It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since Foreigner’s eponymous debut album.
The record—fueled by the hits “Long, Long Way From Home,” “Cold As Ice” and “Feels Like the First Time”—launched the band into worldwide stardom. It would be the first in a string of consecutive multi-platinum monster releases that included Double Vision, Head Games and 4.
Much of the credit for the band’s success can be attributed to Lou Gramm, whose songwriting skills and emphatic vocal performances played a monumental role in the band’s hook-laden formula. In fact, he and Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame by none other than Billy Joel.
Although he’s been out of the band for more than a decade, Gramm continues to write, record and tour the arsenal of Foreigner hits with his Lou Gramm band. And as Foreigner prepares to celebrate their 40th anniversary with a new tour this summer, there’s word that Gramm will once again be joining Jones at a yet-to-be-determined Foreigner show.
I recently spoke with Gramm and his guitarist, Michael Staertow, about Foreigner, Lou’s solo career, music, gear and more.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first Foreigner album. When you look back at that album now with so much perspective what thoughts come to mind?
GRAMM: Working with Mick [Jones] was a very creative situation, and I remember how much fun it was to write those songs and record them. Even when we weren’t at our most imaginative; instead of just putting everything away, we plugged along, putting down different ideas. Before long, we were right back swinging again. It was a very positive time.
Can you tell me the origin of the song, “Long, Long Way From Home”?
GRAMM: That was the very first song Mick and I wrote together. He would always play me cassette tapes with guitar riffs and told me that if one of them tweaked my ear to let him know and we’d work on it. I heard that great guitar riff that started the song and we began working on the verse and B section. The chorus was a little tough to crack but we did. Lyrically, it’s the story of me coming to New York City.
There’s been talk of you joining Foreigner for their 40th anniversary tour this summer for at least one show. Can you confirm this?
GRAMM: Yes. It’s being planned. Right now, we’re trying to pick the best night and venue. I’m not at liberty to say where it could be, but I can say it’s going to be a ton of fun.
Michael, how did you connect with Lou?
STAERTOW: It’s an interesting story. Lou and I grew up in the same part of town and kind of knew of each other indirectly. We went to the same high school (separately) and I had backed him up a few times at charity events. One day, Lou called me up to see if I could fill in for the guitarist who was playing for him who had conflicts he couldn’t fulfill. I went in under the impression that it might lead to just a few gigs, but it ultimately led to him offering me the job. He took a chance on me and I’m forever grateful.
As a guitarist, what’s it like getting to perform the Foreigner catalog with Lou Gramm?
STAERTOW: It’s incredible. I have to pinch myself every gig when I look to my left and hear him belting out the vocal phrases I grew up listening to. I look at my role in the band as having to uphold the integrity of the songs. Mick Jones is an amazing guitar player and I have the highest regard for him. Getting to dig into his style and understanding the relationship between him and Lou and the dynamic that made Foreigner so great is very exciting.
What can you tell me about the band’s upcoming summer tour?
STAERTOW: The band has changed a little bit this year. We’ve got Scott Gilman, who was in Foreigner in the Nineties and played rhythm guitar, keyboards and saxophone. He’s brought a whole new dimension to the band. We’ve also got Jeff Jacobs, who was another longtime member of Foreigner on keyboards.
GRAMM: Scott’s a great rhythm guitar player, but his forte is sax. So, we’ve got “Long, Long Way From Home,” “Double Vision” and especially “Urgent” covered. It’s good to have a little of that Foreigner blood mixed in to inspire the other guys.
Lou, this year also marks the 30th anniversary of your debut solo album, Ready or Not. What do you remember most about that period of your career?
GRAMM: After we came off the road from supporting Agent Provocateur, Mick went on a cruise around the world for nine months. It was a time where we weren’t doing anything, and that’s what gave me the impetus to do my own album. I didn’t know how it would turn out, but it was so well received that the record company said I couldn’t just drop it and walk away. I needed to tour. “Midnight Blue” even became the most-played single in America in 1987.
Around that same time, I was informed by Foreigner management that the Inside Information album was finishing up and would be pressed and released. I told them I learned from Mick years ago that if you have an album out, you don’t turn your back on it to do something else. I was then told that if I believed that in this situation then I could continue the tour—but to consider myself out of the band. For management to reel me in was excruciating.
Michael, what’s your current guitar setup like?
STAERTOW: I stick with Gibson Les Pauls and Marshalls. Right now, I’m out with a ’58 reissue Standard and a ’68 Custom. I like the 800 Marshalls out of the 2205 and 2210 circuitry because it allows me to get the authentic sound I need. My pedal board is pretty minimal and mostly for texture. I have a PolyTune Noir tuner and an Xotic pre-amp to give it a little extra in the event the back line isn’t the best. I also have a Whirlwind Orange Box Phaser that I use on songs like “Urgent” and “Feels Like the First Time” to give it a cool vibe.
Are there any other projects you’re working on?
GRAMM: We’ve been working on about a dozen demos and are deciding on which ones will do best to record for an album. It’s a process, but I’m enthused about the songs and recording them.
Michael, are there any projects you’re working on apart from the band?
STAERTOW: I just started working on an instrumental record. It’s something I’ve never done before. I’m working with a drummer and bass player who are outstanding players and writers. We’ve just started going into pre-production to get arrangements down.
Lou, of all the highlights of your career, what stands out to you as most memorable?
GRAMM: Honestly, there are a lot of them, but it’s not necessarily the awards and all of that stuff. Performance oriented things are what I remember as the best times. Like playing Cal Jam II in front of about 450,000 people. That was exciting. Then there was the time we played in Nuremburg, Germany, at a huge outdoor metal festival they put us on, and we brought the house down!
When all is said and done, how would you like Lou Gramm to remembered?
GRAMM: I’d like to be remembered as someone who sang from the heart and from the cajones. Someone who could sing a bitching rock song and then sing a ballad. I’ve always been a straight shooter. When I hit the stage, I always sing my heart out.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.