By Jay Luster
When I first got into it, I was inspired by people who had come before me, and I found myself in the position of handing that on.
In March of 1977, just a few months ahead of their first album release, Foreigner dropped the single "Feels Like The First Time." A few weeks later, the song reached #4 on the charts. Critics like pigeon holes, and they just weren't sure which one the song fit into. With its hard-rocking guitar, whirling synthesizer, and Lou Gramm's powerful voice, Feels like the First Time was, quite simply, kick ass rock and roll and no matter what the critics thought, the kids loved it. When the album hit the store racks, it sold five million copies in the United States alone. The singles "Cold As Ice," and "Long Long Way From Home," joined Feels Like The First Time as concert powerhouses, and over the next decades, the band would release albums and singles, which would make them legendary.
Along the way, there was drug use, infighting, near fatal illnesses, and personnel changes. Eventually, this left Mick Jones as the only original member in the band. Jones started Foreigner after the break-up of Spooky Tooth. He had found the right musicians, but had a hard time finding the right vocalist to bring his musical vision to life.
After an extensive and time consuming search, he was introduced to Lou Gramm. Gramm had been working in the Rochester, New York area and was glad to come to New York to work with Jones. After all, it's not everyday you get an invite from one of the greatest guitar players of his generation. Once the band was assembled there were four Americans, and two Britons, and with that lineup, no matter where they were they'd always be foreigners. Puns aside, the name Foreigner became synonymous with great records, and great concerts.
We had a chance to catch up with Michael Bluestein, the keyboard player with the band. Bluestein joined Foreigner in 2008, and has been with them ever since. In the late 1980's he studied music at the prestigious Berklee College Of Music in Boston, and then moved to the San Francisco Bay area. His touring history reads like a copy of Who's Who of the music industry. Over the years, he's played with Boz Scaggs, Roger Hodgson, and Stevie Nicks. When he received the invite to try out for Foreigner, he was touring with the Latin king of pop, Enrique Iglesias, but ready for a new challenge.
Jay Luster, Rock On Magazine:
Hi, thanks for agreeing to speak with me. Foreigner is touring again?
Yeah, we're heading out for about six weeks or so.
How did you come to join Foreigner?
In 2008 I was at a music convention called NAMM, at an arena in Anaheim. I ran into the keyboard player for Foreigner, a guy named Paul Mirkovich. He was playing keyboards with them as a sort of temporary solution. He told the guys, he'd help out for a bit, and said, "when I leave I'll help you find a replacement." When we ran into each other, a light bulb sort of went off for him, and he said, this guy might be the right replacement. So we got to talking, I was with Enrique Iglesias at the time, but I was open to a change. When this came up, I got to audition for the guys, and that's how it all got started. That was 14 years ago.
Did you have to sing as part of the audition?
Yes, background vocals were a big part of it. Foreigner has some pretty heavy background vocals with a lot of harmony, so yeah, that was definitely a part of it.
I know you're an amazing keyboard player, but do you enjoy singing?
Yeah, most musicians, at some point, discover they can sing to some extent. Even if they didn't start as singers, it becomes part of what we do.
How did you weather Covid?
It was actually a good creative time for me. I did a lot of writing and producing here in the studio. The beauty of technology these days, there's just so many tools available for us. Even for most of us who weren't trained as audio engineers. The technology has gotten to the point where most musicians have a rig, and they record and produce on their own. I got to do a lot of that here in the home studio. My girlfriend and I have a duo called Tina Blue, and we wrote some new tunes, and I did some producing and arranging for us. We recorded a lot, and got into the streaming thing. We figured out the multi-angle camera situation for doing live concerts out of the studio, and getting the audio and video together. That was sort of a fun project that kept us busy.
It sounds like you kind of thrived during the isolation period?
Yeah, for a while it was kind of nice, the isolation part of it. A lot of apprehension about the virus was obviously there. People were freaked out, and for a year or so they didn't know what was going on. They didn't know how transmissible it was or how sick you were going to get? I think there's a lot more perspective about it now. It's becoming more endemic instead of pandemic. It's become something we just have to live with. I've had it. Everyone in the band has had it at this point. The blessing was having all that time to do some creative work. Being in the lab, so to speak, working on new music, geeking out in the studio, so that part of it was fun.
What was getting back on stage like?
Pretty amazing. People were just so psyched. We have a lot of fans who are repeat customers. Some have been to tens of shows, even hundreds in some cases. Everybody was dying to get back out and see live music again after being isolated for so long. You could really feel the excitement for everybody, and for us getting back to what we do.
Is there a possibility of new Foreigner music on the horizon?
It's been a little bit since Foreigner had a new album. There are some new things floating around, and some songs in various degrees of completion that will hopefully be getting out there in the next year or two.
Foreigner has so much great music, how do you choose what to play?
We have quite a list of hits we have to deliver for the fans. We're in the enviable position of having more hit songs than we can do in a set. As far as what people want to hear, those hits come first, but it's hard to get to everything.
Considering how long Foreigner has been around, you've somehow still remained one of those must see live acts. How, after 45 years, has the band managed to remain so relevant?
It's pretty incredible. Songs like Feels Like The First Time, which came out in '77, were built to last. The musical arrangements, and those amazing vocal arrangements, and of course Lou Gramm. They're hit songs that became part of the culture. They've been featured in many movies, and TV shows, and people grew up with them and then raised their kids on Foreigner and classic rock. It's pretty cool to see the kids, the teenagers, the twenty something's, the thirty something's coming to the shows and knowing all the tunes too. Not many bands have the type of music that can stand the test of time the way Foreigner has.
It must be amazing to look out in the crowd and see several generations of the same family all enjoying the show together?
The music being passed down through the generations is the gift that keeps on giving. I do love the fact that it's not just the original audience. That part of it keeps it fresh. Knowing that youthful energy is being passed on, that's invigorating. When you see the youth there and people getting into it who weren't even born when the songs were on the radio. That part of it gives you an injection of adrenaline, and excitement.
Does the audience want you to play the songs exactly like the record, or do they like to see a little improvisation?
We have to pay tribute to, and honor the original parts. For example, we're not going to play "Waiting For A Girl Like You" without me playing the theme synth lead that comes in at the beginning of the song. You're not going to play "Juke Box Hero" without that iconic low bass synth intro you hear when it first starts. You're not going to do Hot Blooded without that opening guitar part. So I think the answer is we have to honor the original parts, and we do. They were there for a reason, and those are the parts the people remember.
But yeah, within that framework there's room for some improv, and some dancing around in between the spaces. I'd say we're at 85% to 15% new as far as tweaking things a bit.
That must help keep it interesting for the band?
Yes, definitely. I think over the years we've all found little spots where we can sprinkle in some of our own flavor into the tunes. There Are spaces within the arrangements, and some songs that are extended, where there are solos where there weren't any before. The drummer and I have solo spots in the middle of the show, so we can showcase some stuff there too.
It sounds like the audience is pretty open minded?
If what you're playing, the kind of spontaneous things that might happen, if that's coming from the same vibe, and spirit of the song, and adds something without getting in the way then yeah. Also, there are some spirited outtakes from the original performances that didn't make it onto the final track. There were takes that were cut for the sake of the radio, or for the sake of being concise that didn't make it onto the final recording.
When you're live and you're extending things, or the chorus goes around another time, or there's a solo space, that may be the time where you can tap into some of those tasty little bits that didn't make the record.
Wow, this has been great. Thanks for speaking with me, it's been a lot of fun. Have fun on tour, and we'll see you in Reno.
Yeah, Thank you too, See you there. With 13 top ten hits between 1977, and 1991, including two #1's, it's little wonder people are still excited when they hear Foreigner is coming to town. With players like Michael Bluestein, singer Kelly Hansen, and the incomparable Mick Jones, the tickets are sure to sell out so get them early. Their show is Saturday, September 24 at 8:00pm at the Grand Sierra Theatre - Grand Sierra Resort, Reno, NV and Rock On Magazine will be there.
Foreigner will be out on tour all summer, be sure to catch them opening for Kid Rock on 14 dates.
Joe Satriani is the most popular instrumental rock guitarist in the history of music. Though he has yet to win a Grammy Award for his work, Satriani is one of the most often-nominated artists (15 to date). His albums and live performances meet with near-universal critical acclaim, and his total record sales to date exceed 10 million units.
He said Child was, “taking these songs and saying ‘this is a great start, but you would do better by changing the lyrics, and making it more focused.’ oh my God what an amazing experience!”
In addition to his own thriving career – marked both by solo tours, his G3 concert tour series, his G4 Experience guitar camp and his 19th album, 2022’s Elephants of Mars – Satriani has long been an in-demand musician, sought for his expertise playing live and/or in the studio with Blue Öyster Cult, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Mick Jagger, Spinal Tap, the Yardbirds and many others. In his spare time he’s also guitarist for supergroup Chickenfoot.
While Satriani is a deeply technical player – in musician’s parlance, a “shredder” – from the very beginning his work has been distinguished by a strong emphasis on melody and accessibility. And that’s very much by design. “I try to keep a very strong melodic floor to even the craziest solo,” he says.
“When I sit down to turn some feeling – whether it's simple or very complex – into music, I'm trying to do two things,” Satriani explains. “One, I'm trying to get it right for myself. I'm trying to prove to myself that I'm translating this inspiration correctly into music.”
But that’s only half of the equation. “I also want to see if I [communicate] get that story to my audience,” he says. And Satriani acknowledges that where instrumental music is concerned, much is left to the listener’s imagination. “It has this great power of allowing the listener to reinterpret it,” he says. “And that goes back to a broader meaning of music.” Satriani believes that human beings need music.
“And when we put on a piece of music to help us celebrate or commiserate, we're making the choice to use that music as we see fit,” he says And that might or might not line up with the composer’s original intent.
He provides an amusing example to illustrate his point. “I write a song about diving off a cliff into a beautiful mountain pool of crystal clear, freezing cold water. And someone may hear it and think, ‘This is the perfect song for when I need to write code for my software project!’” Satriani emphasizes that ultimately, the artist gives up control over the song’s meaning when it’s shared with the wider audience. “I write a love song, and they think it's sad,” he says with a chuckle. “I write a sad song, and they use it as a love song!”
And Joe Satriani is okay with that. “That is the beauty of it,” he says. And that delightful disconnect is part of what separates instrumental music from songs with words. “If [a tune] has lyrics, of course, then you're kind of forced to know what it was that the artist is trying to tell you,” he explains. “But when you hear ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ you can decide for yourself: ‘This song is about this, today.” And Satriani keeps this reality in mind when he writes music.
The acclaimed guitarist has a fertile mind when it comes to creating memorable melodic lines. One of his early breakthrough tunes was the soaring instrumental “Always With Me, Always With You,” an elegiac track from his second album, 1987’s Surfing with the Alien. The song combined lightning-fast fluid runs with a fetching, ballad-like melody. The track earned Satriani the first of those many Grammy nominations, in this case for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
And though he’s written hundreds of songs since then, Satriani exercises strict quality control. Not everything he composes (or records) finds its way onto a Joe Satriani album. “I think every project has a couple of songs that leave you scratching your head,” he says. “Halfway through, you go, ‘I thought that was going to be great.’” In those cases, he puts the song off to the side and moves on to something else.
When he’s working on an album like The Elephants of Mars, Satriani says that he routinely brings a lot of material to the project. “I've always got 20-30 songs,” he says. “Sometimes 50.” As the project progresses, some inevitably fall by the wayside. Others are reworked, and the best ones make it to the finish line. And if the plan calls for the record to include ten tracks, he might decide to complete a few extras. “Some people on my team are saying, ‘Give 10; don't give many more.’ And other people are saying, ‘You might as well work on 16, because you never know.’”
And in Satriani’s case, you really don’t know. “The last day in the studio, you might decide that four of them aren't quite ready yet,” he admits. Satriani has a good sense of which among his songs are best suited for each album, but he listens to people he trusts, too. “Even the record company – filled with really talented people who do this all the time – can listen to an album and get surprised and say, ‘You know that song we thought was [a deep album] track? I think it's the single!’”
But even if a song ultimately doesn’t make the cut, Satriani holds onto it. “I do a record just about every two years,” he explains. “Sometimes I do a song, and I don't quite know how to finish it. And then two years later, ‘Now, I get it. This is what I was trying to do, and I've gotten better, so I can finish it now.’”
Sometimes the timeline exceeds two years. Satriani mentions “Through a Mother’s Day Darkly,” a breathtaking highlight of The Elephants of Mars. He wrote the song in 1999, while working on what would become Engines of Creation, his eighth studio album. But the unfinished, keyboard-based track didn’t make it onto that record.
“I kept trying to bring it into every album,” Satriani says. “But it was always either too dark or moody or cinematic. There was something about it that never worked with each album's theme.” Yet as he began work on his last record, Satriani returned to the 20-plus year old basic track. “It was kind of an open-ended session file,” he says. So he cued up the track in ProTools [digital recording application], picked up a guitar and improvised over it.
But Satriani and his producer Eric Carieux agreed that the recording still wasn’t complete; it needed something else. They reached out to the guitarist’s songwriting partner Ned Everett and asked him to record a spoken-word voiceover, using dialogue from Satriani’s Crystal Planet comic book series. That element added just the right amount of drama, and a bit of humor as well. “Suddenly it all came together,” he says. He describes the result as “a soundtrack to an imaginary film.”
There’s certainly a filmic quality to Joe Satriani’s music. In fact his songs have often been used in movies, television commercials and other visual media. Satriani is generally quite pleased when his music is chosen for those kinds of applications. He admits that he was “pretty shocked that the Olympics would use a number of my songs to close out their television broadcast.” Director Cameron Crowe requested a Satriani tune for a kickboxing scene in his 1989 film Say Anything; the guitarist wrote “One Big Rush” to order.
Satriani also recalls an accidental success in the form of an early ‘90s Sony Walkman commercial. “We spent a lot of money on [music] videos – we had a really fun video for ‘Summer Song’ – and we just couldn't get MTV to play them,” he explains. “So we got a call from Sony, and they said, ‘We’d like to use your song to do these radio and TV commercials to support a product called the Walkman.’” Satriani agreed, but with two important stipulations. “We said, ‘Well, yeah, but don't talk over the music. And put a chyron at the end like it's an MTV video.’”
Sony agreed, and the Walkman spot ran often on MTV, including during commercial breaks on the channel’s annual awards show. “We wound up being on the MTV Awards more than if we had been on the MTV Awards,” Satriani says with a hearty laugh. “Summer Song” went on to become the guitarist’s biggest international radio hit to that point.
That whole idea of instrumental music being open to interpretation does have its hazards, though. There are the rare occasions when music is repurposed in a way that doesn’t meet with the artist's approval. And that happened to Joe Satriani in the early 1990s.
At the time, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet remained as that country’s Commander in Chief. And without permission, his Air Force used Satriani's “Always With You, Always With Me” in its recruiting ads. “My first thought was, ‘Why would they play that song? It's a love song!’” Satriani says. “If they would’ve asked us, we would have said no: ‘We don't do foreign military endorsements.’”
He believes the commercial would have confused his South American fans, but admits that there wasn’t a great deal he could do about it. “Artists really have very little control over their art,” Satriani says. “You just never know what people are doing around the corner with your song. So, at some point, you throw your hands up in the air and say, ‘Well, the only thing I can do is to put out my own message.’”
And Joe Satriani has been focused on doing just that. For example, his current track-by-track podcast series digs deep into the creation of The Elephants of Mars. And it’s the latest in such endeavors from the guitarist, a practice that extends back to the release of his 2006 album Super Colossal, if not earlier.
“The Internet really helps,” he says. “I can connect and bond with the audience all over the world, which is great!” He believes that the Internet's reach and immediacy make for an important tool to communicate and connect, not just for him and his audience, but for all artists. “From Bombay to Paris and New York to San Diego,” Satriani says, “you can instantly tell your story.”