Doug Hoekstra

Interview: Doug Hoekstra on Books, Music, and Life too


Americana Highways had the opportunity to pull over and chat with Doug Hoekstra recently. He has just released a new LP, The Day Deserved, in April and a few weeks later, a book, Ten Seconds In Between, on June 1st. What’s the connection between releasing these two art forms at once? What are the themes, what are the inspirations? Follow our conversation and see.

AH: Who would you consider to be your biggest musical influences?

DH: I like all kinds of music and that’s like a true cliché but it’s true, and so sometimes when I dig into arrangements, I get influenced by people that you wouldn’t necessarily think, with what I do. Like Prince in terms of how he arranges things or a lot of Reggae records, Lee “Scratch” Perry and people like that. But probably, and this is kind of boring, but probably my biggest, biggest influence is probably Dylan and the Beatles.

And particularly Dylan, for the way I think he’s managed to bridge this world of music and words in a good way. He’s obviously a guy who’s looked ahead, he’s reinvented himself more than anybody over the course of his career. He’s had his down moments but he’s had an incredibly high level of quality.
So that would probably be the biggest marker.

AH: I don’t think it’s boring at all because I think you are a fascinating person to interview because of your creative output. I was reading your liner notes about Dylan and one of the things you love about Dylan is he doesn’t necessarily have to use the chorus in some of the songs.

DH: I think it’s deceptive because he gets written off musically sometimes because his lyrics are so good but on the structures of things, the way he builds dynamics and everything in the music, is amazing. I mean, one of the only covers I ever did on a record was “Isis” and it was super, super difficult because he manages to build in all that dynamic and all those shifts into kind of a meditative four-cord thing. But it’s easier said than done.

AH: Some names are so big in our lives that you have these visions of who they are but you forget how great they were creatively speaking.

DH: Absolutely, absolutely.

AH: Who would you consider to be your main or big literary influences?

DH: I’ll probably site some clichés again. I really think Fitzgerald holds up, in particular his short stories. I think he’s a master of that. I like the beat writers in various guises, Bukowski and Kerouac, and Ferlinghetti, who just passed. They’ve been great.

Larry Brown’s another writer I really like. Sherman Alexie. It’s funny because my literature background is more academic, because I got so much through school, whereas all the music came from everybody and just kind of discovering on my own. So they are through different pathways.

I really like the magic realist writers. I think they’re really hard to do, not just Garcia Marquez but Cortazar and Borges and those people, I think they’re great.

And I like the best of the noir writers, Hammett is fantastic, Ross MacDonald’s really good. I did my thesis partly on that and I tried to connect the noir writers, the best of them, to these people like Springsteen and Dylan and Guthrie. The thing I liked about that is, in the hard-world fiction, they were getting into deep themes in a supposedly “unimportant genre.”

The characters in those kind of works come from the classic American idea of the outsider and the loner and all this, but so do a lot of the lyrics you’ll find in people like Dylan, and Warren Zevon and Springsteen, particularly in his earlier stuff. I mean, there’s a lot of parallels there that appeal to me.

I was really into D.H. Lawrence for a while and I still think he’s great, although my writing is way more compact. And I stumbled across this book where this guy did a book on Lawrence. He went around to all these spaces and he went around Northeast England and everything, and he mirrored it with what he was going through at the time and he made it sort of a colloquial academic thing but humorous about Lawrence.

And so I kind of wanted to do something like that with a book and it was too hard.
But I have pieces of it that I think are kind of solid that I maybe I’ll try to get to the light of day sometime.

AH: In early Springsteen, like Darkness on the Edge of Town, when you start to listen and then you read his story and you read how he progressed along those line.

DH: Well, he’s another guy who kind of tends to get dismissed because he became so famous but he’s a terrific writer, really.

Warren Zevon was a huge influence on me early on too. I think he’s great and I think his stuff is probably more connected to the noir thing than anybody. I mean, he was friends with Ross Macdonald I believe, Tim Miller too. But in those early albums, Zevon really delved into that very well, with Desperados Under the Eaves” and all those kind of songs. I think he was vastly underrated too in many ways.

AH: As a creative individual, what inspires you to create something? Is there one thing or is it a myriad of things?

DH: I read some quote with McCartney recently where he said nothing pleases him more than going into a room and coming out with a piece of music. And that’s true, I mean, anything you create, whether it’s something you write or a piece of music or a painting or whatever, there’s something magical about getting into that space and coming out of it with something that reflects what’s around you.

And that’s the inspiration. I think if you’re observant, which most artist are, I hope.

You have all these things going around you and the inspiration is a way to kind of make sense of them in a way that figures out where you are and ideally the world around you, where it is as well. And then of course then when you finish it and connect it with people, then it has that other life that is that part.

For this record, there were two sources of inspiration, there was my son was getting older, and I had a little more time and I also kind of wanted to do something while he could kind of still into it and I hadn’t in a while.

And then there were so many things going on in the country.

I felt like they weren’t being written about and I felt like there were things to say, lyrically and musically. I guess I wouldn’t do it so much if I felt like that was already covered.

I guess some people are more performance-oriented or they’re more about singing or just one aspect, which is fine. But to me it’s always been about kind of bearing witness to these things and I guess some of that motivation is… I’ve always felt that if every artist is authentic, then they add something new to the conversation and that that’s worth doing.

AH: I love that thought, that’s a great thought. As a singer/songwriter, a poet, and as a fiction writer, a prose writer, would you say when a creative idea appears, do you tend to know immediately how you want to express it creatively or is that a process that you work through?

DH: It’s both. Sometimes you’ll have sort of a basic idea, sometimes the music will just pop into your head for some reason. When you start getting into a record and you start writing for it, I always find there are more ideas and one thing leads to the other.

But I can tell you, on this record, there’s a song, “Carry Me,” that’s primarily about my son but it’s about connections. I literally was taking a hike at this place we used to hike and I thought about it and I thought about all the layers of time and I thought about how I used to carry him and then it just sort of led to another thing. If that had been a singular idea, that wouldn’t hold a whole piece, right? So then when I sat down and started playing with it, it kind of grew from that.

Or there’s this song called “Higher Ground,” that came from a New York Times article and that was about this place where they’re trying to move people to higher ground, literally, because they figure that their country will be under water with global warming. So with that in and off itself, I could be a big fist-pumping guy with an agenda, right? But I thought well what about those people? What about if you win that lottery? What about if you move? These people are so connected to their homeland and successfully, and if they’re successful in the lottery, they’re still detached from their home and their reality.

So then it started to become more interesting and I started to think about the character and that grew. So I think it’s that, it’s always a process. A lot of times the genesis of it is very quick but then what do you want to do with it?

AH: On the liner notes from your EP The Day Deserved, it said, “I wanted to write about current events on this record but in a character driven way.” So, why do you think that was so important to make it character-driven and not more like maybe fist-pumping anthems that you could’ve done?

DH: Again it goes back to Dylan or Springsteen or people like that. There’s a time and a place for a fist-pumping anthem. I mean there are some good ones, like “Give Peace a Chance” or whatever, but it’s kind of hard.

There are a couple things. Ideally you want to make something that’s more timeless, as things change but they stay the same. Some of these issues, even though they’re specific, they will remain. Like outsider-individuals or people who are othered, or people who don’t have access to what most of us have. Those things are sadly universal.

But then also I think you just got to let people get into it in their own ways and when you do a character like that, people ideally can relate to it and it’s still music. So, on “Higher Ground,” I’m really happy with how the band played and the mood and the atmosphere on that song. And technically if somebody comes in and they don’t want to buy into the whole story, it’s okay with me if they just dig the music.

I think it does all those things. I think it welcomes people in more. I think ideally it makes it more timeless and I think it just makes it resonate more over all.

AH: When you talked on how you arrived at the title “The Day Deserved,” you said that, “Sometimes the fruits of this journey are reflected in something as simple as a better day, their day, the day deserved.” Would you elaborate a bit on that?

DH: Peoples’ needs are common and people just want to have a good day, and if you have a good day, and you have a good day every day, then pretty soon you have a good week and then you have a good month and then you have a good life, right?

And I also thought about my parents because my parents lived to be quite old, and I remember even with all their problems at the end of their life, they just wanted one more day.

And I think that’s a common thing and so in a way, as the songs got done, I’d say most of them come from that place. They come from people just trying to find their place. They’re just trying to find a good day. And they’re just trying not to be messed with.

AH: In one sense we’ve never been more connected but then in one sense we’ve never been more separate from each other.

DH: I know. Over the years there’s a place where people always ask, “Well, what is your stuff about?” And I’ll answer, “Well, I’m trying to write about disconnected people and people trying to connect in a disconnected world.” That’s one of the key issues. I mean, I just saw Japan appointed a Ministry of Loneliness. So, that kind of tells you something.

And you can go on and on about social media and how people supposedly want to get on that to connect but then they really use it as an opportunity, often, to create conflict and shut people down, right? And I think, sadly off course the last four years, this was just exaggerated. I mean, again that was the reason I wanted to write about it in some fashion because you had a thing where everybody felt they were getting hit upside the head every day, right?

It was national trauma.

And everybody’s happy now because we’ve got boring people back in charge.

So I think that only magnified what was already there and then you have the pandemic on top of it too.

AH: Can you describe the emotions that you were feeling or that you feel now, about being able to have your son, Jude, on the record, on the song “Late Night Ramble”?

DH: Oh, it was fantastic to have him involved in some way. It was great. And it’s kind of funny, because he plays piano, he plays clarinet but on the song I had this idea of this clarinet part. He played in a band and stuff but he hadn’t done any recording, so I thought well, “Okay, I’ll try to score it.”

So we went over it a little bit and that was great. I had an idea for part of it to be scored and then another part of it where he could do whatever he wanted, and of course the areas where he did whatever he wanted were probably better, which I think is kind of funny.

It’s the classic thing where you’re trying to be helpful and when your kid just does his own thing, or her own thing, they often wind up in a better place. So when I listen to it, I know the parts that he came out on his own and it’s nuanced but I think they’re better than what I came up with, honestly.

AH: What is one thing that you hope people walk away with or what do you hope that they feel, after hearing this new record?

DH: The need to buy it.

The first thing is you want people to appreciate it on any level that they do, and that’s fine. And you have to be good with whatever that is. I’m sure people have told you this, the things that you think will really click with people maybe don’t but then other things they really like. It’s cool when people listen and that creates the other part of the equation.

When you’re making it, you’re in a vacuum and you might get feedback from the players and you might have a good vibe about it, but you really don’t know.

But to the other point, you do want people to like it enough to tell people about it and then buy it and to facilitate another record. And everybody knows, I mean, that’s the challenge nowadays with streaming and then off course, the pandemic didn’t help that.

And I’m old school in that I still like a package.

AH: Yeah, I was overjoyed when I saw your album, I thought “This has got liner notes, you never see liner notes with streaming,” and “he’s breaking down every one of his songs.”

And I guess that if you tour overseas, that’s where you get the money because that’s where you see the biggest cut of the money.

DH: I did place this record with a Dutch label for European distribution which is good because that was always one of my strongest markets and you always did make better money and for many reasons, I think the people in the communities there go to live music, even to see musicians that they aren’t completely familiar with.

And because there are all these cities and towns in a close geography, it’s also easier to play more shows.

AH: Your new short story collection came out in June, Ten Seconds In-Between, what is a common bond between the new short story collection and The Day Deserved EP?

DH: One common thing, and that’s where the title comes from, it’s about, psychologists say when people meet, they decide within 17 seconds whether or not they’re going to like each other, right?

So, that means everything rests on that 10 seconds in between. And so, in that sense, there’s a common theme in that it’s still about people trying to make connections.

There are a couple things that are more societal but the stories in the book are probably more relationship-oriented than the songs.

I always write about people who are on the fringe, who are outsider, that’s common too.

AH: What gives you hope for the future?

DH: When the pandemic hit, I thought there were two ways that we could go at it. And one of those, my hopeful way, was that we would have our World War II moment and that people would come together and realize that there’s certain ways that we’re common and that we could work through it together and, you know all the stories about Britain and the Blitz and all this stuff, and that was my romantic ideal. And clearly that didn’t happen. And clearly that was partly because of the lack of leadership.

So now that we’re coming out of it though, I am more hopeful. I think a lot of people are because not only have people gotten through this or they’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel but I don’t know, I guess my hope would be that people use that experience and the optimism going forward to look at things… to not just go back to what was before but maybe kind of go in the middle.

Maybe some people will be a little more mindful about how they spend their time or who they spend it with, or where they put their energies and that may be kind of Pollyanna, but I guess that would be a hope.

And the other thing about it is my son and his generation, I think as people get older they always diss on the generations behind them, that seems to be a ritual, but I honestly think they’ve got it going on. I think they’re smarter, I think they’re more empathetic, I think they’re more inclusive.

When I see him and I see his friends and the people he hangs with, that gives me hope.

When I look at him and his peers and what they had to deal with, to deal with this pandemic and the way they just roll with it. Their generation gets a lot of crap for not being like, “We walked 50 miles in the snow,” but look what they’ve just gone through.

Thank you for talking with us! Find all things music and poetry by Doug Hoekstra, here:
photo by Devon Eloise

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