If you were to create a coming of age movie set in the 1980s, its soundtrack could be filled entirely with Foreigner songs.
Smash hits like Juke Box Hero, Hot Blooded, Feels Like the First Time, Cold as Ice, and I Want to Know What Love Is were staples on the radio and music videos during that decade and beyond.
Now they’re bringing those hits to the Roger’s K-Rock Centre and the Herald was given an opportunity to chat with Foreigner’s bass player, Jeff Pilson.
We drafted Kingston musician Jay “Smitty” Smith – a singer-songwriter who fronts The Furleys and has shared the stage with the Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo, and Kim Mitchell – to give Jeff a call for some insights into his career and his time with Foreigner.
Although the very first instrument Jeff Pilson played was a clarinet in fifth grade, his instrument of choice has been the bass guitar ever since he picked one up in May of 1970.
His music career essentially began back when people would hear him singing in the school yard and one day being approached by a student asking “Hey, we want you to sing for our band… and we need a bass player, will you buy a bass too?” to which Jeff replied “Sure!”
Unfortunately, Jeff moved away the next year, so that band never materialized. But he did end up buying the bass with a little amp and started practicing. Jeff said music became his salvation and he lived next to the turntable playing along with music all the time – the beginnings of a music career that led to huge successes in metal bands like Dio and Dokken.
Over the intervening years Pilson has accumulated quite the collection of instruments, including a 1958 maple-neck P-bass bought in 1986, but admits wishing he still had that original “junker” bass that was later sold to trade up to something better.
Visiting Jeff Pilson’s Internet Movie Database (imdb) page reveals the genesis of how he became a member of one of Rock’s most famous bands.
It shows a wide range of roles – from documentaries to talk shows and creating music for video games – but one credit stands out.
In 2001’s “Rock Star“, Mark Wahlberg stars with Jennifer Aniston in a film inspired by the true story of Tim “Ripper” Owens, a singer in a Judas Priest tribute who eventually replaced singer Rob Halford in the actual band.
Pilson was cast as bass player for the movie’s fictional metal band Steel Dragon that eventually brings in a tribute band frontman (Wahlberg) to replace its own singer. Other musicians in the film were likewise portrayed by real-life rockers including Zakk Wylde, Blas Elias, Nick Catanese, Brian Vander Ark, and Jason Bonham.
And Jeff says working with Jason Bonham on Rock Star is the reason he’s now with Foreigner.
“That’s how I ended up in this band basically – because we did that movie together, ” Pilson revealed. “When he started working with (Foreigner’s) Mick Jones a couple of years later, he thought of me and they called and the chemistry was immediate.”
That first experience with Foreigner for Jeff was at a Muscular Dystrophy charity event in 2004, where he and other top musicians joined Mick Jones to perform the band’s hits.
“That was the first show we did together… what kind of got Mick to want to re-energize the whole Foreigner operation. A very very positive experience for us”.
An accomplished drummer in his own right, Jason Bonham is also the son of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.
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When asked if Jason had ever shared “interesting” stories about his famous father (Led Zeppelin being synonymous with the wildest of rock-and-roll lifestyles), Jeff laughed and said he’d heard “more Led Zepplin stories than you can ever possibly imagine” – which was great he said, because he’s a huge Zeppelin fan himself.
And the stories didn’t just come from Jason, but also from Foreigner’s manager, Phil Carson, who was Led Zepplin’s A&R guy at Atlantic when they got signed.
While discussing the plot of Rock Star and actual cases of famous band members being replaced by tribute band performers – including Journey’s Steve Perry by Filipino singer Arnel Pineda, after one of the band members discovered him on Youtube – Jeff said he has no problems with that at all.
“I think that’s great… What an awesome story. You love a band. You’re in a tribute to them. And then you get into the actual band!”
And Jeff has experience being on the other side of it too.
“I was in the band Dokken in the 80s and 90s, and there’s a Dokken out there that still plays. And I can’t fault Don Dokken for wanting to go out and do shows with his own version of the band. Why not?”
Foreigner itself has had a number of accomplished musicians rotate in and out of the group since being founded in 1976. The band’s Wikipedia page actually features a timeline chart reflecting the years each of its twenty five members played in the band. Only founder and singer-songwriter Mick Jones has been with Foreigner throughout its 40+ years.
“People get nostalgia and nostalgic for the original band,” Pilson noted. “(But) it’s kind of different from band to band. What people really want to do is hear the songs.”
He believes Foreigner remains successful throughout these types of changes “because the legacy of the music is so strong with Foreigner… stronger than the personalities. And i think in that case people are more excited about hearing the music than necessarily the personalities” like KISS and Mötley Crüe, where the personalities are as important as the songs.
“That’s not to say the original band wouldn’t be very well received. That’s not true,” Jeff said of Foreigner. “But at the same time, I think it’s because the legacy of the music is SO strong that a band like us, we can go out there and play – sometimes with no original members – and the music itself is what sells it.”
“Plus we give it 150 percent. It’s not like it’s a bunch of unknowns up there – we all have good histories.”
And the current lineup has a good relationship with all the original members, including Lou Gramm, who has more recently been touring with Foghat.
“We did a couple shows together a few months ago and we’re putting out a DVD and CD of that, which was a really fun and exciting show. There’s still a great feeling with Lou and all the original guys, so (when they return to perform with Foreigner) that’s really a special and wonderful thing,” Jeff said, then jokingly added: “I think, even by Lou’s own admission, he wouldn’t want to tour as much as we do!”
Foreigner brings that tour to the Roger’s K-Rock Centre in Kingston on Saturday, March 24 with special guest Chilliwack – another great band from the 80s whose hits include “My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone)” and “Whatcha Gonna Do”.
Also hitting the K-Rock stage will be a local high school choir who will join them in singing one Foreigner’s best known songs “I Want to Know What Love Is”.
Many thanks to Jeff Pilson for taking the time to chat and to Jay “Smitty” Smith for conducting the interview for us – one musician to another.
UPDATE: Check out our concert article featuring photos and tweets from the fans!