Hanson on how they made their new album at Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios

By | August 11, 2021



The pop-rock band Hanson. From left, brothers Isaac Hanson, Taylor Hanson and Zac Hanson. (Courtesy Jonathan Weiner)

Pretty much the first thing Taylor Hanson did after his band got to FAME Studios was go find the vintage electric piano. FAME’s Wurlitzer has been on hit records by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Lou Rawls and many others, and played by local sessions aces like Spooner Oldham.

“Aretha touched these keys,” Hanson says, “so I’ve now checked that off my list. It’s a great instrument. Like most instruments, anything analog, the more it’s played the better. And that one feels like it’s been put to the test in a good, good way.”

Taylor Hanson’s band is, of course, the pop-rock trio Hanson. The Tulsa-based group came to FAME, in Muscle Shoals, Ala., following the river of classic R&B they’ve been inspired by their entire career. There, Taylor (keyboards, vocals) and brothers Isaac Hanson (guitar, vocals) and Zac Hanson (drums, vocals) recorded their seventh studio album, “Against The World.”

The pile of essential tracks recorded at FAME include Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” Etta James’ “Tell Mama,” Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away” and Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music.” Aretha cut breakthrough singles “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” there.

Hanson’s “Against The World” taps into those roots without resorting to sonic cosplay. Instead of dropping their new album in one chunk, Hanson is releasing the seven tracks as individual singles over the course of 2021, and available across all digital platforms. The latest single is the driving title-track, which calls to mind Billy Joel fronting mid-period U2. Prior single “Don’t Ever Change” achieves power-pop bliss, with an assist from Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen. “Stronger,” another track, is orchestral gospel.

On the song “One,” Taylor coaxes smoky tones from FAME’s Wurlitzer as the track builds from balladry to boom. You can preorder physical copies of the entire “Against The World” album at hanson.net, with CDs scheduled to ship in November and vinyl in December.

Hanson knows how to write a song that sticks with you. The band broke big in 1997 with debut single “MMMBop.” Released when the brothers were between the ages of 11 and 16, the song channeled classic R&B through infectious guitar-pop. The band’s Jackson 5-like exuberance and Taylor’s yearning, standout vocals made the song even stickier. “MMMBop” went to number one and seemed to be on MTV every 37 minutes.

Although Hanson first arrived during the Backstreet Boys era, Hanson was never a boy band. A boy band isn’t a band at all, because they’re essentially just a group of individual pop singers and typically don’t play instruments, at least onstage. However, Hanson were both the boys and the band.

My personal listening tastes run more towards classic heavy-metal/hard-rock bands, like Black Sabbath and Van Halen. But I’ve always enjoyed “MMMBop.” And 24 years after its release I’m still always happy to hear the song again when I do.

Hanson’s hits include “I Will Come To You” and “Where’s The Love,” both off debut album “Middle of Nowhere,” as well as later singles like “This Time Around” and “If Only.” Now ages 35 to 40, the brothers have grown up and so has their music. Their loyal fanbase has grown up with them. There’s even a MMMHop Pale Ale now, from band venture Hanson Brothers Beer.

On a recent afternoon, Taylor was in his car on the way to Tulsa’s Church Studio (founded by late pianist/songwriter Leon Russell) when a publicist connects us for a phone interview. In conversation, he’s expressive, intelligent and thoughtful. Edited excerpts are below.

Taylor, what are some ways recording at FAME helped shape the new Hanson album?

FAME is a huge theme for the whole project and on several different levels. One reason to want to go there was simply just the history of record-making that we’ve learned, which is that places do kind of inform the style and approach. We’re going to take ourselves out of the place we’re in all the time, the home base, and be able to immerse ourselves. That has a way of kind of bringing together project if it’s done the right way. We grew up loving soul music and music that was steeped in the craft of great songwriting, and Muscle Shoals it’s kind of a bucket list destination. And FAME, of course, is where it all started.

The title track “Against The World” has a big chorus, the kind Hanson has been doing for a long time now. What’s the secret to making a track anthemic but still sound like it comes from the heart?

Respecting the hook and not being afraid to be simple. And to me, it’s about taking the pop song seriously, and so you’re pulling back all of the clutter in order to get to the very essence of the song. When I think a great pop songwriting, that’s really what you’re doing. You’re truly you’re editing it down to the essential stuff, so that those essential things can be iconic and stand out.

You listen to Bill Withers songs – like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Just The Two Of Us” – the production is so clean. But every single thing that’s there is important, every single part. And that simplicity is deceptive. He was a total genius. I would say Cheap Trick is one of the best at doing that as a guitar band. Chasing the thing that is so accessible that you just can’t not sing it, and then turning it up.

It’s cool hearing Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen on “Don’t Ever Change.” What little something extra did Rick bring to that track?

I think the key things that he brought out, one, his tone. I don’t think guitar tone gets enough credit. Great guitar players like him understand how they have a sound. Their amp, their guitars, the way that they play against their sound, really is part of what makes it special.

He added some lead guitar lines, some parts and melodies that became layered into the arrangement. He just immediately got it. We didn’t have to do a lot of tweaking and editing – you know, “try this” or “try that.” It’s not often that you can say that about a guest, usually it’s pushing and pulling, but he just nailed it. And he elevated it. He’s spent 40-plus years defining the sound that we’re seeking inspiration from.

We didn’t sit down and say, “We should write a song that sounds like it’s inspired by great ‘70s rock and power-pop songs.” But that’s what emerged. And the fact that we have a peer sort of relationship, to some degree, where you can pick up the phone and reach out to somebody you respect like that was just really cool and special.

The album opens with “Annalie,” a song which spikes Hanson’s signature sound with a world music vibe. When Hanson’s writing a song, what part usually comes first? A melody? A guitar riff? What inspired the music and lyrics for “Annalie”?

“Annalie” is kind of a unique as a first song, because, like you said, it does almost have like a world music feel. You have the percussion, lots of different instruments that are incorporated. And I think melodically it is a little different for us. It’s not as much about that big chorus. It’s much more about the overall feel, and it kind of gets you moving and listening to the details.

And there isn’t one way that we write. All three of us write and we all sing. The main mission that we’re on with crafting a record is capturing what’s special, finding things that differentiate each song. And you chase the muse.

Some songs are really driven by production, some songs are really driven by lyrics and some songs are really driven by just a great performance. That key vocal performance that just carries the song forward. (Lyrically) the song “Annalie” is about seeking grace and something that is different from you.

On the whole record, I would say, there’s a lot of elements that are atypical for our records, and some of that was informed by being there in Muscle Shoals. But I think what was great about recording it at FAME is that room just has a sound. It just sounds rich. That room has a sonic texture to it, and that really created a bridge for lots of different styles of songs.

During the time you were recording at FAME Studios, was there anything else you enjoyed doing while in the Muscle Shoals area? Like did you go eat some barbecue from Bunyan’s or check out the Billy Reid store or anything like that?

Yeah, we did all this stuff, everything you mentioned. I don’t know him well but I know (fashion designer) Billy Reid through a mutual friend so it was very cool to visit the store and see the real place. Big Bad Breakfast was great. I’m a huge fan of (architect) Frank Lloyd Wright, so I was really into visiting the (Rosenbaum) home he designed there. I just loved being down there, the quiet and peace and the connection of the little communities that make up the Shoals.

We’ve talked a little about guitars. Your brother Isaac sings lead on the recent Hanson single “Only Love,” which is a mix of classic, alternative and Southern rock, with a little Americana in there. What do you like about how Isaac plays guitar?

With our R&B background, that’s what he listened to first. And his rhythmic playing and the bluesy side of the scales versus the more straight-ahead guitar bands, that’s where he came from as a player. That song really plays to his strengths, which is that feel, that pocket, the personality of a great rhythm guitar player.

How about Zac’s drumming?

You know, interestingly, his drumming parallels what I was just saying about the guitar style. He’s spent most of his life learning to play really pocketed drums. Not to do flashy “Watch me do drum fills like (classic era Billy Joel drummer) Liberty DeVitto,” but to really be the backbone. I think Zac does better than anything, and that comes through in the style of our playing.

A lot of other brother bands, like The Kinks, Black Crowes and Oasis, have this infighting thing that’s torn them apart. Did you guys ever have that phase? If not, do you think you were you able to avoid the infighting simply because it was three brothers instead of just two?

No, we didn’t avoid it. We just don’t talk about it. [Laughs] Whenever you meet somebody that has a good marriage for a long time, you don’t ask them, “Why don’t you fight?” You ask, “How did you learn to fight so well that you didn’t split up?” Any long relationship has major strains and differences at times. Especially creativity, that pushes everybody to the limit.

But for me, it’s the great respect for getting to be creative, take original ideas, start with nothing and then build something. I mean, that’s a gift. And few people get to do it.

So historically, we’ve been able to kind of focus on that, and when things are challenging or difficult, they’re less important than figuring out how to create something that’s worth making. I think that’s really what it comes down to, having a goal that’s more important than getting every detail of your disagreement sorted out.

Besides the music, Hanson is known for having this great connection with their fans. Why do you think your band has been able to keep that connection after all these years? A lot of good bands that aren’t able to do that.

Well, first of all no one has a crystal ball, and you’re always hoping to reach as many people as possible. But we really have always aspired to be like the artists that have had those longer careers, so keeping in mind the long game versus just, chasing the next trend is really important. Everybody wants to have hits. Everybody wants to be the most relevant. But the essence of it, the quality of the work and the authenticity of who you are, it proves out that’s what stands the test of time. Not just moving to the trend of the moment.

Artists like (Bruce) Springsteen and Billy Joel, Bill Withers, Tom Petty and Aretha Franklin, they lean into their strengths. Sometimes it’s incredibly relevant and it’s a radio hit. Other times it isn’t. But they know who they are, and they build on the people that have already bought into that core. I think we’ve really made that purposeful choice.

And I think early on too, we were very lucky that we could see that the web side of things was something that was opening up to us. We were of a generation that really had a much clearer perspective on it, because our audience was the audience leading that, 20-plus years ago. Most bands that were breaking in the ‘90s were already in their late-20s or 30s and they wrote off the website forums and the power of the internet. For us, we saw it front center, and we really leaned into it.

We cultivated those connections with a lot of fans early on, and then just continued to build that. Realizing there was a community aspect versus just you giving music to people, that was really clear to us.

The first time Hanson ever played “MMMBop” live, what was the crowd’s reaction like? Where was that gig? Did that song go over well from the start?

Honestly, I’d have to think for a long time to tell you for sure where we were, the very first time we performed that song. It was a local performance. It was very stripped down. And people liked it. But it was not the most popular song when we first started singing it as a local band, because we wrote that song when we were kids performing at arts festivals before we were signed.

It was not, “Everybody stop what you’re doing and go hear that.” [Laughs] There were actually other songs that were much more popular when we were first performing it. And I think that had to do with the interpretation of it. As well as just the evolution of the band and the ability to implement different songs at a higher level as you become a stronger band, players and performers. When we first started singing it, it was probably much rawer. Much more like a campfire song, sitting around with an acoustic guitar.

I would say one of the most popular songs, when we were just doing local gigs before we were signed, was a song called “Stories.” It’s kind of cut from the same cloth as “MMMBop.” (Lyrically) it’s kind of like, “This is what’s going to matter in the end,” and it’s very harmony based. But it’s still sort of a campfire song. Acoustic guitar, vocals.

And then there was a song that we took the title for our very first independent record, a song called “Boomerang.” It’s just kind of an infectious melody. And honestly, in a different time, I thought that’s a song that could be covered (by another artist), because it has those hook qualities. Once that song gets in your head, you have a hard time getting it out.

I read an interview with Jack White once where he talked about being at a Rolling Stones soundcheck. The Stones were going over how they were going to play “Satisfaction” and Jack was like, and I’m paraphrasing, “How the (expletive) do they not know how to play that song by now?” After some time off or before a tour, does Hanson have to go over how to do “MMMBop” again? Or can you play that one in your sleep?

[Laughs] Yeah, we can play it in our sleep. But like any work that you do, it continues to evolve. Unless you’re a lounge act where you just keep repeating your same one-hour show, as an artist with a career you’re writing and moving forward. And so even the most songs you play the very most are still just one of many songs, and so it’s funny how you can find yourself in the middle of a tour, 20 years down the line and still missing a chord. Or slightly reinterpreting a melody that you’ve played a million times. Because ultimately, you’re out there as an artist, as a performer and there’s a mechanical side of executing the things you’ve created. It’s like, your hard drive may have it on there, but your RAM is depleted. [Laughs]

One of my favorite tracks on the new Hanson record is “Stronger.” There’s a string section on there, which is something the band did previously on the “String Theory” album. What appeals to you about working strings into Hanson music?

That song is one of my personal favorites as well. The thing that I am most proud of on that track is that it does something that I love in other people’s work, which is it takes you from one place all the way to a very different place. When you start that song, it’s as simple as it can be. It’s a voice and a piano. And by the time you hit a minute into the song, it’s become this entirely different thing.

It’s using production, the scale and arrangement to reinforce the (lyrical) message, this idea of longing. We want to push against our limitations, push against reality sometimes because we’re striving for something else. We don’t want to face a burden. We don’t want to face a failure. We don’t want to have to have to walk away from this something that we fought for. That song is all about that struggle that we all have as humans. To not give up or do I walk away?

One of the cool things about strings is there’s a real there’s a real symbiotic relationship between singers and harmony and orchestration. The rock & roll band side of things, the primary instruments that you use are not monophonic. You’re playing chords, a guitar chord, a piano chord. The bass is the one guy that’s just hitting one note most of the time, while everyone else is playing these chordal structures.

Whereas with symphonies, virtually every instrument is just one piece, one thread. And so you don’t get a whole without a great deal of collaboration. You create a chord with 20 different humans. And that’s much like singing. The closest thing to it is vocals.

Making it through a struggle, that’s kind of a common thread lyrically through this album.

Yeah, big time.

What was informing that theme? Did the pandemic play into that at all?

One of the things that’s interesting about this project, is it was recorded almost entirely before the pandemic. And so I think if anything, it was maybe the universe was telling us that we were headed towards challenges. [Laughs] But interestingly, if you really look at the lyrics of the band and look at our stories that we’ve told, we’ve really had a lot of stories in our songs about coming through challenges. But we’re sort of deceptively positive sounding, because we’re usually looking for a theme of figuring out how to answer that. How do we come through the other side?

And this record, I think it poses and leaves more questions than anything we’ve done. Will I be strong enough? Could we be one? Is there enough love? It acknowledges the struggle without necessarily saying, “I figured it out.”

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