Currently on a North American tour in support of their latest album, Shout it Out, Hanson has been a forced to be reckoned with in the pop music industry since their 90s hit “MmmBop.” Together for 20 years, Hanson has outlived the average lifespan of a pop trio and has since seen other groups like The Jonas Brothers arise using Hanson’s winning formula: unadulterated vocal chops and a chemistry only visible in a trio of brothers.
Landmark Report’s Lauren Smith sat down with Isaac Hanson before he took to the stage at Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre (REVIEW) last week to get his take on the band’s past, present and future, and, of course, beer.
Lauren Smith: What do you hope to accomplish with this new album?
Isaac Hanson: Every album is another opportunity to connect with old fans, to connect with new fans, and – very importantly – to keep things fresh for you and ultimately for the audience as well. I think that this record in a lot of ways is maybe the most accurate depiction of who we are as a band from top to bottom. It’s always hard to say that on some level, but this record really has a very succinct quality to it, as far as the quality of the album. It’s very R&B-influenced and it really connects with a lot of our original roots – a lot of the things we first fell in love with – late ‘50s rock and roll, early ‘60s R&B.
LS: I was reading on your website a comment from Zac that you guys love playing your classic songs, but you never wrote an album that was influenced by them yet. Why is now the right time for that album?
IH: I think that what Zac was talking about is the fact that when our first record, Middle of Nowhere first came out, people were kind of making comparisons to [groups] like the Jackson Five and stuff like that. And part of that was youth, and part of that was the inspiration of music. You know – we grew up listening to the Jackson Five, we grew up listening to a lot of Motown stuff and a lot of stuff before that, late-‘50s rock and roll, people like Chuck Berry and Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin and stuff like that. So things of that era, it was kind of a natural reality that those comparisons happened. I think over the years records kind of got a little bit bluesier, a little bit more singer-songwriter as the years went on, and I think with this record it was really that we rediscovered those early influences in a different way. They were really fresh to us, they were really inspirational to us, in a way that we maybe had overlooked in previous records. And that’s part of being an artist, part of evolving. You are constantly looking for new inspiration, and sometimes parts of your band’s DNA, kind of more noticeable in other ways, on certain records than on other records.
LS: So how do you deal with the creative differences you guys will have? I know years ago you would just fistfight it out. Do you still do that?
IH: [Laughs] You know, it’s an interesting thing, I was actually watching the 20th anniversary documentary of the Achtung Baby album, that U2 made – a very famous record of theirs. I found it really interesting, the way they talked about a lot of their creative process. Our creative process is very different from theirs, as far as songwriting is concerned, but as far as their headspace as the band, actually I think there’s some similarities that I found very interesting. They talked about how…the band themselves, whenever one of the four members is not totally on the boat, the band kind of – nobody ever looks at the other band member that’s not feeling it and says “Aw, forget you, we’re just moving on. Deal with it!” It’s always “How do we get this person back on the boat? How do we get this person excited about what we’re excited about?” and I think more than anything, that’s how we’ve always functioned as a creative entity. You find it really frustrating that the other person isn’t with you on any boat – wait a second, I’ve gotta figure this out, it’s not comfortable to be moving forward without the other person on the train.” So we’ve always found it easier and more productive to, as you said, duke it out a little bit, I guess. I mean – in the kindest way. Trying to say “What am I not getting here? What are you not getting here? ‘Cause we’ve gotta get on the same wavelength or otherwise it’s not going to work.” So our creative process is basically trying to resolve the conflict.
LS: Start with an idea and fight until it works?
IH: Luckily, for the most part, it’s about details and generally it’s not about the big picture. More often than not, our big picture perspective is somewhat similar. It’s just about the process of actually finalizing it and really getting through the detail, that’s where the challenges always lie.
LS: What was your motivation behind the 113 Paintings book?
IH: The 113 Paintings book was basically art inspired by the Shout it Out album. And, right as we were releasing the record in the U.S. we did special packages, where we released those – basically what we did was: we offered a special package to anyone who wanted to pre-order the record, and we gave them a bunch of special stuff: customized record players, customized headphones, a kind of unique USB cassette drive thing, which had a bunch of special demos and stuff on it, and also we gave them a one-of-a-kind painting. People bought these packages – there were 113 packages sold – and everybody who bought that package got their own Isaac, Taylor and Zac, or individual versions of those paintings. Basically, the 113 Paintings book was photos of those paintings. We don’t actually have the originals. The 113 people who bought those paintings have the original paintings. It was a lot of fun, it was a creative outlet; particularly for Tay and Zac because they’re more painters than I am, Zac in particular is. So it was a lot of fun, and basically it was just inspired by the “art concept” behind the Shout it Out album.
LS: You’ve always been artists and you’ve always been musicians. Does the art influence the music or does the music influence the art?
IH: I think they are autonomous from each other in many cases. The art itself, or the music itself is not necessarily fully inspired by one another. I think in the case of the 113 book it was a unique project we had taken on, and certainly the most ambitious artistic expression that we had gone into. And it was also inspired by the fact that, when we were coming up with the art concept for the Shout it Out album, we wanted it to have that kind of personalized feeling, so a lot of the artwork has handwritten stuff with paintbrushes that is either Zac or Taylor’s handwriting, things like that. So that’s kind of where a lot of that came from. It certainly helps, as a musician, to have artistic skills in some form or another, because it helps you to articulate what it is you want the artwork or website or whatever to look like, and to have a direct connection with that. But in most cases they’re autonomous from one another.
LS: So would your music be lesser without the art?
IH: I think the music is definitely its own beast. It is a unique scenario, as I said, with Shout it Out, to have the opportunity to really combine your artistic skills as a painter or as an artists, versus as a musician, but I think it’s possible that maybe in the future there might be more stuff like that, because it was a lot of fun and it was a unique way to express ourselves. I don’t think the music would be lesser without the art. I think they’re just unique expressions of your own personality. And I think a lot of musicians are artists, and a lot of artists are musicians. There’s something unique about the brain chemistry that goes into being an artist that somehow lends itself to both things
LS: What else is in the works? Do you have anything big planned next or are you focusing on the tour now?
IH: We’re focused on the Canadian tour and the Canadian release, which will happen in April, but we’re definitely focused on new stuff as well. The record has been out for a little bit in the U.S., it’s still pretty fresh to a lot of Canadian fans, because there are many people who come to shows who haven’t been to a Hanson show ever, or haven’t heard the new record yet, so we’re excited about getting that out to people, and excited about coming back to Canada later this year, hopefully playing more shows as well. We will definitely be releasing some other music as well, later on in the year, so we’re excited about what the future holds for that. We are about to celebrate 15 years since our first record, Middle of Nowhere, and 20 years as a band. It’s gonna be a lot of fun. We’ve got a lot of things in the works, and we’re excited about how that will tie into the new record and how the new music that will be coming later on, after Shout it Out is released, how that will continue to kind of add to the repertoire.
LS: Tell me about the beer.
IH: [Laughing] Tell you about the beer!
LS: I just heard about this yesterday, and I’m fascinated!
IH: Well, we’re really excited about the beer. It started as kind of a tongue-in-cheek joke, MmmHops. We were like, “Okay, that’s funny! That’s awesome! Hops, Bop… It’s a good play on words. We’re a bit of beer snobs. I personally like bourbon, myself, but making our own bourbon would be a little over the top, I think. More importantly, it didn’t have a tongue-in-cheek name. So, with the name being MmmHops, we thought “What’s a hoppy beer that we really like?” It’s the IPAs – pale ales. Okay, well, it’s gotta be a strong-flavoured beer, none of this lager stuff. We’re gonna have, like, a real, proper, full-flavoured beer, and of course if it’s an IPA it’ll be nice and strong, get you…drunk… quick. [Laughs] But you know, we’re looking forward to getting it distributed. We’re kind of in the process of finalizing exactly when that’s going to come out and everything like that. It started as a smaller concept – we’ll make some beer, we’ll make a limited run, we’ll do mail-order type stuff and then we’ll hopefully get it to fans that want it around the world. But when the story came out that we were going to do the beer, we got a lot of responses from various brewers and various distributors around the world, so we’re hoping that Canadian fans, U.K fans, American fans will actually be able to get ahold of it in a more broad way, rather than just going to Hanson.net and finding it. We’re looking for the right partner right now, because obviously response around the world has been very positive so hopefully that will be a fun experiment. I also actually find it awesome because it’s been particularly the boyfriends of the fans that have been very responsive to the beer. They’re like, “Yeah, you know… I’ve heard your music and stuff, but the beer thing is awesome!” That’s always the ubiquitous response is “I know about your music, but the beer thing… I love that! I’ve gotta have that!”
LS: All of your merchandise is so different from what you’d normally get, so that’s a good way to mix things up a little.
IH: It’s a fun way to mix things up, and, you know, we wouldn’t do anything we didn’t like. That’s kind of our rule of thumb – do we feel like this is something we feel comfortable with and happy with and ultimately something that we feel like is quality? For us, quality has to come first. You don’t want to slap your name on something that is cheesy, and for us, the beer, and its style being a pale ale or an IPA, is important because those are the beers we like. It may not necessarily be for the faint of heart, but I think it’s worth a try because it’ll be a good quality beer.
LS: You guys also have a huge activist presence. How do you decide who to support and how to go about your whole process?
IH: For us, our social activism – that’s the most broad way of looking at it – was primarily based on a trip we made to Africa with some friends. Seeing the issues with poverty, seeing the issues with HIV/AIDS, seeing some of the very straightforward ways that things could be helped, we found ourselves confronted with a personal decision: do we engage in this process and try and help out or do we just pretend like we didn’t go? And we really felt like there were some very straightforward ways that we could make a positive impact. One of the things that we found most important was: in something like 99 per cent of cases, if a mother is HIV-positive, has antiretroviral drugs 40 days before she gives birth to her baby, the baby will be born without the HIV/AIDS virus. It’s a really remarkable thing. It’s a really important discovery, and it basically creates a scenario where you can save the life of a child, because if a child is born with the HIV/AIDS virus, they are basically likely to die before the age of four. And that’s a really scary scenario, and we found that there’s an opportunity to give hope to the next generation in this case. Then, also, immediately after that, we met a company called TOMS Shoes, who at the time was just getting started. They’d sold five thousand pairs of shoes and they were trying to get to the goal of fifty thousand shoes, and they were going to take that next fifty thousand pairs of shoes to Africa. So we found ourselves in a scenario where we’re like, “Wow, we have a similar goal, so here’s our idea: we’ll do a barefoot walk for every show. We’ll encourage people to buy your shoes, and we’ll go with you to Africa to complete this goal.” And so we helped them complete the goal, we went with them to Africa, we delivered the shoes. And then it went into another thing: okay, now that we’ve done the shoes and we’ve started with the antiretroviral drugs, there’s some other things we can do: drill wells, build schools, things like that. So what we did is we continued the walks. We would walk out of the venue every single day, take our shoes off and say “All right, come walk with us. Everybody that’s in line, everybody that’s waiting, come with us on a one-mile walk. We’ll give a dollar for every single person that shows up.” So the idea is: Action speaks louder than words. We’ll give the dollar, you just gotta show up. So everybody showed up and we’ve done that with more than fifty thousand people. We’ve personally walked – I think it’s about 165 times, barefoot, in every city under the sun – Toronto, Buffalo, New York, and everything in between. We’ve even done some international walks as well. London, things like that. It’s been fun.
LS: I’m being signaled now that it’s time for us to wrap up, so thank you so much!
IH: Thanks so much, Lauren.
[Walks away, then comes back]
Wait! One last thing about the charity! People can go onto takethewalk.net, which is our charity site, and they can register to host their own walk. Everybody that walks with them, we will donate a dollar for every single person that walks. And once they’re registered, they can host more than one walk, but we just want to validate who the person is and so on and so forth. Our goal is to continue that process, to encourage people to be leaders in their own community, and encourage people to ultimately… You know: you have an opportunity, you are a privileged individual, and you have the opportunity to have a positive impact on the world around you. So hopefully that will encourage people to do various other things, but it starts there.