By Matt Williams
October 12, 2015
Zac Hanson, founding (and youngest) member of Hanson along with his brothers Taylor and Isaac, rings me up just before embarking on the band’s 10-city Roots & Rock ‘n’ Roll Tour. The number registers as Oklahoma, the Hanson Brothers’s home state, but he’s already on the road, calling from “Philly.” Zac explains the band is playing some “30 under 30” thing for Forbes. And then it dawns on me: Zac Hanson isn’t even 30 yet. He was born in 1985. Hanson has been a live and touring band since 1992. You do the math.
Despite their young ages (Taylor is 32, Isaac 34), Hanson has been around forever. They’re probably best known for their 1997 mega-hit “MMMBop”, from Middle of Nowhere, which sky-rocketed to the top of the Billboard 100. Despite sounding incredibly ‘90s, as it should, it holds up really well. Their biggest moment since has likely been the single and title track from 2000’s This Time Around, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that Hanson was a one-hit wonder. The band (obviously) never stopped putting out music, and instead have maybe found themselves in an even better position than holding on to all their old fans: consistently making new ones, at least according to Zac, who tells me he often meets new fans who don’t even know what “MMMBop” is (I almost refused to believe this until I mentioned to a friend that I interviewed one of the writers of the song, and he had no idea what I was talking about). Some of their fans are actually younger than the song itself.
Along the way, Hanson has started brewing their own craft beer (MMMHops!) and do a one-mile walk as part of the Take The Walk campaign with fans before almost every one of their shows, to help fight poverty and the transmission of AIDS to young children, among other things. They donate a dollar for every person who joins them in the walks pre-show. “It’s not much, but if you can do a little bit, and we can all do a little bit of what we can—give up 20 minutes of your day, walk a mile—then it’s surprising, the impact we see on the other side,” Zac says. “And that might be the thing that helps somebody start the next big great button that saves the world, or it might just be something that provides a bottle of water for a kid today.”
The Roots & Rock ‘n’ Roll Tour, which just kicked off in Chicago at the House of Blues, features two shows in each of the 10 cities they’re stopping in. The first night is basically a tribute show where they play a set of songs that influenced their music, like the Jackson 5 and Billy Joel, and the second is all Hanson songs. “We want to continue to tell a story…” Zac says. “This is a way to kinda talk about our influences and the DNA of our band in a different way than we ever have.”
Noisey: You guys have been around for so long, but I think most people still know you because of “MMMBop.” Does that ever get frustrating?
Zac Hanson: It’s frustrating but not always in the way that people might expect. I think what’s frustrating about “MMMBop” is that it was such a big song that people who know “MMMBop” don’t understand “MMMBop.” So it’s not that ‘MMMBop’ is frustrating. I’m really proud of that song, especially when you think about it. We wrote this song when I was like, 8-years-old. I’m really proud of that song. But for the people who know our band, who’ve followed our band, who’ve listened to those early Hanson records in the late ’90s, they get it, like they understand the influences, they understand who we are as a band. But for the people who just have that pop culture touchpoint, that can be frustrating, because they don’t really understand it. They know you were sort of a pop band and, they’re like, “what are you?! MMMBop ba da be dip da buh!”… That’s sort of frustrating, but that’s just life. It’s most like, when you go to a family reunion and you always have that like, second cousin or great aunt who just forever says that one thing about you being cute or forever says… but, you know, you can’t fault her! She’s just old and senile!
Have you noticed any changes in the complexity of ‘MMMBop’’s scatting portions?
(laughs) You mean what the people who don’t know how it goes sing?
“MMMBop” is deceivingly simple. It’s basically the same thing over and over again. So I would say from day one to current day, you have the same percentage of people singing it wrong. But it makes you smile. We’ve been so blessed and lucky to be a band who’ve been successful everywhere. We’ve traveled the world and continue to. Our last Brazilian tour, it was funny, I think about that one in particular, just because there was a particular moment where a guy was trying to sing “MMMBop,” but he was singing like, ‘tuuuu-ba!’ And you’re like, ‘that’s not even close! That’s not even the same vowel sound!’ So there’s a certain joy and a smile that can’t leave your face sometimes when that stuff happens. You do all this because you continue to have a passion for what you’re doing next. So as much as the past enlightens the future, it’s still always about the future. Otherwise you stop. Bands who stop singing about the future and stop dreaming about the next song and the next album and the next idea are the ones that don’t keep going. All of that is just part of this continued forward motion to do the next great idea.
Isn’t the choice to do one night of songs that influenced you per stop kind of working against that idea?
Well, it only works against it in the sense that the songs often are from the past, but considering we’ve never done it, and so many of the songs we’ve never performed, it still feels like a new idea for us. I mean, life is cyclical. If you think you’re doing something for the first time, you’re just not paying attention. So it’s the first time for us to look back at historic music in this way. In that way, it’s a first. Part of it for me is—it sounds kinda funny, maybe—it just makes you a better musician, to study people’s music in this way. So when we sit down and you have to deconstruct a Michael Jackson song, deconstruct a Jackson 5 song, it makes you better for it. So that’s part of it. It’s kind of selfish, it’s like an excuse to become a better musician and share the journey with people.
Can you tell me what MMMHops tastes like?
[Laughs] What does MMMHops taste like? Well, it’s a craft beer. MMMHops tastes delicious. It’s 7.5% alcohol, it’s a pale ale—really more of an English pale ale—it’s malty, it’s pretty a smooth beer. But if you’re used to drinking like, Coors Light and Budweiser, then it’s gonna seem very, very full-flavored, because it’s a craft beer. It’s intended to be what beer should taste like, not just something that only tastes good when it’s ice cold and then it tastes like pee afterward. We want to grow slowly. We obviously want to get to as many people as possible because we really do love this enterprise, like, love making the beer. It’s such a great companion for listening to music. It’s just a perfect combo. As far as where you can get it, it’s mostly in the US right now, sort of in and around Oklahoma. We’re launching in eight states with this fall tour, so as part of the tour it’ll be in a bunch of new places around the country, but it’s still limited. We want people to really get a chance to taste it and hopefully love it. It’s won some awards, it’s a gold medal beer now, which is pretty cool. It’s a totally different creative thing from making music, but there’s a similar spirit, surprisingly, to craft brewers and small, independent bands.
Oh yeah. I work at a craft beer bar here In Toronto.
Well then you get how it is. When you have your favorite beer, it’s a lot like your favorite band. It’s good vibes. As we do more and more of it, take the beer to beer festivals and meet brewers and things, it’s like, it’s surprising how many brewers have a drum set in the back, in a corner of their brewhouse, you know? (laughs) Stuff like that. We are kindred spirits. The thing about the beer is, we’re doing it because we want to make beer. It’s not like a one time, white label, we make a run of beer—’Hanson Beer’—and slap a label on someone else’s beer and we’re done. It’s not a promotional gimmick. I should say—Isaac and Taylor are much more beer snobs than I am—but, you travel around the country, you travel around the world, you’re playing concerts, coming off stage, havin’ a beer, and eventually the idea came up: “we should do a beer, that’d be awesome!” And we started joking about what it’d be called, and ‘MMMHops’ came up, and it was like, ‘that’s an amazing pun!’ Because it’s ‘MMM’ (pauses) ‘HOPS’, right? But it’s also ‘MMMHops’. And it just sort of went from there. There was a natural inclination because of the drinking of beer, to want to do it. There was a great title for the idea. And we said, ‘let’s go. Let’s start.’ So this is our first beer, but it won’t be the last. We started a beer festival two years ago in Oklahoma, craft beer and music. It’s been a really fun ride. And there’s a lot to go, a lot more to do, a lot more beers to share with the world. But we’re also learning. I talk about this tour, learning from playing other peoples’ music. This is a real learning process for us, because none of us are master brewers. You’re going through sharing your flavour palette, learning how to take those things and refine those things. It’s cool.
Do you guys know about the Hanson Brothers from the movie Slapshot?
(laughs) Yes, we do. Way back to our early, early, early days, I remember we had a phone number people would call for bookings. And the local hockey team in Oklahoma, in Tulsa, had booked the Hanson Brothers to do their halftime show, and I remember we got all these calls: ‘man, you guys are doing the hockey show! Yeah, man! We’re goin’!” That was my first experience with the Hanson Brothers. Before ever seeing Slapshot.
Are you fans of the movie?
Yes and no. I watched Slapshot when I was relatively young, and it went over my head a little bit. I need to watch it again, as an adult, I think, to really get most of the jokes.
There’s also a Canadian punk band named The Hanson Brothers who play hockey-themed punk rock.
[Laughs] That’s a very niche market!
They call it ‘puck rock.’
What have you learned about family after playing together for so long?
[Laughs] I would say firstly, I have zero perspective. I’ve played with family for so long that I don’t have good perspective on what it’s like not to play with family. But I would say one thing, I think that family won’t keep you together unless you want to be together. I think there’s this perception that you’re brothers so you have to be together. But it’s a statement that people say, and then almost ironically, they say “I could never work with my (insert brother/sister/cousin/whatever).” So I think that the beauty of being brothers is that your genes are so similar that your vocal cords are so similar. It makes for great music-making, that’s why there are so many great examples of brothers and sisters in bands, particularly singing together, because there’s this undeniable like, it’s as close as you can get without being a clone. But in the end, when the shit hits the fan, when life comes up and things get hard, it just doesn’t matter if you’re brothers if you don’t have the heart for it, if you don’t have the heart for each other. I hear bands will say they’re like brothers, brothers say they’re like bandmates. In the end, bands last as long as they can care about each other. As soon as it becomes about the bottom line, you know, about me, then things fall apart. So it doesn’t matter if you’re brothers or not, if you’re not thinking about the guy next to you. It’s a very mild version of going into combat (laughs). There are no bullets, nobody’s probably going to die, but you gotta have the buddy system, and that’s what keeps it going I think.
Matt Williams wouldn’t say no to a case of MMMHops. Follow him on Twitter.