Interview: Taylor Hanson

By | September 23, 2011

Best of New Orleans

Like many women my age, I once loved the band Hanson in the kind of devastating way only teenage girls are capable of feeling for complete strangers. After I heard their insanely catchy single “MMMBop” and saw a picture of the boys — who all had sandy, tousled locks and were close to my age (I had a chance!) — I was infatuated.

But even after my contemporaries and I tore down the Tiger Beat posters from our bedroom walls and moved on to N*SYNC, Hanson kept working. Since their “MMMBop” period, they’ve been touring regularly, doing humanitarian work, and have released four other studio albums. While none of them have achieved the commercial success of their breakout Middle of Nowhere, they are solid power-pop albums that are well received by critics. And none of the brothers — Zac, 25; Taylor, 28; and Isaac, 30 — have appeared in a mug shot or on Celebrity Rehab.

So when I had the opportunity to interview the band, I felt I owed it to my 13-year-old self who one time cried in bed for hours after hearing a rumor that Zac had died in a car accident (that, of course, was untrue). I got to talk to Taylor who, besides performing with the band, played in the power-pop dream team Tinted Windows, whose members also included Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos and Fountains Of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger. I didn’t tell him that thing about his brother.

I read that Isaac met his wife at a show in New Orleans. Is that true?

It is true.

[Note: All the brothers are now married with children, so don’t go to the show purely in hopes of being the next Hanson bride.]

How have your experiences with New Orleans been while playing here?

We love it. We’ve played House of Blues a few times and for one, with different House of Blues venues there’s different aesthetics with different rooms, but that one in particular always has such a great energy to it. And the city — there’s nowhere like New Orleans. Even post Hurricane Katrina … it’s remained, I think for everyone that visits, it still has that character and you know, I think as an artist it has a particular energy about it. We always have a good time.

Anything in particular you plan on doing while you’re here?

Eat beignets. And probably … we love this place called Rock ‘N’ Bowl. We’ve gone there a couple times. But often times, your days are full. You do the show and all the things surrounding that, so you rarely have time to venture unless you have a day between shows. But food comes to mind when I think of New Orleans, immediately. So many great restaurants — I wouldn’t name one out particularly, but I feel like we always get great food.

On this tour you’re letting fans go online and pick what album you play at the show. Have people just been picking Middle of Nowhere, or has there been some variety?

Well you’d think obviously Middle of Nowhere being the record it is, the breakout album and all that, you would think it would win over and over, but it’s not really the case. It’s kind of amazing just how different albums have won every night. The first show of the tour the first record one, the second show This Time Around, our second album, won, the third show I think was the new album. I think one of the things that causes that to happen is the people who are going on and voting are not just sort of like the casual fan. The people who are voting are fans enough and into it enough to have their favorite albums, favorite songs.

What’s it like playing songs you created when you were teenagers alongside newer material?

There’s some songs that feel like they’re from another period, especially I think in lyrics — there’s some songs where you go “gosh, I wouldn’t write that anymore.” But there’s not really any songs that don’t feel like still they represent a part of this band. Even if it’s talking about where we come from. There’s some particularly lighthearted moments on certain records that we knew they were lighthearted then, but they feel different now. Musically, it was always our stuff, always our songs. It wasn’t us, early on, making music that was sort of someone else’s vision, it was always ours, it was ours when we were teenagers. I think the main difference is just sort of the purpose behind the songs changes a little bit as you get older, and you just kind of have different perspective on the stuff you’re trying to get across, and so I think you just feel less directly identifying with the moment in the song you were writing when you were 16 because that’s touching on things you were trying to communicate a decade ago.

I saw you guys on a VH1 special where you talked about “MMMBop,” and it seems like you have a pretty good sense of humor about your status of 90s pop stars. Is that the case? Would you rather focus more on your new stuff, or can you kind of combine the two and be proud of both?

You have to combine the two and be proud of it. As far, in general, taking yourself too seriously, you can’t do that. You have to be willing to realize that somethings, whether they’re accurate or not, you have to be willing to laugh at yourself and your situation. I think we’re really proud of where we’ve come from and kind of, like I was just saying, it’s always been our music even if it was us at 14 or 15, it was still coming from us. To some degree you have that to fall back on, because you can only run away from yourself so far, and we’ve never done that.

Over the years, our shows have always mixed eras and in fact, this tour is probably the most speaking to a specific period each show because of the voting. We’re playing a lot of times a whole collection of songs from one album, plus some extras. Usually at our shows we bounce between something that was brand new to something 10 or 15 years old, or something that was 5-6 years old, cognitively. And you realize how much commonality there is. But ultimately, you have to be proud of where you come from, because what you’re doing right now, at some point, is going to be the thing that you did way back then, you know what I’m saying? You have to be proud because one day, the thing you’re running from is the thing you thought you were proud of in the moment. Take it as it is.

How do you juggle doing a side project with being in Hanson? And how does working with your brothers compare to working with others in bands?

I think the main difference with forming other groups or writing with other people, like doing the Tinted Windows thing with those guys, you’ve got a lot less shared experience as far as understanding everybody’s sort of built in role in the group. So much of being a band is just figuring out how to play off each other and how to build music together, so when you go off to do a side project, a lot of it, musically, you have a language you understand immediately. But the part is most different is just developing a rapport as a group of people and figuring out like “this guy wants to take the lead here” and “this guy kind of has his way of doing things, he needs a little space before or after the show” or you know just the way you deal with each other. And that’s what ultimately creates something greater than just a group of people playing together — it becomes a group.

When I did the Tinted Windows thing … it started off as just kind of an unknown. It was like “Hey, well let’s just try this and write a few songs and see what happens.” I never had a lot of interest in being in another band. It’s one thing to write songs and produce things, but the idea of being in another band and going out and doing promotions and playing shows, doing tours, it takes a whole other level of commitment. But what I think what made that work is that really just that everybody was in it for the right reasons, and didn’t expect too much from it, but was really proud of the music. And we kind of knew exactly what it was when we started: It was straight ahead power pop, loud guitars, melodies, and that’s it. And we just enjoyed it.

The horn arranger Jerry Hey, who has worked with Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and Earth, Wind and Fire, worked with you guys on your latest album Shout it Out. You can definitely hear those influences on the record. Did you seek him out to achieve that particular sound on the record, or did the sound just come from working with him?

We worked with him one time so we knew … so I guess you can say we did search him out for those reasons, because the arrangements of the songs and the sound of the record was very much inspired by the kind of music we grew up listening to, and we always talked about those influences as being key components of the band. Different albums have sort of drifted away … the last two albums before this one were sort of more down-the-middle pop rock, they were a little less R&B, a little less, you know, inspired by that stuff. And so when we were looking at our own arrangements, Jerry was the perfect match. He really helped craft the aesthetic of a lot of these artists that we know with those arrangements. There was no question he was it. He executed perfectly what we heard in our head. So much of that for him, what he brings to the table, is just a really inherent sense of hook, of song hooks, and how to be an arranger that facilitates the song, and kind of accentuates the catchiness and melodic nature of the song without sort of overpowering the song. That’s definitely an art in itself, in understanding that — and who can know better than someone who put together some of the most iconic arrangements?

You guys got so much attention such a young age, especially from teenage girls. Most people in that position have gone crazy. How have you stayed so sane over the years?

Well I think probably the first key is to be just a little bit insane on the ground level. If you’re already a little bit off, it helps. I mean that only in jest a little bit, because it is true — you have to have a sort of makeup that kind of wants to take on sort of a high pressure, high stimulus, high energy lifestyle. And also you have to be really sort of narcissistic about what you do, because you have to be able to take a beating, take the ups and the downs, and still wake up every day and go “hey, I’m proud of what I do” and not take all of the stuff too seriously. I think what happens to people — I’ll try and put this into somewhat of a sentence that makes sense — I think the main reason why people get lost is because you forget why you started and you forget why it began. Because all this other stuff shows up: the possibility of money, success, influence and pride. And I think our main factor that’s kept us at least I think relatively focused and relatively normal is just continuing to have people around us and one another that have kept the focus on where we started, which is just loving music and really, genuinely wanting be able to make records, write songs and have that be our job, have that what we wake up and do every day. It can be challenging, you know, to keep that in focus. I think that’s the main thing, is that we try to remember how we got started and not … we haven’t gone to find other things to make us excited and sort of lose track of how it all began.

What bands that are out right now are you all listening to today?

One thing that’s indicative of what we’re listening to is people that are out with us (on tour). The artist Meiko playing with us in the first half of the tour … she comes from this community of artists in L.A. — she’s not from L.A., but she sort of came up with this group out of Hotel Café, which is this club in L.A. that has all these singer-songwriters from around. She’s a killer songwriter, great melodies, somebody who should be heard by millons. And Charlie Mars who has reached a little bit further in his exposure to a broader fanbase … again — great sound, great songs, he’s sort of got his own kind of swagger. There’s some of the bigger artists of the last year I really like. The whole world’s excited about Adele — I love her record, and I think it’s great that somebody’s having a smash record that is really about music, not just about being flashy. And I really like the Mumford and Sons stuff. And there’s many more, but you’ll run out of space.

Hanson plays at the House of Blues Saturday, Sept. 24 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $29 in advance, $32 day of show. Meiko opens. Buy tickets here.