Jimi Hendrix. Eric Clapton. Stevie Ray Vaughn. These names are so iconic that even those who are not avid music fans know exactly who they are and why they are so famous. These three musicians have a great deal in common even though their lives and careers span different eras. All are iconic guitarists who have easily identifiable signature sounds. All of these men were heavily influenced by the blues. Equally significant, all of them had noted careers as sidemen before stepping up to front their own bands. It’s a scary move to leave a successful situation because you feel you want a vehicle to express your true artistic voice. Stefan Hillesheim agrees with this. Hillesheim had a thriving career in his native Germany, being recognized as one of “The” guitarists in Germany and Europe. As a member of BlueSide (the highly lauded German Blues band) and touring guitarist for Celtic Dreams, he was playing to sold out shows in Clubs and concert venues. The difference between an artist who uses music to achieve their goal of living a comfortable life and one who uses their abilities to vehemently pursue their art is vast; Stefan is the later. Although he founded the Stefan Hillesheim Band while still playing in other groups in Germany, the experience planted a seed that would ultimately lead him to pursue his own brand of Blues Rock (something he also shares with the previously mentioned iconic guitarists/artists) in the US, the place Stefan and others recognize as the birthplace of this genre.
A quick google or YouTube search of Stefan Hillesheim will allow you to access a multitude of videos in various group setting of this guitarist performing; one hears the deep,soulful, and melodic playing of this guitarist. There is always a nod to the greats of the Blues, whether it be Albert King or someone more rock influenced like Hendrix. Like the playing of the guitarists who came before him, Stefan is always conscious of adding his own subtle twist to the music. It’s important to Blues artists to say something we can all relate to and recognize, without repeating someone else’s statement verbatim. When Stefan decided to make the move from sideman to fronting his own band, it wasn’t out of conceit or any ego motivated factor…rather, it was out of humility. He explains, “Part of the decision to start my own band was curiosity. I just wanted to know what it’s like to be the lead singer and guitarist of a band playing my music. As a Band Member, you definitely have to make sure the singers sound good, your lead parts don’t interfere with the vocal melody, and your playing compliments the vocalist. Being the lead singer and guitarist gives you more creative freedom but at the same time you’re in charge of all the cues and have to maintain a very clean body language so that your rhythm section can pick up on it and understand what you’re trying to communicate.” Both seeking to further his musical voice and gaining empathy for the vocalists whom he has worked with are attributes that have made Stefan a desirable commodity in the music world. It might have been easier for Stefan if he stuck to playing with the groups he was already associated with but holding back his own artistic growth was more difficult to accept than winning over new fans. The Stefan Hillesheim Band had to win over fans on their own, which is not always an easy task. Stefan relates, “I think that our fans in Germany are very loyal and into hand-made music but they always want to hear the same songs and are sometimes hard to convince of new ideas and styles. I think that in the US there is a bigger and faster paced market for music. Fans here are used to a bigger variety of live bands and they are more responsive to new material.”
Any great power trio requires a rhythm section that possesses an almost telepathic connection. Stefan chose drummer Alex Sauerlaender and bassist Mathias Wendels due to their exemplary playing and reputation in the European Blues/Rock scene but, equally as important…the fact that these two have played together for two decades. Hillesheim required a rhythm section that could essentially move as one entity, always able to serpentine with the twist and turns he would make as a vocalist/guitarist. Sauerlaender (who has been involved with a number of highly respected German rock and blues bands, including; Lucifire, BlueSide, Catastrophe Ballet, Jet Set, and over a dozen others) remarks, “All the success that the Stefan Hillesheim Band experienced can be set upon Stefan’s shoulders. The band would never have existed if not for his drive and talents as a musician. He was truly the face of the band, and his skill as a frontman built the band into its highly esteemed reputation in the German music industry. The show that we performed at the famed Excalibur venue in the city of Koblenz, performing to a cheering, sold-out crowd, was indicative of the excitement and acceptance of the band’s fans. It was truly exciting to be part of a group which created such a feeling from fans.” One of the most memorable gigs for Hillesheim was the last one he played in Germany before relocating to the US. A true artist never rests and is always in pursuit of cultivating their sound and “voice.” Stefan had always known that he needed to move closer to the birthplace of the Blues in order to gain a deeper understanding of its essence. As he had done before, Hillesheim left a clamoring following and profitable career to start over again in America. He had a memorable send-off from musicians and fans alike. He recalls, “I would say one of our most memorable gigs was my last gig in Germany before I moved to California (2 years ago). It was sort of a going away party/concert and we played 2 long sets with a number of special guests and surprises. The audience was very responsive and totally into the music from our first song on. We played multiple encores. It’s hard to leave family and friends. I’ve started the trio all over again with players here in the US. It is definitely challenging to move out here and see if people like your music. So far my experiences have been really positive and I can totally see myself playing more solo and trio gigs with my own band.”
Everyone can relate to the difficulty of venturing away from the familiar and into the unknown. Few can relate to moving to a completely new country that speaks a different language. Only a fraction of those can relate to doing so in pursuit of an artistic vision. Stefan Hillesheim is comfortable with sacrifice for his art, it’s a compulsion for him. Let those with ears hear.