Tom Gimbel, Foreigner – Interview

By Fredda Gordon. Photo courtesy of Tom Gimbel.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Tom Gimbel from Foreigner. He is down-to-earth, funny and easy to talk to. His quick wit and jokes lightly veil his dedication and hard work. When he was growing up his house was full of fun and music, and this is evident in his life today. His musicianship began with drum lessons at 3 years old and expanded to many instruments throughout the years. If you search online you will see his name spelled as Thom and Tom. When I asked for clarification he said he’s been using Tom and then, under his breathe, mentioned something about saving ink. I knew then it would be a fun conversation.

Fredda Gordon: To start with, I have a question about the Aerosmith years. I’ve read that you were in the Waynes World Movie, but I didn’t see you. Were you there and what was it like?

Tom Gimbel: In the movie itself, when there’s live concert footage… I don’t know why everyone says “footage.” Well, maybe it was in those days, they were really using film so there was thousands of film… But, anyhow, there’s a live segment where there’s a concert going on, and you can kind of see me, just for a second or two, as the band’s leaving the stage. And they said, because you’re in the movie, we have to pay you, and I said ‘Oh, darn. Oh, that actors union making me get money from you guys.’ We were very happy about it.

I always remember, at the end, it was all wrapped up and everyone was saying goodbye and Joe Perry was shaking hands with the producer. And they really made some serious money on that, of course, and I remember Joe shaking the guys hand, and lighting a cigar, and saying “A pleasure doing business with ya.”

FG: It’s cool doing a movie like that.

TG: It’s fun. We spent a lot of time around Mike Meyers. He was the host one of the times we did Saturday Night Live. There were 4 times while I was with the band. He was the host one time, the other time I did the Wayne’s World bit, so we got to know him a little bit. Just hysterically funny. Everyone in that Saturday Night Live world is hysterically funny, so you put them together with Steven Tyler, whose like a barrel of monkeys, and you can see the recipe was there, the ingredients for a really good time. Everybody was laughing most of the time.

FG: I was looking at your Foreigner tour schedule, do you even know what town you’re in when you wake up in the morning?

TG: No.

For me it’s easier if I don’t. You come in on a tour bus, you’re asleep in the bunk, super comfortable beds on these tour buses. You come out and they hand you a hotel room key, you go to your hotel room and that’s all you know. It’s easier. Like if you’re running a marathon or swimming under water, it’s easier if you don’t know how far you have to go. So we just go day by day. This is most bands on the road. Sometimes we have bets. [Voice 1] ‘I’m pretty sure it’s Thursday. [Voice 2] You wanna bet?’ We have bets on what day it is, and the city we don’t know. There’s a sign in the front of the stage that says what city it is. It’s not because we don’t care, it’s just because that doesn’t come up in the conversation.

But, honestly, we get up and start walking around, going to lunch and stuff, and we figure out what city it is. You don’t want to walk around and say ‘Excuse me sir, what town is this?’, or ‘What year?’ [laughter] Whenever I ask people what’s the date, they say “April 23,” I say ‘Yeah I know, but what year?’

FG: What was your first meaningful musical experience?

TG: I think it was my first drum lesson. I was in third grade and I had been banging on pots and pans; I was the lead triangle player in the school show that year, and it was driving my parents crazy. My mom said “I think this little kid should be a drummer,” and my dad said “I think this little kid is out of his mind.” In order to settle the debate they took me to a drum teacher.

Here’s this little kid, I was in third grade, and I’m like ‘yeah, yeah, man, give me a pair of sticks, give me a drum, let’s go!’ And I went to see “Muzzy” Mizzoni, this drum teacher everybody knows. He had written books, and was a well-known jazz drummer. We sat in the room for a half an hour and he gave me my first drum lesson. He said ‘here’s how you hold the sticks, here’s how you do a drum roll, let’s see if you can do this [brrrrrrr – sound of drum roll] and I just took the sticks and [brrrrrrr – sound of drum roll]. His eyes got really wide.

At the end of the lesson we marched back out, my parents were waiting, they stood up and my Mom said “Is he any good?” And may dad said “He’s an idiot right?” The teacher said “No, I think he’s got talent, you should start him with lessons every week.” My dad [laughter] smoke was coming out of his ears cause now he knew they were going to have to drive me there every week. I was just going “yeah man, let’s do it! yeah, yeah, give me them sticks, give me them drums.” I was this tiny little kid, just couldn’t wait to get started. When I saw his eyes get big like that and he said this kids got some talent, that was probably my first musical moment.

FG: Was there music around the house when you were a kid?

TG: Yes. Both my older sisters took piano lessons, and my mom played piano. My dad was just very musical. He played the violin at one point, but mostly he was an entertainer. He would dance around like Jackie Gleason and he could do any kind of imitations of voices and dialects, and imitate accents. The whole family is like that. We can do accents. It’s a way of listening that I think we inherited from both our parents.

FG: What about music playing?

TG: When we were very young my mom would sit us in front of the record player. We were not allowed to watch TV, but we were allowed to listen to records. She would play Broadway show tunes. Later on when I got my own record player, I was so fortunate, my Dad gave me a copy of The Who, Live at Leeds. It’s not like my dad knew anything about rock music. I’m pretty sure someone gave him the album and he just gave it to me. But that really changed my life. I loved that so much. Their version of “Shaking All Over,” if you put it on you just gotta get up and start jumping and dancing around the room. It’s that good! I still do that today if I hear that song, I get up and start jumping around the room, it drives me wild! Also, I had the Beatles record Let It Be, I got McCartney’s first solo album. I remember buying that at a store with my own money. It was a huge deal. Two albums for $10. Whoops, we’re dating ourselves [laughter].

FG: And what about now, is there music around your house now?

TG: Constantly! Absolutely! If I’m with my brothers and sisters we fight about what music to play.

FG: What would you fight for?

TG: I like Motown. I love Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding. I listen to that stuff every day. I’m just a huge fan of it. I still like my Steely Dan, there’s some jazz in there, there’s some great new rock music that’s out now. There’s a whole genre of music where they’re still using drums and guitars, and it’s really cool. So I’m excited about rock music still being alive and well.

FG: Is there something you would like to do musically?

TG: I would love to teach at a college where I could do lectures for young adults. I’ve done a lot of teaching over the years with adults and young people, so I think it would be so much fun. I’ve always loved teaching and public speaking so it will give me a chance to combine the two.

FG: Do you see any bands who could be the next Foreigner taking into account the way the music industry, and culture, has changed?

TG: I do think it can happen because they say the music industry goes around in a cycle. It’s perfectly conceivable that rock music may come back into the limelight, so to speak. Right now rock music is just taking a little catnap. Country has sort of taking over the rock moniker. There are so many phenomenal guitar players in that world of Nashville. I love the stuff they do. But it’s gotten more rock-y over the years, it’s got some serious snap to it now. It’s like I could’ve sworn that was a rock record until you guys started singing about trucks or barbecues and stuff.

There’s this whole different world of dance music and then when you go to rock music you’ve got these country guys and they’re not messing around. These guys are really slamming the guitars and drums. It sounds like a rock band to me. That’s sort of where I see the state of rock at the moment. And, of course, we had this other world coming up around it, Black Keys and Arctic Monkeys, bands like that. There’s this great undercurrent and as time goes by, people will change. New generations come up, and it’s possible that some third grader, or fourth grader, could discover Led Zeppelin and say “This is really cool!” and tell all his friends, and rock music becomes huge again. Then a band like Rival Sons, which sound a little bit like Led Zeppelin, are going to keep making records so anything is possible. You could see a resurgence of rock as years and decades go by. All old things sometimes become new again.

FG: Of all the instruments you play, Keyboards, piano, vocals, bass guitar, guitar, saxophone, flute, percussion, drums, which is your favorite?

TG: Whichever one I’m holding at the moment. That’s my favorite.

FG: Which one would you pick up if they were all sitting next to each other?

TG: Vocals. That’s my favorite instrument, singing. That’s the most expressive because you get to have words.

FG: Do you write music?

TG: I used to. I went to school as a composition major so I do know how to write. But Foreigner keeps me so busy playing all these instruments, practicing, and we have Mick Jones as our leader and founder, and I think as writing goes, he might be a little bit better than me. [laughter] just a little. How many top tens? 12 top ten singles, Over 80 million albums sold. Some serious song writing.

FG: Song writing is not only about releasing.

TG: It’s true, I do like to create. I used to have a studio and I would mess around in there. I’m just better off spending my energies between golf, the 4 instruments, and now I am a chess addict too. I would love to spend more time writing, but this really keeps me pretty busy.

FG: Who do you play chess with?

TG: It’s online nowadays. There’s people all over the world. You just say ‘give me a game’, and you’re online with someone anywhere in the world within a second or two. I’ve played people in China, Russia, South America, Australia. I’ve done over 1000 games in just a few months. It’s so much fun. I warn people it’s almost too much fun.

FG: How do you prepare for your performances?

TG: Just get ready to go on stage, put on some different boots maybe. [laughter] throw on a stage shirt. Iron a shirt. “Hey, why don’t you go iron your shirt?” We do like to iron a little bit and I think that’s about it. We usually have a meet and greet before the show. Cheese and crackers and a Perrier, I’m ready to go. I may really get crazy and have a little decaf if I want to be wired. We don’t do a bunch of drinking and drugging before the show.

FG: It’s interesting that you would think that that would be what someone would do to prepare for a show.

TG: It’s almost like the stereotyping. From all these movies they’ve made. From the Freddie mercury movie to the rockstar movie you always see them losing their mind on drugs and alcohol. We wait till after the show to do that. [laughter]

FG: Do you party after the show?

TG: This is a band that still parties. We party heavily after the show.

FG: Considering that the songs are the songs, do band member changes over the years have a big effect on the musical dynamics?

TG: It puts a tiny different flavoring on it. Mostly we’ve been changing drummers. We have a guy now, well into his seventh year, Chris Frazier. He’s a perfect fit for us. Since I’ve been working with the band we went through seven drummers until we found Chris Frazier. For people that don’t know Chris, he was in Whitesnake, he worked with Steve Vai and Eddie Money for years. He’s an absolute powerhouse on the drums. he does this drum solo, together with our lighting guy, and that’s worth the price of the admission right there. It’s so good! For anyone that loves drum solos, you gotta come see this guy. Other drummers would have a different feel, a different groove, a slight variation in the way the music feels, but not that different.

Drummers sound differently also. The way they hit the drums, the way they tune the drums you don’t think that much about it, but it’s a huge part of a drummer’s sound. What kind of drums they have, what kind of cymbals they have. I probably know more about this than I should.

FG: Well, you did start out with the drums.

TG: Exactly! I’m like this weekend drummer [in a falsetto voice] “Hey, what about sticks? What kind of cymbals are those?” I think of it like the engine of the car. That’s the way I think of the drums.

FG: Do you practice still?

TG: Sure.

FG: Which Instrument?

TG: The tenor saxophone and the guitar. I practice both, with a metronome or a tuner. On the saxophone you can have a tuner now right on your cell phone. It’s an easy app. I think its free too. [With deep voice] ‘In my day, when I was growing up’ we had to make a special reservation to get with the strobe tuner in the music department and if you got to spend time with the strobe tuner you were like [said in a falsetto voice] ‘Oh, my goodness, this is huge, you should have seen it. It would show you if you’re in tune.’ Now every single person with a cell phone can have one of those. So, I practice with a strobe tuner on the tenor sax quite a bit to keep it in tune and get my embouchure going.

And, I love to play along with records. That’s the best thing. To practice, I play along with records and try to imitate the melody. Just match the singer. I’ll pick maybe a Coldplay song because those melodies have nice interval jumps. [sings a couple of notes] Like that song “Yellow” [sings more notes] anyway, that Coldplay catalogue, especially this album Parachutes, has wonderful melodies that play perfectly on a saxophone. We learn so much by doing that. We are really trying to match the singing, not just play the melody. So when a singer says a word they go [sings the word ‘I’], they don’t go [sings the word ‘I’ with only one note], they go [sings the word ‘I’ again with multiple notes]. So, on a saxophone we’ll start a note below the note we want to go to and go [sings 2 notes]. The chromatic scale becomes a very big deal. You have to be perfectly ready to do a half-step below the note anytime, anywhere. As I watch and listen to my favorite sax players I see them all doing it. By listening to singers, that’s how I discovered it. They call it a glissando, but with my students we call it a smooshie.

FG: What’s your second favorite Foreigner song? I know your first favorite, because I looked it up.

TG: Oh my goodness. Whichever one we’re playing at the time. I swear it’s true. When we’re playing a song I’m just digging it and every one of these songs I am digging for a different reason. There’s something special about each one and I will just say ‘gosh I love this so much.’

FG: Do you have any stories from the road?

TG: This is back in the day. It’s a long time ago. We were on the tour bus, and we stopped at a truck stop. Mick Jones, for some reason, got off the bus to go in and buy some snacks. So we finished getting fuel and we left and nobody knew, everyone was asleep, that Mick had gotten off the bus. And there he was in this truck stop waving as the bus left without him. [laughter] He went to a pay phone, that tells you how long ago.

FG: I was gonna say, he probably didn’t have a cell phone, because it wouldn’t have been a story then.

TG: Right! He went to a pay phone inside the truck stop. Here he sits, nothing with him. And he calls his mother in England. And she calls his brother in Florida. His brothers in Florida wakes up somebody on the bus and says “How many people are on the bus? Are you missing one?” and we had to turn around and go get him. Lou Gramm was on the bus and he put a sign up as we drove to get Mick. We pulled in there was a big sign up on the window that said “Lead Guitarist Needed.” They had such a kick out of it. Lou was really, really winding him up, saying “Oh we thought you were done. We were looking for somebody.” It was classic.

FG: Do you have one more?

TG: I like to tell a Foreigner story about New Year’s Eve. It was pretty new for me, probably around 1992 going into ’93. We were gonna be on live TV and they said, “We want you to hit the high note of “Urgent” right at midnight. We’re gonna go live TV, count down, and when they say ‘Happy New Year’ [sings high note] that high note in ‘Urgent’.”

FG: Wow, that’s a challenge.

TG: Yes it was. And they said because it’s TV on New Year’s Eve there’s probably 30 million people watching.

FG: No pressure.

TG: Woo, no pressure at all. I had just played with Aerosmith at Woodstock II. There was 400,000 people and I thought I was pretty good with large audiences but I had never tackled 30 million before. I started warming up and practicing, checking my reeds. It was just so funny because they got a kick out of it. Those guys always love watching you suffer. They would laugh and get a such a charge out of it. “Hey you look a little nervous, you’re a little pale right now. What’s going on over there? How come you’re warming up so much? Doin’ OK?” They really got a laugh out of that.

FG: But you did it.

TG: Yeah, midnight came and I nailed it!

FG: Speaking of “Urgent,” you played it recently with an orchestra. What was that like?

TG: So much fun. We love these orchestral shows especially the one in the video. We were in Lucerne, Switzerland. We got to know the conductor and we worked with this fantastic cello player named Dave Eggar. He’s done all these arrangements for Evanescence, that song by Coldplay with the strings going ‘d d d d'[“Viva La Vida”], that’s him! He’s also a maniac, out of his mind super cool. He had worked with Mick to do these arrangements and they really put a lot of care into that project. It was a culmination of a lot of work that went into it and then at the end we get to have all the fun of doing the live shows. We’re going to do more overseas this year with orchestras.

FG: What am I missing?

TG: We are very happy about the work we are trying to do with the Shriners hospital because you know they only help children. That’s all they’ve ever done. They actually build hospitals, and build new technologies to help children with their medical situations.

Mick Jones and Kelly Hansen have re-released a version of “I Want To Know What Love Is” and all the benefits and all the proceeds go to the Shriners hospital. It’s a special video they did in the hospital with kids, but this song itself has been re-released as a single and all the profits go to Shriners hospital, Mick has donated them.

Once in a while we’ll visit a hospital. I went in to play chess with one of the young people. (I hate to say ‘kids’, ‘hey kids’) This little guy was so cool he was about seven and a good chess player, obviously, and of course he took me down. But, that’s OK [laughter]. It was so much fun. We donated the chess set and the clock to the the hospital. You get to tour the hospital sometimes. It brightens up the day, not just for the children but also for their families and staff. We like to visit when we can. We’re very happy that the Shriners are helping kids. Who needs more help than innocent kids that they didn’t do anything wrong. Yet.

FG: Yet?

TG: Yeah, I was a bad kid. The police were picking us up, they were gonna send me away to juvenile delinquency camp, or whatever that’s called. [laughter] My brother was my inspiration. No, no, just typical adolescence getting in trouble, running from the cops, that kind of stuff, nothing serious, I like to joke about it. Because it wasn’t serious, that’s the only reason I can joke about it.

The music programs in schools actually keep a lot of kids from getting into trouble. And for a lot of young people that’s the reason to stay in school. It kind of was for me. I couldn’t wait to go to music class. I had fabulous teachers in New Jersey and I really looked forward to going to school so I could go to those music classes. So we also trying to work with Grammy foundation and any kind of effort to save the music programs in schools. The benefits [are] not just that it makes them better people but honestly sometimes really helps stay out of trouble, stay on the right path and they have a sense issued unity. There’s a school band, it’s like being on a team without getting black and blue marks on you. If you don’t want to play sports, you can still be on a team, it’s called the band, or the marching band. I played drums in the marching band.