By Jeb Wright
In his autobiography, Juke Box Hero, ex-Foreigner vocalist Lou Gramm details his illness, and his premature comeback. Lou needed brain surgery. Due to contractual reasons the band pressured Lou to return before his health and his voice were healed. The return took a toll on Gramm’s body and ego and culminated in him leaving Foreigner.
Now, several years down the road, Gramm’s health continues to improve. He now fronts The Lou Gramm band, which performs Foreigner’s greatest hits with passion and energy.
Gramm is hitting the road and may even begin recording some new songs—maybe a few with his ex-band mate Mick Jones!
We will have to wait and see how urgent that becomes for the two men. The good news is a reconciliation between the two has taken place, and while Lou is still not singing for his old band, water is under the bridge and he is rocking away in 2015.
In the interview below we discuss how things are now, the solo band, the set list, and then we delve back in time to discuss many of the songs that made Lou Gramm famous..
Jeb: Our last in-depth interview was about your book. How are you? What is going on now with you?
Lou: We had a lot of shows this year, more than the last five or six years. To me, that says pretty loudly that the economy is improving. When the economy tanks, the first thing that suffers is entertainment. Things are looking up.
Jeb: It also says people want to hear you and see you, and that you’re gaining momentum.
Lou: I’m glad you noticed. Yes, that is true and it feels really good.
Jeb: Did putting the book out help garner some attention for you?
Lou: I think it helped a lot. It gave a different perspective to people who are interested in my career and my personal life.
Jeb: You give great respect to others in the book. You don’t deny the hard times and the disagreements, but you don’t throw anyone under the bus either.
Lou: I tried not to do that. When you do that, you live to regret it.
Jeb: Have you sat down and read the book?
Lou: I haven’t read it cover-to-cover, but, occasionally I drop in and read a chapter or two. We are going to put another two chapters in the book and catch up with the last three or four years and bring it up to date.
Jeb: You have had some times that were tough over the last twenty years. You have lost the Foreigner brand. You know what I mean?
Lou: I do know, but I also know it was by choice.
Jeb: You are part of rock and roll history, so you don’t have to do anything. Where do you find the passion to continue?
Lou: I still enjoy singing with a live music ensemble. I don’t know if I could get four other great musicians to come over to my basement and play our hearts out.
Jeb: What is the difference between Foreigner and the Lou Gramm Band?
Lou: We capture the attitude of the record, but not as precise. We put more of our playing personality into the songs. No one is going to mistake it for another song, but there is enough room in there to make it fresh. To hear my band live nailing the songs and, every now and then, putting our personality into it inspires me, as a singer, and I do the same thing.
Jeb: Who is in your band?
Lou: My brother Ben Gramm is on drums. Michael Staertow is on guitar. Andy Knoll is on Keyboards. AD Zimmer is on bass guitar.
We’ve been together about three and a half or four years with this lineup. We are still writing new music. I don’t know what will become of it because radio is so different. We just write music for the sake of doing it. We may release an EP and see what the temperature is on that.
Jeb: What can we expect out of this band in the near future?
Lou: I think we are going to do some recording this fall in my studio. Like I said, possibly before the end of the year or early next year we may put out an EP and see if anybody notices.
Our entire band is from Rochester. My brother lives in New York City, but he comes back. I put this solo band together when I lived in Rochester. I had different people in the band then, and they were from different parts of the country.
When I put this band together, I thought it would be smart to just have people from around the Rochester area so that way we could travel together, too. You make one stop… Rochester and everyone gets out!
Jeb: The music business has changed. Is it frustrating?
Lou: It does cause frustration. I realize as time goes by that people turn to new artists. I suppose it is something that all entertainers and musicians who have been extremely popular go through at some point in their careers. I think when corporations took over the radio stations we didn’t fade away… we were pushed out the door, along with other artists of this ilk.
Jeb: It’s odd because you’re on every classic rock radio station ten times a day…
Lou: I think that’s great, but they wouldn’t touch a new song.
Jeb: Exactly. Sometimes you have to think its damn near age discrimination.
Lou: I’m not sure what it is, but that could be it.
Jeb: If the music is good enough, then it should not matter if it is 2015 or not.
Lou: I hear you, but it is not just us. It is Paul McCartney. It is everybody for everybody who was extremely popular. We all can put out killer new albums, but we have no incentive to do it.
Jeb: You are known as a damn nice guy.
Lou: I’ll show them nice!
Jeb: Do you think your reputation as being a nice guy hurts you?
Lou: Only when people go, “Oh my, I can’t believe you just said that!”
Jeb: You have maintained a positive attitude despite the bullshit you’ve been through.
Lou: I appreciate that a lot. I think there is only so much of that in me. I’m appreciative to my fans and to people like you, who have been more than decent to me over the years. I can let myself get very angry at the situation that I’m now in, you know?
Jeb: We are doing this interview and the tour is going well. You have to get back to a grassroots type feel.
Lou: The good thing is that in spite of rock radio, current rock radio, people still know and love the songs and come out in good numbers to hear them.
Jeb: What I hear you saying is that despite all of that, you have that going for you.
Lou: I think my voice, in the past four or five years, has improved. I’m taking a lot less medication now and I feel stronger and I feel my voice is stronger. I really enjoy the show now instead of struggling with the last four or five shows.
Jeb: People need to read your book to hear how Mick and you fought over your health issues…
Lou: I can remember a few years ago, when Foreigner would take the stage, and I would come out with my head hanging down. That’s tough.
I’ve done my best to get better. I think the voice is actually better than it was a few years ago after my operation.
During the ‘70s and the ‘80s and in the early ‘90s it was fine. After my operation, for five or six years, it was not up to snuff. It came back slowly, like I did from the operation.
After my operations my doctors told me they didn’t want me to do anything for a year and a half but three months later I was in Japan as there were contracts. It was about the business more than my health.
Jeb: Let’s talk about this solo band. Do you throw new material in the set?
Lou: We do every once and a while. We play a number of songs people know and we get great applause. When we play something new we hear the crickets. I don’t know that they didn’t like it, but they didn’t know it… Something that is not familiar these days they don’t react well to.
Jeb: Was it like that back in the day, or was it different?
Lou: When we played Cal Jam II we were recording the Double Vision album. We played every song from album one and we came off stage and the audience was cheering and they wanted us to come back and do another song. We didn’t have another song. Mick suggested we do “Hot Blooded.” We had just finished recording it so no one had ever heard it. We did “Hot Blooded” and they went crazy. We knew right then it should be our first single, and so it was.
Jeb: Didn’t you get inducted into some Hall of Fame not too long ago?
Lou: Yes, Mick and I were inducted into The Song Writers Hall of Fame.
Jeb: What was that like? You guys had not been going to dinner together or anything like that…
Lou: We had not talked in about eight years. I had not seen him either. We rehearsed the day before with the musicians who would be playing with everyone at the show.
We broke the ice that day and we got a little friendlier with each other. By the time the award show was over we had kind of rekindled the friendship and we talk on a fairly regular basis now.
Jeb: That’s wonderful to hear.
Lou: There is a chance we might get together late this fall and do some writing together. He has a version of Foreigner now, but I think if we write two or three songs… I am hoping I could use one or two on my next album.
Jeb: You were able to really talk about the past and clear the air.
Lou: I think we put a lot of things under the bridge. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. The playing was the easy part, it was the talking in-between that could have been very tense, but it wasn’t.
Jeb: Back to the solo band. Talk more about the set. Do you throw in any deep cuts?
Lou: We do a couple of album cuts. We do “Long, Long Way from Home” from the first album. We do “Blue Morning.” We love to play those, and they get great reactions from the audience.
Jeb: “Long, Long Way from Home” is my favorite song on the first album.
Lou: That is very cool, as that is the very first song that Mick and I wrote together. They are very autobiographical lyrics.
I really left the small town for the ‘Apple in decay’. When I first went to New York for my audition, and when I started writing with Mick, there was a garbage strike and no garbage had been picked up for three weeks. The whole city stunk to high heaven.
Jeb: Times Square in the summer is bad enough.
Lou: Right. It was unbelievable. When the strike was over they ended up having huge barges filled with garbage going down the Hudson.
Jeb: Legend holds the first album had to be mixed twice.
Lou: I don’t think so. We may have mixed a couple of singles again to brighten them up for continuous radio play. I know we did some editing because some things would be too long. It was nowhere near Iron Butterfly length, but some of the songs were pretty long.
Jeb: People thought that because you were the singer, you liked the ballads. In fact, it was Mick who liked the ballads and you liked to rock.
Lou: That is very true.
Jeb: If you had to pick a Foreigner album to be your favorite, which is it?
Lou: I think Foreigner 4. I think it is produced the best. It think the songs were really well written and the performances were really, really good.
Jeb: Mutt Lange produced that one.
Lou: Mutt worked us very hard. When I was singing the songs he’d come out into the studio and go, “Can’t you sing them a little more like this?” He would sing and I would go, “Mutt, that sounds exactly like AC/DC.” I said, “That’s what they do, but we do something completely different.”
Jeb: Talk about Junior Walker. Were you there for the session?
Lou: I was there, yes.
Jeb: Tell me about that day.
Lou: It was unbelievable. The night before was unbelievable.
We knew “Urgent” needed something, but we didn’t know it needed saxophone. I was looking through the Village Voice and saw that he was playing at a club that was not that far away. We shut the lights out and turned the power off in the studio and we went out to see him. He was great. His son was playing drums for him.
We asked if he would consider coming to the studio and consider playing on a track. He said, “Sure, we can do it when I am done.” He finished up about one in the morning and we went back to the studio to play the solo.
When the solo was over he started putting his horn away. We were like, “Junior, can you do it again?” We got him to play about five solos and we took the best pieces and we made it in to one kicking solo. He was very modest and he thanked us because he liked the song. We paid him and stuff. Of course, that song took right off and that solo ended up being a masterpiece.
When we played the L.A. Forum… we knew he lived in L.A. part time. He was in town so we asked him to come and play it live. He showed up in a neon purple suit. When the part of the song came to the solo, he walked on stage, I went, “Mr. Junior Walker” and the crowd went wild.
Jeb: I was less than thrilled the first time I heard “Waiting for a Girl Like You” as I wanted more hard rock.
Lou: I like that song.
Jeb: It was always played at the skating rink.
Lou: Yes! For a ballad that had an up-tempo beat... It wasn’t really slow.
Jeb: I loved “Jukebox Hero.”
Lou: There’s a ballad for you!
Jeb: Hipgnosis did the album cover. I heard there was another cover they did that was rejected.
Lou: I think there were a couple floating around. That one was the most striking for us. It’s from the old black and white televisions where they would count down from ten at the end of the day. We froze it on the four and used it with the little spots of imperfection in it.
Jeb: My favorite Foreigner album is Head Games.
Lou: That was the worst-selling one. I know that we had a lot of song ideas and we started a lot of songs.
When we went out to California to work with Roy Thomas Baker… we were certainly aware of his work with Queen and a number of other groups that we really liked. They really showed how his production skills make a difference on the album.
We were expecting him to critique the songs themselves and maybe come up with some ideas to tweak them. We left all of the songs in a fairly rough arrangement. We started to rehearse them that way. Roy didn’t say a thing about the songs, nor did he make any production contributions. We just recorded them.
Roy was a little bit ‘not himself’. Maybe he was having marriage problems or something? He would show up very late to the sessions.
The album sounds unfinished to me. I think the songs are terrific and I think the playing was very good. All of the production values that we got him for, to us, were missing.
Jeb: Then again you’ve heard from guys like me that we love that album.
Lou: It rocks. There are some great songs there. I like “Seventeen” and there are others.
Jeb: Two songs on there that I love are “Love on the Telephone.”
Lou: That is a good song. It’s a pretty cool album.
Jeb: “Rev on the Red Line” is the other one.
Lou: We play that in our band every now and then. When we go into the Midwest we know they are all car freaks and sometimes we play that.
Jeb: Were you involved with the cover? That is a classic cover with the girl in the men’s room.
Lou: Mick would always inquire about my opinion about almost everything. He valued my opinion and I appreciated that.
The big change in the band happened after Head Games and before Foreigner 4. We were really aware that Head Games didn’t sell nearly as much as the first album or Double Vision. Part of that was because of the cover.
The song “Head Games” was banned by a lot of radio stations after the cover of the album came out. Today, that would not have even been a problem.
In the Bible Belt the cover of the cute little girl in the boy’s bathroom erasing her number off the wall… they didn’t see the humor in that.
It wasn’t supposed to even be sexy. She was sexy… she was cute. It was just the time and the place of what she was doing that was supposed to leave the impression. She was erasing her phone number off the wall of the boys’ bathroom and that’s all it was. A big deal was made out of that and it really hurt our sales.
Jeb: Foreigner 4 was redemption.
Lou: We knew that if we didn’t come back with something that really kicked butt and had no if’s and’s or but’s that we could be looking at the end of a potentially great career.
Jeb: I have to be honest, after 4 I really lost interest in the band.
Lou: After 4, Mick became very infatuated with the synthesizer. He hardly played his guitar on that album.
Jeb: The backlash led to you making a solo album.
Lou: I kept telling him, “Mick, this band was founded as being a rock band. Your guitar playing is signature. How can you walk away from that and go so synthesized?”
He would say, “I’m just trying to do something different.” I said, “Don’t lose the nuts and bolts and the sound of the band.”
I didn’t like that album either. There are a couple of great songs on it, but overall I didn’t like that album.
Jeb: If you had not put out “Midnight Blue” then I may have never listened to you again.
Lou: “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “That Was Yesterday” were great songs. We do both of those in our set now. We do “Midnight Blue.”
Jeb: Your solo album was successful, but it was not as huge as I thought it was going to be.
Lou: Mick was so angry that I was doing that he went and talked to the President of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, and convinced him that if that album was a big-selling huge success that I would be gone from the band.
They pulled all of their publicity people and sales people out from under the album. I didn’t know that until later. I have a very good friend that worked there and he called me and told me, “You won’t believe what happened. Get ready for this...” I couldn’t believe it.
Jeb: No wonder things turned out the way they did.
Lou: Yep. “Midnight Blue” was flying up the charts and we were getting a lot of radio play on a few of the other songs and the next thing we know it was all going down.
Jeb: Many fans have no idea that politics play such a huge role in the industry.
Lou: I know they don’t. Maybe it is better that way.
Jeb: Back to happier days… you worked with one of my favorite producers; Keith Olsen did Double Vision.
Lou: I enjoyed working with Keith a lot. He also produced the Shadow King album. He’s a great guy, too.
Jeb: You were a young band coming off a huge debut album. Keith was brought in to make the second album as good as the first.
Lou: We tried to maintain the high quality of songs and to put great production values on all of the albums. I think sometimes we were more successful than others, but looking back I have no regrets. Keith had just come off Rumors by Fleetwood Mac, which was a monumental album. He was on his game with us.
Jeb: As you look back to that time, not many people get to live that experience. Do you have a respect for that time period?
Lou: That was our second album and I was still learning. I wasn’t green behind the ears anymore, but I was soaking-up everything that was going on. I would sit there for all of the late night sessions.
When we packed up and called it a night at quarter till five in the morning, and I would hear the conversations between Keith and his engineer and between Mick and Ian and Keith… I would be there and I would put my two cents in. Pretty soon they would start asking for my two cents.
I think it was that album, more than any of them, that I began to feel that Mick and Ian McDonald valued my opinion and my ears.
Jeb: Your voice and melody made Foreigner recognizable.
Lou: In terms of production things, I was still pretty green. I had recorded two albums with my previous band, Black Sheep, so I wasn’t totally green.
They were more actively involved in the production with Keith Olsen than I was. When I would pick my shots to say something, or bring up an idea that might make something a little better, they started listening to me. I wasn’t jabbering in everybody’s ear, I would pick my spots.
Jeb: “Hot Blooded” has that little “I’m Hot”… we would sit in the car partying and just wait for that and yell it out.
Lou: [Laughter] We play that song live and that little part is in there, too!
I realized we were a special band. I heard it on the first album and then I heard it all going well on the second album. I knew inside that the potential of being a big band for a good long time was there.
Jeb: Talk about “Cold As Ice.” I love the harmonies.
Lou: We worked on the backgrounds and the middle part all night. We were in Atlantic Records studio in Columbus Circle and we were so fried and tired, trying to get that a cappella part… this was in January. We put our coats on and walked around the block to get a break from it. We walked back in and we nailed it.
Jeb: “Headknocker” is a great song.
Lou: Oh yeah, that’s a cool song. We used to play that live in the solo band, but it didn’t get a lot of response. At this point the age group of our audience is past the first album. They know the hits but they don’t know the album cuts. They own the Greatest Hits album.
Jeb: “The Damage is Done” is a great song.
Lou: That got a lot of radio play. It was not a single, but it got a lot of play on the AOR stations. When we would play that on the first tour, the fans would cheer and sing along.
Jeb: Are you a fan of “Starrider”?
Lou: Not really.
Jeb: I like it, but it is a hippie sort of song, but there is a rock part that is good.
Lou: It certainly was a hippie song. It was already dated when it came out. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t shake me up at all.
Jeb: You did a great job on was “Feels like the First Time.”
Lou: That’s the song I auditioned with. They already had a demo track of it. My audition was in a recording studio. In the control room they played me the song. Mick was singing me the melody and the words in my ear while the music was coming out of the speakers. He then wrote down the words and he sent me out there to sing. That audition that I did was recorded. It was one of the takes that was sent out to garner a record deal… my audition. I guess they liked it.
Jeb: Last one: Do you ever take a secret moment like “Dirty White Boy” when you hear it on the radio… do you crank it up and just jam out?
Lou: Oh yeah, I do that. I do it when my kids are in the car, even. They know all of the songs. I’ve got sixteen year old twins and they know everything about everything I’ve done.
I certainly am still a fan. When one of the songs comes on, then I crank it up. They still sound good to me.
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