Zac Hanson on Writing Music, Growing Up & Rocking Out

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A few weeks back, a publicist  with what I think was a British accent connected my cellular line with Zac Hanson's. Mid-morning coffee in hand, I wasn't sure which one of the three brothers I'd be interviewing, until he answered. The seemingly groggy drummer of the 90s teen sensation Hanson chatted with me, with the occasional interruption of a yawn always followed by a politely southern "Oh, gosh, excuse me." We talked for half an hour about Hanson's latest album, Shout It Out, life on the road and growing up.

New Times: You guys have come a long way since the mayhem of 1997. What's touring like 13 years after MMMBop?

Zac Hanson: In a lot of ways many things are the same. I mean life has changed. As far as the reasons we make music, that's the same.

NT: What's it like having grown up with a lot of your fan base?

ZH: I think it's something that we love and some people might look at being young when we started as a crutch or a problem. But we kind of feel like it's a huge asset, something that helps us connect with our fans. It's kind of unquantifiable. You know, because we all started so young together. I mean, I was 11 when we first kind of hit the scene. And I'll be 25 this year. It's awesome to have so many fans who have gone through so many stages in their lives and still want to come back to us. 

NT: Looking back, the fanfare was almost incomprehensible. The governor of Oklahoma gave you guys your own "day." Do people still celebrate Hanson Day?
ZH: It's still celebrated by some. I think the first Hanson Day was the day our first big record came out. It's an honor that they bestowed kind of a key to the city - but it doesn't really unlock the city. [Laughs] It was more about respect for the music that we made and make, and I think for the state in particular it's a way of honoring the culture of Oklahoma.

NT: You guys are heavy into social media, blogging on your site, streaming shows and tweeting. What's the general response to your interactivity?
ZH: We're the first generation really growing up with the Internet, and we just always want to be as committed as we can to finding new technologies to share music. Whether it's blogging or tweeting or sharing, we just want to be at the forefront. Our fans have grasped onto that. It's about finding cool, creative moments to invite our fans into. It's not like a reality TV show where were acting like we fight all the time. It just happens when it happens. It's such a part of where we find our inspiration. 

NT: Tell me about your label, 3CG. The name is a reference to the Three Car Garage album, right?
ZH: Yes, it is. When we first formed the label, it was a lot crazier of an idea. What does being your own label mean? In a lot of ways it's a very simple thing. I'm not going to give [my music] to someone else and say, 'I hope it works out.' For us it's a tool to grow with. The future of the business is in the hands of artists and that's why it's so important for us to be a label. When we're the label, we're able to use new technologies and better serve our fans.

NT: Do you see 3CG signing acts in the future?
ZH: I think that what we see is a changing industry and that we've been lucky to be here a lot. I think the relationships we will have with other artists as far as a label will probably be non-traditional. When we decide to sign, it won't be the way most labels are doing it now.

NT: What advice would you give to other independent artists?
ZH: I think that generally people should follow their gut, because the truth of the matter is that there's no big red button. And anyone who says there is probably is lying to you. The truth is you have to create a real connection with fans in order to keep fans coming back to you from record to record. There are so many things vying for people's attention, people's passion, people's money, and you've just got to do your best. If you make music that is honest to your creative direction, it can make you successful. Ultimately it's about passion. Fight, and hopefully you'll come out on the other end.

NT: Let's talk about the new album. It's doing really well.
ZH: It goes more to our roots as a band, not that we've changed something about who we are, but there was a natural connection back to the records that really inspired us to be a band. I think that really comes through on the record on songs like "Thinking 'Bout Somethin'" and "Give A Little," and just throughout the record with the sound of the horns. It's a record we recorded the majority of in El Paso. We were recording live off the floor - the drums and the bass, piano and guitar. So the song is all recorded at the same time: one, two, three, go; playing like a band. I think that also contributed to the sound of this record. You know, it's a summer record. It has happy moments and sad moments, but we find a way to look for light at the end of the tunnel. It tells people to kind of let go a little bit, to release, to get out there and dance and let music connect with you.

NT: How does the success you're experiencing now differ from the past?
ZH: I think it's hard to compare things that are so different. It's kind of like the question, 'What would it be like if I wasn't in the band?' I mean I've been in the band since I was six. It's hard to answer that. We're a working band, out on the road, playing shows, meeting fans and hopefully creating lasting connections. The response to the record has really been phenomenal, and people have been saying really flattering things about the band. That stuff isn't why we do it. We just try to keep focused.

NT: Jerry Hey, who arranged horns for Michael Jackson and also on Underneath, was back doing horns for this record, correct?
ZH: The thing about Jerry, he has a very similar perspective on the role of horns, really trying to make them connect with people in a memorable way. These horns are pop horns. It's not orchestral or something like that. It's a sound that brings excitement to the whole record. He did actually do a couple songs on our record Underneath and it was really great to have him back. He's a legend and it's amazing to have him be a part of it. We can hand off the horn parts and trust that he'll always come back with something really great. 

NT: How did Bob Babbitt get involved?
ZH: Working with Bob was - it was a very strange coincidence that brought him into the studio with us. We loved the idea of actually having this player who has played on records like Bob. Through a series of friends and connections we found that we could get a hold of Bob and that he might be into the idea of recording. It ended up that he flew in from Zurich from a Phil Collins record that he just finished. I think he added an ease to all the songs he played on; something that he's acquired by playing bass and music for years and years. A lot of the parts he played were different than I expected. The way he plays is very tasteful and perfect for what we needed. It was amazing to work with Bob Babbitt.

NT: What records were you listening to during recording?
ZH: Well I don't really listen to much of anything when we're recording just because we keep pretty long hours. By the time you get home, you want to lie down or throw on the TV and watch whatever to clear your mind and be able to approach the music fresh the next day. There's just that need to clear your mind.

NT: So what are you listening to out on the road now?
ZH: I'm not going to be very good for these questions. Right now we're so close to our album, and with the schedule we keep it's hard to really involve myself with other records. As far as generally, I'm kind of a sucker for singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Paul Simon. I'll also throw on some classic rock, Queen, Muse.

NT: The video for "Thinking 'Bout Somethin'" is so happy-go-lucky. Tell me about the concept.
ZH: The music video is a re-creation of a scene from the movie Blues Brothers. There's a scene in the movie where Ray Charles is in a music store and then they cut to crowds of people dancing in the street. We're huge fans of that movie and I think probably for that past 13 years we've been trying to find a way to incorporate the Blues Brothers into what we do. That scene [in the video] was just this perfect scene that connected with the way we feel about the new record. It's people being unlocked and finding joy in music. It kind of moves away from pop and lock to something very organic; people who are coordinated but not super professional dancers. It's normal people being unlocked by a song and being loose. It was incredibly fun to do. We spent a couple days shooting the video in Oklahoma. We searched and scoured for the right kinds of streets and things to make it look right. There was a lot of work going into the dance moves, which thankfully because we're not that coordinated, we played a smaller role in the dancing. The dancers were incredible people from Oklahoma we were able to find. I hope the next one will be able to live up to that. 

NT: What's the next one?
ZH: The next single will most likely be the song "Give A Little." We filmed a music video and some other things for when the time is right. We still feel like there are a lot of people who should see the "Thinking 'Bout Somethin'" video.

NT: What's your favorite track off the record?
ZH: Um, that's hard. Every song has some sort of personal connection in a different way, although we're not necessarily literal in our lyrics. You know, like someone cheating on you and you're going to leave them. I think a song that I'm really happy with is the song "Me Myself and I," because it took a long time to write that song. I just think the lyrics and performance really connected the way it was supposed to feel like and with what we had in our minds. It really tells the story of an emotion, and I think that's something people can really get with and everyone has felt at some point or another. That's just one song I particularly enjoy on the record. I don't like to call favorites, but it's definitely something I'm proud of.

NT: Since the lyrics aren't necessarily applicable to your real lives, where do they come from?
ZH: Well I think the inspiration for songs is a hard one because you are essentially a fictional writer that can kind of go anywhere you want with your stories. But I think in general what we do as a band is to take a real emotion, something that you're feeling whether it's something that happened to you or someone that you know. You're taking a feeling and you're wrapping a story around that feeling that will be meaningful to people. Mostly you're using yourself as a barometer for whether or not you're being successful. If you're writing a story, you're using your life experiences to understand what will be meaningful to people and the best, most poetic way to bring that story across.

NT: You all covered the Infant Sorrow song "Furry Walls" and it ended up on the Get Him to The Greek soundtrack. How did that end up happening?
ZH: Oh, "Furry Walls." It's a song that we heard, thought was great, and wanted to do a cover of it. And some friends encouraged us to do it and were working on the film. It was really as simple as that. 

NT: What's next? Maybe another documentary?
ZH: I think right now we're just focused on this record. I don't know what we're thinking of working on next. So far we're just planning to tour and get out the album.

NT: Anything we Arizonans should know about your upcoming show at Mesa Arts?
ZH: We play music from every album and try to change the set every night. Mostly it's a good time. It's a rock and roll show, so come if you love music. Hopefully we can take that love of music and connect with it and have a really good time.



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