Foreigner’s sax man unplugged
Tom Gimbel talks band’s longevity and
plans to revive the saxophone solo
Foreigner’s Tom Gimbel is a talented multi-instrumentalist, playing everything from the keyboards to the flute, but he spends most of his time on stage nailing all the high notes on hits from the underrated Blue Morning, Blue Day, to the inescapable Urgent.
Gimbel’s sound has been an integral part of the classic rock genre for more than three decades now. After graduating from the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1982, Gimbel recorded three albums with Jon Butcher Axis on Capitol Records. In 1989, he joined Aerosmith, where he played keyboards and sax, participated in two world tours, made a few appearances on Saturday Night Live and even landed a spot in Wayne’s World 2.
His stints on stage with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry helped culminate the fortuitous meeting with Foreigner leader Mick Jones in 1992. He joined the band full time in 1995, and has remained its loyal sax man ever since. Gimbel is currently on the road with Foreigner’s “Cheap Date Tour,” featuring Kid Rock. Gimbel took some time to answer questions about playing the horns for Foreigner, multi-generational fans and the future of the saxophone in rock-n-roll.
Have there been any tour highlights so far?
“The whole tour has been a highlight. We’re having such a good time with Kid Rock. Driving up to the different venues and there’s just a big sign that says ‘sold out.’ Like, don’t even bother coming in. It’s incredible. Now that we’re in Detroit, it’s his hometown and you see the loyalty of his fans. They love him and he loves them right back.”
Speaking of Kid Rock, are there any stories that are going to make the memoir?
“Not really. We’ve all sort of grown up. He’s into golf now. I was golfing one day and I saw him go sailing by on a golf cart; looked like he was having a good time. Our founder Mick Jones came off the stage one night and Kid Rock was standing there with a big smile on his face and they had a big high five. It’s one of those things you don’t see that often, so it really sticks in my mind as a highlight.”
Foreigner has such longevity in the world of classic rock, since starting in 1976. When you stare into the crowds, how does it feel seeing more than a few generations rocking out?
“It’s the ultimate compliment to our music and its broad base appeal. It’s continuing to grow. At a show, I stared into the crowd and I saw this little guy on his dad’s shoulder with a crew cut; he looked like he was 6 or 7. His dad was kind of shaking him around and the kid knew the words to all of the songs. It’s an absolute honor.”
What can fans look forward to seeing on the “Cheap Date Tour”?
“It’s a high-energy show. Our singer Kelly Hansen just loves to get the crowd going, it’s his mission in life. Deep down, everyone wants to have a good time. He unlocks the cage, the perfect ringmaster for that kind of thing. He does it so good, it’s not fair, really (laughs).
A lot of times after shows, people tell us they recognize every song, and sometimes they don’t realize a song they’ve heard a bunch was a Foreigner song like, ‘Oh yeah, I know that one. Foreigner did that? Cool, I like it.’ And that’s cool because it proves the music held up over the test of time.”
There are so many hits in the Foreigner’s discography that feature saxophones heavily. I know this may be difficult, but is there one you love playing the most?
“It would have to be ‘Urgent.’ It’s the solo everyone knows. It’s rare for people to recognize a sax solo (laughs). But the one in ‘Urgent,’ everybody knows that one. You see air guitar all the time, but you never see air saxophone. But every once in a while, in the crowds you see an air saxophone, and I like to do it too. When you play air saxophone you can make faces with your mouth, which you can’t do when you’re actually playing it.”
I’ve discovered that another passion of yours is golf. Have you had a chance to hit the green when you’re not on stage?
“In the summertime I try and play as much as I can. I practice in hotel rooms all the time. I can chip the ball from the hallway into the bureau in the room, a little game I like to play. This summer has been glorious, visiting courses in the Detroit area and in the northeast, the southeast … it’s been a good year for golf.”
There’s an acoustic album coming out next year, featuring the band’s hits. What hits do you think translated to being unplugged the most?
“All of them! But one I think stands out is ‘Girl on the Moon’ because it’s kind of a trippy, vibey song that takes place in outer space. Does it still count as outer space if it’s on the moon, or is that inter-space? Anyway, it’s perfect when we do it acoustic.
Then of course there’s ‘Cold as Ice.’ Mick Jones originally played it on piano, and everyone knows that iconic riff. Now he does it with an acoustic guitar and we added a saxophone line and a bass solo.
Jeff Pilson is a phenomenal musician and he plays an acoustic bass solo on it that always brings the house down. You wouldn’t imagine a bass solo bringing the house down, but it just shows you how good he is. ‘Jukebox Hero,’ ‘Waiting for a Girl like You’ … these are classic songs. When you have a well-made song it usually lends itself to any setting.”
I don’t know if you have a solution for this, but what do fans have to do to bring the sax solo back to popular music?
(Laughs) “It used to be part of every song from yesteryear. It’s amazing, you used to wait for the middle of a song and say, ‘Oh, here comes the sax.’ It’s still around a little. I like to say it’s lurking just outside the door waiting to be let back in. It’s such a part of so many bands. Pink Floyd has a sax, Bruce Springsteen has a sax, Bob Seger has a sax, Aerosmith has a sax – I played sax with them.
At the moment, music is driven by electronic beats and dance rhythms and people singing about relationships and how bad they want each other. I guess that topic has not gotten old yet and probably never will. The sax solo should be able to fit in there somewhere.
I’ve started seeing some baritone sax starting to pop up, because it’s kind of a hip, trippy, cool, vibey sax. I’m gonna try and use it on our acoustic album and see if I can get a popular movement started (laughs). I will growl into that thing, make it sound like a grizzly bear and hope it catches on.”
Published in the Roseville Press Tribune, 2018