My interview with Foreigner originally appeared in the North County Times in San Diego County. The band plays on Tuesday at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach and Wednesday at Nokia Theatre/LA Live for the KLOS Mark & Brian Christmas Show. Photo courtesy of Rhino Records.
For Mick Jones, the latest Foreigner lineup feels like the first time around.
“I think this is the best one since way back in the beginning, by far,” said the group’s founding guitarist, in a phone interview from New York City. “The energy level and the musicianship is fantastic in the current band. It really inspired me to really get back into playing again.”
That’s high praise, considering the original incarnation fronted by Lou Gramm was among the biggest rock acts of the late 1970s and 80s, with five consecutive multi-million-selling albums and such top 10 hits as “I Want to Know What Love Is,” “Waiting For a Girl Like You,” “Urgent,” “Double Vision,” “Hot Blooded” and “Cold As Ice.”
Gramm went solo at the end of the Eighties before returning a few years later. The singer suffered a brain tumor and left Foreigner once again in 2002 (these days, he leads a namesake Christian rock band). Jones – also a successful producer whose credits include Van Halen, Billy Joel and others – took some time off.
Friend and drummer Jason Bonham strongly encouraged Jones to start fresh.
“He sort of talked me into it,” admitted the veteran Englishman, who got his music biz start in the ‘60s with Nero & the Gladiators and French rock sensation Johnny Hallyday.
“At the time, I didn’t know what my plans were for the future. Then I heard some reports that Lou was [performing several Foreigner] songs and quite frankly, they weren’t that great. I felt my responsibility was to go out and present these songs in the way they deserve.”
Assembling the revamped Foreigner began with Bonham initially taking over the rhythm seat and ex-Dokken bassist Jeff Pilson. But the key was finding lead singer Kelly Hansen (formerly of ‘80s hard rock band Hurricane).
He bears a striking vocal resemblance to Gramm, but Jones said that wasn’t a prerequisite.
“More than anything, I felt Kelly understood the songs. That was a big element in the whole thing. He was able to deliver them in a very convincing way.”
Now Foreigner is attracting a younger and more diverse audience thanks to frequent appearances at NASCAR events and the Guitar Hero videogame series. Even Mariah Carey had a minor chart hit this year with her cover of "I Want to Know What Love Is."
“Kids at the shows know the lyrics; it’s wild looking out there some nights and wondering what year it is,” said Jones, 64, with a laugh.
Following the fruitful lead of fellow classic rock radio staples the Eagles, Journey AC/DC and others, Foreigner recently released “Can’t Slow Down” (its first studio disc since 1995’s “Mr. Moonlight”) exclusively through WalMart.
So far, Jones is happy with the alliance. “Can’t Slow Down” debuted at No. 29 on the Billboard 200 – the group’s highest charting in two decades. First single “When it Comes to Love” just reached the top 20 on the publication’s Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks chart.
“It’s still early days, but we’ve sold a substantial amount of albums. For heritage artists, I think it’s definitely one of the only ways to get music out there and distributed properly. [WalMart has] put everything behind it and been great to work with.”
The three-disc, bargain priced collection features the new material, 10 original hits remixed and a concert DVD from last summer’s European tour.
“As far as the remixes go, over the years, whenever different versions of the [old] albums got remastered, they lost some quality. We went right back to the original tapes as the basis. It was like taking the cotton wool off the tracks; just clarifying, bringing the dynamics out and making them exciting again.”
Co-produced by Marti Frederiksen (Buckcherry, Aerosmith), the solid “Can’t Slow Down” manages to sound fresh, while retaining Foreigner’s trademark aesthetic. “It was very important for me to keep the identity and integrity of the band. I think we’ve been able to do that.”
Seething, horn-laden rocker “Too Late” - Bonham’s lone studio contribution and a holdover from last year’s “No End in Sight” retrospective - seems like a prime outtake from the Seventies. “A few songs are really reminiscent of the earlier [material]. That’s sort of unintentional. The creative process was pretty spontaneous.”
Other standouts include the soulful wrenching ballad “In Pieces,” orchestrated “Living in a Dream” and “Fool For You Anyway,” a tune that first appeared on Foreigner’s eponymous 1977 debut. Jones’ stepson Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Kaiser Chiefs) produced the fine retro soul remake.
“We’d been toying with the idea for a few years. Mark grew up in my house since age 6 and was influenced in his early years by what was going on with me – the writing and studio process, even the touring aspect. He chose that song as one of his favorites that we’d ever done. I just gave him the reigns. I’ve been into a lot of the stuff he’s done lately. He’s proven himself in his own right.”
When Jones first embarked on his self-described “new adventure” in 2004, he wanted Foreigner to be vital again. “It took us a little while, but I really think the timing is right and I’m quite proud of what we’ve achieved. It’s an ongoing venture…I’m looking at this album as the first of more to come.”