“That’s real music there,” a young man said to his friend as they exited the Hard Rock Live in Biloxi following a red hot Foreigner concert. A band that keeps on going with no signs of aging, Foreigner has been rocking & rolling since their seventies conception, producing big hits that remain a part of our everyday radio listening experience: “Urgent,” “Juke Box Hero,” “Hot Blooded,” “Double Vision” and “Cold As Ice.” Members have come and gone over the years but guitar player Mick Jones has stayed firmly in place. A few years ago, Jones became ill and now doesn’t play live with the band as much as he would like to. To keep Foreigner in motion, the band found a young session guitar player from California named Bruce Watson and what started out as only a temporary position has turned into his being a full-time member of the family.
“Wow, what a musician, what a guitar player,” bass player Jeff Pilson exclaimed before the band’s Biloxi concert. “The difficult thing about his job is that when Mick is here, he has to fill in and allow Mick his space and then when Mick is not here, he has to carry the whole show. How many guys can comfortably and believably do both? You can count them on one hand. So we’re so fortunate to have him because he’s really a great guitar player. He’s so capable of being the guy that carries the whole show and yet he’s so good at, when Mick is here, at adding the right parts and staying out when he has to and doing the right thing; and that’s so difficult, it really is. When they say less is more that doesn’t mean that less comes easy. He’s just a phenomenal musician and he’s brought out a spirit about the whole thing that really helps sustain it, cause we work a lot and if we didn’t have things like that, it would be next to impossible to pull this off and stay sane.”
And he does it with a big smile on his face. “He’s a very happy guy,” Pilson confirmed. “We’re happy boys (laughs). But yeah, I have mountains of respect and love for the guy and he’s been nothing but a godsend to this band.”
But Watson has also been kind of a mystery. Although he is extremely friendly, always taking time out to talk with fans, there is just not that much out there about him. When I mention this to him prior to the band’s concert, he throws his head back and laughs. “That’s the way I wanted it. I like to keep it secret, be mysterious.” Like many musicians before him, Watson prefers to have his playing do all the talking. After spending numerous years as a session player – BB King, Sara Bareilles, Elton John and Rod Stewart, to just name a few – he has honed his playing into a refined art. In other words, he knows when to play notes and when to not play notes, when to give that little extra oomph and when to hold back, able to walk into any musical environment and find his place. Since joining Foreigner in 2011, he has developed a spirited six-string rapport with guitar player Tom Gimbel (check out the twin fireworks they set off on “Juke Box Hero”), not to mention stepping into a solo spotlight, as on the intro into “Urgent.”
Watson has the talent, the energy and the charisma to fit perfectly in with a band that already has these qualities tenfold. Whether it’s holding his guitar out for a little boy with big starstruck eyes to play in the middle of a song or greeting fans with a smile as they cross his path, Watson may be mysterious but he’s definitely not a rock star with an ego problem.
What’s your story Bruce? Where did you come from and how did you get into Foreigner?
I was born and raised in LA and although I’d done a little bit of touring over the years, I really hadn’t toured extensively. Once I fell into doing sessions there in the early nineties, that just kind of became solid so I didn’t have a, you know, business need to go on the road. So I was just doing session recording in LA for multiple years and meeting a lot of people along the way. And Mark Schulman, who was the drummer for Foreigner at the time, he and I, and this was maybe four years ago, did a couple of sessions together, we did a gig together, and shortly thereafter I got a call from him saying, “Hey, what are you doing in the next couple of months?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know, I’m just doing what I do, working.” And he said, “There might be a situation coming up like very soon. Would you like to play with Foreigner?” I was like, “Well, what does that mean?” (laughs) And he said we’ll see and I just completely forgot about it. Then the next call I got was him saying, “Listen, if you got a desire to do this we need you. Mick Jones has fallen ill and we need someone to come in and cover for him. We’re in the middle of a tour with Journey on this big arena tour. What are you doing in four days?” So he put my name forward strongly and I talked to the manager and they flew me out and I did it and I just jumped in the middle of the tour and it was great.
You never went home after that?
Well, not for a month. I came out and stayed out for a month and then, yeah, it was supposed to be, depending on Mick, how soon Mick would be recovered, and nobody really knew when he was going to feel good. So it was, “What are you doing for another couple of weeks? What are you doing for the next month? What are you doing to the end of the year?” and it just kept going like that. So I actually never met Mick for like a whole year. I didn’t meet him for a year cause he just wasn’t feeling well. Then he finally came back and everyone thought, “Well, Mick comes back and it’s nice to have you, Bruce, see ya, bye bye,” but Mick and I hit it off and he kept me on. So here I am.
What was the Foreigner song that was the most difficult for you to get down on the guitar?
Nothing really comes to mind but it came easy in my soul because the music is in my heart and soul. But I was really surprised how amazingly tight the band was. I mean, it’s one thing to listen to it but when I got up and played with them, I realized how, although it sounds really inspired, and it is really inspired, it’s really tight. So any little things I was playing that wasn’t spot on with them really stood out to me. But really I think it was a general adaptation on my part to find how to play like Mick, cause I want to represent him as much as possible and still be myself. So it was more like finding my place as me being Mick Jones in Foreigner.
Did having done all the session work help make it easier to fall into learning these songs?
It helped in a way. Most of the session stuff I’ve done, cause I don’t read music that well, I would be making up stuff on the spot, so I got more comfortable with just improvising something and making something up and having people go, “Yeah, that’s great,” as opposed to “Play this exactly.” So it took a minute for me to get my head in the space of having to execute the same part every single time the same. So I had to reawaken those muscles in my brain.
What was it like for you doing the new live album, The Best Of Foreigner 4 & More, with this band and playing those classic Foreigner 4 songs?
Oh it was really fun and it was even fun for Mick cause we pulled out some songs that he hadn’t played or maybe had never played with Foreigner live. So just to be able to pull out some songs from that amazing album and rehearse up some new songs was really fantastic and I think they came out great. Sonically, it sounds amazing. I think everyone played really well. I think it’s a complete success all the way around.
Do you remember the first Foreigner song you ever heard?
“Feels Like The First Time” and the impact those big G chords had in the verse. For a young guitar player it was huge, just big, gigantic sounding rock chords.
You were a session musician for so many years. What was the most challenging part about doing that?
I would say the most challenging about that was when they’d put music in front of me, cause I don’t read music very well. So that would happen and you sink or swim and sometimes I swam and occasionally I’d sink. But yeah, that was always the hardest part. If they wrote out a part for me to play, it was, ugh.
So what kind of kid were you growing up?
I was pretty easy-going. I had a lot of fun. My childhood was great, growing up in the sixties and seventies in the San Fernando Valley in LA was pretty great. LA wasn’t really super crowded yet, wasn’t just overloaded with people the way it is now. I just remember skateboards and sunshine and swimming pools.
How did you discover rock & roll?
It was Creedence Clearwater and when I heard “Born On The Bayou,” in headphones, sitting in front of my parents’ record player, there is just something that happened. His voice and his guitar playing just went through me. And right around that same time a friend of mine, I think I was like eleven years old, he showed me how to play a couple of chords on guitar and once I felt those chords going through the guitar and through me and realizing I could figure out what John Fogerty was doing and play the same thing, I was done, in for life.
When did you jump into a band?
It was at school and it was hard to find enough people at that age to play to get all the instruments covered. I was probably thirteen maybe. So I think I was kind of pushing to put it together. I was definitely needing and wanting to get it done. So it starts out with another guitar player and someone who has a drum kit and you all plug into one amplifier, including vocals, and that’s how it started. But then we found someone who wanted to play bass. He didn’t know how to play bass so we started showing him how to play the three notes we needed him to play.
What were you playing?
“Take It Easy” by the Eagles probably
Laurel Canyon stuff
(laughs) Yeah. It was in the seventies.
Definitely Deep Purple a little later, but at first it was like Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Eagles, all that LA stuff.
Did you start out on acoustic?
Yeah, I did. I would have jumped on electric but there wasn’t one around (laughs)
Is your inspiration as a guitar player more from blues players or the solid rock people?
I think blues, not that I’m a blues guitar player, but when I listen to that music it feels like it’s closer to the source, so it’s super inspiring to me. I mean, I love rock but it kind of comes out of the blues and I think when you go back to the blues it seems like it’s closer to the source to me.
You went to college but when did you know you wanted to be a full-time musician?
I knew from the second I put that needle on the Creedence Clearwater record that I wanted to be a full-time musician (laughs). But the universe didn’t cooperate immediately with my plan. So yeah it was a long time before I started making enough money. It was a slow transition, you know, day jobs, then part-time day jobs, then finally making the jump to not having a day job.
What did you major in?
What were you going to be?
A guitar player (laughs)
What was the worst day job you ever had?
Oh boy, that’s pretty easy: a bank teller (laughs) for like six months, it was dreadful. Standing behind this window and people, just one after another, coming up to you and having to just do math all day. It was horrible.
You’re in one of the most energetic bands in the world. What has been one of the craziest moments for you on that stage with them?
(laughs) Let’s see, there’s just a lot of crazy moments cause Kelly [Hansen, singer] can be unpredictable, which is great. As much as the show has a lot of familiar elements to it for someone who has seen it more than once, you never really know what he’s going to say or do. There’s some stuff I wouldn’t want to necessarily say (laughs) those little inside kind of things but there’s weather-related stuff. I remember one time we were playing in North Dakota or South Dakota and we had to be pulled off stage because there was basically a tornado coming through. That was kind of exciting but semi-dangerous (laughs). Yeah, there’s some dangerous elements, some beer-related. People running up on stage.
I hear you have a band called the Lovelys.
Yeah, it’s fun. It’s a cover band with just some friends and really good musicians that I know in LA. We actually got that together right before I started playing with Foreigner and the concept was to do covers and just drink beer but to play classic stuff and more like contemporary rock stuff. So we do a mixture of the two and that’s good for me because I get to play different sonic pallets, work with different sonic pallets on different kinds of songs like Radiohead and stuff like that, more textural stuff which really doesn’t apply to Foreigner. So for me, when I go home I do a couple gigs with them and it’s very cleansing and really very fun. They’re great musicians.
When you’re at home and away from Foreigner, do you write a lot of songs?
No, not as much. That started happening more lately but I really stopped doing that it seems for the first couple of years with Foreigner. I was just really enjoying playing these songs and trying to get better at being a rock guitar player. So I didn’t write for a while but I started to again recently.
Any chance of a solo album?
I’d never say never but there’s not an immediate plan. There’re certain groups of people that tell me to do it all the time but, you know (laughs).
I guess you’ve got to follow your gut
Yeah and you have to have a vision and I don’t want to do something gratuitous. I’d like to have a clear vision that is well inspired. I mean, what am I going to say on guitar that other people aren’t saying, at least as good as I am. So it could happen.
Tell me about your guitar. What kind do you play and why do you play that particular brand?
In this band, it’s more I’m trying to achieve the Foreigner sound, which most of the time is a Gibson Les Paul or Gibson guitars with humbuckers. It’s kind of like Mick’s sound. But I have lots of guitars at home and I enjoy pulling out all different kinds of guitars to get all different kinds of sounds. I have probably like forty different guitars that do different things. But for Foreigner, it’s a very specific sound so I’m always trying to honor that and that’s usually a Les Paul.
When you were a kid, what was your dream guitar?
A Les Paul (laughs) Totally, cause you’d see Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend.
What’s your favorite Led Zeppelin song?
That’s impossible, wow, that’s just impossible. I couldn’t even begin to say. It’s like asking what your favorite Beatles song is.
Okay if we pop on Led Zeppelin right now, what are you going to play first?
I’d probably put on something not too intense. Maybe something off Led Zeppelin III, like “Tangerine” or “That’s The Way.”
If you had to pick one word that sums up Foreigner, what word would that be?
Quality. I think the songs are of the highest quality and those recordings and the performances on them, vocally and musically, are incredible. And I think today everyone continues to keep the quality high, the quality of the performances. The songs are there, they’re done, the template is there. Now, it’s just on a daily basis making sure they get presented in a worthy fashion. So yeah, quality.
Live photos by Vera Harder