September 16, 2014 Interview – Tom Gimbel of Foreigner
One the most successful rock-n-roll bands of all time is British-American Foreigner. Coming together nearly four decades ago, the band has put together some of the most memorable rock-n-roll songs which still affect listeners in a special way each time they are played live or on the radio. Showing no signs of fading away, the band continues to tour consistently with a strong line-up of talented energetic musicians as they draw large crowds wherever they go. Being part of a crop of classic rock bands, with a unique style not heard of much anymore, Foreigner’s relevance is as strong as ever as part of the scene. Recently we sat down with long-time multi-instrumental Foreigner member Tom Gimbel for an in-depth look at the last twenty years of the band, their special bond together, passion for music, and much more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been involved in music for a long time now, including seven years as a touring member of Aerosmith and almost two decades as part of Foreigner. What has the ride been like for you as part of such historic rock-n-roll acts?
Tom Gimbel – It has been a ton of fun. I look back on it and I think there have been so many laughs and good times along the way with really fun people. I started off in New England with a guy named James Montgomery, he was like a stand-up comedy and a tremendous blues harmonica player. Then I worked with John Butcher, we laughed until our stomachs hurt. Then I got to Aerosmith and Steven Tyler, same thing, we would laugh until our stomachs hurt. I remember playing tennis with Tom Hamilton, playing tennis on roof tops in Tokyo. Same things with Foreigner, I remember playing tennis with Jason Bonham who was in the band for a while. In the early days, Mick Jones would love to organize volleyball games. He would book a week at the beach in Florida somewhere, we were supposed to be rehearsing and maybe recording, but it was really about hanging out and being a family.
We did that recently in Hawaii also. These are the memories that come to mind. Of course the foundations of all the memories are the combination of all the shows we did on stage along the way. That is the common purpose, everyone has to share the love and commitment to music and performing, that is what drives us. We have this common bond because we are all driven by this exact same focus. It is almost like an incredible coincidence, but at the same time we could not do it without each other. It is a real bond that happens between musicians. We noticed that this summer when we were on a multiband bill with Styx and Don Felder from the Eagles. We got to know those guys and we had so much in common because we are all driven to the same exact point.
CrypticRock.com – That is great that you remember those personal memories where you had a chance to relax and bond like that.
Tom Gimbel – Yes it is. It shows up on stage. I remember so many hours of the singing and vocal exercises with Steven Tyler. That is a big part of his life and how he has kept his voice so strong for so many years. A lot of people know how great he is, but I am not really sure if they know how real and funny he is. I was glad the country got to know him a little bit as a person through American Idol, but they still might not know how hard he works. He is probably one of the hardest working people I have ever known, from sun up to sun down. We would spend hours doing vocal exercises, singing in harmonies, and so forth. He would say this will help us sing better on stage. That is where we would have our funniest moments, telling little stories in between the exercises. The more you know the people you are playing with, you play better with them on stage.
CrypticRock.com – That makes perfect sense. There are some misconceptions of how you joined up with Foreigner. What is the correct story of how you became a member?
Tom Gimbel – I started with Foreigner in 1992 and in 1993 I had to go back to Aerosmith. That is when I found Scott Gilman, a good friend of mine from Berklee, and when I left I wanted to get someone to fill my place. I tutored him and showed him all the songs note for note, so when he showed up for rehearsal I wanted there to be no stress for Foreigner. I love Foreigner, I wanted to really make it easy for them so I trained Scott Gilman myself, who did a great job. I remember Mick Jones said we could not figure it out; he showed up and knew all the songs. I said, “Yea, I taught them to him earnestly with all my heart and soul.” He did a fantastic job from 1993 to 1994. In 1995 Scott called me up and said I am going to branch out and try my own thing, would you be interested in going back to Foreigner. I said sure and Mick said yes. We actually did a show where we were all there together and it was more fun than anything. So that is the real story of what happened. I love Scott; he is a tremendous saxophone player. He is still kicking around in LA doing great work. So I came back in 1995 and been there ever since.
CrypticRock.com – Thank you for clearing that up. When you came back, you came on as a full-time member and you have been with them since as you mentioned. Was that something you planned on or was it something that happened over time?
Tom Gimbel – I was looking for a home, Mick Jones and Lou Gramm both told me you are part of our family now, this is your home. I was really ecstatic about it. I was in for the long run and still am. I just could not be happier about it. It really has been a fantastic twenty years.
CrypticRock.com – It definitely has been, and a lot of great things have happened. With Foreigner, you have seen many changes around you over the years and the band still sustains themselves as a relevant rock band in 2014. What do you think has been the key to the longevity of the band?
Tom Gimbel – Well, there are fewer and fewer bands like us around. It is incredible to think about that, but it is true. This is a traditional sounding rock band with British styling’s and American blues rock infused vocals. It is actually a unique hybrid. The songs themselves are always the reason people still like a band. I really understand that because these songs are unique because you do not get tired of them. We play them every night for years and I still do not get bored of playing “Double Vision”. I love it, that song rocks, it floats my boat. All the songs are like that, it is bizarre (laughs). I think one time we asked Mick Jones, how do you write songs that are like that. It is a secret and he will not tell us. Maybe someday he will.
CrypticRock.com – Foreigner’s songs certainly are unique, it is easy to pick out one of the band’s songs as soon as hearing it. As mentioned, those aforementioned changes, perhaps one of the biggest was the departure of original vocalist Lou Gramm in 2003 and the addition of Kelly Hansen on vocals two years later. Both are excellent vocalists in their own right. What has your experience been like working with the two different singers?
Tom Gimbel – We have had a great time. I feel like my twenty years has been ten years with Lou Gramm and ten years with Kelly Hansen. When Lou left, we were sad but we understood. He had been through a really rough ride with his surgery and his illness. He wanted to live life on his owner terms, have his own band, tour when he wanted to tour, not tour when he did not want to, and we understood that. I think Mick took a couple of years to try and figure out what he wanted to do next. During those two years we started to hear about different vocals, we put out feelers, and that is when I first heard about Kelly Hansen. Styx bassist Ricky Phillips played golf constantly during those two years and asked him who he thought would be a good singer and he kept saying Kelly Hansen. I first met Kelly at that time, we stayed in touch with him, and when Mick decided he really wanted to look for a singer, we knew who to call. So I called Kelly back, there was a bunch of singers considered, but Mick gravitated toward Kelly. Mick heard his sound initially on tape and said he was partial to Kelly’s voice. It was really a nice natural combination. It happened organically, he came in and nailed the audition, and boom we went right on the road in 2005.
CrypticRock.com – He has done a great job. One of the key aspects of Kelly Hansen is he is a phenomenal showman. He definitely knows how to get the crowd going. He is a frontman through and through.
Tom Gimbel – He is one of the top frontman out there right now. Phenomenal would be the correct word. It would be one thing to sing as well as he does, some people are just gifted singers. He is also kind of like Steven Tyler because he works at his craft and he is a professional singer his whole life. When he first came in, we asked him how you sing like that. He said this is what I do, this is what I have always done, how do you play the sax like that, same thing. The singing part of it is astounding. As musicians, we do not understand how he can sing so well in tune, with so much emotion, and nail these songs every night. It is not easy to do; they are tough songs to sing. Then you throw on top the fact that he is a showman and frontman who really connects with the audience. He does not really perform to the audience; he tries to get them involved. He goes out, runs around, takes their cameras, takes selfies with them, kissing girls, sharing drinks, sitting in people’s laps, dancing with people, and high-fiving people. He is out of his mind (laughs). It is a very different style, that is not Steven Tyler, that is not Lou Gramm, that is Kelly Hansen. He is unique and incredible because he combines all those elements together.
CrypticRock.com – That is extremely true. In 2009, Foreigner actually released their first studio album since 1994’s Mr. Moonlight entitled Can’t Slow Down. This was in fact the first record you have worked in the studio with the band. It really is a solid rock-n-roll record. What was the writing and recording process like?
Tom Gimbel – It was so great to see Mick back in the studio writing and recording again. That album sounds tremendous. They did a pressing on vinyl, really good rock music sounds great on out of fashion LP record. It was a wonderful thing to be part of something like that. It was a real rock record. The title track was written about NASCAR racing. We call these traditional rock values; fast cars and loud guitars. It is just the way it should be. Kelly sang so amazing on that album. It was just a ton of great songs. It was a lot of fun to be part of playing sax on “When It Comes To Love”; cool song. It was fun; “Can’t Slow Down” really describes what this band is about. I think Mick Jones is always going to keep going. This band is going to keep rocking as long as people want it to.
CrypticRock.com – There is no question fans want to see the band keep going. As we spoke of, you play saxophone. In modern rock music, you really do not see bands use a saxophone. Why do you think modern bands have gotten away from that and do not use the saxophone as a rock instrument as much anymore?
Tom Gimbel – They say music goes around in circles. I am starting to see the sax again in different ways. Amy Winehouse used that baritone sax, which is becoming hype and chic again. I think there is always room for it. It is a very popular instrument; people love it when they see it. It is hard to say with rock music now a days. The new rock music that is being made is either on the very heavy metal side or if it is commercial; it is like maybe Nickelback or country. Country is where rock is now. When they think of lead instruments in country they are always going to think about guitars and slide guitars. When I hear some of those country rock records, some of the guitar playing, those guys are so good, I am a fan. Saxophone will always be strong in the jazz world. I just like rock for rock sake. Certain songs just call for saxophone like Rolling Stone songs, Pink Floyd songs, and Foreigner has a few songs. In that setting, that is where I love the saxophone. I do not think it wants to be anywhere else than those perfect moments. We just look for those perfect moments and try and jump on them.
CrypticRock.com – It seems to fit in very well. What are some of your musical influences?
Tom Gimbel – It is a long list, it is probably page after page. When I think of the big ones, I really think when I was young, first it was Motown. We had such a thing with Motown, when I was growing up we all listened to it on AM radio in the 1960’s. We just love it, everything from James Brown, to Stevie Wonder, to Marvin Gaye, to The Supremes. Oh man, when you are a young kid with Diana Ross, the way she would coo, it was really sweet and sexy. On the other side of the coin was The Temptations. Even the Jackson Five, they were a big deal on the radio.
After that I got into Blood, Sweat, and Tears, then came Chicago. My dad gave me a tape called Best of Cream (1969) when I was in sixth grade. I was this little sixth grade walking around singing “White Room” and everyone was probably thinking what is wrong with this kid (laughs). After that I got into The Who, we all loved the rock operas. The Beatles were there all the way. Everyone wanted to be in a band so they could get girls to scream like that. That was a major thing that got us all into it, but then the music did really become important after that and people that really cared about music kept their instruments going on. You know how many basements kids would get drums and they would play them about a week then the drums would just sit in the basement, everyone wanted to be Ringo Starr (laughs). Some of us stayed with it. Albums like Let It Be (1970), Abbey Road (1969), and The White Album (1968), those are albums I would just sit and listen to over and over. I still love it, I would love to put on Abbey Road right now, put on headphones and listen to it on vinyl.
The Who was also a big deal; those power chords and the rhythm guitar playing. That was what I was after because I started as a drummer, but I wanted to play those kinds of rhythms that had music attached. “Pinball Wizard” was the one everyone really wanted to play and I could not just get enough of it. Then we got into Jethro Tull. Before we knew, it was jazz time and everyone discovered Billy Cobham. Weather Report was another one. It all comes back to stuff like Pink Floyd and the textural kind of music that makes you feel something. That is what I loved about Foreigner albums, they made you feel something. I remember the Agent Provocateur (1984) album, “That Was Yesterday”. That is real emotion and I love that kind of stuff. For me, it was always rock music that carried deep and felt emotion. That is everything from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Stevie Wonder. Music that is really emotional, that is what gets me.
CrypticRock.com – That is a lot of amazing music right there. Those are some of the greatest bands ever. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and horror films. If you are a fan of horror films what are some of your favorite horror films?
Tom Gimbel – When I think of horror movies the ones I like are the futuristic ones; Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Predator (1987). That is the stuff that I find cool and intriguing. I remember when I was a kid the original Planet of the Apes (1968) was a huge movie. The original ones that came out, we used to love those movies. That is the kind of science fiction and horror movies that I enjoy. The Terminator series, I am down with those.
What I loved as a kid too was the original ones like Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), Dracula (1931), and The Wolf Man (1941). I loved that stuff, that used to be the classics. That Wolf Man character played by Lon Chaney, he just did not want to be who he was. That is really the kind of stuff I like, there was true emotion there, he was torn. That is the kind of stuff that appeals to me. He was in turmoil, I can relate to that, that is the human condition; we are all on that same page. There is no one that goes through life without that kind of turmoil and struggle; I like it because it brings us all together. In the original Alien, the characters were reluctant, they did not want to, but they had to because it was part of their job. I love that reluctance, it was not some space hero, these guys were just trying to do their job and deliver the space cargo. That is probably my favorite science fiction film for that reason.
CrypticRock.com – You mention those classic Universal monster movies are timeless classics. Those films had some great acting with real human emotion. Perhaps it was because they did not have to rely on technology like films do today._
Tom Gimbel – That is right. They had powerful actors really doing a powerful scream. Dr. Frankenstein was going through all this stuff creating the monster. All they had to rely on was the make-up of the monster and they used it very sparingly in the early movies. It was a lot more content and less screen wow factor.