Lou Gramm Interview: Foreigner Lead Singer Sets the Record Straight on 'Love'
Image attributed to Lou Gramm
Powerhouse vocalist/songwriter Lou Gramm is best known as the lead vocalist and co-writer of the multi-platinum selling band Foreigner. He is a successful solo artist in his own right and remains one of the most recognizable performers in music today.
Gramm is the vocalist on 20 Top 40 singles, which continue to drive sales of nearly 80 million albums worldwide. He exploded onto the international music scene with Foreigner on the chart topper, “Feels Like the First Time,” in 1977. The stats are impressive – eight top 5 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and five top 5 albums on the Billboard Top Album Chart in the U. S. alone.
"He wanted that song to be his signature song and was determined to cut me out of any piece of it"
Even though Gramm survived the removal of a non-cancerous tumor, the after affects of the disease took its toll on his overall health. He split from Foreigner in 2002 because of rifts with band mate Mick Jones, but in 2004 returned to the music scene with a new band and a dynamic live show featuring 90 minutes of his own unique brand of rock ‘n roll.
Whether they are rocking out on classics like “Hot Blooded” or “Juke Box Hero,” or rolling out a new extended groove on Gramm’s massive solo hit, “Midnight Blue,” Lou and his band have been pleasing enthusiastic audiences since January of 2004 with a show that captures the essence of Gramm’s talent. Making up The Lou Gramm Band, in addition to Lou, are brothers Richard Grammatico on bass and guitar and Ben Grammatico on drums, guitarist Don Mancuso, and keyboardist Andy Knoll.
The Lou Gramm Band is releasing their first Christian album on June 2, 2009.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Lou, did you do anything special for your birthday a few days ago?
Lou Gramm: Just spent time with the family. That’s special enough.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I love the a cappella ending on the single, “So Great,” off the new Christian album.
Lou Gramm: Oh, thank you so much. Yeah, that really gave me the chills when I first heard that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was the ending your idea?
Lou Gramm: It was my idea, yep.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mention “single vision” in the song so I have to ask, does that have anything to do with “double vision?”
Lou Gramm: It absolutely does. But, the reference to single vision in that song … I just think that someone who has a single vision means that they know what they want to do and are very determined.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There is also a song on the album called “Single Vision.”
Lou Gramm: Yes there is and I see no problem with the title of one song being in the lyrics of another song. I think it interweaves in a good way.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Explain the “Double Vision” title to me.
Lou Gramm: “Double Vision” was a song that was written in about late 1978 just before the “Double Vision” album came out.
It’s a song that Mick Jones and I wrote and although a lot of people think it’s about being intoxicated or being high …when we were recording that song before we had the title, the New York Rangers hockey team was playing the Philadelphia Flyers. One of the big Flyers bumped into the Rangers’ all-star goalie and knocked him down. They had to take him out of the game because he was experiencing double vision. That’s where the title came from.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Interesting. How much more thought goes into writing Christian songs than goes into writing “Hot Blooded” for example?
Lou Gramm: It really depends. I know that some songs, whether they are just a rock song or a Christian song, just flow right out of you. You’ve got to keep up with your own ideas by writing things down or by using a recorder of some sort to get your ideas down.
Then some things you struggle with and you never quite get them the way that you want to. Others you may struggle with but then you have a huge breakthrough and it feels real good when you complete them. So, there are a lot of different efforts and thoughts that go into songs. I do think that I was getting a tremendous amount of satisfaction as I completed each song.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a Christian, Lou, how do you feel about singing some of the Foreigner songs with “questionable” lyrics?
Lou Gramm: Well, it is how I make a living. We try to weed out the ones that are overly suggestive and on the other ones I just kind of close my eyes and get through it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you enjoy working with your brothers?
Lou Gramm: Oh very much.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you the oldest?
Lou Gramm: I’m the middle brother.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So they don’t take orders from you (laughs)?
Lou Gramm: They team up on me (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your parents were also involved in the music business, right?
Lou Gramm: They were. My dad, right out of high school, was a big band leader and my mom was the singer in that band. That’s how they met and fell in love.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s a sweet romantic story. How’s your health now, Lou?
Lou Gramm: My health continues to improve. It has been twelve years since my operation. I've had some pretty steep ups and downs … not so many ups, mostly downs.
I thought I never would be feeling better. I had to turn in my license because I developed Type 2 Diabetes, I developed sleep apnea … you know, it was just nonstop. And there are all of the other little things that came along with the brain tumor.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do your health problems still affect your stamina when you perform on stage?
Lou Gramm: It did, but it doesn’t affect it so much that I’m in trouble. My older brother Ben is a drummer and he does a drum solo. During the drum solo I go backstage and I have some oxygen and that kind of invigorates me again to finish the set with a lot of energy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re still on medication?
Lou Gramm: I’m on a ton of medication. I will be probably for the rest of my life.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That must have been so traumatic for you, both mentally and physically, to be in a successful band for years and then be diagnosed with a brain tumor.
Lou Gramm: I thought I was in a bad dream, really. I just couldn’t figure out. Then the doctors one day did the first MRI and determined that I was born with this tumor, and that it finally at age 47 grew to a point where it started to interfere with my life.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How odd.
Lou Gramm: It is odd. The other thing was that I couldn’t get anybody to operate on it. They have some fantastic doctors and surgeons right here in Rochester, New York, and they suggested I go to this other surgeon in Manhattan. I went to him with my MRIs and he said he would operate but he would be upfront with me and told me that my chance of survival was less than 50-50.
So, I went home extremely upset. I happened to be watching 20/20 one night and they had an article about Dr. Black in Boston and he is the purveyor of laser surgery. He is now able to operate on previously inoperable brain tumors. That’s really what the article was about.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s quite a breakthrough.
Lou Gramm: Yeah. He’s a brain surgeon and at the end of the segment they gave the phone number to his office. I called the next morning and told them my situation and they said they had an opening (this was Tuesday morning) Thursday and could I come to the hospital that day.
So, that Tuesday I packed up my stuff, my MRIs, and everything else that they needed and went to Boston. That Thursday starting at about 5:30 in the morning, I had the seventeen hour operation.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, they didn’t give you too long to think about it between Tuesday and Thursday.
Lou Gramm: I tell you what, when they had me in pre-op at about 4:00 in the morning, I was so deep in prayer that even when they gave me the sedative to put me to sleep and they were wheeling me to the operating room, I went under as I was praying.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your faith helped you through it?
Lou Gramm: I think it did. I was very happy to be alive and that the operation was a success but all of my problems were just beginning.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How long did it take you to get back where you felt comfortable performing?
Lou Gramm: The operation was in April and because Foreigner had commitments I was performing that August. I knew it was way to early because I couldn’t remember the words to any of the songs. They all had to be written down in big marker pens and taped to the floor. I didn’t know I had sleep apnea then, but I was getting more and more fatigued.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was just too much too soon.
Lou Gramm: Yes, it really was. I got a little better and a little better but it wasn’t until I went to a Sleep Apnea clinic that they determined I was getting about less than five percent REM sleep. That’s critical.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you had any contact with Mick Jones since the last breakup?
Lou Gramm: No not really, that was in 2002 I believe. My mom and dad both passed away in 2004 within months of each other and he came up to the funeral and was charming the pants off of everybody, but didn’t say a word to me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was that unusual?
Lou Gramm: Well, at the end of 2002 when we were still working together we went to a “Night at the Proms” in Europe – they have a big symphony orchestra and a rock rhythm section. They have one musician, and a singer of all of these hits comes out and do their versions of their songs orchestrated. So, that was a lot of fun.
At that time, Mick was saying that he was clean and sober and that he was the chairperson of his own AA group. Well, he was making so many mistakes while we were up there. We had our assistant tour manager go to put some bottled water in his room and he found a big bottle of vodka in his freezer. Unfortunately, he had fallen off of the wagon and was also doing other things, too.
He was a pretty big embarrassment in front of about 20,000 people and we were on with people like the Pointer Sisters. As we were singing the finale of the concert all together on stage, Mick would be grabbing a woman in the group and she would be slapping his hand down. He would be laughing about it. He was just gone.
Foreigner’s manager was there, and at that point, I said if Mick didn’t go right back to rehab from here that I didn’t think I could be a part of it anymore. The manager and I both talked to Mick and the manager set up his rehab for a month. When we all left after the last show, Mick never went. So, that was the end of it right there.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s really a shame.
Lou Gramm: It was a kind of a sad ending, but it really freed me to pursue what I wanted to pursue. That’s when I got my brothers and my friends and we went out as the Lou Gramm Band and started playing Foreigner hits and hits from my solo album.
But, I already had the seed of a Christian rock album planted in my heart and it was growing rapidly. Even though my brothers and my friends believe in God they were a little skeptical about what I wanted to do. But they jumped on board and as soon as we started writing songs and they heard the lyrics and that the powerful music, I think they were moved. They really love it now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mick wrote “I Want to Know What Love is,” correct?
Lou Gramm: Well, you know what, I spent about eighteen hours a day for about two weeks with him writing. We were writing, “I Want to Know What Love is.” After it was all recorded, Mick and I got together and started to figure out what the percentage would be of each song to figure out what the amount of the royalties would be.
So, all of this time, with all of my ideas and all of my melodies and everything that I helped him with on that song, he presented me a piece of paper that said he thought he should get 95% and me 5%. I had it figured – 60% to Mick and 40% to myself. He laughed at me when he saw that. When I saw his I couldn’t believe it and he said, “Either that or nothing.” I said, “I don’t want anything, Mick.”
Obviously that song became huge. I know for a fact that he’s made millions of dollars off of it and people re-record it and re-record it again and again. That’s one of the times that Mick showed his true colors and pulled rank. We could have sat down in front of a mediator and talked about who did what on that song, but the reality of it is he wanted that song to be his signature song and was determined to cut me out of any piece of it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I always thought it was a Christian song. Am I wrong?
Lou Gramm: It definitely has Christian overtones.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I know most people think it was about romantic love.
Lou Gramm: Yes, that’s the way he wrote it. My contributions were swaying it toward the Christian way and he was willing to accept that to a certain point. He wanted it to be all things to all people.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you think about Kelly Hansen as a singer?
Lou Gramm: I think he’s a good singer, but I think that Mick, more or less, insists that he listen to me and do the nuances that I used to do on songs. Although his voice doesn’t sound like mine with all of the little inflections and tail offs and this and that, he sounds like he’s listened to them over and over again and copied them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, I know many people say that he sounds like you.
Lou Gramm: You know, nobody could really sound that much alike.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who are your favorite singers?
Lou Gramm: John Lennon for sure, Marvin Gaye, Steve Marriott, and Paul Rodgers. I loved the way Wilson Pickett sang. What a voice he had!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Wilson Pickett was born in Prattville, a smaller city right outside of Montgomery, Alabama.
Lou Gramm: Could I tell you a little story about Montgomery? The last time I was there it was Foreigner’s first tour. When our concert ended in Montgomery, there were fights outside of the auditorium.
It developed into (I don’t think it was racial) forty or fifty people fighting each other. Eventually they had about 15 or 20 police cars and dogs there. It just shocked me so much. I wasn’t used to seeing that. Somebody either had too much to drink or their tempers were turned on or whatever. It was pretty wild.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, that trip to Montgomery definitely sounds memorable. Lou, what do you do when you’re not writing or performing?
Lou Gramm: I’m a muscle car fanatic. That’s my full time hobby. I’ve been into muscle cars since I’ve been old enough to drive. I have about four or five nice ones and they have cruise night here during the summer where everyone meets at a certain parking lot where there’s a restaurant. You may have fifty or sixty muscle cars and everybody gets burgers and pop and looks at each other’s cars. It’s a real fun thing to do.
I have nine-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, and I have two older boys, 29 and 25. One is a sushi chef and has his own restaurant, and the other one works on the computer for a car company. But, the young twins, Natalie and Joe, are musicians through and through. Joe takes drum lessons and banjo lessons and Natalie takes piano and violin. We’re in the car all of the time singing together. It’s wonderful.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Lou, you live in Rochester, New York, where you were born?
Lou Gramm: Yes I do. I auditioned for Foreigner in 1976. When I was accepted into the band, I moved to Westchester, about 45 miles north of the city. I was in the band for a little more than 25 years.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have a favorite Foreigner song?
Lou Gramm: I like “Head Games,” “Juke Box Hero,” and “Urgent.” There are some that hardly anybody’s heard that I like (laughs). There’s a quick story that I’d love to tell.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sure.
Lou Gramm: It must have been in the mid 90s, one late night when Foreigner was on tour. We were driving from city to city and it must have been around three in the morning. We pulled off of the highway to a 7-Eleven and everybody got out of the bus but Mick. He was asleep in his bunk. So, we all went in and we bought snacks and bottled water. We got back on the bus and we left.
Later in the morning we were still a hundred miles outside of our destination. Mick’s brother Kevin, who was our tour manager, started to wake everybody up. He went to wake Mick up, pulled back the covers, and nobody was there.
So, what had happened was, when we were coming out of the 7-Eleven on one side of the bus to get in, Mick had woken up and gone out around the other side of the bus. As we pulled away he was still in the store with no wallet, no money, and no cell phone. He tried to use the phone in the 7-Eleven, saying to the owner that he was with Foreigner and that they accidentally left him. He said later that every customer that came in, the owner would say, “Hey that guy’s from Foreigner and they left him here.”
So, just about the time that we discovered Mick was gone, Kevin got a call on his cell phone from his mother in England and she said,“You left Mick back at the 7-Eleven.” We had stopped at the 7-Eleven three and a half hours earlier but we turned around and went three and a half hours back and picked him up. By the time we turned around and went back again we had just enough time to get our clothes on and go on stage.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) That is a funny story! In addition to the new album, Lou, are you touring?
Lou Gramm: We still go out as the Lou Gramm band and play the Foreigner hits and the solo album hits so we can exist pretty much. But, we’re starting to garner interest from the Christian community. We’re hoping that we’ll start to get some shows or maybe hook up with a tour of some sort. But, no Christian shows yet and about a half a dozen shows on tap where we play the old stuff.
We have Texas and Georgia coming up; also Ohio and next week we’re doing Edmonton and Calgary.
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