Interviews

Interview: JEFF PILSON of Black Swan and Foreigner

The ex-Dokken bassist discusses his latest band, Black Swan

I first came across Jeff Pilson when he was playing bass with Dokken in 1986 on their Under Lock and Key tour in Belfast an unusual pairing with the more extreme metal of Accept. I last chatted to him a couple of years ago when we discussed the Foreigner release that he had produced and played on with an orchestra. Well, forward a few years and he is part of yet another Frontiers Records supergroup. However, the quality of the Black Swan debut release gives me the impression that it won’t just be an album-only project. I had the opportunity of another conversation with Jeff just before the album’s release.


ANTIHERO: The last time we talked, you were actually promoting a Foreigner album with an orchestra, but here you are with Black Swan, yet another musical project. You always seem to be busy working.

Jeff Pilson: Yes, I am. No rest for the wicked.Yeah, I love my musical projects. No question.

ANTIHERO: Okay. First of all, I want to ask you, how’s Robin? I mean it’s been well documented recently regarding his serious health situation and hospital admission.

Jeff Pilson: Well yeah, he got pretty sick, but he is doing great. He’s returning to theRaiding the Rock vault show on Saturday, so the day after tomorrow and he’s feeling great. So, he’s through it all. But man, it was a scare for a minute there.

ANTIHERO: That’s really great to hear that news. Regarding the idea of your new band, Black Swan then, I understand Frontiers Records approached you with the idea for the project.

Jeff Pilson: That’s correct.

ANTIHERO: But how did the actual band lineup come together?

Jeff Pilson: Well, I mean basically, Serafino – the head of Frontiers Records – and I talk frequently and he had mentioned he’d love to see another supergroup and I was about to tour with Whitesnake. So as soon as I started in, I spoke with Reb who I have a long-time friendship with. And well we had great songwriting chemistry together in Dokken 20 years ago. So, I asked Reb if he wanted to do it and he was excited about it.

So, as soon as he got on, Robin came to mind because Robin is just this great singer who I think has always been underrated, but he’s also a very, very dear friend of mine. So I thought, well here I’m working with a great friend and Reb. Robin’s a great friend and those two had never worked together before. And I just thought, man, the possibilities with those two guys is pretty phenomenal.

So, once the three of us were on board, we started writing and recording. Matt came in at the last minute because most of the records had been recorded at that point. But he came in and just kicked ass on the drums, did an amazing job and he’s the right guy. And if God willing, we can go play live, Matt is an amazing singer. And so live we would be the strongest vocal band out there because Reb’s a great singer as well. And hopefully, on the next record, we can get Matt in to do some background vocals because he is a phenomenal singer.

ANTIHERO: Schedule-wise, it must have been very difficult for all you guys to get together or did you do it just over the internet?

Jeff Pilson: No, no nothing on the internet. What happened was yes it is difficult to get together but what would happen is Reb would come out and stay with me for about a week at a time and we would write music together. And then we would send Robin and MP3 so he could start working on lyrics and then he would come to me. And sometimes what he had I wouldn’t touch because it was great as is. Sometimes we’d work on it together. There were all sorts of different combinations of that.

But for the most part, Robin and I did the lyrics together. Like I say, he did a bulk of the work himself. Couple songs I wrote the lyrics on, but he did a lot of work on his own and then we really sewed it all up together. So, it was always collaborative, just never all four of us at once.

ANTIHERO: Well creating an album, you used the title yourself, supergroup. Is it always a given, a guarantee that it’s going to end up good quality stuff? Or is it still a gamble given that it brings a weight of expectation with all your former bands?

Jeff Pilson: Well, yeah, I think, it’s always a gamble. I mean I had a really strong feeling about this because I knew that my songwriting chemistry with Reb and Robin were both really good because I’d worked with both of them before. And I instinctively knew it was going to be great. But having said that, until the rubber meets the road, you don’t really know how it’s going to turn out. You don’t know what Reb is going to bring out of Robin and Robin out of Reb. You never know those things.

And it turned out to be even beyond what I thought it was going to be, but I think that’s just luck and hard work. And the fact that everybody involved had an amazing attitude and really brought their A-game to this. I think everybody elevated everybody else. And that’s the sign of a good band and that’s the sign of good chemistry.

Black Swan

ANTIHERO: The band has brought out, I think, two videos so far to promote the album. I just wondered about the effect of bringing out a video. Obviously it’s different from the 80s era when you were bringing out videos with MTV and significant financial costs. I just wondered n terms of what impact do you feel that videos bring in this day and age, given that the musical climate’s changed?

Jeff Pilson: I mean, it’s basically a promotional tool. Hold on a second. Hello? (Jeff gets interrupted in his hotel room by security) . I’m at a hotel in Vegas. And ever since that shooting a couple of years ago the hotels are really paranoid, so they make these security checks and they’ll just walk into your room and check on you. It’s pretty weird. And that’s what just happened.

Anyways, so yeah, I mean videos are promotional tools. They’re a way for a record company to get the word out and to put it on Facebook and social media and get people to see and react to the band. It’s not like MTV was, but it’s a social media, smaller version of that. So, it’s important that you do the video to have it as a promotional tool.

I mean, at the end of the day it’s really about the music, but you need to do what you can so that people hear the music because you don’t have terrestrial radio very much anymore. There’s some internet radio and there are people like yourselves that help get the word out. But you don’t have the mass consumption stuff that you do, that a Beyonce has or whatever, or a Taylor Swift. So you have to take advantage of whatever you can get. And videos are an invaluable tool for that.

ANTIHERO: Is that something that the record company finances or is that something that you guys have to finance yourselves these days?

Jeff Pilson: Well, I think it’s different for a lot of bands, but in our case, yes. Frontier’s financed the videos as a promotion tool. And I mean, it would come out of royalties, so ultimately I guess we would be paying for it. But yeah, they put the money upfront to do it. And it’s just, again, it’s part of when you make your record deal, you negotiate all those things and figure out what you’re going to do to promote the record.

ANTIHERO: I have heard stories of, again, back in the 80s how there were these massive video budgets and stuff that then bands will later down the line, they actually had to pay for themselves.

Jeff Pilson: Well that’s right because even then, yeah, you were paying for it. The record company was putting the money upfront. And I mean a lot of stuff has been revealed since then, but yeah, I mean the budgets got so out of hand. I mean, I think the most Dokken ever spent on a video was $105,000. Or no, maybe more than that on the Walk away video. But I mean, we didn’t get as crazy as some bands, but I mean there were million-dollar videos out there, which is absolutely crazy.

ANTIHERO: Okay. Just looking at the Black Swan project, what about the name itself? Who came up with that?

Jeff Pilson: Do you know who came over that name? Kip Winger. He and Reb were talking and Reb was talking about the project and everything. And Kip just turned to him and said, “You should call it Black Swan.” And Reb immediately loved the name. He called me immediately. He said, “Kip just made a suggestion I really like, it’s Black Swan.” And I thought about it for a second. I said, “I do too. I love it too.” Called Robin. Robin said, “I love it too.”

So, it was one of the easiest name-getting sessions we’ve ever had. My God, like with The End Machine. Oh my God, did we go back and forth on names for a long time. Yeah. So it was easy.

ANTIHERO: Royalties to Kip then for that, for the name.

Jeff Pilson: If there is such a thing, he should get them all.

ANTIHERO: Yeah. I mean the actual album cover itself, it doesn’t look like a Black Swan.

Jeff Pilson: No, it looks like a white one, doesn’t it?

ANTIHERO: Yeah. So it’s like, why?

Jeff Pilson: Well you know why? So you can see it because it’s a dark album cover and if you put a black swan on there, you wouldn’t have seen it. But I guess what we’re trying to convey is it’s a black swan in that the meaning of a black swan is something that’s almost like a black sheep. Something different from the rest of the herd, which we feel we are and the music does that. But the facial expressions of the swan and everything, that’s what’s the deep and dark part of it.

ANTIHERO: Yeah. If you could maybe just take two or three tracks from the album, obviously they’re all going to be… I mean, it’s a new album. You’re going to favour and love them all. If you wonder, if you just take a couple and maybe briefly outline to me how they came together.

Jeff Pilson: Sure. Well, I mean, we talk about Shake the World, which is the first track which came together very quickly. I mean Reb and I did the music, a lot of it was music that Reb had worked up before he came to see me. And we just organized it into what became this song. And then Robin came up with the verses and then he and I crafted the chorus together, which I’m very proud of. And he had a lot of the bridge, which I love.

But then the song Big Disaster, which was the second video we did, that was actually the first song that Reb and I wrote music for together. And it was the first song that Robin wrote lyrics to. And it set the tone for the record. And what I’ll say about that track is to me what really brought it over the finish line was Matt’s drum track.

When he put the drums on it, all of a sudden that song just exploded to life. It’s funny when you hear that, when you hear something like that, when it all of a sudden it goes from being great to extra great. And that’s what happened when Matt put the drums on that song.

DreamHost

A couple of the other songs, there’s a song called Make It There, which is a ballad that I just dearly love. And Reb and I did the music on it and we spent a lot of time constructing what we thought would be a really strong ballad. And then Robin just came in with this insane story and he just did a fantastic job on the lyrics and melody to that song. I mean, what can I say?

He just really made it, he turned it into something great in my opinion. And his vocal on it just never ceases to bring emotion to me. It’s funny because he was sick when he sang that song. He was like, “Oh, we’re going to have to redo this.” And I said, “No, Robin, there’s something emotional in and about it that it’s so great.” He ended up redoing maybe three or four words, but other than that, that’s the vocals. That was pretty much close to a first take and he was sick. But it just had this emotional intensity about it that still gets me every time I listen. And to me, that’s the magic of music when things like that happen.

There’s also a song called Divided United that I’m very proud of. It’s the last song on the record. It’s very Queen inspired. And literally I had just seen the Queen movie with my family. And I literally walked in the door and my grand piano is sitting right by my entrance. I walked over to the piano and literally started playing what is the first half of the song and started singing the chorus. It just all came to me at once.

And I didn’t even know it was going to be for Black Swan right away, but pretty soon Reb and I and Robin were talking and we thought, “Hmm, we can make this work.” So, it turned into quite a production and a lot of fun to do. And I’m very, very proud of that. And the great part about that song is at the end, I wrote the first half and then all I knew is in my head is I wanted one riff to go out for the rest of the song. And I knew what I wanted to do and I told Reb. I said, “This has to be the greatest rock riff ever.”

Okay. No pressure. Now anyways, and he sat around for a minute and then literally he started playing that riff. And I just hit record and we recorded it and I mean I couldn’t believe how much he came through on that. And once that happened, all of a sudden the whole thing just fell in place and we knew what we were going to do and I was very excited.

ANTIHERO: You mentioned earlier the Queen influence. Was Queen always a band that when you were growing up, that you’ve always been a fan of?

Jeff Pilson: Absolutely. Oh yeah. Huge. I was into Queen even before they got hu-. I mean, I started listening to them right after Queen II came out. So I mean, I go back to Queen to almost their beginning. I played in a band with a drummer at the time who turned me on to them and I thought they were just phenomenal.

I mean they were heavy, but they were melodic and they were interesting. And the vocal stuff that they were doing and the guitar stuff they were doing was so ahead of its time. Yeah. I’m a huge Queen fan. I still think they’re a hugely important rock band.

ANTIHERO: Yeah. Did you ever get to see them live?

Jeff Pilson: I did. I believe it was 1977 and Thin Lizzie was opening. And it was an amazing show. They were great. I don’t believe I’ve seen them since, except for on television of course, or on videos, but yeah, I got to see them live and I’m really glad I did.

ANTIHERO: Okay. Just coming back to Black Swan, you mentioned the dream would be to obviously go out and perform those songs live. I’m just wondering, I mean, do you see that as being possible given that Reb will probably be off for Whitesnake shortly?

Jeff Pilson: Well, I mean not tomorrow it’s not. I mean, listen, I don’t honestly know. To be honest, the answer to your question is, I don’t know. What I can tell you is honestly, I know we would all love to play because we’re all very proud of the record and we know we would be an unstoppable force as a live band. I mean, everybody is just really… I mean it would be really intense and as I say, vocally no one could touch us. It would just be phenomenal.

Everybody sings and everybody sings well. And it would really be something to see. So I love the thought. I mean I can’t put any a timetable to it. I realized it’s not a practical thought right away. I mean somehow, I managed to pull off doing some shows with The End Machine last year, so it’s not impossible. It can be done. It would just have to be under the right circumstances and at the right time.

ANTIHERO: Yeah. I feel, personally, that a lot of songs, I mean they only really become alive when they’re played before an audience.

Jeff Pilson: Well, that is definitely the baptism of fire of a band and songs, which is why I would love to do that. And that’s why I was really glad we did it with The End Machine because it did coalesce in our minds of what it means to be a real band. So, I do hope Black Swan gets a chance to do that. If it doesn’t happen on this record, maybe the next record. But yeah, I mean that is where the rubber meets the road. Band, audience, songs. That’s the connection.

So, we’ll see. I do hope it happens. Again, I understand better than anybody what the limitations are. My schedule is crazy, but I would certainly be willing to make some compromises in my schedule in order to make it happen. And I think everybody would if the situation was right.

ANTIHERO: Okay. I know, just returning to one of your former bands. It’s been announced in the last few days that Dokken are going to doing more live shows. I just wondered if former bands like Dokken, are they something that you still keep an eye out for, or is it just something that belongs in your past, a stage that you’ve moved on from?

Jeff Pilson: Well, no, I mean it’s a pretty important part of my past. Yeah. And I mean, I’m still friends with everybody and, I mean, no. Sure, I’m aware when Dokken plays and I’m very supportive of it. And they’re doing some shows and George is going to play with them and that’s all cool. I mean, I wish I could be there to be honest with you, but I can’t, I’m somewhere else.

But, no, I stay in touch with it. And I mean, we did a Dokken reunion just a couple of years ago and it was a very positive experience. So I don’t have any preconceived notions and I don’t put limits on myself like, oh, that’s my past. I can’t deal with it. I mean, it’s an important part of my past and I have to acknowledge that without that past, I wouldn’t be where I am now. So I could never just dismiss it. Yeah.

ANTIHERO: Yeah. How do you attempt to explain the enduring appeal of that 80s rock music era and all its bands because the majority of them are still going today?

Jeff Pilson: Well, I mean, I think, we resonated with a lot of people. I mean, there was some great musicianship there. I mean, let’s not forget that’s really an extension, it’s kind of started with Van Halen and then you get George Lynch and Randy Rhoads coming out of the LA scene. And then you get the Warren DeMartinis. I mean, there are so many incredible musicians that came out of that era, Reb Beach, that I think the musicianship really struck a chord with a lot of people. The fun that was involved in the music I think affected a lot of people. So I mean there’s a lot of elements in there that I think stuck with people and that’s what gave it the timeless quality it has today.

ANTIHERO: What’s next then for you? You mentioned earlier you have a busy schedule. What are you doing musically next?

Jeff Pilson: Oh, well a lot of Foreigner work in the next several months. But one thing I’m trying to do, I just recorded a song with Steven Adler and he’s got a new singer by the name of Ari Kamin, who’s an Argentinian guy that is just phenomenal. I mean the guy is mean. You got to go on YouTube and see some videos of the guy. He’s amazing.

And we just recorded a new song that they wrote and it came out phenomenal. I mean it really came out phenomenal. I mean I’m not going to have a lot of time until the end of the year, but yeah, at some point I would love to do a whole record with that.

And Steven is playing amazing and his playing still has that magic quality that does something to songs that it’s like what I was describing about Matt and Big Disaster. When he plays a song and he’s passionate about it, something happens to it and it just gets that extra energy. And he needs to be making records because he still has that quality about his playing.

ANTIHERO: That’s good. That’s great. Thank you very much. You mentioned Foreigner. Back to Foreigner then. Is that something you’re going to be doing a lot of live shows? Any recording with them or is it just primarily live?

Jeff Pilson: Well, we are working on new material. I don’t see us doing a whole new record. I mean, I think what will happen is we’ll come up with some new songs and we’ll probably include them in some a package like we’ve done the last few years. But there’s definitely some new material floating around that we’re working on, which is coming out great. Slow but great. But yes, mostly live stuff. I mean we’re booked well into 2021 already. So there’s no end in sight for that. But yeah, we’re going pretty hard and heavy until the end of September right now. And so, yeah, a lot of live work with Foreigner.

ANTIHERO: You never get any time off? Or do you enjoy it so much that you don’t need time off?

Jeff Pilson: Well, I get very little time off. And oftentimes when I get time off I do other musical projects because I just, I love music. I mean, I’m very passionate about music if you haven’t gathered that by now.

ANTIHERO: I have. Yeah.

Jeff Pilson: And so I love to do that. I mean I did get some time off in the winter. And for a while there I did nothing, which is hard for me, but it was important that I do that just to recharge the batteries. But now I’m ready and there’s a lot I’d like to do this year, like I said, including a project with Steven, a lot of Foreigner work ahead. And who knows there might be some other projects rearing their lovely heads. So we’ll see.

ANTIHERO: That’s great Jeff. Thank you very much for chatting to me again and I love the Black Swan debut album. Hopefully, you’ll get over to the UK whenever and maybe do some gigs.

Jeff Pilson: Thank you, thank you. You know Foreigner s going to be in the UK in May and June. So you’ll have to pop up one of those shows.

ANTIHERO: Yes, I believe so. With one of my favourite bands, Whitesnake. So I’m sure I can pop along to a few of those.

Jeff Pilson: Great. Well try and come up and introduce yourself if you can.

ANTIHERO: It sounds possible. I’d love to do it. Thank you very much, Jeff, for chatting.

Jeff Pilson: Thanks, Mark. Chat soon. Bye-bye.

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Mark Dean

I'm a 40+ music fan. Fond mostly of rock and metal - my staple musical food delights. Originally from Northern Ireland, I am now based in the UK-Manchester. I have a hectic musical existence with regular shows and interviews. Been writing freelance for five years now with several international websites. Passionate about what I do, I have been fortunate already to interview many of my all-time musical heroes. My music passion was first created by seeing Status Quo at the tender age of 15. While I still am passionate about my rock and metal, I have found that with age my taste has diversified so that now I am actually dipping into different musical genres and styles for the first time.

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