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Zac Hanson in 1998 (photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
It seems like just the other day that a little long-haired lad named Zac Hanson was MMMBopping his way up the charts and into America’s hearts. But hard as it may be believe, the youngest Hanson brother — who was only 6 when he formed Hanson with his elder siblings Isaac and Taylor, and 12 years old when their 10-million-selling debut album Middle of Nowhere came out — is turning 30 this month. This shocking revelation brings serious new weight to that “MMMBop” line about “when you get old and start losing your hair.”
Zac had a notoriously bratty persona back in the ’90s, but he has grown up to be an astonishingly responsible and grounded adult — co-running Hanson’s independent label, 3CG Records; raising three children with his wife of nine years, Kate Tucker; and still recording and touring with Hanson, garnering the critical acclaim that frustratingly eluded the Hansons back in their teen-heartthrob TRL days.
And, oh yeah — his hair is actually still as lush and fabulous as ever.
Hanson (Isaac, Taylor, and Zac) today
Yahoo Music recently caught up with Zac for a very grown-up interview (conducted via phone from his 3CG Records office in his native Tulsa), during which he reflected on his lessons learned during his two-plus decades in show business — and how he managed to transition to adulthood and adult-pop stardom much more easily and less scandalously than the Biebers, Mileys, and Lohans of the world.
YAHOO MUSIC: It’s pretty hard to even grasp the concept that you’re about to hit the big 3-0.
ZAC HANSON: Yeah, the little kid from Hanson is turning 30! It all happened so quickly. We used to say when we were kids, “It’s all going to be over in a minute. In a minute we’re gonna be old guys. We’ll be in our twenties!”
Did that actually seem old to you at the time?
Well, I don’t remember being particularly age-oriented, but when you’re 12, I think 25 seems like a long ways away. Because it’s twice your lifespan. But now I have to say, to be 30 and have as much life experience as I already have is pretty cool.
So many teen heartthrobs and boy-band singers lose their way, or have very difficult transitional periods during which they act out and get into all sorts of trouble. But it doesn’t seem like you and your brothers ever had any of that kind of tabloid drama. How did you manage to avoid Child Star Syndrome?
Man, I’m trying to find the balance to respond to that question without sounding like a know-it-all. It’s a hard thing, I think, to survive. I think it can be hard having so many yes-men around, and so many people who want to be around you, whether it’s women, or it’s people trying to get on the free ride: “I’m going to be your best friend-slash-assistant! And you’re going to pay me $100,000 a year to do nothing!” That kind of stuff. That can be dangerous.
But you were always surrounded by family.
Yes, and we are also good Christian guys who try to stay the straight-and-narrow, which I think helps a bit. But it is about having a close network around you. We’re three close members of a band, and we’re three equal members of a band. We have people ready to pop our bubble, sometimes several times a day. And you need to have people around you to say, “You’re just another dude. Get over yourself.”
You seem so grounded, and yet you started off even younger than most. By age 12, you were at the Grammys and playing Saturday Night Live.
Well, we started so young, that our version of being “wild” or doing “crazy” things when you’re 12 is not the same as when you’re 18, you know? Like, when you’re 12, it’s a crazy thing to stay up and play video games till 5 in the morning every night. You’re just not as prone to be like, “Oh, I’m going to become a drug addict and sleep with all these hookers in the Philippines!” It’s just not appealing to a 12-year-old.
I would hope not! So what’s your biggest life lesson that you’ve learned while growing up in the public eye?
The thing for me, I think, is kids should be held to the same standard [as adults]. I think young people should be held to a high standard when they screw up. People should call them on it. They shouldn’t say, “Oh, he’s only a teenager.” Kids should be told when they do something wrong, so that they can do it right the next time. You don’t have to crush their soul or anything, you don’t want it to be bullying, but I think it’s a positive thing when you tell young artists that they’ve done something stupid. I would have expected that to be told to us back in the day, if we were doing stupid stuff in the public eye. It’s OK to check yourself. That little stupid phrase makes sense: “Check yourself before you wreck yourself!” Some probably wise old grandma said that to a kid once. And then it ended up on some TV show or something.
You did get your share of bullying back in the ’90s from haters, though. It’s a good thing social media didn’t exist then!
Oh, yeah — we’d almost certainly be running a PSA about cyberbullying if that had been the case! Thankfully, we were pretty self-confident kids to even start off as young as we did. So when people told us we looked like girls, or whatever, it was pretty self-evident that it was compensating for something. You know what I mean? Like, “Ugh, I wanna be mad at you, so I’ll just say you’re a girl! Argh!” But yeah, that would be really hard to deal with today. But that is another case of when you surround yourself with people you trust, your peers, they can give you that pat on the back when you can’t see it for yourself. They can say to you, “You know that mean guy started balding at age 13, right? That’s why he’s so angry. That’s what this is all about.”
Hanson haters were particularly vicious back then.
Oh yeah, we definitely had a breed of people who would go the extra mile to show us their hate. My favorite would be the people who’d buy concert tickets to bring us a sign that’d say “I HATE YOU!” We’d look out in the audience and see 20,000 people, and then halfway back there’d be a sign that said, “YOU SUCK!” And I’d be like, “You just spent 30 bucks, and at least four hours, to come tell me I’m sucking? Not to mention the time it took to make that sign! Wow, man, come on.”
It seriously didn’t bother you?
Well, my personality was always very forward-thinking. “Oh, that guy was an a–hole? OK, let’s go up to the third floor, drop a water balloon, and move on to the next thing.” We’d tell the whole audience to yell “F-U” to that guy and then we’d just play our next song.
All this being said, do you ever look back on your ’90s past — the clothes, the hair, the videos — and just cringe and go, “What was I thinking?”
Unfortunately, probably the reason there are so many things in anyone’s youth that you look back on and get frustrated by, is when you’re doing things for the first time, you rarely get it right the first time. So yeah, there were a lot of bad outfits. I’m sure I said some really stupid things in interviews. And at some point, I maybe would have cut the hair, just so people would stop talking about the hair! The hair didn’t matter to me. It was just long because I didn’t have a barber!
There are always things I look back on and would change now, but overall, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of being the kind of band we always wanted to be. We were this band from middle America, inspired by ’50s and ’60s music and Motown Records, and I think that has remained true throughout our career. Sure, I can look back go, “Why didn’t that music video make any sense?” With some stuff, you definitely wish you could have done it better. But we’ve done pretty good, I think.
At some point in your career, the haters backed off and you began to get respect. Do you remember a specific point in your career when the critical tides turned for Hanson?
Well, when you’re talking about the “music intelligentsia,” there’s a difference between musicians and the people who write about music. I feel like we’ve always had respect from musicians. I can recall being a 13-year-old kid hanging backstage with Aerosmith, talking music together. They knew that we were good, because we’d worked with their peers, like [producer] Mark Hudson. So there was this knowledge within the musicians’ community, the people who make records: “Oh, OK, these guys are legit. I may like their music, or I may not like their music, but I respect them for what they’re doing.”
But I think probably the biggest shift as far as the critical world would be on our third record, Underneath, when we became independent [in 2003]. I think some people were shocked, because the role people wanted to put us in wasn’t doing the same thing that Prince was doing [on a self-run record label]. That was probably the first major turning point for us, when people started to see us, like us or not, as an authentic group of American songwriters that know what they want. There’s nobody behind the scenes, it’s just us doing our thing. Now you can just critique it for what it is.
I don’t think a lot of people realize that you are the one of the youngest nominees in Grammy history. You’re the all-time youngest nominated songwriter, and the second-youngest overall nominee, after Michael Jackson. You were only 12 at the time. That’s impressive.
Yeah, that was pretty awesome. I wish I had an actual Grammy to go with that! That one was robbed from us [in 1998, when Hanson were up for Best New Artist, Record of the Year, and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, but went home empty-handed]. But that’s another thing. But anyway, yeah, it was awesome. Who votes for the Grammys? For the most part, it’s the artists, the producers, the engineers and executives. They’re putting you up there because they’re like, “Hey, this is a great song, and you wrote it.” That says enough, I think.
But there will always be a large number of people who think of you as that long-haired girly kid from the “MMMBop” video, no matter what you do with your life. Does that bother you? I mean, that was almost 20 years ago.
Oh, they’ll still be thinking that 20 years from now. What makes it livable for me is how people’s perceptions change. Sure, some of it is stationary in time: Zac Hanson. 12 years old. Boom. That’s when “MMMBop” came out. But people’s perception about that song and about that time period is enlightened by everything we’ve done since.
You’re a dad now. Your parents were so instrumental in your musical upbringing. Are you encouraging your kids to pursue music?
There’s an easy answer and a long answer to that question. The short answer is, absolutely. But not in any Svengali way. See, I think of my job is, I make things. I make music. I make art. Sometimes I spend my time actually painting. Sometimes we make documentaries. Now we even make beer! What I do every day is I make things, and that’s really what I want to foster in my kids. As far as the tools, we put as many tools in front of them as we can: “Here’s paintbrushes, here’s instruments, here’s a movie camera, here’s some cool vintage film cameras. Take your pick.”
When I think about [Hanson’s] experience as kids, music wasn’t pushed on us. But it was allowed; we were gravitating towards music, and we were enjoying singing together, so what happened was our parents said, “OK, we’ll help!” And that’s really what I want to do for my kids. It’s really cool to see your kids being creative. And it’s really narcissistic to realize that’s all coming from you! “Hey, that’s my genes! Awesome!” [laughs]
So how will you be celebrating your 30th birthday?
We’ll be in New Orleans. We’ll be playing a show on my birthday, which is never a bad thing to do. I’ll find some piece of mischief to get into.