Addicted To Vinyl Musical thoughts from the open road, with headphones on

7Jun/102

Stranger in a Strange Band: A Conversation with Kelly Hansen of Foreigner

I have to give Mick Jones a lot of credit.  With over 25 years of success with Foreigner on his resume (not to mention a nice little side career producing albums like Van Halen's 5150 and Billy Joel's Storm Front), it's not like he had anything else left to prove.  The proof is in the pudding as they say, or in the case of Jones, the proof is in the hits - stacks and stacks of gold and platinum records, and plenty of hit singles from those albums have likely done plenty to comfortably line Jones' bank account.  Wouldn't it be a good enough time to just sit back and enjoy retirement?

Apparently for Jones, the answer was an easy "no," as he made the decision in 2004 to cut ties with longtime Foreigner singer Lou Gramm and move ahead with a new lineup featuring veteran singer Kelly Hansen (Hurricane) at the helm.  As a Foreigner fan, it's not my first choice to see a band called Foreigner that comes without Lou Gramm at the microphone.  But unfortunately, Lou Gramm of today is not the Lou Gramm of old, the result of side effects of brain surgery in the late '90s.  So while I admire the courage of Gramm to stand behind that microphone, it was pretty painful as a fan to watch those Foreigner shows after the surgery, because although Gramm "improved" over the course of several years, the classic voice had been forever tarnished.

As a fan of some of Kelly Hansen's past work, it was an easy endorsement for me to get behind his job placement as the new lead singer of Foreigner.  For any of the skeptics, well, if they've seen a show, there's a good chance that they're among the converted.  Foreigner are touring behind Can't Slow Down, their first new album in nearly 15 years (and a damn good one), and they're on the road this summer for a co-headlining tour creatively titled "United in Rock" with their old pals Styx (with Kansas handling opening duties).  Of course they're visiting nearly every city in America (including Cleveland at Time Warner Cable Amphitheater on June 26th!), and damn, you're going to hear a lot of hits for the price of the ticket!  I spoke with Hansen this past week for a piece that ran on the Riverfront Times music blog, prior to the band's date in St. Louis.  We talked for about a half hour, so there was a ton of material that I didn't get to use in the RFT piece, which means that you get to read the musical overspill here.  Enjoy!

From my perception, Foreigner is working more than some of the other similar bands in their genre, and to me, it seems like the band is working more today than they did back in the day.

It's quite possible. There was a very heady time at the beginning where there was a lot going on, and we are working an awful lot. It's a challenge for me vocally to make sure that I stay in shape, and it's a challenge for everybody. Through the course of the past five years, it's like a sports team – you have all sorts of injuries, you have family illness and death. You have an incredible array of things that are difficult to deal with on the road, and as they say, the show must go on. We support each other and help each other through all of these times. When I can't speak, as I didn't yesterday all day long, everybody's very understanding, and they make fun of it. They go “oh, we're going to have a great day, Kelly's not talking!” [laughs] It's really interesting, you become a family, and you deal with all the same issues of a family, while you're on the road.

That's an interesting point. I look at the Foreigner catalog as one that is similar to the Journey catalog as something that must be very challenging to sing night after night because of the high keys that so many of these songs were written in. So you would have to keep in shape vocally to be able to pull this off.

Very much so. Some people think that the fact that the set is slightly shorter because there are three bands on the bill – to accommodate three bands on the bill, everybody has to take a couple of songs out. They think it should be easier, because you're doing a shorter set. The fact of the matter is that because it's an 80 minute set that we're doing on this tour, it's very jam packed, with a lot of high energy tunes. There's not a lot of big lulls in there for me to take breaks or talk to the audience and things like that. In some ways, it's even more stressful.

I think that although you're faithful to the catalog, and the way that people expect to hear the hits, you definitely bring your own style to Foreigner.

Well, I'm just trying to be me, and not be anybody else. My feeling is that a great song with a great melody, is really easy to fuck up. If you are too much into your own self-gratification and want to impress people with how many licks you can sing, you don't want to serve the song. I think it's important to serve the song, because these are great songs. There's a reason why they've been permeating the culture for the past 30 years. I think hopefully, I'm smart enough to recognize that. So that's really all it is – it's not that hard, you try to be faithful to the songs. We all try to really listen to all of the records and understand what the Foreigner vibe is. With Mick at the helm directing that, I think we're being successful with that.

When Mick assembled that initial lineup with you, Jeff Pilson, and Jason Bonham among the list of players, it was a pretty impressive bill of folks to put under the Foreigner name.

I think that oddly enough, maybe 15 years ago vocally, I might not have been right for this band. I think that as I've matured and worked on my own singing, I think that I fit the band better. I think that my voice has gotten a richer timbre that fits this band. When grunge rolled around in '91, and no one wanted to hear my style of vocal, I spent a lot of time learning things. I thought I was really proficient as a singer technically in Hurricane, but I felt I was missing heart, I wasn't giving of myself. That's one of those things that has been hard for me to do in my whole life, is to let emotions out. I think that I've learned to do that a lot. It took a lot of practice for me to learn how to feel things, but I think along the way, it made me a better singer. Maybe it's just serendipity that this all happened at the time that it did.

I was surprised and happy to see how much writing input you had on the new album.

This was the last element of the puzzle that Mick and I hadn't tackled together. We had literally done every other thing that you can do together in this band. That's one of the things that I was simultaneously looking forward to, and worried about. When it really comes down to it, you can sing a song, travel on a bus, do early morning TV and radio – all of those kind of things. Writing material and working on a new album together with someone with the stature and success of somebody like Mick Jones is a little bit daunting. The only thing that made it easier for me is that I've spent almost five years with Mick on the road, we know each other pretty well, and he had great confidence in me. I just said that I'm not going to be worried that everyone is going to look at me and say “that's a fuckin' stupid idea, we're not going to use that.” I just allowed myself to chime in, and when those guys said no, I said okay. The next thing, maybe I said, “hey, that's a good idea.” You have to take it in and do it as it goes. Both of those guys, who are both very successful, more so than me, although I've had my modicum of success, they've done a lot more. They just welcomed me in and let me be part of the process, and I think it worked out well – I think we complimented each other very well.

I think you know that there have been guys in other bands, in a similar position like you have, that find out the hard way that their input isn't welcomed or wanted.

Right. They quite easily could have done that, but Mick has always been super supportive of me. Contrary to, without being specific, some other interviews of other singers that I've read about, he's never told me how to sing these songs, or been in control of how I present these songs – he had faith and confidence in me, and he said “this is your thing, do your thing.” It was the same thing with the writing – he felt that I needed to be there and needed to be involved as the singer of the songs, to lend my viewpoint and contribution. It wasn't like a struggle or a negotiation – he said I want you in here, writing these songs with us.

What was the process like, working in the studio with Mick?

Well, there wasn't a singular process as far as the actual conception of songs, that came from all different forms – sometimes a title, sometimes a riff, sometimes us just playing around in a circle together until something popped up, giving us an idea to work on. The recording process, both Marti [Fredriksen, co-producer of Can't Slow Down] and Mick are very strong in their opinions about what they want. Sometimes to the point where I'd say, “listen, I'm the fuckin' singer, let me try it my way first.” And they'd go, “no no no, do it this way, it's going to be great, just do it this way and we'll see how it works. If it doesn't work, we'll try something else.” So sometimes I was an instrument in their hands, as far as my voice goes. Sometimes it was something that I would do spontaneously that they never could have thought of, where they went “wow, that's really great, we gotta use that!” So it was a combo kind of pack in that way, and I didn't mind, because I know that I'm working with two guys who have good ears and good history. And if they think it should be a certain way, far be it from me to say I'm not going to fuckin' try your idea.

How did you guys connect with Marti?

Well, Mick had known Marti for a long time. They had worked on some stuff together previously with Lou, but also they wrote/produced a song for Ozzy, called “Dreamer.” They had done a lot of work [together] over the previous ten years. We really needed Marti's energy, spark, fire and determination, to get things done on time. Because as artists sometimes, we can take too long to do something or to take too long get to doing something, and Marti was right there going “come on, today we're doing it, we're going to finish this today.” (laughs) He was very forceful about it, but in a really great way and it was something that we definitely needed.

Whether it's the rock stuff on this new album, or the slower tunes, there's some really great stuff on there. I love “When It Comes To Love.”

I like “When It Comes To Love.” I've been getting reports, because now the disc with all the new material is available on Itunes, even though the triple disc set is available in Wal-Mart, and it's going to be available in another form at other outlets as well, in case you're not near a Wal-Mart. But the all-new disc is available on Itunes, and I'm starting to get the reports of the download numbers,which include the top numbers of the singles, but the very next one that's being most downloaded is called “I Can't Give Up.” I kind of think that that's probably my best vocal performance on the record, so who knows, maybe that's another single.

Those are two of my favorites, and I also love the title track, which I saw you play live in January.

We were doing “When It Comes To Love,” and we're doing “In Pieces” and “Can't Slow Down” now, just because if we add “When It Comes To Love,” that means we have to take another classic out, and that's not what we want to do. It's very difficult to make those decisions, but you have to do what you have to do. (laughs) There's a lot of tunes that we know that we can't put in the set, because we just don't have enough time. I'm very happy with the record. There are songs on there like “Angel Tonight,” which was very last minute – we didn't know if it was going to make the record. There was an element about it that wasn't working. When the record came out, I was surprised to hear a bunch of people saying how much they thought that that was their favorite song, it was very funny.

The re-recording of “Fool For You Anyway” at the end of the record is a great version of a song from the catalog that I've always loved.

I don't know if you know what the deal is with that. We did that with Mark Ronson, who is Mick Jones' stepson. Mark Ronson produced Amy Winehouse, and he's done a lot of stuff on his own. While we were working on the rest of the album in a state of the art way with Pro-Tools, and all of the modern gear, Mick and I would travel over to Brooklyn when Mark's schedule permitted, to this beat up old building with no air conditioning. It had a tiny little studio with an eight track tape machine and we went over there and recorded “Fool For You Anyway.” It was a real shock to the system, to work on those two different ends of the technological recording spectrum. Working with Mark on that really reminded me of my first days, making records on tape, waiting for the machine to rewind and it takes all day to get the sounds. It was a real trip.

On the topic of “Fool For You Anyway,” are there any other tracks for you personally that are off the beaten path in the catalog, that are tracks that you dig?

Oh, there's all kinds. We've done “Break It Up” and “That Was Yesterday.” I'd love to do “Love Has Taken It's Toll.”

Oh yeah!

You just don't have enough time in the show. I love that verse in that song – it's so great. Every once in a while, we talk about it, we work something up, we throw something in.

Did you enjoy this?  Check out the RFT portion of the interview right here.

  • Dan

    They are going to be at Jones Beach (down the road from me) on Saturday. If I can score cheap tickets, I'd like to go.

  • Matt

    I haven't seen Kansas in a few years, but Foreigner and Styx are definitely
    worth seeing….all three bands should make for a good night of tunage.