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Hanson is as Hanson does: And yes, it's a Strand Exclusive
By: Joe Howell
Posted: 10/4/07

You can't stop the Bop. Oh, but how people have tried. From the record label that rejected dozens of Hanson's songs for "lacking marketability" to the endless jokes about them being a girly boy-band, the three brothers have soldiered on in spite of the naysayers/

They've come along way from the being the teen sensation you probably can't help but remember thanks to their once ubiquitous single MMMBop. The brothers have all gotten hitched, perfected their musical chops, and developed quite a conscience, dedicating their current album and tour to the fight against AIDS in Africa. Three years ago they started their own label, 3 Car Garage Records, in order to produce what they wanted rather than what was expected of them. The result has been cooler commercial reception, but the members of Hanson seem very unconcerned. They're doing what they love and under their own terms, regardless of how anyone feels about that one infamous song.

In Toronto on a sweltering summer day, the band was kind enough to meet with The Strand. As we fittingly drank pop in the restaurant of the Metropolitan Hotel, the Hanson brothers told us about their vices, marrying fans, and how to beat the record industry at its own game.

The Strand: I almost didn't recognize you! How's Toronto treating you so far?
Taylor Hanson: We've had a crazy travel day and an early morning on Canada AM. Which means you're up before the crack of dawn...
Zac Hanson: (interjects) The buttcrack of dawn!
TH: There are certain times that God didn't intend for humans to see, unless you were staying up the night before - after a binge. Drinking or something.

Are you guys into that? You have such a wholesome image.
ZH: I protest! We did not have a wholesome image. I was just eleven! I was not a wholesome eleven-year-old; I was just not Drew Barrymore. I think we're good guys - there's a difference between people who live in excess and people who enjoy life. We're the second set. We're not the guys who are just so drunk all the time that we can barely put together a sentence.
TH: Honestly, it is funny - so many bands' goal is to become in excess in every way. Like...

International rock stars?
TH: Yeah, drugs, you know what I mean - that's actually the goal, as opposed to the music. For us, we got started so young, obviously we weren't at the point where it was all about getting girls. It was too early. I think in some ways that sort of focused our energy in a different way. I think we're more like normal people - sure you go out and have a good time, sure you drink or smoke or whatever, do what most people do. As opposed to [what is] categorized as "normal" for bands, which is like drunk, lying in a pool of your own vomit - you know.

Speaking of getting started so early, back then every girl I knew had a poster of you guys or The Moffats on their wall. What was it like being turned into pop idols or sex symbols at such a young age?
TH: It was kind of surreal - you don't really have much to compare it to. So when it first happens, it's sort of like "well, there's nothing wrong with this!"

Yeah, it couldn't have been all bad - I mean, you guys ended up marrying fans, right?

TH: Well, in one way or another, yeah.
ZH: All our wives were fans of the band. We met them all at concerts, in varying forms...
TH: Sort of like how you'd meet people at work, you know? That's our job.

I think I saw this on Wikipedia, so I don't know if it's true or not, but one of you guys actually saw a girl in the fifth row of a concert?
TH: That was Ike. He actually did! Our stories were different, but his literally was ("chik chik" sound).
ZH: (My wife was) invited by somebody who was working for us; we met her afterwards...
TH: Zac was dating someone else at the time, but about a year after...
ZH: About a year after I met Kate I started to see a relationship.
TH: They were definitely fans too, but it was a few more steps removed - it wasn't the same, like "hey you!"

A sort of visual connection (at the concert)?
TH: Yeah, visual connection - that's a really good way to put it.

You've been playing music for 15 years now, ever since your very first show - you probably weren't thinking about your future at the time, but where do you think you might have gone if the music hadn't panned out so well? Would you have had nice safe careers as accountants?
TH: We had no choice in the matter. We are musicians, we would be musicians. It's like you can't turn it off. Honestly, there's a lot of stuff that we're really interested in. We would probably be leaning more on "okay, the band hasn't gone quite so well; I'll be a writer, I'll be an artist, I'll work on films, I'll produce other people's records." We still do all those things, but those are augmenting the band as opposed to the other way around. One way or another, I think the thing is not being able to not be that. That's what we always told people, even when we were so young, they'd look at us and be like "you guys are 14," and they'd be so condescending. -"you guys don't know what you want to do!" We're like "um, excuse me - what were you doing when you were 14? That's what I thought. You were picking your nose. We were selling records, and we were in a band." And not in a cocky way, just like "we know what we want to do." We're doing what we want to do.

I'm sure you get it a lot, but I want to talk about Mmmbop. It's the hit that launched you guys, and is probably the song that most would immediately associate you with. But listening to your new album The Walk, that impression really doesn't do you justice. Have you grown to hate the sound, like Radiohead couldn't stand "Creep" anymore and Nirvana wouldn't play "Smells Like Teen Spirit?"
TH: I hate it when other people do that, because I think it's an insult to their own fans. I think "MmmBop" to our fans now means something completely different from what it meant when they first
heard it. I think bands should be proud of what they've done, and the music they've put out. On this side note, when you hear us play a show, obviously the impetus is always the stuff that's new, because that's what's exciting to you. That's honestly what you expect from the band. One thing we've never done is be like "oh, that's not us." Actually, when we came out, that was the assumption - "oh, that isn't really these guys." Yeah, we're really young, and we probably wouldn't write that song today, but we were a garage band, and we wrote this song, and we're proud of it. It's just who we were ten years ago. The thing about our fans that I think is cool is that when the song first came out, the reaction was purely based on this catchy song on the radio, that kinda thing. Now when our fans hear that song, it's something different -
ZH: It's more of a survival anthem.
TH: I've been here for ten years! It's no longer about the catchiness of it; it's the lyrics within the song they're talking about, that few things in your life really matter, and you've gotta hold onto the things that do.
ZH: It is funny that it lasts.
TH: Sometimes you can seem like you're trying to make a song more than it is, but "MmmBop" really was when we first wrote it, we used to play it almost like a ballad. (Singing) "You have so many relationships in this life, only one or two will last," whatever. And as time's gone by and fans really know the music, they're hearing the lyrics. Even though it's an upbeat song - whatever, it's MMMBop - but that's what they think of it as.

(at this point Zac has to leave)

You seem like you have heavier things on your mind these days. I mean, what's the one song, "Your Illusion" - it's pretty suicidal, and it's the AIDS-album, right?
TH: I wouldn't call it the "AIDS-album," but yeah, it is influenced by that. Probably the most significant difference about this record is that we (used to record more) eclectic records. But with this whole record, with the lyrics and with the performance, we want to remove some colors from our palette, and focus more on recording it the way we would if we played a live show. We're limiting ourselves a little bit. We didn't want people to be able to miss some of the lyrics. We used to take pride in the fact that you'd have to listen through to be able to get it - "oh, I get it. Lots of metaphors and stuff," but on this record it's like "the earth's shaking under siege, every breath will meet its fate, still we hunger for our moment of freedom, even though the hour's late." Those are the first words on the record, and regardless of whether you get everything it's saying, it's obvious that that's not a love song.

[in reference to the song "Your Illusion"] It's very Biblical - a lot of Gospel overtones to it.
TH: It is very Biblical! There's definitely very spiritual qualities to the record. Our generation, we can get really heavy really quick, because there are some things we're genuinely so passionate about. But I think our generation is so spoiled. We have so much - and Canadians and Americans are pretty much in the same boat - economically we have a lot at our fingertips, and I think talking about things, not from a downer point of view but real things that are relevant to us, is really important. I think you can put that in a way that is motivating and not a downer - "Great Divide" talks about it from a point of hope. If I can find hope in the worst, then where else? I find hope in your hate. If you can find hope in hate, then you can find it anywhere.

Did you find hope while down in South Africa (doing AIDS work)? From what I've read, it's pretty bleak.
TH: We did. The thing about Africa is interesting because I think it's been almost a victim of the public beginning to see Africa as a celebrity haven. There's been a lot - who've actually done really significant things - but for us, the deal with Africa was it's where it's the worst. You have to go where it's the worst; you have to be willing. We're from the Midwest U.S., and that's where the every-day person hasn't yet realized or recognized the issues of AIDS and HIV as being relevant to them. Our hometown is average America, and it's the number three per capita city with AIDS and HIV cases. When we learned that, we were like "our generation has a stake in this," and we need to be responsible for doing something about it. It's not foreign; it just happens that where there's poverty and where there's corruption and where there's infrastructural problems, they can't deal with it. We didn't feel like we were going to finish the record until we went. We needed to go, and it blanketed the whole record.

You're sonically maturing. On "Great Divide" you guys are - dare I say it - almost rocking out, and on "Tearing It Down"you're getting your funk on pretty hard.
TH: Yeah, and these songs are live. I mean, they are based on live performance. We resisted our own tendencies as producers to be like "wouldn't it be awesome if we put a... you know what? We don't need that." It was difficult, but it was very satisfying to finish the record that way.

I wouldn't have guessed - it sounds produced, it's so spot on. Must be the years of playing together?
TH: If you play together for a long, long time, it's like... we've never been all about ripping solos. We can all jam and we can all solo and stuff, but on our records it's all about the songs. You sit down and beat the crap out of an arrangement, just beat it into submission until we're like "this is right, there's nothing that's a waste of space." Once you do that - you've played it fifty times - you go, "okay, let's record it." That was the course we took.

So there's no noodling.
TH: If you see a Hanson show, and this is not me tooting my own horn at all, our shows are very... we do jam around. Live it should be different; it is more of an experience. It's more of a... connection (laughs).

So where might you take your sound in the future?
TH: One thing we genuinely want to do more - it's a little bit of an offshoot - is take more time out to write and produce with other people, just because you can never be all the stuff you like in music, with one band. You have to decide at some point "this is who we are." And so, one of the things we've done is set up a yearly songwriting retreat, where we bring together 10-15 artists of every shape and creed, just all over the map, and write for several days. We record a song every day - we produce about 20 songs in about five days. Everybody just goes nuts. That's one of the things, going forward with the record company.

That's very prolific. Like you said, it's in your blood, right?
TH: It's more like some kind of unhealthy addiction (laughing).

Well, as far as addictions go, it's pretty healthy. I'm really impressed with how - other rock stars get into a lot of trouble. Rehab, divorces, D.U.Is...
TH: Poor Lindsay Lohan.

And the rest. But you guys are actually role models. How do you resist all the various temptations that must be in your life?
TH: Thank you! I don't know, maybe we're just lucky that we've had just enough people around us that would call us on our shit. I think people like Linsday Lohan end up with a lot of yes-men - and yes-women - that never say "hey, you're kinda acting like a jackass." I think that's really important... I don't know. There's a core value system we've always adhered to, as much as I avoid saying that; we just had different things that made us happy. Know what I mean? We love to rock. We do what bands do, but we've never lost ourselves in some addiction. It usually stops for me at nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine.

I have the same vices! Classic ones.
TH: Yeah! Other than that, no problem here.

You guys went independent a while back...
TH: Four or five years ago. When we first got signed, we had a pretty good situation with our major label. It was like the last breath of major labels, before they all got so consolidated that there's no focus. The difference now is that we're flexible; we're in a position to change with the times. Even on this record, we're actually not focused on having some crazy big first week. Spending tons of money on radio... we decided with this record, we were going to purposefully make it a slow build, make it about fan discovery, the pod casts, "Great Divide" online, things that speak to what we think the future of the music business really is.

It's clever - it means you're staying vibrant.
TH: Yeah, that's what you gotta do. It's not about "can we sell, can we give you a #1 (single)", it's about what (we) do six weeks down the line. In a lot of the industry, six weeks down the line you're done. We're in a position where we're really happy to own our music. That's the bottom line.

Do you have advice for other aspiring artists, now that you're an indie band?
TH: Well, I would say that no one has quite figured out a model that is really catering to what indie bands need now. We've had success, so we could fund ourselves, (but) every band's not going to start a label because it's too expensive; it's too hard to handle. What you can do is not wait for somebody to show up with a deal and press a big red button. Focus on really building a base, making a band, selling your records direct, and maintaining ownership - build your own story. You can now! Then you can say "you know what, label X, good indie label, whatever. You can license it, and I'll still own the record, and you help us promote it." That's the way to start, I think.

I've got just one more question for you: if you could tour with anybody, who would it be?
TH: Tour with anybody, truly? Honestly, we'd love to open for somebody like Tom Petty or U2 - that would be an amazing thing. We'd probably connect with those guys in some ways even more than with our peers. We've met those guys a few times - they're phenomenal, and not just because they're U2, but really good guys. Very down to earth. Current bands - we're friends with the Maroon 5 guys, Gavin Degraw, Josh Kelly - those are different guys that are among a scene, which would all be good bands to play with.

Well, thanks so much for your time!
TH: Thanks so much, man! Good questions; I appreciate your thoroughness.