Hanson: It feels great to have survived
Neika Lehman talks to (28-year-old!) drummer Zac Hanson:
Life is pretty weird. For example, the other day I interviewed Zac Hanson. In the mid-1990s, this information about my future self would have been enough for my tiny, hummingbird heart to give one almighty flutter, and fall, slumped on the ground, surrounded by Smash Hits magazines, fangirl cut-outs and perhaps my first two pieces of blow-up furniture. Thankfully, at that point in my life, I still thought I was going to be a jockey.
A decade and a half later, after being briefed by management, this considerable jump in time didn’t stop the nerves from flowing as I opened my email the night before the call. I questioned my strong reaction. Admittedly, I no longer listen to Hanson. Zac is only a couple of years older than me, and from my research, a respectable, married man with three kids and a wholesome, Southern States of America attitude.
My suspicion is that perhaps, we children of the nineties (at least those with similar inclinations) never really understood just how much the phenomena of the Boy Band, or Girl Group had on that period of our lives. Of course, Generation Y’s questionable choices in 90s music is still a popular topic for banter. But how much of an effect did these bands really have in our development? In how we saw ourselves, and the rest of the world; a world we were yet to fully inhabit?
In the playground, it was a common sight for peers to be practicing the dance moves of ‘N Sync, and the Spice Girls. We’d argue which Backstreet Boy was the coolest. Guys grew their hair the length of the Hanson brothers, and we’d have long, elaborate reading sessions, sharing new facts from the fan books that sat in the middle of our circle. Child fandom is nothing new, but the particular aesthetics and musical style of the nineties boy band pop culture certainly musters up a unique set of connotations.
Beyond the superficial surface of who was the cutest in 5ive, and or who owned the best S Club 7 pencil case, what was it about that sense of belonging we felt as fans that was so totally encompassing? Had Hanson had a subconscious effect on my social perspective as a child? Had they even, in some inadvertent way, contributed to my pop sensibilities now?
The more I read about Hanson, the more I noticed their ongoing commitment to their impressive fan-base. I also noticed that unlike many other big groups from the nineties, Hanson have almost consistently been making music since their explosion into mainstream success with the 1997 hit album Middle of Nowhere. Consequently, there have never been the awkward ‘comeback’ tours that some of their previous contemporaries have attempted. Although Hanson came out of the same time period as the other big acts, after my chat with Zac, I imagine the boys would politely decline being grouped in the same category. Owners of their record label, 3CG Records, Hanson have been managing their own sound and direction from Tulsa, Oklahoma since 2003. It was from their hometown of Tulsa that I spoke to Zac Hanson about their upcoming Australian tour, the importance of fandom, and how not to fuck up as a kid growing up in the music business.
Last time you headed to Australia was 2012. What’s been happening for the band since then?
Since then, we have the new record, our sixth studio album, called Anthem. We feel really good coming back to Australia relatively soon after our last visit. This record is a really fun record to play. It plays well live. A lot of the time when we were writing the record, on various songs we were thinking along the lines of, like, “what would the fans say? What’s the audience’s part?” It feels good to have something new to share.
The new album has some funk elements, along with soul and old rock ‘n’ roll that seemed more pronounced than in earlier work.
Yeah, we grew up listening to late 50s, early 60s rock and roll…. It sounds so funny when I say “grew up”. What am I, like 50 (laughs)? I’m an old man in a 28 year old’s body. But, you know, rock stuff, it does come into our music, with every record we do. It’s just such a reference, and, where is the bar? What do you have to do to be timeless? And you’re shooting for that kind of stuff. Hopefully you hear a little bit of that in our new record. What really makes this record is the guitar. The guitar makes a huge comeback in the sound of this album. Hopefully that energy will really fuel people to enjoy this record.
Anthem marks the beginning of your third decade as musicians playing together. Does that feel as surreal as it sounds?
It feels pretty surreal. We started the band when I was just teeny….. I was six years old. So now, this is your life’s work. You care deeply about it, because it’s not just like it’s another band. It’s something that you’ve basically been working on forever, your whole life long. It feels great to have survived so much. Because music has changed so much, particularly over the last 10 years, even 15 years. And so, to still be here, to still like what we do, to still like each other – that’s a hard thing to do. Being in a band is not something unique, it’s like any other relationship: marriage, business, band. You have to give to the relationship, otherwise it falls apart.
Having ‘survived’ and now entering 2014 as commercially successful adult musicians with six studio albums and 16 million albums sold worldwide — relationships aside — what was it that got you through growing up in the music business? Especially with such untarnished reputations?
It’s a hard question to answer. We don’t have any special superpowers. I don’t have any desire to be successful for any other reason than to make great music. And I think a lot of artists reach a point where they want to be successful for any reason, as long as they can continue at that level that they’ve reached. We just never particularly cared for that. And when it comes down to making stupid choices to be successful, or doing dumb things in front of cameras, it was just never worth it. Also, we’ve always come back to Oklahoma, and felt like we wanted to represent music from somewhere. Not just another band that’s currently in London or New York or Los Angeles. We want to represent American heartland rock n roll. That’s why you don’t see us in front of cameras and drunk in public or sleeping around. It’s not because we don’t get drunk, it’s just that we’re not doing it in public.
Right. You don’t use that as a way of gaining attention.
Yeah, we try and make choices that we’re not going to be un-glad about in fifteen years. Thankfully we can make choices for the right reasons, not just to survive.
Something I’ve noticed about you guys is the commitment to your fan base. I’m going to admit here, that in the mid-90s, like thousands of young Australians, I felt I was probably your biggest fan. I felt included in the youthful spirit you represented. During that time, around Middle of Nowhere, there wasn’t that much of an age gap between yourself, and I imagine like me, a lot of your fans. So why is it that Hanson has continued to pay such close attention to their fans?”
The thing about our band is that we’re lucky to, from the very beginning… [pauses]… Success is something that can come and go really easily. Especially over time you see that there are so many talented musicians who just never get a chance to be successful. They just never have that moment, that “perfect storm” of elements that put them in the spotlight. So from the very beginning, we just tried to say that we know this is something that can come and go, so you have to treat it as something special, something precious. You’re not the greatest thing that ever came to this side of man. You just found this moment, this combination of elements, and [should] really thank people for putting you in that spotlight. Just not treat it like its something that is completely yours. It sounds so cheesy. But you get put up there, people are saying they like what you do, they care about the words and the poetry and the melody of it. And that they are identifying, that these songs represent them and their life, their stories in the music, and who they are as a person. When people go “this is my song”, when they feel that about something you’ve created, there’s a responsibility not to fall flat on our faces and make them look like idiots.
Can you remember what that felt like as a kid, to know some of your biggest fans were people that could be in your class at school?
Well, Oklahoma is one of the most progressive states as far as education and homeschooling is concerned. Ever since we were successful, I never went to school. But it was definitely something that wasn’t hard to imagine. I’d see it every day. You’re out there playing concerts, and meeting people, and talking to fans. And in some cases, young, young women weren’t able to contain their emotions and be able to talk to you. It’s a little jarring, you can feel a little alienated on one side. But um, you know that there’s a level of emotion and adoration that is pointed at you…. it’s not really about you. It’s that same thing I was talking about, that position you are put in, where you’re playing a role for some people. And on the other side, there is a legitimate connection to the art and the craft that you’ve been working so hard at. It’s really amazing…. As a kid you dream you’re gonna do those things. You have people telling you: “this song means so much to me, I didn’t commit suicide because of that song, or, my husband and I danced to this song when we got married”. These really key moments in people’s lives, and they choose to really define themselves through you…. It’s pretty powerful.
Just before we move on from the early years and Middle of Nowhere, one song that has always stuck out for me was “Yearbook”. It posed a much darker story about the silence surrounding a kid that goes missing at school. What was the inspiration for that song?
I think that Yearbook is really interesting. But in a way, it isn’t heavier than the song MMMBop. When you read the lyrics [of MMMBop] it really is about loss. It’s also almost poking fun at itself, by the actual MMMBop part, but it’s about loss. When you are young kids, making music and [being] put in the spotlight, you’re given a lot of responsibility. We were lucky that we saw a lot of young artists as inspiration. Looking back at 50s and 60s music and having archetypes like the Jackson 5, or Otis Redding or Buddy Holly, who were in their late teens down to around twelve, there were never any preconceived notions about what we could or couldn’t do because we were young.
And young people have deep emotions. They don’t always know how to express them, but they’re no less deep. And we were just expressing things in our music that we had been through, and finding stories to tell we thought would connect with people.
So Johnny is really an example of assuming a sense of injustice. That you’re being treated differently partly; that there’s a lie that you want to get to the bottom of. A lot of those songs [on Middle of Nowhere] were about some kind of injustice. And when it gets to the bottom of it, it’s more the idea of searching in that song than it is about discovery.
Now that you have kids of your own, do you sometimes look at them, especially John, your eldest, and think: “wow, I was almost their age when I was getting into all this stuff”?
Yeah, I have a son who is about to turn six. And I was six when we started the band, so it’s definitely a little surreal. I don’t have any desire to push them into being anything. I know that part of why we started the band was that perfect storm of people, and with my brothers being older than me, they were able to give that kind of push to be great enough to stand up for things or to ask for more or take risks. I think that the best thing that’s come out of doing what we’ve done while we were young, for me, is that you are forced not to judge by petty things like age. So many times because we were young, people would ask us, what’s your advice for young artists? And it was so patronizing to those young artists, and young people in general.
You don’t need to have separate standards for young artists and they don’t need more advice than older artists. The difficulties are the same. People should go “well, are they good or are they bad?”. And let them be judged on their character and skill. Not whether they’re good for being fourteen.
You’ve got a pretty solid list of tour dates in Australia. Anywhere you’re looking forward to going in particular?
When we go touring I don’t think about those specific details too much. It will be our first time in New Zealand, that’s pretty cool. But it’s always good to be back. I’m not looking forward to any particular thing; it’s really just the experience you have of playing shows together.
For the adventurous, curious, or the old or new fan, tour dates are below:
5th August – The Tivoli, Brisbane
6th August – The Coolangatta Hotel, Gold Coast
8th August – Enmore Theatre, Sydney
9th August – Theatre, Melbourne
12th August – HQ, Adelaide
15th August – Metropolis, Fremantle
17th August – Powerstation, Auckland
Interview by Neika Lehman.