INTERVIEW BY MARKO SYRJÄLÄ AND JARNO HUOVILA
LIVE PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJÄLÄ
Jeff Pilson, having replaced Juan Croucier in the ranks of DOKKEN after the recording of their debut album BREAKING THE CHAINS in 1983, will always be best remembered as an irreplaceable part of the band’s classic lineup, together with Don Dokken, George Lynch, and Mick Brown. Infused with his songwriting talent and stage presence, DOKKEN began their ascent towards the top of the rock world. Over the next couple of years, they released a string of platinum-selling albums, TOOTH AND NAIL in 1984, UNDER LOCK AND KEY the following year, and finally BACK FOR THE ATTACK in 1987. However, at the height of their success, the band split up due to internal struggles while still putting out the live album BEAST FROM THE EAST in 1988. A reunion of the classic lineup finally took place in 1994 and resulted in two albums, DYSFUNCTIONAL and SHADOWLIFE. After George Lynch’s final exit, Jeff stuck around for one more album, ERASE THE SLATE, before opting to follow suit. In addition to DOKKEN, Jeff has toured and recorded three studio albums with DIO: STRANGE HIGHWAYS in 1993, ANGRY MACHINES in 1996, and most recently MASTER OF THE MOON in 2004. He has also cut albums together with THE MCAULEY SCHENKER GROUP, LYNCH/PILSON, WAR & PEACE, and FOREIGNER, to mention a few. In 2001 he appeared and recorded as a member of the fictional heavy metal band STEEL DRAGON in the movie ROCKSTAR. In this interview, Jeff Pilson shares the ups and downs of his career with these groups and more…
You’re presently on tour with the classic AOR band FOREIGNER, which you’re now a member of. After a long history of working with heavy metal giants such as DOKKEN and DIO, among others, how did you find yourself in this most unpredictable position?
Jason Bonham, our drummer, and I did a movie together seven years ago called ROCKSTAR. We had a good relationship as a rhythm section and enjoyed working together. In 2004 when he started working with Mick Jones, he kind of talked Mick into restarting FOREIGNER. So they gave me a call, and I came down and started playing, and the chemistry was there immediately.
Were you more than casually familiar with FOREIGNER’s material before actually being asked to join the band?
I knew the stuff… well, like most people, I knew the hits, but I wasn’t a fan of the earlier records.
This new lineup of FOREIGNER is rather interesting. For example, in addition to yourself on bass and of course Jason Bonham [BONHAM] on drums, you’ve got Kelly Hansen [HURRICANE] on vocals. How did you find him?
After Jason brought me in, we did a show with another singer, a benefit show, and that’s kind of when Mick [Jones] said, “Hey, I think I want to do this again.” We tried out some other singers, but Kelly was just perfect when he came down. He blew my mind. So we started doing shows, and everything took off.
The new lineup has now re-recorded some classic FOREIGNER material. Was there a specific purpose for that at this point?
The reason is possible licensing for movies and whatnot. We just did the song “Juke Box Hero” for a video game called “Guitar Hero.” It’s a little bit different, but they wanted the original’s vibe, so we got that going. It’s just nice to have the new band involved.
The last studio album by FOREIGNER, MR MOONLIGHT, came out in 1995. Now that the band has been kind of reborn, are there any plans in place to finally record a new one?
The plan is to have one by the end of ’08. We go home in a couple of weeks, so that’s when we’ll start writing.
This brings us to the next question. Since there are obviously so many great songwriters in the band now, what kind of material can we expect from FOREIGNER in this new millennium?
I wish I could tell you for sure. We did some writing last year, but really what we did was just a lot of jamming just to kind of feel things out, and it was great. It sounded like a young rock band, really. We didn’t really have the time to work and finish songs off, and we just got started. We had too many gigs, so at the beginning of next year, we’re going to try and concentrate a little more on getting material together. If it sounded like when we were jamming last year, it’d sound like a rock band playing rock music. What a thought! [laughs]
Since this lineup could be viewed as sort of a “supergroup,” especially with so many songwriters, each with their distinctive style, are you confident that there won’t be any conflict in this regard?
That won’t happen because we all have immense respect for Mick, and he’s the guy that leads the ship, no question about that. I have infinite faith in his ideas of where to go, so that won’t be a problem in this band. I appreciate the compliment of “supergroup,” but it’s a “supergroup” with leadership. Everybody really gets along, and there’s chemistry. I don’t foresee ego battles since we’ve all been around enough to know about them and want to avoid them. I mean, I was in a band that was nothing but ego battles. [laug
THE DOKKEN YEARS
In the early days of DOKKEN, after the release of the BREAKING THE CHAINS album, how did you come to replace Juan Croucier?
I had just moved to Los Angeles. Juan left to join RATT basically the day that RATT got their record deal. When that happened, Don Dokken called Mike Varney, who I’ve played with many times, and asked if he knew any singing bass players. My name came up because I had just moved to L.A., and it worked out perfectly. I went down to play, and it was perfect.
How much of an effect did the incredible success of the TOOTH AND NAIL album, which ended up selling over a million copies in the US alone, have on the band member’s lives?
What’s funny is that to us, it felt very gradual because I joined in 1983 before the BREAKING THE CHAINS even came out. I toured that record, and we started working together, so it felt like a long time for us before anything happened. Especially because we had friends like RATT, QUIET RIOT, and MÖTLEY CRÜE, who seemed like they were becoming huge stars overnight, it felt like we were taking forever. But did it change our lives? Sure, I mean things become different because suddenly you get phone calls from people who wouldn’t call you before and that kind of thing.
Even by the time, DOKKEN was selling albums by the millions, and you kept touring in support of other bands. Why was it like that?
That was our management’s decision. Their feeling was that it’s better to be a killer opener and not take the responsibilities for a tour and wait as long as possible to headlining. By the time we headline, people will be really, really excited about it. This would have been fine had we not broken up. That was the only problem; we never got to that part.
Speaking of the break up in 1988, how long before could you see it coming, or did you?
Well, when we did the song “Dream Warriors” for the “Nightmare on Elm Street” film, things were still going fairly well. I started getting edges of it during the making of BACK FOR THE ATTACK probably, I could feel the tension, and we were really falling apart in a lot of ways. Then it happened for sure on tour itself.
Whose idea was it to record a song for the soundtrack?
Our management because they were very close with Wes Craven, the guy who did the “Nightmare” series.
After all these years, would you ever consider taking part in yet another DOKKEN reunion someday?
Here’s the honest truth, I would never say never to it, but at this point, it just doesn’t seem like something that would make a lot of sense. I think Don is fairly happy right now because he’s got the band to himself, you know what I mean? Why would you want other guys to come in and have to share it? It just wasn’t an enjoyable working experience the last couple of years. Unless I thought it was going to be different, I wouldn’t want to do that. If we worked stuff out and if it could be a little different, then yeah, I could see it happening. It would have to be with George. It’s the only way it could be.
Speaking of George, what’s your relationship with him presently, any new ventures in the planning?
George and I talk frequently. He and I, we’re neighbors now, we talk all the time. He goes to the same gym that my wife does, and in fact, our wives are good friends. George is doing great, he’s got a new project called SOULS OF WE, and I just played seven songs on that. I’ve heard most of the material, and it’s really good, really exciting.
How did you like working with Reb Beach on DOKKEN’s ERASE THE SLATE album?
I loved it, but at this point, now to go back would be a little anticlimactic. That’s not Reb’s fault. It’s just that if we were going to bother to have a reunion, I think it would have to be the original guys. Maybe someday it will happen; maybe someday it will make sense, who knows?
WAR & PEACE
When did you first get the idea to start the WAR & PEACE project? Was it right after the disbandment of DOKKEN in the late ’80s?
The original WAR & PEACE started because DOKKEN was kind of falling apart. I could see the writing on the wall. I started writing with a friend of mine by the name of Michael Diamond; he and I wrote a lot of the early stuff. We started working together probably in 1986, but I wasn’t planning on leaving DOKKEN. We just sort of started writing material and came up with the concept. The band was called FLESH & BLOOD at that point, although it wasn’t really a band. Then after the “Monsters of Rock” tour in 1988, DOKKEN did break up, and I got Vinny Appice, and a guy named Randy Hansen came in to play guitar. We recorded what has now been put out as THE FLESH AND BLOOD SESSIONS [released in 1999]. That was really an exciting project, and I wish we had just gone in and finished the whole record because what we ended up doing was releasing demos essentially. It was really a tight band, a great band. Then one thing left to another, and I ended up with the WAR & PEACE [lineup] that came out with the TIME CAPSULE [released in 1994] record. Right as that was starting to have momentum and we were talking to labels, all of a sudden, the whole NIRVANA thing hit, and that was the end of that.
Why didn’t Vinnie Appice stick around with the WAR & PEACE project at the time?
I don’t remember all the details, but he went to play with that group WORLD WAR III. We were kind of struggling to get a deal, and WWIII had a deal. I think that’s kind of what happened. Vinnie’s a good friend.
The last WAR & PEACE album, “The Walls Have Eyes,” came out in 2004. What is the current status of that band?
Basically, I’ve been talking to some labels about maybe doing another studio record. It’s hard to say because I’ve to do the FOREIGNER record first, so it’s probably going to be at least a year away. Once we get this FOREIGNER record written and well underway, I’ll start writing for a WAR & PEACE record. I’ve got a live album sitting in the can that I want to release, but I talked to some record labels, and they weren’t interested in releasing just a live record. But they were interested in a studio record, so when I’m ready to do a studio record, maybe I’ll do a little package deal. There’s some great playing on that record, Mitch Curry is a fabulous guitar player, and people need to hear him. Plus, we do some obscure DOKKEN songs on there that DOKKEN hadn’t played in years.
THE DIO YEARS
You have a long history of working with DIO, first on the STRANGE HIGHWAYS and ANGRY MACHINES albums in the ’90s and more recently on the MASTER OF THE MOON record. How did you end up becoming a member of the band in 1993?
Well, first WAR & PEACE broke up in March 1992. It was like the next day, and I’m not exaggerating, that Don Dokken called me up and said he was working on another solo record and asked if I would be interested in writing it, and I said, “Yeah, sure.” So we started working together, and instantly our songwriting thing clicked, and pretty soon, it sounded like DOKKEN. That basically led to the DOKKEN DYSFUNCTIONAL record, the basics of that. We worked for close to a year, and my feeling was that I wouldn’t mind writing or working with him, but I didn’t really want to be in the band if it was a Don Dokken solo thing. If we were going to do DOKKEN, that was different, but at that point, we weren’t. Then one day, Vinnie [Appice] and Ronnie [James Dio] came over to my house because we’re all neighbors. They had been working with Jimmy Bain, if I’m not mistaken, and there were some problems. They said, “Do you know any bass players?” and I said, “Yeah, ME!” So that moment, we went literally down the street to their rehearsal place and started jamming, and it just fell together immediately. That was an amazing year.
The STRANGE HIGHWAYS record, the first DIO album after Ronnie’s reunion with BLACK SABBATH had gone to shambles, was quite a departure from the traditional DIO sound, wouldn’t you say?
I wish it had sounded a little different because I felt so good about the material when we were doing it. I loved the record and was really excited about the way it all came together. I wasn’t pleased with the final sound of the record, but other than that, I was pleased about it. I’ve heard stuff off it recently, and the sound still bugs me, but I think some great songs on there got totally overlooked.
The follow-up album ANGRY MACHINES three years later was an even larger step off the beaten path and remained probably one of the least celebrated milestones of Dio’s career. What are your views on that particular record?
I wouldn’t know how to answer that, really. I wasn’t in the band at that point, actually. They asked me if I would work on the album with them and write; they had most of the album written, I came in towards the end. I certainly had a good time recording the record, but I understand how people feel about it. I sort of had a different take on it. I mean, I was into the material. I see what people don’t get about it, but I had a very positive experience with that record. It wasn’t as powerful as the STRANGE HIGHWAYS thing for me. STRANGE HIGHWAYS was a very magical record and a very magical time. Any time I get to work with Ronnie and Vinnie together especially, I’ll take it.
The guitar player for DIO at the time, Tracy G, received a lot of criticism for his part on those records; ANGRY MACHINES especially, didn’t he?
Yes, I know. I understand why, but I enjoyed playing with Tracy. I especially enjoyed jamming with him. He was really fun to jam with, and he’s a great guy. Was he the right guitar player for DIO? Probably not. I think if that had been a different band if we had called it something else, people wouldn’t have criticized it as much. Calling it DIO gave us the opportunity to go out and play.
How did you end up going from DIO back to DOKKEN again?
In 1993 I considered myself a permanent member of the band [DIO]. What happened after that is, I mean, I was in it for a couple of years, and then when the DOKKEN thing happened, I sat down with Ronnie, and even he said, “You’ve got to go do the DOKKEN thing. Fans would be disappointed if you didn’t do that. DIO can carry on without you.” So even Ronnie gave his blessing on that, and that’s when I left. I did one other tour with them in South America in 1997 when I had some downtime from DOKKEN. And now I did another record just a few years ago, so I think we have an ongoing relationship.
Indeed, you’re featured on the most recent DIO studio album, MASTER OF THE MOON. How did that happen?
Another great experience. At the time that they did MASTER OF THE MOON, I had decided not to go on the road again. I figured I was done, and then the whole FOREIGNER thing came and took me by surprise. Basically, Craig and Ronnie had written everything by the time that I got involved. It was a great time. When I get a chance to work with these guys, I take it every time.
DIO FAMILY STUFF
In addition to appearing on the POWER PROJECT record with Vinny Appice, you ended up producing the album of his new band, 3 LEGGED DOGG, called FROZEN SUMMER that came out last year. Would you tell me some more about that project?
Those guys are actually all really good friends of mine. Vinnie called me up and said, “Could we record some stuff in your studio?” and I said, “Yeah. Sure, no problem.” So they came over, and one thing just led to another. They never formally asked me to produce or anything like that. It just kind of happened. I really got involved; I liked what they were doing a lot. I love working with Vinnie and Brian Young, the guitar player, was really good. Chas [West] was singing great, and I love Jimmy [Bain]. So it just sort of happened naturally, organically. It was great.
In the early ’90s, you also worked for two other DIO alumni, Craig Goldy and Scott Warren. During this time, you appeared on Craig’s solo album “Insufficient Therapy” as well. Can you tell us more about these collaborations?
Craig was doing the solo record, so I came in and wrote and sang a couple of songs with him, which was really fun, by the way. While we were working together, it was separate from our project, which was a progressive band. One of these days, I’ll put out the demos. It’s really cool stuff, very out there.
You’ve worked together with Craig Goldy in more recent times, too, haven’t you?
Yes, I actually just did something again with him, the second BENEDICTUM record. I produced their first record [UNCREATION in 2005], and we just finished their second record [SEASONS OF TRAGEDY], which is going to come out in January. It’s one of the best metal records that I’ve ever been involved with. There’s a cover of “Balls to the Walls” by ACCEPT, and I play bass on that. At the last minute, the record company wanted a bonus track for Europe, so we did “Catch the Rainbow” by RAINBOW, and I played acoustic bass on that, and Craig Goldy came in and played guitar. You would not believe how good he sounds doing the Blackmore stuff. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. It’s an acoustic version of the song that we put together literally from start to mix in a day. It was like magic.
ODDS & ENDS
In 1992 you were featured on bass on the last release by THE MCAULEY SCHENKER GROUP titled “M.S.G.” How did you end up working with “the Mad Axeman”?
In 1991, we did it, and then we did an acoustic tour in the summer of 1992. I honestly don’t remember, but somehow James [Kottak] and I ended up playing on the record. James and I had done a lot of records together at that point. We just came in, and it was so much fun jamming with Michael every day. And then when they did the acoustic, they had another guy on guitar, and he couldn’t do some dates, so they called me up and said, “Hey, can you go on tour?” I said, “I guess.” and they said, “The problem is, it’s tomorrow.”. I had to stay up all night, drink a lot of coffee, learn these songs and go in and practice really fast. It was really fun because I love acoustic guitar and the way I always looked at it was that I was getting free guitar lessons from Michael Schenker.
What about the WILD HORSES project? Can you tell us a little about that?
That was a period when I had WAR & PEACE together, but I was doing a lot of studio work, especially with Keith Olsen. Basically, that was just in a period when James [Kottak] and I were doing a bunch of records with Keith Olsen. Again it was the same thing. I had WAR & PEACE together, so I couldn’t actually join the band, but I sure had a lot of fun making that record.
There was a rumor floating around in the early ’90s of collaboration between yourself, John Sykes, and Kip Winger being in the works. Was there any truth to that rumor?
It was being talked about. John Kalodner was trying to get that together, and I honestly don’t remember what happened to that. I never actually talked to John and Kip about it, but business people were doing it. I told them I was all up for it, at least to see what it was like. I mean, I love John Sykes’ playing, and Kip’s a really good friend of mine, so that would have been a very natural thing. I don’t know what Kip and I would have done, but I suppose one of us would have played guitar while the other one’s playing bass.
As you mentioned before, in 2001, you had, together with Jason Bonham and Zakk Wylde, a role in the “Rock Star” feature film. How did you end up becoming an actor?
The guy producing the music for the soundtrack was Tom Werman, who produced DOKKEN’s TOOTH AND NAIL record. They were going to have an actor play the bass player in the film, but he called me up and asked if I’d play in the studio and I said agreed. So I came in, and we started rehearsing together as a band, and the director came down and watched the rehearsals and just liked the chemistry of the band and thought it looked real because it was. So they offered me the part, it was great. I think we spent about three weeks rehearsing and writing, and putting the material together. The material was already written, but we arranged it. The idea was to make it sound like a band. The live parts were done during the filming of the movie at the L.A. Sports Arena; most of it was staged, but we did do one live show, and they used a lot of that for the audience stuff and everything.
Thank you kindly for the interview, Jeff!
FOR MORE INFO VISIT: WWW.JEFFPILSON.COM and WWW.FOREIGNERONLINE.COM
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