One on One with Tom Gimbel of Foreigner

Interview with Tom Gimbel of Foreigner on January 30th, 2014

Tom-Gimbel-saxsmMMN – First, let’s get you introduced to our Maine Music News regulars who might not know you by name even though you’ve been with Foreigner for over 20 years. Tell us a bit about yourself and your part in the band.

TG- I first met Mick Jones and Lou Gramm in 1992. We did a bunch of work and touring at that time. Over the years, I just hung around. I’m still here. It’s twenty plus years later, and I play guitar, sax, flute, keyboards and sing. We are enjoying the greatest time right now. We have a wonderful line-up that really feels like a family. I think Mick is really pleased about that. Mick Jones is our leader, founder, the architect of Foreigner. It is his band, it is his baby and with him to lead us, I think we are in good shape. We are real excited about starting up again this year.

MMN – And let’s make sure everyone realizes that you were with Aerosmith for several years, from 1989 until 1995, as well. And let me just say, that I was at one of those shows at London’s Wembley Arena in November of 1989.

TG – Ya man, I remember that show. That was actually one of the early shows of that tour. We started the tour over there and I remember that night as it was one of the first nights of the tour.

MMN – I believe the Quireboys opened for you guys as well.

TG – Yes, I loved those guys.

MMN – Give us the scoop on that, Tom, it must have been amazing.

TG – It was a thrill of a lifetime. There were a lot of “pinch me moments” where I was sitting at the piano with Steven Tyler just wanting to make sure I had all the parts right for “Dream On.” I remember saying “This is what I got, is this right?” and he said “pretty much, pretty much, I’ll just show you the way I do it.” Next thing I knew he was telling me stories about the recording session. He said “my memory is so clear on certain things, I can still remember the day I recorded this.” Talk about a WOW moment. All the guys were so cool and so nice to me. Tom Hamilton, the bass player, and I played a lot of tennis. Brad Whitford gives the best hugs. Joe Perry too, great hugs. They were always saying “If you need anything, just let us know.” Joe Perry really encouraged me, he was a tremendous positive force. He could not have been cooler. They called him the Ice Cube because he is so cool. Then that turned into The Tray, like a tray of ice cubes. So they just called him Tray. That was the kind of vibe. It was very slick and very cool. Steven and I had a lot of laughs singing together as it was a large part of the job, singing the two part harmonies with Steven. We did a lot of vocalizing exercises and along the way we would just crack each other up, laughing until your stomach hurt kind of stuff. Anyone who knows Steven knows that is the kind of guy he is. He is that much fun to hang out with.

MMN – So let’s get this straight – you have played with two of the biggest bands in rock and roll and played several instruments for each band. When did you just know you were going to be a musician, that you had actually fulfilled your dream?

TG – I always knew that I wanted to be a musician. I had older brothers and sisters and everyone was playing music. My parents are very musical. Lots of records were being played so I knew as soon as I could think. I loved music. It made me jump, dance and sing. I was never shy about singing. We would get up in any kind of situation, be it a nightclub or a wedding and my parents would put me right up there and I would start singing with the band. At age 4 I would stand on a chair and sing “Smokey the Bear,” I just didn’t care. That was the first I knew about wanting to be in music. As far as feeling like I was starting to get somewhere – that was a gradual process. I think it happened over time. I had a band in Boston, and we started getting work, getting paying jobs. That was pretty exciting the first time that someone hands you cash for doing something that is so fun to do and that you love with all your heart. When someone actually hands you cash for that that is sort of a turning point. It doesn’t really matter how much cash it is. At that point we were pretty stoked. I just never stopped, I never looked back, and I still feel the same way. If we work hard, and if we put over 1000% effort into something, maybe something good will happen. I just feel like that is my mode of operation. I just feel really fortunate. I remember flying up to Vancouver to audition for Aerosmith and thinking hmm this could be the start of something good.

MMN – Foreigner fans in Maine will be happy to know that Foreigner is playing in the state twice in 2014 – first, headlining at Portland’s State Theatre February 18th, and then on tour with Styx and Don Felder in Bangor at Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion on July 5th. This might qualify Foreigner as honorary Mainers. Let’s get the fans up to speed on what they can expect at those shows because they will want to catch both.

TG – We are very experienced in playing in Maine. We have done a lot of shows up there. When I was living on the East Coast, I used to go up to Maine quite a bit. We are actually fond of the state of Maine. We have a lot of friends, family and a lot of history there, New England, in general, and particularly in Maine.

As far as the show and what people can expect – it is Foreigner the way we are now and it is the way we have been for quite a while. It is more of a participation rock concert as opposed to a strictly performance concert. Every show is different, every band is different. Our band, our blend, our particular blend of rock music with our singer Kelly Hanson – he wants people to get involved. He wants people to clap, stand up, dance around and scream at the top of their lungs and really just join together with the band. That is the magic for us, and I think he views that as his mission to get people on their feet and really have a good time. That is our goal every night and hopefully people feel the same way. We get a chance to connect with the audience. We are not disconnected with the audience. We don’t want to block them out, we want to drink them in and get them involved. He will go out and run around the crowd, dance around and he will stop at nothing to get them enthusiastic and have a good time. That is his goal and it’s nice to know that he wants everyone to have a fantastic time.

As far as the music is concerned, we are going to play all the songs that people would expect to hear from Foreigner and some songs that they might not know were from Foreigner. That happens quite a bit. We will play a song like “Blue Morning, Blue Day” and people will say “I know that song and I love that song, but I just didn’t realize that it was Foreigner.” That is kind of nice, at the end of the night people will say “I knew every one of those songs.” That should give you an idea of what we are going to play. It is not going to be any obscure albums or lengthy Broadway shows.

MMN – Will you be changing up the sets much between the headlining show and the run with Styx?

TG – Oh ya, we will change things up a bit especially if we are playing in the same geographical area in a short period of time.

MMN – You will love the venue in Bangor. The Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion is located right on the Penobscot River in downtown Bangor. It is a new facility, the stage is huge and the backstage facilities are wonderful as well. Not to mention the city. If you have time, you should try to get out and walk around a bit around town. It’s quite nice and relaxing.

TG – Looking forward to it, it has a familiar sound to it.

MMN – Foreigner is not slowing down at all and is known for their great live performances. In fact, Foreigner is HOT right now. “Dirty White Boy” was featured on Grand Theft Auto, Jay Leno just had you on The Tonight Show. What is it about Foreigner’s music that just keeps on going and thrilling the fans?

TG – I think it was always really well crafted. These songs, this music, are really well put together. Mick Jones, we talked about him being the architect, he is the driving force, the key song writer, and he pours his heart and soul into his art, which is the art of song writing and playing rock music in what I like to call the traditional way. I don’t think of it as classic rock, its just traditional straight ahead rock and roll. These are songs that had a great groove and real soulful melodies. It’s that blend of British rock with American blues style singing.

One of the things that is happening is rock bands like us are becoming fewer and far between so we are becoming more of a rare commodity and people are saying “Wow,” especially young people. They have no choice about the music that is being thrown upon them by the media. They are force fed the stuff. Some of the people are saying “You know I am not that crazy about Miley Cyrus and ya, I know Bruno Mars is good, but I don’t want to hear it all day long.” So some people, I am talking a little younger than our average age group, are starting to discover the old rock sound is something they like. We are talking about crunching guitars, loud rock drums, a thumping bass player, cool keyboards, great singing, especially with Kelly Hanson, phenomenal songs courtesy of Mick Jones – everything you get with a live rock band. Hopefully, we get to put some fire into the delivery so I get to throw my saxophone on there and it’s got such a great blend with all the elements. Anyway, it was a long answer to a short question, but I think these are the reasons that Foreigner is still around and going stronger than ever.

MMN – Foreigner has European dates early this year and will release something new in February in Europe entitled “I Want to Know What Love Is – The Ballads.” What can you tell us about this release and why release first in Europe?

…Any idea when that will be released in the US?

TG – I have not heard about plans for it to be released in The States. Typically the overseas markets absolutely love love songs. The States tend to be more aggressive, we have a little more angst in our DNA code here. It is a really cool collection of acoustic and nice songs that Foreigner has made popular. It is really pleasant sounding acoustic versions. It is very similar to our album called Acoustique. It has a lot of those elements, plus a live show that we did acoustically in Germany in an air museum. It’s a nice little package, but it is obviously tailored for the European market because the live show was done there. We wanted to say thanks for being there. It was broadcast on the radio. We want to say thanks and if you wanted to relive that broadcast or if you were at the show, here is a disc of it. We do similar stuff here in The States as well.

MMN – The band has announced some “unplugged” work to take place in the UK this spring…does that mean we will see some “unplugged” selections in the 2014 tour set lists?

TG – Sure, we do one song in that format just so people can hear that gear shift going from full electric to full acoustic “unplugged,” as you say. It is a nice switch of textures and tones. People seem to like it, probably because it’s different. What is nice about unplugged is the audience gets to be more involved because the music is so much softer. There is not a driving drummer. The audience clapping becomes the percussion, part of the band. They are becoming the drums. We get a real positive response when we do the acoustic shows. I think that is part of the reason. A lot of the other reasons, is its magic. The magic that is written into the songs.

MMN – How do you get Jeff Pilson to sit still?

TG – Well, he doesn’t sit still. He still jumps around even though it is acoustic.

MMN – Foreigner has talent, a soundtrack, and a fan base that spans decades now – from the 1970 to today. What can you share with us about staying eager to get on that stage after all this time because legend has it that Foreigner just cuts up the stage every single show.

TG – There is a lot of stuff that goes into that. First of all, natural adrenaline – before you get ready to go on stage, you should feel pretty psyched. If you don’t, you might want to think about doing something else. Honestly, we enjoy performing with each other. This is a band that has a tremendous amount of respect for each other. I am a fan of Mick Jones, I’m a fan of Kelly Hanson, Jeff Pilson, I’m a fan. Every one of these guys in the band, I admire their work deeply so I look forward to playing with them. That is enough to get me pretty stoked right there on top of the fact that we have these incredible songs.

I could play “Double Vision” on an acoustic guitar, and it still rocks – it’s so fun to play that riff. Because these riffs are so well written and so much fun to play, they never get old. Take a song like “Cold as Ice” where I am playing the piano. This is a song that I never get tired of playing it. That goes for all of our songs, I literally look forward to each one in the set as they all have something really really special and they are a joy to play. It is really a pleasure and nowhere near a chore. Talk about the song “Urgent” – I can’t wait to play that every night. That is as much fun as you can have being vertical.

We also look forward to connecting with the audience. When we hit the stage, and we see the faces of the audience, and you see and feel the energy and excitement there, that is instant pay dirt. It gets real at that point. You see that excitement, you feel the excitement. People talk about the energy flowing back and forth between the band and the audience, and it really does. It is a cycle.

MMN – Tom, you have been very generous with your time and your responses, and I greatly appreciate all that you have shared with us.

TG – Sounds good,Chris, and we will see you soon man, and thank you for your help.

About the author

Christopher Joles

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Christopher Joles was a teen when he discovered photography, about the same time he discovered rock and roll. It only makes sense that his dream was to combine the two mediums and photograph rock stars. Serving in the United States Air Force, Joles was stationed just a bus ride away from the hot spots of Great Britain’s historic rock and roll spectacles of the 1980s. On hand for many of the historic shows, and with many a story to tell, Joles went on years later to hone his photography skills as owner of Joles Photography, specializing in portraiture. The years behind the camera in his studio taught him one thing: it’s all about capturing the subject’s genuine emotion. As luck would have it, he has been able to take that knowledge to the foot of the stage. Owner of Maine Music News, a website covering concerts across Maine and the Boston area in photographs and reviews, Joles has now photographed many a rock star with many more on the bucket list.