This is the latest installment in our Unlikely Encounters series, where a local musician interviews a big-name artist. You can check out the whole series at charlestoncitypaper.com/unlikely.
My name is Joseph Coker and I live an ADD life — everything from a busy schedule of music and stand-up comedy shows to running the largest kids’ Jiu Jitsu program in the city. Thom Gimbel is my über successful opposite — not just a pro musician but a go-to band member for the likes of Aerosmith and Foreigner. Here is our unlikely encounter.
Thom Gimbel: Hello, is that Jerry?
Joseph Coker: Joseph. Close.
TG: Oh, so sorry. Hi Joseph. I forgot.
JC: I’m just one of your interview hoes man, just one of your interview hoes. No, no. I’m super happy to talk to you, man. What’s up? You’ve a good day so far?
TG: Yeah, I’m living so well.
JC: Nice, man. So, you’re in the Midwest right now?
TG: Yeah, we’re out here in Oklahoma, I think, I think.
JC: Nice, man. I just want to say thank you. First off, off the top. Thanks so much for talking to me, man. I really appreciate it.
TG: Oh, no worries. Actually it’s a pleasure to talk with ya.
JC: Thanks, man. Hey, if you don’t mind, I’m just gonna jump right into it. I’ve been researching this. I saw that you’re from Boston, correct?
TG: Originally New Jersey but, yes. I went to Boston for school and lived there for a long time after that.
JC: You grew up in Boston and New Jersey, and you also grew up playing flute. How did you manage to not be bullied for that?
TG: It was because I was playing Jethro Tull, and that was very popular in the ’70s. I didn’t want to do [classical French flautist] Jean-Pierre Rampal or anything.
JC: Yeah, I guess that makes a lot more sense.
TG: It was a gutsy kind of flute. A lot of the idea came from a guy name Roland Kirk. Jazz legend. Famous for playing three or four saxes at the same time. But he also had that same sound on flute, and he and Anderson, the leader of Jethro Tull, heard that and incorporated it into his own technique. And had some monstrous success, whatever. That was one of the best live acts around, back in the ’70s. It was real entertainment. It was like a combination of medieval, Broadway show, and a rock concert at the same time. It was really spectacular.
JC: That’s crazy, man. It’s awesome. So, you went to Berklee. What did you go to Berklee for? What instrument?
TG: Originally, my major was jazz composition and arranging, that’s what they called it. That’s what I graduated in. But along the way, initially I was a flute major, principal instrument was the flute. And once you get in there they say, you can’t just play the flute. You also have to play the sax and the clarinet in order to graduate.
TG: So I was 17, and I said I can’t wait to play the sax … Yeah, so I was like, cool I bought one from a friend, and then I just went from there. I switched my principal instrument over to saxophone and I was so fortunate I worked with the head of the woodwind department, a legend in the woodwind world. So, that was a real turning point. He taught me how to sing through the instrument. And I never heard that.
JC: Man, I was YouTubing some of your sax solos. And I loved the way you play sax. Its so intense.
TG: Thanks, Joseph.
JC: It’s really, really fun. But one thing I was curious, with Foreigner, you were playing a lot of sax and a lot of guitar, from what I’ve seen. What do you feel more like yourself on? Which instrument feels most like you?
TG: They’re tied. Those two. Actually all the instruments are tied. When you play an instrument, you’re just connecting with it. And that connection is the key, you know. It’s like the big check mark. Ching! At that point, you’re just connected with the musical world, which is a language. And you’re speaking this language. It’s universal, probably came from organic substances. The first songs, in history I think, came from people imitating birds. Those were the original songs. So, the question is, where do the birds get those songs?
JC: Man, they probably stole them from other birds.
TG: That’s the answer, man.
JC: It looks like a bird-covered man or something.
TG: Yeah, they might have gotten them from David Crosby or Roger McGuinn or somebody. Anyway, so, yeah. The instruments are all tied. I would never think of having a more natural feel with one or the other. You pour yourself through them. It’s a conduit.
JC: You channel them, channeling through this. You’re having a saxophone séance. It’s beautiful.
TG: Oh, so good. Yeah, same with keyboard. It’s a lot like playing the keyboard. It’s the ultimate instrument. You know, you can do base notes and chords and nail these all at the same time. There’s no other instrument you can do that, except the keyboard.
JC: See, that’s the crazy thing about you. You play pretty much everything. You also play percussion, you play keys. You know, you play the flute, the sax. And I guess the thing I wanna talk to you about, ’cause you played with Aerosmith as well, for a while right?
TG: Yes. I sure did. It was a lot of fun.
JC: I could ask you a million questions about that. But I guess the first thing I have is this: at that level where you’re playing in these huge bands, these huge arenas, there’s gotta be a million people vying to be like Aerosmith’s conga player, sax player, or whatever. I imagine, I’m just picturing like an American Idol line of people who just want to play, you know.
TG: So good.
JC: How did you get into these positions where you’re filling in all the roles for these huge bands?
TG: Well, I come from the old days. You had to work your way up and make a name for yourself. And that’s what I did in Boston. We had our own band. We started off playing on the weekends ’cause we were in college, starving. Eating the ramen noodles and full of people in the house. And so we said, maybe we can play on the weekends and make some money. So that’s how it starts, and then I had an original band. We played the club circuit, made a name for ourselves. Then we ended up opening up for a guy named John Butcher. And I got a chance to work with him. That’s the mutual contact through Aerosmith; people from the John Butcher organization knew people in the Aerosmith organization. And when John Butcher wasn’t doing quite as much — he was sorta in between albums — the Aerosmith guys called me. So, I’ve been recommended to them. That’s how that works.
JC: Did you ever put out any solo records? I was trying to look for you on Spotify. A lot of musicians who are known for their sideman work end up going solo at some point.
TG: Sure. I have not done that. I have old recordings of demos that I made in the ’80s. And I cringe when I listen to them. I think they should be wiped from my hard drive. Forever. But other people like them. They get a kick out of them. I would have to do something starting brand new. And I just put my energy into the live aspect of music. I really think of myself as a live musician. I’m a performance artist. And even if I did an album, I probably wouldn’t record it. I’d just play it live. Either a tour or a video. I’m that much of a live music junkie, you know. When I watch the Beatles, I want to see them live. Those old black and whites where it’s them and a lousy microphone you can hear the raw talent in there, I just love it. So, as much as I love studio recordings, I’m not saying anything about those. But, the live thing is what really makes me tick. Just hooked on it. And studio. If anyone’s ever been in the studio, they’ll know it’s a lot of repetition.
JC: Oh my god. It’s so stressful.
TG: Are you with me?
JC: Yeah, so stressful.
TG: I don’t got that kind of patience.
JC: Yeah. Me neither, man.
TG: I gotta go, I gotta go. I gotta a show to do.
JC: When you’re playing in a big project like Foreigner or Aerosmith, these bands have been around. They’re iconic, they’ve had members changed in and out. One thing I was thinking about is, at this point, the Foreigner name is bigger than the people that have made it. It’s almost like a religion in a way. You know, you’re serving the crowd’s feel of Foreigner when you’re playing. When you’re playing during these live shows, do you feel like you’re playing for yourself or is it 100 percent playing for people, or is it just somewhere in-between? What is your experience?
TG: We like to give the songs to the people, because, as you say, it’s something bigger. A lot of these songs mean something. You know, when a song really means something to you, we’re respectful. You know, that’s why I think Kelly Hansen, our singer, he’s so spot-on with his delivery that people want to hear the songs the way they remember them. And they can sing along, the way they remember them. They’re ingrained. Same with the sax solo on “Urgent.” … And so, I have to deliver the goods. And that’s the way Kelly approaches every one of these songs. And of course he puts his own elements into it along the way. But he never veers away from the crucial part of the melody. And that’s huge. Because it is big. It means a lot. These could be childhood memories. We meet so many people that say, ‘That was my first eight-track tape.’ Or, ‘I remember we got engaged to this song.’ And you gotta be respectful of that. And we are.
JC: Unless they got engaged to like a trashy song. Like if they got engaged to “Hot Blooded,” you’re like, OK you might be a weird person.
TG: I like that style.
JC: They got engaged in a Corvette.
TG: Cool. Loud guitars and fast cars. Rock ‘n’ roll. Epic.
JC: … When you’re looking at new bands coming out now, as someone who’s had such a crazy amount of experience, what do you look for? What entertains you now, as far as music?
TG: I like the stuff that is really heartfelt. You know, and some things are just good. Like Adele, you know.
JC: Oh my god. I know.
TG: There’s no one. You know like when the Beatles came out, there was no one that said, “That’s no good.” There’s no one saying that about Adele. “That sounds terrible,” No! It’s just a stone-cold winner. So, that’s the stuff that I like. Bruno Mars probably has some of that stuff in there. Well, you can tell they mean it. You know, that’s the stuff that I look for. I also appreciate great musicianship. If we think about rock music, it’s kinda morphed into country and to rock. So, there’s a lot of phenomenal guitar work — plucking those kinds of instruments, coming from that natural sound. I’m a huge fan of that. I just, I can’t believe how good those guys are. With the pedal steel and thing.
JC: Oh my god. It’s crazy, yeah.
TG: It is really on fire. So, we see a lot of the top players delivering that kind of substance. It’s uplifting, you know? To see it’s alive and well, what other form it takes. I always thought that country and rock came from the same place anyway. So, it seemed like a natural thing.
JC: Thom, all right, this is the most important question I need to ask you. By your estimation, and by the crowd’s estimation, are you the hot one in Foreigner now?
TG: Well, actually I sweat the most. But, definitely we are all pretty roasty up there. On a hot summer night, especially outdoors, we are drenched. It’s like a cardio workout. So, I’m assuming that’s what you mean by hot.
JC: No, no. You know what I’m saying. Don’t play coy with me. You’re the sex appeal in this band. You’re the sizzle.
TG: No way, no way. Kelly Hansen. He turns into dirty white boy. Kelly Hansen turns around and just shakes, spins, and the girls lose their minds.
JC: God that guy can sing, too. Holy smokes.
TG: Yeah. It’s incredible to see him do that much. It’s the most ultimate multitasking that I’ve ever witnessed.
JC: It’s so good. All right, man. Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else you want to say? Get off your chest to the Charleston people?
TG: I always like to thank everyone that has come to our shows in the past, so many years, great “rememberies.” Great memories in South Carolina. Charleston is a party town, man.
JC: Yeah, for sure.
TG: Plenty of good memories there. We’re looking forward to it. And we just want to thank everyone for being with us for so many years and going forward.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space. You can listen to it in its entirety on Joseph Coker’s podcast at josephcokerworktapes.libsyn.com.