SUCCESS NO LONGER FOREIGN TO FOREIGNER VOCALIST
By Paul Freeman [October 2011 Interview]
Fame was foreign to vocalist Kelly Hansen... until he landed the plum assignment of singing lead for iconic rock band Foreigner.
He did come close once before. In 1985, answering a want ad, Kelly Hansen became the lead singer for the hard-rocking Hurricane. With three well reviewed albums and several Top 20 videos, the band seemed primed for a mainstream breakthrough.
“We knew we were good,” Hansen said of Hurricane. We had a lot of encouragement. We got a lot of response from the fans. And we were really poised to do well. But then, right around ‘91, grunge music came in and just obliterated the metal scene, which was where we were coming from, although it was my first metal band. I was always doing pop and R&B stuff. But that really kind of wiped out that era of music. In fact, I had to really kind of take a back seat and not do very much singing, for the next several years.”
The Hawthorne, California native, who had been in bands from age 17, refused to give up. “It was the only thing I’d ever done in my life that I said, ‘Maybe this is something that I want to do.’ And you have to really want to do this, to stick with it for so long.”
Regarding what he learned during the Hurricane years, Hansen said, “Almost everything. First of all, I worked with world-class producers, like Bob Ezrin, who was with Pink Floyd. And I got to learn a lot about how contracts worked and what to watch out for, when you’re dealing with contracts, in regards to record deals and producing. In traveling on the road, you learn what your limits are, how many shows a week is too many, how many is too little. How far you can abuse yourself... or entertain yourself,” he laughed. “And you learn those things. In a lot of ways, it’s just trial and error. Someone can’t just tell you how to do it. So those were really informative years for me.“
Post-Hurricane, he honed his skills. “I worked on learning how to emote better. I thought technically I was good, but I didn’t think that I was giving of myself emotionally. I also worked on trying to be a better songwriter and learning other aspects of the music business. But during that time, no one really wanted to hear my kind of voice.”
Hansen proceeded to do a lot of studio work, producing and engineering. Occasionally, performing opportunities popped up and Hansen sang with Slash’s Snakepit, Don Dokken and Poison’s C.C. DeVille.
“After Hurricane, after the grunge thing happened, I was working a lot harder for a lot less return in the mid-’90s, as I think a lot of people were. You start to say to yourself, ‘Wait a minute, earlier in my career, everything used to just come to me. I never had to actually pursue things.’ Joining Foreigner, it was a result of me being dissatisfied with where I was in my career. I’d heard of a couple of other gigs that had happened and I hadn’t even gotten called for them. And I said, ‘Well, that doesn’t seem right.’
“So I felt like I need to start being more proactive about how I was going about things. I happened to read an article online about a charity event that Mick Jones [Foreigner’s founding lead guitarist] had done with some of the guys from Foreigner. That sounded really interesting to me. So I got in touch with their management. It was really me seeing that article and deciding to be proactive, which made that connection happened and eventually to me being in the band.”
Officially part of Foreigner in 2005, Hansen realized he had big rock ‘n’ roll shoes to fill - those of the band’s original vocalist, Lou Gramm.
“Lou had a great, emotive delivery. I knew that I was taking the place of someone who had made a huge contribution to rock music. But I had the confidence of Mick Jones and the support of the rest of the guys. And they were sure I could do it. At some point, you’ve just got to pull up your pants and go, ‘Okay, I’m going to try this.’ If you fail, you fail. But at least you can say you tried. Fortunately, I was up to the task.”
The task was breathing new life into the hits Foreigner had been churning out since 1976, including “Feels Like The First Time,” “Cold As Ice,” “Hot Blooded,” “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” “Juke Box Hero” and “I Want To Know What Love Is.”
“When I go to concerts, I always want to listen to the music the way I learned to love it on the radio. I’ve been to far too many concerts where people decide that, ‘Well, I’m either too bored, or I want to show how good I am and we’re not going to play anything that’s even close to the originals.’ And that bums me out.
“These songs are so popular, because they were great songs with great melodies. And, if I try to do too much more than that, then it’s just me messing up something that was really, really good. And Mick was in total agreement with that. That’s the way I would always sing the songs in Hurricane. I sang them on stage as they were recorded. And that’s just the way I work philosophically. Not everybody does.”
Of Foreigner’s guitarist, Jones, Hansen said, “There’s really no one that plays guitar like Mick does. It’s in the hands. Someone else playing the same guitar, same amp, would sound different. And that’s what makes him so great. What I loved about Mick’s solos, he didn’t just like play some pentatonic scale during a guitar solo, like a lot of people do. He would really compose these things. He would really construct very, very interesting solo works that would really matter. They really work. And they’re really memorable. He wasn’t just playing power chords.”
The powerful current edition of Foreigner, featuring Hansen’s charismatic vocals, is keeping fans, old and new, quite happy. A staple of Classic Rock radio, the band has a new PBS special airing. Their hits have been featured in tons of recent TV series, movies and video games.
Hansen said, “I think it comes down to the fact that these are great songs. That’s evidenced to us almost every day, out on the road, playing shows, the fact that I see a lot of parents turning their kids on to this music and kids embracing it and going online and finding more, deeper tracks, and getting into the band, coming to the shows, singing the lyrics. I can see them. They know the words. They’re not just coming to see a band, any band. And that’s a big difference.”
Foreigner has been successfully partnered with NASCAR for numerous events. “It started out as just a request to have us play at a NASCAR event. And when we started, we got involved with the people at NASCAR. We got involved with the people who go to NASCAR. We realized the synergy and the similarity of demographic there. And we really had a great time. And these people at these race events that we were playing really connected. It made sense for us to be there. Since then, we’ve gotten into doing more and more things with NASCAR. And we’re planning on doing more this year.”
Foreigner’s music also graces the Broadway and touring stage hit, “Rock of Ages,” soon to be adapted to film. Of the show’s classic rock, Hansen said, “This is part of the time period that affected a lot of people and, in one respect, when you hear these songs, it brings back a certain time in your life. That’s a reflection of what ‘Rock of Ages’ is about.
“But something you don’t see as much in today’s recordings are great arrangements with parts, where there’s space in the music, left for things to breathe. A lot of current production style is to make everything as loud as possible. Super compress it. Shove everything but the kitchen sink in there. A lot of just straight power chords. Not real guitar parts a lot of times. Not complementing keyboards or string parts. There’s a lot less musical in an arrangement sense, going on in today’s music. So the music of ‘Rock of Ages’ has a lot of appeal.”
A highly appealing new three-disc CD/DVD package,”Feels Like The First Time,” (Razor & Tie Records) allowed Foreigner to re-record the hits and to also whip up acoustic versions of the classics.
Hansen said, “We were really surprised by the great response to acoustic versions of these tunes. We had a chance to record a lot of this at the same studio where Foreigner did their original demos back in early ‘76. It was very cool. I think it brought good vibes to the recording process.”
Hansen deserves to be enjoying the good vibes now. “I’ve had a lot of ups and downs and many years of struggle in this business. I’ve definitely paid my dues. But I think it was all great experience for me, coming into Foreigner. I knew what it was going to take from me. I knew what was to be expected. I knew what was going to be required. And you can’t just get that from walking off the street, joining a band like this.”
Foreigner is currently touring with Journey and Night Ranger. “There’s a lot of hits going out every night, which is really awesome for the fans. It’s awesome for us. We’re having a great time. We’re having sold out shows. It’s a hot ticket. And it’s really gratifying to see that after all these years.
“Being on the road as much as we are is challenging, all the way around, not only physically, but emotionally. You find that you’re emotions are more on the surface, which I find, in many ways, translates into my having very cathartic experiences and very emotional releases of energy on stage, which I can only account for by the fact that you’re on the road, you’re exhausted and you’re giving of yourself. It’s a lot of work. And there’s a lot of isolation, as far as being away from your family and things like that.
“It’s a really incredible thing to be able to do. I’m really fortunate to be able to do it. But it does cost. Hopefully it balances out - what you get out of it is worth what you’re putting into it.”
And what is Hansen getting out of his Foreigner experience? “The connection with the audience, the continued or rising popularity of the group. The acceptance of new releases. Forging a stronger bond with the people that you play with. All that stuff.”