Gregg Foreman brings a sense of realism and authenticity to the narrative of rock & roll at a time when pop music and digital hip-hop dominate media airwaves. The musician, arranger, DJ, podcaster and music historian is gearing up to embark on another tour as the music director of Cat Power’s band, a gig for which he's hired full bands and learned to arrange music.
During the six years since Foreman relocated to Los Angeles from the East Coast, he’s been able to nestle himself comfortably in the local arts culture. His most regular gig is a Friday-night residency at Bigfoot Lodge, where he plays “primal/roots rock,” R&B and post-punk vinyl. He's also worked in L.A.'s underground theater scene as a musical director and continues to host a radio show/podcast under his alias Mr. Pharmacist.
I had a chat via phone with Foreman about the day he met Cat Power's Chan Marshall, the loss of Suicide's Alan Vega and the roots of rock & roll.
What do you have going on these days besides your residency at Bigfoot Lodge? Are you going on Cat Power’s upcoming tour?
Yeah, I am. She’s doing half the tour with a band and the other half solo, so I am going on the first part.
I am not sure if I’ve ever read about or heard the story of how you and Chan Marshall started working together. How did you two meet?
Let me take it back: I met her in Miami when I was DJing and hanging out. I had moved to South Florida to live a way of life I don’t live anymore. I had a really dark period from about 2000 to 2005. To make a long story short, I got a call from a friend who’s in the band Blues Explosion and was asked if I had any interest in playing with Cat Power. I said, “Yeah, I like Cat Power.” It was supposed to be two weeks playing some shows. He told me Jim White from The Dirty Three will be in it, and I said yes. She wanted to meet up with me, so I met her at some spa in Florida and we hung out. We got along really well and before I knew it I was in a rehearsal in New York City with a bunch of people. What was meant to be two weeks is now going on 10 years.
How did you come to be her music director?
In the period when the last record was released, I became music director to help her put together a band that had a lot of female vocals. She also wanted me to not only find the right musicians but help show them what to do, all of that kind of stuff. So that’s what I did. We held auditions, which is something I’d never done. ... But we got a band together, then we had to put the show together for the road, and it was a really interesting experience. I am happy to be a part of anything Chan Marshall does. I am a big fan of her as a voice and a bigger fan of hers as a human being. It took a lot of work, but it was really good work.
The experience opened up doors for you to take on other, larger musical projects?
Exactly, and as a musician that isn’t doing it for the money or the accolades. ... It’s like that saying, “If you get into the world of music or art for money, then you’re in it for the wrong reasons.” I’ve never been here to promote something. I am just gaining more experience and learning through doing.
You’re very unassuming in regards to your celebrity-like influence, which makes you interesting.
Yeah, I think I get what you’re saying. I like the outsiders, the antihero, the underdog. That’s why some of my heroes are people like Alan Vega from Suicide, Lydia Lunch and Genesis P-Orridge of Psychic TV.
How did the loss of Alan Vega affect you?
He’s one of the most interesting humans I have been fortunate enough to get to know. He said to me, “With a name like Suicide, we knew we were different and that we weren’t going to fit in.” He called his music “New York blues.” What more of an outsider is there than Alan Vega? My experience with him was brief, within the last few years of his life; we bonded on a phone interview much like this one for my radio show on Dangerous Minds. The guy is a legend to me and he should be a legend to all humans. Between him and James Williamson of The Stooges, they are like my spiritual surrogate fathers.
When it comes to DJing, you’re also into obscure R&B and black music from the ’50s and ’60s? Early rock?
Yeah, the roots. The roots of rock didn’t come from white guys. The lineage goes deep and far back. You know how it goes, maybe someone gets ahold of a Little Richard record or a Little Walter, Lightnin' Hopkins record — or Ike Turner puts something out and The Rolling Stones hear it and that’s history. The unadulterated [early black rock and soul music] stuff — woah, you can’t beat it! It’s a feeling, a soulful feeling more than a cerebral style.
Yeah, it’s hard to sell me personally on The Rolling Stones or The Beatles because I grew up hearing the original music. Because I’ve heard Ike and Tina, it’s really hard for me to be all about Jagger.
Well, Mick admits that he stole half his moves from her when they went on tour with the Ike and Tina Revue in the late ’60s. When you watch the Ike and Tina Revue and The Rolling Stones back to back on the T.A.M.I. Show [you’ll see it]. But The Rolling Stones chose to acknowledge their roots. They pretty much bowed to the altar of Little Walter and Muddy Waters. You can take it or leave it. I like The Rolling Stones, but I don’t compare the two and listen to [The Stones] thinking I’m listening to authentic blues.
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How important to you are your DJ set tours and residencies, particularly your L.A.-based weekly residency at Bigfoot Lodge?
I leave the DJ touring to Jonathan Toubin for the most part. He’s a real touring DJ. He may be the only one of his kind in [the soul music] genre ... and also Howie Pyro. Those two own the [circuit] to me.
For me, I used to throw parties, soul music events in Philly starting in ’96 through 2000, and I restarted that stuff [over the last few years]. I do like to play records, but it isn’t my bread and butter per se. It’s what I do between musical gigs. It helps me make ends meet. And I love to spread the gospel of rhythm and blues and soul music. I also DJ post-punk, which I see as a mutated version of rhythm and blues.
How do you feel about your DJing, work with Cat Power and your all-around presence making you a staple in Los Angeles?
I don’t know how to answer that. I see myself as a guy about town, from being in bands and being around this city. I moved here to make a record and I stayed. I’ve made some friends I really like. There’s a lot of amazing people here, especially on the Eastside of L.A.. They always say people come to L.A. to make it and I say, I just want to make it through the night.