Tom Gimbel is a multi-instrumentalist who has earned his chops by playing on several tours with Aerosmith in the 80s and ‘90s. After that seven year stint with the “Bad Boys from Boston,” Tom hooked up with Foreigner in 1995 and has been a part of the band ever since.
Foreigner is out on tour this year celebrating their 40th Anniversary. They will be playing a sold out show on April 30th at the Hard Rock Rocksino. NEO Music Scene got the opportunity to chat with Tom Gimbel to discuss his career, his tenure with Foreigner and the upcoming 40th Anniversary tour.
Greg Drugan: Hey Tom, thanks for taking some time with me, where are you at today?
Tom Gimbel: Sure! We are just on a mini break, so I’m home sweet home in Sherman Oaks, California. We are recharging our batteries, getting ready to head out on the road next week!
GD: You guys are playing the Rocksino here in Cleveland at the end of the month. I believe it’s the second or third time you sold the place out! Your fans love you here in Cleveland.
TG: Wow, that’s good news! I really love that town. It’s known for being a great rock town and not because of the Hall of Fame, it was before that.
GD: When did you first start playing musical instruments and were you in your high school band?
TG: I started playing instruments around the house as a young child. It was nursery school or kindergarten or I believe they call it preschool now. I had like a triangle, and we were putting together a percussion section and I was always singing. I would sing at any time! I would pick up songs, dance around and sing. My parents would take me to weddings and they would put me up on a chair and I would sing with the band. I was never shy.
But the real instrument I picked up was the drums. My parents took me to a teacher and my parents were hoping he would say I was crazy because I was only in the third grade. The teacher didn’t say that, he said “This kid has some talent and you should start him on some lessons.” My father was visibly upset, but my mom picked up the baton and drove me to those lessons.
Yes, I was in the school band starting in the fifth grade with the drums. I stayed the drummer until sophomore year when I switched to the electric guitar. Moving those drums was not fun!
GD: That’s great, I was a drummer myself back in school. It’s amazing how many people started out on the drums.
TG: Yeah! Lou Gramm, Steven Tyler and of course Phil Collins. So many great musicians started out with that rhythmic base.
GD: Did playing music come easy for you?
TG: The rhythm part was always natural, it’s an innate thing that some of us have. When it came time to practice for piano lessons or guitar lessons or sax lessons, no- I was a delinquent just like every other kid. We always practiced an hour before the lesson! (laughs) We always crammed it in right before the lesson. I was a terrible student until I got to college because you can’t get away with that anymore. You either have to drop out or start practicing six hours a day. That was at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. It took a while for that to sink in.
I had the flute and I thought I was Jethro Tull or the flute player in Traffic. One of the first days I was there, this girl just picked up the flute and completely blew my doors off! Like, doors removed! My jaw was on the ground. I was thinking, this is going to be different. So some things do come naturally for me, but I also like to work at it and that’s something I learned at Berklee.
GD: What is your favorite instrument to play and which one is the most challenging?
TG: Oh boy. My favorite instrument to play is probably singing. When I was in college, we had a rock band and I was the singer. Of all the ones (instruments) that I play, I would say hitting the high notes on the sax part in “Urgent” is the most challenging.
GD: Great. How many instruments do you play?
TG: Seven. I played harmonica for a while, especially when I was in Aerosmith. They had a song called “Don’t Get Mad, Get Even” and at the beginning, Steven is singing along with the harmonica. I remember playing the harmonica with those guys, but I eventually gave it up because it chews up your lips. Those metal rails sooner or later do some damage and I need those lips for the saxophone. So including the clarinet, it’s seven.
GD: Speaking of Aerosmith, what was it like touring with those guys? You did a seven year stint with them.
TG: It was a ton of fun, as much as you could imagine! They are such great people and they were so nice to me. I got to know them and we did a ton of stuff. We did one of the first MTV Unplugged. It was new back then and it was like 1990. It was so much fun, there was acoustic piano and that is a band that really shines in that setting. They were custom made for that. We had real flutes for the intro to “Dream On” and Steven played the harpsichord. It was wild! They were super gracious to me and we had a ton of laughs! As good as that was, Foreigner is even better because I get to play guitar! That’s my dream come true.
GD: How did you get hooked up with Foreigner?
TG: I was really lucky. A friend of mine saw me playing with John Butcher, this was before Aerosmith, and he knew I played keyboards, guitar and saxophone. That was Ricky Phillips, who’s actually the bass player in Styx. He gave my number to a guy at Atlantic Records when he heard they were looking for someone for Foreigner who played sax and guitar. It’s a pretty strange combination. Mick Jones brother, Kevin Jones called me and said “We are looking for a keyboard, sax, guitar, singing guy.” I said “You called the right number!”
GD: Wow! You’ve been in the band for over 20 years now, does it seem like it’s been that long?
TG: No, not at all! It seems like 20,000! (laughs) Like if I was a tire on a car, I would be nothing but steel belt! (laughs) No, it’s gone really fast. I don’t understand how it happened. I was the new guy, it seems like yesterday and now I’m the grizzled old veteran. I’m delighted.
GD: What is it like getting to play that iconic sax solo in “Urgent” every night, do you ever get nervous?
TG: The reason it’s a challenge because I haven’t played the saxophone in the show up until that point. I have to go from 0 to 1,000 miles an hour instantly. So that’s the challenge. If I can get everything ready to go, it’s just a matter of execution. When you have to execute under that much pressure, there’s no time to get nervous. If you start thinking, you can get in your own way. You can’t think and play at the same time. Like a baseball player, you can’t think when you’re swinging at a pitch, you just do it. Sometimes I keep myself from getting nervous by counting exit signs or lighting trusses, anything to keep your mind occupied. The problem with “Urgent” is I’m standing there, waiting to do it for the first half of the song! (laughs) Seriously, hitting that super high note, subconsciously, it’s like I’m clocking out. After the song is over, I’m like, “what happened?” I pour all my heart and soul into it.
GD: What is your favorite Foreigner song to play?
TG: I’m not sure if I have a favorite. I really enjoy all of them for various reasons. One of my favorite songs that Foreigner does is “That Was Yesterday.” I love the chord structure, and the melody and the lyrics and the message. Even though we remember everything that happen, we still move forward.
GD: It looks like you guys are playing some smaller venues right now, then you are headed to Europe and then back to the States for your big summer tour with Cheap Trick and Jason Bonham, what can fans expect from that show
TG: I think it’s going to be a great rock show. A lot of good guitar, great playing, great singing, great drumming. Everything that you would expect in a great rock show is going to be there. For Foreigner’s part, we are going to play the songs that people expect to hear and we are going to have a lot of fun doing it! Kelly Hanson just kills it and he’s been doing it for 12 years now! Kelly likes to get the audience involved, he wants them to stand up and jump around and not be on their phones! He’ll run around in the crowd and if he sees someone on their phone, he’ll take it and put it in his pocket! (laughs)
GD: I’ve noticed recently that a lot of people aren’t in the moment. They want to record or take a picture during the shows.
TG: That’s so true! That’s the message, be here in the moment! But it’s all done in fun and of course people are free to do whatever they want. We are used to people taping us because it’s just an ocean of cell phones. There’s no going back, that Pandora’s Box has been opened. We’re one of the bands that welcomes it, some bands aren’t that crazy about it but we welcome it.
GD: It has been mentioned that original members Lou Gramm, Rick Wills and Dennis Elliott might be playing a few songs with the band on this tour. Is it going to be every night or just a few select dates?
TG: We don’t really know for sure. What’s been suggested to me is that it’s going to be certain dates and certain cities. I think we are waiting to hear back and see how that goes. We did do a show where Dennis Elliott and Rick Wills from Foreigner folklore, came and played a show with us in St. Augustine, Florida and it’s a marvelous tradition. We do that whenever we are in Florida and I hope it happens more and more.
GD: Now is Mick Jones going to playing every date on the summer tour? I know he’s kinda been hit or miss and the last couple of times you’ve been in Cleveland he hasn’t been there.
TG: Yeah, I think he’s scheduled to do the big summer tour. He is scheduled to appear!
GD: I don’t believe you guys are scheduled to play Cleveland on your summer tour, but I plan on making the trek down to Pittsburgh to check out that triple bill.
TG: Awesome. It would be so great to see Mick and Lou on the same stage. They did that for the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2013 and I got to be there and be a part of that. It was so fun! All of those guys, when they get back together they start reminiscing and telling stories. It’s extremely heartwarming.
GD: Tom, thank you so much for your time. I look forward to seeing you in Cleveland at the end of the month and I wish you the best this summer!
TG: Thanks a lot Greg, it’s been great talking to you!
Check out Tom Gimbel along with the rest of Foreigner when they play their 40th Anniversary Tour at KeyBank Pavilion in Pittsburgh on August 12th. The band is playing the Hard Rock Rocksino on April 30th but that show is sold out!