I feel like I take a band like Foreigner for granted. For as long as I’ve been listening to music, I’ve been able to turn on the radio, find a classic rock station, and hear one of a dozen (or more) of Foreigner’s greatest hits. Lou Gramm is the voice behind those hits and was the lead singer from 1976 to 1990 and then again from 1992 to 2003. Gramm’s 2013 biography – Juke Box Hero: My Five Decades in Rock n’ Roll – documents his career, from his start with early days with Black Sheep to his days in Foreigner and as a solo artist to the discovery of a brain tumor in 1997 that was, thankfully, benign and is a good read (and it’s available from the Columbus Public Library).
These days, Gramm is playing the shows he wants to play rather than hoping in a tour bus and criss-crossing the country on a regular basis and he’s got a free show Friday night (9pm) at the Obetz Zucchini Festival. As you’ll read below, expect to hear a night of recognizable hits.
I’ve interviewed hundreds of artists but will admit that having the opportunity to do a phone interview with Lou Gramm was a bucket list item that I still can’t believe happened. Here’s what he had to say.
You’re playing Friday night at the Obetz Zucchini Festival. Now, I know you’re probably getting a nice paycheck but I’m wondering what your thought are about zucchini?
It’s one of my favorite vegetables.
Columbus, like probably every other city in the US, has a classic rock radio station and I kid you not when I say that on my commute to or from work every single day I hear a Foreigner song. Can you wrap your head around the fact that at any given point during the day, not only is one of your songs getting airtime but there is somebody sitting in their car singing along and doing their best or, ha, in my case, their worst, Lou Gramm impersonation?
It’s a stretch for me [to wrap my head around] because as much as I’m proud of the music we’ve written and recorded, the longevity continues to stun me.
We probably won’t know for 10 or 20 years what current bands have longevity but I have a hard time thinking there are any bands like Foreigner, Journey, Rush, Cheap Trick out there.
There’s singers that I hear that are very good and I can see them going on and on in their career but in terms of bands, I don’t see that many of them that are together any more than 3 or 4 years and even if they reach success, they break up.
While not on a regular tour, looks like you’ve the summer’s been pretty busy. Because you’re not playing night after night, does it take a song or two to get into a rhythm with the band or are you so used to doing this that things snap into place as soon as the lights go down?
We know the songs cold, if we hear bloopers or a continuous wrong chord, then on our off days we’ll get together and go over a couple songs. But, for the most part, we’re all pretty confident that when we hit the stage, it’s going to be the best we can be.
Obviously, you’re going to run through the greatest hits of your career, that’s to be expected. What I’m wondering is, do you remember which Foreigner tour you were on where the setlist was weighted more heavily with greatest hits than on songs from a current album?
I think right from the second album, we were still playing a number of songs that we had recorded for the first album. We would introduce a song like “Head Games” [from the third album] and bring it into the set. We always played the previous albums songs because they had gotten radio airplay. We would strategically mix in a couple of new songs.
I’m a music fan, I interview a lot of bands, I listen to a ton of music but I’m not the least bit musically inclined nor do I have the creativity you have. When you’re banging out 10 to 12 songs per album both in Foreigner and in your solo career, there are going to be songs that you never play live. Does that matter to you, that there are songs left behind or was the goal to write good sounding songs and you’re sort of done with them if or when they make it onto an album?
There are certain songs that will just lend themselves to a recording, that I think if you go out and try to duplicate that, or at least make a respectable replica of it live, people won’t have the same reaction that they’ll have listening to it in a studio recording with perfect acoustics and stereo crossovers. So some songs are better left on the record and not even try to duplicate them live.
Knowing up front, as the recording progressed, when you create the initial idea, you’re always looking forward to, at some point, playing it. But as the production or recording progresses – and this is added and that is added – you can feel the song become bigger than you and you know that trying to duplicate it would not even be close to what the record is and at some point you give it over to the recording knowing that it will never be played live.
There are a small handful of artists that I always have CDs by in my car – Tom Petty, Duran Duran and Foreigner are three members of the elite club. I picked up “Very Best and Beyond …” not too long ago without really knowing much about it and was pleasantly surprised that it opens with a few songs that I wasn’t aware of.
“Soul Doctor”, “Prisoner of Love” and “With Heaven on Our Side”. It was a greatest hits compilation and we decided to add three new tracks because when I got back with the band, I think in ’91 or ’92, that’s just at the point that that compilation was being put together. And it was more or less, Mick and I testing our creative partnership again after not having it for 2 or 3 years. It was like taking it for a spin around the block. So, we put three songs that we had written recently just to see what kind of reaction they would get and they got great reaction.
I think I recall reading in your book that the later period Foreigner albums weren’t among your favorites because they went into the ballad territory.
I think at a certain point, the album after 4 [1984’s Agent Provocateur], I felt that Mick was giving too much attention to the synthesizers and the sounds because, at that time in music, there were a lot of hits that had synthesizers in them.
For an album, an album and a half, he didn’t pay any attention to his guitar at all. It was all about synths and different synth sounds and stuff like that. I felt that instead of Foreigner staying true – it’s not like I wanted to be stodgy or spin our wheels and stay exactly the same, I wanted us to progress too but it seemed like he made a complete jump to a different genre and I did everything I could to get him to pick up his guitar and play some rock songs. We can infiltrate them with all the sounds and the synthesizers that you want, like we did on “Urgent”, but 90% of the song ideas he was presenting me there was no guitar and he was playing the synthesizer.
It got to the point where I knew I didn’t want to be in a band like that. I was so shocked we had taken a turn like that, I didn’t know if it was going to be a mistake but I knew that our loyal rock fans were going to be disappointed to the point where we would lose a good portion of our audience and we did.
Those albums – Agent Provocateur and Inside Information – are the ones I remember buying with my own money. I, of course, knew the older albums because they were inescapable but I feel like the mid-to-late ‘80s era Foreigner was my era, if that makes sense, and I think both those albums, as well as the solo albums you released are very strong.
That’s terrific, I can see that.
But I imagine this change in direction was what led to you wanting to try a solo career.
No one was real pleased that I did that, believe you me. The record company was behind me, which was great, but after I released it, there were rumors that I wouldn’t be going back to Foreigner so the record company more or less stopped promoting it. And the sales just stopped right in their tracks. They felt by making sure the album wasn’t a big hit that I would continue on with Foreigner.
Until I read the bio, I completely forgot about Shadow King and immediately sought out the CD which didn’t prove that difficult to find thanks to Amazon. When did Shadow King come together?
About ’92. After having Atlantic Records stifle the life of my first solo album and not help me with my second one at all, they said they were very excited about Shadow King because we had Viv Campbell [Dio, Whitesnake, Def Leppard] in there and it had a lot of potential. I thought the album was excellent. They absolutely stopped us before we got started. Do you know that I had so many people tell me that the CD was never in the stores? All of that was to make sure that whatever I did failed so that I would return to Foreigner.
Admittedly, by the mid-90s, my tastes were leaning towards grunge, pop-punk, whatever the flavor du jour was at the time so I didn’t spend much time with the ‘70s and ‘80s arena bands that I had grown up with. It wasn’t until very recently that I picked up Mr. Moonlight …
Do you like Mr. Moonlight?
I love it.
Me too. It’s my favorite.
We recorded the album, we promoted it, we were ready to turn on it but we weren’t with Atlantic Records anymore, we were on an indie label because Atlantic didn’t like what we were doing. It turned out that they had no promotion department, it was just incredible the company we signed to. They had one or two big hits with new artists, we thought we were making a good move going with them but they didn’t even promote the album. It was a terrible mistake for our career.
Around then, that’s when corporations bought out all the radio stations and replaced the program directors and they were dictating what was going to be played and what wasn’t. And it was their wish to put all the established bands – bands that had been established for 10 or 15 years – out to pasture and have a whole new sweeping set of artists, singers/songwriters/bands just come in and fill the airwaves. We never had any more hits, Prince never had any more hits, The Eagles never had any more hits. It was like every established artist couldn’t get a song played on regular FM radio.
If you record and release an album and it does modest, do you drop the artist or let him grow and give him another album and maybe another album after that?
Is there any desire to write new songs, record new music?
I had a Christian rock album about 5 years ago and it did not do well saleswise. The songs that were reviewed were positively reviewed. It’s just that there was no place to play it – the Christian stations wouldn’t play it. Now, Christian artists cross over into pop and rock charts but it doesn’t cross the other way. You can’t be a rock artist and do a Christian album and expect anybody to support it. That was a bitter lesson to learn.
If there are no strong labels – if labels are now an afterthought – the only way you really reach the public or make any money is downloads. I’ve learned that people don’t download full albums. In my day, the album was a piece of work and you listened to it cover to cover. The last song on the first side would make you want to turn it over and the last song on the second side would have to be one that would just blow you away.
But now with downloads, people make their own albums. They download one or two of your songs, then they download two or three of somebody else’s songs and they have their own little discs with their favorite songs on them. The whole aspect of an album by one artist means nothing anymore.
What about releasing a song here and there rather than a full album?
I still write. I have about a dozen songs that I think are in the realm of possibility of being something people would want to listen to but at this point I honestly don’t see the point. It’s kind of sad to say, but it’s the way I feel.
You’ve got to swallow hard and go with it. That’s the way of the world now. That’s supposed to be progress, you can’t turn back the clock. You’re not going to make anybody go back to the way things used to be.
I’m guessing that you do a very good job of balancing your music with just living a “normal” daily life. I’m sure you’ll never be able to completely abandon music but, if you had to, I’m thinking you’d be okay with it.
Absolutely. I’ve been doing this for 45 years now. I enjoy playing life but it’s always more fun when you’re playing live and promoting new product. You play your hits and then you play something new that people can go out and purchase. The way the industry is now, even if you have new product, it’s almost pointless to perform it.
When I had my Christian album out, a lot of those songs were hard rock and they had a slightly different message. We’d throw them in between Foreigner and Lou Gramm hits and when the song ended, you could hear the crickets. How much of that do you want to take? When all you play throughout the night is hits and you play something people aren’t familiar with and there’s no response.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about the rumors that you’ll be rejoining Foreigner in some capacity in the next year or so and touring.
This year is Foreigner’s 40th anniversary. There’s been mutterings of some sort of possibility of Mick and I getting back together and doing some shows together. But at this point, that’s all it is, rumors.
A friend of mine said that he’s heard that a Foreigner/Cheap Trick/Night Ranger tour is in the works.
I think they’ve had that already with the current band that calls themselves Foreigner. I don’t know. I’m waiting and listening to see if something happens or nothing happens.
Before I let you go, first of all, I want to thank you for all the great music you’ve put out. There’s a reason I always have a Foreigner CD in my car and it’s been a pleasure talking with somebody who I used to stand in front of the mirror and pretend to be when I was a teenager.
Thank you. It was a good interview, very intelligent questions.