Tom Gimbel

Last month, Foreigner blew through the south playing two shows back-to-back: first at a festival just outside of New Orleans and the following night at a casino in Biloxi. Fans traveled from as far away as Chicago and Kansas City to see them, proving that the band formed in 1976 by guitar player Mick Jones and which has gone through numerous personnel changes – including the departure of lead singer Lou Gramm – is still as popular today as it was in the big arena rock 70’s and 80’s. Debuting their self-titled album in 1977, it spawned still-played hits like “Feels Like The First Time,” “Cold As Ice” and “Long, Long Way From Home.” The summer of 1981 brought the band’s supersonic 4 album, launching not only every boy’s anthem, “Juke Box Hero,” but the power ballad “Waiting For A Girl Like You” and the magnetic “Urgent,” with it’s sax-plosion and flying high guitar solo.

Jones is the only remaining original member but guitar/sax player Tom Gimbel is right behind him at almost twenty years. Having traveled with Aerosmith and Jon Butcher, Gimbel still carries the smile of a newbie looking out at a sea of screaming fans for the first time. It is his enthusiasm that helps catapult Foreigner to the heights they go to each time they jump onto a concert stage, making this ensemble perhaps the best line-up in Foreigner’s career.

A few days before the concert in Biloxi, Gimbel called in to talk with me about Foreigner. So while cooking spaghetti with tofu, he shared stories and memories from his youth, touring with Aerosmith, how his secret passion is playing the drums.

What has been going on in Foreigner’s world?

Well, last year we did the big tour with Journey and Night Ranger in the big concert arenas. That was quite a thrill and we made a lot of new friends and reconnected with a lot of old friends. And this year we are playing our own show, which is really fun cause we get to step out a little bit more and stretch out. You get to see our drummer Chris Frazier, who does this amazing drum solo. And we’re able to play more songs that we would have to shorten up otherwise. So that has been the main thrust of this year. And we’re still promoting an album called Feels Like The First Time, which has the live DVD from the PBS special in Chicago. Then the acoustic CD, which is all new arrangements of the Foreigner classics and a couple of new ones, so people can hear what this band today sounds like in the studio playing these songs.

How did that feel giving some new vibrations to some of those classic songs?

It felt great. It’s a chance to really focus in on the parts and get them just the way they were on the record originally and then you can factor that into the way you play it live. It was illuminating (laughs)

What do you think it is about bands like Foreigner and Styx and even Aerosmith that keeps fans – not only from that original generation that grew up with these bands but the kids as well – coming to the shows? And the kids are actually coming on their own, not just being drug in by their parents.

We love it when we see younger kids coming on their own, like twenty/twenty-something year olds who just like the music and coming without their family. That is really an honor for us to bridge the gap between generations. What I think, if I had to guess, there is a lot of elements that are contributing to the popularity of this music. I believe in Foreigner’s case, it’s a combination of British and American rock music. Mick Jones is originally from England and half the band originally was from other countries and half the band was from the US and that’s why they called it Foreigner.

But yeah, I think when Lou Gramm and Mick wrote together, they put this hybrid together which is a combination of British rock, which Americans love, and blues inflections from the American side, which British people love. So, you’ve got two sides of the Atlantic sort of appealing to each other and I think that’s just one of the magical ingredients, two of the magical ingredients that are in Foreigner. That British-based rock element and the American-based blues inflections and the whole attitude of rock and blues together make us pretty special.

I’ve seen Foreigner several times over the years and you are always smiling.

(laughs) Oh no. That’s not very rock & roll (laughs) You’re supposed to be scowling.

But you’re having a good time, the whole band looks like they’re having a good time.

Yes, this is one of those bands that we truly enjoy playing together and really admire and respect each other tremendously. So I think that’s probably part of the exhilaration that comes out. Also, connecting with the audience is the absolute thrill of a lifetime: To see the looks on people’s faces and the energy and the excitement. A lot of times they’re reliving memories as a song strikes a memory, or in some cases creating new ones, new memories. And whatever it is, when we see that look of exhilaration and the joy of playing in a great band with great music and great musicians, great equipment, all these things, that’s probably why I can’t keep myself from smiling.

How do you keep from getting run over by Jeff Pilson?

(laughs) You have to stay very alert. And there are certain points in the night where I know where he is going to go flying by so I know to get out of the way. Same with Kelly Hansen. He’ll come leaping off a drum riser. You do not want to be in the way when he’s landing (laughs)

You have been in Foreigner for almost twenty years now.

Yeah, I’ve been around so long I’m kind of like Cher in that way (laughs). I’m still here, I’ve been here all along and I’ll still be here tomorrow.

What do you remember most about your first gig with Foreigner?

I’m pretty sure it was the opening of the Hard Rock or the House Of Blues in Orlando, Florida. Yeah, it was the Hard Rock Café and the place wasn’t even finished yet. It was like THE opening night and we were the first band to play there and christen the stage and everything. It was a new version of Foreigner, we’d just finished rehearsing in Florida for a few weeks getting everything ready for our first show and it was really exciting. I remember there was a combination drum/sax solo where we would just kind of get all funky, kind of like Tower Of Power, in the middle of “Urgent.” It happened spontaneously and that was one of the great things that I remember about that actual show in 1992.

Before Foreigner you had toured with Aerosmith. How did you enjoy that?

They were so nice to me. They showed me a lot of kindness and consideration. They taught me how to tour around the world. Tom Hamilton and I played tennis in Japan, in Australia, on grass courts. We would play tennis anywhere they would let us play tennis. And just the nicest guys, every single one of them were so nice to me. I feel really honored to have gotten to know them a little bit, especially Steven. We spent a lot of time doing vocal exercises and practicing our harmonies. That was like a daily ritual, sometimes twice a day we’d be around the piano. I’d play the chords and he and I would do the “arrrrarrraaaa.” If you saw him on Two And A Half Men, he’s doing these vocal exercises and he’s driving his neighbors crazy going “arearehayea.” Those are the exercises that I had kind of started us doing. I felt very flattered when I saw him doing them on Tv (laughs). We would do them in harmony and we would have a lot of laughs during that time. It was incredible for me, the thrill of a lifetime. The job was playing keyboards, sax and singing harmonies with Steven. So as good as that was, Foreigner is better for me cause I get to play guitar (laughs). That’s what I want. A song like “Double Vision” or “Head Games” with a power chord on an electric guitar you feel like you could knock down a wall.

But you rock it out on the sax on “Urgent.” You’re like a guitar god doing that.

(laughs) Yes, yes, that’s another one of those instruments. Sometimes the sax can feel like that too and especially in “Urgent” it feels more like a rock guitar, you are so right on the money there. It really does kind of feel like a rock guitar at that point.

How long have you been playing sax?

Oh boy, I’m going to have to think about that. I’m pretty sure it’s thirty years plus.

Why don’t you take us back to the beginning: Where did you grow up and how did you discover rock & roll?

Well, I was just like every other kid growing up. It was in New Jersey and I remember when I was a little kid we used to sing that song about (singing) “Them old cotton fields back home” and they would get to this part, “When I was a little bitty baby my mama used to rock me in the cradle,” and I loved that song because we would all go “ROCK me in the cradle” and it was like a lullaby but it drove me crazy in a good way. So I remember that was like my first inclination that I wanted to be a ROCK musician.

And from there I was just banging on pots and pans and I wanted to be a drummer initially. My parents got me drum lessons to just shut me up, I think (laughs). From there they made me take piano lessons against my will. Went back to the drums. I was a drummer all the way through grade school and the early part of high school but as I got into guitar it was better for me cause I wanted to play chords and melodies and make notes and write songs. So that was my first two instruments.

Then along the way, my older sister had discovered Jethro Tull and she played it for me, this album called Thick As A Brick, and I was knocked out. So someone had mentioned to me that playing the flute in Jethro Tull was not that hard. And I said, that’s impossible, I got to try this. My sister had a flute and I got some of the fingering charts and started learning some of the notes and lo and behold it wasn’t that hard (laughs). I’m sure Ian Anderson would have a lot to say about this but he’s been very outspoken about the fact that he went to the flute because he didn’t think he could be good enough on guitar like Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix. So I think he’d probably agree.

Anyway, that got me started on the flute and once I went to college, they said, if you’re going to be a flute player you also have to play the sax. And that was music to my ears. I was delighted, I couldn’t wait to play the sax. That was right when I was about seventeen. I really got into sax, had some great instructors. I went to the Berklee College Of Music and studied with the great famous Joe Viola, no longer alive but he was head of the Woodwind Department and somehow I conned my way into getting lessons with him (laughs). And it changed my life, just like you would imagine it would. I just learned everything there was to learn about music and the nice thing is, at the end if you go the full four years, “We’ve taught you everything, now forget it and go play like a feeling musician.” That’s the best lesson of all that they teach you at the end. But you have to learn all that stuff first before you can forget it (laughs). So for a lot of years people walk around going, “I never went to Berklee, well, maybe I did but I forgot,” (laughs). “But they told me to forget.” It’s like, what’s the movie? Men In Black where they erase with the little lighters but they leave the knowledge intact.

When you started playing guitar, what was your first guitar and how did you get it?

It was a Silvertone electric guitar and my dad got it at a garage sale. It was the biggest deal in the world. He wanted to be fair to all his children so when he presented this guitar at Christmas, he said, “This is the family’s guitar.” I think he paid like fifteen bucks. It had a little speaker that went with it. It was a Silvertone guitar and a Sears amp and I just couldn’t even sleep I was so excited when I saw it.

Did you have to take lessons or did it come natural?

No, no, my dad was really sort of ahead of his time. When he gave us “the family guitar,” which everyone knew I was just going to grab and take into my room, he also gave us a record called Music Minus One and inside this big beautiful box of records there was chord charts and I just started learning the chords and strumming the chords and playing along with this record, which was designed for this purpose, and really that is how I learned. It was Gene Leis, the guy who did it for Music Minus One. And that’s who taught me the guitar.

And what happened to that guitar?

Well, someone in my hometown wanted it (laughs). There was this beautiful girl, I never got a date with her, but she wanted my guitar and so there it sits somewhere in Mendham, New Jersey.

What about the first time that you performed in front of an audience?

I’m guessing that would be a piano recital and I was in fourth or fifth grade. But it goes back before that. I remember when we were in grade school and they’d put together these productions when everyone would go on stage and play a musical instrument at the school assembly in front of the whole school. Remember that? Yeah, they were fun, great source of adrenalin (laughs). I was never scared about playing in front of people. I think before I did any of that, I was this tiny little kid and I loved to sing. We were at a wedding and they had me stand up on a chair, gave me a microphone and I sang “Smokey The Bear.” (laughs) Completely fearless. My whole family is like that. We’re just complete hambones; everyone a bigger ham than the next. My dad is the biggest ham, my mom’s the second biggest ham, it goes all the way down the line. I’ve got three brothers and sisters above me that are bigger hams than I am. But that’s a long answer to a short question. I was not afraid (laughs)

When did rock & roll come in?

I think that song “When I Was A Little Bitty Baby” was a Johnny Cash song but after that it was definitely Elvis Presley. I heard “Hound Dog” and it was over. It was such a big deal, so exciting, and everyone was screaming. People remember The Beatles and all that for the screaming but that screaming had been around before The Beatles; certainly for Elvis and those early rock stars like Jerry Lee Lewis and people like that. There was a lot of screaming involved. So we knew there was excitement there and we’d see Elvis on Tv and so forth and that set the stage for when The Beatles hit “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and that was when we knew we wanted to be rock musicians. Prior to that there was a lot of great stuff in the sixties, this kind of hootenanny stuff going on. Like, I don’t know, before there was real rock there was folk rock like Peter, Paul & Mary, the Smothers Brothers who’d do their comedy version of it; folk rock was pretty big but when The Beatles landed it turned into real rock. That’s what grabbed me and just turned me upside down. Just hearing Paul McCartney going, “One, two, three, four.” I was like, ahhhhh (laughs). My sisters would jump around in go-go boots. We had a little turntable going and I was like, ahhhhh!! I want this life!! (laughs) And that’s how rock started

What was your first concert?

It was Chicago and the Doobie Brothers at Madison Square Garden. I must have been mid-teens, probably around fifteen maybe. Chicago was a big deal for us at that time in our lives.

Did that just reinforce that you wanted to be a musician?

Yes, absolutely. You would see it and say, I can do that, I want to do that, I’m going to do that (laughs). And I couldn’t believe it when we were playing Madison Square Garden with Aerosmith, it was completely sold out and it was one of those nights where the crowd never sat down. They just went crazy the whole time, which you don’t expect in New York City because New York can be a little standoffish; but no, this place was going bonkers the entire night and it was such a treat and I think I stopped at one point and said, “I remember watching Chicago on this same stage.” It was really kind of a dream come true at that point.

We were talking earlier about someone almost getting kicked out of a concert for talking to one of the musicians and you told me Steven Tyler would not have approved of that.

No, there is nothing ok about that, believe me. Steven would not like that. I saw this girl come up and talk to him and then afterwards they were going to kick her out and he was just out of his mind. He was saying, “Don’t you dare bother her.” And they said, “What if she comes up and she has a knife or something and she pulls it out and kills you?” And he goes, “Well then I’m going to get stabbed.” (laughs). “Some cute little girl in a flowered dress is going to pull out a knife and stab me then I’m going to get stabbed.” (laughs)

Who was the first rock star that you ever met?

Hmmm, I’m trying to go all the way back to when I was little and if I ever met any rock stars. No, a couple of jazz stars but for rock music it was probably Tom Hamilton. I was in a band called Jon Butcher and we were opening up for Aerosmith at the Providence Civic Center and we thought they were just way too cool and they’d never say hello or anything to us, the opening act. And all of a sudden, Tom Hamilton just showed up in our dressing room and said, “Hi, just came down to say hello and welcome you guys.” So yeah, that endeared him to us forever. Aside from that the guys in INXS, I remember meeting them. I was in Jon Butcher and we were opening for them and I remember meeting them and I went partying in one of their rooms and they had this footlocker full of partying materials and it was like, wow, this is how the big time guys do it (laughs). Wow. But Jon Butcher was a bit of a rock star himself. I’d known him for a while.

What do you like to do when you’re not touring?

Mostly because we travel so much – we do over a hundred shows a year, which is like two hundred days away from home – when we come home we basically run errands (laughs) Between the dentist and the doctor and the car auto shop and maybe a little bit of relaxing. 

I’m completely in the dark. I live in the middle of the woods. I have a TV that gets like three channels. I don’t have any pets, I don’t even have a cat, I don’t have a plant, Leslie (laughs) I’m just never here. It’s like when I come here, I just go, ahhhh, and do nothing. I try to do as little as possible. But I very much enjoy hiking and riding bicycles on dirt roads and I play a little golf once in a while. But honestly, my hobby has been the drums. I never let go of that drumming dream so I’m still after it after all these years (laughs). Foreigner has started to let me play the drums at the end of “Hot Blooded” sometimes. It’s like it’s the ultimate for Tommy, my head spins around, I’m just the happiest person on the face of the Earth, it’s like doing the one thing you’ve always wanted to do. And it’s on YouTube, by the way. It’s called “Foreigner Musical Chairs” cause we were all switching instruments. Our keyboard player was on bass and our bass player was on keyboards, our drummer went to guitar and I went to the drums (laughs)

It’s not as if I don’t play nine other instruments during the night – no, I want to play ten (laughs) – I thanked our drummer, I said, “I’ve been waiting my whole life to do that and I got to thank you.” He just looked at me like, “What’s the big deal, Man? I’ve been waiting my whole life to get out from behind those drums.”

You need to get big and fancy like Tommy Lee and get you a little rollercoaster drum set going on.

Yes, yes, it’s going to be huge, Leslie. When I do it it’s going to be huge. And you can see me on YouTube. Did I mention that? (laughs). It’s just a good source of entertainment and it’s fun for me cause I’m one of those people that basically has no agenda, right. I’m not trying to accomplish anything. When I talk to you, I’m just talking to you for talking. But when it comes to the drums, I am on a mission (laughs). Everyone, they just laugh, they think it’s so funny. But at the same time they complement me and say I can do it again, so that’s the ultimate reward.

Why don’t you just kick the drummer out and take over?

Well, I don’t want to be back there the whole time (laughs)

Now, wait a minute, you just said …

No, no, no, no. It’s only for like, what do you call it, a cameo. It’s a cameo. But to answer your question when I’m home I drum. I take in my dry cleaning and then I start drumming and then after three days of that, I have so many clothes that are soaked in sweat I got to do laundry again (laughs). It’s a great workout, serious cardio.

What have you learned the most from playing with Mick Jones?

There are so many little lessons that you pick up just from watching but one of the things I admire about him so much is that he doesn’t get bogged down with stuff. He addresses it and moves on quickly and then it’s sort of over and forgotten. It’s the message that is in that song “That Was Yesterday,” which is one of the reasons it’s one of my favorite Foreigner songs cause it’s about don’t dwell on the past, the future is what matters and the present. So that’s one of the things that I admire about him so much. He knows what’s worth spending time on and what’s not worth spending time on. We love that about him. Also a great sense of humor, fun to be around, loves to laugh. You know Mick’s one of those people that likes to laugh and it doesn’t have to be his joke, that’s the main thing. So if you find someone that is willing to laugh at other people’s jokes, then you know that you’re not being overshadowed by an ego.

That’s one of the things, and musically there’re pages of things that I’ve learned from him. But musically I think if I had to pick one thing that stands out it’s to try and nurture the individuality of whoever is in the band. In other words, it’s not like Don Henley where you are supposed to play everything exactly perfect or you will be scrutinized and penalized if you play a wrong note (laughs) No, nothing like that in Foreigner. He and Lou Gramm and all the guys that have ever been there, we all sort of want to try and bring out the best in all of us. So that is one of the things I learned from Aerosmith and Foreigner. People at that level, they’re not trying to paint you into a corner. They want to bring you out of your corner and they want you to flower and blossom. It sounds kind of like a no-brainer but in the real world I thought that was pretty brilliant. They never tried to shut me down.

And that is a great feeling to know that you can come into a band and be able to bring your personality to the music.

Yeah and light it up. You know, Mick and Lou used to tell me, “Tear the roof off the house. Spin around, crawl on your knees, anything you want to do during that sax bit, it’s your time to tear the roof off the house and we want you to do it.” We used to go like two times around the solo and I’d be done and Mick and Lou would say, “Another time, another time,” and I’d be gasping for air (laughs). They loved that and got such a kick out of that. They would do it five times just to see the look on my face. I’d look over at them like, I’m done, and they’d go, “No you’re not, keep going.” (laughs) So I would have to find an extra gear, you know. If I was on my knees I’d have to fall on my back and spin around or something. So they were always kind of encouraging you to do more and take it to the next level. Those are really the main things that I learned from Mick but like I said, there’re pages of them.

What is the rest of your year looking like?

We vacation in November and December, holidays –Yay!!! – and then we’ll be gearing up for next year. That eight weeks will go by like eight days.

What happens next year?
More touring. I think there is talk about possibly putting together another package in the summer like you saw last year, one big package deal, but it hasn’t been finalized yet so we’re not sure. In the meantime, we’ll start up around January and those first few months do some light shows on our own just to keep the cobwebs out and keep everything fresh.

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