Gary James' Interview With Michael Ledesma Of
The Foreigner Tribute Band
You might have recognized Head Games as the name of a hit song performed by Foreigner. Did you also know it's the name of a New York City Foreigner tribute act? Lead singer Michael Ledesma talked with us about Head Games.
Q - I take it Head Games is the only Foreigner tribute act out there?
A - I know of one that just started on Long Island recently, I mean within the past few months. Let me tell you, Foreigner is a hard sell. That's what all the agents tell me. They all say we want a Led Zeppelin band, AC/DC, Journey, Bon Jovi, Van Halen. They're like "Foreigner? Why Foreigner ?" I'm like, "well, they've got all these hits." It's a hard sell, but once we get into the venues and they see us, they want us back because they say "oh, wow! You guys are great. I know all these songs." A lot of people know their music.
Q - I guess it almost goes without saying that you're a big fan of Foreigner's lead singer Lou Gramm.
A - I gotta say he's one of my favorites singers ever. He's probably in the top three of all the singers that I ever worshiped. It's very difficult to sing like that, so I train with an opera coach. He teaches me power, something called Vocal Mastering. It encompasses physical and I guess art together. It's like being a vocal athlete. Most vocal coaches just teach you the art, what they call style. They don't teach you how to train your lungs, your rib cage, your neck, your back, your diaphragm, your stomach. My teacher teaches me all that stuff. You have to keep in shape to actually sing like that.
Q - Was it difficult to find musicians for this band?
A - Yeah. The problem is, a lot of musicians know the music, but the first thing they say is "why put a Foreigner band together? Isn't that a hard sell?" I said, "well, the way I look at it, I want to do something that nobody else is doing and I want to find my own niche, a little market that nobody else is doing." There are so many Journey tribute bands out there, thousands of them. Van Halen. Bon Jovi. AC/CD, Led Zeppelin. So many of them out there, I didn't want to be a part of that whole crowd. I wanted to stand out and have my own market. It's a business decision. It was a hard sell and in the beginning it was very difficult. As time went on and I got to bash down doors, literally, they saw the band, liked it and we get asked to go back all the time. Finding musicians was difficult, ones that wanted to commit to it, because they felt it was a hard sell too. They felt "I don't see any Foreigner tribute bands out there. I'll pass." So, for that reason, it was hard. But now that we got around, because of the economy, because jobs are scarce now, I've got a waiting list of musicians to be in the band and I get e-mails every week. Do you need a substitute keyboard player?, a substitute singer? I'm a singer! (laughs) I would say in the past year it's really increased and I've got pretty much a waiting list of people who want to be in. So, right now it's not hard to find musicians. In the beginning it definitely was.
Q - Are you the guy who's booking and managing the band as well?
A - Yes. Not only that, I'm the accountant, the psychiatrist, the tour manager. I advertise it. I do all the business. Not because I want to, but that's just because the way it turned out. Nobody really wants to do it because let's face it, business is not fun. Music is the fun thing. I actually started with my friend. We both started this band, the bass player who's no longer in the band, Billy Randall. We did the business together. I did the web and marketing stuff and he did the booking. He eventually left and went on to bigger and better things. I consult him on the business side. I pretty much have taken over the business myself by default. I've got to tell you, it's been a real learning experience, a big learning experience learning the business, how to market, how to advertise, how to get work and manage a band. So, I've learned a lot over the years. Things are picking up too. We're playing out in California. We're playing out in Colorado.
Q - Now, how does that work? Are these places picking up your airfare or do you have to drive to those gigs?
A - Oh, no. They give me a budget. I tell 'em how much we need. We have to buy our own airfare. But, sometimes they do it. It depends on how you negotiate it. Negotiating is actually a skill. It's an art actually, knowing how to gauge people, how much you can take, how much their budget is. When it's a fly-out gig like that, we get a budget. I tell 'em pretty much what our fee is and then we buy the tickets. Sometimes they say "we'll by the tickets, we'll buy the hotel (rooms), you get your transportation and the backline." So, every show is different. The local shows we play on the East coast, we pretty much drive around everywhere.
Q - What were you doing before Head Games? Were you singing in another band?
A - Wow! You know something? I did a lot before Head Games.
Q - Musical or non-musical?
A - Musical, all musical. I was a Hair-band guy in the '80s. My first instrument was guitar. That was my first love. I'm a guitarist who became a singer. I studied Jazz for a long time. I did Jazz fusion stuff, like Mahavishau Orchestra. Return To Forever stuff. I was kind of like a Jazz snob until the '80s. I met Bon Jovi and Sebastian Bach, Firehouse, Trickster. I played that whole circuit. They made it. I didn't make it. In the '90s I was a songwriter for RCA Records for Emerald Forest Music Publishing Company. I was trying to become a songwriter. Then when the 2000s came, the tribute scene really exploded. Little by little I became a part of that. It's great. I love it. I really love it.
Q - Tribute bands have really exploded onto the music scene.
A - The agents always tell me it's so economical because now tribute bands have become really sophisticated. In the beginning, a tribute band was a local band who weren't very good. But then little by little they got better musicians and now some of these tribute shows are really high tech. And a lot of these tribute bands sound better than the original bands and it's one tenth the price, so it makes sense money-wise.
Q - Do the guys in Foreigner know about you?
A - One of our first gigs we played at, Le Barbate in Manhattan, a place that doesn't exist anymore. Great club. Used to be a church in mid-town. After our set, someone from Foreigner's management came up to us. She said "Hi, I'm from Foreigner's management company." I forgot her name. She said "I'll try to get Mick Jones here." This is after Lou Gramm left. I don't think Foreigner was doing anything. She said "Mick couldn't come down, but you're a great singer." She gave us some good critique about the band. I know they know about us. I don't know how they feel about it. I love the music. It's some of the most challenging music I could think of. Lou Gramm sang from like screeching Rock to Soul and ballads. He ran the whole gamut. He really did well in it. Very few singers could do that. It's really challenging. He gets up there, you know, I'm not a very soulful singer, but that's one of my favorite styles of singing. I wish I could do that. But Lou has that.
Q - You list Sydney, Australia as your favorite place. You've been there before then?
A - Yes. I have family there. And actually I'm going back, probably in January (2012). I'm trying to get Head Games and another band I play in, a Def Leppard tribute band, Adrenalize, out to Australia. I've met people from there and they say Rock 'n' Roll is big. We played in Trinidad a few months ago, Head Games. I met a guy in the music business from Germany in Trinidad. He said "you gotta go to Germany. Give me your information." So I'm talking to some people in Germany about bringing Head Games out there. I love Sydney. I went there to visit my brother, my older brother who lives there with his family. I had a blast. I just love Sydney.
Q - How did you get Head Games a gig in Trinidad?
A - They contacted us. It took me awhile to get that gig happening. We played there and it was called April Fast Six. That's got to be the most outrageous show. The crowd was just amazing. I felt like The Beatles. They were screaming. It was so much fun.
Q - When you're not playing in places like Trinidad, are you primarily performing in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut?
A - Yeah. That's pretty much our base right now. The only gigs I accept right now are the high-profile gigs like casinos and festivals. But I turn down gigs every week at local clubs. I want to avoid playing too much. What happens is, you lose the spontaneity and the novelty is gone and the energy goes. So when you only play a few times a year, man you are pumped and you're on fire! And it comes out. That's what I want to keep. We all have regular jobs. We don't need the money. We're not doing this for money. We're not doing it for a living. It's 90% fun. If you play too often, the fun is gone. I've been in bands like that where you play every weekend and after awhile you get bored and you lose it. For this band I said I'm only gonna play a few times a year. They're gonna be the best gigs and few and far between.
Q - I understand where you're coming from. But when you don't play out regularly, you get rusty and that's no good either.
A - You know something, when you're a serious musician, you always keep your chops up. You always practice. You don't let it go. A serious musician wouldn't let that happen. Sometimes it creeps in, but I only work with musicians for this band where they're at that level where they don't let it get rusty. I know what you're saying though. You do get a little rusty, but you know something? Those little, tiny mistakes, you make up for with spontaneity and energy. I've been in bands where you rehearse and rehearse and you over rehearse. It just takes energy out. Maybe if you're playing in these progressive bands like Dream Theatre and there's these new Metal bands that are really sophisticated. Then you have to rehearse. Classic Rock is really feel. That's what it's all about. You have to play with a lot of feel. It's not technical. It's not rocket science, but it's all from the heart. When you over rehearse, the heart gets dull.
Q - So, when you're at your desk at work, you're probably singing Foreigner songs.
A - In my head, all the time! (laughs)
Q - What opportunities exist out there for a band like Head Games?
A - That's a good question. To be honest with you, I really don't know. I'm taking it as it comes. I try to network as much as I can to get bigger and bigger and get more high profile gigs. I want to be able to play consistently at bigger and bigger venues. Now I'm trying to get international and I'm learning a whole new thing about international business. I'm kind of like a business person myself. I like business. I like wheeling and dealing. I like what Head Games is all about, taking this band from nothing, started from scratch, and building it to get bigger and bigger and bigger and just take all the opportunities that come to us. And just playing 'live' in front of people. I can't explain it. When you're doin' it and you're on and you're having an on night, you're totally there. It's just unbelievable. I want to keep doing that until my voice goes out or I'm too old. (laughs) What is too old? Nobody knows.