Almost ten years ago, Kelly Hansen stepped into some mighty big shoes as the new lead singer of Foreigner. Lou Gramm had departed the band for good and founding guitar player Mick Jones wanted the band to stay alive. Hansen had made a name for himself in the late eighties/early nineties with his band Hurricane but the onslaught of grunge and record label problems led to their eventual demise. Since coming into Foreigner in 2005, Hansen has been a positive jolt of electrical current in a band full of talented musicians, with Jones as the only original member still active in the band he formed in 1976.
If there was ever a poster of rock & roll never growing old, it would be Hansen’s photo they would use. Not only does he appear physically the same as he did in Hurricane, minus just a bit of that poufy hair, but his voice actually sounds better, more full and emotional, than it ever has before. On stage he is a lightning bolt, running from one end to the other, and next thing you know he is out in the audience climbing over seats to sing with some excited fans not lucky enough to be in the front row. It is partially his charisma that has kept Foreigner alive with no signs of life support wires in sight.
The other part is the bottomless vat of incredibly catchy songs. Who didn’t latch onto “Juke Box Hero” as their own adolescent anthem? Or dreamily sing along to the power ballad “I Want To Know What Love Is?” Add in “Dirty White Boy,” “Hot Blooded,” “Double Vision,” “Urgent,” “Cold As Ice,” “Head Games,” and you’ve got non-stop rock for hours on end.
On the day before my interview with Hansen last week, it was announced that original bass player Ed Gagliardi had just passed away. “I just want to say that my thoughts and prayers are with his family and we’re sorry that he’s gone. He was really one of the people that started to make this happen,” Hansen said solemnly.
Hansen was hunkered down in Wichita, about to kick off the band’s big co-headlining tour with Styx, appropriately called The Soundtrack Of Summer Tour, and he was just rising from a deep sleep. “I got here late at night. We had to go straight to the venue to review the lights and effects for the tour and I got to bed about 1:00 and I woke up ten minutes ago and I haven’t even opened the curtains,” he said with a laugh. Good-natured as always, he was happy to talk with us about the tour, which has former Eagle Don Felder in the opening slot, what he was really like as a kid growing up in California and what it’s like to be on stage with one of the most popular bands of all-time.
The big summer tour is just about to start.
It will start day after tomorrow, right here in Wichita. But members from all three groups got together to play “Hotel California” and “I Want To Know What Love Is” on Fox News in an effort to help promote the tour. We did that, I don’t know, a couple of months ago. And recorded those as well and both those songs have become part of the tour CD which is going to contain songs from everybody. It’s going to be called The Soundtrack Of Summer. We’ve known Styx for a long time and have gotten to know Don and he is a great guy. He and I did Rockline together so it’s a really great feeling of camaraderie and that’s a really nice thing to have.
Are you going to join Don for “Hotel California?”
I don’t think so. Don is opening the show so it probably wouldn’t make sense for us to be up there on stage that early. It kind of ruins the surprise if you come out before your show but I don’t know. We don’t know what’s going to happen so who knows. It might be a surprise.
What is the secret to Foreigner’s continued success?
Well, it definitely has to do with the songs, the quality of the songs, the fact that the songs have been in the atmosphere and in people’s minds for thirty years. And I think that that’s a big part of it. I think we’ve done a lot of hard work in the last ten years, since 2005 when I joined, really bringing awareness back to the band. The band had suffered a little bit in the nineties. It was a tough go there with the grunge and the problems with Lou’s voice and then leaving again in 2002. But since that time we’ve really tried to show that this band is vibrant and relevant and energetic and we really have an energetic show. We like to play WITH the people not to the people. And I think putting that much effort into it and really pushing hard the last ten years has really helped make a difference along with having a wonderful set of songs to sing.
What do you remember most about that very first live show you did with Foreigner?
I don’t know if I remember specifically but I can tell you generally what it was. I was really trying to remember all the lyrics. I had only five days of rehearsal to learn the whole show so that was my big concern in my head. And then also trying to, along with that, keep that in the forefront of my mind, but also remember that I’m on stage and you have to perform and you have to connect and we’re trying to find our places on stage to where we need to be and not be bumping into each other. So there are a lot of mechanical things going on at the very beginning in just trying to remember what to do, when and where. But over time that goes away and you start to really be able to say, “Yeah, I can really concentrate on the songs and how I’m feeling and how it’s coming across.” But it just takes a little bit of time.
How were the fans reacting to you in those earliest days?
The fans have always been incredibly nice to me, incredibly gracious to me and obviously they’ve reacted positively to the songs. I knew coming in that there was always going to be a few people who will never accept anything but the original band or the original singer or whatever but they’ve been really, really great to me.
What have you done to put a little bit of Kelly Hansen into these classic songs that people know by heart?
I think there are some things I do that are kind of imperceptible. For example, my pocket, my feel on how to sing the lines is a little different and unique to me. But I don’t know if everybody will pick up on that because for the most part I try to sing the melodies as they were written. At the very beginning, Mick and I had a discussion, many discussions, but one of them was about the fact that when I go to a live show I want to hear the songs the way I learned to love them on the radio. I don’t like to change them too much or improvise too much. And I felt if I went out and tried to do that too much I would be saying something in terms of, “Hey, look at me, I’m different, I’m a different guy than the original guy and look at how different I can sing the songs.” I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to detract from the music. So there are many, many things that I sing slightly differently but these are great songs with great melodies and changing them too much is just going to mess them up. So for the most part I’m singing the melodies but it’s with my voice, my inflection, my pacing and cadence, and like I said, my pocket is different too. But you don’t want to mess up a great song.
Is there a song in their catalog that maybe was a little bit difficult for you to reproduce with your voice?
The whole set is very challenging and it takes time to feel like I’m doing it the way I should and even every night it’s a challenge to do it right every night. So that’s a constant thing and that’s a constant challenge and that makes it continually interesting, trying to always do it exactly the way you want, as if you’re kind of recording it. There’s two parts of it: there’s the sound part of it and there’s the visual part of it. The sound part is very, very challenging and the visual part of it has a lot to do with stamina and taking care of myself and pacing and trying to make sure I keep enough in reserve for the end of the show.
I know the last show I saw, you were out in the crowd and climbing over the chairs and you fell and busted your butt.
I fell down?
You fell down
That happens all the time (laughs). I get a lot of dings on my shins and things like that cause that’s just part of doing it. For the most part, I get by unscathed.
Is there a song that Foreigner has never played or very rarely played live that you would love to wrap your vocal cords around?
You know we just did an acoustic show in London, a single acoustic show that we had never really done in that way before. And we performed “Girl On The Moon” from Foreigner 4 and that was a great song to perform. It’s a really great song to sing. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to add that to the set. We’re already doing two huge ballads and it’s difficult to stick another ballad in a show that has a set time length. But that’s always been the problem with the Foreigner shows and deciding what songs to leave out because there are so many great ones that we don’t do that could fit well in the set.
You have this very vibrant personality on stage. Are you a naturally charismatic person or are you more on the quiet side and then it’s when the adrenalin kicks in that gets you going?
It’s kind of funny. I think that I used to be a really kind of clown-y guy offstage, and I still can be. But most of the year, I have to be very kind of subdued offstage because I have to take care of my voice. You’d be surprised how much that changes outwardly how you’re perceived. A lot of times I have to tell people, “Listen, I’m not mad, I’m not upset. I’m just speaking in a monotone to save my voice.”
But it definitely is a kind of cathartic alter ego kind of thing that I get to do on stage, that I get to let loose and not be so concerned about every single thing I say and just kind of go off the cuff and try to be kind of freewheeling and stream of consciousness. I think that’s important to be effusive and really loose on stage and that means that sometimes you’re going to cross over the line sometimes. I may say something that someone may not like and I apologize for that in advance but I think being out there and willing to be free like that and to just say, “Here I am, warts and all, and I’m just going to be me and be free and be fun.” I think that that’s the key to a show that is the most it can be. So I try to tread right on that line and always be appropriate but I don’t always accomplish that (laughs). Sometimes stuff comes out and I say stupid things. Or I get caught down the line, I’ll be saying stuff and I have to dig my way out of it sometimes (laughs).
What were you like growing up?
I didn’t really come from a musical family. No one in the family was an entertainer, although my sister sang on an album for her, what do you call it, middle school or something like that, and I thought that was pretty interesting. She did a show when she was in middle school and they recorded it and made an album of it. This is back in the seventies and I thought it was just wild. But no one was really in it. But like I said, I was kind of a funny, clown-y kind of kid and didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I grew up. In fact, when I was a Junior in high school, I was starting to really struggle with, “What am I going to do when I get out of school?” And this kind of happened to me accidentally and I realized it was something I seemed to be kind of good at and I liked doing it. I got attention and I’m so fortunate that I kind of fell into it.
Ok, how did you fall into this?
(laughs) I had a friend who had a band and he used to always carry around this acoustic guitar everywhere he went, and he was always writing songs and playing. Both of our families went to the beach together one day, cause I lived near the beach, and he was playing guitar and he said, “Why don’t you sing some songs with me?” and I did and he invited me to come on stage to sing with his band and so I did and then in like a couple of months, I was the lead singer of the band. Like I said, it just kind of happened accidentally, fell into my lap like that, and then it took me a while because I would sing and then after each show my voice would be exhausted. I’d be hoarse and finally I had to start taking some lessons and figure out how to use my voice properly and sing things properly. And that really helped a lot. And then I was on my way.
So you really didn’t have like a musical epiphany, other than with your friend. Were you into music when you were in high school? One of those rocker kids?
No, I sang in choir when I was in like fourth grade. The only albums that I had were a couple of albums that my brother had given me for Christmas, cause my brother was very into music. He had his bedroom in the basement and I would go down in his bedroom and I would look at all these weird albums he had, like Edgar Winter’s They Only Come Out At Night and Tres Hombres by ZZ Top, things like that. I always listened to music in the car and my mom always had on the Top 40 station and I had this ability to memorize television commercial jingles. To this day I know the most bizarre jingles that you’d ever want to think about. And I don’t know why I do (laughs). I was telling Jeff [Pilson, the bass player] the other day, “Why do I know the theme song to Chico & The Man? Why? Why do I know that?” (laughs)
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
I believe it was Little Richard. I had been working with a producer doing some work and he was always doing projects. I was singing on a record for a Japanese artist and he told me he was producing Little Richard. I said, “Can I come down and meet him?” and he said sure. So I went down to the studio where he was recording an album and we met and it was just awesome.
Did he give you any words of advice?
He was very, very nice to me. I didn’t ask him for advice. I just told him, “I just need to shake your hand. I need to have some of you rub off on me.” (laughs) And he laughed and he thought that was funny and he was so nice to me and I was very thankful for that.
I want to talk with you a minute about Hurricane because it was a really good band. Why didn’t you guys make it all the way?
Well, in the late eighties, we were this pop, melodic metal band and we were doing well on a very tiny, tiny label that was partially partnered up with Capitol Records one year. We were making Slave To The Thrill and that’s where we had to make a change with guitar players and get Doug Aldrich. We spent a year making Slave To The Thrill back in the day when you could take that time to make a record. So it was a year of my life went into helping create and record that record. I was there for everything and the label kept telling us we were a priority. We filmed two videos in like one weekend, thinking downstream what we were going to release, and we were all poised to go on the road.
We got on a tour, we had our first tour bus for that record, the third album, and we started touring and then it was right around the time when Nirvana was breaking and grunge was coming in. And grunge just took over the music industry, and arguably, rightly so, kind of spelled the end of metal music. So we were on the road, on the bus, and I called the label one day and the publicist at the label, who was a friend of mine, she told me, “They just fired two-thirds of the staff today.” So we’re on the road playing shows, trying to sell CDs and we’re probably going to play at shows and people are going to go to the store and there aren’t going to be any CDs in the stores because the label is basically imploding. So we had to just stop the tour, cancel the tour, and come home because that’s just spending money.
So for six months, we could not get the label to communicate to us whether we were still on the label or whether we were dropped, whether we were going to be moved to Capitol Records. That six months was very difficult. We weren’t making any money and we were a young band that didn’t have a lot of money reserved. So we had to start selling equipment and things like that and it finally came to the point where we had to tell the record label in a letter, we had to say to them, “If you don’t respond to this official letter in thirty days, we are going to assume that we are dropped from the label.” We thought we could go and write some more songs and make another demo and get another label to pick us up. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. And that began the long journey through the nineties, which was a very difficult time for me and everyone else associated with that type of music. But life goes on and eventually things got better and here we are today.
During a Foreigner concert, what is one of your favorite moments?
You know, my personal philosophy is that I’m not a favorites type of person. I like to enjoy things individually and appreciate them separately and not compare them to other things, make them better or worse. But there are so many great moments in the show. “Jukebox Hero” is a very powerful song. “Urgent” is a real audience favorite. “Dirty White Boy” is fun because it’s so dirty (laughs) and “Hot Blooded” is great because you know you’ve done your best to get the crowd motivated and you’re getting to finish on an enormous song with such a great lyric and such a great riff and everyone in the audience is finally really into it. So there are many times. And being able to be in this band and play with such great musicians and people that I really enjoy. If you stop to actually think about it and consider it, you realize how fortunate you are and that makes you really feel lucky to be in a band like this. It just doesn’t happen to people like this normally.
What about when the kids come on stage? That’s always a great moment and they are always so excited to be going up there.
Yeah, it is a great moment and we get a lot of letters from them and from their choir directors after the show talking about how this, in some cases, has been a life-changing moment for some of these kids; how they never thought they’d do something like that, how excited they were and they could see their parents in the audience, just on and on and on. It’s really great to be a part of that experience for them. It’s so funny cause sometimes you’ll come out and you’ll see a choir that really knows how to groove and they’re really comfortable and they’re confident. And then you go out there and some groups come out and they kind of stand still and they’re very timid and kind of shy and a bit overwhelmed. You can see that it’s usually an experience for these choirs, that it’s pushing the limits of what they’ve been through and they’ve never experienced anything like this before and it is awesome to be part of that.
Where did the idea to do this originally come from?
It started out, we had this idea of, why don’t we have a contest – someone had the idea of doing this contest – where we could promote the show and help out a local high school choir because we realize that during times of financial hardship in many cities and many towns across the country that when budget cuts occur the first thing to go is the music and arts programs in the school. And we felt it was really important to try and help that situation. Many of us are the product of public school music programs. We did the one show and it was such a great success, we partnered up with the Grammy Foundation and started this campaign that has been this ongoing thing and we’ve raised a couple hundred thousand dollars for schools across the country. I think it brings awareness to the situation and it brings an understanding that these are important programs, part of what helps make well-rounded, tolerant, smart, confident people. Without those kind of programs, sometimes kids grow up in a small bubble of where they grew up and they don’t see the world as a whole and they aren’t accepting of other people and cultures and beliefs and we want to help provide some assistance so that people are able to contribute to those kids having a well-rounded experience in school. It’s really, really important.
How is Mick doing?
Mick is doing great. He’s really working hard at trying to come back on full-time. Of course, he has to go by what his doctors tell him and how he feels and it’s a process. But he’s doing really, really great. He’s with us here for this tour, as he was with us in the UK, and so far so good.
How exciting was it when you found out that Foreigner was going to record a new album a few years ago?
We had been talking about it for a while but we finally said to ourselves, we have to do this now and we have to do this whether we feel we have an open calendar or not. Because we were trying to find an open time to do it and there just wasn’t an open time. It was the last thing that we had not accomplished as a reformed group, to write and record a new album. I felt that was really important for me, as the new singer in the band, so we had to do it while we were on the road in the US and in Europe. I was also editing the video for the Live In Chicago video at the same time. So we were on tour in Europe and in the States, writing and recording on the road, during off times, and I was editing this video. So 2009, it almost killed me (laughs). It was a very, very, very, very busy year and it’s very difficult to do that, much harder to make high quality records with the time needed these days cause you just can’t spend as much money making a record as you used to and you have to get it done more quickly. That hurts the creative process in a way but in other ways, it helps to be able to work under the pressure. It forces you to really get it done.
So run us through your year coming up
This tour goes into July and then we do some shows in August and September. We’re going to do an acoustic tour of Germany in October and then we do some more stuff. We have a break to do some more projects. We’re hoping to record Foreigner 4 in it’s entirety near the end of the year. So it’s still a very busy year for us.
Live photographs by Vera Harder