Q&A with Taylor Hanson of Hanson, part 1

By | October 17, 2011

We Love DC

photos courtesy of Hanson

Most of you out there remember the band Hanson  (brothers Isaac, Taylor and Zac) as the cheerful trio of kid pop stars responsible for the infectiously catchy song ”MmmBop” in the late nineties. What you may not know is that they were more than one-hit wonders. Their major label debut album Middle of Nowhere earned them three Grammy nominations, and produced six top 40 singles in the US. After that album the group split from their major label, formed their own label and has since released five studio albums. They have maintained a loyal fanbase, and are dedicated to giving their fans unique and personal experiences through their live shows. While Isaac, Taylor and Zac are still young (30, 28 and 25 respectively) they have the kind of  musical career that so many work for their whole lives to attain. They are successfully maintaining their own label, touring, and continue to produce albums that chart high on the Billboard Independent Albums chart. Their latest album, Shout It Out returns to their roots, bringing back a more pop sound, with some nods to Motown and old-school Rock & Roll.

Hanson is currently on tour, and will be playing Wednesday, October 19th at the State Theater in Falls Church. Lead singer/keyboardist Taylor Hanson took a break out of his busy tour schedule to talk with We Love DC’s Alexia Kauffman (and make one of her teenage dreams come true) about tour, becoming famous as a kid, the music industry, and even Katy Perry. (Full disclosure: Alexia was a big fan back in the 90s, and knows all the lyrics to every song on Middle of Nowhere.)

Alexia Kauffman: How’s your tour going?

Taylor Hanson: Tour’s going really good. You know we’ve definitely focused a lot on touring the last several years, being a live band that continues to change things up and make things interesting, so this tour, kind of the whole mission was just to make sure that every time fans came out to see a show that they were, you know, catching something new.

AK: How did you come up with the idea of having fans vote for what album they will hear on your “Musical Ride Tour”?

TH: Well it was actually kind of inspired by the series of shows we did called “Five of Five.” The first one we did was in New York last year, and you know this album is our fifth album, kind of like a landmark, and so we put together this series where we played each of our albums top to bottom and in a row, for a period of five days. And so we did that in London a second time, we just thought it was one of those things that was unique and fun, and it was something that was only available as far as the actual shows to a pretty small group of people, and it seemed like it’d be great to take it on the road. You know there’s something different about hearing a full album, you know actually hearing a lot of songs from one period which is kind of special, so we threw around different ideas and eventually ‘poof’, the “Musical Ride Tour” arrived.

AK: Did you have to relearn any of your songs?

TH: No, there’s definitely a bit of a hurdle to sharpen ourselves, you know sharpen up the band on everything. I mean we do play a wide range of songs, and have always played songs from every record but there’s also always songs from albums that just …you don’t play them that often. You know, a random ballad or quirky song…or just some songs that don’t make it into the set. So by doing this it definitely has forced us to step up our game a little bit, and it’s been really great.

AK: So you all started out with the band at such a young age, but you really seem to have your heads on straight, and seem to have kept it focused on music all these years. Do you have any thoughts about how you think it is that you avoided some of the pitfalls other young artists (and lots of artists in general) fall into, getting sidetracked?

TH: Well, so much of being a great artist or having a great career, to some degree just involves endurance. And I think you can’t endure time and stress and work without knowing why you’re there, knowing what it’s about. I think for us, we always have been able to just remain grateful for what we get to do. And like what you just said, essentially the answer is in the question in a way- keeping your focus on the music itself and kind of being reminded that that is why you’re there, that’s the thing that helps keep things together. By doing that and staying focused on the music you’re also trying to stay excited about it, and that helps keep you on track. Continuing to do things each time that genuinely make you feel proud of what you’re doing, and you’re not just going on autopilot; that keeps it exciting for you, and hopefully keeps it exciting for fans. I think that this is a really hard business from the point of sustainablity, because it kind of thrives, so much of the industry thrives on all the things that tear people apart. And that’s why, you know, you often see things come and go, but I think just staying centered on where you started off, that’s always a good idea.

AK: Did you ever feel like it was a challenge to move forward musically after having such a huge success with Middle of Nowhere, and becoming so huge at a young age?

TH: Well it’s definitely a double-edged sword. You get the incredible benefit of reaching millions of people, and essentially being a household name, and then also having to continue that and to grow people’s perception. It’s definitely…a mixed bag. But knowing that no matter what you end up with some kind of a challenge, I mean every band, everybody has their thing that they have to do. I would still take the challenge of having something that is really a strong impression that lasts on a lot of people and then build on that, than the other way.

AK: I know you all own your own label- how did that come about, and what has that been like? Do you all have help with that?

TH: Well, yeah we have a team- we don’t physically do every single thing, though we do a lot. We’re pretty hands-on. Essentially starting a label was driven by necessity. We didn’t start out in the business saying ‘What we really want to do is to be our own record label, and you know, run all the marketing top to bottom.’ But when we came up on our third record [we were] just being caught in record label mergers like a lot of bands, and our one label was swallowed up by another label. You know, in many ways we would have been better off if we were dropped in those days, because you find yourself with a new label that just comes from a totally different place. So we kind of survived a long, drawn-out process trying to make that record and eventually just said to the label ‘Hey, this is the record we want to make, and actually I think we’d rather leave now.’  It was really not a matter of anything except for the problem of the corporate kind of environment, where they’re not necessarily focused on the product they’re putting out, they’re really more focused on kind of towing the line for the corporate system. Anyway, the one thing that’s unique about what we did is I think a lot of artists, for good reason, would probably have opted not to go ahead and start their own thing, because there’s so much different kind of risk in that. We’ve never had another partnership as far as financing. We’ve never turned around and handed over what we want to somebody else after the fact. I mean we basically looked at all the labels that were out there, and we had a ton of other majors that were interested when we left our label in 2002, and we just said ‘You know, they’re kind of all the same.’ And so we set up shop. We began hiring a few key people, got distribution for the label, and now here we are, eight years later, and we’ve put out more records as an indie than we did as a major. So we’re proud of it, and we feel like we’re beating the odds as a young label. Every major record we’ve put out has been number one or number two as an independent release on Billboard, and we’ve continued to keep a strong fan-base and do things that we’re excited about, and work with people based on their merit instead of based on more convoluted politics within the label. It’s not that necessarily the whole process is easier, it’s just that you get to wake up every morning and go to sleep each night knowing what the challenges are, and knowing what you’re going to have to do to resolve them, and get your music out there.

AK: Do you have any interest in or plans to add any artists to your label?

TH: We definitely do have interest in working with other bands. I think we just felt like the process of signing bands feels like it’s not the future; but at the same time many bands starting off need somebody to help finance them or help get them off the ground. So that idea of a label coming in and helping makes sense, but I think what we would like to do is to be more of a service provider- to kind of come in and partner. So you’ll see us doing that in the next couple years. We finally reached that point where we feel like as a team we’ve been the guinea pigs for our own ideas enough times that we know what we feel is effective, and what we feel isn’t effective.  And that’s what you really want to do…you want to be a good partner for somebody. You don’t wanna just kinda go ‘Hey, let’s sign bands!’ because we can.

AK: Right, it doesn’t make sense exactly.

TH: Yeah, but it happens a lot.

AK: Your latest album Shout It Out sounds different from your past few albums- more electric, more pop, with some moments of Motown vibes.How did you decide/land on the sound for the album? Were there any specific influences for this album?

TH: Well we grew up listening to Motown records and classic Rock & Roll, I mean that’s where we came from and that’s where our soul sort of lives, you know? I mean we love other stuff but that’s really the strongest musical inspiration for our band. So on this record I think we were just kind of reminded of those things a little bit more. The last two albums had been a little bit more layered, and a little bit more pop rock, a little less the R&B thing. I mean obviously R&B in the old-school sense, the Motown kinda sense. And I think we just kinda got a fresh look and started listening to those records a little bit more, and just felt a fresh inspiration. It felt like we really needed to make a record that was old and loud, and kinda celebrating …”Hey this is who we are, this is what we do” and having it be as unapologetic as possible. Also Shout It Out is the first record in all respects to be uninterrupted by outside forces… we really didn’t have any co-writing on the record, we produced the record ourselves, we really recorded it, a lot of it just off the grid. We worked in our studio space in Oklahoma, we worked in a space in El Paso which is really secluded. We knew what record we were making, we went in there, we made it, and we tried to reflect that kind of clarity in all the things around the record- from the artwork to the videos. It’s bright, you know it’s definitely pop, and it’s also really, really organic, and polished in the style, but not polished in the production, it’s just very true.

Part two of this interview will appear on Wednesday! Coming up in part two: Taylor talks Katy Perry, Tinted Windows, and more! Catch Hanson live at the State Theater this Wednesday, October 19th!