It isn’t often that someone is entirely content and satisfied with what he does for a living, but Dennis Elliot of Foreigner is one such person whose accomplishments have surpassed even his goals and imaginings.
“Growing up, I really wanted to play rock music, apart from one instance when I played with a jazz/rock fusion band, If. The Beatles and all that were influences so I just wanted to play regular rock. I didn’t really know what my goals were. I thought the best I would achieve would be that I would end up being a regular session musician making a nice living, although I was never crazy about doing sessions. I never thought I’d end up with a band like Foreigner, with virtually some sort of stardom happening. I never dreamed of anything like this.”
Since its beginnings in 1977, Foreigner has released four albums, with their most recent, Foreigner IV, skyrocketing to the #1 position on the charts. Having had such hits as “Cold as Ice,” “Hot Blooded,” “Double Vision,” “Dirty White Boy” and most recently “Urgent” and “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” the band remains one of the most popular touring groups on the scene today. As with any fledgling band, however, they have undergone the ups and downs of public acceptance and mixed reviews.
“When this band started, the only way we learned was by experimenting on stage,” Dennis revealed. “We came straight out on the road after the first album, which was a success, and we started out on a two-week tour with the Doobie Brothers. Other bands come out and they start by playing clubs. We came out in 20,000 sealers. Our very first gig as a band was headlining an outdoor festival in Washington D.C. The album took off, and after the Doobie Brothers tour, we ended up headlining for seven months. All we had was that one album to draw songs from. You have to experiment on stage, and that’s the only way this band has ever learned. We grew up in the public eye; they watched us grow and watched the mistakes we made. Our mistakes were always public and if you read some of that press, they always slayed us. We got terrible press. I can’t believe that, all of a sudden, the reviews are favorable. It was really, ‘This band is rubbish, they just make hit records.’ Should we feel guilty that we make hit records? People buy them. We don’t force them to buy them. When we were brand new, the reviews said, ‘This band is going to be big,’ but as soon as everyone else started saying it, the original critics went, ‘This band is rubbish.’ Finally they’re saying, ‘Okay, they’ve been around for six years; they must be legitimate. Let’s leave them alone.’ ”
For Dennis Elliot, Foreigner began as a chance meeting at Bobby Colomby’s house. He had left England in 1975 with a band headed by lan Hunter, and when the band ended after only a week, Elliot found himself in a strange country working as a mechanic to survive. He barely remembers the fateful night at Colomby’s home studio, and laughs, “For some reason, Mick [Jones] liked the way I played. I don’t even remember speaking to him. It’s strange when people ask how I got into the group because it was just one day the phone rang. It was Mick Jones saying, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but we met at Bobby Colomby’s house. You wanna come down? We’re forming a band.’ And that’s how it happened. I was just there at the right time.”
The invitation came at a time when Dennis had been extremely disillusioned with music, for while working as a mechanic, he had gone to countless auditions, often leaving even before playing. None of the music excited him and the bands left him cold.
“With Foreigner, it was instantaneous. I felt like I had finally found some music worth playing. It was the quality of the music that appealed to me, basically. There were songs with melodies that you could sing along with, and I like playing melodies. I’m not a busy drummer who likes to play in a trio so he can play more than everyone else. At that point, the band didn’t even have a name and there were no gigs, but I quit my job to rehearse with them because I had confidence that we could do something.”
On more than one occasion, Jones has been cited in various articles saying he was impressed with Elliot’s playing because it was simplistic and he “left the right holes.”
“Yeah, I’m lazy,” Dennis responded, with his usual good sense of humor. “Where a lot of drummers would play a fill, I don’t. I’ll either play straight through or maybe take a beer or something,” he laughed. “It’s true, I never really exerted myself. I guess that’s just the way I play. I don’t really like playing a lot of drum fills unless they’re necessary. When I do them, I hope they mean something to the song rather than, ‘Oh, there’s a gap, I’ll do a drum fill.’ I guess that impressed them, I don’t know. I never really asked them, ‘What do you mean, I play simply? Is that a compliment or an insult?’ I think I’ve changed a little in that I’m a little more confident now. The band has changed though, through the five years, so my style has changed too. It didn’t start out being such a heavy band. I used to even play with the classic style grip when I was with If. I changed because I think you get a little more power and you can hold on a bit tighter. Now I have sticks designed with no varnish and before I go on stage, I dip them in water. When you dip wood into water, the grain pops out and it forms like a brush, with little splinters, which is not really very good for your hands, but the sticks don’t slip at all. It’s murder on my hands and I’ve got holes in my fingers.
“For a long time, I couldn’t find a stick that was right. It was either too long or too fat or too short, so I made a stick that I liked on my lathe at home and I took it to Cappella Wood. They put it into their automatic lathe and it duplicated the drum stick. It’s similar to a 2S or a 3S, sort of inbetween. It’s quite a heavy stick made of hickory. I’m better at making sticks, really, than using them,” he joked.
He has been using sticks for quite a while, however, since growing up in a musical family where his dad played piano and saxophone, his brother played trumpet and his mother sang.
“They needed a drummer so they had me born,” he laughed. “Actually, I don’t remember learning to play. I was about five years old though and I have pictures of me with a big bass drum where I can’t even reach the pedals.”
For many years, Buddy Rich remained his foremost musical influence, and from ages twelve to fourteen, Dennis had basic formal training. He began playing professionally at sixteen, and it was the jazz/fusion band, If, that became the turning point of his playing career.
“I really had wanted to work with them and thought it would be good for me. Everything was read. Whoever wrote the song would come in with the parts and it was complicated and interesting. From that, a lot of sessions came my way, but I never did like to do sessions because I would get very nervous about what I’d have to play. I didn’t really read that well and if you’re doing a film score, you have to watch your part, the conductor and the screen and you don’t know where to look first. I can do the sorts of things session work requires, but it’s like meeting new people—you don’t know what they’re going to think of you and what kind of style they’re going to want. Now if I do a session, the person wants me because of the way I do play and I know what’s in store.”
At the end of the gig with If, and while playing with the Roy Young Band, a Little Richard-type band, Elliot expanded his set-up to include double bass drums.
“At first, I really didn’t know what to do with them. It just looked good and I fancied the idea of having the two bass drums. It took a long time to learn how to really use them, but I started off by just rolling off an ending. I never use them instead of the hi-hat, unless it’s by mistake,” he laughed. “I have the hi-hat clamped to the bass drum and the legs have been cut off. With two bass drums, your hi-hat tends to be too far away, so I cut off the legs and clamped it to the bass drum so it’s right next to the other pedal. It saves having to stretch too far. With double bass, you just practice like you would anything else, really. The only thing I found with the double bass drums—say for instance you’re playing a regular simple pattern, you change around the way you play. In other words, you start with your left foot rather than your right, because your left foot on the hi-hat is always playing on the beat, so it’s natural to start off with the left foot. It’s strange at first, but it’s one of those things you just have to get used to. When we’re recording, we always have the double kit set up, but I rarely use it. Actually, I’ve only used it on one song, ‘Seventeen,’ on the Head Games album. I did this drum fill which we nicknamed ‘the lift shaft’ because it’s so busy and complicated and fast that it sounds like you’ve just pushed a drumkit down the lift shaft. We absolutely cracked up over it. If you listen to it, you’ll know what I’m saying.”
He keeps his set-up sparse and simple, and he maintains, “It doesn’t really matter what drums you use when you’re playing arenas like we do because you’re going through 30 or 40,000 watts of PA. Really, I suppose it more depends on what sort of mic’s they use and the EQ they put on the board. I really think the live sound on stage is more of a personal preference. I don’t really think the sound of the drums really matter; it’s what they do with it. They do so much and we’ve got to put mic’s inside. To me, it’s ‘What are you talking about? When John Bonham used to record, they used to put him in the toilet with two mic’s above.’ You don’t need to get all that technical. I don’t do all that dampening of the drums with pillows and stuff. You’d think drummers were going to go in there for a nap or something. But I’ve got mic’s inside the bass drums for the monitors and we’ve got more power on stage than there is in the audience. We’ve got 40,000 watts on stage and 35,000 in the audience, so it’s quite loud on stage.
“When we’re recording, we go for a live sound and there’s no dampening, no booth, and I sit right in the middle with them. There’s no carpet and even my riser is the same as in concert, which is solid oak. We do very little overdubbing and it’s mostly done with the basic band, live, and then they go ahead and add stuff. Obviously, the vocal gets done again. They usually go for a good drum track. If we get a good drum track with no mistakes, maybe the bass player will make a mistake and so we go ahead and re-do the bass, but basically, they work for the drum track. I don’t ever do any overdubbing, apart from maybe a roll or something and little things like that. I once tried to overdub something on the Head Games album, but I did it so tight with the drum track, you couldn’t tell it was double-tracked.”
Currently, he uses a custom-made Tama set, about which he says, “I like Tama drums because they’re really made well. I like white drums, and although they didn’t make a white kit or 26″ bass drums, they said they’d make them for me. I’ve gone up from 24″ bass drums to 26″ bass drums. I also use a custom-made snare drum which was made for me in Memphis. It’s 14 x 8 or 9” and it’s a 15-ply shell. I used to use a metal Ludwig snare, but this one is terrific. I also have another custom-made drum which I used on the last tour which has got two snare strainers. One carries gut snares and one carries wire, so you’ve got the choice of two different sounds or a blend of both. It’s a very interesting drum. That was made for me in New York. It’s really best for a quieter band, though, or a jazz band, and in the studio, it’s excellent.
“With the double kit, I just use one tom in-between because the bass drums are so big and high that it puts the rack toms too high for me. So I use the smallest one in the middle, which is 15″ which is actually quite a big ‘small’ drum. And then there’s a 16″ and an 18”.
“All the cymbals are Paiste. The ride cymbal is a 22″ and I have two to choose from, one of which is this new cymbal called a Rude, which is an unfinished cymbal which they don’t put on the lathe. It looks like it’s copper and hammered, and it’s very, very loud and excellent for rock ‘n’ roll.”
To Dennis, a good rock drummer is someone like John Bonham. “I never really appreciated Bonham until very recently when I began to really listen to their tapes. A good rock drummer is able to play loud and is a fine drummer. I like to play with power and I think the drums sound better when they’re played with power. It’s power, taste and ability. I’ve got the ability from my background to virtually play anything I think. I don’t even remember learning to play drums. It’s just something I’ve always done. Doesn’t everyone play drums? So drums are just like an extension of me. Whatever I want to play, I can usually play it.
“I prefer playing on stage than in the studio, though. In the studio, I tend to hold back a little bit. On stage, if you make a mistake, it’s gone and it’s not on tape. In the studio, if you keep goofing up, it’s going to get boring in the end. In sessions, especially if you’re playing with a brass section, they’ll get peeved at you if you make a mistake. I’m allowed total creativity with Foreigner, though, and if I come up with an idea, they love it. If not, they’ll help me out. Sometimes, I need it because when someone writes a song, they’ve got it in their head what they want from that song, but I might even hear it in double time. Usually, though, it’s whatever I can come up with. During rehearsal period, we just have to wrack our brains to think about what we can do to make this any different or special. Apart from the actual playing though, I’m really not that involved in the recording end of it. I’m usually done in about ten days and they’re still working for many more months. I don’t really want to be any more involved than I am, though. It’s strange. Some drummers do want to get involved like that, but I’m not really technically minded. I go down to see how they’re doing about twice a week, but I find the studio quite boring, to be truthful.”
With such constant touring, though, how does Dennis keep the same show fresh and exciting every night?
“By doing different things, I suppose,” he replied. “That’s what I do. I play some crazy things; different drum fills every night. Sometimes they work where I say, ‘Hey, that’s good,’ and I use it again, although there are always certain parts where I’m locked into playing certain things, which I’ll do every night because it’s part of the track. We do change the set around occasionally and we do have substitute songs that we can put in for a change. If there’s freedom to change, that’s the only way to really keep it fresh. If you’re locked into the same thing every night, it can get boring. Some nights I feel like I’m afraid to take my hands off the rhythm. Maybe the monitors aren’t just right and I can’t hear someone, so nights like that, I tend to hold back. But when a show is happening, which it normally is, I just play anything I want to. Sometimes I just crack up at the things I play, like old corny drum fills, but it keeps it fresh and it makes the guys laugh. This is a serious business and a serious band with a number one album, and you’d think there would be a big ego trip, but I’m not into that and neither is anyone else in the band. We throw this little corny stuff in and we’ll have a laugh, and if you can get someone to laugh, you’ll play better. If he turns around with a look like, ‘What are you doing?’ it’s so rigid and uptight.”
Since most of Foreigner’s tunes are high-powered rock, it isn’t always easy to withstand the physical demands.
“It’s a pretty energetic show and there’s no way to really pace yourself, except the more you play, the more in shape you get and the easier it becomes. I have oxygen on stage and sometimes I actually have to use it because I get faint. It really depends on the show. Between the heat of the lights and the dampness in the theatre, I feel sorry for the kids sometimes because they’re as wet as I am. In addition to the oxygen, I have beer on stage because I get so thirsty. After just one song, I’m dehydrated. I used to drink Gatorade, and that was very good, but I have a little stage fright and the beer relaxes me. Before the show I like to get changed early so I can sit down and hold the drumsticks and dip them in water so I can get used to them. Then I start pacing. I don’t know why I get so nervous. I’m not really afraid of messing up on stage, because if I do, I usually just laugh. I mean, sometimes I’ll throw the sticks up in the air and I never catch them and I always embarrass myself like that, so I don’t really know why I get so worried. But sometimes when the lights go out, I hyperventilate and if there’s no air in the room, I make myself faint by doing that. If that happens, I take a few deep breaths of the oxygen. There’s really only one ballad in the set, so sometimes I don’t even have time to pick up my beer or even wipe my hands. But it’s like an athlete really. You get used to it and you breathe a bit better. Some people don’t know how to breathe. If we’re going to play ‘Seventeen,’ for instance, which is a very high-powered song, I pace that, so before the ‘lift shaft’ drum fill, I’ll take a deep breath and maybe take it a little easier, if it’s possible. I sat in with a band who was playing some of our songs in a club. I broke the drummer’s sticks counting the song in, and I just felt terrible. I asked if I could write him a check and told him how sorry I was. A cymbal cracked, there were dents all over the place and the drum even started moving. I guess I’m used to playing heavy, and my kit is built to take it.
“When we tour, we tour with a vengeance, though. My typical day is that I get up real late, and that helps, because if you get up early, by the time showtime comes, the day is over and you just want to go have a meal, not play a rock ‘n’ roll show. So I usually sleep until about 12:00 and I find that by showtime, I’m in the mid-day hours. I really don’t do anything to keep in shape on the road, though.”
At home, between tours, however, Dennis does try to keep in shape by working out in the gym in his basement. During a recent break, however, he was hitting the punching bag so hard that he actually broke a tendon in his wrist only three weeks before touring was to resume.
“And then there was one period of time that I even played with a broken hand,” Dennis recalled. “I had an argument with someone and I walked out of the room, and being of my temperament, I slammed my hand into a door and there was a metal plate on it. That was in Kansas City and we had a show the next night, so they put me in one of those casts you can take off. The next night, before the show, they took me to the hospital, took the cast off and injected me with Novocain. I played and didn’t feel much until halfway through the set when the stuff started to wear off. It became more and more painful and I nearly fainted. The next night I left the cast on and taped the stick to the cast. It must have looked ridiculous, but I got really good with my left hand during that period because it was like that for a couple of weeks. We even got another drummer to help me. But I got very good with the two bass drums and the left hand and even now, I can play well with my left hand, so I suppose it was a good period for learning. But boy was it painful.”
But even with all the extensive touring, Dennis Elliot is content. “It’s an awful lot of traveling, but the way everything is set up now, it’s so professional you don’t even know you’re traveling, really. Before this band, I always felt, ‘I’ll do my job, playing drums, going to the session, get what gigs I can and hopefully continue playing drums.’ This is super with Foreigner and I’m really enjoying it!”