MMMBack! Hanson plays in Falls Church
By Josh Eiserike
Zac Hanson hadn't hit puberty when he achieved international superstardom. OK, as the youngest member of the sibling trio, Hanson, he was certainly the butt of a few "looks like a little girl" jokes. But, you can't deny the late '90s ubiquity of "MMMBop." Which in a sense is kind of sad, because to many people Zac will always be that tiny, longhaired punchline behind the drums.
Not anymore. Today, Zac, 22, is married—and a parent. He's touring with his brothers to promote their latest album, "The Walk." They swing by The State Theatre in Falls Church next week. Zac called the Potomac News and Manassas Journal Messenger to dish about the new album, the band's charity work and, of course, the MMMBacklash.
Q: When I heard you guys were doing a show, I was like "Oh, they're still around." Do you guys get that a lot? How do you sort of get past the stigma you guys had in the late '90s?
A: Well, I think we're unique in a lot of ways because when we first came out, our success went beyond music. It became a cultural type of thing. Family Guy, Simpsons, Jon Stewart, Saturday Night Live, MADtv, those people are able to make jokes about you, it no longer matters what you're doing musically. You're just kind of part of pop culture. Whether good or bad, I've gotten a lot of laughs watching clips like that. Whenever you see (Family Guy character) Quagmire making jokes, it's pretty funny. But it kind of gets to a point where people kind of know one song, they kind of know who you are, but they're never really fans, they never really bought records, they never really were invested in what you do and so there just outside the process. When you run across people who are only culturally aware of you, you get some of that stuff 'What have you guys been doing?' Well, we've been doing the same thing we've always been doing, we've been touring and making records. We formed our own label and all kinds of crap.
Q: When you see the Saturday Night Live and the Family Guy stuff, do you take that as a compliment?
A: Oh, yeah. Dude, we laugh our asses off. It's hilarious. There was a great MADtv skit. To be honest, they got parts of our personalities so good. Less the obvious things, but some of the little twitches and things like that. We laugh at ourselves. It's funny.
Q: How do you look back at the MMMBop stuff? Do you see that as sort of "We've grown a lot," does it make you cringe and I assume you guys play it for your fans every night.
A: We don't cringe about the old stuff. It's interesting. I guess a lot of bands must do music that they're not very proud of, or get pushed into making records that don't really represent who they are because of questions like that. We wrote MMMBop, we're proud of MMMBop. It doesn't sound exactly like a new Hanson record. When we play it at a show, it's still a song that we're proud of. It got to the point it needed to get to. It doesn't represent everything about today, but it's not supposed to. It was written when I was 8. Yeah, we're still proud of that song, we're still proud of the music from that era of our career. For us, it was a lot less of a difference between what we do now and what we did then. It's only a little bit of a superficial age of things where maybe a voice changes slightly or someone assumes something different about your lyrics because of your age. I think that's the biggest difference. Somebody reads a lyric from an album when you're 10 and go, 'Oh, this means girls.' Then they read a lyric from an album when you're 22 and go 'Oh, this means poverty and AIDS' when they both were coming from the same place.
Q: So, actually, can you talk about that a little bit, your work with poverty and AIDS in South Africa?
A: We have always shied away from putting our face on the front of a cause or whatever. You always want to do things you're passionate about and there's always a lot of people asking you to support this and support that. It's always just been like, you have to find things that you really can do fully, put your whole self into. That's the way we've done our music and we were in the middle of making this record, "The Walk." Halfway through we were talking to some friends from our hometown about something they were doing, which they ran a small technology that develops software. They had been working on a technology, it's kind of like online banking for your doctor, between patients and doctors communicating with the Internet and cellphones in encrypted ways that was protected. They decided to give it away. They realized in the Western world it would be something that was a convenience technology, something that made our lives easier on our new iPhones, we could check our prescription if it was ready, ask our doctor a question in an encrypted way, that was protected. In a place like South Africa it could be something that kept someone alive because they were able to keep in contact with their doctor, to make sure they had the medication that they needed, to make sure they had the appointments and the checkups they needed. Facts started coming to the forefront, where there's 40 million cellphones in Africa, it's like who knew, that you go into Soweto or a shantytown and all across the country you see this where they're selling Coca Cola, cell phones and cell phone cards, but everybody's living in tin shacks. We just said it doesn't matter, we don't know what we're going to be doing, we don't know what role we're going to play, but we just need to go and learn. We'll find our place. For the moment, we're going to stop the recording process and just go.
Q:What was the time frame of this?
A: This would have been July of '06. We ended up deciding before we went to try and record something. We're going to go, let's put some of this trip into this record, the sounds of Africa.
Q:Had you previously been to South Africa?
A: We hadn't. Growing up we had lived some in South America, in Ecuador, Venezuela, so it was something, I guess in some ways, the idea of going and seeing poverty was something we at least had a small grasp on… you expect to see the fly on the kids face and whatever and it wasn't that. There was more hope and energy and smiles and things from these kids than there was anything else. They don't know how terrible their situation is. All they know is they're trying to develop and trying to live a normal life and enjoying themselves in whatever way they can… we ended up recording a children's choir while we were there, from a school outside of Soweto.
Q: That choir's on the single?
A:That choir's on the song "Great Divide," on the song called "Blue Sky," that choirs also on the song "Been There Before." The first thing we decided to do, the single, and we've given all the proceeds of that song away. If people buy "Great Divide," all proceeds go to the hospital we were visiting.
Q: These kids you were recording with, did any of them have any idea who Hanson is?
A: No. They were more enamored with the idea of what a recording studio was.
Q: Have you guys been back since?
A: Yeah, we've been back… we partnered with a shoe company called TOMS Shoes. Everytime you buy a pair of their shoes they donate a second pair of their shoes away to a child in poverty… they're trying to sell 50,000 pairs of shoes for South Africa. Last year we started working with them and helped them reach their goal. That was pretty incredible. What we did was before every concert, we walked out in front of the venue and invited anyone to join us. We did one-mile barefoot walks. The idea was basically walk a mile in someone else's shoes, in this case, lack of shoes and let's get a basic understanding of what it is to have simple needs—a pair of shoes, clean water, clothes on your back, access to education and health care and things like that… We ended up delivering all those shoes. We didn't send them off in a big crate and say 'I'm sure they'll get there.' We went and put shoes on kids' feet.
Q: Are you still doing these walks before the concerts?
A: Still doing the walks. AIDS and poverty haven't gone away.
Q: The walks are announced a couple hours before the show?
A: Basically we generally do it at 3 o'clock, 2:30-3 o'clock, before the concert and anyone can join. Come, you don't have to walk barefoot but we do, as long as its not below freezing.
Q: A lot of people as I mentioned earlier remember you from MMMBop, about 10 years ago. How would you describe what Hanson sounds like in 2008 and the album itself?
A: That's certainly hard, I think, from a perspective, trying to tell someone who has been listening to other stuff or not a Hanson fan, in the context of our first album. This record is a little more rough around the edges; it's recorded mostly live off the floor, just the three of us playing together… It's still classic Hanson in the way we harmonize and arrange vocals. We've always called ourselves pop-rock. It's still a garage band doing pop songs, just with a slightly different twist. Our last record was more acoustic and I think this record is more evolved into something different.
Q:This was your first record that was produced and recorded entirely independently. This is also the first record where you and your two brothers are all married with kids, now? How much of that is reflected on the album—both the independence and, literally, the growing up?
A: Being a parent, interestingly
has been a choice to do the same thing, which maybe sounds ironic. In
a business that's thoroughly falling apart, we decided to say we don't
want to be in that business because all that's going to happen is its
going to screw up the way we make music… wives and kids, that
affects your life in ways you can't even think about, everything you
do and everything about your perspective… certainly it's new influences
and new inspirations.