moved my soul to the point where anything I listened to before that record, I didn’t trust anymore. So, I had to go back and go through all my ‘90s and ‘70s bands that I loved so much and… “Is this actually good?” And most of it was. I was on the right path [Laughs].
So, yeah, I joined the band. I had a black Telecaster and a Combo amp, because I wasn’t planning on being in a hard-rock band. But, I’d met Lzzy, and I auditioned. And I was like, “Man, your voice is cool.” She showed me some songs she was writing, and it maxed me out, creatively. I was totally blown away. I was like, “You’re really cool…and here’s an idea…” We still do that to this day, just hang out, talk about music, and try to write cool songs.
The first guitar I got when I joined the band — because the Telly wasn’t going to cut it — my parents got me a red 2003 Gibson SG, just standard…I would never get rid of that. It was their, “Hey, you quit college…we trust ya. Good luck out there!” I thought that was really sweet just talking with them, “Yeah, I don’t really have the right gear for this, but I think it’s something special.” It turned out to be a good choice and a good investment for them, I think [Laughs].
We’re hoarders. I don’t get rid of guitars. I’ve only gotten rid of a few shitty guitars. I paid a lot of money for them, and I invested that money into new guitars. I think between Lzzy and I there are 50 or 60 guitars lying around that we use. I try to surround myself with them. I want to see them all. They’re like paintings…it’s functional art. If I see one I haven’t played in a while I’ve got to go grab it and see if there’s a song in there, you know?
There sound on Vicious is big, as if it is meant to be played in arenas.
I know exactly what you’re saying. That’s something that we’ve talked about the past few years. It’s an active discussion still — writing music and playing in big venues that “boom.” That’s a discussion we have, especially with Arejay on drums…the big, open grooves, not over-playing things, and big riffs — I love big riffs. I like the idea of something that will sound good in a big building. I think if you want to play in an arena you have to kind of write for it a little bit. That’s a theory, anyway. We’ll see.
We are starting to play arenas now as a headlining band, the smaller ones…sometimes bigger ones. I think we’re about to announce a big show in Philly coming up in November/December. It’s exciting. Things are going up for us. I’m glad you said that. It means a lot, because it’s something that we’ve been going for…actively trying for. We’ve been thinking about it for so many years now that it’s kind of second-nature to kind of play big — that idea, the art form of playing big. You have to try — it’s easy to overplay — to have the restraint. I respect the restraint in players [Laughs].
“The Silence”, in an arena, will sound amazing…
I agree. We just played that for the first time at a festival this past weekend. Nobody had ever heard it before, obviously. It was cool. We didn’t know exactly how it would go over. It was just Lzzy and I onstage with an acoustic in the middle of the set, and there were three or four moments within the song that gave me the tingles. We get to experience that song for the first time being played in that way along with other people. It was really powerful. Lzzy sounded amazing. So we’ll be doing that one.
You’ll be playing that one in Asbury Park?
I hope so. I don’t see why not.
Have you been playing “Uncomfortable” out?
We debuted that on Rock on the Range before it actually dropped. It’s fun. It’s fast. It’s fast for Lzzy. It has that really fast verse, and that vocal run in the chorus is a bear.
I remember when she wrote it. She said, “Oh, man. If this goes on the record, I’m to have to do this live every night.” She sounded good though. She’s hittin’ it.
If anyone can handle it, Lzzy can.
Yeah. She’s Lzzy-effin-Hale. She’s got this.
You guys have all got this.
Halestorm hits Asbury Park, NJ on August 6 at the Stone Pony Summer Stage (rescheduled from May 12). The new album Vicious is available on July 27 at Halestormrocks.com