100 Percent Rock Magazine Interviews Jeff Pilson of Foreigner
INTERVIEW: JEFF PILSON of FOREIGNER Ė March 2016
By Todd 'ToddStar' Jolicoeur | Mar 28, 2016 - Original Article
It isnít very often I get to speak with an artist I have listened to for over 30 years. I was recently given the opportunity to speak with Jeff Pilson of Foreigner and I jumped at the opportunity to speak with him regarding all things Foreigner, his writing and producing, and some of his killer side projectsÖ
Toddstar: It is such a pleasure to speak with you today, Jeff.
Jeff: My pleasure as well.
Toddstar: Thereís so much going on in the world of Foreigner right now. Iím personally very excited about the show coming up in Windsor, Ontario on April 7, 2016.
Toddstar: Letís talk about everything thatís kind of going on with Foreigner lately. Especially the fact that you guys put out your first ever live acoustic album Ė In Concert. Unplugged. How did that come about for you guys to think letís do this and put it out?
Jeff: We started doing acoustic shows a couple years ago when we were promoting our Canít Slow Down record. We started doing them in Germany. We were doing radio station promotion over there. We started doing it and people were really reacting to it. It was kind of a surprise to us. What we did was we tried doing a couple shows in Canada as a matter of fact. We did a couple shows acoustically and they did really well. The audience was great. We had a great time doing it. It was just a real win/win. Itís so nice to be able to put kind of a fresh spin on the songs. Kind of take them in a different direction. Basically we got together with Ford over the summer. Fordís been doing a lot of work for us. Weíve been doing a lot of stuff with the Edsel Ford Jr. Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. He kind of asked us to help out. We wanted to help out. Basically what we did was we went in to the Ford Museum in Detroit and we had kind of a combination of an invited audience and a public audience that Ford arranged. We did this show. He provided the room and got people in there and we did the show. We recorded it. The idea was to release it as a live record. Parts of the proceeds are going to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. It was kind of a win/win for everybody. We were just really proud of the performance. The performance really came off great, so why not?
Toddstar: I agree Ė why not. I love it from top to bottom. Looking at the track list though, how did you guys go about picking what songs really would come across? Did you guys run through a ton of them and pick these 11 tracks?
Jeff: We had, I think our set list was maybe 14 or 15 for the show. We just kind of narrowed it down to which performances seemed the best. While we were working up everything, we started with working up the songs that we thought would really lend themselves to doing the acoustic versions. That was really fun. Then we realized gosh, we gotta add ďCold As IceĒ in there. We came up with a version of that that weíre really excited about. Originally we werenít planning on doing that one acoustically. We worked it up. Then we got real pleased with the results. It was kind of a slow process of working up the songs because we really wanted to take our time and come up with each one being very special. Thatís where we ended up. Like I said, there was about 14-15 in the show and we narrowed it down to those 11 for the record.
Toddstar: Very cool. Jeff, youíve been with the band 12 years now give or take a month or two. Youíre still one of the new guys when people think of Foreigner, some fans think Ďoh the new guy.í Whatís that like for you to hit the stage with Foreigner and think Iíve been here longer than everybody but Mick and Tom, and Iím still a new guy? Is there a need or urge to hit the stage and win people over?
Jeff: [laughs] No. Actually I think about that very rarely to be honest with you. Weíve had a real wonderful acceptance by Foreigner fans. The thing is, I was always a Foreigner fan so Iíve always been very respectful of the legacy. I think extremely highly of all the members that have been in Foreigner. Theyíre all top notch quality musicians. I love Foreigner records. I always thought Foreigner records were exemplary for rock, but with great songs; rock that is real catchy. To me, because Iím so respectful of the legacy, itís always been kind of like Ďwow, this is fun. Iím in Foreigner.í [laughs] The fans have been wonderful. Theyíve been very accepting of us. Honestly, I never really give that much thought. We just go out there and give it our best every night and let that do the talking for us.
Toddstar: You guys definitely do that time in and time out. You are a guy whoís very proficient on both sides of the mixing board. Whatís it like for you from an artist standpoint, but also from a producer standpoint, when you take these classic Foreigner songs and break them down. Rebuild them either acoustically or like you guys did on Jukebox Hero collection, which I love. Whatís it like to be able to strip those down and kind of reconstruct them?
Jeff: Artistically, itís completely creatively satisfying. Thatís one of the reasons we did it. It kept us fresh with everything. First of all, when you have a great song, the rule is you can pretty much do anything with it and itís going to work because itís a great song. I feel these are all great songs. To have that tapestry if you will, to have the blank canvas in front of you was a wonderful thing. Usually when we play live, we do pretty true to the original versions. We might expand things here and there, or add a little thing here and there, but we like to keep it true. Again, weíre fans. We want to hear it as it was. With this, it was a chance to do something new. Exciting and fresh, yet feature the quality of the song. We really got to show our vocals off there. Weíre a strong vocal band. Itís really fun to be able to show that off. Artistically, tremendously satisfying. As a producer, it was satisfying because it was really a matter of capturing what we have. It was right there, letís just capture it; make sure that it comes across recorded well and sounding great. What more can a producer ask for? Both happy from both sides of the mixing board.
Toddstar: Like you said, the harmonies you guys rip off live are just amazing I think. Talking about live shows, you guys have mixed up the beginning of this year where you had some acoustic shows. You had some full on rock shows where you guys were throwing a couple acoustic numbers in. I want to talk about a couple shows I saw last year that were phenomenal. Those were the shows where you guys got that home stand here in Detroit with Kid Rock. What was that like for you? Normally you guys donít get that home stand like that where you donít have to tear everything down every day.
Jeff: It was great. During that, it was 2-1/2 weeks that we spent in Detroit, it was great. Number one, Detroit fans are such great rock fans to begin with. Number 2, getting to do 10 shows for the people of Detroit was really fun. If youíre going to play for an audience 10 times, make it Detroit. Theyíre great. Then it also gave us the opportunity to rehearse and prepare for that live acoustic record. We had done acoustic work before, but because we knew we were going to be recording this we took the time and rehearsed it properly. Being in one place made that possible. It wouldíve been very difficult to do that had we been on the move that whole time. It was really, like I say, a synchronicity of a lot of events that really made it work out quite well.
Toddstar: Youíve got to be the busiest guy in rock, Jeff. You produced what I think is one of the better albums of the year so far with The Last In Line disc.
Jeff: Thank you. Iím very proud of that record.
Toddstar: Just an amazing record. Whatís next for you? Again, I know you have dates coming up with Foreigner. What have you got on the fire that you can talk about?
Jeff: Again, Foreigner, weíre constantly doing stuff. Weíve been working on some stuff. Weíre going to be touring until the end of the year. Iím always working. I always keep my writing up. I try to write as much as I can. One thing weíve been doing is weíve been working with this kid by the name of Angel. The guitar player Bruce, the keyboard player Michael, and I have been working and producing with this artist named Angel who is just a fabulous, I mean one of the greatest voices Iíve ever heard singers. Young kid out of New Jersey. One of 11 kids. Total hard luck story. We stumbled upon him. Weíve been producing him and working with him. Itís coming out amazing. Eventually, heís going to get out there. People are going to hear it. The songs and the performances are amazing. This kid has one of those one in a million voices thatís just unbelievable. Weíve been just so enjoying working with him. Trying to get him going, because Iíd love to have a record come out by 2017 with him.
Toddstar: Thatís cool. Always love to see when you pull your stuff out of your hat Jeff.
Jeff: Well thank you.
Toddstar: With Foreigner, like you said, you guys are going to be traveling the rest of the year. This year you guys are playing Wacken Festival. Does Foreigner approach that kind of a show any different than any other show, especially knowing the root crowd is probably a little heavier than the normal Foreigner crowd?
Jeff: Not too much. I mean sometimes if we have a shorter set we may not do as many ballads, for instance. Weíre still going to do ďI Want To Know What Love IsĒ which is universal and works in those heavy crowds believe it or not. As a rule, no. Foreigner live is a pretty high energy band. Itís accepted in some of the heavier festivals. Weíve done several heavy festivals over the last 10 years. Iím always kind of amazed, but at the same time, I know that we deliver. We have a great front man who just absolutely knows how to work a crowd. Thatís kind of the A number 1 thing for a festival like that. When you have great songs that are universal like that. If you deliver them with some energy, youíre going to go over. We donít approach it very much different. Like I say, maybe weíll leave out some ballads, but thatís about it.
Toddstar: I agree with everything you said about Kelly. Iím a child of the 80ís so I remember former incarnations for both you and Kelly when you were doing the harder rock stuff. Heís got that voice that kind of stands the test of time. Youíve got a killer voice on your own. Some of your earlier stuff, War & Peace and Lynch Pilson; those are amazing discs.
Jeff: Thank you.
Toddstar: You mention that you still write. When you write, do you write thinking oh this is for Foreigner, this is for a solo, this is for a separate part or do you just write to write, Jeff?
Jeff: I write to write. There are times when I direct it. There are times when I do that. As a rule, I just write. It goes where it goes. I guess sometimes I canít help but be putting on a hat. Iíll be thinking, if Iím in a heavier mood Iíll probably think in the back of my head oh this is something that George [Lynch] and I can come up with in a couple years or at some point. If Dokken were to get back together this would work or whatever. Those kinds of things. I do think like that sometimes. Generally, I just kind of get inspired and write and worry about it later.
Toddstar: What is it like looking back at everything that has gone in music? What is it like for you to see the change in music? Iím still a guy that likes a piece of plastic and liner notes in my hands. Thatís really not the common theme anymore. Forget the money side of it which is easier for me to say, but from a physical standpoint, whatís it like for you to know that thereís not some kid running home or reading who youíre thanking in your credits, what kind of instruments you played, who wrote the lyrics.
Jeff: I think itís a shame because I think it was a big part of the experience. I think itís something that slipped through the fingers of record companies and what not. That over the years they didnít kind of figure out how to make a physical product that would stand the test of time and the changes in technology. I mean, who couldíve, I donít know. At the same time, because I am so well aware of exactly what you said and youíre a perfect example of that. I think holding the record, reading the stuff that was on the record, looking at the picturesÖ the whole thing. Especially when it was the 12? format of a record and not just a CD. I think when they moved to CDís, people lost a little bit of interest in the album cover stuff right there. Itís a different size. Itís not as appealing. There was something really compelling about an album sleeve. When CDís became the norm, I think you lost a big degree of the interest in all the stuff that goes along with a record right there. Now itís almost gone completely. I think itís a shame. I think itís a part of the experience that is missing, that maybe explains one of the reasons why physical sales are so much less now. Thereís less to have. You just donít have the same tangible thing that you can grab that really draws you in. Maybe someday somebody will figure that out. Someday somebody will figure a way of applying that to the product so that when people go to buy music products, theyíre getting that tangible extra element. I hope they do because again, I feel itís very important. I miss it. I loved getting a record and seeing it in the store, grabbing it and coming home, opening it up. That was a big part of the experience. I hope somebody figures it out. I, again, think itís something thatÖ It looks like time has passed, but I hope somebody figures out something. Maybe in a new way. I think it would be very helpful in helping bring interest back in getting music mass marketed again.
Toddstar: I agree. Digging into your past, something like Tooth And Nail. That album cover fails in comparison on a cassette or a CD than it did at least on that 12? x 12? piece of cardboard.
Jeff: Yeah man. That was the stuff. That was really what it was.
Toddstar: It really was. Looking at the set list with Foreigner, what are the one or two songs from the past and the catalog that you would love to just dig out and drop in the set that maybe you donít play on a normal basis when you have your rotation?
Jeff: Iíll tell you thereís one song that I love very much that we did try in the set years and years ago. It just kind of didnít work because people didnít know it. Itís a song called ďAt War with the WorldĒ. I love that song. I just think itís a great song. It was never a big hit. I just love the song. When we did play it, I used to really enjoy it. Like I said, we havenít played it in years. That would be an example of something where itís an album track of Foreigners that shows a little something about Foreigner that I think is really cool. Yeah Iíd love to play it, but you know, part of being in this band is understanding how important these particular songs are for everybody that comes to see it. We do. We recognize thatís whatís happening. Weíve really learned to love the presentation that we give. It seems to be working so canít argue with success.
Toddstar: You canít argue with Foreignerís success. How is it every night, Jeff, that every night you walk out on stage and thereís a smile on your face from first note to the last? You never seem to have a bad night.
Jeff: I love what I do. I consider myself extremely fortunate. I have the gig I always wanted. I have the job Iíve always wanted my entire life which is playing music. That never escapes me. That never really goes too far away. I just feel very grateful about that. Iím also well aware that times are tough for a lot of people right now. The fact that I get to do what I do. It just makes me really grateful. I think when youíre grateful and you get that chance to run out on stage, itís like, thatís what people want to see. I want to see somebody enjoying themselves. I hate watching bands where they look like theyíre in pain and torture. ďItís enough. Move on.Ē So there you go. [laughs]
Toddstar: I agree. I think that goes back to growing up in the 80ís and when I saw live shows. It was just high energy.
Jeff: Yeah. I really believe in high energy for a show. Thatís the reason youíre there. Yes you want to hear the songs and all that, but if it doesnít have some kind of a spark to it, when somebody is just standing there playing and doing nothing, I donít get it. Anyways, I do my best.
Toddstar: Awesome. I know youíre a busy man so Iíve got one more for you before we cut you loose Jeff. Looking back over your career, if it were end tomorrow, what are a couple things in your career that youíre most proud of or that you would want to be part of your legacy?
Jeff: If it were to end tomorrowÖ Iím very proud of the T&N record that George and I did a couple years ago. It got a good response; unfortunately there were a lot of people that illegally downloaded it before it even came out. It kind of slipped out on the internet. There never got to be the sales figures that it shouldíve had. I was really proud of that record. I really loved that record. I would love people to examine that. If I went away tomorrow, I would love people to examine that and really listen to that. Other than that, I try and just give it my best. I hope that it stands the test of time. Dokken records as a rule pretty much the test of the time. A lot of those songs still sound really good today. What can I say? Iím very grateful for everything Iíve gotten to do. Iím always of the belief that my greatest song is still yet to be written. Iím working on that all the time. Hopefully something will come along and hopefully my career wonít be over tomorrow. If so, I hope somebody just analyzes my body of work and I hope they listen to music that Iíve written and recorded, and I hope it stands the test of time.
Toddstar: Iím one of the fortunate music fans that has most of your body of work in his collection. Including that killer T&N record. You guys grabbed one of my favorite vocalists for ďItís Not LoveĒ when you threw Robert Mason on there.
Jeff: Yeah heís amazing. Love Robert. Thank you so much man. I sure appreciate it. Itís been a fabulous interview. Weíll see you very soon. Thanks man!
Toddstar: All right man.
Jeff: Take care.