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Feels like the first time: Jeff Pilson of Foreigner

Bassist Jeff Pilson of Foreigner. Bassist Jeff Pilson of Foreigner.

When you run through the gamut of truly great rock bands, the name Foreigner tends to usually be somewhere near the top. With over 80 million records sold, the group soaked the radio dial through the 1970s and 1980s with a string of iconic hits, many of which becoming lifelong anthems for countless fans. 

From heavier rock selections (“Feels Like The First Time,” “Jukebox Hero,” Hot Blooded,” “Urgent”) to love songs (“I Want To Know What Love Is,” “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” “I Don’t Want To Live Without You”), Foreigner was — and remains — a double-threat in the annals of rock-n-roll history.

Initially formed as a British/American hybrid, Foreigner was fronted by English guitar wizard Mick Jones and his across-the-pond vocal counterpart Lou Gramm. And though the band has gone through multiple lineup changes in its 43 years together, Jones is still front-and-center — night after night, tour after tour.

And alongside Jones for the last 15 years has been bassist Jeff Pilson. Originally a founding member of legendary 1980s metal act Dokken, Pilson — a talented singer-songwriter in his own right — co-wrote many of Dokken’s hits (“Alone Again,” “In My Dreams,” “Burning Like A Flame”). 

Now 61, Pilson has spent the majority of his life in rock-n-roll. He’s acquired massive success, and he’s also seen the downfall of riches and excess in the music industry. But, through it all, he’s still standing, still creating and performing music onstage — something he’s never taken for granted. 

Smoky Mountain News: As someone who experienced success in the wild 1980s, what was your biggest take away from it?

Jeff Pilson: It was a lot like what people say. There were parties every night. Hanging out in The Rainbow. The bands were all friends. There was a lot of drinking and drugs, too. It was a wild scene. It’s not that far away from what you’d imagine.

SMN: With the end of that era, in terms of the end of that scene, was it inevitable or was it somewhat a self-sabotaged by the scene itself? 

JP: I think really what it was, is the music got very stale. All the records started to sound the same. There was such a formula about it: you had your rock song and then you had your big power ballad. It just got too formulaic and I think people started seeing through it. People know authenticity when they see it. So, I think it brought about its own doom for that reason. 

SMN: Growing up, you loved prog rock. What are your thoughts on bassists Greg Lake (Emerson, Lake & Palmer) and Chris Squire (Yes)? 

JP: They were both huge influences on me. Squire, when I first heard “Roundabout,” I changed the way I played. The minute I heard it — that’s what I want to do. I totally got into that sound. It just consumed me. I still think Chris is one of the greatest of all-time — so creative, so unique, so powerful, but so melodic. He really had it all. Greg Lake? I think he’s underrated as a bass player, and there’s a lot of great bass playing on those records. But, his voice and his songwriting were all really important things, huge influences on me. 

SMN: What are you discovering about the bass these days?

JP: Well, I think you get better with age because of the feel. Bass is a very feel-oriented instrument. It’s all about how it feels on your body, how you make other people feel, and how the rest of the band jells together. So, I think you get better with that over time. I’m not really concerned about chops anymore or fancy playing. It’s more about making just making the music feel good. And that’s one of the great things about Foreigner music, it’s really fun to make the music feel good. 

SMN: What’s your mindset these days, maybe reflecting on “the road to here”?

JP: I’m just really grateful to play music and do what I love. That never gets lost on me. It’s an honor to be able to do what I do. There’s a lot of talented people out there that don’t get to make their living playing music. Because records have stop selling to the degree that they do, you really depend on live music for your living now. That’s not a bad thing, because you get to play live, but it reminds you that there are only so many gigs out there. I just want to learn the lessons of humility, about being human, not taking yourself so seriously anymore. There was a period where a lot of musicians took themselves way too seriously, and they did a lot of damage to their careers and to a lot of the people around them. And I don’t want to do that. I’m in a position where I’m starting to understand those lessons and value those lessons. 

Editor’s Note: Foreigner will hit the stage at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 23, at Harrah’s Cherokee. For more information and/or to purchase tickets, go to www.harrahscherokee.com and click on the “Events” tab. To listen to the audio stream of this conversation, go to YouTube and search: “Jeff Pilson Garret K. Woodward.” 

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