In 2009, Foreigner released the album Can't Slow Down, which comes with a disc of their remixed hits and a DVD of live footage. Their guitarist Mick Jones has been there from the start, when their first single "Feels Like The First Time" launched a string of hits that includes "Double Vision," "Urgent" and "I Want To Know What Love Is." Jones is the British side of Foreigner, which he formed with lead singer Lou Gramm in 1976. Foreigner's new frontman is Kelly Hansen, who you can see in the clips below for "Cold As Ice" and "Juke Box Hero."
Carl Wiser (SF): Mick, I was watching your DVD, and I came across that part where you're talking about how you went to Paris for a month and you stayed for 6 years.
Mick Jones: Yep.
SF: Can you talk about how some of those life experiences have shown up in your songs?
Mick: Yeah. Well, at an early age I found myself in Paris. And at the time in Paris, French artists were primarily doing covers of American songs, or English songs. And after a while I got into a position where I started writing for several of the bigger stars in France. We were sort of pioneering writing original songs, and then having them translated into French. That gave me my ground work in writing, and also in production. We would travel to America, go back to England, and record in all these different places. Gradually I became comfortable in the studio, and progressed in my writing; I had a number of hits in France, and I got about as far as I could go. But that was an interesting period, because it was in my formative years. I was about 18 at the time when I first started writing, and that gave me my start. I used that time to really craft my ideas about writing. And then I went back to England, since I'd gotten about as far as I could go in France and I was really determined to go back to England and eventually make it to America, so that's what I did. I hooked up with Gary Wright, and we started a writing partnership. I took a back seat in the beginning - I was in a band called Spooky Tooth at the time. And I suppose that was where my previous experiences gelled into something and morphed into getting back and concentrating on more of the rock side of writing. And you know, it gave me an opportunity to develop my style. So throughout those years of paying dues until I was about 28, 29, I finally got the courage up to start writing songs myself, and developing a style that was based on experiences that I had during my 20s. That was the foundation for writing the first songs that I wrote for the band. I'd had a lot of experience traveling around the world, making it as a musician, surviving in Paris, and I had a number of relationships which I drew from. The songs that I write are mainly focused on relationships, on emotional issues. I've never gone into any political or message-type songs, as far as I know.
"Feels Like The First Time" was the first song I wrote for the new chapter. And that lead subsequently to putting a band together. There I was, finally the primary writer, and that song set the ball rolling for me. When that first album came out, it was just a question of, Well, we've set a huge precedent, where do I go from here? So I had to work pretty hard at those songs and try to hone my craft again. There was definitely a lot of pressure in those early years, and there still is. It's a challenge to write songs that are accepted by a large audience and to retain integrity about what you do. I've been fortunate that a lot of those songs have stood the test of time, they still get a lot of radio play, there's still a lot of popularity attached to them. And to me that means a lot, that I have a worldwide audience, and pretty much anywhere we go in the world, they're aware of the body of work that I've been able to achieve.
SF: Well, if you live long enough, you're going to experience many of the things that you're talking about in these songs. What are some of the specific songs that drew on actual events?
Mick: Well, "Feels Like The First Time" was written about a bit of a change in my life. I was coming out of a previous marriage with somebody I'd met in France. I'd gone back to England and then finally made the journey to America while I was in the band Spooky Tooth. And to me it was this challenge of really going for a new start in my life. And that just came naturally out of the blue. People probably thought, Well, this is a song that he's written specifically for this album. In hindsight I guess that's a natural feeling, but to me it was signifying a new start. I'd met somebody, I got re-married and moved with her to America, and that was the song that described that experience.
What else - well, "Cold As Ice" was written after watching the movie Mommy Dearest with Joan Crawford, and whimsical as it was, that was the inspiration. Subconsciously you draw from stuff, things that happened in your past, things that came out of relationships, the pain and the heartache of love that is intense and then so deep, and then suddenly you lose it. The whole gamut of emotional feeling that you go through in a relationship. Sometimes they end, and sometimes they last, and when it's the final breakup, you're left with the memories of that relationship. So I go for that quite a bit. You're kind of digging down deep into your well of significant things that you recall from sometimes near tragedy that you go through at the time.
There was a song on the Agent Provocateur album called "That Was Yesterday," which is a song about a relationship that failed, which you're still clinging onto. You still feel that there's a chance to resurrect it. Some of these songs require really digging down deep, and sometimes they bring out very painful moments that you've had. A lot of the songs that I've written of that kind of emotion, they bring me to tears. They're painful to recall.
There's a song called "Waiting For A Girl Like You," which I literally had no control over, it just came out. I had no idea what it meant, but it got to the point where I couldn't even be in the studio when we were recording it sometimes, it left such a deep impression on me. But it ended up being a song that brought a lot of people together. I hear these days that it's a song that a lot of people play at their weddings. It's the kind of song that the pen does the writing, and you don't even know where it came from. But I feel that it's stuff that's floating around at times and you have to grasp it - it's kind of flying around in the air, and you just have to be open enough to let that flow through you. Sometimes it's sort of mystical where these ideas come from. Sometimes you have an idea about a song, or you have a title that you base the rest of the song on, but sometimes it comes just literally from an unknown area. You'll be thinking about something completely different, and suddenly you get that inspiration. I usually know when it's happening, and I just let it flow and try not to interfere with it - just try and deliver what that thought, those feelings, mean.
SF: Is there another example of a song where that happened to you?
Mick: "I Want To Know What Love Is" also started off on more of a personal level. I'd been through a lot of relationships that eventually failed, and still searching for something that could really endure. And that sort of took a life of its own as well. It became more of a universal feeling. I adjusted that during the recording of it, and ended up putting a gospel choir on it. And you know, realized suddenly that I'd written almost a spiritual song, almost a gospel song. Sometimes, you feel like you had nothing to do with it, really. You're just putting it down on paper, or coming up with a melody that will bring the meaning of the song out, bring the emotion out in the song.
SF: There's a story that the president of your record company cried when he first heard the song.
Mick: Yeah, it's true. It was Ahmet Ertegun. Part of my dream at the beginning was to be on Atlantic Records, because of the heritage: all the R&B stars of the '50s, people like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. It meant so much to me and my growing up in music. So it meant a lot to have Ahmet Ertigan, who had been a part of that magical era and a person who I respected and looked up to, come into the studio. I took him aside and I said, "I have a song to play you, Ahmet." I took him into the studio, and we just sat there in two chairs, and I put the song on. Halfway through I looked over and indeed, there were tears coming out of his eyes. I thought, Whoa, this is a major moment for me. I've been able to impress this man who has heard some of the best, and produced some of the best music in the world. And here he is, and I've reached him emotionally. By the end of the song we were both in tears. Wonderful moments like that, they're just very meaningful.
SF: What do you think of the Mariah Carey version of that song?
Mick: I think she's actually retained the integrity of the song. You know, the arrangement is very similar to the original. They haven't tampered with the song too much. She's captured a certain emotional thing, a feeling. And you know, it's always flattering to have people cover your songs. Well, sometimes not so flattering (laughs) depending on who it is. But I think she's put a lot of emotion into it. You can feel that she's gotten inside of the song.
SF: Was "Double Vision" about a hockey player?
Mick: Yeah. Well, that's where the title came from. We were at a hockey game. I was an avid Rangers fan in those days, and Lou and I went to a game, and the goaltender for the Rangers got a concussion, and it was announced over the PA that he was taken off and was suffering from double vision. I'd never heard that term before, and we picked up on it. And then that led to the title for that song. I know it was received by a majority of the public as a drug song. I didn't mind that, you know. It wasn't the intention in the beginning, but that's how a lot of people interpreted it.
SF: Who was the goalie?
Mick: It was John Davidson. And we've had a laugh over that several times. I've met him, you know, we always bring that back.
SF: Who was the "Dirty White Boy"?
Mick: For me, it was Elvis Presley. To me, he always was that dirty white boy who changed the shape of music completely. It was talking about the kind of heritage that he left, and I think that had an effect on all the musicians that came after, like Mick Jagger - he was also a dirty white boy. Elvis paved the way for all that.
SF: Tell me about "Juke Box Hero."
Mick: That stemmed from an experience that we had, I think it was in Cincinnati. We'd gone to the arena for a sound check, and it was pouring down rain, and there were a bunch of fans waiting at the door when we went in. When we came back for the show later on, all that was left was one lonely fan, a young guy waiting out there in the rain, soaked to the skin. I thought, well, he's waiting like five hours here, maybe we'll take him in and give him a glimpse of what happens backstage at a show. And this kid was just mesmerized with everything. I saw this look in his eyes, and I thought, he's seeing this for the first time, he's having this experience. And I just imagined what was going through his mind. And I'd been toying with this title, "Juke Box Hero," I thought it was almost a satire on what we did and how it was perceived from an audience level, and public. That's how it originated.
Mick co-produced all of Foreigner's albums, and also produced 5150 with Van Halen and Storm Front with Billy Joel. Mutt Lange co-produced Foreigner's 1981 album 4, which contains "Juke Box Hero," "Urgent" and "Waiting for a Girl Like You."
SF: You've worked with Mutt Lange, who is known for being absolutely meticulous. What are you like as a producer?
Mick: Well, I was very meticulous at the beginning. Probably over the top in that way. Mutt and I shared that fanaticism in a way. In spite of that, we were able to still keep the goal in mind of what we were trying to achieve in these songs. We locked horns at the beginning, both pretty strong-minded about what we wanted to achieve, and we gradually discovered that it was the same thing. He drew a lot out of me. He was the first person that insisted on listening to every single idea I had on every single cassette tape, or any ideas I had anywhere, down on paper or lyrically, phonetically, instrumentally. He pulled songs like "Urgent" out of that, and contributed a lot to "Juke Box Hero." It ended up being a great relationship. And indeed, we spent a lot of time in the studio making that album. Probably more than we needed, to be truthful. But those were the days of excessive studio experiences (laughing). These days, I draw on that experience every time I try to produce or co-produce, because I always felt that I could benefit from somebody else's ears. I still learn. I still feel I've got a lot to learn, even with the amount of experience I've had, I'm open. I still try and keep an open mind about even criticism. Instead of taking an affront, I try and learn and try to profit from that.
SF: Tell me about producing 5150.
Mick: Wow. That was an adventure. It was on the heels of the departure of David Lee Roth, and when I entered into it, I took it as a really big challenge. I'd known Sammy Hagar for a number of years, and I think he felt that he needed somebody to work with him on the vocals and in some cases the melodies. I didn't participate in the writing, but I think my input there was working with Sammy to really draw the emotion out of his songs. You know, Eddie's a stunning guitar player, and I certainly didn't have much to teach him. (laughs) But I think we both learned from the experience. My approach as a producer as well, I think that benefited the album. The personalities in the band - he and Alex - certainly created some excitement. The brothers were going through a particularly charged emotional relationship at the time, and there were some crazy situations that went on there. But I think all in all, my main contribution was drawing the most I could out of Sammy's vocal performances, and really trying to dig down inside the songs and bring out the right feelings.
SF: I'm getting a sense that your sound, what you do to create these songs people want to hear, is more about emotion than it is about turning the right knob.
Mick: Oh yeah, definitely. Completely, actually. I always work with accomplished engineers, because I feel I need the space to concentrate on the musical content of the song. I think that's why Billy Joel was attracted to what I could contribute - he respected me as a songwriter, and felt that I could be more critical about the writing phase of the project, and eventually bring the songs to the right conclusion.
SF: I was surprised that you didn't do the production on the remixed CD of all those classic Foreigner songs.
Mick: Well, I went through that experience way back, you know. And I wanted to keep that memory and not really tamper with it myself. I had a lot of faith in Marti Frederiksen, and he had a lot of respect for the songs. And it was was not really tampering with them in any creative way. It was just enhancing them sound-wise, perhaps with the benefit of modern technology, and trying to re-create the feeling that you would have had back in the day when you just bought the record. I'm really sort of taking the cotton wool off the surface. These recordings have gone through all kinds of different processes when they've been released over the years, and eventually, they lose a lot of the sound quality that they had at the beginning. It was really an attempt to bring them back, add to them dynamically, and work on the drum sounds a little bit, and in some cases even discover little subliminal sounds that are there that you may not have heard so well, and generally I feel that they've got a new fresh sound to them, and I'm quite happy with them. A lot of people notice. You could say it's subtle, but I think if you A and B them, put the old one on and then the new one side by side, you'd notice that there's definitely a lot more punch and clarity in them.
SF: The first single, "When It Comes To Love," is a pretty emotional song. Can you tell me about that?
Mick: That was an experience, too. It's quite personal, so I don't know how far I could go into it. (laughs) But I'd had a romantic interlude after a pretty painful divorce, and this was a breath of fresh air into my life. But that ended up not going much further, and I was emotionally a bit unsettled at the time. Then after it ended, I felt regret about it. And I felt that maybe after all I should have put more into the relationship, and maybe I'd missed a chance. "It could have been you" was basically the message in the song. And was, in fact, the original title of the song. It also reflected some of the times that I've messed up the relationships I'd had, and I'm a bit introspective about it.
SF: What's one of the other songs on the album that you think is a really strong track?
Mick: I'm obviously attached to all of the songs, in a way. There's something that was captured on the song called "In Pieces" that moves me quite a bit. It's a powerful, powerful song. And the whole track to me has really got a drive to it. Although you'd term it as a slower song, it's not a ballad, it's a strong, strong song. Again, it's a relationship song about a heart being shattered. Kelly does a great vocal performance on it. He's put his heart and soul into these songs, and you can feel it. I think there's a lot of conviction in the vocal performances throughout the album.
SF: Yeah, there's a degree of soul to it.
Mick: Yep. Well, he's got that sort of background, too. The initial magic with Lou, is that we had that foundation to draw from, and the same inspirations throughout our careers - the people that had inspired us early on. We were always looking for the integrity of influences that we've had growing up, and then developing those influences into a style of our own.
SF: The last track on the album - "Fool For You Anyway" - was produced by Mark Ronson. (Who produced the Amy Winehouse album Back To Black.)
Mick: Well, Mark is my stepson. I've raised him from the age of 7. He always showed an intense interest in music right from the get-go, and I suppose growing up in that household with me, a lot of it rubbed off. I'd always play him the latest stuff that I was doing, and he was in some ways affected by that, I'm sure. He started out with a little band that he had here in New York, and even though he's a very bright guy - he did very well at school - he still had the time to really concentrate on his music. And then that took him into DJing, and he went through a pretty long spell building up a reputation as a great DJ. And that sort of morphed into production for him, and gradually he built up a great reputation as a producer. Right from the early days, from when he was in his teens, we'd talk about putting the idea together: "Well, if you get to a certain point, maybe we can work together." And it took a while, but we were talking about a year ago, and I said, "How about we work on something on this new album I'm doing?" He was really up for it, and "Fool For You Anyway" was one of his favorite songs from early on. He chose that one to produce. And I let him do his thing. He's a big fan of that sort of late '60s, The Band era, also a big soul music fan, and he's really brought that kind of a pure sort of respecting that era kind of a sound to it. It's kind of a retro sound on there, definitely, with the brass and the live recording to an old Ampex tape machine that he uses.
We spoke with Mick October 23, 2009. Get more Foreigner at their official site.