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Doug Hoekstra - The Triste Interview
|Doug Hoekstra started his career playing alt-country in Bucket Number 6 in Chicago before the genre had a name. Since going solo he has released five solo albums which mix elaborate arrangements with great storytelling and a mix of musical styles. Despite (or because of) moving to Nashville only traces of his country stylings remain and his songs now defy conventional classification, although almost all the songs have a strong desire to tell a story or a sketch a picture of people's lives. Triste caught up with him in Manchester at the Star and Garter on his third UK tour.
Triste: From reading the press material about you it would seem that people have a great difficulty in classifying you as belonging to a certain genre. If backed into a corner how would you categorise yourself?
Doug Hoekstra: I tend to say I'm a singer-songwriter with a twist; a left-of-centre singer-songwriter. You know I come from the singer-songwriter tradition people like Dylan and Cohen and some of those other people I get compared to. At the same time I don't think I'm totally retro like some folkies or Americana people. I do think about the production and what I write about and make it pretty contemporary. It's pretty hard to label.
Triste: I noticed you were nominated for some folk and blues award in 1996; but you're not really folk, and the blues influences probably extend only as far as some of the backing vocals. It seemed quite strange.
Doug Hoekstra: That was the Nashville Music Awards and I think I lost to Gillian Welch actually. When they say rock nowadays I think they think of Oasis or Blur, so it's automatically a band. A guy wrote an article in New York (in the Big Takeover) that's kind of interesting he said the new singer-songwriters are almost like the punk movement. He mentioned me briefly, but he mostly talked about Mark Eitzel, Joe Henry and Howie Gelb and people like that, and I would definitely say I'm in that world. And he put Sparklehorse and others in there too. So I would definitely say there is creative singer-songwriter stuff, but I would say that people don't know how to label it. But that's typical I think.
Triste: The music business doesn't know how to market you unless you fit in their box.
Doug Hoekstra: That's how things are in the music business and they like to categorise purely for the sake of marketing. That's the nature of the beast.
Triste: Talking about labels I believe you started out playing in a kind of proto alt-country band. Bucket Number 6?
Doug Hoekstra: Yeh, it was a band called Bucket Number 6 in Chicago. It was kind of before they called it alt-country. I guess we were around at the very beginning of the 90's. We did a couple of records and that's where we were coming from and not many people in Chicago were even playing that and I can remember kind of getting some crap because we were playing Gram Parsons and Hank Williams covers and it was kind of funny. Too bad we burned out before the next wave came, but that's what we did. We did a lot of original material but it was all with that kind of idea in mind.
Triste: Were you the prime songwriter in the band?
Doug Hoekstra: There were two of us, but I was the prime songwriter, but there was a friend of mine called Bill Murphy, I don't think he's playing music now, but we had been in a previous band together and he wrote too. On our CD I think of the 15 tracks I probably wrote something like 11.
Triste: Did you share the singing and guitar duties as well?
Doug Hoekstra: Yeh. We had a guy, Steve Meisner, who was a kind of multi-instrumentalist and he's play slide guitar and fiddle and he'd sing a few tunes too. Bill would sing what he wrote and I would sing what I wrote and Steve would sing some of the covers really.
Triste: A bit like the Beatles where Lennon would tend to sing the songs he wrote, McCartney and Harrison their songs and you'd get Ringo singing a few covers?
Doug Hoekstra: Yeh, right. We didn't co-write or anything , so if you came up with a song you were the one who sang it, and as our other guy didn't write, he did most of the covers.
Triste: So why did the band fizzle out?
Doug Hoekstra: You know bands are very hard things to keep together. Even when you're out doing this as an individual your life changes and you have a commitment to the music but other things affect you, and if you compound that by three and you get people going in different directions. When we started I think we were all of a mind about what we wanted to do professionally and with the kind of music, and than a few years later there were degrees of disillusionment about where we were at with our careers or what we were doing musically.
Triste: Why did you gravitate to country? It would seem from your background, and from living in Chicago, that you'd like the national pop and rock sounds, but also be influenced by the soul and blues and other black music forms in the scene in the city. Where does the country element come in?
Doug Hoekstra: I think because it was new to us really. I guess my prime influences would be the Beatles and the British Invasion and then Dylan and then maybe reggae. I think we probably had a typical north-south kind of prejudice about country. We didn't understand Johnny Cash or the cool stuff in country. In fact it was our guitar player who was the first of the three of us to get into it and we were really taken by it. I don't like pomposity, I like bands that break it down, and that's certainly the case with country. Always has been. It was at a time when, and I think you could say the same thing now, rock and roll was getting overblown with the posturings and becoming even more and more corporate. Even though there's a corporate element to country there's also a very working man history and blue collar roots to country - especially when you're talking about Merle [Haggard] and Buck [Owens]. We were all drawn to that.
Triste: When the band actually folded why did you carry on playing - beyond a desire to keep making music?
Doug Hoekstra: It's kind of funny, you know, as we kind of pressurised ourselves with unrealistic expectations and sometimes although we cared about the music we took it too much to heart if we had a band gig or worried about what kind of deal we were getting. So I didn't want to get into that kind of situation, so when we were done I thought I'd take a break and see what happens. A couple of different friends in Chicago wanted me to write and record and I always write songs - I don't think I can stop writing songs - so the first record I thought I was just going to record it for fun and put it out and not search for a deal. And I thought that I'd found a new voice, that was, I guess, better, although "better" is probably the wrong word; a new voice that maybe had more possibilities. I didn't hustle that hard, but I got some really nice responses and then went onto the second record.
Triste: It's interesting you saying that you didn't hustle too much for your first album as you now seem to work very hard behind the scenes. It seems as if the initial success was almost accidental. An act of serendipity perhaps, rather than something planned?
Doug Hoekstra: You could say that, but at the time I probably followed the same path as the band did, but with time you learn from experiences hopefully and how you approach things. I still kind of honestly take it record to record. What is this record going to do? I think of that both creatively and the other thing. Where will this take me? Is it a progression? Am I improving as a songwriter and musician? Am I reaching more people? But I look at it more like that than trying to search for some pie in the sky deal. But circling back to what you said, part of it to me is if a record comes out which I've put a lot of time into writing and recording I want to make sure that I do everything I can to do it justice. And a lot of people think sometimes that because I've been fortunate to get a lot of great press, that it's a kind of ego thing or something - it's not really that at all -its part of the process. You make the record and you want to get it into the hands of people who hopefully will like it and let other people know and get more people to your shows and hopefully you'll sell more records and you can make another record. So that's how it boils down to that nuts and bolts thing and you know it's nice if someone plays your record on the radio or gives you a great review, but I think it's just part of that process of cultivating what you do.
Triste: You don't often to think of a strong, commercial work ethic and the creative artistic temperament going together. There are exceptions of course, but the romantic cliche is the dissolute poverty stricken artist being ripped off by everyone around him.
Doug Hoekstra: I think sometimes it's thought of uncool - like you're supposed to be the slacker artist who can't be bothered. But that's really a myth you know. If you look at the people who are successful - take Dylan - I don't know what kind of business man he was but he sure hustled. He sure worked the angles. To get to that point they really have to want it - no matter how good or bad their music is. Maybe it happened to Elvis - maybe he really was a chance thing. But 99% of the time people work angles or the have connections and they try to get to that place and that's part of the game. It's the difference between dubbing off a few copies for your friends and trying to get your record out to a wider audience.
Triste: But there must be a degree of luck involved too. You can't will yourself to success if the elements are against it.
Doug Hoekstra: One of the things I think is that if you do anything in life you should have a commitment to it if you believe in it and that means everything. Like with indie labels you have a lot of problems you can't control and lot of people who drop the ball and you have to roll with that. Plus, it's easier to live with yourself. It's not going to be because I didn't do my best.
Triste: You mentioned earlier that you changed your vocal style on the first album. That was quite a conscious decision wasn't it? Somebody suggested singing in a different register.
Doug Hoekstra: I would say I'm an adequate singer now, but I wasn't then. I was always a writer first, a musician second, and a singer last. But naturally my voice is lower and it seems to have more breadth if I sing quieter and plus my songs are story songs anyway. I was in with the producer Brad Wood - who wound up doing Liz Phair and Smashing Pumpkins - and I was trying it on a song and he goes "That's really cool; it draws me into the song". He was really cool about trying to mike it right. I've since had a lot of engineers complain because it's too hard or too quiet but he was really cool about doing that and supporting me so I just carried it over. I'll mix it up now and then live and in other situations, but it was just another way to go and it made my voice sound better. I think I got more out of my voice.
Triste: So how many copies of the first two albums did you press up. A thousand or so?
Doug Hoekstra: Probably about a thousand, although I was kind of stupid with the first album and I've still got a lot of them left. The second album's out of print.
Triste: Moving onwards through your career. Make Me Believe was your third album and the first one which really made it to this side of the pond. How do you see the development through the albums? Was there a steady change from album to album or was there a sudden break-through in quality?
Doug Hoekstra: To me the third one was like a leap forward. But it's weird. Some people like the first one best and some people like the latest one, The Past Is Never Past, which was never supposed to be a record. So I take that with a grain of salt. For me, Make Me Believe was a leap forward. The songs were better, not that they were bad before, but they were deeper and the arrangements were more interesting and the whole record held together as a piece. I think in many ways that this record is my personal favourite. Then they gave me more of a base to continue from too. It's not that I would try to be different but you do want to bring in an individual voice and you want to present it originally and uniquely and it seemed like I found more of that on that record.
Triste: You're arrangements on record are quite complex, but when I've seen you play it's one guitar, rack harmonica and occasional backing vocals or taped loops. How easy is it to translate the songs across and perform them live?
Doug Hoekstra: Surprisingly easy. That's one thing about English people - they're a lot more accepting of the stripped down thing, than they are in The States, as a generalisation. I wrote the songs on acoustic guitar, and although the arrangements are complex and strange I don't go out of my way to do that. To me they sound as though they're extensions of the song. So even when I go to the studio I'm starting with that song on acoustic guitar and seeing what I can bring to it. There are some songs I don't do live because they're difficult to do for one reason or another - it's not even just songs having heavy use of strings or rhythm sections. I have enough material that I can chop it around and make it work.
Triste: You said somewhere that words come first for you. Is that always the case or just sometimes?
Doug Hoekstra: Not always, but usually. It gives me a framework for the music, a reason for the song to be rather than just diddling around. I feel any method is valid for anybody at any time, but for me that works better. That's not to say the lyrics won't change drastically. I'll have the lyrics and I'll start writing and decide that this music would work better if I lopped off these lines, and then I might discover that those lines aren't really necessary anyway. I'll let it shape that but I won't be married to the lyrics, although it does start there.
Triste: If you had the choice between sacrificing a good line of melody or a good couplet when editing the song down, which would go first?
Doug Hoekstra: I'd probably save the good couplet for another song.
Triste: Recycle it?
Doug Hoekstra: Yeh it is music. That's another reason why I try and put production on the records is that because a lot of the great singer-songwriters put their live show on their record. Now that's okay for a record or two, or if you have a long career and have something to come back to, but if you do that all the time? You know it is a listening experience to people. I hope to make a record that people can come back to. It's like the Beatles, you can come back and hear different stuff every time.
Triste: You say you're a writer first and musician second, but some of your melodies are quite catchy.
Doug Hoekstra: I work at that. There's a place for it. Sometimes you can do dirgey, almost spoken songs and that's fine. Other times you can have a song with peaks and valleys. If you do all dirgey songs, then there's no contrast.
Triste: What inspires you to write the songs? Most of them are not first person confessionals but more often third person observations or vignettes. Do you draw from life, from imagination or from news stories?
Doug Hoekstra: All of them. A lot of times the song will start from a personal experience that happened to me or a person somebody told me. The road is great because you're always observing and you have that stimulus. Sometimes I'll read an article in the paper, but those are hard, you know. I read this article in "The New York Times" about this guy in Afghanistan, who was a doctor and he was an amateur painter, and he risked his life to save a whole bunch of of art in the National Gallery in Afghanistan. The Taliban had heavy restrictions on art, so he painted over them with watercolours. I thought it was so fascinating how, though sometimes people blow off art in the States, there's this guy risking his life for it. So that's an idea for a song, but it's going to be really difficult as you don't want to be singing a news item - you want to bring a human element to it. Like a short story, you have to put the sense of the qualities to the man so that someone can relate to him. Sometimes things like that will prick my interest, but those things are invariably difficult.
Triste: Family seems to be another recurring theme in your songwriting. Are you a pretty close family?
Doug Hoekstra: I don't know. Somewhere in between. I mean, I don't how open we are about communication, maybe. But family dynamics are generally interesting anyway. I think it's interesting to see how much of your life is shaped by family. Either you can be shaped in one way by going along with the family line, or you can be shaped in another way by going against it. It's interesting to me how things get passed on. We're not a huge ten piece family that has great dinners, but maybe that's one reason why I write about them, I don't know.
Triste: You mentioned you went back to Europe recently on a kind of "Roots" type trip.
Doug Hoekstra: I did in Friesland. I went to Marrum, which is where my grandfather on my dad's side came from. And that's interesting to me. The Hoekstra name is really common and I saw a lot of Hoekstras in the cemetery - it's very tiny village It's interesting how they went to America. It's kind of amazing what goes on to make you what you are today.
Triste: Have you found youself preoccupied with looking back? Many of your songs are about childhood.
Doug Hoekstra: No, in fact in regular life it's very much the opposite. Day to day I try to live very much in the present. I try to be, when possible, present thinking about things. Maybe I exorcise it in my writings. I don't tend to labour past events or decisions or anything like that. I tend to try to look ahead. I think that's one of the keys to happiness anyway. That's one of the great things about music, there's always new challenges ahead. When you're playing gigs, no matter how great, or not so great the gig is, there's always another gig ahead that's a different set of circumstances and a new challenge. I'm really into that way of thinking.
Triste: It's just that it crops up time and time again. You even called the recent collection of bits and pieces The Past Is Never Past.
Doug Hoekstra: But that's a line from Faulkner. I stole it from "Requiem For A Nun". I've got to give Bill credit on that one!
Triste: The Past Is Never Past is a collection of bits and pieces. Can you explain your thinking behind this?
Doug Hoekstra: It's funny you know. I made the album really quickly and almost didn't record the song "The Past Is Never Past" because I thought it was philosophically not what I was about. I did a song called "Here and Now" on Make Me Believe and really struggled over it - Maybe it is what I'm about? But I had the struggle figuring out if it is really true if the past is never really past, but in this song I figured for this character it really is.
Triste: I tend to agree that the past is never past. On a simple level you often end waking up one day and you're subconsciously doing things in the same way your father did.
Doug Hoekstra: It's funny too - straying off the topic a little - but my folks raised me and I thought of them as very straight-laced suburban couple, but as I became an adult I found that my Mom was a pianist, a clarinet player and a writer and my Dad was a writer, but they never really went full-steam into that, but it was certainly there. My Dad's brother was a drummer. Before that, I thought, well okay, I was from the moon or something.
Triste: Going back to your records, why do you often favour the female voice as accompaniment to your own?
Doug Hoekstra: I think it's intersting for the contrast it provides. I sing kind of low and quite narratively and it forces the melodies along. It just sounds interesting. It's also a group chorus a lot of the times and the things that really inspired me on that are probably people like The Staples Singers and later-period Leonard Cohen. It's another way to be non-rock and roll. I am rock and roll with my roots, but to get women in gets it away from that posturing and I like to have that interchange. It's not just support - their voices sometimes overshadow me at times - and that's fine.
Triste: You actually give the song "The Life You Love" away.
Doug Hoekstra: Yeh I know! Well why not? I wrote that for Colleen because she was singing with me and she was telling me stories about her father and I thought why should I sing it, I'll just let her sing it.
Triste: The song "Broken Tower" has a reggae influence which is still quite unusual among US singer-songwriters. I remember you playing a gig last year and asking the audience who liked reggae, and there was a deathly silence around the room as all these diehard folkies and country types put their heads down. You could almost hear them thinking, "I don't like reggae" as the tunbleweed blew past.
Doug Hoekstra: I was in Brighton last night and I saw a flyer on the concrete with some dates and Lee Perry's name on it. And I was like, "Wow, Lee Scratch Perry's coming through". I've always liked reggae. Not many Americans do. One of the things about coming over here is that I really like seeking out the rare reggae collections, which you don't see so often over in the States. I really love that soulful reggae. I never felt really comfortable trying it - it's almost like soul music - there's a certain sociological parameter that goes with it. But my version is obviously twisted - it's like the Police or something.
Triste: White reggae? But that's a pejorative term in itself! Going back to individual songs what about "Giving Up Smoking"? It sounds as if it was written from life.
Doug Hoekstra: That's about my wife and my Dad and how they basically gave up smoking for me. It's about sacrifice and everything.
Triste: But other songs such as "Desdemona", I guess, are pure fictions?
Doug Hoekstra: "Desdemona" is a fiction. That was a difficult song to write because I wanted to make the perspectives accurate for male and female. I like the idea of trains and chance meetings, but I wanted to make sure that I wasn't a guy trying to think what a woman would sing, rather what a woman really would sing. You see that in fiction a lot. Male writers will take up a women's voice and it'll be very untrue.
Triste: Isn't it an act of sophisticated mimicry at best?
Doug Hoekstra: Exactly, but I think it worked okay. I think it succeeds.
Triste: The keyboard player Jeff Kowalkowski seemed to have a played a major part in your last couple of albums. How important was he to the record's success?
Doug Hoekstra: He was very important on this record. He's played with me for years and he's a PhD in Music. He's very involved in the avant-garde scene in Chicago and he plays with guys like Guillermo Gregorio on this record - pretty heavy guys. He's very supportive of my stuff and he's very learned yet free, and that to me is the best combination. We always talked about working together and he's got a little 8 track studio in his basement and he said come on up and stay in my guest room, so most of this album and The Past Is Never Past was done there. I'd get up at like 8.00 in the morning, we'd record all day long, then break for dinner, then record in the evening. We'd do this for three days in a row, then maybe a few weeks later do it again, then a few weeks later again and very quickly got the tracks. Some of the overdubs he did when I wasn't there. Like the horns on "Isis" - we talked about how we wanted it and he got the players in when I wasn't there and just did it. He was instrumental in both records. Some of the tracks were cut in Nashville to augment that, but the genesis of both records are because he and I always wanted to do a project.
Triste: Are there many like-minded musicians on the scene in Nashville?
Doug Hoekstra: There's a lot of progressive people there - people move in from LA and New York, there's great players, great studios. Some people are hustling for this and that, some people are content to be on the fringe. Lambchop, you know they didn't do anything in Nashville, they did it all from over here. There are people like that. It's prertty friendly environment, it's very easy to cross pollinate. In Chicago the scene was very compartmentalised. There's a lot more cross pollination than you would think in Nashville. you see some guy in a cowboy hat and you think they'll be very narrow minded and they're not . They're real open and hard working - they're all right.
Triste: Why cover "Isis"? The Desire version is quite stripped down piano and fiddle. The Rolling Thunder Revue is all sound and fury. And you...?
Doug Hoekstra: I did something else! It's a great song. One of the things that Jeff and I wanted to do was try a couple of covers, and I'd never done that. I thought "Isis" would be really challenging, and it was, but I think we did a good job of it. And he suggested the Kurt Weill tune, "A Ballad Of A Soldier's Wife". I wasn't familiar with the song, but thought it fitted. Sometimes you've got to push yourself and go to a different place.
Triste: Your version is very restrained unlike both Dylan versions where there's a lot of passion in the vocals.
Doug Hoekstra: That's exactly it. You can't outdo Dylan on it, so you have to do something different. You have to make it yours too. There are some musical interludes on there which aren't in Dylan's versions too, which I thought would be fun to draw out more.
Triste: Do people cover your songs. If so are you protective of them?
Doug Hoekstra: People keep talking about it, but nobody's done it? You know, I wanted to do a couple of covers on this record to show that I could interpret songs and I wanted to get into that. Also, "Desdemona" is a duet and "The Life You Love" is somebody else singing and that showed me that my material would work with other voices - that's another challenge to show that it's not all "me, me, me" and that was another way to show that.
Triste: Can you tell me a little about how The Past Is Never Past came about? It wasn't conceived as an album, was it?
Doug Hoekstra: Most of it was outtakes from [Around The] Margins, but another couple of things were done as demos - like "500 Miles away" and "Break My Fall" and I cut "The Past Is Never Past" specially for it, but the rest of it was material I had left over. I played it for my label guy and he liked it. I was touring in the Fall and he thought we should do it as a real limited European release. I couldn't see it going onto the next record, as by that time I'll be somwhere else. If I don't do something with the songs, then they'll fall by the wayside. I played it to some people and they seemed to dig it and it seemed to hold together. So I said okay.
Triste: You can't wait twenty years for the boxed set, can you? That's the only alternative.
Doug Hoekstra: It was really funny. When it came out it was reviewed more favourably my some people than [Around The] Margins. It goes to show, you know, you can't be totally objective about your own work.
Triste: Finally, why do you think the response from Europe has been so much better than America?
Doug Hoekstra: It's hard to generalise. As an indie artist you're faced with ups and downs everywhere, so I'm not idealistic about that , but I think in general in Europe I think people are a little more drawn to things a little left-of-centre and willing to take a chance on things which aren't pushed by corporations. Whereas in the States people are all too willing to accept what is foisted upon them. I think people here have more of a stubborn streak about resisting that attitude and seeking things out. Magazines like yours and "Comes With A Smile", and "Revolutions UK" and "Bucketful of Brains" - they don't exist in the States. It doesn't mean that they will break you and make you a star, but it shows there is an audience there which is willing to take that chance with you.