Foreigner: The Billboard Q&A

As its summer tour with Bryan Adams gets rolling, Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones chats with Billboard about the hit-making rock outfit's past, present and future.

In 1976, Mick Jones found himself out of a job. The Surrey, England, native had a rep as a guitar gunslinger dating back to his own band, Nero & the Gladiators; session credits for George Harrison, Peter Frampton and Johnny Halliday; and tenures with the Leslie West Band and Spooky Tooth.

But after an angry departure from the Leslie West Band, Jones was at a crossroads and looking for his next move. He came up with a winner -- Foreigner. Recruiting an old mate, Ian McDonald from King Crimson, and some unknown American players, Jones created a juggernaut that's sold more than 70 million albums worldwide and enough hits to fill a double-disc retrospective ("No End in Sight: The Very Best of Foreigner," due July 15 on Rhino Records).

Critics may not have considered Foreigner the hippest band to ever tread the rock'n'roll boards, but it's hard to argue with that kind of successful track record and the enduring appeal that Jones and his latest incarnation of the band (which includes late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham's son Jason and former Dokken bassist Jeff Pilson) continue to enjoy.

In 1976, when you formed Foreigner, could you have imagined still leading the band in 2008?

I guess I have to say no. [laughs] The life expectation of bands was pretty low. I didn't even think I'd be playing after the age of 30, 35. I guess the [Rolling] Stones and [Led] Zeppelin were starting to become "classic" at that point, but I had no idea. I wasn't expecting anything like the reception we got for the first album, even. I thought it was going to be a labor of love for the next few years to establish ourselves. I certainly hadn't set my sights past that. So what's happened has been . . . unbelievable, really.

What was the impetus for forming your own band?

I didn't quite know where my career was heading. I was a little bit high and dry in New York, and I sort of issued a challenge to Bud Prager, my manager who I'd worked with with Leslie West. And the challenge was to see if we could bring the best out of each other, and that was the thing that really got the ball rolling.

That relationship between you and Prager is an important part of Foreigner's story, isn't it?

You could say that. The challenge was whether he was going to be a real manager and whether I was going to be able to have some real success as a musician. That was the premise it was based on. So I started writing, I had some song ideas, and I gradually started to enlist members of the band to play with.

How did you assemble Foreigner's first lineup?

First of all it was with Ian Lloyd, the singer of a band called Stories, who really helped me a tremendous amount at the beginning to flesh out the songs vocally. And one by one I added players. I had recently met up with Ian McDonald, and he became involved. And then I believe it was Al Greenwood, the keyboard player. Then we finally settled, after quite a search for drummers, on Dennis Elliott, and then eventually Ed Gagliardi on bass. Then, after about 50 auditions of singers, we ended up with Lou [Gramm].

Gramm was a crucial find. Was it love at first listen?

Yeah, it was. When I heard his voice on an album that I'd been given of his band, Black Sheep, I was actually in the midst of writing "Feels Like the First Time." I'd had a few demos from people who'd sent stuff in, and I was listening to them. The moment I heard Lou's voice, it clicked.

What was your vision for Foreigner?

I wanted it to be a band that had the ability to choose its own direction. I needed it to have, like, a palette, to be able to choose from different colors and different sounds and different directions. I felt that we needed keyboards, from organ through synthesizers, which were still in the early stages at that point. Ian McDonald, who was a multi-instrumentalist, helped a lot, too. It had to have that ability to travel through different styles and create a different sort of style.

Was it easy getting a deal for Foreigner?

No. [laughs] Bud and I had a short-list of companies, labels that we wanted to be on. It was quite disappointing. They seemed to be very underwhelmed by it. It was hard to take; it was sort of rejection right at the beginning. And I thought, "Wow, these people are obviously not seeing it the way we do." But eventually when [our tape] was sent back to Atlantic asking for another listen, somebody called John Kalodner got a hold of it and he started to bring it to the attention of Jerry Greenberg, who was then the president of Atlantic. [Kalodner] gradually turned the company on to the band and rallied everybody to get behind it. Then the whole thing just took off. I don't think the record company had ever experienced anything like that before.

At that time rock bands weren't really having pop hit singles. But Foreigner did from the get-go.

No, it was definitely more of an album-oriented world at the time. I knew that "Feels Like the First Time" was probably a bit more commercial than anything I'd written so far, and "Cold As Ice," I realized that had a bit of a pop edge to it. But to me the important thing was writing an album that you could listen to from the beginning to the end. The singles were sort of highlights, the songs that attracted people's attention more immediately. But my heart was more into making albums.

Did you ever feel that Foreigner as an album band got short shrift because of the singles?

Not according to the sales of the albums and the amount of people who bought them. I think we were considerably more of an album-selling band. I think the thing really was we were fighting upstream a lot. We had to fight quite a lot with the different trends that came in—the dawn of punk, the critics, the things flying around like "corporate rock" where the band had been put together in the boardroom of the record company; all this bullshit. I was always confident in the music, and I put my heart and soul into everything that we did. That's all I could do, and it seemed to work. I always wanted this band to be regarded as an album band more than a singles band. I have a feeling at the end of the day we probably are.

Lineup changes began with 1979's "Head Games." Were you disappointed the original band didn't stay together?

I look back now and I think, "Was that the right thing to do?" I really don't know. It was just at the time I felt that the band needed to hone its direction. People may not have understood quite what was going on, but it was the normal process of a band growing and changing on its way.

What's your perspective now on your relationship with Gramm?

That's a tough one. [laughs] We had a great deal of respect for each other. We went through a tremendous amount together, highs and lows. We were never the closest of friends but I think we both appreciated each other's gifts. At times it felt very close. I look back at a lot of great, happy times, a lot of very heady times, especially in the first few years. I don't think there's any malice between us now, but I think . . . the chasm between us has deepened. But over time, I'd say it was a great relationship.

Even when he was complaining about you being a control freak?

[Laughs] If I look back on it, I was probably a little too much that way. I felt I was the visionary of the band, if you like. I was sort of a little desperate at first to keep it that way. But from the very word go I really encouraged Lou's involvement. We wrote a number of great songs together.

Some feel that "I Want to Know What Love Is" was the death knell for Foreigner, at least as a credible rock band. How do you see it?

I can't really say that. If you look at [our] whole history, each album had a couple of ballads on them. I think that Lou aired his opinion about it at the time, and that's what led to people jumping on it as a reason for [our] differences. But I can never really think that having a worldwide No. 1 song would be detrimental to a band.

You put Foreigner on ice earlier this decade, shortly after the band's 25th anniversary. What happened?

Lou and I had gotten back from a European engagement, and I think we both realized we didn't have much of a future; we were at odds about several different things. Lou sort of immediately put plans together to go out by himself, and I just took some steps back and took it easy. I spent a lot of time with my family, getting to know my kids again. It worked out very well for me.

There's a new song, "Too Late," on "No End in Sight" that indicates you don't intend for this version of Foreigner to be an oldies act.

Yeah, it's not just pulling a band together for the sake of touring. There's a long-range plan now that we really do have with the lineup. It's just very exciting and I'm very much into that. I don't really have time to think about negative things from the past or dwell on things. I'm glad to say that I think I've found my way again.