Jeff Pilson is in the midst of a remarkable career. He has been an integral part of some of the iconic rock bands of the last three decades, is an in-demand session and guest performer on a whole series of musical projects, and is just as well regarded as a producer.
For the past 13 years, his main gig has been as the bass player for legendary rock band Foreigner, touring the world performing some of the best known and most beloved classic rock tunes of all time to adoring audiences.
The band is marking its 40th anniversary this year, and the official launch of the anniversary tour is taking place over two nights, July 7 and 8, at Casino Rama, near Orillia, Ontario, one of the band’s favourite places to play over the last decade or more.
“We have been doing some stuff over in Europe, but as far as the official kick-off of the tour, Rama is the place and we picked it because it’s just a great venue and it’s great to know that it’s going to be sold out and the crowd is going to be wild and crazy like it always is when we play there. You want to kick things off with a good vibe and that’s a guaranteed way to do it playing at Rama,” said Pilson, who added that while he is proud to be a member of such a lauded, respected and popular band, he doesn’t feel that he is responsible, even in part, for the band’s legacy, but is more of a keeper of the legacy.
“I consider what I am doing different than being part of the legacy – that legacy was created by the guys who wrote and recorded and performed all those huge hit songs in the 1970s and 1980s. They established the Foreigner hallmark, the Foreigner ‘brand’ if you will. I do consider it important that we continue to perpetuate that legacy. It’s a great thing to be involved with and it can only be done when you do feel the way we do about the music and about the band and about the vision of Mick Jones. Mick, I believe, is happy with us because we do so respect his vision and we work tirelessly to bring his vision to life on every single night.”
Jones, of course, co-founded the band in 1977 and was responsible for co-writing and producing the bands incomparable string of hit songs like Urgent, Dirty White Boy, Waiting for a Girl Like You, Hot Blooded, Jukebox Hero and I Want To Know What Love Is. Pilson is joined in the band by long-time vocalist Kelly Hansen, keyboardist Michael Bluestein, saxophone/guitarist Thomas Gimbel (who has been in the band since 1992), guitarist Bruce Watson and drummer Chris Frazier.
Pilson said he is not really surprised that Foreigner is as popular a touring attraction as it is, drawing in now sometimes three generations of fans to its concerts around the globe.
“I know why that’s the case and it’s because there are so many great songs, being performed by a band, where all the members really respect and appreciate the music and the significance of the band. We’re all fans, which I think gives us a unique perspective that helps us really deliver the goods night after night. So, no, I am not really surprised. We have a frontman who brings it every night – he’s just amazing. And we have a band that are the top of their game, but who also have loads of fun every night, and I think a lot of that fun, that energy translates on stage and is picked up by the audience,” he said.
One of the drawing cards for Pilson in joining Foreigner was to spend time in Jones’ company, learning from someone at the pinnacle of the music industry for decades.
“That was a huge selling point for me wanting to be in the band was that I got to spend a lot of time with Mick Jones and I have. I have learned so much from him over the years. Just as a songwriter and producer alone he is just a fountain of knowledge, and as a guitar player and musician he brings so much to the table. I mean, this is a guy who learned how to play Hey Joe from Jimi Hendrix himself in the back of a tour bus that they were sharing. I mean, come on, it doesn’t get any better than that. So yeah, it’s been a thrill to just be able to watch him and learn and to be a part of this band and play these amazing songs night after night,” Pilson said.
Pilson first came to prominence as a member of 1980s melodic rockers Dokken, best known for hits like Alone Again, Just Got Lucky, Dream Warriors, Unchain the Night and Tooth and Nail. The band broke up in 1988, but has reformed a few times in the intervening three decades. The best known and most successful version of the lineup – Pilson, vocalist/founder Don Dokken, axe master George Lynch and drummer Mick Brown, reunited for a much heralded series of shows last year, primarily in Japan.
Pilson enjoyed the experience and isn’t ruling out more Dokken reunions down the road.
“It turned out to be a lot of fun. I think all of us had a little anxiety going into it because we didn’t always get along the greatest. But you know what, we all came through it, and when we went to Japan, which has always been a great market for Dokken, it turned out to be so much fun. We actually did some bonding that we never actually did back in the day, so it was really nice,” he said, adding that there will be a live DVD to commemorate the reunion, which also includes some pretty cool bonus material – including a new Dokken song.
“It’s probably coming out in the fall, I am guessing, or by Christmas for sure. And there is a new song on there that’s absolutely fabulous. I was really shocked at how well we captured the Dokken spirit authentically without trying too hard. It just kind of happened naturally, which is great. It’s a great song and it’s called Another Day.
“And we also remade a couple of old classic Dokken songs acoustically in the studio and that came out really great, so that will all be included as part of the bonus stuff along with the live DVD. As far as doing more, I don’t know; it’s so hard to get our schedules together with the Dokken guys. I am gone so much with Foreigner because we do 120-plus shows a year and there are all the things I am producing, including two new Foreigner projects. I am certainly open to it, but we’ll have to see.”
Pilson also learned a lot from one of the true masters of the metal genre – the late, great Ronnie James Dio, who died in 2010. Pilson was part of Dio’s band for the Strange Highways (1993), Angry Machines (1996) and Master of the Moon albums, and subsequent tours.
“Here was a guy who was a treasure trove of knowledge and stories and just talent. Ronnie had a lot of personality and enthusiasm – he had everything. He is an amazing musician, an amazing singer, an amazing writer and he was an amazing human being. The thing is, he didn’t readily dole out knowledge necessarily to everyone who comes his way. But I think we had a connection where he felt comfortable with me, and he used to tell me a lot, even about singing. It was kind of cool to learn his angle on singing and his take on how singing is done well. I learned so much about him from that,” he said.
“And you know, being in that band was the ultimate lesson in being in a great heavy rock band. I think when I went back to Dokken after that experience, it was a better band because I had spent time in Dio and got to transfer a lot of that stuff to what Dokken was doing, and that’s a great thing.”
For much of his career, besides being one of the best, most dynamic and entertaining rock and metal bassists on the planet, Pilson has also been an in-demand producer, working with many of his contemporaries as well as up-and-coming artists. Some of his credits include the most recent Warrant album, Louder Harder Faster, and the upcoming second Last in Line album, as well as Benedictum.
He said he was attracted to that side of the music industry from a very early age.
“I was interested in it from when I was learning to play music. I would take two cassette machines; I would play on one and record what I am playing live and what I am playing along with on the tape to the other cassette. It was horrible quality, but that’s how it started. I have always just loved the studio and what I can do there. And I have worked with some amazing people over the years – true legends. I have been very, very fortunate with the people I have gotten to work with and I learned so much,” he said.
“Of course I love the live performance part of it too, but when you’re making a record, it’s forever and that’s the real nitty gritty of what the legacy that you want to leave musically is all about. So I am very excited by the studio – always have been and always will be. Producing was a natural thing for me. It’s a creative art form in itself, in my opinion, and that’s a big part of the appeal for me. [Beatles producer] George Martin set a very high bar for everybody to follow and I think we’re still chasing it. But, yeah, it’s very exciting creatively. It’s so satisfying to me. When a record is done and it sounds tight and when it’s really accomplished what it set out do, and perhaps more, there is no better feeling.
“It’s completely rewarding. I love to do things alone in the studio, but collaboration is kind of the ultimate thing: when it works and the chemistry is right it’s sort of the ultimate musical high.”
For more information on Foreigner’s show at Casino Rama, visit https://www.casinorama.com/Live/Artist/Foreigner.aspx.
For more information on the band, visit www.foreigneronline.com.
To find out about Pilson’s other projects, visit www.jeffpilson.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.