As the voice of Foreigner, singer Lou Gramm racked up an impressive 16 Top 40 hits in the ’70s and ’80s, including the number one smash, “I Want To Know What Love Is,” in 1985. He’ll be back in town on Saturday evening at Hard Rock Live for a co-headlining performance with Mickey Thomas of Starship, with the proceeds from the evening’s performance going to benefit the Akron Children’s Hospital. We caught up with Gramm to chat about his career. During our phone conversation, he also talked about the new music that he’s working on and the current state of his relationship with Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones.
Some of these songs are nearly 40 years old now. What comes to mind when you look back at that history and the things you achieved with Foreigner?
Ultimately, I’m very proud. I think of the hard work and the time put in writing these songs and finishing them into the songs that they became and then the hours and hours that we would spend in the studio to make sure that the sonic end of things was exactly right. You know, we always worked with good producers and they always lent something to the album and honestly, there are no regrets. Looking back on it, it was way worth the work.
And you put in an incredible amount of work on the vocals for these songs. At the time when you were in the studio, how much did you have to push to get the vocal performances that we hear on these records?
Well honestly, some of them came, I wouldn’t say easily, but just singing it again and again and then trying different nuances on certain notes or tailing it off a different way. Other ones, while the melody was there, it just didn’t quite sound right. Those are the things that we would get to that part and we heard it and it sounded good but good wasn’t good enough. So we reworked the melody and massaged the lyrics and made it so that when we heard it back, the short hairs on the back of our neck would stand up and we said, “Wow, that’s going to be great.” And then we’d record it.
What was one of those songs that you really had to work on?
“I Want To Know What Love Is.” When we worked on writing that song, it was at least two and a half or three months. We had the basic framework down, the verses and the melody and the words, but that B section, [singing] “In my life….,” you know? That was the one that we had to get the transition from the verse to the chorus and I bet you we tried a dozen things and finally, that one, you know when it’s right and that was so right. The first time we heard it, we go, “That’s it.”
In addition to the Foreigner songs, there were also your solo hits. What do you recall about writing and recording “Just Between You and Me” from the Long Hard Look album?
I remember flying from my home in Rochester to Los Angeles specifically to work with Holly Knight. She’s a terrific rock writer and a very good vocalist and musician in her own right. I remember we tossed ideas around and that one stuck in my head. So we began working on it and it didn’t take long to come together, because she had little portions of the idea that ended up becoming the B section or the beginning of the verse, things like that. So basically, we worked on the hook and the arrangement. I think we actually basically finished writing that song in a day. A full day — a long day, but one day, I think for the main part, that song was done.
You spent a lot of years writing with Mick. Was it an adjustment when you started branching outside of that and writing with other folks?
Well, there’s always a little adjustment. You know, if you’re writing with a songwriter, you kind of acquiesce to the most comfortable way that they like to write. Most of the songwriters outside of Mick that I’ve worked with, they have their own little quirks, but nothing that was uncomfortable.
Nils Lofgren is somebody who was collaborating with you in those years and having spoken with him recently in the past year, I know he really enjoyed the opportunity to work with you. How did you connect with Nils?
To be honest, when Bruce Turgon and I were writing “Midnight Blue,” we were trying to think of the type of guitar player and the type of style and the chords that would be signature for that song. We were both Nils fans for years and years, even when he had his band with his brother called Grin. He had a couple of hits, “You’re The Weight” and things like that, they were great songs. We had a friend who was involved with Springsteen, who put us in touch with Nils and we asked him to come and help us record and he was more than willing. He was very excited and when he got there, you know, we talked and got to know each other a little bit first and I’m telling you, when he got in the studio and started playing, it was not only exactly what we needed, but it felt like we had known him a long time. He was an easy person to get to know and we’ve remained good friends over the years.
As long as we’re talking guitar players, I want to ask about Michael Staertow, the guitar player in your solo band. He was in a Foreigner tribute band with your nephew, right?
That’s cool that a family connection brought him your way.
You know, sometimes it just happens that way.
Having somebody come in that has that experience, that knows the songs and knows the records, did that make it easier as far as getting somebody in the band that knew how to play those songs….
In this circumstance, it definitely was. Obviously, we still rehearsed with him before we played a show, because he knew the arrangements of the records and I guess his tribute band played the songs live like the record. We had small changes in the arrangements and things like that, so he just had to adapt to our arrangements and he did that within a matter of days.
Did he have any questions for you, like how you guys had done certain things back in the day?
Not really. You know, he’s a very gifted guitar player and a student of music in general. Very knowledgeable. I think he considers Mick a great guitar player, as do I. But Mick’s got a unique style of playing and of the guitar players I’ve played with, I think Michael’s been the one that has grasped and understood Mick’s style and was able to get those nuances and chording versions better than anyone.
Mick has a very specific tone and signature sound that when you hear his playing, you know that it’s him playing.
That’s exactly right. His chords, the way his hands are positioned for the chords, you’ve got to have rubber fingers to get into some of those positions and he’s a contortionist. But it comes very naturally to him and when you hear the chords ring out with his inversions, it’s very powerful and Mike was able to pick up on that, so we gained a lot by having Michael in the band.
I know that you’ve been working on another solo record. What’s the story there?
Well, we’ve got about a half a dozen songs in demo form. I believe we’ll be working on at least another half dozen and we’ll see what happens. You know, the music industry is not anything resembling what it was. You either adapt or don’t bother recording. So we’re going to be putting our best foot forward when we finish this album in attempts to do it the way everyone else is doing it. We’ll take advantages of downloads and all of the things that are working for bands these days.
Is this stuff that you’ve been writing over the past few years?
The six songs came from things we’ve been writing from towards the end of last year when our tour ended and this year to the point of about a month ago. So there are six songs that are written and recorded roughs and another five or six songs that the ideas are in place, but we haven’t fleshed them out yet. I think we certainly have enough good material for an album, but when our tour gets to a point where it gives us some time on our hands, I think we’ll polish up the rest of the unfinished ones and then master them.
I spoke with Mick last September and he indicated that the two of you were thinking about working on some material together — including some stuff that he said you both are aware of and then also some material that he termed as your “little trove of goodies” that he hadn’t heard. What sort of progress have you guys made on that?
We were supposed to get together last September, but unfortunately Mick had a setback in his health and he wasn’t able to work with me. He’s kind of been rehabbing since and I’ve talked to him in the past 10 days and he seems to be doing much better and we’ve again touched on the fact that we haven’t forgotten about getting together and listening to the ideas. But it will happen sometime when it’s supposed to happen. Probably towards the end of this summer.
At the very least, you’re probably just glad to be back in touch with Mick and have that friendship again.
Yeah, we mended fences when we were rehearsing for the Songwriters Hall of Fame and you know, the relationship has been very friendly and very upfront since we’ve spoken to each other at least a half a dozen times on the phone. You know, I’m always leaving messages for him if I hear that he has had a setback, that we’re thinking of him and he’s in our prayers and stuff. He calls back and he gets pissed off because of his health situation. There’s nothing he can do about it except try and get better. We end up having a good laugh and more or less reaffirm our willingness to get together and work on some songs for whatever avenue they take when they’re done. I’m sure we’ll find someplace for them to go. But it’s just great to hang around him now, I mean, he is a musical mentor to me. And the fact that we’re speaking — and the bonus is that we’re even going to write some songs together, so how good can it be, you know?
Lou Gramm the Voice of Foreigner and Starship Starring Mickey Thomas, 7 p.m. Saturday, June 20, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Park. Tickets: $37.50-$125, hrrocksinonorthfieldpark.com.