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Published: Sunday, 8/2/2009

Foreigner rocks on: Band survives changes in its lineup and the music business

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Foreigner includes, from left: Thom Gimbel, Kelly Hansen, Jeff Pilson, and Mick Jones. Foreigner includes, from left: Thom Gimbel, Kelly Hansen, Jeff Pilson, and Mick Jones.
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Kelly Hansen can t do anything about the fact that he s a foreigner to Foreigner, having joined the band as lead singer about five years ago, long after its string of smash hits first came out.

Or maybe he can.

The 70s and 80s megaband, which will play Saturday at the Northwest Ohio Rib-Off at the Lucas County Fairgrounds, plans to release its first CD of new material in 14 years on Sept. 29. Hansen, 48, a veteran musician, will be lending his voice as well as his song-writing abilities to the three-disc set, "Can t Slow Down."

As Hansen sees it, his latest contribution is all part of the evolution of the band, which already boasts nine Top 10 hits and sales of more than 70 million albums. Even though a lot has changed since Mick Jones the only original Foreigner member remaining formed the band in 1976, what hasn t altered a bit is the response the group gets as it performs classic songs like "Feels Like The First Time," "Hot Blooded," and "I Want To Know What Love Is."

Hansen, having returned last month from touring with Foreigner abroad, spoke with The Blade about all of this the new album, his time with the band, even his difficulty playing Guitar Hero.

Q: You guys just finished a European tour. How did that go?

A: We were in Europe for six weeks, and we went from Portugal to Moscow, and it was very intense. We had a blast.

Q: During that time you used Twitter. Any tweets for today coming up?

A: No tweets for today. I ve been in New York for a week working on the new CD with Mick Jones and co-producer Marti Frederiksen, and so I ve been getting up, going to the studio, staying there all day late into the evening, going back to the hotel, and going to bed. Not very much exciting Twitter fodder there.

Q: What do you generally Twitter about? What would be some good examples?

A: When I was in Portugal I went to the top of this park in the center of town that looked down onto this statue and then over the water and I took a picture of that. I took a picture of my airline food on the Russian airline. It had some pickled herring and some salmon and some interesting stuff. Just stuff like that from my travels.

Q: What s the secret to a band lasting more than 30 years? You guys have been around for a long time.

A: I think first and foremost it s great songs. I think that when Foreigner first started there was more freedom to be unique and individual with your music and it was a time of musical explosion, really stylistically and technically. Then you have great performances and great production. ... If a band becomes big right now, then people are going out saying, "Well, let s make music that s exactly like that because that was just big, and we ll try to get a hit on a first single and we won t waste any time developing the artist." It s not necessarily the greatest grounds for feeding creativity and uniqueness.

Q: Has it been hard to maintain stability over all the years with the new members coming into the group?

A: I think a lot of the stability has to do with the focus that Mick brings to the band to really keep the band Foreigner. It has to do with Mick s intimate knowledge of what the band is about, what the sound is about, what makes Foreigner Foreigner. It s what he brings to the writing and what he brings to production and what he brings to performance. He knows about that all the way back to the beginning of the band.

Q: How did you come to join the band?

A: I read an article online about a charity show that Mick Jones had done with Jason Bonham and Jeff Pilson in Santa Barbara, Calif. I took the article to read that it was alluding to a Mick Jones solo project. I d been in the business a while and I m in Los Angeles, so I started calling around trying to get in touch with Foreigner management. As I started talking to them, little did I know that in the background they were actually discussing a revamping of Foreigner.

Once that came into the picture we talked some more and they sent me a CD of five original Foreigner hits, the recordings with no vocals, and said, "Put your voice on these." I did and Mick Jones heard that in New York and they were coming out to L.A. to do some rehearsals and so I went and sat in with them. We rehearsed for a while, a couple hours, and I went home. An hour later, they called me and they said, "Listen, we have some shows booked for this weekend. Can you start rehearsing tomorrow?"

Q: What was it like [filling the shoes of original vocalist] Lou Gramm?

A: There are a lot of groups who change members or change people in the band and I have to look at it like I m not trying to be somebody else or sound like somebody else or be a previous version of this band. This is the current, ongoing evolution of this group. It just happens that it has a different singer, just like Van Halen did for example. And I didn t come from some TV show or YouTube. Us coming together was actually the product of me, a guy who s been in this business for 30 years, who has I think some respect and credibility, getting in touch with Foreigner and ... we decided we re a good match.

Q: This is the first new album that you guys have had in a long time.

A: It s very challenging. We re under a lot of pressure. We ve been on the road while we ve been working on the new CD. For example, our bass player Jeff Pilson was doing bass tracks on the tour bus in Germany while we were in Europe. I wish we had more time but we ve been trying to make a new CD for a couple of years and just haven t had the time because the demand for live shows has been so great. So we really had to put our foot down and say we re going to get this done this year. I think it s coming out really well.

Q: I had heard something about this being sort of a WalMart exclusive-type release?

A: It is. It s a Wal-Mart-exclusive.

Q: How did you guys decide on that?

A: We started the relationship with Wal-Mart a couple of years ago. They ve had success with ... AC/DC and others. I think that we realized that we might have something in common here because we ve noticed that there s a really broad cross-section of people that are coming to the shows, not just older fans but also a lot of new younger fans either turned on to classic rock or Foreigner by their parents or by Guitar Hero or Rock Band or by placement in a movie. I think Wal-Mart s about reaching families and doing stuff together as a family, and I see that a lot at the shows.

Q: Do you ever play your own stuff on Guitar Hero?

A: I ve tried. It was just funny because how I perform [the Foreigner song] "Juke Box Hero" live is nothing like you re going to perform it for Guitar Hero or whatever it is. And it s nothing like playing a real instrument, so it s really bizarre.

Q: So I might have a shot at beating you, huh?

A: Oh, absolutely. You d win hands down.

Contact Ryan E. Smith at:

ryansmith@theblade.com

or 419-724-6103



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