Ask a random group of music fans about Jeff Pilson and you’ll be amazed at the variety of impressions you‘ll hear. Best known for his work as bass player for the 80s metal band Dokken, Jeff has also made his mark in the music industry as a respected songwriter and producer, as well as vocal talent of his own progressive metal project, War And Peace and the Lynch/Pilson project with former Dokken bandmate, George Lynch. With contributions to additional popular metal acts including Dio and MSG, and a taste of film as bass player for the metal band, Steel Dragon in the genre film Rock Star in 2001, Jeff continues to contribute to music history through his work with legendary classic rock band, Foreigner. We caught up with him between shows as Foreigner kicks off a six month world tour. Read on for his take on music then and now, experiences of working with some of the greatest talent out there, and a bit of reflection on a letter he wrote not too long ago….check it out…
Blast: Hi Jeff, how’s the tour going? Most of the dates are in the US now, right?
Jeff Pilson: Good, it’s going good. We’re just starting in the year’s touring now and yeah, it’s in the US until June, and then in June we leave for Europe which we’re going to do pretty extensively, and then we’re also going to do Russia this time, too, which is pretty cool.
B: A lot of bands seem to be heading there this year.
JP: Yeah, it’s picked up, I think it’s a pretty good market over there for everyone.
B: Europe to, of course. AOR and classic rock just never seems to lose energy with fans there.
JP: Yeah, well I don’t know exactly how the whole financial thing has affected things as much over there, but it’s still strong. They’re definitely still into classic rock. The response has been great.
B: You and Kelly have both been with Foreigner for about the last five years now, right?
JP: Yeah, about five years.
B: You hear Foreigner’s music on every radio station from classic and metal to adult contemporary and they’ve had a pretty mixed fan base going back several generations. You and Kelly clearly came from metal backgrounds. How was the response to you guys initially?
JP: They’ve been great and very welcoming, and a lot of them are familiar with my past which really makes it very cool. I’m amazed at how welcome I’ve felt through this whole thing.
B: You guys are obviously doing a lot of the Foreigner classics; is ‘Too Late’, which is a great song, by the way, included in the set list, as well?
JP: Thank you, we have been putting it in there, yeah. It’s been going over quite well, too. I’m a little surprised. You know, usually new songs from older bands don’t do that great, but it’s been fabulous.
B: Is there any new material in the works?
JP: Yeah, that’s actually why we weren’t touring the first couple of months of the year, there’s been a lot of writing going on. We’re hoping to have a new album out by early next year.
B: We’ve had a little taste with ‘Too Late’ which is pretty consistent with the classic Foreigner sound. How does the new stuff compare?
JP: It stays very true to the Foreigner sound, kind of like ‘Too Late’ does. There’s a little bit of a modern edge to it, but that’s a natural thing. As it stands though, the music does very much fit with Foreigner, which is not easy to accomplish, by the way.
B: We’ll look forward to hearing it. Are there any other projects that you’re currently working on outside of Foreigner?
JP: Yeah, there are a few things. I’ve spent the last few years producing a band called Benedictum. It’s actually been over a year since their last record came out, so mostly it’s been Foreigner for me and it probably will be the next couple of years.
B: We ask this question frequently and the answers are always interesting by comparison coming from musicians who were writing some of the biggest hits 20+ years ago; what impresses you when you turn on the radio today?
JP: Oh, I actually love Coldplay and Muse is one of my favorite bands. There’s really a lot of good music out there. You know Sara Bareilles with that song ‘Love Song’? I think that’s such a great song!
B: Wow, so you’re really kind of sold on the whole alternative thing, huh?
JP: You know, I’m actually into everything. It’s really all about quality of song. I try not to judge by genre, but I think a lot of that stuff is where some of the strongest songwriting is going on. I really think Muse is probably about the most brilliant thing out there right now.
B: You’ve been all over the music scene, especially more recently. Whose responsible for your influences, bands as well as bass players, particularly early on, and was Foreigner among them?
JP: Yeah, I was a Foreigner fan. I started with pretty much The Beatles and Led Zeppelin; those were my biggest early influences, then I had a period where I was really into Yes, Genesis and ELP and that kind of thing, heavily actually. I was kind of one of those geeks! Then I got into heavier and heavier rock, I loved AC/DC. So I have a pretty wide palette. I also studied classical music at the University of Washington, so I have an extensive background and large catalog, but it really comes down to quality. Great songs are the number one thing for me and that’s why I thought Foreigner fit so perfectly. They wrote hard rock songs, but great hard rock songs, lots of energy, but great melody and that’s my favorite thing right there. And as far as bass players, McCartney, Chris Squire, John Entwistle, John Paul Jones, the classic guys were my guys and I still love that stuff. I been doing a lot of jam stuff lately where you just kind of go jam at clubs and it gives you an opportunity to play some of those old cover songs. I mean, you listen to John Entwistle today and that bass playing is as fresh and powerful now as it was then, so yeah, I’m still a fan.
B: When you first started out, was there just a burning desire to play bass, or did you go for something else first?
JP: I did start on bass, which few people do, a lot of them do start out with something else, but it wasn’t really a burning desire, it was more that I was twelve years old and this guy said “hey we need a bass player for our band, you wanna play?”
B: Ok, good reason!
JP: (laughing) Yeah, I don’t know how often that happens, but I did develop a love for it and, honestly, I’ve fallen even more in love with bass in the last fifteen years than in the rest of my career. When Dokken broke up in the late 80s/early 90s, I kind of got away from bass for a while, but when I returned to it, I fell in love with it all over again and it’s held on to this day, I really love playing bass now. It’s so much fun and really the perfect instrument.
B: It’s not a secret that you love to sing, as well, and you really seemed to enjoy it on War And Peace, also a great CD. What about future projects with you singing lead? Do you see that happening?
JP: Thank you, and you know, I probably will. George Lynch and I are very close friends and we talk a lot and we often mention that some time when we both have the time we would love to do another Lynch/Pilson record, so at some point I do think that will happen. I don’t know exactly when, over at least the next year he’ll by doing Lynch Mob and I’ll be doing Foreigner, but at some point in the future, maybe we’ll take a break for a couple of months and do another record. As far as War And Peace, I have a live record, and I’ve talked to some record labels and they don’t want to put out just a live record, they really want a studio record, so when I get the chance to record another one, I’ll probably put out that and the live record at the same time. But again, I have no idea when exactly that will be. A forty hour day would be perfect!
B: That’s ambitious, I’d be okay with thirty six! You’ve been in bands with some seriously fun vocals; do you ever just want to get up there and be a frontman?
JP: Well yeah, I do love to sing when I get the chance, but for some reason in the last couple of years, I don’t want to say I’ve lost the desire exactly, I guess it’s sort of channeled into something else, but I don’t strictly have the desire to go up there and front the band. When I get out there and play with people and sing a few songs, I really enjoy it, and sometimes there’s probably a part of me that would love to do a tour and sing, but it’s not quite the burning desire it once was. I’m sort of more in the moment right now, so when I’m playing, I’m just enjoying whatever I’m doing, whatever it happens to be. So I guess I don’t really get that itch. I definitely used to, I used to get that with Dokken sometimes where I’d be like, ‘aw, just let me do it’, but I don’t really get that itch anymore.
B: We heard a little bit of that on Unplugged.
JP: Yeah, I did ‘Just Got Lucky’ on our Unplugged record.
B: What made you put ‘Walk Away’ as the last track on the Wall Have Eyes CD?
JP: I think somebody had requested that I do the song, and I just sort of toyed with the idea of doing it and I felt it was a little bit of an unsung hero song. Because it came out right as we were breaking up, it sort of never got the shot at the long exposure that a lot of the earlier Dokken stuff did, so I though it could stand a little more attention.
B: What else within your work with Dokken really stood out for you, if you’re able to narrow it
JP: There are still many of the songs that really stand out like ‘Just Got Lucky’, ‘Into The Fire’, ‘Alone Again’. There was really a lot of strong material and I have very fond memories of those early records. There were funny memories in there, too, but overall it was such a great learning experience and we all got to experience so much of the music business and it was invaluable to be able to do that. I don’t think I could ever even calculate how valuable that learning process was.
B: When you’re doing your live War And Peace shows, are you doing some Dokken?
JP: Oh yeah, definitely, in fact the live War And Peace record is a lot of Dokken material. I try to pick some of the stuff we didn’t play live that much for one reason or another that were still very popular tracks, and do some of those live. I did a lot of work with Dokken, so there’s a lot to choose from.
B: Yeah, and a lot of it is becoming very popular with this generation through vh1 classic and video games, etc. Do you see melodic rock and metal taking over in the US again?
JP: I see it returning, I don’t know about a comeback all of a sudden, but what I do see and what I’ve noticed is that because of things like ‘Guitar Hero’ and ‘Rock Band’, that classic rock is coming back and becoming part of the mainstream again, which it hasn’t been for a while. I do notice that more and more younger fans are coming to Foreigner shows, and I’m also noticing that they know every single word to the songs which is unbelievable! I think people just appreciate classic rock for what it is and while there’s a lot of great music out there today, but it’s very different from classic rock. People aren’t really into just because it’s ‘classic rock’ anymore; there was that stigma and time’s kind of erased that, but I think now people just appreciate it for what it is and the younger generations really get into the energy, because a lot of classic rock had the an energy and musicianship that you don’t see in modern music. But they really relate to it, so I think it’s great.
B: And as far as musicians and songwriters today and in the future having the ability and the support to produce that caliber of material?
JP: I keep thinking that somebody’s gonna take the Guns ‘n’ Roses formula and bring it back. Maybe like an all-girl Guns ‘n’ Roses, how bad would that be? I think each generation kind of puts it’s own spin on it and it’s what makes each one unique, because really, each generation has to have it’s own heroes. It can’t be a carbon copy, and I don’t see, like, Poison being the next band that kids look up to, but to a certain extent, there is an influence on the younger bands today that I’m hearing more and more, but with their own signature which is what will make it great and give it staying power.
B: Obviously, Dokken was a major success for you that produced some amazing music through outstanding talent all the way around, but you’ve also work with other highly successful acts in Dio and MSG, just to name a couple. Does any one experience stand out for you over the rest?
JP: Well like you said, Dokken was my birth of fire and my introduction to the many levels of music and we got to work with great people and studios and, again, the learning was infinite. But yeah, then I worked with Dio in the 90s which was one of the strongest live bands I’ve ever been in as far as power. We were just a force to be reckoned with and that was just such a great experience, a lot of which was due to Ronnie Dio. He was such a great singer every night and we had a comraderie and a chemistry together that was really very powerful. He’s still one of my favorite people and the work with him was just such a great experience because so much of it was done by jamming. We would jam the stuff and then Ronnie would start singing something to it and it was so organic, it wasn’t overly thought out, but natural. Not that it wasn’t worked on and picked apart, but it came from an organic process and it was a very positive experience. Then with MSG, working with Robin McAuley and Michael Schenker was fabulous! Schenker was at the peak of his game at that point and I really got to watch him up close and we did some great jamming. I mean, what can I say, every experience has it’s own merits and I wouldn’t say one necessarily stood out. In some ways, Foreigner is standing out now, though, because I think, overall, it’s the strongest band I’ve ever been in as far as songs, personnel, live effectiveness, sound, and audience participation, so it stands out in that respect, but they also all stand out in their own ways.
B: And you also did some work with Michael Lee Firkins back in ‘90, which was also an awesome album. How did that come about?
JP: Well he was on Mike Varney’s (Shrapnel Records) record label and Mike and I are old friends and he called and asked if I’d be interested in playing on it, so I did and it was great, I loved it. Michael’s a brilliant guitar player; a great guy and absolutely brilliant musician. I’m actually really surprised we haven’t heard more from him.
B: Yeah, we’d love to hear more from him here, too. You’ve also done some work as a producer. Are you currently?
JP: Well I’m always looking for things that strike my fancy. I am working with a band right now called Who Needs Johnny which is two young girls fifteen and sixteen that sing and play. It’s kind of funky; they’re really good songwriters and one of the girls, Samantha, has a tremendous voice. So there’s that and I’m always keeping my eyes and ears open for new stuff.
B: Ok, still on the record, but off the music for a minute, that was quite a letter you published back in October to our now-president.
JP: Haha, you read that, huh?
B: I did read that, you’re extremely well-written. Have your views changed at all since then and, while it’s early on, are you reassured by what we’re seeing so far?
JP: Like a lot of people I’m really scared about the state the economy’s in and what’s required to fix it. I tend to be liberal, but I don’t want to be a spend-crazy kind of liberal. I do think that that seems to be the only logical way to get out of this situation we’re in, so I’m scared to death of the debt that we’re in and I’m frightened for the dollar, but I do think that there is no other choice and I think what Obama’s doing diplomatically is brilliant. Maybe he didn’t get a lot out of the G20 Summit as far as accommodations from other countries, but I think he set the bar differently and set a new tone, and I think he’s going to make America part of the world community again which is extremely important, and if he takes baby steps, that’s fine with me. I totally approve of where he’s going right now; I’m not a war guy, but I understand why he has to put more troops in Afghanistan. So yeah, overall I’m pretty happy so far.
B: Well said. Words to your fans?
JP: Just that I really look forward to seeing them and I wish I could get the chance to meet all of them at the shows. I hope they’re all coming out to have a great time with us, and get into the energy of the shows.
B: Ok Jeff, well thanks very much for taking time out to talk, I know you’ve been busy and we really appreciate it. Best of luck on the tour, we‘ll see you soon.
JP: My pleasure and thank you, see you in Massachusetts!
Alright guys, so that’s the deal. Thanks again to Jeff for hanging with us and bringing us up to date. Check out the links below to find out when Foreigner will be in your town and while you’re waiting, grab a copy of ‘No End In Sight’, which includes their new track, ‘Too Late’. Thanks for joining us! Til next time…