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An exclusive interview with Musiqtone

When Hanson started out on tour in support of their new album The Walk in September, the three brothers didn't just set out to entertain the fans, they set out to send a message. Partnered with TOM'S shoes, Hanson hosted a mile walk at each concert stop to spread awareness about poverty in Africa. For every pair of TOM'S shoes that is purchased, a pair is donated to a child in Africa. At a tour stop in Ohio, Isaac Hanson took some time out to call us and chat about the new album, the new tour, and life in the industry. Not long after our interview, Isaac was hospitalized in Dallas after a show at the House of Blues. Although he is doing well and back out on tour, we here at Musiqtone wish him all the best in his recovery.

Musiqtone: So tell us a little about the new album and the tour in support of the album:

Isaac Hanson: Well, where to start? We'll start with the fact the new record is called The Walk. The latest was a song called “Great Divide”. “Great Divide” is a good example of what I think is different and what is at the heart of this record. Which is amongst other things was a trip to Africa during the recording of this album and on the song “Great Divide” and a couple of other songs we had the pleasure of recording some kids in Africa singing on it, singing along to some of our songs and we recorded them on “Great Divide”, “Been There Before”, and a song called “Blue Sky”. Some of those kids were from an orphanage, some were from a music class, some of them were from Soweto, South Africa and some were from Mozambique.

We made that trip to Africa because we felt inspired by some friends of ours in Tulsa who had been in contact with a research hospital and I think that a lot of the themes of going to Africa and a lot of the inspiration came from the dire need for hope and for help as a hole and the concept really permeated a lot of the messages of this record and I think in the end I would consider this record to be about conquering very difficult challenges and finding hope in the worst of situations.

And of course there are some more upbeat moments on the record but I think as a whole there’s a lot of messaged on this record that are consistent with hope and conquering difficult problems and consistent with songs like “Great Divide”.

MT: Tell us a little bit about the walks you are doing in every city.

IH: One of the things we've been really focused on with this record was the fact that there are huge problems in the world and we can either make the problems larger or we can make the problems smaller and we felt like one of the ways to make these problems smaller was to try and make tangible things people could do. Really one on one kind of things. For example, what we didn't do when we released “Great Divide” as a charity single, we didn't go to a large fund, it actually went directly to the hospital. That is all that the charity is. The hospital that we visited, we gave all the money directly to them.

When it comes to these walks, we're trying to motivate people to purchase a pair of these shoes made by TOMS shoes (which stands for shoes of tomorrow, that’s kind of what their message is.) For every pair of shoes that someone buys, they give another pair away to an impoverished child who has no shoes. And we feel like direct one to one kind of things are the things that are really going to make a difference in the overall problems that exist in those areas of the world and with things like the internet and things like MySpace, people have more power as individuals to organize and influence than they ever did before. Our primary hope is not just that we sell some shoes or sell some downloads, but that we ultimately encourage people to be inspired to do something in something bigger and better than that.

Because we're musicians, we're taking the opportunities that we have to do the best that we can. Okay, we're trying to inspire people to talk a walk as symbolism, let’s get people to take off their shoes halfway through the walk and feel what it’s like to not have shoes. And then say 'Alright guys, if your feet are a little bit sore from walking on the pavement, if you were a little worried about stepping on some glass, imagine what it's like to live your whole life without shoes. So let’s help solve some of those problems.’ And our hope is that in the long run, people will develop companies, will go above and beyond giving out some shoes.

And maybe for every pill that you buy of aspirin they'll give a pill of NARV away. What if for every two bottles of Tylenol, Tylenol decided to give a bottle of pain reliever to the people who are in incredible pain, who knows what that kind of inspiration can create. And ultimately, the idea is helping those who can't help themselves. The idea isn't to create a welfare state, it’s not to create a situation where people can't take responsibility for themselves, it's just to allow them to get beyond a place of absolute poverty, which so many people in the African continent as a whole are victims of. And it’s not purely their fault. When we go down to South Africa, you meet these people and they're in bad situations, but they have immense amounts of hope. And that inspired me to say, you know this is something that is absolutely a changeable reality, to say we can make a long term difference.

And I feel like this is something our generation in particular is challenged with. We haven't had Smallpox, we haven't had Polio, we haven't even, although there are lots of really impassioned feelings about the war in Iraq, the scale of that war is nothing in comparison to what so many of the generations before us have been challenged with. We have a huge challenge in our lives to decide what we're going to do with our time on this earth, and I think that AIDS and poverty as a whole is a huge challenge that we can make a long term impact on. We may not be able to solve it, but we can maybe start the process.


MT: What do you think defines an artist as successful?

IH: Well, I think success is, as you said, in the eye of the beholder. For me, the tours that we do today and in the last few years and in the many years before that have all been successful, this tour is a success. It’s a success because every single time I walk out on stage; there are thousands of people who are singing along to the lyrics, who know music, who are passionate about that music. There are countless people in every city who are buying pairs of shoes which are changing the lives of kids in another country. I think that’s success.

I think that is having an immense impact. It may only help a little bit, but it’s remarkable. When we do these walks, yeah there's only like 100 people, or 60 people, but you know what? When you've got 60 people walking down the street with a purpose, it’s amazing how powerful that energy is. It’s amazing how many people stop and look at you and ask, ‘what’s going on?’ Now, when there are 250 people walking down the street, people really start to take notice. Imagine if it was a thousand, or tens of thousands. It’s a process, and I think every single city we've been in, we've helped kids out in Africa, and I think that's success.

But more importantly, the success I see is in the eyes of the people in the crowd, who are looking up, and who are having a hell of a time. That makes me want to go out and make another record. I'm like you know what, they made my life better at the same time I seemed to have made their lives better. It’s this beautiful symbiotic circle, we should keep doing this.

MT: Many of your supporting acts have commented on the dedication and energy of your fans. What is it like seeing those faces show after show?

IH: I think music fans like ours have had a tendency to get a bad rep because they go “Oh your fans are crazy.” They use that crazy word really, really loosely. You know what “crazy” does? “Crazy” results in record sales, ticket sales, and opening acts actually getting fans. The people who have opened up for us say to us, ‘we've opened for half a dozen acts who are selling as many tickets as you or more and we aren't getting half the response that we get from your crowd. With your fans we get fans,’ and that’s where we're incredibly lucky.

I don't think that’s a testament to us, that’s a testament to our fans. I think we're just the lucky recipients of that and we do everything we can to respect the fact that we're just the recipients. I hope that our fans know that we appreciate that, and sure every single night we might not always all come out and sign stuff. There are a lot of things going on every day, but we have a huge amount of respect for that, and I hope that doesn't fall on deaf eyes and ears in our fanbase, ‘cause we have a huge amount of respect for them and really appreciate everything they've allowed us to do.

MT: Is it hard to find a balance between music and family? How do you manage to keep the music separate from your private life, or at some point do they all begin to blend together?

IH: It’s incredibly difficult, especially when you have a wife and a baby, which I do, and then you're in a business and a band with your brothers. Like all of that personal stuff and all of the business stuff blurs together in a huge mess of stuff. Then, trying to give a respectful amount of attention to the people who've come out to see your shows and trying to show them how much you appreciate their enthusiasm and support, but it’s a challenge.

I like the expression that goes something like this: “Nothing good ever came easy.” And then there's another expression we have amongst ourselves: “No one cares as much as you do.” So you can't expect anybody else to do anything more than you're willing to do. So you know, if you're not willing to go out and sign some stuff after the show, if you're not willing to meet fanclub members and give people reason to be part of your music, and to have your music to be part of their lives, then you can't expect them to be impassioned by what you do because you've given them no motivation. It’s not a turnkey thing, but when you've got it, don't squander it.

MT: Writing for an album must be a long process, but how do you take all the songs that you demo for an album and narrow them down to the fourteen you produce and release?

IH: It’s really hard. The problem is, in a lot of cases, albums are different then songs themselves. Sometimes if you isolate a song, you're like ‘that songs great,’ and then you put it in the list of songs for the album and it doesn't fit. Songs like “Mmmbop”, “Your Illusion”, and “Can't Stop”; a song called “Breaktown,” which has never made it to a record, but the fans know about. It's been recorded for two albums but never been released.

It's just sometimes songs that take years to fully mature. Sometimes music is kinda like a wine, you gotta leave it in the cellar a while. It's difficult in the digital age to leave things in the cellar, because there are a lot of cellar robbers, everything leaks. So fans start talking to you about those songs and you're just like, “We'll guys, its' not done.” I hope that as time goes on people will realize just because you can get it, doesn't mean you should.

MT: Do you ever see the state of the music industry recovering from the decline it’s been steadily making in the past few years? What do you think is the key to getting back to what music is really about?

IH: That’s a really long question to answer, but I'm gonna do my best.

First, artists have to take responsibility for changing the perception the fans have of the value of music. We have to raise the bar.

That directly goes to the release of quality music, and I believe on some level that means less music is better. I know that seems contrary to the web, but I do actually believe there are too many records being released and people can't sort through the clutter. But it also doesn't mean all these great bands aren't being signed. There are tons of great bands that don't have a voice. What that comes down to is quality over quantity.

More artistic record companies, less corporately minded. There will always be a need for patrons, people to support artists. I think the biggest need that is there is for long term thinking, artistically minded music companies.

Independence, artistic independence. The internet gives ‘Joe Blow Band’ as much potential reach as anyone. So in so many ways, all four things I just said result in the internet. It’s a matter of whether or not a band can get their music out there in such a way that it cuts through the clutter.

Finally, fans respecting the value of music. The fans won’t respect the value of music until we do all four of the other things. We can tell our fans all day long, don't rip our tunes, don't do the easy things that you can do without even thinking about it. I mean, it’s so easy to rip stuff. You don't even think about it, it's so easy. You don't even think of it as being a band thing, because it’s not inherently a bad thing. I think that on some level or another, fans should actually say to themselves, ‘wow, maybe Limewire isn't such a good thing. If Limewire means that my favorite band can no longer make albums because more than half the people who have my favorites bands music, never spent a single cent on it, that’s not a good thing.’ It’s not about artists being rich millionaires.

See that’s the other thing that pisses me off, but MTV is full of shit, because these artists do not live like that. They get you on these things like Cribs, and this and that. It’s temporary, it’s a temporary thing. I'll be honest, the apartment that we had on our episode of cribs was a lease, it was a long term lease. It wasn't a house we owned, we weren't there forever. Ninety percent of the cases, they don't live there.

There’s a huge systemic problem with convenience. Unfortunately, the computer business is expanding dramatically at the expense of all of these entertainment creators. On some level or another, there’s a huge competing factor, which is computers.

I think a lot of it comes down to: If you're willing to spend $3.50 on a latte from Starbucks, a song for 99 cents ain't that much. A latte is going to last you what, 45 minutes if you don't mind drinking it cold, and it’s gone. A song costs you less than a third of that and it could last you the rest of your life, I think that’s a pretty damn good deal. I'm kinda frustrated on some level, but at the same time, I know how lucky we are.

I'm not really saying it from a point of view of oh wow, woe is me. I'm saying it from the point of view of the future bands, who are going to feel even more of that. I know that at least half the people in that audience didn't buy the record. It’s just something you have to accept today, but hope that will eventually change, because you can't keep making records if you don't have enough people supporting you doing it.

MT: How do you explain to someone, who can't understand the passion, what it’s like to live a life immersed in music, for it to be one of the greatest joys in life?

IH: You know, I'm going to have to go with Bono on this one. Cause Bono is the king of good quotes. I saw a quote of his recently, and I'm paraphrasing. He said basically that music is a spiritual language and that it allows you to speak to one another in a way that nothing else does. That it makes you feel alive in a different way. I think everybody feels that. I think that anyone who's ever been “yeah I love that song!” Cause I know that pretty much everybody at some point in their life has had that moment. Somebody who’s listened to a song and its kinda made them choke up like they were having this thing in their life and this song came on, and whether they were willing to admit it or not they had that moment, that was the same moment the guy who wrote it was having.

That’s what’s so cool about music, it’s your own without you always having to write it. Somehow music has this ability to pierce into your soul and become yours, and that’s why I think people get so passionate about music. I feel that way about other people’s music in the same way, if not more so than I do about my own. That's why every single time you go out on stage, or you write a song, or you go out and try and make a record you say “Wow I better raise the bar. I better try and hit that thing, that thing that made me want to do it in the first place.” As long as you don't forget that, you're golden, you're gonna be able to hit moments like that, that are going to resonate with people, because you were searching for that moment. I think music is everyone's to be had equally. That’s what’s so cool about it. I think people just have to remember that they've had it themselves.

MT: Well thank you for taking some time out of your day to talk to us.

IH: When I was talking about The Walk there was one thing I kinda missed.

The album itself actually sums up the last ten years in a way that no other record has. I think it has elements of all the records and something new in it in a way that no other record has, and I think a lot of it is because we performed it live. I think when people come to a Hanson show they can expect to hear all of those elements throughout. I think this record encapsulates this bands ten year journey very well.