Back in the days before grunge ate hair metal and wiped its mouth with a flannel sleeve, Kelly Hansen had a nice gig. As lead vocalist for melodic hard rockers Hurricane, he toured with the likes of Stryper and Gary Moore. Life was good, and his band even scored a few hits. Then Pearl Jam, Nirvana et.al. shoved his genre into irrelevancy.
So Hansen got into producing and artist development. “No one wanted to hear a voice like me, so I started doing other things in the business; I knew I had to wait it out,” he said in a recent phone interview. That lasted a dozen years before Hansen realized, “I’m not doing what I’m best at, which is singing. I decided to be more proactive about joining a band.”
Around this time, Foreigner co-founder Mick Jones was organizing a charity show in Santa Barbara, California. The guitarist was putting out feelers for a singer to replace Lou Gramm, who played his final show with the band in 2003. “I made some calls and I talked to management,” Hansen said. “After a back-and-forth process of a couple months … I jammed with them for like an hour and a half. They called me an hour later and said, ‘we’re booking shows for next weekend; could you start rehearsing tomorrow?’”
Just like that, Hansen went from toiling in the trenches to performing some of classic rock’s sturdiest songs, like “Hot Blooded,” “Urgent” and the proto-power ballad “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” For a guy that only wanted to sing, it was a dream come true.
As Foreigner’s new lead vocalist, Hansen plays it faithful, but purposely isn’t a doppelgänger. “I brought my own shoes; I don’t try to be anybody else,” he said. “I like the songs the way I learned to love them, and I think that’s the way most people like to hear them. So I’m injecting myself in there, but this is Foreigner doing Foreigner … they don’t need me to change them.”
Asked the inevitable question – what’s his favorite song? – Hansen demurs. “As a guy who sings for a living, I have this great selection of songs to sing every night,” he said. “You know how some times you’re in the mood for an apple and others an orange? Some nights the band’s really feeling one song and the next it’s another. They’re all great, so I never lose.”
Hansen believes his background as a Big 80s rocker is an asset – he isn’t a twentysomething recruit from some karaoke bar. “I think that’s part of what all of these members bring to the table,” he said. “We’ve all been around the block, and have an understanding of what it takes to make it happen.”
Another benefit of Hansen’s years in service: his singing has seasoned. “10 or 15 years earlier my voice probably wouldn’t have been right for this,” he said. “I think as I got older it kind of thickened up a little bit, and I think my vibe fits the band a little more now than it would’ve a long time ago.”
With Jones the sole remaining original member of Foreigner, there’s a notion that the 2016 vintage is a brand, not a band. Hansen’s having none of it, noting that such trash talk began long before he stepped up to the microphone to sing “Double Vision.” When their self-titled debut came out in 1977 – coincidentally, the year punk rock broke in America – cynics lobbed spitballs; Foreigner’s gold records kept piling up.
“People said that Foreigner was created in a board room somewhere by record company executives and it’s so not true,” Hansen said. “I’ve always been a fan of commercial pop and rock music. Back in the 70s, you couldn’t say that without people looking at you sideways, but that’s what I’ve always been. Foreigner was one of the best bands at doing that.”
Haters gonna hate, Hansen allows. “These are intense songs and they bring out very intense reactions in people,” he said. “But that kind of bow and quiver, it’s a great thing to have.”
The perks are also cool, too – and getting better as Foreigner’s 40th anniversary approaches in 2017. “We’re traveling around … Israel, Belgium, Switzerland, England, that’s always fun,” Hansen said. “We’ve already done the Lincoln Center, and we’re going to play at Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. That’s a lot of high-end places for a band like ours to be stomping into.”
When: Wednesday, July 27, 8 p.m. (doors at 6) 18+
Where: Casino Ballroom, 169 Ocean Blvd., Hampton Beach
Tickets: $36-$76 at casinoballroom.com
This story originally appeared in the 21 July 2016 Seacoast Scene