I'm With the Band(s): Why Today's Rock Musicians Often Juggle Multiple Gigs
Bassist Jeff Pilson currently plays with both Dokken and Foreigner and also works as a record producer.
Courtesy Jeff Pilson
Bassist Jeff Pilson's life is mapped out on an Excel spreadsheet on his laptop. Pilson typically plays between 115 and 140 shows a year with Foreigner, the classic-rock band he joined in 2004. The original lineup of Dokken, Pilson’s melodic Los Angeles hard-rock band known for ’80s cuts like “Breaking the Chains,” had been trying to reunite for years, but it was difficult for Pilson to participate because of Foreigner’s busy schedule, not to mention his frequent production work for bands such as Warrant and Last in Line.
“Finally, we got a break where Foreigner had a chunk of time [off] and basically the Japanese [booking agency] ended up asking for my Foreigner tour itinerary and booked the Dokken tour around that,” Pilson says, speaking by phone from his Santa Clarita recording studio, Pilsound. “It took that to make it happen.”
Rockers have played in side projects for decades, though usually only while on hiatus from their main bands. In recent years, however, with recording sales greatly diminished and touring accounting for a bigger chunk of their income, well-established musicians playing in multiple bands seems to be increasingly common. This form of band polygamy isn't always financially driven; some musicians also find greater artistic fulfillment by being in concurrent, big-league projects. In some cases, such as Pilson's, it's difficult to discern which band is a musician's main gig and which is the side project. They're more like "side-by-side projects."
The most challenging thing about going between multiple bands isn't learning all those songs — it's time management. Often the work must be handled remotely. To prep for his first Dokken tour rehearsals since 2000 (and the original lineup’s first in 20 years), Pilson played and sang along to tracks at his studio. He was pleasantly surprised at how the Dokken material in the set had aged, particularly the rarely performed “Will the Sun Rise.”
“It was so cool to have that feeling about a song we hadn’t played in a long time,” Pilson says. “I had a perspective on the Dokken music, having been away from it for a long time, that I could never have had when I was involved day-to-day with the band. So yeah, it made me appreciate that music a lot more.”
Pilson, who grew up idolizing Yes bassist Chris Squire and during the ’90s was a member of Dio, has been musically multitasking for years. In 2000, he acted in and recorded music for the Mark Wahlberg film Rock Star. Filming began in mid-March and wrapped in June — just as Dokken were hitting the road for a summer tour.
This summer, Pilson expects Foreigner to take up most of his time. The band, led by guitarist and sole remaining original member Mick Jones, have embarked on a 40th-anniversary tour, which for many dates will also feature Cheap Trick and Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience. (Locally, it hits the Greek Theatre Aug. 30.) Pilson now packs his suitcase pretty much the same for Dokken as he does for Foreigner. “No glam clothes anymore,” he jokes. He plays Fender Precision Basses with both gigs, a 1973 with Foreigner and a 1958 with Dokken. His Dokken tone is “a little gnarlier but not much.”
As is the case in many professions, financial compensation is a huge factor in what Pilson decides to take on. “I have to produce bands even when it's not the most lucrative situation. But obviously if there's a choice between equally satisfying projects, I'd pick the one that pays best or offers the most long-term reward. The totality of how you are paid — royalties, advances, the sum of all that.”
But his musical heart has a say, too. When Rudy Sarzo left Quiet Riot in 1985, Pilson was good friends with Metal Health–era singer Kevin DuBrow and was offered the chance to join the band. He declined. “Even though they were way bigger than Dokken at the time, I thought Dokken would be better for me in the long term. I still stand by that decision.”
Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt also toured and recorded with pop superstar Rihanna for five years.
On a recent early afternoon, Nuno Bettencourt, one of the most dazzling rock guitarists of his era, is lying in bed at his home near the Hollywood Sign. In 2010, Bettencourt began a five-year period in which he’d bounce between working with his band Extreme, known for their acoustic 1991 hit “More Than Words,” and touring and recording with pop/R&B superstar Rihanna.
“A lot of people, I think the perception was backwards,” Bettencourt says via phone. “’Oh, he’s playing this guitar stuff with Extreme that can be challenging and then you go to play with a pop artist and maybe [you're] just cashing in a check and punching it in.’ When in reality it was quite the opposite. It was one of the most difficult gigs I’ve ever done!" he exclaims with a laugh.
Bettencourt's been moonlighting in pop music for nearly 30 years, ever since he played on Janet Jackson’s fantastic, guitar-heavy single “Black Cat.” It's a gig he probably wouldn't have taken were it not for Eddie Van Halen and his atom-rearranging guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.”
“After Eddie, every one of us wanted to play with Michael,” Bettencourt says. “When I saw Steve Stevens do ‘Dirty Diana,’ I was pissed off. I go, ‘That should have been me.’" He laughs. "And I love Steve, he’s such a great player. But ['Beat It'] changed the game."
Bettencourt's recent work with Rihanna has changed the game as well. "Before I did this touring thing, not a lot of people were doing that element of it. Three years into it, on the road I would meet guitar players at the Grammys and other things who’d say, ‘Hey man, thanks for opening that door for us. You made it cool to tour with these artists, once we saw your clips and how rocked out it was.’ That was pretty cool.”
Rihanna musical director Tony Bruno wanted to bring in Bettencourt to add some guitar edge to the singer’s sultry, occasionally island-tinged hits. The only condition the guitarist had beforehand was, “Do I get to be me?” — meaning he wanted to play in his own style, with his own sound. Bruno replied in the affirmative. In fact, Bettencourt played the same rig, including his signature Washburn wood-grain N4 guitar, with Rihanna as he does with Extreme.
“It was such a challenge after being in Extreme for 20-plus years at the time,” Bettencourt says. “It was almost, ‘Wait, I get to take big songs like ‘Umbrella’ and play power chords and make it heavy?' That shit was exciting. To hear it in an arena? It was pretty incredible to do. Any guitar player or anybody in my position ... would have been lying to you saying it was anything but super cool."
And it's not as if Bettencourt is the only virtuoso backing up RiRi. "The musicians that you play with, the caliber is ridiculous. The drummer just got out of a Stevie Wonder gig. The bass player plays with everyone you can imagine. Keyboard player plays with Justin Timberlake and Tony Bennett. These guys are the guys, you know? So it was anything but a pop gig.”
Bettencourt, who also played on Rihanna's albums Rated R, Loud, Talk That Talk and the recent Anti, opted to sit out the pop star's 2016 tour so he could stay in Los Angeles to work on new material with Extreme. He also recently launched his own company, Atlantis Entertainment, and sometimes guest curates the "Soundcheck Live" all-star jam sessions at Lucky Strike in Hollywood.
On Dec. 27 and 31, bassist Steve McDonald played shows featuring all three of the bands he’s in: sludge-rock pioneers The Melvins, punk supergroup Off! and veteran power-pop combo Redd Kross. McDonald played the same Gibson Ripper bass all night, but he did change shirts for each set, and had to move his amp a little farther from the drums to make way for his brother Jeff’s guitar amp before Redd Kross played.
Surely there must’ve been something else interesting about playing with three notable bands in one show? “I get paid three times, that’s great,” McDonald deadpans before adding, “I just feel really lucky to be in three great bands.”
It takes McDonald about 20 minutes to drive in his Dodge Durango from the Glassell Park rehearsal space Redd Kross and Off! share to The Melvins' space in a Sunland complex otherwise populated by automobile customizing shops. “I get to drive on my favorite freeway in Los Angeles, which is the 2, going between the places,” McDonald says, sitting at Dale Crover's drum kit in The Melvins' practice space. “And it’s usually pretty smooth, traffic-wise. So it’s actually kind of ideal.”
McDonald keeps track of his triple-band schedule on his iPhone calendar, although he admits he double-books himself for rehearsals sometimes. “But everybody’s cool, we’re all grown-ups.” When he does have time off, McDonald’s ideal day is “kicking it around at home” in the Los Feliz area with his wife and young son.
Jeff and Steve McDonald founded Redd Kross in Hawthorne in the early ’80s, when they were still in their teens. "For years I was just in one band," McDonald says, "and only had one plan and one way of doing it. And that was great. I'm grateful for Redd Kross for all those years."
He joined Off! in 2009 and The Melvins just a couple of years ago. McDonald says playing with Off!, in particular, has built up his bass stamina “because of all those fast, Dee Dee Ramone–style eighth notes.” Playing with The Melvins has involved learning that band’s alternative tunings. Playing with three different, active bands helps keep him musically on his toes and entertained.
As he's gotten older, McDonald says his motivations for being in a band have evolved. "It can’t always be that fantasy of the four Beatles or KISS — you know, each member has their own fans and the band all lives in a house together. That fantasy, as much as I loved it, I had to let go of it long ago. And what I landed on is like, ‘Oh, OK, so if we’re all grown-up about this, we can be a bunch of different things between a bunch of different bands and just be considerate to each other.’ So far, it’s kind of working out.
“It’s not for everyone," he admits. "Buzz [Osborne, Melvins guitarist] and Dale, the whole key to success for them is there’s no Plan B, and it’s really been inspiring to me. I think more young musicians will find themselves down my path than Dale and Buzz’s because I think their path is very unique, that the first band they were in has been the band they’ve been able to sustain themselves in all these years."
McDonald has some advice for those hypothetical young musicians who, in today's music industry more than ever, are unlikely to have a viable career in just one band. "If it turns out that you’re more like me than Buzz and Dale and you do have to do Plan B, C and D, rather than think of it as all these other things you have to do, you could think of it as all these other things that you get to do. And I think that’s been key for me. ‘OK, something else I get to learn to do.’”
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