Interview with Zac Hanson

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By Brett Emerson

This, to put it mildly, was an adventure. From the second I discovered that Hanson would be playing the La Crosse Center on April 9, I wanted to do an interview with the band. Our Mister Bissen deserves the lion’s share of credit for making this happen. Of course, getting there wasn’t easy. I spent one of the most bizarre April Fools Days ever, frantically preparing this interview, playing a empty-house bar show and hoping that my cell phone would work when Hanson called. It didn’t.

In light of my telecommunications disaster, Zac Hanson, the band’s drummer, was incredibly gracious. The result is this, an hour’s worth of conversation with a grounded musician, equally passionate about the music Hanson has crafted, and the work left to create.

The Second Supper: The three of you were in your teens when you became famous. Was it difficult to stay well-adjusted with such a high profile at such an early age, given the blunt nature of the music business?

Zac Hanson: We love making music, and we were doing it because it was our thing. I think that with young artists who end up in rehab, it’s usually not their art. For us, we were writing music since the beginning, and I think that was one of our anchors, and we didn’t want to mess that up.

SS: How did you react to things like Celebrity Deathmatch, where Marilyn Manson dropped a ring’s rigging on you, and where you repeatedly met your demise? How exposed were you to things like this? Did that go with the territory, or did MTV’s fickle backlash get into your head?

ZH: We certainly weren’t shielded. I thought it was pretty funny. My only problem was that we didn’t get to finish the Spice Girls off. Marilyn Manson could have done his thing afterwards. That doesn’t have anything to do with music, just celebrity culture, and that’s proof of success. Thankfully, the critics have done us justice.

SS: You’ve been together as a group for well over a decade. Is there any desire to perform in side projects?

ZH: We’re happy with the three of us together. We have and do side projects, but that’s been purposely held under the radar. It does happen, and there probably will be more of that. It’s healthy to keep your creative juices flowing. From our end, it’s not a reflection of being unsatisfied, but more of a creative outlet.

SS: Did your musical career ever conflict with your education, in light of having such staggered ages? Were there any periods of waiting for someone to finish up?

ZH: No. It’s much more popular to use homeschooling and non-traditional educational systems in Oklahoma. Our schooling was more like that from the beginning, even before we started the band. We were playing 100 local shows a year anyway. I graduated high school when I was 16, and none of us went to college; we already knew what we were doing. We figured that learning was best done by going into the music business directly.

SS: Is there more cohesion within the group as you get older, or was that element always there?

ZH: Yes and no. As a musical group, we’ve grown stronger and learn to deal with each other better. As a non musical group, we’ve become less alike. When you’re younger, you have more things naturally in common.

SS: Your music draws together a large mixture of styles – aside from the obvious pop, rock and country sounds, I hear a lot of blues, some Motown and a little Ben Folds. Are there any styles or influences that have affected the development of your own music?

ZH: There are certainly a lot of styles that we pull from. Normal bands have one guy writing music and one guy writing lyrics. We are a little more eclectic, hopefully in a good way. I was joking recently that my ideal solo record would sound more like Brian Wilson. I’m actually a big fan of Ben Folds; we all are. Travis is a great band that we all love, so is Wilco. I wouldn’t say that there is any one style or artist, but if you like someone, there is an influence. We don’t like to worry about what Hanson sounds like; we worry about what sounds good.

SS: Through your major releases, your music tends to grow in refinement, in lieu of a total reinvention. You haven’t suddenly switched to playing songs that don’t suit you – something that seemed obvious with a song like Jewel’s “Intuition," which ended up selling women’s razors, if I recall. Is it easy to stick with what works for you and let the public’s expectations wander where they may?

ZH: I think it’s easier for a band to say that we’re staying the course. There’s a sense, for a lot of people, of stability in that. We think that’s boring. Music is an evolving thing, and part of that is doing what’s exciting to you. Anyone with half a brain knows that, two years down the line, you’re listening to different styles. It’s not purposeful – we’re always going to sound like Hanson. We don’t need to limit ourselves, but we’re not trying to be anything, either. I don’t like thrash metal. I’m not going to make a thrash metal band.

SS: In this vein, whose idea was “Snowed In," your Christmas album?

ZH: I don’t remember. I think it might have been suggested by our label. ... I still love that record – we made it in a month. For us, part of what was so compelling about that record was that it was a covers record, but at the same time it wasn’t a covers record. Doing a Christmas record that rocks a little bit, not like Andy Williams Christmas. Secretly, I think that’s the favorite album of Hanson fans.

SS: Have you noticed a lot of your fans from the “Middle of Nowhere” era staying with the band? Do you notice an increase in new fans with each release, and do you hear much about people returning to your older material and rediscovering it with fresh ears?

ZH: It’s hard to say. Mostly, I think we have fans that have grown up with us. What’s been most interesting to me is that there’s a group of people who were just young enough where they didn’t know Hanson growing up. They were too young to really care about music. But now, it’s the younger brother or sister of a Hanson fan coming to a show, discovering the band. There are people who know Hanson who don’t know the music – it’s the pop culture aspect. Now, there’s certainly an aspect of rediscovery.

SS: Hanson is now an independent band, with your own label, 3CG. What steps brought that about?

ZH: Of course, every band starts out independent. After we were signed, we had a good relationship with our first label. We were turned down 13 times before we were signed to Mercury, and even they turned us down three times. There was a certain sense at that point that the music industry was doing well, even reaching a peak. A few years later, it wasn’t the case. For us, the downfall was when that label was dissolved, and we got absorbed into what is one of the biggest music mergers in history. People got fired, and bands got dropped, but we stuck around and made it through it. Now we look back and wonder if it would have been better had we been dropped.

We ended up on Island/Def Jam. The fact that Def Jam was involved made it not a good home for us. The way they run their business – and you see this more and more – is based on a quarterly model. Records take more than three months to make and promote, and you can’t be successful in a setup that demands immediate payoff. So we were in a terrible home, with people from legal backgrounds instead of creative. This isn’t an industry that is looking to build careers. Labels are starting to do a 360 Deal, where they want to own your Web site, merchandising, touring, not just your recording. We don’t want to be in a dying industry. It was time to go, so we forged our own label.

To me, the future is in building partnerships with passionate fan bases. The quality we offer needs to be what brings the fan back. The business of selling music is still alive and well, but the industry is dying. We want to create a new model, using tools like the Internet to level the playing field.

SS: Are there any other bands or musicians signed to 3CG?

ZH: For the moment, we’re taking care of our own interests. We’ve had the label for four years, and we view it as a building block. We don’t want to do the same thing that other labels do, what doesn’t work. There are certainly other bands that we want to sign, but we look at what we can provide and realize that we aren’t ready to properly help them.

SS: How does free music downloading affect your livelihood? Did the creation of your documentary film, “Strong Enough to Break” – and the decision to release it as a free downloadable video – affect you financially?

ZH: What happened with the film was we formed the label, and we have this film, which was originally about what it takes to make a record. It became what it takes to get a record made, to get the right support. This is a powerful message, not only as it relates to Hanson. We see our friends’ bands going through the same process, sometimes falling apart or stuck in it. We saw the film as a powerful way to speak to the next generation of musicians. We did a lecture tour with it, going to 40 or 50 colleges, talking about the future of the music business, exposing the reality. After doing that, we didn’t have any plans to commercially release it, but we started to get a lot of requests by people to use it. So we decided to give it away. Getting the message out was the key. We do have plans to re-release it, possibly at the end of the year.

As far as free music, it’s obvious that it affects us. The problem is that you don’t know how many people are downloading your music. It’s impossible to tell the ratio of downloading versus buying. We don’t think it is right for people to take music because it’s free, but if that creates a fan that ends up buying our albums or tickets, that’s a good thing. Giving real avenues to downloading high-quality music is the key. The broken business doesn’t hold their bands to high quality standards, and have in a way brought this about. The companies ignored file-sharing before it was a problem. They did this to themselves. We look to the future. Music is like a tattoo, and bands have to make music where people are proud to wear your tattoo, no matter what kind of music you like.

SS: How has being an independent musician altered how you’ve promoted “Underneath” and “The Walk," compared to your older material? Have the recent distribution experiments carried out by artists such as Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead changed the way you think about getting your music out?

ZH: I think there have been some really smart things. Prince did two of the smartest. First, he took his ticket prices, and offered his album as part of it. It may not work for every band, but you’re making sure that fans are walking away with your album. Another thing he did was to go out to the UK, went to a newspaper, and offered his album with the paper for a fee. It negated the expenses that you deal with Best Buy but enabled him to make $2 million. Most fans aren’t aware of these methods. What Radiohead offered, pay what you want, it didn’t work. The money they made was marginal. No band that isn’t Radiohead could survive that. For ourselves, we’ve focused on our own Web site and our own community, working on ways to make ourselves more viable. For the moment, I would say that the key to bands is quality of records, less focused on long processes of two years making and promoting an album, making less music, more often. There are so many distractions meant to draw the attention of your fans; you need to keep them engaged in a way that is more constant.

SS: You’ve done a great deal of impressive charity work. Would you care to discuss your proudest achievements, as well as the work you’re doing with “The Walk Tour”?

ZH: To be honest, I don’t think we’ve done much. There are a lot of people who have come out and helped us. It has only been fueled by passionate fans. Halfway through making “The Walk," we had a conversation with a friend of ours who developed software. They were offering a program to hospitals specializing in vaccines, something they knew could actually reduce the expectancy of viruses in newborn babies and save some lives. We decided to go with these guys; there was something here that we needed to be a part of. We ended up doing a recording of a children’s choir in Mozambique. We don’t know what role we were going to play, but we were there to learn it. One of the greatest tragedies is a baby born with a life expectancy. We saw this and said, let’s see what we can do. We started by donating the proceeds from “Great Divide” to that hospital, and then started giving out proceeds from our t-shirts. After that, it was a process of putting one foot in front of the other.

We came across a shoe company called TOMS, which gives out a pair of shoes to a child in poverty with every pair sold. We went to them and offered to sell their shoes at our concerts. To give people perspective on how much it means to have shoes, we started to take our fans out to walk for a mile, barefoot. TOMS sets a really good example, not just in what they’re doing, but how they’re looking at their business. They started giving their shoes from the beginning, not running occasional charity drives. If you can combat things like poverty, you’re suddenly able to treat the well as well as the sick, by teaching people and building better communities. If we wait, the problem we face will only be compounded.

SS: What’s the last song (which isn’t yours) that you’ve listened to more than five times?

ZH: We just did South by Southwest, and ran into an artist named Mason Jennings. He sent me some of his stuff. There’s a song called “Empire Builder” that was great.

SS: What’s the one song you would cover, if you had the opportunity? Who is the one person you’d want to make music with?

ZH: A song that I love, that we’ve only played informally, is “For the Longest Time” by Billy Joel. A lot of our influences come from this style. I’d love to collaborate with Brian Wilson.

SS: What’s your favorite movie?

ZH: I’m juggling between “Three Amigos” and “Spinal Tap." Incredibly, Spinal Tap is so short. It’s such a perfect representation of the business. So many people know it now, but it was a flop when it came out. It’s grown like a fungus, in a cold wet place.

SS: What are your impressions of the recent trend of Disney-crafted pop stars, such as The Jonas Brothers?

ZH: It makes me very glad that we weren’t part of the Disney machine. We always did things on our own terms. That never would have worked for us. We would have never made a movie. What frustrates me more than those bands are the poser-rock bands. At least the Disney world doesn’t fake what it is. It’s the bands who come out and have no musical talent, but look like Led Zeppelin, that pisses me off. Every moronic music reviewer praises these groups that don’t have the soul to be a great rock and roll band. I don’t care if the look is right. It’s what happens when you’re on stage and you perform.

SS: Do you have any professional goals remaining, or are you happy to simply continue making music, and take whatever comes from now on?

ZH: I do have tangible professional goals. There are two sides to what we do, as a band as a record label. As a band, what we’ve done with “The Walk” is only the beginning. We want to be part of creating communities of artists playing and writing together, creating movements, being part of a group of bands that are succeeding together. In the '60s, it was much more common for artists to get together, and suddenly these cool projects would come out. That’s what we strive to do.

SS: Awesome. Thank you very much.