Interview with Zac Hanson
Talks About the Band, Label, New Music, and the Hansons' Philanthropic Work
By Bill Lamb, About.com
Hanson is a band formed by the three brothers Isaac, Taylor, and Zac Hanson. They stormed their way into the pop mainstream with the album Middle of Nowhere in 1997. It included the smash hit single "MMMBop" and earned the group three Grammy Award nominations. Since then the group has remained a primarily rock 'n roll and pop band that have earned acclaim for commitment to their music and the development of their own independent record label. I had the opportunity to talk with Zac Hanson, youngest of the brothers in September 2009. The band is touring this fall and plan to release a new album in May 2010.
Bill: A majority of my readers probably remember Hanson mostly from the days of "MmmBop," how would you explain that the band has evolved in recent years?
Zac: Well, I think, it's a little hard, that's 12 years. I think what I would start doing is explaining what Hanson was when we started...When we started we were just younger, but started as a group of guys that were inspired by late 50's and early 60's Motown and early rock 'n roll, Chuck Berry, Otis Redding, Elvis, the Beatles, stuff like that. I think we sort of took the inspiration of those people being so young when they started and just started even younger. We started like the Jackson 5 more than even Chuck Berry who was probably 18 when he really started. We just kind of continue to evolve, never trying to be anything but pushing ourselves to do music that is exciting and inspiring to us. So I think this stuff is a little more organic than maybe Middle of Nowhere was without the influence of the 90s. We incorporated loops and scratching into those records early on, and we're not doing that stuff as much, but I think still the kind of Motown R&B, rock 'n roll band kind of stuff is still the core of who we are. This record is a lot more piano driven I think than we've done before. The new music that we're doing that will come out next year, but it's still harmony, the way we harmonize together, the way we write songs I think is still very much the same as what we were when we started.
Bill: So how has it been to work with your brothers for over 15 years?
Zac: I guess the question would be what's it like not working with your brothers? We started the band as just a vocal group when I was 6. I say that because we got our first paying gig when I was 6. That's when we say we started the band. We got our first gig, someone saying we're gonna pay you to come play at this party. So we've been doing it for basically my whole life, and I'm happy about that. I don't feel like I've missed out on anything. Some people would think, "Where'd your childhood go?" I'm like, I had a great childhood travelling around the world doing stuff like that, and seeing things and places most people read about in books and getting a chance to do something that I feel inspired and love doing. You know, who gets to sit around and go, "I'm gonna speak my mind and that's my job." Just to talk about what I feel passionate about through music.
It's a long road. Like any relationship...probably the best thing I think to compare the band to is being married, because there's good times and there's bad times. Ultimately you survive through your willingness to work through it. It's not because it's great all the time. It's not because you don't sometimes wanna clock each other in the face, but for the most part there's common love of music. We have common inspirations in things that really made us wanna start being the band, and we have more things that make sense than don't make sense. I think Bono made a quote about U2 where he said, "Being a band for this long is like standing in an ocean and trying to push back the tide, and somehow we've done it." I think that was in his Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame induction.
Bill: The album you're currently working on will be the third released on your label?
Zac: This is the third on our label, and it's the fifth studio record as the band. I mean we've released live records and Christmas albums, all kinds of other good things. As far as real studio albums this is our fifth. It will come out next year. The plan is to release it in May. I guess this is all just kind of building up to it. We have an EP that comes out this fall that is five songs, four of them are done acoustically, one is full electric, so it's a new EP of music. We've tried to release something new every year ever since forming the label. When we were on a major label it always frustrated us that we were never putting out enough music. We would go and make a record and then two and a half or three years later we'd make another record, and we always felt like we needed to at least be putting something out every year whether it's a book that has songs that come with it or a DVD or whatever it is just new music out to your fans especially...Things are just moving so much faster with technology. It's really important to be able to say, "You know what, we can get stuff out digitally. It's so easy to just put stuff out there and have it for your fans."
So this is our third studio record from the label. It's been really
interesting to be the label. We've always been really hands on, but
it's a different approach to be the label, and for everything to be
directly in your hands. When you're signed to someone else you're responsible
to make sure they do their job. When you're the label you're just responsible
to make sure you do your job. There's no one else to look to when you
fail or succeed. In the same regard we've had the label for five years,
and I think even in the last five years, the playing field is so much
more levelled for people who are trying to do it on their own, who are
not in the traditional major world, because so many people have been
fired and record company mergers and new technology and digital distribution.
The marketplace is primed for artists to take control of their business
and say all that matters is the connection between me and my fans and
my ability to reach out and speak to them. That's where all the power
is, and everybody else is just trying to get a piece of that.
Bill: It seems like the activism you do is an important part of what you do as a band. Can you tell me some more about your current projects?
Zac: In the last several years, basically during the making of our last record, we took a personal trip to Africa. We were just really inspired by some guy from Oklahoma that we went with. We have tools to give. We have technology we can give. It's not the perfect solution, but we know it solves a problem. We know it bridges a gap for a group of people. We just really felt like that's really the answer we all need to have which is even though we don't have the perfect solution, we just have to start, we have to begin in order to get there. So, basically, we started giving some of our music, and then its all evolved into this walk campaign. The idea is basically to say to people you've got to start somehow, and we're going to help you. So we support five causes through this, the Take the Walk campaign. All relating to fighting AIDS and HIV and extreme poverty. So it drills clean water wells, the sort of organization that builds schools, partners with Tom's Shoes that gives shoes to kids. We partner with a hospital that gives medication to people that are HIV positive. Also the technology company that we first went with, supporting that technology which is basically facilitating a secure way to use cell phones to communicate with your doctor. It's a safe and fast way to get information and doctors have a direct connection to their patients and a place where, if you are talking about slums or settlements they don't have street addresses or telephones. It's literally a shack, so if you can find a connection through a cell phone then that's a lifeline where you can make sure that person's actively using their medication, actively knowing the progress of their treatment and things like that. It saves lives and particularly it's the ability to save babies' lives who are being born to positive mothers. It's really important, something we've really had a heart for because to give people the chance to start fresh. Without a generation of kids able to start fresh then you can't begin to get over that hump.
The Walk Around the World is what this has all become. It's a campaign to walk around the world. We've already done it once and now we're starting our second lap. We're just trying to set goals for ourselves that seem achievable but also kind of daunting. We know that walking around the world is almost 30,000 miles, and it feels like a huge task, but we've already done it once, and now we know, let's just take that further and let's get more people involved. Let's get more people doing walks. Maybe let's partner with different bands, and that's why we're partnering with Hellogoodbye and these bands that are touring with us. This has never been about Hanson. It's just about people so let's get other bands, let's get other fan bases, let's get other voices. Just continue to build on what we've done, and continue to build these little increments of just one mile at a time, one dollar at a time. One person hosting a walk at a time. Maybe it's 20 people on a walk. Maybe it's 1000 people on a walk. We just continue to do it one little step at a time.
Bill: On your tour this fall is there anything your long-term fans should look for?
Zac: The biggest thing about the fall tour is new music. We're going to be playing songs off the new record that won't come out until May, so I think that's probably the biggest change for this tour. We try to make every show different on every tour. We change the set list before we go on stage all the time or on stage a lot of the time actually which can be a little chaotic. The biggest thing is just hearing new songs. This will be the first time we will be playing these songs, and hearing it live. Basically this whole record was recorded with the three of us and our bass player that plays live with us sitting in a big 3000 square foot tracking room playing the songs live. So I think when you hear us play in a show that's the way the record sounds. You are experiencing the way we made this album. So hopefully I think that's something people will want to be part of.