‘Musicians for life,’ Hansons go independent
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
30 July 2004
When Hanson scored a 1997 hit with its indelible single “MMMBop,” it was easy to mistake the trio of young Oklahomans for yet another contrived boy band, albeit one that could actually play its instruments and which favored a bouncy bubblegum take on ’60s rock, pop and soul to lip-synced modern R&B.
At that point, guitarist Isaac, keyboardist Taylor and drummer Zac had already written 100 songs and been recording on their own since 1992. Now, after two albums for Island, the brothers are once again on their own. They became some of the rare independent artists to land in the Billboard Top 40 — their third studio release, “Underneath,” debuted at No. 25 — and they’re striving with some success to position themselves as a credible indie power-pop band, as well as “musicians for life,” as Taylor says.
I spoke with Taylor, the middle Hanson brother, now 21 and a father, shortly after the group returned from a promotional tour of South Korea and Thailand and as it geared up for an American jaunt that brings it to the Skyline Stage at Navy Pier on Saturday night.
After two successful albums for Island, you guys have started your own independent record company, 3CG. Tell me about making the new album.
A. Anybody that’s really known this band knows I was 14 when we put out “Middle of Nowhere,” but we were never writing about kid stuff — we were writing about life. That being said, we’re all in very different places than we were when we put out the first and second albums. I hope that people are seeing growth. If they aren’t, then I don’t think we’re really doing our job. People don’t stay the same. The world doesn’t stay the same, and you’ve got to continue to be inspired by the things around you to create new music and to create things that are constantly evolving.
Q. What was the process of writing the new songs like?
A. One thing you have to understand about Hanson is that it’s always happening, just because there are three different guys that all write, play and sing. There’s always some new writing going on, because maybe one guy is in a slump or someone else is on a roll of writing songs. These songs span all the way back from things that were written before the second album was put out, to songs that were written a week before they were recorded somewhere during the process in the last year and a half. So there is constantly writing happening when you’re traveling on the road and when you’re maybe on down time.
Going to my honeymoon with my wife was a testament to that, because we were in the middle of making an album for a long time and we got married during that time and went to our honeymoon. And there I was, going through album orders! It was like, “When are you going to turn it off?” That’s just one of those things. All the things around you are continually affecting your music.
Q. Did you bring an instrument on your honeymoon?
A. [Laughs] Actually, I did not, and I regretted it. You should definitely not put yourself in a position like that. You should not be thinking about your keyboard more than your wife. But that didn’t go on. I think part of the strength is that we’ve always been a very real band. Even when we first came out and people were like, “Wow, they’re so young. How can this be authentic?” There was more production value to things. But it was always very true to who we were, and always coming from a very authentic place. That just comes from the fact that we all have a real lust for music.
Q. You’ve grown up in public. Does that make it hard to be taken seriously?
A. I think that’s part of our job with starting an independent record company. I think it’s also our job to continually evolve as musicians. To break through the past is something that rarely happens to any band, ever. To imagine that you’ll just be able to erase that impression and input another one is just not true. What we have to look at is we’ve already reached so many people that we have such an opportunity to grow and engage and bring people along. We’ve always had an amazing fan base, and one of the things we’ve done with the acoustic tour last year and now with this tour and with the whole promotion and the campaign with this record has been to really make an effort to expand, but to also maintain fueling that enthusiastic base.
We’re in a position where we’re using Sony in Southeast Asia, working with JVC in Japan, working with an independent record label called True North in Canada — we’re working with all kinds of different units, and in the States we’re completely independent with our own team. We’re able to pick and choose the best team to facilitate the vision because we’re really mapping it out a little more specifically.”
Q. In your years in the business, how have you seen the music industry change? We’re at a point where a band like Hanson doesn’t need a big record company anymore.
A. Well, people say that, but you’re always going to need people to help artists to develop a plan to put your music out, to facilitate it. The thing that changed to negative is that a lot of companies used to be invigorated with passion for music and the entrepreneurial spirit and be real artist-minded — like Island — and music-loving executives don’t exist anymore. They’ve become more crass.
It’s a different place than it was. That being said, that’s just a cycle, because the next Island and the next Geffen and the next Atlantic and the next great record companies will come, because the idea of a record company is people will love music until the end of time.
One thing you’re going to see, I believe, in the near future — and it’s not necessarily exactly how we’re doing it — is artists have to stand up for themselves and have to decide what they want to be. Not that they have to go start their own labels and do both, but that they have to map out, “This is who I am, this is what I want” and lead people, as opposed to the relaxation of saying, “Well, this is a big label, and they’re going to sign me and I’m going to be a superstar.” There’s not one way to get music out to people anymore. I see it as really exciting, actually.
Q. Let’s go back to making “Underneath.”
A. Most of the writing was very diverse. It was a mix of very solitary efforts, with each guy creating music — songs that Zac really led off, like “Broken Angel” or “Misery,” which started out as a kind of pessimistic song and evolved into something slightly more twisted. Things that were little fragments of experiences that we were going through, very personal ones that we then all collaborated on, all the way over to collaborations with other artists like Matthew Sweet, who wrote the title track with us. We basically got together not knowing what would happen and kind of had an explosion. It just came alive.
Q. Were you a fan of Sweet?
A. We basically just discovered his music, and he had another friend who was a friend of ours and was sort of bringing him into the world of Hanson. When we finally met, we were both amped about it. But the truth is when you collaborate with people, it definitely does not always work right away. In some cases, it doesn’t work at all. When you write with someone, it’s a very personal experience. Once you’ve written a song with someone, you sort of know them really well — it’s sort of like a close friend by the end of it — and even if you don’t like each other, you know each other well. When we went in to write, we set aside a few hours to just kind of see what happened. I think we didn’t even all acknowledge as much that we really came from similar backgrounds as far as styles of our music and the way things were influential to us. That combined with just having a nice personal dynamic, and it just worked.
Q. Who else did you work with on this album?
A. Along the process we worked with a lot of people. We wrote with Ed Robinson from the Barenaked Ladies and Miles Zuniga from Fastball. Gosh, we produced some songs with interesting people, like a guy named Bob Marlette — his background is stuff like Marilyn Manson and death metal, everything from Saliva to Black Sabbath, heavy stuff. But that particular song is actually only on the European release. And it went all the way over from that to Greg Wells, who produced “Strong Enough to Break,” “Underneath,” “Hey” and “Dancing in the Wind.” His background is in producing things like Rufus Wainwright and more recently Michelle Branch.
Q. It’s a testament to Hanson’s talents to get that kind of respect from your peers.
A. You’re totally right about that. More importantly, it’s not weird musicians that want to come in and work with great people, and that makes a great product. Another thing which is really important to understand about this record is we produced most of it on our own. We’ve always been producers, but you also don’t want to be limited by yourself, and we really reached the point on this record where we knew we could really take it all the way from its inception to its completion.
We really wanted to craft the sound in a more classic way. We wanted it to really be more about the space and each thing that we recorded being very hand-picked, less layered. Even though there’s still a lot of layers on this record, there was a mantra, which was we wanted to leave room for the songs to really come out. So that’s part of the sound of this record. We took on a different approach with it, sonically.
Musically, I have to say one thing that has really grown is our sound. When the three of us sit in a room, we have a sound in the same way that the great bands like the Police or U2 have a definitive sound when they sit in a room and play together — they really create a sonic combination.
Q. As close as the group is, do you ever get tired of hanging around with your brothers?
A. The truth is we’re three very unique guys.
We did an acoustic tour all through last year, and it’s really been going all the way up to now. We’d been doing promotions playing acoustically, and that was really essential for a couple reasons. One was to really give people the opportunity to see us; it’s been four years since an album has come out, so we wanted to pare things down and sort of take the band out on the road at its core. The second part of that was to really charge up the fans, thank them, and also really get them excited. We’re about to spend time rehearsing and we have to go out and play a full electric tour. What that really is going to be is an acumination of a lot of years of shaping an album, which is now going to be able to be realized in a live show.
One thing we said to a lot of people is we can all sit here and talk for hours about all this stuff, but the truth is you just need to come to a show. Seeing it is believing it. For us, it’s a passion for music and a passion for our fans. This is a grass-roots band that is always going to be out there touring and playing shows, and this tour is going to be really exciting. It’s going to be a great show, and it’s going to be a great opportunity to kind of take this whole process up a notch.