Jeff Pilson may be the most prolific bass badass to be spawned from the ’80s hair-metal scene in Los Angeles. He rose to prominence with Dokken, on now-classic records like Tooth & Nail and Under Lock and Key, where his playing ably supported George Lynch’s shred-guitar prowess and even survived the era’s inaudible-bass production aesthetic. His multifaceted contributions to the group as bassist, songwriter, vocalist, keyboardist, and eventually producer helped craft Dokken’s musical identity. After Dokken broke up in 1989, Pilson fronted his own band, War & Peace, on rhythm guitar and lead vocals. He went back to bass in the mid ’90s with Dio, the Michael Schenker Group, and others before ultimately landing in Foreigner, a post he’s held since 2004.
Despite such accomplishments, 2018—Pilson’s 59th year on the planet—might end up being his most prolific yet. In addition to the release of Dokken’s reunion CD/DVD Return to the East Live (2016), he’s got a new Foreigner record, Foreigner With the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, released in April. He’s also overseeing the development and upcoming debut of Jukebox Hero, a new musical featuring the music of Foreigner, in Calgary, Canada. On the production side, he’s helming the sophomore record from Last In Line, the band consisting of former and original Dio members Vivian Campbell (guitar) and Vinny Appice (drums)—and he’s producing the debut from his own project, Super Stroke, which includes fellow Dokken members George Lynch and Mick Brown (drums), along with Warrant vocalist Robert Mason.
We talked with Pilson as he was about to hit the road with Foreigner for a couple of weeks in Europe. Foreigner is hitting the States this summer, along with Whitesnake and Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening, on the Jukebox Heroes Tour.
You look like you were having a great time on Return to the East Live.
I was. It was much more fun than I anticipated. I was a little worried that it may not be the most fun experience in the world, but it turned out great.
What struck me was your incredibly muscular tone. It adds much more dimension to those classic Dokken tunes.
There wasn’t a lot of bass back then [laughs]. We were managed by the same people who were managing Metallica and Jason Newsted, and I used to commiserate, “Nobody lets bass [be heard] on records” [fake sniffling]. Things were very guitar-heavy back then.
Is your ’50s Fender Precision a reissue or the real thing?
It’s a bit of a hybrid. It’s a real ’58 neck and ’58 body that I put together. I got them relatively cheaply on EBay. I am happy with it. I searched and found a set of ’58 pickups, which are also my favorites because of the raised A-string polepiece. It’s got a Badass bridge. I have a real ’58 that I record with and won’t take on the road, but this one sounds really close to it. It’s a little gnarly for Foreigner, but it works great for Dokken.
How did you go about tracking your bass for Foreigner’s “It’s Just Another Day”?
I recorded direct and used IK Multimedia’s SVX plug-in. I’ve been using the Universal Audio [UAD] version recently, but I think I did the bass track over a year ago and I didn’t have the UAD yet, so it was probably the SVX. I also have a track of SansAmp. So, I had a DI track, an SVX track—which adds beefy but not overly distorted natural grit—and then a very distorted SansAmp or Amp Farm plug-in track.
How do you mix the three bass tracks?
With a DI I tend to de-emphasize the picking sounds. When you’re playing with a pick, a DI tends to be clicky, and I don’t like that sound—it sounds artificial to me. But I love the roundness of the low end, so I tend to emphasize that. It’s not mixed very loud. You don’t hear much DI; it just adds a little low-end support. The amp track, the SVX track, is the main track that you hear. I’m blown away by how much the SVT simulations sound like the real thing. I have a real 1971 SVT that I swear is the best-sounding SVT in the world, and George Lynch will attest to it, but sometimes the simulations record better than the real amp. The amp [plug-in] is giving you the body and the articulation—all the upper-mids come from that. Underneath that is the distortion track that makes it feel angry, rounds out the sound, and blends with the guitars. I don’t have the distortion too loud as a rule. It’s there just enough to give it that angry, beefy sound.
I see you also using Moog Taurus pedals live.
A Minimoog has three oscillators and Taurus pedals have two, which means you can have two very thick analog sounds going on. It’s basically a nice, crunchy, fat, huge bottom-end analog synthesizer. Sometimes it allows me to play the bass up an octave. I like the attack. I actually use a Minitaur [synth module] now, and to me it sounds just like the Taurus pedals.
You have a very strong left-hand vibrato. Where does that come from?
It probably comes from playing with George. When you’re in a trio format, you can break out for that kind of stuff. It might have been over the top at times, but I loved doing it.
It was very sinister-sounding in Dio.
That was the idea. My nickname in Dio was “Evil Jeff Pilson” [laughs].
Is your role different in Dokken than it is in Foreigner?
Not as much as you might think. I am the musical director in Foreigner, and I sort of serve as the MD in Dokken, if only because no one else will bother doing it. I was also to a certain extent the MD in Dio, but because Ronnie [James Dio] was so together, it didn’t involve the same things. In almost every band, I’ve done the same sort of functions.
You play some keyboards live. Wouldn’t it have been easier to rearrange those few parts without keys? What’s the motivation?
The motivation is that it’s fun. It’s a little theatrical as well. Whenever you can do things that are interesting, I think it’s good. We were trying to capture a lot of the ’80s spirit on this Japanese tour, so gear like the bass pedals and the keyboards were brought back for a reason.
Who are some of your influences?
I’ve always been a Beatles freak, but it took a little while of getting into playing bass to understand McCartney. The first guy who grabbed me was Jack Bruce from Cream. I wasn’t playing that accurately, but I remember being really excited when I learned how to play and sing “Born Under a Bad Sign” at the same time. Then Chris Squire hit; I got into him when I was about 16. I had already been playing for about four years, but when I heard him, everything changed overnight. I started playing with a pick and learning every note of every Yes song through the Going for the One album. I was obsessed. I bought a Rickenbacker, I played Rotosound strings. I went over the top in Chris Squire-land. It was so good for me.
Why was it good for you?
It’s good to find one guy who really inspires you and takes you some place, and he did. He pushed my desire to play. And because I got into prog, I got into classical music, which led me to go to University of Washington to study music. It all started with Squire. I can still hear in my mind the first time I heard “Roundabout”—I heard that sound and said, “That’s what I want to do.”
Dokken, Return to the East Live (2016) [2018, Frontiers Music Srl]; Foreigner, Foreigner With the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra & Chorus [2018, earMusic]
Basses 1958 Fender Precision, Fender American Pro Precision V, Marvin Guitars 10-string
Rig Ampeg SVT-CL head, Ampeg SVT-810AV cabinet
Strings Dean Markley Blue Steel
Synth Moog Minitaur