Hard Rock and Soft Hearts
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Where guitarists for heavy metal bands are concerned, Halestorm’s Joe Hottinger is atypical.
Most of the heavy metal guitarists that feature writers encounter are gravely voiced guys who tell profanity-laden tales of debauchery that must be heavily censored for publication.
Hottinger, on the other hand, is amiable and self-deprecating — closer in temperament to Jim Halpert of “The Office” than Lemmy of Motorhead.
The band performs an astounding 250 dates a year, but rather than swear fealty to the rock n’ roll lifestyle, Hottinger instead talks about how much he loves his “road family.”
“We’re lucky because we all really like each other and we like hanging out with each other” he said in a phone interview. “We have as much fun as we can. We laugh a lot and generally just have a good time. And we get to play music, which is the highlight of the day.”
Given how popular Halestorm has become, it is amazing to consider the unassuming and serendipitous way Hottinger got involved with the band originally: He answered a want ad in 2003.
“It was something fantastical like, ‘Band looks for guitarist to play big shows at big venues,’” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Whatever.’”
Hottinger said he really wasn’t even a big fan of the hard rock genre at that point in his life.
“I was listening to Radiohead and the Beatles,” he said. “I was on a whole other trip in my brain about where music should be going.”
But Hottinger ended up clicking with vocalist Elizabeth “Lzzy” Hale and her brother, percussionist Arejay Hale. The minute Lzzy opened her mouth to sing, Hottinger knew she had a special talent.
The Hale siblings’ father, Roger, played bass for the band before Josh Smith joined. Later, Roger acted as chauffeur, driving the band around from gig to gig in an RV.
“Thank God, because before that, it was just Josh and me doing all the driving and we’d get no sleep for weeks,” Hottinger said. “It was tearing us up. We were like, ‘We need a driver.’ Dad saved the day as usual.”
The band never really had grandiose goals, Hottinger said.
“We always looked at what was in front of us and tried to be better,” he said. “It was just a constant, ‘Let’s do that better then. Let’s write a better song.’
“We still do that today,” Hottinger said. “When we finish a show, we talk about the mistakes we made. Really nothing has changed.”
The band has realized dreams that never leave the realm of fantasy for most young rock musicians. But Halestorm is still all about making little adjustments and little advancements. For example, Hottinger said the band has been trying to improvise more in concert.
“Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn’t go well,” he said, laughing. “That’s what is amazing about it. You put yourself out there in front of people and you dive right in. Music is alive.”
The band doesn’t employ any technical insurance in shows, like click tracks or backing tracks.
“It’s anything goes,” Hottinger said. “And I love that. That’s like jumping off a cliff. You hope there’s water down there.”
When some bands go into the studio to make a record, the challenge is, “How are we going to duplicate on stage the music we make here?”
When Halestorm goes into the studio, the challenge is, “How are we going to match the music we make on stage in here?”
Hottinger thinks the band came closer than ever on its most recent release, Vicious. The album has received universal acclaim, but Hottinger thinks some fans are still warming up to it.
One thing Hottinger said he has noticed recently in the crowds that come to the shows is a lot more female fans.
“Young women and teenage girls are getting in the front row and getting dressed up,” he said, “making their own shirts and hats and stuff. It’s a trip. There’s a fun little shift going on.”
Much of that trend is attributable to Lzzy, certainly.
“Girls come up and when they see her, some girls lose their (expletive),” Hottinger said. “They break down crying. It’s strange. I have been a fan of music forever and I don’t think I have ever been that big a fan.
“I have met some of my heroes and I don’t know how to act around them because I am an awkward weirdo,” Hottinger said. “But I have never broken down and cried.”
He said Lzzy actually goes on social media and tries to help fans with their problems.
“She’s so cool,” he said. “I don’t know what motivates her but there’s a great positivity with our fan base these days.”
It is sort of refreshing to learn that the band is still as sweet-natured and full of self-doubt as it always has been.
During one moment of uncertainty during the recording of the last album, producer Nick Raskulinecz had some advice for the band.
“It was a ‘no duh’ statement, but an eye opener,” Hottinger recalled. “He was like, ‘If you’re excited about it, your fans will be excited about it.’ So that’s kind of what we’ve been doing and going off of.”