Hanson: Electric Underground by Jay S. Jacobs

By | October 18, 2010

Source: PopEntertainment.com

Hanson – indie rock champions?

You better believe it, bud…

That’s right, Hanson — the group who stormed the charts with the infectious pop single “MMMBop” when they were just kids — have grown up.  Not only gotten older, but they have taken control of their musical destiny and want to show others how to do it too.

After all, Isaac (lead guitar), Taylor (vocals) and Zac (drums) Hanson were only 16 to 11 years old when their 1997 album Middle Of Nowhere became a surprise smash.  It’s hard to remember now, but the group first appeared on the scene to universal praise.  The reviews were stellar.  The album had a very cool background.  The Dust Brothers, who were white hot after producing Beck and the Beastie Boys, were behind the boards on some of the songs.  Hanson had perfected a brilliant fusion of the Jackson 5ive and hip-hop and the CDs flew off the shelf.

Then the strangest thing happened.  The little sisters of the hip rock journalists fell in love with Hanson, too.  Suddenly the fashionistas realized that it couldn’t look hip to listen to the same stuff as their little sisters — so for reasons that had nothing to do with the music or the members of Hanson themselves, suddenly there was a hipster backlash.

The band recognized that they were being defined by the pop world of the late 90s that they had helped to create.  So they stretched their muscles and made artistic and melodic strides on the 2000 follow-up album This Time Around. The second album was an amazing stylistic jump from the debut.  The group brought in hip guest stars like Jonny Lang and John Popper of Blues Traveler.  The album also got a rash of great reviews and sold very well and spawned a hit single with the title track.  However, because sales were not as huge as the debut’s, it was generally considered a disappointment in the business.

As they were working on their next disk, the brothers decided that they were getting lost in the corporate machine.  After a lot of soul-searching, the Hanson brothers decided to create their own record label, 3CG Records.  In 2004 they released their first album on the new label, called Underneath.  The new album included songwriting collaborations with power-pop Gods Matthew Sweet and Gregg Alexander (The New Radicals). It continued the brothers’ musical maturation and again received critical love letters and also sold extremely well for an independent release  The rock-pop single “Penny & Me” received a decent amount of airplay.

Now Hanson is releasing a live album called Best of Live and Electric which takes a more rock-edged tour through their back catalogue as well as a fascinating Radiohead cover.  There is also a new documentary on the making of Underneath which is called Strong Enough To Break. As well as touring, the guys have also done a series of appearances at different universities around the US, discussing the state of the music industry and the idea of independent labels.

Youngest Hanson brother Zac — who is believe it or not is now college-aged himself — was kind enough to sit down with us and discuss the band’s music and their philosophy.

Hanson has been going to college campuses talking to young musicians to give advice on the business and how to survive as musicians.  What kind of experiences and knowledge have you been sharing with them?

Not only is it for young musicians, it’s more a reach out for music fans.  The time of your life when you’re in college is really the time when you’re most active in almost everything, including music.  Our reach out to college has been based on just giving knowledge of the state of the music industry and the corporate state of where everything is right now.  We’re trying to raise awareness about the fact that people really need to support music now more than ever, because of the huge companies that are really more based on stock prices than they are on careers of musicians.  We’re trying to say, “These people are trying to market to you.  You need to stand up and say this is what I’m listening to.  This is the music that I want to hear.”  Because, you’re going to be defined by the music that’s played on radio.  That’s going to be the music that people look back on and say, “Oh, that’s what the generation of 2005 was listening to.”  You need to make sure you’re not being misrepresented.

Do you wish someone was there to talk to you guys like that when you were starting out?

We were lucky to have a lot of good people that were around us.  [There was] a really good attorney that generously came out of retirement when we first started, to help us with our first contracts and tell us about what we should and shouldn’t give up.  Good, passionate, young management.  They didn’t know much, but they cared a lot about the band and wanted to help us succeed.  All of those are things that people need.  We were lucky to have a lot of that.  Knowing what I know now, it would have been nice to have me now tell me then, “Hey, it’s going to be hard.  You’re going to go through these things…  You’re going to have to deal with a lot of stuff in the music industry that really isn’t about music.  It’s something you’ve got to find your way through.”

One day you’re a student singing at home in Oklahoma, the next you’ve got one of the biggest albums in the country.  What was it like when the debut album and “MMMbop” just exploded?

Well, it’s such an incredible experience to have your voice out to that many people.  To have so much recognition around the world; not just your home state or in this country, but we were going all over the world playing concerts and TV shows and magazines.  One of my biggest highlights was going to see George Lucas on his ranch.  I got introduced and he goes, “Oh, I know who these guys are.”  This is George Lucas, you know?  It was a really amazing thing.  For us, there was a lot of time put into getting there.  It wasn’t just out of the blue.  We had been a band for five years at that point.  We played probably 300 shows and we put out a couple of independent albums.  Still, you wake up one morning and you get that call that says, “Hey, you’re the number one single in the country.  You have the number one album in the country.”  You just go, this is so surreal.  Because, you believe in your music.   You believe in what it can do and you believe you’re making great music that people should love and enjoy and want to buy and be part of.  But you never quite know it’s going to happen.

As much as I like Middle of Nowhere, I think the other two albums are even better, definitely more mature and more varied.  Was it a little frustrating that the albums did not do as well?

Not quite as much notice.  Still, a million sales on the second record – not bad at all.  (laughs) You know, you’re always struggling against a lot of things and most of it is just timing and fate.  Who knows, if “MMMBop” would have come out three months later, it may never have been heard and not [been] successful.  So, you’ve just got to believe in what you’re doing and keep looking at the end goal.  You make albums.  You’re really proud of them.  But you know in the end it’s not that album, it’s the five albums in a row that are great quality experiences.  That people can put on and listen through top to bottom and never want to skip a track.  It makes a difference.

Underneath was your first self-released album and got some of the best reviews of your career.  How is it different recording an album outside of the major labels?

In some ways, it was a little more stressful, because there’s that much more that’s on your plate.  In the sense of fewer employees, even more legwork.  That was really more something we put on ourselves, because we said if we’re going to self release this, if we’re going to form a label, we immediately wanted to make sure we did more work than we had ever done.  [We] did the extra work that people don’t do to set up records nowadays.  So, it was more stressful, but there was a sense of relief because you did know that everything was being done right.  The decision to become our own label was really more based on the ability to take Underneath, or any album, and go this is a stepping stone for the album three albums from now.  I’m going to keep building.  We’re going to look at this and everything we do in a way of long-term value and investing in your fans, and them investing back in you.

Is 3CG just going to be a label for releasing your own albums, or do you see releasing other artists on the imprint eventually?

Definitely we have plans to release other artists for 3CG.  It’s just, there have been a lot of artists who create labels and sign a bunch of artists and do bad jobs with all their artists.  We don’t want to be another label not giving the attention to each product and the attention to having a vision for each artist you sign.  So, we have been slow about signing other people and been real particular about the projects we want to work with and create.  But there will be other artists besides Hanson, it’s just a slow build so that we can really give something special — the attention and the focus that you don’t get from labels these days.

On the upcoming live album, it sounds like instrumentally you are making some of the older songs a bit harder, like with the guitar line of “MMMbop” more prominent live and “Where’s the Love?” is definitely more rocky.  Was that a conscious choice or just how the band has evolved over the years?

I think more than anything, that’s just a by-product of being in a live environment.  I know it’s more rock than it was seven years ago when we played it live.  I think even then it was more rock than the albums.  I don’t know, you get that energy going and who can’t enjoy a rockin’ distorted electric guitar?  Yeah, the sound of the band has definitely evolved, so I think that does play a part.  Hearing new music, taking different influences maybe than we had been, it’s changed your ear a little bit.  Where you hear things in a different way and want to go, okay, let’s push it this way.  Everything musically – we’ve never tried to change things.  It’s just something that happens.  I remember I listened to “Where’s the Love” the other day.  We’re doing all this old music and there’s the new music on this live album.  I listened back to one of the old records and I was like, “Man, the phrasing is so white bread.”  I realized you get so used to a song that you start changing it subconsciously.  You don’t even realize it until eight years down the line you turn that old record back on and you go, wow, I changed that a lot.

The Radiohead cover of “Optimistic” on the live CD is really great and a rather unexpected choice.  What made you choose the song?

You know, that was kind of a surprising choice, I think.  But, it just fit.  We like to do covers as much as we can, just to throw other things in there.  Show people influences and also introduce fans of our music to music that maybe they haven’t heard.  We were listening through covers, I think we were working on a Tom Petty song and a Ryan Adams song.  Somebody said, “Why don’t we do something like a Radiohead song?”  It just seemed like, when you listened to all the Kid A songs, [“Optimistic”] seemed like a song that we could really pull out some of the vocal harmonies and the drum part and make it even more aggressive than it is on their album.  Just do it in a Hanson way that was still Radiohead.

Why did you decide to do the Strong Enough to Break documentary?  What was it like to have a camera crew watching as you went through the process of making an album?

You know, the guy who filmed and directed most of it is a dear friend of ours.  So it wasn’t as intrusive as it might seem, because it’s like having a good friend around all the time.  It came about before we even knew what was going to happen with Underneath. At the time, there was no idea that we’d end up forming a label or doing all the things we did with Underneath.  So, we started out to film a movie about what it’s really about to make albums, to an extent that was more intimate than anyone had ever seen.  Going from songwriting to producing to releasing.  It ended up being more a film about what you go through to make a record – outside of the recording.  What it takes actually to get approval, to spend your own budget to record songs.  How much bureaucracy there is in making music and little it is about art.  I think Strong Enough To Break is really about the same decision that almost every artist today is making.  Which is either to push through and follow your own vision for your music, or get caught up in appeasing the companies and people around you who don’t really have a vision for where you’re going in the long-term?

On your upcoming “Live and Electric” tour you will be giving all ticket holders a limited edition CD.  What’s going to be on it and how did you come up with the idea?

That CD is a selection of songs from the new live album.  The reason we did that is not everybody is going to buy a Hanson live album, or any live album.  I only own four or five in the hundreds and hundreds that are released.  Because a live album, I think, is perceived as something that is for really hardcore fans.   People who are, “I love the real album so much I want to listen to it live everyday.”  Playing live music always has been a really big part of who we are, and what makes Hanson the band it is.  I think we wanted to make sure that people walked away with that experience.  And also, give people more.  The way downloading, new medias and music is becoming something that you’re going to have to give more and more content.  Better albums.  More music.  More things.  So, we’re just a band that sort of believes in the idea of giving more and more quality in everything we do.

Are you guys working on any new studio stuff?

New studio tracks are… we’re sort of in a writing phase, now.  The recording process will start after the Fall tour.  Early next year, late this year, we’ll start the recording process for the next album.  The hope is to get it out next spring or summer.

Copyright © 2005 PopEntertainment.com All rights reserved. Posted: September 1, 2005.

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