StarPolish Interview: Hanson’s Isaac Hanson
by Chas Ellenburg
Hanson, a band of brothers from Tulsa, Oklahoma , rose to fame in the late 1990’s with their hit single “MMMBop” and their multi-platinum-selling debut album, Middle of Nowhere. The band, comprised of Isaac, now 28, Taylor, 25 and Zac, 23, went on to garner three Grammy nominations before eventually splitting with major labels, first Mercury Records, and then Island Def Jam Records after a three-year battle. Subsequently the band formed its own independent label, 3CG (Three Car Garage) Records.
Their first independent release, Underneath, met with overwhelming success, debuting at Number One on Billboard’s Top Independent Albums chart in 2004 and number 25 on the Billboard 200 chart
In 2007, Hanson released their second studio album on 3CG Records, The Walk, and embarked on a world tour in support of the album. A partnership with TOMS Shoes helped the band to bring shoes to needy children in Africa . Hanson still hosts one-mile walks with their fans before their shows to support AIDS care, clean drinking water and medical care for the citizens of Africa . The brothers are currently on tour in the US with The Walk. Starpolish recently sat down with guitarist Isaac Hanson to discuss Hanson’s latest album, the trials and joys of owning and managing their own label, and some helpful advice for aspiring artists just starting out.
STARPOLISH: I know you guys are currently on tour promoting your latest album The Walk with a Walk Around the World tour along with your partnership with TOMS Shoes that has now evolved into other methods of helping people in Africa.
HANSON: The Walk Around the World Tour is basically an initiative to get 24, 902 people to walk with us, and the reason why we’re getting 24,902 is because that’s the number of miles around the world. The way we’re doing that is by [hosting] walks of our own at every single concert across the United States and Canada. We’re also providing an opportunity for people to host their own walks wherever they would like, and we will give a dollar for every person that walks both with us and with those that are hosting walks.
The idea behind all of this is that people kept coming up to us last year as we were walking, people who were motivated to buy TOMS shoes and reach their goal of 50,000 shoes before November of 2007 so they could deliver the shoes to South Africa. People kept walking up to us asking “How can I do more? How can I donate money to the cause?” So this is a way for us to continue to support TOMS Shoes, plus also actively provide ways for people to support the hospitals–through sales of the song Great Divide–and drilling wells and building schools and providing shoes as well . So it’s just a further expansion.
STARPOLISH: You also have a book and LP inspired by The Walk, is that right?
HANSON: That’s correct; the book is called Take the Walk and the music is something that comes with that book. The book came out in November. The music was inspired in part by the walks themselves, being a motivational tool as well as an inspiration. We wrote songs certainly about some of the issues that are going on in Africa but we also felt that the kind of motivation and encouragement that people had given us as we were walking but also that people need as they stick their neck out and start doing things like taking walks. It was important to support them and to support the cause through those types of avenues.
STARPOLISH: That record is released on your record label ,3CG (3 Car Garage) Records, which you started and currently own with your brothers, Taylor and Zac. Speaking of 3CG Records, what are your plans for the future of the label? Do you plan on signing more artists?
HANSON: We’ve had a lot of discussions over the course of the last five years about that exact question and we’ve really struggled with not signing artists, because there were many cases where we had really good relationships with artists that we felt like could really do well. But we still felt like the music business is in such turmoil and we feel like there is a better way to provide services for artists that exist currently, and we’ve been aggressively pursing those avenues. We feel like we’re still at a point where we need to use ourselves as guinea pigs before we subject other artists to our process of being a record company.
STARPOLISH: I know a lot of people think artists only want their own labels so they can be in control, so I guess my question is, is control such a bad thing, seeing how the industry treats its artists? I mean, it’s almost as if you need control in order to sustain a career beyond a radio hit single.
HANSON: Well let me say things this way: The reason why we own our own record company is because the people who signed us in 1996 who were part of the creative process and who helped us released the record Middle of Nowhere– the president, the marketing people, everybody–are no longer a part of the record company we were signed to. That’s the reason. So if the music business would stop buying and selling each other so much, then there wouldn’t be such a need for “control.” We’re a very collaborative band.
For example, we do things like hosting a songwriting event every year, and we have aggressively worked with artists and record companies in the past. We realize that a team, much like a band, is about some degree of compromise and helping each other to get on the same wavelength so we can move forward. I believe that there are very legit reasons why artists have decided to part ways with their record companies. In our case, it was directly related to corporate mergers that put us on a rap label. Ultimately, it was like pulling teeth to make music, and to be completely candid, it could have completely killed our career. We could have had no fans left based on the speed at which they were motivated to help us finish a record.
Also, the kind of constant insecurity that was coming from their side of things, being very unsure about what the direction of the record should be. When you submit three times the amount of songs for a record that you’ve submitted for the two previous records before that, and those records have sold millions of copies… [We] have a pretty clear process and we’re not just handing them a garage demo and saying, “Hey, here’s a song, it’s three chords, and we’re not really sure about the verse yet!” I mean, this is polished stuff and they’re still very confused and they don’t know what to tell you… that is a sign that something is not working.
STARPOLISH: You guys had already proven yourself time and time again with both the sales of your first album Middle of Nowhere and its follow up This Time Around. I’ve seen the documentary, Strong Enough to Break, that the band did during the making of your first independent release ,Underneath, and it actually ended up documenting your split from Island Def Jam, as you just mentioned. What was it like making that documentary, having that period of your life filmed? Did you start out knowing you were gonna break away, or was it just to document the recording of the album?
HANSON: Well, we started out very very young and I think in a lot of ways people were very unfamiliar with what Hanson’s creative process was. We felt like with the making of the album Underneath, we really wanted to document our creative process and really show people what Hanson was like in the studio and how involved we have always been. We wanted to let people inside of our heads in some form or another. That’s where it started–it was, “This will be a cool way to show both fans and non fans alike what Hanson is about on a creative level.” It turned into a lot more than that, but it started out that way. It ended up being almost a four-year process and it went from the making of a record to the making of a record company.
STARPOLISH: It was heartbreaking to watch you guys suffer with these great songs and see you kept getting rejected and rejected. Did you tour with the film? I believe you showed it on college campuses?
HANSON: Yes we did.
STARPOLISH: How do you guys handle the responsibilities that are typically handled by a major label, things like marketing, and hiring management? Do you split them up the tasks, and do you network people in from other places?
HANSON: Well ,we do a combination of all those things. First of all, being in a band and touring is not a job for the faint of heart, especially when you’re dealing with as many tasks as you have to deal with when you’re doing band and the record company jobs. So on some level, I would not encourage everyone to be like “You know, I should do this. I should start a record company!”
But ironically, before I go any further, I would say that I think the future of the music business is in some form or another allowing independent, local, regional acts to continue to do the kind of things they are doing all the time , but giving them broader distribution and channels to reach fan bases, to reach people, to connect with other artists, to schedule tours on their own, to find ways for them to in manage their own careers.
I think the reason why I believe that’s true is because artists do it. They do it when they’re starting out. And that’s part of how you prove whether or not you can actually make it happen. I think many artists are running their own record companies on a smaller scale, playing in their local clubs several times a week in the local town or region where you’re from.
So I guess you could say what we do is that times ten. You’re dealing with coordinating press, you’re making sure that the people who are on your team are doing the job and checking off the lists and everything is dealt with. You’re making sure that you have products in stores across the Unites States. We divide it up between the three of us in various ways, but it’s quite a task, no doubt about it.
STARPOLISH: I like the point that you brought up that it’s not that easy to just do this. There could be a misconception that you just break away from a label and it will be fine. It is hard work still, and it’s harder without someone helping you.
HANSON: It is absolutely harder without someone helping you. I mean, granted, we are not flying solo. There are people who a part of 3CG that are very crucial in keeping things afloat. As I said before, it’s a changing music business right now. [There was] a need to break away [from] a record company that we felt we had absolutely no future with anymore; the number one reason we started a record company was because we felt like there was no future in continuing to be in the major record business. The belief in the product was not there anymore, the willingness to take the slightly harder road and pave a way for a new industry is not there in the same way. Most of the innovation seems to be out of desperation.
STARPOLISH: You have people like Radiohead who are putting their album on iTunes and letting people pay what they will. Do you think the role of the major label has lessened in the digital age?
HANSON: I think we’ve yet to see what the end result of all of this will be. There’s no question that independent record companies are eating up more and more of the business because they are becoming trusted brands. They are finding models that are really working and they are able to sustain themselves. I think the future of the business is still very much in limbo. I wouldn’t say that being on a major label doesn’t matter, it does. If you’ve got major support, if you are one of the two dozen acts that has some real support, that has real money and [have a company willing] to spend money on you for more than four to six weeks, then yes, it can pay off.
The tricky thing is not just the payoff of a successful single or successful record; it’s when you are making another record. That, I think, is the hardest part about the major labels, beyond whether or not you have success. I think most often than not there are a lot of circumstances in which it becomes very difficult to make a second record, because many of the creative people are changing or are not really sure how to advise you.
STARPOLISH: What advice do you have, if any, for those bands that don’t have a built-in fan base like you guys did to get their music out there? Should they go through the major label first?
HANSON: My advice to somebody who is just starting out is to embrace the digital age. Just embrace it. I believe something we may see more of in music is less content, but more often, much like the late 1950s to the mid ’60s when people were releasing singles and EP’s on a regular basis. That, I think, is a big part of the future. Number one, it minimizes the capacity for piracy, because people are more likely to buy your music if they are only required to buy a certain amount at a time. I think it’s more encouraging to them if you are consistently putting out music– if they are able to consistently engage with you, then it develops a relationship of trust with you and them.
Things like MySpace are a great way to market and network. I know MySpace is trying to get their store situation moving forward, but who knows whether that will actually work out the right way or not; I don’t know. If they do it right, it could be an incredible opportunity for artists. But I think MySpace is a limited avenue; it’s not really designed for bands. It’s a very good tool to develop an active blog viewing, e-mail list type of audience, and that is definitely valuable and you can make the beginnings of a career out of that for sure.
STARPOLISH: Hanson’s music is a mixture of soul, rock and a lot of other musical genres. Every show I’ve seen, you guys always mix it up. I know the bands of the ’50s and ’60s inspired you a great deal, but is there any current music that is inspiring you? What are you enjoying right now musically?
HANSON: That’s a good question. There are a lot of different bands that I have enjoyed in the recent years and continue to listen to that are not direct influences on us. But I know on some level when you listen to people, they do become an influence in some way. I love the band Muse, I think they are amazing. There are a lot of acts who are unknown, independent artists, people like the band Everybody Else who are opening up for us. They’re absolutely great. Dave Barnes is actually really cool, too, and he is opening for us as well on the current tour. There are bands like The Hovercrafts, an Australian band that are really cool. Rilo Kiley I like, and I’ve enjoyed their most recent record a great deal. There’s an Atlanta-based band, called Sun Domingo, that’s totally indie, and they’re in the rotating play list we put on before we go on stage. There’s an artist called Meiko out of LA who’s amazing. For those of you that have not purchased the William Shatner record—
STARPOLISH: That is not to be missed!
HANSON: It is absolutely awesome! It’s one of those records where you are like, this is the funniest, weirdest, coolest record I may have ever bought. It’s just really entertaining. It’s not necessarily one of these records where you’re gonna memorize the songs particularly, it’s just sheer entertainment. He covers a song “Common People,” which is a really fun cover, but he also has a song called “You’re Gonna Die.”
STARPOLISH: Oh my god!
HANSON: And it starts off with, “You’re gonna die. We’re all gonna die. It doesn’t really matter when or how or why, but you’re…gonna die.” It’s just absolutely ridiculous.
STARPOLISH: That is the best Shatner impression I have ever heard.
HANSON: Oh I wasn’t even trying! But I’m glad you thought so.