It’s been nearly a decade since bassist Jeff Pilson joined Mick Jones’ re-tooled incarnation of Foreigner, and here in 2013 the party goes on for the iconic rockers who first delivered mega-hits like “Cold As Ice” and “Feels Like The First Time” back when Jimmy Carter was running America. Being associated with even one classic-rock band would be a dream come true for most bass players, but Pilson’s past runs deeper; he had already claimed his turf in heavy metal history years before teaming up with Jones and Foreigner in 2004.
As a member of Dokken in the mid-eighties, Jeff was onboard during their most creative and successful period over the course of four albums, and again several years later when the band reformed for five more. After Dokken’s initial breakup, Pilson quickly hooked up with metal master Ronnie James Dio for three Dio albums in the nineties, as well as forming his own band War & Peace with drummer Vinny Appice and guitarist Randy Hansen.
A multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who also plays guitar, cello and keyboards (he played rhythm guitar in War & Peace), Jeff’s numerous side projects pepper his discography as well. These days, in addition to his gig with Foreigner, he plays with T&N (comprised of various members of Dokken minus their front man and namesake Don Dokken), and occasionally with the John Bonham tribute extravaganza Bonzo Bash, founded by drummer Brian Tichy. It was the Bonzo subject that kicked off my interview with Jeff, a true rock journeyman.
Let’s start with some current stuff… are you part of the upcoming Bonzo Bash?
Actually, I’m unable to do the next Bonzo Bash. My NAMM commitments, plus a last minute Foreigner gig in Vegas made it a little hard to pull off. I’m disappointed ’cause I was gonna play with Ray Luzier doing “Achilles Last Stand”. We did that together at the last Bonzo Bash, and it was a blast. Ray’s a monster. This whole thing is Brian (Tichy’s) idea, he’s such a creative and talented guy– it’s always special. So I am disappointed I won’t be making this one.
Speaking of Bonzo, you’ve played with John’s son Jason at times over the years, including with Foreigner. What’s the musical chemistry you guys have playing together?
Jason is just an incredibly musical guy as well as drummer. I feel so comfortable with his playing because we both really come from the same sources. There’s a great mind reading thing going on. I can’t tell you how many times we would do fills together that were nearly identical. He’s an amazing all around musician, and sings great too.
There’s a new Black Sabbath album coming out this month with the original guys: Ozzy, Geezer, Tommy. Was Geezer Butler’s bass playing an influence on you? Who were some of the bassists that influenced you most when you were starting out?
Geezer was an influence, how could he not be? I love how fluid he always was while still keeping it heavy. Great creative lines as well. My biggest influence growing up, by far, was Chris Squire. I knew every lick off every Yes album up to Going For the One. His playing really made me want to work at it. His sound still gives me chills. Then I got very into McCartney and John Paul Jones, such amazing dexterity from both with phenomenal bass lines– all so musical and so supportive of the song. I did go through a Jack Bruce phase, and just revisited that recently– I got an old EB3! Then a few years ago I got into a serious Jamerson obsession. I wish I would’ve really studied him sooner. God, I love his feel and note selection!
Tell me a little bit about your youth, and how did life steer you in the direction of being a musician?
I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, February 9th, 1964– and I think that may have done it! But I didn’t really start until I was approached by some guys who heard me singing in the schoolyard in sixth grade. They said they needed a bass player, so I saved up from my paper route and bought my first bass (Teisco Del Ray) and amp (Gibson Skylark). Then a year later my family moved to a small town in the state of Washington, and the alienation I felt being a “new kid” in a small, rather redneck, town pushed me into the bedroom and the bass became my refuge.
Then discovering prog– I got very serious quickly. I took up string bass in orchestra, ’cause I do love classical music. And I attempted to take a “legitimate” route by going to the University of Washington, majoring in string bass performance. But rock and roll was in my blood and I soon left school to chase the dream.
You joined Dokken around 1983 when Juan Croucier left. How did you get the gig?
I had been in bands with, and was friends with, Mike Varney, who was kind of the go-to guy for finding musicians at the time. Don Dokken called him when Juan quit and I had just moved to LA. It worked out well.
It seemed like right after you joined Dokken, they hit it big. No coincidence, right?
I was at the right place at the right time. But we actually took a while to hit. Breaking the Chains only sold 125,000 records at the time (it has since gone platinum), and it wasn’t really ’till the next record, Tooth and Nail, that we started exploding.
Dokken was your first major taste of real success. What are your memories of that period of your life?
It was such a great period, all the bands and friends coming into success, somewhat simultaneously. Lots of partying, which I don’t regret, but am very glad is all behind me. I just wish I would’ve started buying vintage gear earlier!
What really caused the band’s breakup?
In a word: egos! Don was frustrated by things which he felt were holding the band back and I think he thought he could walk away with the name and continue our momentum. Of course it didn’t work out that way, but once he announced he was leaving, the morale and consequently our performances went way downhill. We rarely thought like a team and we suffered for it.
Do you stay in touch with Don these days?
Don and I email occasionally, it’s all friendly. He just sent a photo of his new puppy– very cute!! I like it when we retain our friendships. No need for bitterness anymore.
Tell me about your experience of working with Ronnie James Dio, and your thoughts on his passing.
Ronnie was the best. He’s was an incredible musician (the voice is obvious) and bandleader and he was an amazing friend. Barely a day passes where I don’t think of him. Several of the Foreigner crew also worked for him, so we commiserate a lot!
There seems to be little info available about your equipment. What basses were you primarily playing back in the days of Dokken and Dio? How about your rigs?
On Dokken’s Tooth and Nail record (my first with the band) I played a Jackson bass through a big Randall rig. Then on Under Lock and Key I started renting old P-Basses, which led me to buying my ’58 P-Bass that I still use and have. I also started using SVT’s around then, which I also still use today. I did have my Spector Basses, which I played on some tunes, as well as my Ripley 5-string basses which I recorded with Dokken and Dio through the 90′s. With Dio I primarily used my baby, the ’58 P-Bass, in the studio.
What equipment are you using these days: basses / rigs / strings /effects?
Like I said, I’m still pretty much a P-Bass, SVT guy. In the studio I use my two ’58 P-Basses and I have a ’63 that sounds wonderful as well. Then I use a Warwick 5-string sometimes, and a Dean 10-string bass that I picked up. I used that on the song “Access Denied” off the T&N record. The 10-string that John Paul Jones had at the Zeppelin O2 Arena show in ’07 sounded simply amazing and I’m still trying to chase a sound like that a bit.
I do have a rather large collection of vintage basses these days, so I can pretty much cover the spectrum. But for rock, it’s usually an old P-Bass through an SVT. I have a ’71 SVT that is one of the best SVT’s I’ve ever heard in my life. Also for recording, the SVX plug-in by IK Multimedia is miraculous. Several of the songs on T&N are just that, a DI and some kind of an amp farm distortion setup. It records so amazingly well. And this coming from a guy who thinks he has one of the best SVTs in existence!! I also love my Dean Markley Blue Steel strings. They are my favorites, hands down. Live with Foreigner, I’m playing ’70s P-Basses with older pick-ups (usually 66′s). I love those 70′s necks for live–also through SVT’s.
When and how did you come to be a part of Foreigner?
Jason Bonham and I had worked together in the film Rockstar, so when he started working with Mick Jones in 2004, they called me. The chemistry was instant.
You would think that a rock band like Foreigner, who have sold 70 million+ records, would be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but they aren’t. Madonna is. Your thoughts?
Much of the Hall of Fame is a popularity/hipness thing, which Foreigner never really had. Our popularity was with the fans, who don’t actually vote!
What are some of your “guilty pleasures” in the music you listen to? What albums would your fans find in your collection that they’d probably be surprised by?
Well, I like all kinds of music, so I love Muse, Snow Patrol, and the Fray. But my favorite these days are the Black Country Communion records (speaking of Jason Bonham). Glenn Hughes’ singing is like a spiritual experience for me!
You’re also an accomplished guitarist as well as a bassist. Are you a bass player or guitar player at heart?
I think I’m a musician at heart– with a heavy emphasis and love of the bass. I really re-fell in love with bass guitar when I joined Dio in ’93- and I haven’t looked back.
Your band T&N released Slave To The Empire, which got great reviews. Were you happy with how it turned out, and what’s on the horizon for T&N?
Very happy. What we really set out to do was to start to tie in our legacy together with a forum for new music that I could sing. From the response, I think we accomplished that. The horizon is endless for T&N. We’ll do another record sometime next year, also re-recording Dokken tracks (7 more with Wild Mick Brown are in the can), and new music as well. And we’re really hoping we can do some touring behind the next one. Other than that, the sky’s really the limit, or should I say there are no limits!
What other projects are you involved in that we can we look forward to, and what’s coming up with Foreigner?
I produced the Adler CD Back From the Dead and I’m sure there will be more with those guys. Then there’s a Kill Devil Hill CD I’m doing featuring Rex Brown from Pantera and Vinny Appice from Dio, Sabbath and Heaven and Hell. That’s turning out phenomenally and should be out in the fall. Plus a Starship record that we’re hoping is out by summer–Mickey Thomas’ singing will put chills up your spine! Then lots of touring with Foreigner this year, much of it overseas. Hey, I can sleep when I retire!
What was your worst on-stage experience ever?
In Germany a few years ago we (Foreigner) were playing a club and I got RF in my in-ears, which nearly caused me to go insane. It was the longest, loudest several moments of my life and it was actually traumatic. I hope no one ever experiences something that severe with their in-ears.
There are legions of heavy metal bassists who would be happy with even a drop of the success you’ve had in your career. What advice can you give them? How does a rock bass player make it these days, in these times?
I think it really comes down to passion and feel. You have to love what you do in order to convey that to audiences, and even your fellow musicians. And feel, for bass, is everything. The music has to flow and pulse, to create an energy. That’s the “X” factor that people want and even need out of music. Just keep at it, it will come. It’s in all our DNA, everyone’s, you just have to let go and let it happen. That’s where the magic is!