How Foreigner Intend to Thrive in Today’s ‘Singles World’

Foreigner (Courtesy of the band)

After Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” was featured in the 2007 series finale of HBO’s “The Sopranos,” the 26-year-old song enjoyed a surge in popularity, one that arguably hasn’t yet ceased. The high-profile placement also did wonders for its performers, as the band – whose star had dimmed considerably since their period of peak success in the early 1980s – emerged from mid-tier status in the classic rock pecking order and quickly re-established themselves as an A-level act capable of filling arenas and amphitheaters. 

Veteran rockers Foreigner haven’t enjoyed a similar high-visibility moment in the pop culture zeitgeist, but in recent years, the group has nonetheless experienced their own uptick in popularity. For decades, the band, which was co-founded by British guitarist Mick Jones in 1976, was a tried-and-true stalwart of classic rock summer tour packages, in which they’d co-headline multi-act bills with the likes of Styx and REO Speedwagon or open for larger acts such as Def Leppard and, yes, Journey.

Following an odd-couple summer tour pairing that saw the group support Kid Rock in 2015, however, Foreigner has quietly clawed their way back to headliner status. Last year, the band completed a successful two-month tour of American amphitheaters with support acts Jason Bonham – son of late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham – and Cheap Trick, and this year, they’ve swapped out the latter group for Whitesnake on a 29-city U.S. trek that concludes at FivePoint Amphitheatre on Aug. 1.

According to bassist and musical director Jeff Pilson – who joined the band in 2004 following lengthy stints with Dokken and Dio – Foreigner’s recent success is no accident. “That was the game plan all along,” Pilson, 59, says during a phone interview on a recent day off between shows in New Jersey and North Carolina. “It’s been an organic build, but we’re definitely on an upward trajectory. We worked very hard to achieve that.”

Pilson – who has called Southern California home for more than 35 years – credits Foreigner’s growth to factors both internal and external. “There’s a lot of little contributors,” he says. “We had songs on American Idol and Glee, so there’s a bit of that – not to the degree like Journey had, but little [impressions] which helped with current relevance. But I think most of it just comes down to hard work, especially the last 13 years since Kelly’s been in the band.” 

“Kelly” is Hawthorne native Kelly Hansen, a former singer for the ’80s hard rock act Hurricane who has performed notably well as Foreigner’s vocalist since taking over for original singer Lou Gramm, whose voice powered classic rock evergreens such as “Urgent,” “Hot Blooded” and “Cold As Ice.” Few long-running acts are able to prosper after parting ways with their original vocalists, but Pilson believes that Hansen is one of the main reasons why Foreigner is once again closing shows today.

“I give a lot of the credit to Kelly, because we have a front man who delivers every night,” he said. “We’re [also] a kick-ass band; we’re fun to watch; and we have great material courtesy of Mick Jones’ brilliant songwriting. We have all the right elements, and we’ve worked really hard to get the word out. We built it the good old fashioned way – we went out there and played.” 

Pilson’s own efforts have also been instrumental in Foreigner’s resurrection. As the group’s musical director, he serves as a sort of quarterback – and occasionally, a drill sergeant – tasked with making the seven-piece band sound as good as possible.

“For Foreigner, being musical director is a pretty easy job because everybody in the band is great,” he said. “I certainly don’t have to be over everybody’s shoulders. Basically, I just have to make sure that the live performance is up to snuff, and that everybody’s doing the right thing.”

For the uninitiated, Foreigner is one of the best-selling acts of all time, with an estimated 80 million albums sold worldwide. A 2014 study by FiveThirtyEight found that the group is the 14th most-played artist on American classic rock radio, ahead of rock royalty such as The Who, The Doors and Fleetwood Mac. The band has seven multi-platinum albums to its credit, as well as 14 Top 20 singles – the best-known of which, the power ballad “I Want To Know What Love Is,” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in February of 1985 and has since been covered by acts as disparate as Mariah Carey and Wynonna Judd. 

Interestingly, despite being one of the cornerstones of the format that used to be known as AOR (album-oriented rock), Foreigner recently signaled their intentions to move away from the full-length album business model. 

“[It’s] a reaction to what’s going on in the music business right now,” he says. “There’s just not a lot of momentum for full-length CDs of new material for anybody. Maybe Beyonce and Kanye West, but it’s a different game out there right now. It really is a singles world again.”

In recent years, the group has issued a steady stream of new releases, including last year’s 40 (a greatest hits compilation commemorating the band’s ruby anniversary) and the new Foreigner With The 21st Century Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, but they haven’t recorded a studio album since 2009’s Can’t Slow Down. According to Pilson, that won’t change any time soon.

That’s not to say the group won’t unveil new songs in the future, however. “There’s a creative side that needs to keep involved in new things,” Pilson explains. “You need to do that as an artist, but we don’t have any problem recognizing the fact that the old material brought people [to our shows]. It is what it is. I think we’re responding in a way that keeps us as artistically vital as we can be, but at the same time, makes the best of the situation we’re in.”

Three days after Foreigner performs in Irvine, the band will play a special show in Sturgis, South Dakota that will give new meaning to their hit “Double Vision,” as five former members – including Gramm – will take the stage alongside the group’s current lineup. Fans of numerous other classic rock bands whose past and present players can’t get along – Kiss, GNR and Van Halen, we’re looking at you – would jump at the chance to witness such an event, but Pilson said Foreigner has “long since transcended” any petty disagreements with its alumni, as two shows the group did with its former members last fall proved. 

“It was the 40th anniversary of the band, and Mick wanted to share it with the other guys,” Pilson says. “It was just a really positive experience. We all got along great. At the end of the night, all of us got up on stage at once and did the last couple of songs. What can I say? It was fun. Music, last I checked, was supposed to be fun. We’re lucky because everybody’s a grown-up, and whatever baggage [that] caused them to break up a million years ago is long since over. It’s great that the fans get to see it, and we enjoy it, so why not?”

Foreigner performs Aug. 1 with Whitesnake and Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening at FivePoint Amphitheatre, 14800 Chinon Ave., Irvine, www.fivepointamphitheatre.com, $37.50 and up. All ages.

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