Quotes from this interview originally appeared in The Big Issue #412.
Where in the world are you right now?
Yeah, “Where in the world is Zac Hanson?” Did they have Carmen San Diego in Australia?
Yeah yeah, back in the early 90s.
I was like “This won’t make sense to him at all.” I’m in Oklahoma, actually.
Home in Tulsa?
To start off: in the mid to late 90s you guys took over the world with “Mmmbop”. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t know the lyrics.
That’s amazing, I don’t know a single person who actually knows the lyrics. Besides the people in my band.
Well it was huge in Australia, so congratulations on that.
Thank you, thank you.
It seems like the cynical expectation is that when a band starts so strongly they spend the rest of their career aspiring to that particular moment of success, but I was listening to your latest album Shout It Out last night and it sounds really distinct from your 90s work, like it has this great soul-tinged pop sound but in terms of impact nothing’s been quite as explosive since. Do you feel like Middle Of Nowhere has overshadowed your career?
I think that’s the difference between me, as an artist, and an outside perspective. We have a saying, that “Deconstruction is only good between friends,” and it’s really a joke that a writer friend of ours was saying, that critics and cynics are really worthless in art because they spend their time not really understanding, it’s more about tearing things apart. I think for us, everything we do is building off of what we did before and so you can’t really beat something you did before because it’s part of the foundation of what you’re doing. So “MMMbop” is part of the inspiration of “Thinkin’ About Somethin’” right? It’s directly connected in the lineage of Hanson and the chapter in the book that we’re writing. The only thing I’m ever really frustrated by is just you are subject to so many people pulling things out of context and not really taking the time to understand them, and that can be frustrating, but never am I trying to beat something else I’ve ever done. You’ll never achieve that. You can’t look at it that way, I think you have to have a much more forward-looking perspective that says “What is the next thing I’m gonna do that’s inspiring to me?” because you have to keep that same perspective you had when you wrote your first song. Not trying to re-understand it but taking the same perspective and then looking forward with the new experiences you have.
When you talk about going to the next thing, how do you figure out what that is?
That is a really difficult thing to say and I’m not sure that I know the answer to that. I think it’s a gut feeling that you have, I think it’s something that you acquire partly through writing and trying things and partly through the “communal” band discussions and writing sessions where you’re hearing each other bring in new influences and going “Oh I like that!” and inspires you to go to a little place here and a little place there. I think the main thing I look for is just the sparks. When I hear a song or I hear an instrument and it just sort of gets you in your gut and you go “Oh! I love that! I wanna hear that again!” and you just sort of chase those feelings because that’s the response you want other people to have - your fans to have - when they hear the music, or people who don’t know the music, the new fans. You want them to hear it and have that feeling in their gut, have them go “Somebody press back, I wanna hear that song again.”
I’ve heard that when you guys were kids you listened to a lot of R&B and soul records. Do you ever find yourself going back to those childhood records and thinking “What things can we use as inspiration for our next record?”
Definitely, maybe to a fault. I think maybe we get too caught up on listening to those. I think you hear it a lot on Shout It Out, the going back to Motown records and soul records from the 50s and 60s. It’s a huge part of what made us wanna be a band in the first place and it’s a great benchmark I think because so many of the things that we’re trying to achieve with songwriting and writing quote-unquote hit songs or pop songs, you can look at those songs and study them and go “Okay, these guys did it as good as anybody, how do I live up to this?” And if you hear a song like “Thinkin’ About Somethin’” which is the first single off of the new album, even in the lyrics it’s referencing Otis Redding and Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and Sammy Davis. You know, “If you ain’t too proud to beg / I could give you some respect / The tune you’re humming is never gonna change.” It’s that three different songs that from our past we’re bringing in in some little way.
Let’s talk about the tour in September because it feels like it’s being positioned as this big comeback tour but actually you guys have been recording and touring pretty consistently over the last 15 years.
I mean, we never stopped, but it’s not- in some ways it is a comeback just because it’s been about 7 years since we’ve been to Australia, so that’s a long time, especially with the way media and social networks make everything move faster than they ever have. For us it’s not really a comeback but we are coming back to Australia.
Well it’s not entirely your fault because Australia’s having a lot of bands come through this year like the Vengaboys and Aqua and S Club who are actually reuniting to tour, but why now? Whose decision was it for Hanson to tour down here in 2012?
It’s really a long process that has brought us here. We formed a label in 2003 so since then we’ve released all our music on our own and to be honest, part of it is being a smaller team, being a smaller group of people that it takes a little more time to build those relationships, to have the focus to work in each different market, to put tours together and album releases. And really the other side of it is just the general market globally with music that has been so depressed, there’s so many fewer records in general. Australia having also a real depressed market where it’s harder to be a band trying to tour around the world, it’s harder to find label partners who are willing to take even small amounts of risks on any records that aren’t already completely blowing the doors off. The irony of radio stations and record labels and all that stuff is they only wanna spend money when it’s a sure thing. But I think part of it is just the change in the business, that it has been depressed, I mean in the US I think touring has gone down globally across the board 10 or 20% every year for the last 6 years, and more before that. Not for us, the whole business. So I think that’s played into it, but we feel like we’re in a really good place. We’ve actually been able to take the time and build the right partnerships where we can be in Australia and plan to come back soon and maybe even be back again in 2013.
It must be difficult for anybody to stick with a band for 15 years, even people who aren’t brothers, so what is it that keeps you going back into the studio? What’s the driving force behind Hanson these days?
Probably it’s as cliche and goofy as it might sound. We love what we do and when you make music that you really feel inspired by and you’re really trying to live up to a high standard and you think you’re achieving it in some small way, it’s really addictive. The job that I get to have is a really hard one to let go of, to be able to wake up every day and define yourself by what you get to create. Every day, waking up and making something, whether it’s visual arts or music or all those things that go with being in a band, it’s addictive. It’s something we’ve all found is worth fighting for in all the way that sounds. It’s worth us fighting over it, it’s worth fighting against any force outside of you that might try and stop you from doing it. It’s just something we love doing and can’t get away from. We have a saying that “We’ve been cut by the rock and roll razorblade,” you can’t stop, it cuts you and you bleed and you bleed and you bleed and it won’t stop and it’s something that you’re sort of addicted to. That sounds sadistic or masochistic.