Foreigner’s Kelly Hansen talks setlist wishes, rock hall and returning to live music in Clearwater

The band is at Ruth Eckerd Hall this weekend.

click to enlarge Kelly Hansen (third from left) fronts Foreigner at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida on May 22-23, 2021. - Bill Bernstein
Bill Bernstein
Kelly Hansen (third from left) fronts Foreigner at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida on May 22-23, 2021.

If you’ve seen Foreigner live in the last 15 years, there’s a pretty good chance that Lou Gramm wasn’t at the mic.

Original lead guitarist Mick Jones pieced together a new incarnation of the band in the early-2000s, which included lead vocalist Kelly Hansen. Until COVID-19 brought all live affairs to a halt, the 60-year old was on the road constantly, starting from his 2005 hiring, having even recorded and co-written Can’t Slow Down (which is far less pop-oriented than the Lionel Richie masterpiece) with the band in 2009.

Ahead of two, full electric sets this weekend, Hansen called Creative Loafing Tampa Bay to open up about why he doesn’t take time to pick favorites and what he thinks of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Read an unabridged version of our chat below.

Saturday-Sunday, May 22-23. 8 p.m. $73.25-$103.25
Ruth Eckerd Hall
1111 McMullen Booth Rd., Clearwater

Foreigner is playing a two-night stint at Ruth Eckerd Hall next weekend, and in a pre-COVID world, you guys would normally rock amphitheaters. Are you looking forward to a smaller setting like this?

Well, I'm looking forward to be able to play live again, and whatever form that takes, I'll take it. Although I can’t wait to get back to a full-on, you know, full capacity, but we have to do what’s right for everybody.

I read that you were a fan of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles growing up, but throughout your career, the majority of the music you’ve taken part in has been hard rock or heavy metal. So, do you ever think about partaking in projects that are more R&B oriented?

I have done some of those things. Sometimes, you just have to take the path that's presented to you. And I've been very, very fortunate to be presented with the path that I'm on. But that doesn't mean that I don't use those influences every day because what I am doing is blues-based. I'm not doing, you know, some kind of progressive metal that's maybe more operatically based, for example.

Right. So, correct me if I'm wrong, but I heard that one of your early groups, Hurricane, is still active without you and Jay [Schellen]. Have you been to see them live since your split with the band? Do you even keep in touch with them anymore?

Jay is my best friend. We’re in touch all the time, he plays with Yes. The other guys I have only seen once or twice. I think I saw them at an amp show. I have not gotten to see them play, and as far as I know, they haven’t been active recently, so…

Would you be open to playing with them again?

No, man. I’m in Foreigner, so that’s what I’m doing. *laughs*

Fair enough.

I just think that, as great as the Hurricane fans are, I don’t think that there’s enough of them, you know, almost 40 years later to validate kind of, you know, doing anything like that.

So, there’s a part in each Foreigner show where the band does “I Want To Know What Love Is” with a local high school choir. What started that tradition?

Well, we wanted to find a way to give back, and we had this interesting idea of doing a contest and getting local school choirs a chance to come perform with us onstage, and we worked with the Grammy Foundation and LiveNation, and we were able to do that. And what it does is allow us to raise awareness about the fact that there’s such a lack of funding for school music programs, and it’s also—it’s exciting, and we donate money to the choir, so it’s a win-win for everybody, and I see the look on these kids faces when they’re on the stage facing thousands of people, and we get letters from choir directors and parents saying how much this meant to them and their children. Sometimes, it even affirms to a kid that, maybe he wants to pursue the arts. So, it’s been a really, really fulfilling thing. I think that we get the better end of the stick on the whole deal, really.

That’s really great, especially going forward after all the country’s been through. I think that’s gonna be a great tradition to carry on.

Yeah, I think—well, you know, we have to modify that for this year. We’re trying to figure out if there’s a way we can still do this, somehow, in a way that’s safe, but at this moment, we’re not able to do that right now with COVID.

Makes sense. So, speaking of giving back, and that song, a year or two ago, you recorded a new version of “I Want To Know What Love Is" in support of Shriners Children's Hospital. What was it that gave you the thought to donate all the proceeds to that specific organization?

Well, we've been working with the Shriners for over 10 years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Shriners which help families that have children who are sick, be able to get treated and not have to pay. And that was a really important program for us. And so, in working with them, we were going to be involved in a television campaign. And I'm sure you've seen some of the Shriners commercials on TV.

And so, we talked to them and they said “Well, can we do something together so we decided to do this together, and it was another way of being able to raise funds for the Shriners because we did the new version, and Mick Jones graciously allowed the profits from that version to go directly to Shriners. So it's been a really great relationship, it's been really touching and moving for me to go to Shriners Hospitals and talk with the doctors and the patients, and see the kind of amazing work that they're doing, so it's good all around definitely.

Nice! Would you consider doing that with other hospitals in the country?

Well you know, Shriners is a network of hospitals that are doing this, and it's a little bit difficult time-wise to say “okay we're gonna start spreading it around to individual hospitals,” but you know we always try to consider doing something good as kind of a give back for how fortunate we've been, and I think that we do that. So, there's always new opportunities and things that we consider all the time.

Right on, that’s fantastic. So, what kind of music are you listening to these days?

You know, when I'm home, what happens to me when I listen to current stuff is I'm too analytical, because I think about what are they doing, you know, what kind of instruments or production techniques are they using. And so, when I’m home and relaxing, I always go back to listening to old, like, ’50s combo-jazz, or some of my favorite old artists that we talked about before. I love listening to old Motown and R&B and soul, and especially that 60’s-70’s soul stuff, I really like that. So, for my pure, honest, at-home kind of hanging-out stuff, that’s what I do.

Very cool, man. What would you say your favorite Lou Gramm-era Foreigner album would be?

Well, you know, they’re kind of like apples and oranges because the early stuff was so raw. But all through the lineage and different eras of Foreigner, the arrangements and the songwriting have been great. I like the early stuff for its great songwriting and rawness. And then, as it moved forward, I really liked the production value and performances again, and the arrangements again, but they were different—they were modernized, they were more slick, they were, at the time, they were just like, these pristine productions that I, at the time, you know, you hear something new that comes out, you kind of go—and if you’re any kind of a production person or like, engineering, you’re very, very interested in how they’re getting, achieving that sound, how they’re doing it, what techniques did they use. That’s always been a real interest of mine. I got to work with some great producers in my time, you know, Bob Ezrin, and Mike Clark, and Michael James Jackson, you know, and others. So, that always interests me, and I’ve also produced records that had my home studio, so that’s something I really like. So you know, I appreciate all those eras for different reasons.

Is there a specific deep cut from any of those areas that you would really like to play live sometime, or do you think you’ve covered them all?

I'd like to do “Heart Turns To Stone.” I don't think we'll probably do that, but I love that song. We've done songs I like that. Like, we still do “That Was Yesterday.” I really like that one. Sometimes when we play acoustically we do “Girl On The Moon,” which was never a hit, or anything like that. I really like that one. So, yes and no, I've gotten to do some of them, but not all of them.

So yesterday, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced their 2021 inductees. Your bandmate, Jeff [Pilsson] doesn't seem to care, but does it irritate you that Foreigner still hasn't made it in?

It doesn't irritate me, but I'm a very logical person. And there's this argument in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about influence and innovation: Those are the criteria they say they use to look at possible inductees and they're saying that popularity or record sales are not a part of the equation when they consider who they want to enter into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but take those two words: influence and innovation. Influence: I think if you sell tens of millions of records, and you inspire all those teenagers to pick up the guitar, the drums, or the keyboards, and they start learning your songs—just like we used to you know go learn "Smoke On Water" or whatever like that. I call that influence. 

When you talk about taking on the responsibility and the weight from a record company of half a million or a million dollars to produce an album, you go in the studio and you stretch the capabilities of the recording technique; the recording process. You do new things. You do things that have never been done before in the studio. I call that innovation. And if you talk about putting a gospel choir on song in a rock band, I call that innovation. So, I struggle with what appears to be the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's interpretation of those words, which they hold dear. And so, that's just my point of view, it doesn't bother me, it's not going to change my personal satisfaction of going out and playing or writing or recording songs. That's never been something that influenced me, ironically enough. *laughs*. So that's how I feel about it, you know? And they're gonna do whatever they want to do and that's fine, I think. I'm fine with the validation of millions of people all across the world wherever we play, singing "I Want To Know What Love Is,” because they know all the words. I consider that validation for what we do.

That’s a great way to see it, man. So, you guys were supposed to tour with Europe and Kansas this past year, but then, COVID shut down the whole world. This was not the first time that you had toured with huge bands like this. So, of all the groups that you've toured with over the years, which one do you think you have the best memories with?

Well, I have great memories with all of them, you know? I have to say this, because I'm always asked “What's your favorite Foreigner song to sing?” and, you know, I'm not a “favorites” person, because that means you have to choose that one is greater or better in some respect than the other, as opposed to, in regards to favorite Foreigner song, I look at them all as this beautiful bowl of ripe fruit, and one day I'm in the mood for an orange, and one day I'm in the mood for a pear. And so, every night, how you feel about a song, or about being on tour in that moment when you're in front of the crowd and maybe it's outdoors, maybe it's an arena, maybe it's intimate: That creates specific special moments in that night that don't happen any other night, so I tend to not look at something as a favorite. I enjoy things for what they are, and I have gathered a great group of memories with all the bands we’ve played with. I mean, some great musicians and people who we’re great friends with, it's so fun when you started touring to get to go back and work again with some old friends, whose music you really respect, and that gives me musicianship you really respect.

So, some would argue that without the majority of the original lineup present, the current iteration of Foreigner is a tribute band. What's your stance on that?

Well, you know, people can have whatever belief that they want to have. If I start thinking that I have to either argue, or somehow believe how they feel, then I'm not listening to my own self. So, I joined this band when this band was looking for a new voice. I’ve recorded for this band, we did a whole album that I co-wrote on in 2009, Can’t Slow Down. I’ve toured all over the world…with whoever, you know? We're keeping the legacy of Foreigner alive. And it’s—this is Foreigner, this is not some band that’s disassociated with the Foreigner name that decided to go out and play Foreigner songs, so people are going to say and think whatever they want, and I just really—I don't spend a lot of my time thinking about that.

Well, I think you're doing a pretty great job of keeping the legacy alive, if I’m being honest. You have a great voice.

Well, thank you. Thanks.

So, let’s wrap things up on a non-musical note: A few years back, you appeared on an episode of "Chopped." I would imagine you did a lot of cooking in quarantine? If so, what's your specialty.

Yep! Well, it's ever expanding, and I wouldn't say I have one specialty. That would imply that I'm some kind of an expert, but I think I've only gone to two or three restaurants in the last year. And some of that was—one or two of that was takeout. *laughs* Because it’s really hard to make sushi at home. There is not a sushi grade, fresh fish supplier near me, so I'm forced to—if I want to have sushi to have someone else make it.

The other one I went to was my local curry place. I make curry at home, but there's once in a while when I say “You know what? I just don't want to have to do it all,” but basically, I cook three meals a day here at home the whole pandemic, and I have really enjoyed expanding my horizons. You know, I had my bolognese, and I had these chicken tacos that I make with this red sauce that I make. And, you know, I use tomatoes and onions, and achiote, and I used dried chili peppers, I use puya, I use Chile de árbol, and I mix those together with some coriander and cumin, salt, pepper, garlic, and I make this red sauce that I keep in the fridge that I can use for anything. I use it for breakfast eggs, I can use it for enchiladas, I can use it for tacos. 

So I really kind of expanded there, but then I also tried to start expanding into more of the Asian flavors. The stir fries—I have this new citrus-based marinade with orange juice, lime juice, lemon juice, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, cilantro, basil, and I put that in a blender, and I make a sauce out of that, and I marinate that. And then, when I take the chicken, for example, out of the marinade, I'll cook the chicken, and then I will make a sauce out of the marinade, that will be that'll be incorporated into the dish. So, I'm constantly expanding all the time, and who knows? There may be a time in the near future where I either start doing more publicly with cooking, or I might do a cookbook. So, we're thinking about that stuff right now because it's really interesting me at the moment.

I’d buy a cookbook from you, man.

Great, sold!

See a list of Tampa “Safe & Sound” live music venues here.

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