Photo Credit: Bill Bernstein
Interview By Robert Cavuoto
Vault Date: October 5th, 2015
Mick Jones, lead guitarist for Foreigner has been rocking the world with his brand of melodic rock since the band’s self-titled album in 1977. With his writing partner at the time, Lou Gramm, the two penned some of the most amazing songs which were the soundtrack to the 70s and 80s.
With rock n’ roll’s masterpieces like “Juke Box Hero,” “Feels Like the First Time,” “Urgent,” “Head Games,” “Hot Blooded,” “Cold As Ice,” “Dirty White Boy,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and the worldwide #1 hit “I Want to Know What Love Is”; it’s evident that Foreigner is one of the greatest classic rock bands of our time.
A live band par excellence now injected with some new life from highly talented musicians assisting Mick Jones in keeping the band’s legacy alive are Kelly Hansen on vocals, Jeff Pilson on bass and multi-instrumentalist Tom Gimbel.
The band is set to perform at The T.J. Martell Foundation, “Music’s Promise for A Cure,” at the foundation’s 40th Anniversary gala in New York on October 15th. The theme of the highly anticipated star-studded event is “Top 40” and will be hosted by original MTV VJ’s Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, and Alan Hunter.
I was able to catch up with legendary guitarist and songwriter Mick Jones to talk about his involvement with the TJ Martial Foundation, the band’s legacy, and his time working on Van Halen’s monster album with Sammy Hagar – 5150.
Robert Cavuoto: Tell me about your involvement with the TJ Martial Foundation on their 40th Anniversary event in New York?
Mick Jones: It’s always exciting for us to play at their events. We have done it before over the years. I remember right back to when we started out it was always one of the big events in music. It’s a great cause helping people with leukemia, cancer, and AIDS and an honor to be involved in something like that.
Robert: Worldwide Foreigner has sold off more than 75 million records. Knowing the state of the music industry now, those numbers are virtually unachievable by most rock bands. What’s your take on that dynamic change in the music industry?
Mick Jones: It’s wild! It’s actually come full circle and gone back to become a singles market. Artists put an album out and people scan it for the songs they like and only buy the ones they want. It’s gone backward in a funny kind of way even though we have all this great technology. Scary really and I think its lost face. Music no longer has that adventurous pioneering quest to discover. The songs on the radio are so interchangeable. How many Taylor Swifts are we going to be listening to this week? All the power to her as she is doing great but unfortunately that sums up the doldrums the music business is in. They brought it on themselves as it’s a bit of a greed and amorous syndrome. Not only does the audience suffer but the bands and artists as well.
Robert: Foreigner was on the forefront of introducing power ballads in the late 70’s early 80s. Rock bands had to have at least two power ballads per album in order get airplay on the radio or MTV. Tell me about that vision you had back in the day?
Mick Jones: I had no clue it was going to be as representative as you say. When I wrote the songs it was a very personal feeling for me. Gradually I realized it was heading down that path. I think our songs are in a different category. There isn’t sweeping guitar on them, in fact, it’s quite the opposite, they are very organic with their backing track like the gospel choir which pulls them over the top. That combined with Lou’s vocal gave the ballads their power. It’s always a little weird for me when I hear it explained in that context. I never heard anything that ever sounded like “I Wanna Know What Love Is.”
Robert: In my mind Foreigner was always a rock band; do you feel the huge success of the ballads overshadowed the hard rocking nature of the band?
Mick Jones: There was a combination of a few things going on. We had a huge record with the single “I’ve Been Waiting for a Girl Like You” so that meant that we had two big ballads in a row even though it was a year or two between them. Plus the fact that I was experimenting in a different direction but the makeup of those albums are the same as most of our other albums had one or two ballads. There was also a bit of problem developing with Lou and me at the time which helped fuel the fact that Foreigner wasn’t a rock back. Unfortunately, that did neither of us any good. We’ve since let bygones be bygones. I think we’ve re-established we are a rock band – something we always were.
Robert: Growing up, I can recall “I’ve Been Waiting for a Girl Like You” being played quite regularly at Go-Go bars, what is it about that song that attracts strippers?
Mick Jones: [Laughing] I don’t know. I remember hearing “Feels Like the First Time” on the jukebox in one of those places. That’s a new one; I thought that song might be a little too demure. [laughing]
Robert: Tell me about the vision you had going into Foreigner’s biggest album with 4 and letting the keyboard player and rhythm guitarist go.
Mick Jones: Lou and I had developed a thing for writing together and we were gelling. At the time, other members were asking when they can have a song on the albums which I thought would almost be destructive to the band. To me that wasn’t what it was about, it was let’s get down to the essentials and the crux of what was working as Lou and I were really on a songwriting tear. Whether it was a good or bad decision to not include them I don’t know. I think one of best albums resulted from it. Those things happen growing up in the public eye. When we first started the band I didn’t have a clue it would do as well as it did so quickly. Some of those decisions you have to make as a new or young band are tricky but I think it worked.
Robert: Lou wrote a book a few years back, and didn’t paint you in the best of light, did you read it and what was your perceptive on it?
Mick Jones: I haven’t read it. I did hear there were some bits and pieces of things like that. Since then we patched things up quite a bit. Fortunately, we got through it and Lou and I are in communication.
Robert: When you look back on your career, do you want to be remembered more as a great guitarist or a great songwriter?
Mick Jones: I think I’ll settle for both [laughing]. Songwriting is deep inside me as is playing. If it wasn’t for the playing I couldn’t be writing songs. Obviously, they are tied-in. I’m what you call a subtle riff based lead guitar player. Chuck Berry was one of my favorite guitar players early on and later, Pete Townsends and Keith Richard later on; so to be included as a musician somewhere in that department.
Robert: You touched upon this earlier with generic or interchangeable music; do you find that the art writing great riffs is a thing of the past?
Mick Jones: There is not a lot of riff based music out there. Black Keys and Queens of the Stone are examples of bands that are desperately keeping rock music afloat. Unfortunately, everybody wants that instant success and is hooked only on that. The focus has changed with music based reality shows.
Robert: I have to ask about Van Halen’s CD, 5150. When you took the role as producers what were your expectations with all the changes going on in the Van Halen camp. For example, the band was leaving their long-time producer Ted Templeman, Sammy Hagar was replacing David Lee Roth, and there were further advancements in the band’s musical style going with a more commercial sound?
Mick Jones: If I thought too much about it, I probably won’t have done it [laughing]. At the time it was a pretty scary situation. It settled in really quickly, though. I think Eddie may have had an initial doubt because he was very close with Ted as he did all the records. His engineer Donn Landee had also built the studio in Eddie’s house in LA. There were a lot of new elements coming in all at once. I had a long history with Sammy so that was easy but the Van Halen’s were a bit leery. Within a few weeks, they became more comfortable and we started to gel.
Robert: Were you instrumental in changing the sound of the band to being more commercial or was that the natural chemistry of Sammy and Eddie’s writing?
Mick Jones: When I came in, most of the songs were written or well into being finished. What I did was really concentrate on Sammy’s vocals. That’s really the key. I think I pulled something out of Sammy that he didn’t think he could do like on “Dreams” where he goes through the roof on the vocals. Knowing the pressure for us to deliver, it was intense, and I was trying to keep the family to together. I didn’t touch Eddie guitar sound at all and really just clean up the drum a little bit for what I think is a superior sound. I was also helping with the melodies and arrange the songs to make them powerful which added to it commerciality. I think it still one of their top three albums as far as success went. Overall it was a great experience.