February 6th, 2012 | Published in Interviews
Back in fifth grade my friends and I mimed Foreigner guitar riffs while walking home from school, at weekend sleepovers…everywhere. This was a couple years before Van Halen’s 1984 made hard rock safe for the masses. Oh sure, a few other bands—including David Lee Roth’s—had already successfully injected slick guitar parts into the confines of three-minute pop rock songs. But in 1982 air guitar hysterics pretty much began and ended with Angus Young, Neil Schon, and Mick Jones. Okay, toss in some Frankie Steve Stevens (Billy Idol), Sullivan (Survivor), Rudolf Schenker (Scorpions), Randy Rhoads (Ozzy Osbourne), and Billy Squier if you will—but prior to the 1984 Summer Olympics those ‘80s-related pikers boasted only a couple chart-toppers apiece, in contrast to the dozens notched by AC/DC, Journey, and Foreigner.
So when my paperboy pals and I joined the Columbia House mail order music club, it was a given Foreigner’s then-recent compilation Records would constitute one of the freebies that came with membership. I mean, up until that point very few acts apart from The Beatles, Stones, and Eagles had issued Best-Ofs so laden with bona fide hits. “Dirty White Boy,” “Long Long Way From Home,” and “Head Games” were irresistibly catchy, hook-laden and soulful—and just menacing enough to make kids feel naughty for liking them so much. “Double Vision,” “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” and “Urgent” were among early radio smashes featuring synthesizer (played by Thomas Dolby) woven in the mix. I can’t recall how many times I sang along to “Juke Box Hero”—either alone or just out cruising the neighborhood with my buddies. The rise-and-fall rock star narrative was just too on-point for daydreaming boys, and Jones’s fluid guitar breaks and slinky solos were consummate ear candy.
Formed in 1976 by English rockers Jones and Ian McDonald (ex-King Crimson) along with American singer Lou Gramm, Foreigner took its name from its multinational make-up and the otherworldly music they created. Their self-titled debut yielded three hits, including “Cold as Ice.” Double Vision gave the world its sizzling title track and FM staple “Blue Morning, Blue Day.” And so indelible were the guitar hooks on “Hot Blooded” that the track was sampled by rapper Tone-Loc, parodied by Weird Al Yankovic, used in television and movies, and included on music-oriented games Rock Band 3 and Guitar Hero World Tour. Produced by Roy Thomas Baker (Queen), the controversially-sleeved Head Games introduced us to “Dirty White Boy.”
McDonald left in 1980, but Jones and Gramm marched on, conquering airwaves between 1982-1985 with a string of now-familiar classics from 4 and Agent Provocateur. “Waiting for a Girl Like You” gave the quartet its first number one and broke Foreigner (and a host of other hard rock bands) to an adult contemporary market that might not have tuned in but for such crossover gems. Jones parlayed his musical ear into writing and producing for others, including would-be rivals Van Halen. Gramm also enjoyed solo success with 1988’s “Midnight Blue,” but the grunge wave scuttled 1990s Foreigner efforts like Mr. Moonlight, and health issues prompted Gramm to step away from the action.
Enter Kelly Hansen, another American-bred super-singer—and dead-ringer for Gramm to undiscerning ears. He’s also a hell of a nice guy. A veteran of the late-80s L.A. circuit, Hansen found modest success with Hurricane (a pop metal outfit with familial ties to Quiet Riot) before receiving that magical phone call from Mick inviting him to audition with Foreigner.
But we’ll let Kelly explain how that all came about: The Cleveland Sound spoke with the singer by phone to discuss Foreigner’s ongoing U.S. tour and latest Razor and Tie releases, Acoustique (an “unplugged” set) and Feels Like the First Time—a nicely-priced compendium of Foreigner hits reimaged for the new millennium, with Hansen at the microphone.
THE CLEVELAND SOUND: Hello! How’s it going? What’s the weather like out in L.A? We just got hit with a mini-blizzard in Northern Ohio.
KELLY HANSEN: Nice! It’s nice here—but it’s real dry and windy! We have these Santa Ana winds coming in, so….
TCS: Last year Foreigner toured with Styx, then Journey and Night Ranger. Those had to be the best classic rock package shows of summer and fall. But this year a few—if not all—the upcoming Foreigner dates were originally going to be acoustic. I understand you guys have recanted and will be doing full-on rock shows, yes?
KH: Yeah, it was Journey and Night Ranger for last year, yes. And we had a great tour, with record-breaking attendance. So we decided to extend it for a while, and then we’ll do some acoustic shows later in the year. Because we’re out supporting this three-disc set, Feels Like the First Time, and the Acoustique CD is part of it. But we’ll wait a little bit to focus on that.
TCS: Could you talk a little about making Feels Like the First Time? What was it like to recreate the biggest Foreigner hits in both stripped-down fashion and again as a plugged-in ensemble?
KH: We’d been in the process of re-recording those, the classic tunes, for a while. Finally got that done. And the Acoustique CD…a couple years ago, when we were doing promotion for Can’t Slow Down, we were in Germany doing live radio broadcasts acoustically. There was a small crowd, a question-and-answer session, and we did this for four or five stations while we were in Germany. And we got such a phenomenal response that when we came back to the U.S. we said, “Let’s experiment.” So we booked a couple shows acoustically, and they sold out, and people went crazy to hear these songs acoustically—which kind of blew our minds! We were shocked by that, so we said, “We’ve got to put these versions on CD.” So that’s what inspired that disc.
TCS: Were the sessions for 2009’s Can’t Slow Down and subsequent touring enough preparation to familiarize yourself with the material? I mean, you probably already knew the songs, but did performing them nightly help ready you for memorializing them on the new discs?
KH: Well, I’d been with the band since 2005, and we got around to making that new album in 2009. Actually, the tail end of 2008 was when we started working on it. So we were touring all through Europe and the U.S., and anytime there was a break in the touring, one or more of us were flying from L.A. to New York—or New York to L.A.—and the core of the writing was Mick Jones, myself, and Marti Frederiksen—who is co-producer of the disc. So it was an exhausting year because we were touring, and writing, and recording, and there was no time off for me, vocally. It was really tough. But I’m glad we did it, because it came out really great. But it was definitely a challenge.
TCS: In the 1980s you worked with a band called Hurricane, then did guest work with some established artists like Slash. How did your teaming up with Mick come about?
KH: Well, I was at a point where I wasn’t really satisfied with where my career was going. I was doing many other things in the business and I thought to myself, “Wait a minute. The thing I do the best is the thing I’m doing the least!” So I wanted to get back to that, and I’d heard about a couple gigs coming around, but never really heard about them in advance, when I used to be the first guy people would call. So I decided, “Maybe I can’t be this apathetic about looking for new stuff to do.” Earlier, my whole career just came to me. So I had to change my way of thinking and be proactive. So I was on the Internet, and I read about this charity event Mick was doing with some of the guys in northern California. Er, Santa Barbara, actually—just up the coast from me. And the article alluded to some kind of band side project, a Mick Jones solo project…I didn’t know what was going on with Foreigner at the time. So I made a few phone calls and got to their management. And unbeknownst to me, in the background they’d had the band in dormancy. Because Lou left in 2002 to take time off and reacquaint himself with his life and his family. But Mick decided he wanted to continue the band. So after a while of going back and forth they sent me this disc of five classic Foreigner hits—the real, actual music but with no singing on it—and they said, “Put your voice on this.” So I did, and Mick got to hear that in New York. And he was coming out to L.A. to do some rehearsals, so we jammed for about an hour and a half. The whole band. And I distinctly remember, I got home at around 6:00pm and they called an hour later saying, “We’re booking shows for next week if you can start rehearsals tomorrow.” And it took off from there.
TCS: It had to feel pretty good scoring that gig.
KH: It kind of surprised me, but then I was like, “Duh! I’m an idiot!” Because I’d always been so lax about hunting for new stuff, and being a hustler. Shit just used to fly into my lap, and I realized that now that was a changing thing, and I had to learn to adjust to that. And I was very lucky, too; I just approached this thing and it worked out.
TCS: Was there ever a moment for you, sitting there during those sessions, where you got chills or were like, “Wow! I’m singing Foreigner tunes and Mick Jones is right here playing with me!”?
KH: [Laughs] Well yeah, I felt that—but I was kind of concentrating on what I was doing. But I think it went really well, obviously.
TCS: Was there ever a time before you joined Foreigner when you realized, “Hey—I kinda sound like Lou Gramm! I could sing these songs!” Or did friends or family ever pick up on the vocal similarity?
KH: [Laughs] No, not really. I was really aware of the band, and looked forward to their new releases when they came out. I think we were from a similar bag, influence-wise. But when people heard me in Hurricane—which was a melodic metal band—they kind of pigeonholed me into that metal thing. It took quite a while, after 1991, when that band disbanded, that I came to be accepted for doing other things. But it took a really long time for people to want to hear me. Nobody wanted to really hear me during the grunge era; my kind of singing was not in favor at the time. So it took a while.
TCS: Can’t Slow Down had at least two AC hits, with “When It Comes to Love” and “In Pieces,” which Mick wrote in conjunction with producers Marti Frederiksen and Mark Ronson. But was “Can’t Give Up” your first official writing credit with Foreigner?
KH: Yeah. I pretty much co-wrote on the whole thing, except for a couple that were already pre-existing. And that was one of the things we hadn’t done yet as a group, to record a new album of entirely new material. And that was one of the great things we were able to do, and I’m glad Mick was gracious enough to involve me in the writing for that. We had a great collaborative experience there.
TCS: Do you have any favorite Foreigner songs you like singing most? Any that resonates for you more personally or are simply more fun—or perhaps just easier to sing—than others?
KH: Well, I’m just not a favorites type of guy. It’s like apples and oranges. Or pizza and steak. They’re both great things—they’re just different. That’s how it is with each of these songs. I’m just a guy who is fortunate enough to be in a band where all the songs are really great, and very well-known, and I don’t have to struggle through a bunch of unknown songs to get to those last couple songs everyone will know at a show. And for a guy like me, that’s rare. So I’m really fortunate to be doing it.
TCS: I know the band is active with a couple different charities and works a lot with NASCAR. Can you talk about Foreigner’s ongoing efforts with breast cancer awareness and the tie-ins with NASCAR?
KH: We have a relationship with NASCAR as a whole, but NASCAR is divided up nationally into a couple different segments. And also individually, tracks have their own charities that we work with. For example, Texas Motor Speedway has the Children’s Speedway, which we work with. So we do a lot of stuff like that. And just recently, the woman of my life has breast cancer. So that compelled me to talk about that and address the value of early testing. Which has also been important to me, in my life. We also try to help local high schools, who are always in peril of losing funding, and when they cut costs, the arts are first to go. So we run this little contest where high school can send in a video, and if they win they get to sit-in with the band at the show for “I Want to Know What Love Is,” as a choir, and we donate a thousand dollars to their program. So yes…we try and do our part there!
TCS: I understand Foreigner music will be featured in the upcoming Tom Cruise film Rock of Ages. What’s the deal there?
KH: Well, Rock of Ages comes from the stage play, which I got the chance to see in New York. And we have three songs in the movie—more than anybody else. And Tom Cruise is going to sing “I Want to Know What Love Is,” Alec Baldwin is going to sing “Juke Box Hero,” and one of the other cast members will sing “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” So that’s really great for us, and we’re having lots of fun with it, and the reports I’ve gotten about it have been really good.
TCS: I never heard about the play, so it should be interesting to see. You just think “Juke Box Hero,” then imagine Alec Baldwin—Mr. Words-With-Friends-On-a-Plane—and you wonder, “What the…?”
KH: Well, it’s all about the eighties, and these guys trying to keep that scene going, the eighties scene, and the local government is trying to stop them in their process of doing what they do. So it’s very interesting [laughs]…and very entertaining.
Twitter @TheKellyHansen and @TheMickJones