Interview: Hanson: Are You Listening?
by Rachel Jaffe
Published: September 9, 2005
When Hanson brothers Isaac, Taylor and Zac first hit the music industry, they did it in a big way -- with a quadruple-platinum CD (Middle of Nowhere), an international megahit ("MmmmBop"), and three Grammy nominations (Best New Artist, Record of the Year, and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal). Eight years later, the band Hanson is still making great pop music, and still determined to have an impact on the music industry. Zac Hanson took some time to talk with me about their latest plans, which encompass a new CD, a documentary, and a call for activism.
Hanson's new album is a live CD, entitled The Best of Hanson Live and Electric, which was recorded in Melbourne, Australia, during the course of their tour promoting their Underneath album. "That was the last shows we did for Underneath, really," Zac reflected. "Over the last two years, we probably played 150, 175 shows for this album. And so, as we neared the end of the process, we thought to ourselves, 'This is really a great time to record a live album. We've been playing all this music, a lot.' And also I think we felt that it was a good time because we would be going back into the studio for a while, so it gives people some music in the interim."
The CD is no simple redux of Underneath, however. "We're kind of taking the last eight years and putting them in the context of today. So you're playing 'Mmmbop,' and you're playing 'Where's the Love,' and then you're playing 'This Time Around' and 'If Only' from the second record, and then you're playing some new singles off of this record. It's a cool moment where you're able to take all that music that you've written and put 'em next to each other, back-to-back. It's kind of like the musical history of Hanson in the context of today." In addition to Hanson favorites, the CD includes two cover songs -- Radiohead's "Optimistic" and U2's "In a Little While."
Live and Electric, set to hit stores on October 11, 2005, is the second release from Hanson's independent label, 3CG Records (Underneath being the first). Going indie is a big change for any band, but one that seems to have worked for Hanson. Underneath premiered at #1 on the Billboard Independent Chart in April of 2004 (#25 on the Billboard 200), with its first single, "Penny & Me," debuting at #2 of the Billboard Top 200 Singles Chart (the #1 spot was held by media juggernaut Clay Aiken).
When Hanson started creating Underneath, they were still with their prior label Island Def Jam and were doing a "making-of" style documentary for the new album. "It was really going to be a film that was more intimate than you really ever got to see in a music film, taking you from the writing to the picking of producers and engineers, to the recording, to the promotion, to the release -- but in a way that was closer, so that people really got to see what was going on." But the documentary wound up being more than they'd anticipated. "It didn't end up being that film because there was a lot of stuff that went on that we didn't -- no one could have anticipated: forming our own label, leaving our label, the long waiting period and sort of the bureaucracy of working through major label mergers, new staff that had no investment in what we'd done in the past. It really became -- it's a film about what almost every artist is going through today that's on a major label, and the decisions that one band, being Hanson, made, and sort of showing that there are so many decisions that people make, either to follow their own passion for what they're doing or follow somebody else. Or there are bands that just fall apart from the process."
A trailer to the documentary is available on the Underneath Acoustic Live DVD and online, and based on that trailer, the documentary appears to have an unblinking eye. Of course, Hanson is no stranger to being filmed. "I guess it's something that we've done a lot over the years, filming things, and this was just taking it one step further," Zac mused. But in this venture in particular, Hanson felt they had something unique to bring to their audience. "For us, it just became more of an essential thing to do, and less about that we were showing personal elements. It's more about, this is such an incredible thing to show people. Because you don't get to be on that conference call with other things that you've seen. You don't get to be in the studio or watch somebody come up with a lyric. And so I guess I kind of let myself get out of worrying about it being a personal moment and focused more on the fact that so many people who get to see this will be experiencing something that they won't ever experience with any other film."
The band will be screening the documentary, entitled "Strong Enough to Break," and leading discussions on the same tour that they're using to promote the Live and Electric CD. Their goal is to get young people interested and involved in the music industry, whether as musicians or as an active audience. Zac explained, "We really wanted to go to colleges and talk to not only young musicians, but really just music fans, and say, 'This is what's going on. This is where the music industry is. We don't want you to stick it to The Man, we want you to actually fix it. Because all these companies, all these MTVs, radio stations, record labels -- they're all trying to get you, because you are the most active music fans, in terms of going to shows and being involved in the new music, and you need to speak up and tell them, whether it's by not turning on the MTVs and the radio stations or whether it's by calling and requesting songs and being active in supporting bands and the music that you love.'" He stressed that the goal wasn't to promote any one type of music, but to expand choice. "It's really about building stronger fan bases for major labels or -- it doesn't matter. It's really about great music that is there to be found, but is not being facilitated."
While Hanson had led some discussions at colleges in their previous tour, this year they're taking their efforts to a new level. "Colleges aren't a by-product. Colleges are really the focus," Zac stated emphatically. "It's saying, 'We're not going to go to colleges if we're in a city; we're going to go to cities with colleges that we want to go to.'" Another way they're getting students to participate is by getting local bands involved. "We're having a local band that's voted by the college students in that city open up for us every night, because it's important not to just go out there and say something but to actually do something about it, and say, 'We are going to have bands open up for us. We are going to try to showcase new music and find great artists that we can help support,' because we don't want to be full of sh**."
Hanson's dedication to helping expand the music scene becomes obvious in listening to Zac talk about some of Hanson's future plans. "We've been involved in starting a web site called 'Are You Listening?' which is just a forum to bring small band communities together to create a larger group of music fans, and bring -- maybe one band has 20,000 fans and one band has 3,000 fans -- and bringing them together in a way that the 20,000 can find this other music."
It's only natural that Hanson, which has long had a very active online presence, would turn to the Internet as a means to connect musicians and listeners. "We were lucky to come at a time when our fans were just at the right age to be the first group of people to actively use the Internet every day. And so we have had an active web site." Their current site, http://www.hanson.net, has news, forums, messages from the band, tour info, and merchandise for sale, as well as the opportunity to join their fan club, which provides access to additional online goodies, presale of concert tickets, and even web space and "hanson.net" e-mail addresses. While the site is currently in English, they are currently working on providing versions in other languages as well. "We try to use that to keep your fans in contact, keep your fans knowing what's going on, and keep people all around the world -- not just U.S. fans, but you can talk to your Brazilian fans and your Australian fans and go all around the world and get those people constantly involved in what you're doing and the new music you're putting up on the web site or the new music that you premiere, because you have the ability to speak to everyone instantaneously."
A new CD, a documentary, college discussions, web communities … that's a lot for one band to take on. But for Hanson, it's all a means to a goal. As Zac explained, "I think using the Internet, doing this tour with local bands, showing the documentary -- these are all just things around us believing in creating a stronger music community."
For tour information and to purchase tickets, go to Hanson.net.
The CD The Best of Hanson Live and Electric is available for pre-order at Amazon.com. Sample audio clips are available at Hanson.net.
Or just check out Hanson's E-card, which not only contains audio clips, but also links to information on how to open for Hanson, special guest Pat McGee Band, an excellent Hanson podcast on Live and Electric, the Hanson Myspace location, and more!