There are few bands as long lasting, wide reaching, and sing-along ready as Foreigner. Since forming in 1976 under the guidance of New York-dwelling Brits Mick Jones, Ian McDonald, and Lou Gramm, the band has scored nine Top 10 hits, including ubiquitous arena ballads like “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “I Want to Know What Love Is.”
Perhaps equally notable in the Foreigner biography is the almost unfathomable number of lineup changes the band has seen (there’ve been 30) since bassist Rick Willis first replaced Ed Gagliardi in 1979. Today, the Foreigner machine continues to run smoothly under the helm of 64-year-old guitarist-and lone foreigner of the group-Mick Jones. Together with sax player Thom Gimbel, keyboardist Michael Bluestein, drummer Brian Tichy, bassist Jeff Pilson, and spot-on Gramm replacement, vocalist Kelly Hansen, Foreigner now seems stronger than ever. The band even released their first collection of new material in more than 15 years, the fittingly titled Can’t Slow Down, this past October.
This Thursday, December 17, Foreigner returns to Santa Barbara County for a show at the Granada Theatre, which promises to be chock-full of classic rock hits, as well as a smattering of new material. I recently chatted with Pilson about the band, the album, and the unarguable staying power of Foreigner’s music.
Why the decision to record a new album now? Well, we’ve had this lineup for a few years now, the response live has been phenomenal, and everybody’s just really excited. The fans have made it really, really clear that they want a new record, and we wanted to prove that this band was still relevant. It’s not the same as it was 20 years ago as far as the market goes, but as far as putting out a record and having the audience identify with it, that’s very relevant. That was our goal, to put out something we thought was distinctly Foreigner, with a fresh coast of paint, and so far the response has been great.
What’s the writing dynamic like between Mick and the rest of the band? Mick and Marti Frederiksen, who was the producer on [Can’t Slow Down], got together to work on a couple tracks and we recorded the song “Too Late,” which we released on our No End In Sight record last year. In that process, Marti just kind of realized that we were ready to go. They wrote another tune called “I’ll Be Home Tonight” and discovered that they were kind of on a roll, so that was when the commitment was made to really put the pedal to the metal. Primarily, the writing was done between Marti and Kelly, our singer.
You’ve been with this band since it came out of hibernation in 2004. What were those first couple of shows like for you? I was a Foreigner fan. I always loved the music and the style of it, which is hard rock to R&B, all with great melody and great songs. To play it was very second nature for me, and it was a blast. I mean, a lot of this stuff really comes alive when it’s played live, in a way that people don’t realize if they’ve never seen the band. So for me, it was really exciting watching that happen-and it happens really organically.
What’s changed since then? What’s the same is it’s still melodic rock music with a kind of R&B edgy groove to it with this great singer and this great guitar player. What’s changed, especially with Marti’s influence, is there’s a little bit more of a current pop emphasis in the record. What’s interesting to me is, Foreigner was always kind of the current pop of its day, but in 1977 you could be a little more hard rock and be current pop. Then in 1981 you could have “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” and in 1985 they could have a pop song with “I Want to Know What Love Is.” Foreigner, at least to me, has been pop all along. I think what Marti did was simply bring the Foreigner element into a current pop environment.
You played a little over a year ago at the Chumash Casino up here. Does it surprise you to see so many younger people coming out to the shows? Well, it certainly can be surprising, but what I’ve kind of discovered is that a lot of the video games, like Rock Band and Guitar Hero and things like that, are helping a lot of younger people get into classic rock. It’s so different than the music of their generation, and I think because of that they’re drawn to it and they really appreciate the elements of it that are unique. Then they see us and I think what they’re seeing is a really good version of a classic rock band, if I can say so humbly.
Foreigner play live at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) this Thursday, December 17, at 8 p.m. Call 899-2222 or visit granadasb.org for tickets.