The Hanson Brother’s Talk Serious Music

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October 23, 2011

By Ron Bennington

Zac, Taylor and Isaac Hanson who form the group Hanson stopped by this week to talk with Ron Bennington at the Sirius XM studios.  The three brothers are best known for their smash hit Grammy nominated song “MmmBop.”  Because of their quick success at such a young age, some people wrote them off as a flash-in-the-pan pop group, but there is much more to Hanson than meets the eye.  They’re all grown up with kids of their own now, and recording under their own label. Excerpts from the interview appear below.

Ron Bennington: That’s Hanson. I gotta tell you the truth, no way those are those kids white. There’s no way in the world that’s a bunch of white boys.

Zac Hanson: Well, we heard that we were black Danish.

Taylor Hanson: I think I’m going to take that as a compliment.

Ron Bennington: You should take it as a compliment because I don’t know if America’s done too many better things than soul music. And when you hear that song, you’re like, alright, that’s Motown, or that’s that Philly Soul sound in the 70s. And that’s exactly what you guys are looking for in this.

Taylor Hanson: Again, thank you. I mean, that’s what we grew up with. We’re fans of music, we’re fans first. We could never take that out of what we do. We grew up listening to Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, you know, all the greats. In fact, that song [I’ve Been Thinking Bout Something], if anyone’s listening and hasn’t seen the video, the whole idea with the video and the start of this record process– the album’s called Shout it Out– was to pay homage to that. Very literally, we recreated the scene in the Blues Brothers film where Ray Charles breaks into song and the Blues Brothers are in the music store and people start dancing in the streets.

Isaac Hanson: Which is one of our all time favourite movies by the way.

Zac Hanson: The thing about that film was, it put together the puzzle pieces in many ways like our life of music has put the puzzle pieces together. It’s a mix of these weird kinds of things. That film put together all these mid-western white guys with soul music and a sense of not taking yourself too seriously but really respecting the roots of that rock and roll soul music.

Taylor Hanson:  That movie’s the perfect combination of great music, car chases and bad humour.

Zac Hanson:  Also, that song is literally, lyric-by-lyric, references to the songs. I mean the second verse is, ‘if you ain’t too proud to beg, and give you some respect,  cause the tune you’re humming is never gonna change’ is a reference to the Four Tops and the Temptations.

Isaac Hanson: …and Aretha and Otis Redding…

Zac Hanson: …and Sammy Davis. So anyway, the song, the band, that’s where our heart is.

Ron Bennington: Now how did you even get introduced to that? Was it the radio? Was it your family? Who introduced you guys to soul music?

Isaac Hanson: It was almost by accident, actually. What happened was, our dad was an accountant for an oil company and he was the only one that was willing to  travel down to South America. Basically he was the guy willing to take the job nobody else would take.

Zac Hanson: He was not some huge executive he was just a CPA.

Isaac Hanson: So he goes down to South America, and then basically our mom and the three of us and our youngest sister end up going and following him down to South America. Before we leave our mom buys this tape from 1958– it’s a collection of like 20 singles from that year. So we end up listening to that thing over and over and over again for the next year basically– memorize every single song, love all those songs. And then we get home and the next thing we start doing is listening to oldies radio and buying all kinds of different collections and old records. And then the next record that we really got into was An Innocent Man by Billy Joel.

Taylor Hanson: Song writing and soul music. And it was in the blood too. Both of our parents were musical. Our mom was a music major, a voice major– she was this amazing singer. And our dad was sort of a frustrated poet, but decided to bring in the bread by becoming a CPA.   All of that put stuff together. Music is kind of a mysterious thing. You’ve got a lot of really talented people who never really do it. You never know.  Are you the least or most talented at this or that? A lot of it is just doing it I think.

Ron Bennington: Right. And it’s one thing to be a musician, and there’s so many great musicians out there that no one knows because they don’t get that song writing hook. And how the song writing comes in is still the strangest thing in the world.

Taylor Hanson: Yea, it is. It’s a mystery. Like I said it’s some combination of craft and work. You do learn– its sort of like becoming a chemist– you learn there’s rules.   But after that…it’s all art. It’s all unknown.

Zac Hanson: It’s also like– James Taylor, when he was inducted into the songwriters hall of fame he was saying “thank you for this but sometimes I don’t even know where these songs come from…its sort of like a gift from above.”  All of a sudden it just shows up’ and you’re like, did I make this? Or did somebody just give this to me somehow. You’ve got to respect that.

You’ve got to keep the antenna up. You’ve got to be willing to receive it.

Isaac Hanson: And that’s really where I think this song writing thing comes in.
You’ve got to keep the antenna up. You’ve got to be willing to receive it. And then the other thing too, is, I think listening to late 50′s rock and roll in particular, because those songs were short– they were two minutes, two and thirty seconds– and it gives you a really good perspective on what a pop song really is about. And I think that it’s good that we listen to that first as opposed to prog rock.  Because as amazing as prog rock is, it’s a much bigger progression of pop music– it’s a broader version of pop music. Whereas those 50′s soul records and rock and roll records were just ‘to the vein.’  Hook us or we’re kicking you out.

Ron Bennington: And you guys always have to have a lick.

It’s kind of interesting because the truth is, we’re actually really earthy as a band.

Taylor Hanson: It’s kind of interesting because the truth is, we’re actually really earthy as a band. The “pop-ness” really is in the song.  It’s in the arrangements that makes us “pop” because the approach that we take to it is very much back to the beginnings of things. And even when we produce things– we all love producing– we all have a producer brain– we love to layer things and you can make stuff sound really kind of slicked up. But it really comes back to that song– to a good hook. I mean there’s nothing like a great melody and a great hook.

Ron Bennington: So that’s what comes first? First thing, its finding a hook and then you work from that point out.

Zac Hanson: Yea. It’s like sometimes “the hook” is that idea of just a really really strong story which becomes the hook. Or a thought or sort of an anchor phrase. There’s several song that haven’t been released but will someday make an album. And there’s a song that’s about being sort of uniquely American, and there’s this one guitar phrase that I’m thinking of playing that has not yet been finished, but I think of this one piece and at some point, that little hook, that little guitar riff or that little thought will spark the finishing of the song.  But it sometimes has to just sit around and stew and find its way.

Ron Bennington: Do you guys do that separately or do you bring it in to each other? Do you do it together?

Taylor Hanson: It’s a mix. Next year we will have been a band for twenty years, so we’ve kind of done it every way within that time period. Some albums are a lot writing together and some albums are mostly apart.

Ron Bennington:  But because you broke in the way you broke in with people caring about a million different things like they do on TV, that it’s hard to even hear people talk about music.

Taylor Hanson: It’s a lot easier to talk about 20,000 screaming girls in their pre-pubescent era.

Zac Hanson: You know, I was eleven when our first record hit. I think I would still be– right now– having experienced that, having been that guy– look at that and go, is that real? It seems kinda like an anomaly. So strange. It’s hard to have good perspective when something is so out of the ordinary. Out of the normal.

Taylor Hanson: I will say this, looking back now, you have the history.  Where you can find random stuff– crazy weird clips, and you’re like, I don’t even remember that.  And we have said the same thing since the first interview we ever did. We’ve always talked about music. We’ve always loved to jump generationally back musically. The most fun we’ve had is honestly working with, and writing and collaborating with people that are many many many years older than we are because of where our heart and soul comes from. Those first interviews– the truth is, we were boring in interviews from the point of view of ‘sex! And drugs guys?’ And we were like, I love this Otis Redding song! And I think that reality, as we’ve grown older, you know, we’ve had crazy experiences, and we travelled the world and seen a lot of things– but we’ve always been that way and we’ve always been sort of geeks about it. And I think that’s what’s kept us humble and afraid to lose it. Because we like it.

Ron Bennington: Well think about how many great bands have done two or three albums that you wish did ten or twelve. How many times you saw a band that somebody talked the lead singer into moving into different projects because it happen to make somebody else money. I mean, the attacks on the music come almost immediately with success.

Taylor Hanson: Oh unbelievably. Without going into the sob stories and kind of the negativity, just for perspective, we have had so many situations and we’ve had less horror stories than most. Mostly because we kind of grew up in Oklahoma where you sort of do what you say you’ll do and kind of have this “work matters”.  We’ve always been stubborn. But, thinking about sitting in front of executives–  and early on and at the high of things, people are looking at you going “oh yeah, well this doesn’t work, this is broken, you need to do this, this and this”.  And just literally [we’re] looking at these people going “what are you smoking?” Like there’s this manipulation that happens and it’s not just true with music. It just happens that music is like an art…it’s somehow more manipulativable because it’s this enigma. You can actually get lucky. You don’t actually have to start a car company and learn how to build cars. You can find some random guy on the street who happens to be Otis Redding.  And suddenly be making millions of dollars. And I think…

Isaac Hanson: Well how many times, amongst other things, how many times did people initially just want to like rip the three of us apart and try to make it into…

Taylor Hanson: Of course, solo projects.

Isaac Hanson: “Oh it’s the Taylor Show, it’s the Isaac Show, it’s the Zac Show,” whatever it is, they’re trying to constantly pull the band apart. I remember on our second record, we literally, we left TRL, the Times Square was packed, the video was number one and the label says “the record’s not working the way we want it to, you guys should do solo projects”. And we went “what!?”.  (laughs)

literally just looked at them, gave them the bird, told them “Hey, you can go fuck yourself”.

Taylor Hanson: This is literally like four weeks after we had sold about a million records on this new record and we were like “you know what..” and literally just looked at them, gave them the bird, told them “Hey, you can go fuck yourself”. And that was the conversation. That’s just one story of many and we have been amazingly lucky as a band. But it is true that I think, there’s just a lot of short sightedness.  There’s a reason why everybody doesn’t do this particular job because it is a little bit of a million different things that kind of all have to happen together.

Ron Bennington: Well you guys, when you walked away from the big record labels, which is about a few years before a lot of performers did, and now you’re kind of set up doing your own stuff and there’s no  block between you and your audience, right?

Taylor Hanson: Yeah, exactly.

Isaac Hanson: Well that was the number one reason why we did it. Because for us it was about the audience. We were sitting there spending years trying to get our third record recorded after the label told us we should do solo projects. Then we were like “no, we’re not going to do a solo project”, we’re going to go make another record and of course then you can easily see why that became a difficult process. But more importantly, we spend years trying to make a record and then we’re like “wait a second”. We haven’t been able to get out on the road because we don’t have anything to promote. We were just like “forget this”, we’re losing fans everyday, we’re done.

Taylor Hanson: The other thing that happened and we could probably spend hours talking about the labels and craziness, but the music industry began to really change. Corporate mergers happened at the rate they had never happened before. On our second record, Polygram Universal merged and they became the big conglomerate. Our label disappeared essentially, so we were on a rap label all of sudden and we’re sitting there talking to the Def Jam staff and they’re like “Hanson”. You know they dropped two hundred acts from Mercury.

Isaac Hanson: Which was our label.

Taylor Hanson: So we were essentially on a new label with people that don’t know what’s going on. But I think the decision to start the label was ultimately…we’ve talked about this a lot because we made a documentary about it. We took the film to about fifty schools and we did lectures with them. We talked to music business students about it and said look, there kind of feels like there’s a villain in this because there’s us and there’s them to some degree. And there is a little bit of a villain, but the truth is this is just the process of a corporate confusion. You know you start hiring lawyers to do artists’ jobs and you start putting the dollars and cents before you put the actual craft or the idea of the craft or either just knowing what you’re selling.

Ron Bennington: Let’s get back into songwriting. Let’s talk about “Give a Little” and this is the new single. How did this come together?

Taylor Hanson: “Give a Little” is one of the last songs we did. The record…it was one of the good things that happened on the record that it helped draw us back to finishing it the right way, I think. The record didn’t have any horn arrangements on it yet. That we had always talked about it. The whole record has a throwback feel about it. And we always talked about these pop horn arrangements. And after we actually made most of the entire record, mixed it once and we sat back for a minute and we went on the road for a few months and just said “You know, we need to do what we said we were going to do”. And in fact, there’s a couple of other songs that I think that will bring this together. And “Give a Little” was one of them.

Isaac Hanson: Well, we basically felt like we were missing the right ballad and we knew we were missing an up tempo song. And we kind of, after finishing a month and a half tour, after we were done mixing the record, we’re just like “You know what?…What are these songs?” So we start going back through the list of songs and start going through ideas and the “Give a Little” idea came up.

I think of “Give a Little” as more of a reference to a sixties pop song. Like a sixties straight more down the middle, little more of a…kind of like The Animals or The Rascals…

Taylor Hanson: The “Give a Little” riff started out as an idea that was…I’m trying to think about where it actually began, but it really is like if “Thinking ‘Bout Something” is a little bit more of a sixties, reference to a sixties soul song, I think of “Give a Little” as more of a reference to a sixties pop song. Like a sixties straight more down the middle, little more of a…kind of like The Animals or The Rascals…

Ron Bennington: Tommy James or something.

Taylor Hanson: Yeah. It’s that…(starts humming riff)…It’s like “Twist and Shout” or something. That’s the DNA of the song.

Isaac Hanson: Or even “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies almost or something like that.

Taylor Hanson: It doesn’t sound exactly like that, but that’s the DNA of the song. It’s literally as simple as could possibly be and that was our goal. It’s so great when you can hear an intro and have it just be one riff. (humming) And of course, that’s our song, but the idea of just being able to carry it with one riff.  One of the things that was a spark for me, you can always judge a song by your kids response to it. And I have four little kids and both the other guys each have two. And when my kids heard that song, they involuntarily, now this is kind of weird to say it, but they for some reason, my oldest said “Yeah, Dad play that other song. Isn’t that the other “MmmBop” song?” And for whatever reason, he said that. And I don’t know why he said that except for to say that whatever it is in the quality of “MmmBop” or quality of some of the songs that are probably the most catchy of ours. That there’s something in there that’s similar to an eight year old. And I think probably that’s what, that good pop song thing. Whatever that DNA of a pop song is.

Ron Bennington: That’s the great thing about kids. They’re not going to critique it. They’re just going “Yeah, that’s it. That’s the sugar”.  October 23rd, playing the NorVa in Norfolk, Virginia. Doors open at 7 O’Clock. Check out more dates for their Musical Ride tour at Thanks so much for stopping in guys. It’s the fiercely independent Hanson. Thank guys.

Hanson: Thank you.

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