Jeff Pilson of Foreigner: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Jeff Pilson of Foreigner Interview

Feature Photo: courtesy of Freeman Promotions

Most know Jeff Pilson as the thundering bassist for Dokken in the ’80s. Classic records like Tooth and Nail (1984), Under Lock and Key (1985), and Back for the Attack (1987) are prime examples of Pilson’s signature growling tone and low-key songsmith alongside good friend and bandmate George Lynch.

Dokken aside, Pilson has had a career filled with twists and turns. He’s made stops along the way with Michael Lee Firkins, Michael Schenker, and Craig Goldy and was a key member of Dio’s band from the early ’90s to the early 2000s before joining Foreigner in 2004, where he’s been a pillar of their modern lineup, and the band’s music director.

When Pilson’s not on the road with Foreigner, he can found in the studio with his old pal George Lynch, pounding out records with The End Machine, like The End Machine (2019), Phase 2 (2021), and their upcoming album, which is due out March 8, The Quantum Phase (2024).

Pilson is also a member of Black Swan and Revolution Saints, the latter of which have their own new record out in Against the Winds, which dropped on February 9, 2024. Indeed, Pilson is about as busy as it gets, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

During a break, Pilson dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to give the rundown on Revolution Saints, The End Machine, his partnership with George Lynch, Dokken, gear, and more.

Tell me about how your version of Revolution Saints came to be.

Basically, Frontiers called me up when Jack Blades and Doug Aldrich decided to leave and asked if I’d be interested. And working with Joel [Hoekstra] and Deen Castronovo was pretty much a no-brainer. I’ve worked with Joel before and know how great he is. I’ve known Deen forever and loved his voice, but I never got to work with him, so it’s been cool to do that. Like I said, it was a kind of a no-brainer. Both guys are amazing, and it’s been so much fun.

How did the band’s latest record, Against the Winds, take shape?

Honesty, the songs were already in place by the time I joined the band. Frontiers produces the projects and has songwriters who handle most of the material, and like I said, the songs were in place when I got here. But this last one was a lot of fun because I got to come in just to play bass, which was nice for me. It was a change of pace because I usually have to do a lot of other work, too. This worked out great; I went in and laid the bass tracks down, and it was nice and easy.

As far as bass goes, what’s your overall approach?

To make the song the best it can be. That’s always my goal. It’s always about the song. I look to create basslines that sound as interesting as possible; that’s always the goal. The more interesting, the better, right? I like to come up with things that enhance the song. If it doesn’t enhance the song, something is wrong.

What would you say the hallmark of your bass tone is?

At this point, I’m kind of known for having a growling bass tone, which I really dig. That’s kind of my thing. I’ve gotten used to that, know where it fits, and understand how aggressiveness fits within a song’s structure. I love it when things are aggressive and interesting, but most of all, feel good. When you’re playing with an aggressive tone, it’s so important that things feel good and that I’m up in the mix and making noise. But when I’m up there in the mix, I’m very aware that it not only had to sound good but feel good. Again, I just want the tracks to sound as good as possible.

What goes into creating that distinctive tone?

I love my 1971 Ampeg SVT. And I have a cabinet from ’69 made of this beautiful wood and man, that thing rattles the house! I’m not kidding—it rattles the house. With those, I’ll use some form of distortion to get that growl, usually through D.I., also known as Direct Injection. I’ll start with a very straight, basic tone for clarity and low end, and then the SVT will be the main form of distortion that enhances the aggression I want.

How did you acquire your Ampeg SVT?

I’ve been playing the SVT since 2005. Foreigner was using a gear rental company out of Connecticut, which was one of the things we were using from them. I just fell in love with it, so we rented it for a year or two, and at the end of that crazy rental period, I begged them to let me buy it. They wouldn’t sell it to me for years, and finally, after a few years, they sold it to me. That would have been in 2011 or 2012.

And how about the cabinet?

With the ’69 cabinet, I only just got that recently. I was fortunate enough to find it on Reverb, and it was in the Austin, Texas, area, meaning the person who sold it to me was there. The good thing was Foreigner was coming through there, and I knew our truck would be available, so I arranged for the guy to come to the show. He delivered the cabinet, and we just put it in the truck.

You’ve been playing a Fender P-Bass for a long time. What drew you to it?

So, my main P-Bass is a ’58, and I’ve had it since 1986. It’s just a remarkable instrument that I absolutely love. I’ve got some other vintage P-Basses that I’ve gotten along the way, and there are times I’ll occasionally use those instead. But what got me into the P-Bass was Dave Hope from Kansas and Ray Shulman from Gentle Giant. I was a big prog-rock guy in the ’70s, and those two guys got me into the P-Bass. I saw them live in maybe ’73, and I remember seeing a P-Bass into an SVT and thinking it was the best live sound I’d ever heard in my life.

So, is that the same basic gear you used back in the Dokken days, too?

Yeah, that’s really what got me started. In Dokken, I used a ’61 P-Bass I was initially renting. I used that on the Under Lock and Key record and loved that instrument. That would have been in ’85, and in the summer of ’86, while Dokken was on the road in New York, I found my ’58 P-Bass. I’ve been using it ever since.

You’ve also got a new record coming out with you and George Lynch’s project, The End Machine, called The Quantum Phase. You’ve been at it with George for a long time; what’s the secret sauce?

The secret sauce is chemistry. It’s hard to put into words; it’s just a thing. I don’t know… when we’re together, we create great stuff. The sum of what we do together is better than the individual parts. That’s a sign of great chemistry, though I don’t know how it happens; it just does. I don’t want to question it, but it comes from listening. It also comes from the respect we have; we certainly have a lot of that for each other. Knowing how to play off each other’s strengths and, again, mutual respect would be the keys. When you really respect the people that you’re working with and truly listen, meaning it’s mutual, you can get a lot done.

What’s the difference between working with George and other guitarists you’ve shared space with?

They’re all unique and special. For example, I worked with Michael Schenker, who was just an amazing person. He’s a very unusual person but in a cool way. He’s an over-the-top fanatic about guitars and making sure they’re right. And then there’s Reb Beach, who is very precise and so well thought out in his approach. When he plays a solo, he can be so spontaneous and wonderful, and I love capturing that.

As for George, he’s like that, too. George will come in and state a solo, and often times, he’s all over the map. He’ll be searching for stuff, and suddenly, we’ll get in the zone, he’ll be doing the right thing, and it works out great. Like all players, George has his own temperament and his own level of experimentation.

That might be what separates George because he’s such a creative guy to the point where he’s a restless creative. A guy like Reb is more stable, and Michael is always in his certain space. But they all have their natural sense of rhythm and unique things that are brought out.

You’ve been with Foreigner since 2004. What’s your approach to retaining the soul of those classic songs?

I’m the musical director, so my approach is basically that we’ve got to be the greatest live band that we can possibly be. There’s a lot that’s involved with that, and you have to leave plenty of room for spontaneity. We also need to be well-rehearsed, tight, and fresh. We do all those things well. I attribute that to the band’s passion and that we love what we do. How we present this music means a lot to us, and the selection of players reflects that.

How so?

I feel we have the right players in the band right now and that everyone is very focused on being a cohesive unit and doing what’s needed together. And, as I said, there’s a lot to that. These are great songs, so the greatness of the players really does factor in. But because the songs are so great, I don’t have to do much more than that to make Foreigner great because the songs are there. Having these great players means that things will turn out great if we have the right attitude and work cohesively.

Which of the many records you’ve been on means the most to you?

Honestly, there isn’t one particular record. There are songs here and there that are special, but I get into each record so much as I’m doing them that it’s hard for me to look back and say one was a favorite over another. It’s more about the song; certain songs stick out in ways others don’t.

So, which songs stick out, then?

I often return to the first George Lynch & Jeff Pilson record [Wicked Underground]. There’s a song on there called “Breath & a Scream” and another called “Ever Higher.” Those two songs from that record still hold up and make a statement. I think George and I really collaborated well together there.

I also have to call out a song from the upcoming End Machine record [The Quantum Phase], which comes out on March 8, 2024. There’s a song called “Black Hole Extinction,” which opens the album, and I love it. There’s just something about it that’s unique and powerful. Lyrically and musically, that song makes a statement. It’s a great example of George and I working together to make unique music.

As for some other stuff, there’s a song called “Divided/United” from the first Black Swan record [Shake the World], and I think that one holds up great. Another is “Leap of Faith” from the first End Machine record [The End Machine], and I’ve always loved “Crime of the Century” from the last Revolution Saints record, Eagle Flight. Those are just a few that stand out for me and seem to hold up.

I’m surprised you didn’t choose any Dokken material. Considering how close you and George are and that he’s mended fences with Don, is there a chance for a reunion?

It’s not impossible. But right now, Don is promoting his record [Heaven Comes Down], so I don’t think he’d want to interrupt the flow of that, you know? Not now, at least. Maybe a while down the road, it can happen. I’ll have more time once Foreigner fully winds down, but we’ve got a big year of touring for 2024.

But in 2025, Foreigner will be touring much less, so I will have more time. But as far as a full Dokken reunion, logistically, it’s going to be tricky. Don lives in New Mexico, and the rest of us are elsewhere. But having said that, we’ve overcome obstacles before, so it’s not impossible. I’d love to do one last Dokken record, but I don’t hold out any hope for that. I don’t know if Don would be into it, but I’d be happy if it happened. Stranger things have happened.

Jeff Pilson of Foreigner: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024

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