It’s been a long, hard road for the brothers Hanson. Isaac, Taylor, and Zac had to deal with the success of the behemoth that was “MmmBop”, then with the inevitable disappointment that their second album sold fewer copies than its predecessor, despite showing tremendous artistic growth by the band. When they left Island/Def Jam and went indie, it was a pleasant surprise when the band’s third disc, Underneath, not only pulled a #25 debut on Billboard‘s Top 200 Albums but also topped the magazine’s Independent chart. Now, they’re back again with a new live album, The Best of Hanson Live & Electric, and a documentary about their unfortunate experiences with the major label system, entitled Strong Enough to Break. Taylor Hanson—possibly the cute one, but that remains unconfirmed—took time to speak with PopMatters on the group’s musical evolution, its indie revolution, and the odds of facing the slings and arrows of indie hipsters everywhere for opening their new disc with a cover of Radiohead’s “Optimistic”.
PopMatters: So ... how hard has the transition been to get mainstream audiences to treat you as singer/songwriters rather than the boy band that you never really were to begin with?
Taylor Hanson: Well, you know, it’s a constant evolution. You never get to pick how you get pinned and how people perceive you. Most bands never have the type of cultural, broad success that we’ve been able to have. I mean, to have people kind of know who you are that aren’t even necessarily into your music, it’s different than just having a hit song. You kind of reach people all over the world, and that’s something amazing. We’ve always taken that as a massive positive. But, of course, when we first came out, we were so young that there’s a certain perception, and that evolution has to happen. Lucky for us, we were never anything but what we are now. We just happened to be really young when we started, but we’ve always been writers, players, singers ... and that’s never really changed. I think now we’re just in a place where we’re especially charged about the idea of being independent because, in the industry now, it really is a unique time, an important time to cut your own path and take hold of your career ... to sort of lead your way into the new music business, because it’s really evolving. I think that plays a role in how we continue to educate people, so to speak, on who the band is.
PM: Still, I’d guess that, to a certain extent, it’s an uphill battle. Not necessarily to music fans, of course, because they’re paying attention to the evolution. I mean, from the get-go, you were recognized as being more than just cookie-cutter; you had John Popper [from Blues Traveler] on your side almost from the start.
TH: Yeah, people like John Popper, Matthew Sweet, Jonny Lang, Carole King—all these people we’ve worked with. I’ve always said I feel like I’m in more of a race against myself than against people’s perceptions. You know what you’re capable of doing and what you believe you’re supposed to be doing, and, so, you don’t really look around say, “Well, what do you think? And what do you think?” You just have to say, “What am I supposed to be doing? What’s the goal I have with my music and my career?” And you just have to see that through.
PM: Speaking of Matthew Sweet, after the second album, I know there were a lot of rumors talking about how you were going to have Ric Ocasek produce and have Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne co-write a few songs, and then the Matthew Sweet collaboration turned up, but nothing else that was rumored ever did. Did any of those things ever come to pass, were they aborted, or what…?
TH: On the second album, we had a stint with Ric Ocasek that didn’t result in finally being on the record. That was for several reasons, one of which was just a dynamic thing that didn’t quite result in finishing a full-length album; it just didn’t work that particular record. But there were also some political issues with our old record company. And we’ve kept a relationship with Ric and really think a lot of him, so that’s always a potential. And Adam Schlesinger, we actually wrote with him on our first album, but the songs never ended up on that album. I think the deal with rumor mills is that they’re exactly that; they’re not always the reality. But, yeah, there’ve been a lot of collaborations with a lot of great people on each of the records we’ve done.
PM: I didn’t know how much of these collaborations was your idea and how much was Island trying to shove them down your throat.
TH: During the process of our last album ... well, we just filmed a documentary tells kind of the story of our struggle with the inherited label that we had: Island/Def Jam. [The band started on Mercury and fell victim to a label merger.] But there’s definitely some internal issues with people who don’t know music, who are just, “Who’s in the top ten right now? Work with them!” But we’ve never made any decisions based on that; we’ve always said, “No, we’ll just work with this person who we think is really great.” So anyone from Danny Kortchmar—who’s not producing top-10 hits right now but who has worked with the greats, like Billy Joel and Carole King—to people like Greg Wells, who had only produced stuff like Rufus Wainwright when we worked with him a couple of years ago. And those are just decisions you make to work with people that are talented.
PM: Underneath was pretty much across the board an unqualified success, but particularly so for a band transitioning from a major label to an indie. Were you at least a little scared at the idea of moving back an indie…?
TH: There’s always a certain amount of fear involved. Sometimes, fear is good. Sometimes it’s a good thing to have a little bit of a reality check. “Okay, we could fall flat on our face here!” I think there was never any question that we were going to find a way to succeed at a level that would allow us to keep going, and, y’know, I think it’s a huge credit to our fans. We’ve always had an amazing group of fans; we’ve always tried to do what we can to keep them energized. And there was a huge gap of time between the last album, This Time Around, and Underneath, and I think their dedication was something that we really focused on, and that’s why we released an acoustic album [Underneath Acoustic EP] before the full-length record and tried to get them engaged early on. Ultimately, I can’t think of a situation I could possibly rather be in that what we’re in right now.
PM: I didn’t know if at any point prior to going independent you’d considered trying another major label, but with the caveat that you’d have complete artistic control ... if such a thing really even exists.
TH: Well, complete artist control comes down to money. It’s who’s got the check and how many stockholders there are ... and less stockholders means more control. So I think, in our case, we’re the CEOs, so that’s the best situation you can be in. Before we officially began to start the label, we did talk with several major record companies—numerous major record companies—and there was interest, but it’s the same system, and we just didn’t want to be there.
PM: You kind of touched on this a moment ago, but the acoustic EP, it sounds like that was intended more as a bonus for the fans than a teaser for the public.
TH: I guess it depends on how you look at it. In a way, the live album we’re releasing now is bridging the gap into this next upcoming record ... and I think Underneath Acoustic, which was the prequel to Underneath, there was a bridging goal as well. It had been three years since the release of This Time Around, and we wanted to do something that was kind of giving them a taste before the release of the record. And so that’s how we started it. We said, “We want the fans to be engaged.” And, obviously, there’s a certain amount of imaging that went on with that, because it put all this new music in a different light through the acoustic stuff. So there’s no question that that was positive, and for the non-fan, too.
PM: “Penny and Me,” the first single from Underneath, seemed almost ubiquitous on the radio for a month or so after it was released, making it into the top ten and everything, but was there ever a second single? If so, it really must’ve flown under the radar.
TH: You know, after “Penny and Me”, we became primarily focused on spreading the single internationally and being able to be in several places in one time, and weren’t as focused on radio play. We were focused on making sure that we connected across the board. There was a second single, which was “Lost Without Each Other”, and that was more exposed outside the States than it was on the radio here. You know, radio is a really strange business now, too. There’s a very narrow door and a very few people what control what gets played, and, as an indie label, at a certain point during the Underneath process, we chose to remove focus from getting airplay on the second and third singles because we felt that was not the best focus for our resources. Getting radio airplay and reaching out to people through other avenues, that’s important, but you just have to choose your battles.
PM: I know you’ve maintained an Internet presence since you released your Mercury debut, and I noticed you’ve now got a page on MySpace as well. Do you think that’s a major factor in continuing to spread the word of Hanson?
TH: I think it’s very, very important. It’s a tool that can be used for good and evil. [Laughs] You can decide to start a porn site, or you can decide to start a great music community and fulfill something. Both of those things spread like wildfire, and some of them are worthless, but our idea of the Internet is that it’s an open source, a place where people all over the world can instantly get content. And what we’ve tried to do is use it as a way to develop trust with our fans as much as possible. We have a fan club section within the website, where people are actually paid members, and they get extra bonus content and access to concert tickets early and those kind of things. We’re continually fuelling the connection, with journals, posting photos, releasing extra music, all of those things. Because of the age group of our fans and the evolution of the Internet, I think we’ve been able to keep people involved more actively, and I think that’s a huge positive for us, and definitely for the future of music.
PM: I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, but I’m reminded of Geoff Byrd, an artist who’s done almost all of his promotion online, through MSN and through offering singles for download, and it’s translated into “real world” radio airplay as well.
TH: I know his name. Well, Internet and radio and TV ... they’re all about to blur into one. There will not be much separation. The real question is, how do you fit into people’s lifestyles? How do you get into their lifestyle? Now, technology’s gonna catch up, so it’ll be easy. You’ve got an iPod, you’ve got a PSP, you’ve got a laptop, you’ve got a PDA, whatever you have, all of these mediums of delivering content to people are becoming so huge that radio and TV and traditional newspapers—dailies and monthlies—they’ll all still be around, but there’s just gonna be more options. And that’s a good thing.
PM: So what’s the story on Strong Enough to Break, your new documentary? I know you’re touring it around to colleges; how did it come about?
TH: It was directed by a guy named Ashley Grayson, who’s worked with us for a long time, and he originally wanted to make a film more about the creative process, but it became more of a story about the political process, the struggle we went through, and how we eventually started our record company. It’s something we’re really excited about; with all of the shows we’re doing throughout the tour, we’re also working with a college—in some cases, a few colleges—in each market and we’re doing screenings of the film, as well as a Q&A session with the students after the film, in an effort to use it as a tool. We really feel like the relationship with the students and the film is a real one. It’s not just, “Hey, we’re gonna get some reviews by some journalists who say it’s cool”; we’re going to take it to people who are going to be the future journalists and say, “You need to educate yourself.” And not just say, “We’re gonna teach you,” but say, “This is the beginning of a conversation, and we want to talk about the importance of supporting independent music and how the business is changing.” So that’s very exciting. Those events are really, really cool, and it’s going to make for just a very cool tour. So we’re very much excited about it.
PM: Having not seen it, is it the sort of film that you could conceivably enter into film festivals around the country?
TH: It is. We sat back from it, and, all the way to a year or so ago, before the film was even finished, we decided that we would rather take it to universities than focus on film festivals. It definitely fits right into that universe, but we’re using college campuses as a new form of the film festival, because it’s a more real application for something like that, and, hopefully, it becomes something more than just entertainment; it becomes something applicable for those students.
PM: Is it destined for DVD release at some point?
TH: It definitely is going to come out on DVD. No dates or anything, but that’ll be down the line.
PM: In addition to the movie, I know that, on the tour, you’re holding a contest to select opening bands for each of the dates. How’s the response to that coming?
TH: The response is great. The process is just beginning. Basically, we’re working with local media, websites, and college radio stations, in addition to the venues themselves, and we’re allowing local bands in each market to submit their music and working with the affiliated partners—the radio stations and people like that—to weed it down to a few artists. Then we weed it down to the last three, and, from those three, we post them on the website and allow our fans ... and whoever else ... to come vote on which band they want to open. In each market, that process is going to happen, and it’s really exciting. We wanted to focus on supporting independent music in a very real way, and that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
PM: You made the comment about weeding it down to the select few. I was a little concerned about the quality control and what kind of awful stuff you might end up with in addition to the worthwhile material.
TH: [Laughs] We did one contest in one city in New Jersey and had hundreds of submissions just within a couple of weeks. It was just amazing how many submissions we got just for one concert. So when you think about a whole tour of 27 shows, it’s going to be massive. So we had to begin by weeding it down within a group of people we respect and work with, and then allow the fans to vote on the few, because you couldn’t really go, “Okay, here’s 200 bands; listen through ‘em!” But the fans are ultimately the deciding factor.
PM: I don’t know if 3CG [Hanson’s label] is in a position to sign anyone, but will you be at least considering some of these openers for possible contracts?
TH: It’s possible. It’s something that we’d love to do, but we’ve kind of told ourselves that we’re not just gonna sign somebody before we’re fully ready to get behind that band and give them a good push in the same way that we would want as a band. We kind of have the advantage of using ourselves as guinea pigs; whatever mistakes we make, we can make them on ourselves first and go, “Okay, we shouldn’t do that!”
PM: Yeah, you can share with them the problems you’ve been through in the past.
TH: Right, I can say, “Look, I’ve been there. We actually did it, so now we’re gonna do it this way instead.” Or, “We did it and it worked, so we know this is the best way to go.”
PM: “I have personal experience in this matter.”
TH: [Laughs] Yeah. Sometimes a little too personal.
PM: What made you decide to release this new live album [The Best of Hanson: Live and Electric] rather than follow up the momentum of Underneath with another studio album?
TH: We are following up the momentum. What we knew was that we weren’t going to be able to get another album out any sooner than early 2006, and we felt that the documentary and the universities and the live content was something that was important to come out together. It helps to bridge the gap and introduce some new fan, maybe some college fans, to the music. And, also, we wanted the documentary to be out there before the next record and the live album, the tour, it’s all a great vehicle for that, because we felt like that door should close before the next studio album comes out. Because, really, the documentary tells the story of Underneath and how we became the independent process and felt like that needed to get exposed now.
PM: All things considered, it seems like journalists have been pretty supportive of the idea you guys being “all grown up”...
TH: [Laughs] Who knows what that even means?
PM: Yeah, exactly. But are you concerned that with the live album opening with a Radiohead cover [“Optimistic”], now the critics are gonna say, “Oh, well, now they’re just trying too hard”?
TH: [Laughs] Well, you know, anybody can always say that. You can say we’re trying too hard or that we didn’t try hard enough ... but we’re not trying at all; we’re just doing what we do. Last night, we did 2 shows—an acoustic one and an electric one—back to back at the Roxy Theater, in California. They were kind of impromptu; we only threw them up for sale a couple of weeks before. And we went from three different covers back to back: “Gimme Some Lovin’” into an acoustic version of “Teach Your Children” into Radiohead. And I was thinking about being an audience member, going, “These guys are ... what are they doing? This is insane!” But somehow it all works. We’re not trying at all; we’re just doing our music, what we think is compelling, and that Radiohead song is a great song.
PM: Which begs the question, who are some of your favorite artists?
TH: Um, my favorite artists ... right now, there’s a couple of bands. There’s an Australian band called Dallas Crane, which I think is really good that not really anyone knows about here. A guy named Bob Schneider, here in the States, in Austin, he’s great. I love the Black Crowes. I love some of the earthier rap stuff, like the Roots. I’m kind of all over the place. Definitely a lot of independent music. I’ve just gotten to be more and more turned on by it because there’s just so much out there.
PM: Do you see artists like the Click Five coming out, immediately being tagged as boy band pop stars, and worry for their future?
TH: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s up the band, ultimately, to brand themselves, and I think you’re at a disadvantage if you’re within the major label system right now, because there’s really no focus on any long-term thinking. I feel bad for any band who is put in a position to be doing something that doesn’t really represent what they are, or who are being perceived as something alternative to what they really are. In our case, luckily, we were never doing anything that alternative ... but there are always outside forces.
PM: Last question: I told a friend of mine that I was interviewing Hanson, and she asked me, “Are you interviewing the cute one?” How do you respond to that?
TH: [Hesistates] How do I respond to that? [Hesitates again] I don’t respond to that. Are you asking a question, or should we move on…? [Silence]
Writer’s epilogue: Since that was, in fact, the last question, we moved on to our farewells, and I was left highly disappointed that, after such an enjoyable conversation, Taylor couldn’t just offer a chuckle and give me a really great last line, like, say, “Well, we’re all pretty cute, you know.” Oh, well.