Having been in Foreigner since 1995, Thom Gimbel is now the second-longest-tenured member of the band – with only founding member and guitarist Mick Jones exceeding Gimbel’s time in the band.
That means that Gimbel has played the hit songs that make up the bulk of a Foreigner live show thousands of times. But Gimbel, who plays guitar, saxophone, flute and keyboards in the band, says he never tires of playing the songs.
“You’re always listening to what the drummer (Chris Frazier) is doing and trying to tune in on that subconscious wavelength. That keeps it fresh right there,” Gimbel said in a recent phone interview. “But mainly I love all of the parts I’m playing, especially the guitar. If it’s the guitar part to ‘Double Vision,’ I can sit down and play it on acoustic, and it’s just cool. It’s almost like ZZ Top or something. It’s got that cool toughness to it. And I’ve always loved suspended chords. … And Foreigner features it. ‘Head Games’ has it. They’re like hybrid chords, but feature that note, the suspended fourth. … I just think it’s cool sounding. So I’m having a ball just playing those parts. Then you add awesome singing on top of it.”
“Of course, the audience triples that and adds exponentially to that,” he added. “So it’s a good time right out of the gate. For me, I’m just literally having a blast up there.”
Gimbel came to Foreigner in 1992, well after Foreigner was established as one of the most popular mainstream rock bands in history – having enjoyed a string of hit albums that began with its 1977 self-titled release and continued through the 1987 album, “Inside Information.”
But then, Foreigner’s fortunes slipped as the 1980s turned to the ’90s. There was an unsuccessful album, 1991’s “Unusual Heat,” and singer Lou Gramm temporarily left the group.
Gimbel briefly joined Foreigner in 1992, but left to work as a touring keyboardist and backing vocalist with another arena-filling hard rock band – Aerosmith – which was riding a second wave of huge popularity.
“They had already done ‘Permanent Vacation.’ ‘Dude Looks Like A Lady’ and … ‘Angel’ had already been hit songs,” Gimbel said. “So they were really flying high, no pun intended. And they were stone cold sober and hitting the gym hard. It was the peak of fitness. … They were so upbeat and on top of the world. It was really, really a neat time.”
Gimbel got valuable experience in performing on arena stages and looks back on his years in Aerosmith with great fondness. But he didn’t get to play guitar – and that was something Foreigner could offer when the band asked Gimbel to return in 1995.
Gimbel rejoined shortly after the release of the album “Mr. Moonlight.” It was Gramm’s first album since returning to Foreigner, and it was being touted as the group’s big comeback record.
But any resurgence was sidetracked when, in 1997, Gramm needed surgery to remove a brain tumor.
“The album ‘Mr. Moonlight,’ had a song on it that had done pretty (darn) well,” Gimbell said. “It was like a top 10 song, ‘Until The End Of Time.’ So people were getting used to hearing Foreigner on the radio again, and everything was pretty much on track to keep going on that upward track, and Lou was stricken with his brain tumor in ’97. So that’s when the fate of the band changed, I think.”
Gramm returned to Foreigner in 1998, and the band soldiered on until 2003, when Gramm left to start a solo career.
After an extended break, Jones decided to continue Foreigner with a new singer, Kelly Hansen, who joined in 2005.
Hansen could re-create Gramm’s original vocals and turned out to be an outstanding showman as well. He seemed to win over Foreigner fans right from the first tour in 2005.
“People just accepted him because he’s so good at it,” Gimbel said. Foreigner also returned to the studio, recording 13 new songs for the 2009 album “Can’t Slow Down” – a package that also included a live DVD and remixed versions of 10 of the band’s biggest hits. Released through Walmart, “Can’t Slow Down” was a success.
Foreigner (which also includes bassist Jeff Pilson and keyboardist Michael Bluestein) has continued to tour consistently since then – even during a stretch of more than a year when Jones was unable to tour because of a heart ailment that required bypass surgery in February 2012.
Gimbel said Jones has now recovered and expects to be with Foreigner this summer as the group tours with co-headliner Styx and opening act Don Felder (the former Eagles guitarist).
“He’s doing great,” Gimbel said of Jones. “He’s doing better than ever. He’s back in the saddle. He just sounds great and looks great. He’s having a good time again, so yeah that’s a story with a happy ending.”