Guitarists Joel Hoekstra and Tommy Kessler Discuss Their Roles in 'Rock of Ages' Musical
For Joel Hoekstra and Tommy Kessler, it might be like being inside of a time warp.
Not only do the guitarists for Broadway’s Rock of Ages musical get to perform in the fictional Eighties band Arsenal night after night, but separately, they play music from that same era, even when not performing on the Broadway stage.
Kessler’s other “day job” includes working alongside Debbie Harry in Blondie, while Hoekstra continues to record and tour with Night Ranger and is about to start his fourth winter tour with Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
I spoke to Hoekstra and Kessler about Rock of Ages and some of their other projects.
GUITAR WORLD: What are some of the differences between performing as part of Night Ranger and Blondie, as compared to Rock of Ages?
JOEL HOEKSTRA: With Night Ranger, it's all about playing the classic songs/solos and entertaining the audience with an energetic performance. With Rock of Ages, people are there for a humorous, entertainment experience, not a serious rock show. My approach to that is campier because it's more in the spirit of the show. People are just there to have a good time. In Night Ranger, I use EVH iii amps. With RoA, I play through a Fractal Axe-FX Ultra.
TOMMY KESSLER: The main difference performing-wise is that when Blondie plays a show, it's six of us doing a rock show and it's song after song. We're all featured at any given moment. With Rock of Ages, there's a story going on in front of the band. We are on stage the entire time because Arsenal is the house band of the Bourbon Room, but the story goes in and out of the Bourbon Room so there is a lot of time we are in the dark and not playing music.
The music is also mixed quite differently in the two shows. One is a rock mix and one is a theater mix. Gear-wise, In Blondie I have the typical amp/pedal board setup, but in Rock of Ages I play direct through Fractal Audio Axe FX Ultra.
Tell me a little about the performance itself and the monitor setups you use.
KESSLER: I use Ultimate (UE7) in ear monitors for both shows. The shows are pretty similar in the monitoring respect. We have a monitor board and we all have our own separate mixes. In Rock of Ages, we have talkback mics in case we need to adjust a mix during the show. With Blondie, we don't because for the most part we have a set mix and very little changes and it's a band so there are always the same people playing. In Rock of Ages, everyone has a handful of subs that come in on any given show so little things are tweaked on the fly according to who is in the show.
HOEKSTRA: Obviously the show is based on hits of the Eighties, but there's much more to playing it than just playing cover songs. Many of the songs are in different keys, or are part of medleys. There are lots of vamps as well. The keyboard player/conductor is always counting us in and out of sections in our in-ears. We also have a talkback system up there, so we can communicate with each other if there are problems. For in-ears, we all use Ultimate UE7's.
How many shows do you think you’ve done?
HOEKSTRA: Including the off-Broadway run, we must be approaching 2,000 shows. I miss probably 30 percent of them due to my commitments with Night Ranger and Trans Siberian Orchestra, so I've probably played 1,300 to 1,400 of them.
KESSLER: Joel and I always roughly try to figure this out, but I think there has been about 1,800 or 1,900 off-Broadway/Broadway shows,and I guess I’ve probably done around 1,200, give or take a hundred [laughs].
Can you give us an update on what you're doing with TSO, Night Ranger and Blondie?
HOEKSTRA: I'm about to head out on my fourth winter tour with Trans-Siberian Orchestra (which runs now through December 31. That's 58 arena shows in just over six weeks! Night Ranger had a great year of gigs, and our new record is slated for release in spring 2014. We still totally enjoy writing/recording new music and we're really excited about it.
KESSLER: Touring with Blondie has ended for the year, so I'm back every night at Rock of Ages. There are a few award shows that I'll be music directing for Debbie, but I spend most of my days in the studio producing and writing music with my team for artists/bands. My “Tommy Toy Room” as I like to call it [laughs].
What do you think makes the music from that decade so timeless?
HOEKSTRA: Many of the songs have catchy melodies, great hooks, and generally speaking, the songs from that period are fun and uplifting.
KESSLER: I think the biggest thing with Eighties music is that the people who were growing up listening to it have now become the demographic that goes and sees shows, and they also have kids they will bring along. Plus, the show gives people who grew up with the music a reason to get together again and relive their teenage years.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.