Musician Doug Hoekstra talks about his new album, living in Nashville,
Dylan’s "Isis" and the Chicago Cubs
By Tim Potter

Doug Hoekstra is the same in conversation as on record; with a careless whisper of a voice, he pulls you in, sedating you into following his developing stories. In sound, he is much the same; he occupies a somber but buoyant territory somewhere in between Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse or later Joe Henry. Still, the music hovers somewhere in the background; Around the Margins—his newest album—is Hoekstra at his most developed, yet the focus is still on the stories in the songs. Hoekstra chose to cover a Bob Dylan song for this album and fittingly chose "Isis." One of Dylan’s more fantastical songs, it tells a story while the music matches it in mood; something Hoekstra’s album does throughout its 12 songs. Gadfly had a chance to speak with Doug Hoekstra in between European tours about Around the Margins, living in Nashville, Dylan’s "Isis" and the Chicago Cubs.

You left Chicago for Nashville in the early ‘90s. Why?

Well, a lot of things really. I grew up in Chicago and played the circuit there in the band I was in. We did that whole bit, and when the band split up, I wanted to go somewhere different. I had been down here and played with a band down here so I knew some people here. I knew there were a lot of great players and a lot of great writers here. I knew that it was really a music-focused city. The cost of living was cheaper, and the weather was nicer, and my wife liked it down here, and all these things seemed to point to a move. And it was a good place to start as a solo artist because there are a lot of solo artists down here; I always tell people that Chicago was a band town. Down here, a lot of people used to be in bands, and they focus on writing and performing their own deal. And because of that, there is a lot of cross-pollination. There are a lot of musicians who will play with several artists, and it’s easy to find players that way in studios and resources. And it’s easy to find writers to write with who want to do that sort of thing. It’s pretty fluid in all those areas.

Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen recorded some albums there.

Yeah, Dylan did Blonde on Blonde here with the Nashville Session Cats. There’s a lot of cool music here. There’s been cool people who have come through and spent time here. Leonard spent a little time here and Kris Kristofferson, of course. The Music Row thing is cheesy, of course, but there are a lot of people here doing cool things on the fringes and in the underground.

How did your recent tour in England go?

It went well. It was two-and-a-half weeks in England, and it was the first time I did anything extensive over there. I had good responses, excellent media responses and good houses. I think a lot of American singers and songwriters look at England as sort of easy pickings or some kind of Nirvana where everyone is going to be enlightened and, you know, I wouldn’t say that. If anything, it’s another market that you have to work and cultivate. But the people were great, and the people who came out were very responsive and attentive. I’m going back in late October, early November.

Are European audiences more receptive than American audiences to your music?

Well, they were very receptive, but I don’t know how much of that is context. Because they read about me in the paperæ I’m an American guy coming over and they know that you’ve made the trip, and they know you are something different than what they usually haveæ and so they were more attentive and respectful in that sense. But I don’t know if they are intrinsically more receptive. In the States, I do pretty well in New York or Philadelphia, and I do well in Chicago because I’m from there. There are certain places I go in the States where I have that.

Truthfully, the attendances were good, but they were up and down. A lot of it was just like anywhere else; it’s related to what kind of venue it is, how hard the venue works it, the promo you have going. There are an awful lot of American songwriters going over there right now, so I am curious to see how that pans out over time. What I do is not mainstream there, but there does seem to be a contingency of dedicated people who dig the kind of thing that I do and that’s cool. I think people like Dylan and Cohen are a little more revered there, and people are a little more defensive of their body of work; there’s a little more resistance to the immediacy factor that is prevalent in America.

What is your take on the music scene in America?

Today? Well, I think there is a lot of great stuff being made, but I think it’s more on the fringes and it’s harder to find for your average person. I think of people like Greg Brown or Joe Henry or people like that who are really great, consistently good and are known to people who really follow music. But if you talk to joe-average-music-consumer, they probably don’t know who these people are. I don’t know who’s to blame for that. I don’t know if it’s such a saturation of product or because the record labels are so intent on reselling catalogues, as opposed to breaking new artists, or if it’s radio’s fault. I don’t know.

The whole question that people always ask is if a guy like Dylan came around today, would he get signed or would he be a major artist? I don’t know. I tend to doubt it. I’m a huge Dylan fan and I love Van Morrison. A lot of music that came out of that period is wonderful, but I think there was more of a cultural searching for that kind of music than there is now. I think that they would find their niche, but it would be more like a Greg Brown or a Joe Henry. A lot of the interesting artists are bubbling under the radar, at least as far as the major commercial market goes, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I think the state of music is still healthy; I just think it’s more compartmentalized and more independent.

How did you choose to cover Dylan’s "Isis" on Around the Margins?

Well, when I went in to cut Around the Margins, we decided to do a couple of cover songs, simply because I'd only recorded my own material to date. "Isis" has always been one of my favorite Dylan songs; and in addition to being close to me personally, the song fit this particular record, musically and thematically. I saw it as a bit of a counterpoint to "Desdemona," a track of mine that appears earlier on the disc. I knew doing the song would be a challenge because it's essentially three chords over seven odd minutes, with the song being carried by Dylan's invective phrasing and melodic changes and blaring dynamics (loud and louder). I also knew, however, that you couldn't really "top" the version he did on his Rolling Thunder Tour so I felt the best way to approach it was go in the opposite direction. Quiet the song down and open it up and get into the dynamics of the music and the cadence of the narrative in that fashion. I also added the little musical bridge bits because we knew we'd have some jazzers laying a bed of trumpet and sax and riffing over the song. So I put that in to give them something extra to hang onto. Anyway, when we got done with the track, we were all very happy with it, felt like we were able to do Dylan proud and yet make the song my own, giving it a distinct interpretation. But, then again, that's why his songs are so cool and why he's such a great writer––because they are open to that sort of process. Much of his work manages to be both intensely personal and widely communal.

You are often compared to Dylan and Cohen in reviews of your work. Do you like those comparisons?

I think anytime you are compared to anybody that’s as good as Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan, it’s an honor. I’m highly flattered by it. We live in a reverential world––it’s naturalæ and if they are going to do that, I’d rather have them compare me to Dylan or Cohen than some cheese ball guy. I think their music is close to the heart of what I am trying to do, even if I don’t really sound like those people.

Reviewers often have trouble categorizing you. They like to say you are folk or alt-country.

Right, that’s more annoying than being compared to a person, really. I guess I dig the individual comparisons better than the genre comparisons. That’s really so hard. Dylan’s not a folk artist, really. Anybody who is really good usually draws from multiple genres, anyway.

Who are some of your other musical influences, then?

I listen to a lot of soul music. I really dig the Stax, Al Green and Memphis sound. That has always been a big thing for me. Reggae music has always been pretty important in terms of what I listened to growing up, although it doesn’t work its way in to my music much, but it has always been there. More recently it’s jazz––people like Milesæ so, as I go along, different things will "click on" for me, pretty much from every genre. When I was in Chicago in my old band, we were sort of like a country band. We were into Hank Williams, Sr., Gram Parsons and Johnny Cash. I still listen to that to a degree, too.

I read on your website [] that you’re a Cubs fan.?

Well, I was raised in the Chicago suburbs so I’m a Cub fan.

You said it prepared you for life in the music industry. How so?

Because in the music business, people tell you things that may or may not come true. It’s just like the Cubs. They give you that false hope. In any season, they have the propensity to collapse come September so there are certainly parallels.