Exclusive The Boys in the Band
by Brad Deck
It’s true that, to the untrained ear, the story of Hanson may seem like another tale of a late 1990s boy-band one-hit-wonder, a la L.F.O. or (dare I say it) the Baja Men. To fans of the group, just celebrating the 10-year anniversary of their debut album’s multi-platinum release, the good that the band has done all over the world cannot be discounted by naysayers who credit ‘MMMBop’ as Hanson’s only legacy. A partnership with charity shoe company Tom’s Shoes, a charity single release from their latest album, The Walk, and countless months logged in the hospitals of South Africa have made Hanson not only a currently successful independent rock band, but also a major philanthropic force in the third world. Hanson drummer Zac Hanson talks to ARTVOICE about the inspiration he and his brothers have garnered from their charity work, the evolution of their sound, and the challenges that accompany releasing new material in today’s changing music industry.
Artvoice: You just got back from another trip to South Africa. How was it?
Zac Hanson: It was great. We basically spent half our trip with Tom’s Shoes finishing up their shoe drop, where they deliver all these donated shoes to kids, and the rest was just visiting different groups that are doing cool stuff, We went back to the hospital that all the money from the song ‘Great Divide,’ which we released as a charity single through iTunes, has been going to, and visiting the projects that they have been using the money on. All the money has been going to the prenatal HIV/AIDS unit of this awesome hospital.
AV: I know they do a lot with your tour, and that you guys have been working with them for a little while, but tell me a little bit more about your partnership with Tom’s.
ZH: We were going out and talking about the song [Great Divide] and what we were doing with it, and the idea that came about from it was that, in order to make change, we need to just use the things that are available. The perfect solution isn’t just going to show up, and it’s only through doing all the little things that we can conquer the big things. That’s where the impact is really made. We stumbled across Tom’s, and realized that they were already doing exactly what we were thinking. They operate by selling shoes through their website, and donating a pair every time a pair is sold. But it brought up the idea of doing barefoot walks before every concert to try to help them reach their goal of 50,000 pairs of shoes. We do it at like 3 o’clock or 4 on the date of the concert, and we just encourage anybody who’s standing in line or whatever to just walk with us. It raises awareness and gets people talking, and that’s the best way to get something going. For me, more even that what they’re doing with getting the most basic necessities to people in need, they’re just setting this amazing example. This company was nothing 18-months ago, and just based on someone having this cool idea, they made the commitment to give from the very beginning. It’s looking at charity from a totally different perspective.
AV: When you come to Buffalo, will you be doing a barefoot walk before the show?
ZH: We are going to be doing the walk, but I don’t know if we’re going to be doing it barefoot, considering it’s getting so cold—
AV: It is morbidly cold here.
ZH: And for that reason, I think we’re probably going to do them with our shoes on, maybe encourage everyone to wear a pair of Tom’s, rather than go barefoot. Obviously, what would be the point of having a few hundred people with frostbite on their feet? That’s not going to help anyone.
AV: What else can we expect on Saturday?
ZH: It’s going to be a little bit of everything, form the beginning to the end. And it’s getting close to the holidays, so maybe we’ll work something in like that. But it’s a rock and roll show. We like to try to get people interacting and singing along, because I hate shows where people stand and cross their arms. If that’s what you want to do, then don’t come. There’s a lot of excitement, and we try to change it up every night as much as possible, and I think it should be a good time.
AV: Your latest album, which was released in the U.S. this summer, is called The Walk. What is the personal significance to you guys?
ZH: It’s interesting because we knew the title we wanted to use before we even began recording the album, which had never happened before. We had never begun an album before with knowledge of the full message of it. We wrote a song called ‘The Walk’ about a few years before, and we had been playing it live ever since, and it talks about how so many of the choices in your life are based upon conquering your own fears. All the things we do in our lives kind of have to be done alone. The song focuses on the question of whether you’re going to be in the spotlight, or be part of the crowd. At the same time that that song was written, we were in the midst of forming our own label, and doing things that were pretty risky—some things that could possible end a career as a band. It’s a surprise, looking back, that we made it through some of the things we did. And I think it rung true that that was part of the message of who we are. Our career all together has been a lot like a walk; not a run, or a skip, or anything like that. Each of our records has its own resolution, and we’ve never been chasing anything, and we’re not trying to be anything we’re not. We just do things that we’re passionate and excited about, and hopefully that comes through to our fans.
AV: What sets it apart as the new sound in your catalog?
ZH: This record, more than anything, feels like it’s bringing things together. The first album, Middle of Nowhere, was really Motown influenced, the second record [This Time Around] was more blues/gospel-inspired, and the third record [Underneath] was a lot more artistic. This record kind of compiles all the sounds that we’ve tested over the years. It’s really risk-driven, and a little harder hitting—a little more of a rock album.
AV: You mentioned Middle of Nowhere, which was your first mainstream release a little over 10 years ago. Tell me about the recent re-release of that.
ZH: Yeah, one of the things we did on our last album, Underneath, was accompany it with an acoustic album, and we really enjoyed working with the medium of acoustic sound. It’s the 10-year anniversary of the record, and it just seemed like it was a cool time to revisit that album. It’s pretty fun to look back at the songs, and I was laughing because I think there are a lot of people who have no idea we’re still releasing music who could hear this recording of Middle of Nowhere and go, “Wow, what a great new Hanson album!” They wouldn’t know that these songs are ten years old, because we’ve aged with our music, and you get a sense of that when you listen to it. I’m not 11 anymore. I’m 22 now.
AV: It’s cool that you get to stamp a more mature sound on your old, classic stuff.
Z.H. To go back and revisit it as a whole is cool, because we still play a couple of the tracks at our live shows. The best part is that there’s not a lot about it that I would change. The songs just kind of stand up to the way I would write a record now, only now my style is just a little bit different. It’s not like you look back at a drawing you did when you were five and say, “Wow, that drawing totally sucks.” It’s different, and it is coming from a different mindset than you’re in now, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy than the music we’re making as older performers. I still love the music on that record.
AV: From the perspective of an outsider looking in, the music industry seems to be changing a lot—Madonna’s recent LiveNation record deal, Radiohead’s new album—but it seems like Hanson was a little bit ahead of the curve when you went independent and founded 3CG Records a few years back. What was going on, both musically and at the business end of things, when you guys were putting that together?
ZH: When we decided to go independent, we had just been a part of a couple big mergers of labels. We were originally signed to Mercury, which doesn’t even exist in the states anymore. The whole roster, save for 6 or 10 artists out of 250 were dropped, and we were merged into what became Island Def Jam. Now, that’s a solid rap label, but a rap label nonetheless, and here we were this pop-rock band who didn’t have a background in any strong R&B stuff—we were just playing rock and roll music. It didn’t connect really well. I think what we’re seeing more and more are the execs moving away from companies that are owned by individuals to the quarterly-billing stock market model, and you lose the ability to have a long-term plan for your music. We couldn’t say “O.K., we’re going to lose money for a little while because it’s going to build us a fan base, and then we’re going to make money for 30 years.” We like to spend time to connect with fans, and it make take 3 records to get a radio hit, but the corporate machine doesn’t have the ability to think like that. Their mindset is to put something together, shoot it out there, back it if it sticks, or drop it if it doesn’t. That process doesn’t facilitate any kind of a relationship with fans. I don’t disagree with Radiohead’s idea of letting people chose what they pay for an album, but devaluing music entirely by giving someone the option to not pay for it at all doesn’t work. That may work for a band like Radiohead, but for bands that rely on record sales, and up-and-coming bands that are trying to build a fan base, you can’t work a model like that. Right now it has to be all about looking to the fans to see that they feel like they’re getting enough from each record to be willing to spend money on it.
AV: Is it safe to say that you guys have found a certain amount of freedom in starting to release your stuff independently?
ZH: For us, it hasn’t changed the creative process, but it has changed the way we look at releasing products and albums. Going back to the origins of rock and roll and popular music, artists like Chuck Berry, Elvis, and The Beatles would release music constantly, and that’s how they got fans exited. The Beatles were a band for seven years, but look at how much music they put out. It’s like, less music—more often, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We are in charge of our band’s trajectory, so we can release whatever we want, whenever we want. It’s just a matter of economics.
AV: Hanson has been working together in the music industry for over 10 years, and never once has one of you taken a trip to Betty Ford, or been cast in a negative light in the tabloids like so many fallen child stars have. What keeps you grounded?
ZH: It’s not like we’re wholesome guys, it’s just that we’re not alcoholics and we’re not abusing drugs to an extent that we can’t help but be on T.V. or in a magazine. We’re more like the everyday person who is drinking a beer or maybe smoking a cigarette. We’re not blowing coke in the bathroom every night after a show. Music is something that, when you get the opportunity to have such an ability to speak your mind, it’s a gift that you don’t want to mess up. Music is culture, and I love the challenge of doing something that is potentially powerful. When you write a song, a lot of the time it’s a matter of it just coming out, and not knowing where the hell it came from when it’s on paper. It’s such a high. I assume it’s like some sort of awesome drug. It’s pretty easy to be a complete mess, but we have held each other accountable to not be complete screw-ups. I’ve never wanted to screw up the ability to be a band and make music. It’s never been worth it to me to go out and do that thing that could put you in jail because, while it may have been awesome for a moment, you’ve screwed up the ability to be the band because of you mistakes.
AV: And I am sure that family has a lot to do with it, because you guys must be together constantly to keep each other in check.
ZH: In a certain way we’re best friends, just because I don’t
think I have been away from Isaac and Taylor for more than a couple
weeks in my life. We’re together all the time, and it’s
not like the relationships are perfect, but we know how to work through
it. We may be brothers, but we’re still men, so we can get over
it. Just because it’s your brother doesn’t mean you act
like you’re five all the time. It’s very much like a marriage—it’s
not great all the time, but if you can work through the crap, maybe
you’ll get some. Just kidding.