Hanson has been to the top of the pop world and back again. Their hit debut, Middle of Nowhere, went 4x Platinum and spawned one of the most ubiquitous smash hits of the nineties in “MMMbop,” and immediately the pressure from the major labels was on to repeat the hit, whatever the cost.
That their label folded in with Island-Def Jam shortly thereafter, leaving the band at the mercy of A&R people who had nothing to do with the success of Middle of Nowhere, left the band with few label supporters. When This Time Around tanked — barely going Gold in 2000, the label blamed the songs rather than admitting that, perhaps, a hip-hop label had no idea how to market pop songwriters who had the dual curse of being young and music-literate.
The result was the brutally honest documentary “Strong Enough To Break,” which illustrates how hard they had to fight for the right to even record and release a third album without label executives controlling what they wrote, when they wrote it and how it would be recorded. Since 2004 they’ve released all their music on an independent label they own and manage, called 3CG records. Their latest album, Shout It Out, may be the band’s strongest pop contribution yet. At the very least, they’re making the music they want to make and continuing to strive to make meaningful music.
Stereo Subversion’s Jonathan Sanders sat down with Isaac Hanson to discuss the band’s latest album, the cultural reasons behind music piracy, and how in the end, and the major labels’ inability to understand that, above all, musicians are here to record albums and make music.
SSv: Since leaving Island-Def Jam, you’ve done three albums now on your own terms. Has the process remained as liberating as it was when you finally completed Underneath?
Isaac: It’s become a lot easier in a lot of ways for us because the process for us is about making records. The problem with the Island process, with all the corporate mergers that have gone on with these companies, is that it isn’t about music or even about fiscal responsibility on the part of a label or band.
You spend so much money and so much time second guessing yourself, it’s the kind of thing where you could almost literally make three to five records for the amount of money and time spent on one major-label record. And if you made those records and released them, even if you did a mediocre job, you’d still have a better chance of finding success than if you did it the way these labels have always done.
SSv: I don’t know if you ever read Jacob Slichter’s book, So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star – he was the drummer for Semisonic — but he wrote about the difficulty they had following up the Grammy-nominated success of “Closing Time” with any future singles, because the label group-think process made it impossible to release anything the label feared wouldn’t have monster success.
Isaac: That became a particularly bad problem, and I think the mergers that happened had a lot to do with that. The late-nineties is going to be a really interesting subject for a lot of books, a lot of conversations about the music industry, because it’s also when piracy became a problem.
I am one who believes that piracy was the result of pride on the part of the industry, and ignorance too. They ignored their fans, they said their fans were stupid, that they didn’t matter. So what their fans did was they went and got the music the way they culturally wanted to find it. It just so happens that this meant getting it for free.
It also happened that the reason they did so was because of quality control. I can’t tell you how many times when I was a young kid, when we were first starting to make our own records, I remember so often being very distrustful of the so-called “value” of an album. And I don’t know whether that’s more of a modern phenomenon, but I know that’s where I came from.
I know it was consistent throughout my generation of music listeners, this skepticism over the value of an album. “This album, most likely, is going to have three songs that I really really like. If it has more than that I’ll be shocked,” I’d think. And at that time we were being forced to spend $15 per album, so adjust that for inflation. And a huge number of people in the business never really learned that lesson, they never understood what their audience really wanted. They never did the job they were supposed to do, which was to provide the opportunity for bands which were potentially talented to make records.
The people who have always survived in the world of music have been the people who had great songs, whether they wrote them themselves or had them written by someone else. So at the end of the day it’s about the songs, it’s about the record. So for us it was always about getting to that place in the first place. The Walk was the first record we did from scratch post-Island, all that mess. That was an incredibly liberating thing, a really good experience. We also did that album with Danny Kortchmar, who we did “Penny and Me,” the single from Underneath, with. And that was a real natural experience.
The story with this album, Shout It Out, was that for the first time we ended up producing and writing the entire thing ourselves, which was the first time we went in from top to bottom and did that. It was almost an accident, because we’d talked to several people about working with them on the album, but it didn’t come together with the timing we wanted; we had a particular plan for what we wanted to get done and when we wanted to do it.
So we were like, “well, this is neat, because we’re going in!” We spent about a month rehearsing and finalizing, spent a couple months making sure we had the songs we wanted, then said “alright, this is what we want,” and the three of us in a big room just made it happen.
SSv: What made you think about adding a horn section to most of the album? Did that sound help influence the shape of the songs, or did you already have songs written that simply demanded horns?
Isaac: That’s interesting, because it took six months before that happened. We recorded the record, finished it, mixed it, and it felt like it just wasn’t done. We went out on the road and at that point we’d finished the record and it just seemed something was missing. We didn’t know what it was. The horn section had been part of an idea floating around for a long time, but it seemed like a pipe dream, something we’d never pull off. In fact there was even a horn section in the room next door while we were recording the El Paso sessions for Shout It Out, and we almost had them come in but we didn’t get the time.
So January 2010 rolls around and two songs come into play. One’s a ballad called “Me Myself and I,” which ends the record and has been around since 2002. We finished up the lyrics on that and there was a brand new idea called “Give A Little,” and that song, when we started working with it, we looked at each other and said, “this song really needs horns, doesn’t it?” There was something about the song which felt like horns would take it over the top.
From there one thing led to another and instead of just that one song, half the album had horns featured on it, because we just felt if you’re going to do horns you might as well do it big. You might as well go for it and make it part of the sound that defines the record.
SSv: “Use Me Up” and “Me Myself and I” are both such stunning ballads. But they’re both a lot darker than many of the other songs on Shout It Out. What led you in that direction lyrically?
Isaac: Well, they are darker, and I suppose it’s just one of those things were those particular ballads felt like the right ones to have on the album. We’ve got a decent number of darker ballads like that [on past records], but those were the most sparse stylistically. “Me Myself and I” is reminiscent of a song on This Time Around called “A Song To Sing.”
SSv: Right. A lot of your fans have commented on the similarities between the two and how sometimes the intros get interchanged live.
Isaac: [Laughs] Yeah, they do . . . there is a tendency for similarities to come up between some of the piano-based songs. But I don’t know what really prompted the darkness of them except to say that sometimes certain emotions just come out. Maybe it’s a culmination of the fact that most of the rest of the album is so upbeat. So the mellow ones really stand out, they make up for those other elements from the rest of the album.
SSv: They both seem to deal with such an oppressive sense of longing.
Isaac: I think that’s been a consistent lyrical theme in a lot of our music. This Time Around was a lot more in that vein than even the new record. “Me Myself and I” has that sense that you’re trying to work your way through something really intense, the idea of losing something you really care about, and I think that’s something a lot of people are dealing with these days. There’s a lot of reality to that in everyday life. And I don’t know, I think maybe all of the songs wound up being about just making it through. I know it might feel rough right now, but it’s alright to make it through.
SSv: I really thought the line from the end of the song stood out, when Taylor sings: “I don’t care who’s wrong or right, I’ll give you the last words tonight.” There was a sense that if it couldn’t be fixed, maybe just sleeping on things would make it work.
Isaac: Yeah, we were trying to leave an attempt at clarity in there at the end, because we have a tendency to try and have some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. And I think even with that lyric, it’s a combination of optimism and just plain giving-up. “I know I’m not going to be able to fix this right now, and maybe it’s not going to be okay.”
But I think it really culminates with the line “all that’s left is me, myself and I.” Meaning, at the end of the day I can only live my life and do the best with my life that I can. I can’t make someone else do something even though I feel like they should, or we could. Ultimately all I’m left with is myself and doing the best job I can to finish on the right side, whatever that is.
The other side of a similar coin, I guess, would be “Use Me Up,” which is us saying “make me feel something, because right now I just feel totally numb.” I think “Use Me Up” is the darkest ballad we’ve ever recorded.
SSv: You guys are veterans of the “double standard” in pop music when it come to age. With Middle of Nowhere your age showed and critics dubbed you a boy band, but ten years later with Shout It Out the ’70s and ’80s influences had some people saying you should “act more your age.” How do you even begin to strike back against that kind of empty criticism?
Isaac: You really can’t, because it’s ridiculous. We used to always say that we’re not going to be young forever, and everybody gets this in some way. If you’re not too young, you’re too old; if you’re not too black, you’re too white, or whatever. “Oh, that rapper’s not ghetto enough, he’s got no cred! That band’s not rock enough, they’re just lightweights.” I think that just comes from people being frustrated and not putting the music first.
I’m not saying our record is anything remarkable, but I think it’s the best record that we could make, the one that we wanted to make. Whether everybody says it’s great or not is something I have no control over. But when it comes to making music, everyone’s got their own set of hurdles, and I just think that double standard is hilarious, that when you’re in your mid-20s you’re not allowed to make an upbeat record.
I think it’s also people listening to our music on a very skin-deep level, and I think that happens a lot. We cross our fingers and hope that the powers that be, journalists and radio stations, will listen to the music with a little more of an open mind. “Yeah, this is an upbeat song, but lyrically it’s more complex!” or something to that effect.
SSv: I thought it was funny when you did that show in New York with Drake, and there was that riot because they wound up with 20,000 music fans instead of the 10,000 they’d expected. And all the online articles framed it as “Riot At Hanson Concert,” not even mentioning Drake in the headlines. If that doesn’t get people to give the album a listen, nothing will.
Isaac: We take it where we can get it. We have a lot of fans in New York, but obviously there were a lot of people there for Drake. We were really looking forward to that show, too, because it was going to be a lot of fun. For me, I like playing for crowds that aren’t sure what to expect. For me that’s what music is about. And we’ve done this for a lot of years and have been lucky to have fans for a long time, but I like it when we can convince new listeners.
SSv: What was it like preparing all your old material for those shows you did playing each album back to back in their entirety? Did that experience help cement the “musical legacy” of those albums?
Isaac: Well, we’ll see. It was a lot of fun, we recorded it all and there will be a DVD eventually. What was surprising, and I found this to be the case, is that when you play Middle of Nowhere, This Time Around, Underneath, The Walk and Shout It Out back to back, there are far more similarities than there are differences. The records can easily interchange songs and you’re not going to think they don’t fit into the mix.
We play about sixty-percent of that repertoire throughout a given tour, but learning the other forty percent and getting to where we were playing every song in order, with no repeats, that was the challenge. There’s a lot of detail because once you get into the idea of playing it all consecutively and then recording it, the pressure’s on! You can’t just throw it in there, like “let’s do an acoustic version of that!” There’s a lot more pressure to focus rather than just playing it for the sake of keeping things interesting. You’re going in there with a specific purpose of recreating the feeling of those records as best you can.
Of course doing it live things are always going to be different, particularly in the case of Middle of Nowhere, since we don’t have our teenage vocal ranges anymore. The keys can’t stay the same. But playing these songs we never seem to play live, that was really fun. We were fresher on them, the experience, the emotions were fun to experience again. Our set lists change every night, sure, but never that much – there are always the songs people expect to hear at a Hanson concert, and rightfully so. Playing everything consecutively without any repeats was definitely a trip.
SSv: What do you wish someone would ask you about but they never do?
Isaac: I always like talking about lyrics. I always like talking about those kind of details, and unfortunately most people don’t like to hear about that so much. But I always like talking about the details, it’s what interests me about the makeup of the band. I like to talk about the influences, old records, not even just our records. But I really get off on the influences, like Billy Joel, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, all that stuff. To me, that’s the essence of everything. It’s a combination of groove and lyric.
SSv: You must have been really gratified when All Music Guide called Shout It Out the perfect fusion between Steve Winwood’s Roll With It and Billy Joel’s The Bridge, then.
Isaac: [Laughs] Yes, that was absolutely great. I think for the first time people got an understanding of where we’re coming from musically. Or at least it was more clear than before. I heard someone call it “soulful pop” and I got a smile on my face because that’s what we felt like we are. Soulful pop, with a bit of rock. I’ve never been much of a “rock” guitar player; the closest I can get to rock is blues. It’s fun to crank up the distortion and go for it, to play an AC/DC cover, but when it comes to making records it’s all about keeping some soul in the songs and staying true to ourselves.
Reprinted with permission from Stereo Subversion.
*Photo by Jiro Schneider