19 years later, the “Mmmbop” singer on the importance of creating an art object in the digital age, the return of soul music, and establishing a sustainable career
Hanson’s first single, “MmmBop,” was released over 19 years ago, but these wunderkinds have shown no signs of slowing down. The three-time Grammy Award winners have created their own record label, released one of the most successful independent records to date, and if anything, have only gotten hipper with time. A free 2010 show at New York’s South Street Seaport in which they curiously shared the bill with rapper Drake caused a riot when twice the number of expected fans showed up.
The brothers kicked off this years’ Musical Ride Tour Sept. 4 in Seattle and will venture to 40 U.S. cities—including Chicago for shows tonight and Wednesday—letting audience members vote which album the group will play in its entirety. By making their shows a never-duplicated experience, Hanson gives fans the opportunity to look back and participate in the benchmarks of their illustrious career.
Zac Hanson sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about importance of creating an art object in the digital age, the return of soul music, and establishing a sustainable career.
The A.V. Club: On your latest record, Shout It Out, you worked with The Funk Brothers’ Bob Babbitt, who a lot of people might know from Standing In The Shadows Of Motown. What was that like?
Zac Hanson: Bob is amazing. I don’t know what I expected, but he’s just a huge personality with amazing stories of playing with people like Stevie Wonder when he was a kid.
But Bob’s also just got this feel. It’s undeniable for me; he’s been playing for so long on so many great records. I think one of the things that was interesting about Bob is sometimes when he’d be playing the part, you kind of would hear it and you’d be thinking, “Oh, he’s a little too far behind beat,” and then you’d listen back to it, and it would just feel so great. It’s just from years and years and years and years of playing.
AVC: Your new tour had to be crazy to prepare for.
ZH: It is definitely a crazy thing to prepare for, and it makes for a much harder job each night. But it’s a challenge, it’s something that sort of excites us.
The concept basically formed out of the fact that we had something called “five of five,” at least that’s what we called it, where in London we had just done five concerts, and each night we had just performed one album—and the next album and the next album and the next album. [It sort of] formed out of the fact that we wanted a cool way to launch the new album, Shout It Out . So we had done that once in New York last year, and then in London when we launched the release of Shout It Out there. And so when we finished that, we were preparing for a U.S. tour knowing that we wanted to do one. And we just said, “How do we sort of take this kind of a [concept] of playing albums,” because we spent all this time to prepare for that one-off event, “and turn it into a tour and sort of let people experience that more?”
The other thing was we always liked the idea of just letting the fans feel more invested in what we’re doing and sort of unique experiences. It just seemed like a cool combination of things that excite people to vote for their favorite album, their favorite record, and give us a challenge each night.
The show is a little more than that, you know; we’re playing songs that aren’t on the record that wins, sort of, but the show is primarily whatever record wins.
AVC: You’ve been really interactive with fans lately. How did that come about?
ZH: We were about to release Shout It Out , and we actually said, “How do we just make something a really immersive experience for this record?” We knew it would be super limited, but it was something that we felt like would be exciting for everyone to know it existed, to be a part of seeing it be creative. We made a record player, we made custom headphones, we made LPs, we made an owner’s manual of how to listen to the record, what to do while listening to each song. We gave demos and sort of rush recordings as part of it on a USB key, and, gosh, what else was in there? There was the screen-printed poster. And it was part of this whole package of just trying to create this kind of experience where you sit down and you wrap yourself in the record, and how it was made, and reading the lyrics, and looking at pictures, and there’s a photo book as a part of it, there was a 45-minute documentary about making the record. And we just were trying to give that kind of immersive experience that’s sort of lost in the digital age of sort of “download it to my iPod and just put it on shuffle.”
AVC: It’s harder and harder to get people to actually buy something. So by creating this experience for someone and kind of letting them in and giving them a piece of yourself and your art, your process is really lovely.
ZH: The thing with us that we always try and do is, I guess in the digital world, where things are changing, and more and more you’re put in the spotlight 100 percent of the time, and they want to know when you’re going to the bathroom and what you had to drink, it’s sort of like, how do you take that kind of an idea and then really put the focus more on the art and on the reason people want to know when you’re going to the bathroom and what you ate and, you know…
ZH: Because that’s the key. It’s fine, obviously, that we have Twitter accounts and Facebook and whatever, and I literally do post up some random thing that I thought or ate. But it’s more like in general, how do you focus things more on the art? Like, the last thing we did for our fan club was when we recorded the EP this last year, every day we wrote a song and recorded it, and we streamed it live, the writing process and the recording process, to our fan club members. And it was just like we’re going to let you watch us make records and let you sort of come inside the process and see it recorded live—it’s happening, you know, right now, and seeing this all around the world, experiencing that together with us. It’s just sort of those kind of things are, I think, stuff that brings the attention back to the reason you have fans, you know. It’s our music. It’s not that we were really funny guys or that we were good looking or—it’s the music. And so we have to put the focus there.
AVC: How do you guys stay balanced, and what grounds you while working together and being on tour?
ZH: I think we grew up with a good family that never let us get our heads too big, and being brothers, you tend to be pretty authentic and real with each other about sort of true behavior. Being a couple dweebs, you know—we, I think, all ended up with a feeling of respect for what we get to do, a love for making music, and an understanding that, you know, it could go away in a matter of a day or a week or a year, that you could not be that band that was lucky enough to actually make it a career. And we could have to go and find a real job instead of the awesomest job of sort of expressing your outlook on life and, hopefully, changing people’s lives. And so, when you think of it, you just have a little more respect, and hopefully it comes out in the way you behave around people and represent your band and your music, you know. It’s so easy to end up being one of those bands that’s drunk all the time and fighting and sort of having the cliché rock star persona because there’s so many facilitators when you’re put in a position of success, so many people who want to sit next to you and just sort of grab a piece of what you’re doing.
We just are lucky enough, I guess, that we just see that for what it is; it’s like it is just people who want a piece of that, and you’ve got to figure out what’s real in the world, and sort of know beforehand who’s real and who’s not as much as you can.
AVC: Yeah, I’m sure that there are probably a lot of painful lessons.
ZH: The biggest thing I think is just early on, we just knew that sort of that adage of no one’s going to care about what you do more than you do. No one else is going to have to live with it.
A manager or a producer or a label, you know, they go and they sign somebody else. They go and they work with another band, if it comes to that. But you are—unless I go change my name—I’m always Zac Hanson, a member of Hanson. And you’ve got to, whether it’s decisions to not make dolls, decisions to, like, not make lunch boxes, you know, just sort of do the things that you would feel proud of later in life, you know, then that’s just—that’s just what we tried to do.
AVC: Do you feel like you’ve made it? Or what would happen for you to feel like you’ve had everything that you’ve wanted?
ZH: Well, I think there’s no question we’ve made it, you know. If you play the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall and stand on stage in front of 50 or 60 or 90,000 thousand people, you know, and don’t say “we’ve made it” at some level inside you, then I don’t know what you would say.
I think the thing we’ve always wanted to do is sort of make music that would affect people the way it affected us when we were kids, you know, sort of changing their lives and sort of just inspiring people, and just being the kind of things you’ll sing and remember your whole life and carry with you. But, you know, we always wanted to sort of do that for the next generation, the next group of musicians who are kids right now.
That’s the element of “we’ve made it,” I think, that can never fully be realized. It’s sort of your ambition to sort of—gosh, it sounds sort of overdone or dramatic, but just sort of the greatness of, “Can we be artists that can live up to creating a legacy that’s worth remembering, that is inspiring, that is the music that people will, you know, cover in 20 years or whatever?”
You know, that’s what you never really know, because like many great visual artists, probably the true extent of your impact will not be had till you’re dead.
AVC: Kind of like a cutting-off-your-ear kind of a day.
ZH: Obviously we all have our individual drives and styles and all that within what we do, but I think we just try and set high goals for ourselves and just not settle and not have the sort of complacency that comes with “we’ve made it, we’ve done it.” Like, there’s knowing that you’ve reached a level that so few people ever experience, but then you have to wake up the next morning and go, “I still have to work just as hard or harder to be in this position.” Like, now I’m even more in the spotlight, now it’s time to bring the A-game, you know, but now it’s time to do more in order to sustain this, in order to grow this, in order to, you know, use just potential success for, I don’t know, whatever it is that my music is meant to do.
AVC: What are you really excited about going forward?
ZH: It’s hard not to be thinking about this tour, just because it’s so fresh on our minds right now. We’re three shows in, you know, we’ve got about 40 left almost. It’s been really amazing, the first three shows, different albums each night.
AVC: What is that like for you guys to be playing some of that old stuff? What kind of feelings is that bringing back for you?
ZH: It’s been amazing to me to see how well the music plays together. In a normal concert scenario, we’ve always played selections from older records; you know, you’re playing a little bit from Middle Of Nowhere and a little bit from This Time Around and things like that. But to sit down and play 12 songs from 15 years ago next to a smattering of the newer stuff, it’s surprising how well it plays together.
For better or worse, when you start looking back, you definitely see your patterns and sort of start to see the fingerprint of Hanson and go, “Okay, I guess this is what people think of these,” sort of these harmonies, the sort of pop choruses that, you know, it’s sort of undeniable that it still feels like the same band in an arc, obviously, that one record sounds a little more organic, and one record sounds a little more R&B, and one record sounds a little more rock, and whatever. But there’s definitely, you know, just a style that the fingerprint goes through it all. And, I don’t know, like you said, it just sounds surprisingly good together; it’s surprisingly more like one show than I would have thought.
AVC: When you guys are in Chicago, you’re going to be doing Underneath for your talk here. What are you guys going to be focusing on for that?
ZH: Well, you know, what that is is it’s an event only for our fan club members. And so it’s a free event if you’re a fan club member. And, you know, we’re just going to talk about everything, and we’re going to take questions, you know. I mean, mainly telling the stories that a lot of people know because of the documentary that was made about that record. But, you know, hopefully being able to enlighten people on sort of more of the in-depth feelings you’re having. Because a song can only tell so much, you know.
With the focus of this tour being on albums, it’s another way to just talk about the career, look back to go forward, sort of. With this studio album, [it’s felt] like a really great time to do that, to be looking at your past and going, “Wow, we’ve done a lot together, we’ve”—you know, with most of our fans, you know, we—“we’ve been making music, we’ve been going to concerts with them for 15 years almost,” you know?
AVC: That’s major.
ZH: For us, it’s huge. And so it just seemed like a good time to do that, you know.
Next year is the 20-year anniversary of us being a band. You know, people didn’t know the band for about five years, but—
AVC: Are you guys going to be doing anything special then for your 20-year?
ZH: We haven’t settled on anything, but we know that we gotta do something. I mean, 20 years is a big deal.
AVC: Hopefully you will have 20 more years to come. That’s a major milestone.
ZH: Yeah. [It feels] kind of silly when I say it out loud, you know? But, I mean, we did our first performance when I was 6 years old, and that was sort of when we started doing professional paying gigs and, so anyway… Hopefully we’ve got more than 20 more years, you know, assuming that we all don’t lose the fire, you know. I mean, in 20 more years, I’ll only be 46, so according to The Rolling Stones’ standards, I’ve got another 40 years.
AVC: What are you going to do?
ZH: I’m quitting this band before 40 more years.
AVC: You might change your mind.
ZH: I was just teasing.
AVC: Do you like Adele?
ZH: I think we all have a ton of respect for Adele. I think she’s great. It’s just great to see somebody singing with taste.
AVC: She’s kind of got that new soul thing going on as well.
ZH: She’s actually singing with soul. There have been R&B singers for years, you know, but it’s like it’s just been a long time since there’s been people just singing without this sort of vocal acrobatics.
AVC: I grew up listening to Motown, so getting to hear this like clean, lovely, soul, pop music is so nice. I’m glad it’s back.
ZH: Yeah. I think it’s great. Her and people like, you know, the late Amy Winehouse were sort of—just sort of the simplicity is so important for people to understand that great records and great songs usually sort of distilled and distilled and distilled and distilled, and I think that record in particular is a great example of—there’s just so few parts and it’s just sort of [the song] and the conviction of the singer that is making it a hit.
AVC: Anything else that you wanted to touch on that we didn’t?
ZH: I think you know when the Chicago shows are.
AVC: I do. And you have two, which is crazy.
ZH: We love Chicago.
AVC: My friend saw you guys six months ago at the Bad Apple. Do you guys hang out in Chicago a lot?
ZH: We like Chicago a lot. We definitely are there a couple times a year. Sometimes it’s for fun, a lot of times it’s for work, but it’s been a great city for us. We have lots of friends who have come out of Chicago, and so it’s a good place.
AVC: Do you have favorite places that you go here?
ZH: We do actually have favorite places, but I prefer not to say them. They might get repeated.