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StarPolish Interview

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Parts 1 & 2

Before Britney ever bared her belly or the Backstreet Boys set to harmonizing, Hanson ruled the teen-pop roost. Emerging as an Anglo Jackson Five or a cooler Osmond Brothers in the mid-'90s, the three photogenic Hanson brothers blew out of Tulsa, Oklahoma to take the world of pop by storm. Powered by radio-friendly songs such as "MMMBop" and "Where's the Love" that melded slick pop with soulful, ebullient harmonies and infectious hip-hop beats, the group's 1997 debut album, Middle of Nowhere, rocketed to the top of the charts. At the time of the album's release, Isaac Hanson (guitar, vocals) was just 16, Taylor (lead vocal, keyboards) was 13, and Zac (drums) was just 11.

Despite their ages, Hanson weren't overnight sensations. Prior to being signed, the band Hanson had already put in five years trying to break into the business, gigging around Tulsa and releasing two indie albums while improving their instrumental prowess and learning to write songs. Mercury Records finally signed the brothers on the strength of "MMMBop," and teamed them with slick producers, such as the Dust Brothers and Steve Lironi, and proven songwriters, such as Desmond Child and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil. "MMMBop" debuted at No.13 in the U.S. charts, and backed by strong radio airplay and an MTV video, Hanson - and Middle of Nowhere - became a runaway success.

Hanson's follow-up album, 2000's This Time Around, demonstrated the group's growing maturity, as they wrote all the songs on the album and ultimately co-produced it along with Livoni. The album also featured special guest artists such as Blues Traveler's John Popper, Beck scratch-master DJ Swamp and teenage guitar wiz Jonny Lang, which some saw as an effort by Hanson to move behind the teen-idol thing and establish themselves as more legitimate rock artists. Ric Ocasek, originally hired to produce the record, was fired after three tracks were completed, leaving the production chores to Livoni, Mark Hudson and Hanson. Despite the strong roster of songs, cool guests and first-class production, This Time Around didn't achieve anywhere near the commercial success of the group's debut album.

That makes the next Hanson album a very critical one for the brothers and their label, Island Def Jam (Mercury was subsumed within the Island Def Jam Music Group just prior to the second album). Getting the album delivered, however, has been somewhat problematic. The yet-untitled album was originally scheduled for a fall 2001 release, but there's still no firm date as to when the album will be completed and released. There have been numerous reports about contributors, ranging from producers such as Bob Marlette (Tracy Chapman, Marilyn Manson) and Livoni (and maybe even Ocasek or Glenn Ballard), to engineers such as Counting Crows/Pretender knob-twister Steve Churchyard. Its' also been reported that Hanson has been working with other songwriters and musicians, including such as Carol King, Matthew Sweet, Ed Robertson (Barenaked Ladies), Donny Brown (Verve Pipe) and Gregg Alexander (ex-New Radicals).

If the new album is hanging heavy on Hanson's mind, you couldn't tell from their recent sit-down interview with StarPolish editorial director James K. Willcox at Island Def Jam's New York offices. The Hanson brothers were smart, informed about the business and its history, and very funny. In this the first segment of this two-part interview, Hanson addresses the Internet and Napster, retaining the rights to their masters, and the plusses and minuses or working within the major-label system.

Using the Internet

ZAC: We try and use the Internet as much as possible, just because it's an easy way to communicate with masses of people instantly, essentially. From websites - we have an ISP - the struggle is always doing as much as you want with it because there's so much stuff that we always want to do. But it's hard to sit down and do everything you want to do. Or maybe the person who's updating the site for you is just not getting everything you want done. And I guess that's always the struggle. But I think the Internet has been a huge tool.

TAYLOR: Early on, when the first record came out, I think we were one of the first bands to really start to embrace the web as a medium, and we said we got to do this site, and we started really getting into the site. And that was really before anyone was giving the Internet much respect as a tool. And now, record companies are using it as a promotional tool, or they survey with it...or at least they're trying to. They at least recognize that's its supposed to do something - not that they know how to use it, but they at least see that it's effective in some way. And I think most importantly, like we were talking [about] earlier, it's the fans communication, inside itself. They get to know each other, they find things out, they trade stories and information, and I think it's kind of self-perpetuating - they turn the wheels themselves. And then you get to be part it - you get to go. "This is where we're going to be, or this is when we'll do a chat, here's the video and here are the pictures and here's the music," but then they go and take that, and go, "Did you hear about that?" It's not like sending someone a letter in the mail -- it keeps going, goes on to the next person -- it's self-perpetuating.

ZAC: It's not just a letter... it's a chain letter... (everyone laughs)

ISAAC: I think that I've deleted every chain letter I've ever gotten...

ZAC: You deleted all my letters! (everyone laughs)

Internet Influence

ZAC: It's happening -- it's just not happening the way that everyone thinks it's going to happen. Everyone went, "this is going to be the next big thing... (motions a big take-off, then a dive, simulates the sound of a crash).

TAYLOR: Everyone jumped to conclusions so quickly...

ISAAC: It's like Amazon.com or something, where everyone is paying $100 a share, or $150 a share...

TAYLOR: For a company that doesn't make any money...

ISAAC: Exactly... on the prospect that it might. It's just an inflated, confused view of the Internet. But the reality is that does have the possibilities of that. But I think we're still several tears away from reaching that point where it can do all the things its capable of doing.

ZAC: It really is a new form of communication. Everyone jumped on it ... and then when it didn't expand to its full potential - which it won't for years, probably --every one jumped off. So I think that it's kind of like, though the years it's going to become more and more...I'm not sure if it ever will be the equivalent of a label...

ISAAC: Look, there are always going to be people finding ways to steal money from artists "(laughter) That is their job.

Napster

TAYLOR: We're technically... we're "on the record" against Napster...

ISAAC: "The "trading" of music...

ZAC: "We're sharing... sharing" with...

ISAAC: We're sharing with millions of people - we have millions of "close friends!"

TAYLOR: It's hard because, personally, I see our song...I think Napster could have been a really cool thing, a really amazing thing to be able to go on the Internet and find almost anything you want, and that's really cool. In fact, that should be the future of the Internet, of being able to go and find this - it's so cool for some 17-year-old kid who has no idea about Led Zeppelin to be able to find everything they've ever done. And there should be a small fee you pay to get that ...

ISAAC: The artist is being compromised...

TAYLOR: It's just like buying a chair - someone manufactured it, paid for the leather, whatever, and they manufactured the chair and you have to go pay something for it, or the chair won't exist anymore because no one is being paid money to make it. You can't walk into Pottery Barn and say, "I like those plates (simulates them under his shirt). It's a bummer that it's not like all those college students who lime, "Oh, this sucks, I can't get all these CDs," Well, duh, you have 300 MP3s and that band has sold 1,000 records.

So I think it's going to change, but no one knows how it's going to happen yet, 'cause everyone's so anxious about making money on the Internet and about how fast it's going to happen. It's going to happen, it's going to evolve, it's already changed the music industry, but there's always going to be record companies, there will always be the record stores, because people do buy things. It's like you're going to order everything in life from the Internet...

ZAC: Yeah? I just bought this shirt on the Internet... (laughs)

TAYLOR: It's a social experience. It's just like how there's a cool area in New York where people go shop. They could buy a lot of that stuff on the Internet somewhere - I'm sure there's a store that manufactures tweedy bags, but they want to go down to SOHO and look around, and grab a hot dog on the way, and sit down and look at the bag...

ISAAC: And see the actual size, and see how it feels to hold the tweedy bag.

TAYLOR: Because that happens. The Internet is such an amazing medium, but it's not going to take over....

ISAAC: Here's the other thing about MP3s - they sound like cassettes. No offense, I know everybody's raving about them, but MP3s do not sound as good as CD quality, and the bass, the bass is not even there.

Writers vs. Publishers

ISAAC: And for those out there for who may or may not know - there was a whole big thing with the RIAA and congress, where there was a change in the law - the work-for-hire thing. We tried to go and testify, but we were in Europe and couldn't make it. But basically the work-for-hire law thing where that the masters of your recordings never ever revert back to you - they're solely owned by the record company. Frankly, 35 years is a really frickin' very long time. And most of those artists will never see the masters revert to them.

ZAC: Most of them will be dead.

ISAAC: We're one of the few artists that will actually see their masters come back to us.

TAYLOR: While we're still making our career.

ISAAC: OK, I'll be like 50 or 60 years old and I may get my masters back.

Artists Represent Themselves

ISAAC: Actually, I don't think there's anyone that represents the artists, except the artists themselves. Truly. And I guess that's the idea with StarPolish, the fact that you're informing the artists of the fact that there isn't anyone looking out for your interests except for you. And maybe a good attorney; hopefully you have one that you trust. And most of the time it's hard to get one, because most of the time they're expensive, and most artists don't have enough money to get a good attorney.

Record Labels

ZAC: The problem with what has been said is there's good and bad things about labels, obviously. The bad thing is, yeah, they pay for your record and then you pay them aback, and then they... It is ironic how much the artists does end up working back from a label, but the artist would never get out there if it weren't for the label. If the label didn't put up the money to let them make the record, and help them promote it, then they really couldn't do it. So it's really a double-edged sword, as with most things. You've got to love the labels because they're keeping you alive a lot of the time, and you've got to hate the label because they're stealing from you

TAYLOR: There are only a few bands in history who have done it without a label; the Grateful Dead is one of them. And touring bands, there are a few gargantuan ones. But they were sort of like that's not going to happen, that's a very rare...

ZAC: In a lot of those cases they're also not broad-stream music. The Grateful Dead is a jam band...

ISAAC: And no offense... there's a lot of drugs that go along with that! (laughs)

ZAC: And they found that they had a thing that a lot of people connected with... and a lot of people doing drugs.

ISAAC: (pretending he's stoned) "Awesome! Jerry Garcia rocks! (laughs)

ZAC: They weren't a mainstream band; they couldn't be played on the radio...

STARPOLISH: But every album of theirs went gold - but over 20 years. They sold and sold and sold...

TAYLOR: And they also made $90 million a year in their biggest touring year - they were one of the biggest touring acts. Ninety million dollars a year in touring.

STARPOLISH: And they encouraged the taping of their music.

ZAC: And actually, I'm kind of for that, really, the recording of live stuff. I think that's cool. I actually wish that Napster existed purely for the trading of live tapes. Because I think that's kind of cool, because another...it's just a different medium.

ZAC: What it is, is, there's gonna be some compromise. Either people have to stop making records, or not depend on records as much, bands will be forced to do more touring and be better bands live - something's gonna happen. Or the Internet will be banned from the face of the planet. Something will happen - or something won't happen, I guess.

TAYLOR: That's pretty definitive. (all laugh)

ZAC: Something's going to happen that will change it.

Producers

TAYLOR: It's funny because I don't think a lot of people understand that we have always played a huge role in the production of our records. We co-produced the last three records that we've done. And basically all our producer is...we just think of it as another member of the band. The problem with being in the band and producing the record is, sometimes you don't always have the best perspective on it. Sometimes you think, "Oh, that's the best part," and it's well, "That shouldn't go on for that long; you need to cut it down." And it's just the idea of a production perspective - "do this with it," or "put this sound on it." And then there is, what's the personality of the person, what their background is, if you don't kill each other in the studio, and then their expertise technically, and the sound of it. And you just combine all those things with the timing of people's schedules, and "OK, can you even do this?" So the producer is just another person, and if that person comes from a background of doing death-metal, then they're probably going to say, "Let's do the guitar like this (simulates heavy death-metal guitar riffs)."

ISAAC: The irony of it is, the song we just did and put on this Princess Diary soundtrack...

TAYLOR: We did it with a producer who's done Saliva, three or four Alice Cooper records, all hard-core stuff.

STARPOLISH: When it starts, it sounding almost a little country:

TAYLOR: It kinda does have that flavor - we're like, "Man, it has this Southern rock kind of like...

ISAAC: It has mandolin on it, acoustic guitar. The thing about us is, we're very eclectic; we end up with a lot of songs that have very different styles, very different stylistically. If you listen to a record, and you'll get, "OK, that song's very 1960it, it. That song's is very 1965, that song's very Black Crowes, and you get these very definitive things that come out of it. Actually, it's both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand it's good because it makes it interesting for the listener, but on the other hand...

TAYLOR: Sometimes you have to go, "We have to go and give it some continuity...how do we do R&B, and some really rocking thing, and really make it feel like it makes sense.

ISAAC: And that's sometimes where the producer plays a role in it, to help smooth out the edges.

Part2:             In Part I of their interview with StarPolish editorial director James K. Willcox, Hanson talked about the Internet and Napster, retaining the rights to your masters, and the plusses and minuses of working with major labels. In Part II, presented here, the band discusses the various misconceptions about Hanson, working with songwriters ranging from Carole King to Matthew Sweet, and where they stand in terms of finishing their next album.                                                     

GETTING RESPECT

STARPOLISH: With the rise of boy bands such as *NSYNC and singer-performers like Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, I was wondering if there's been a backlash of respectability for acts like Hanson that actually write their own songs, play their own instruments, sing live at concerts

ISAAC: Actually, it's really a bit scary when people go -- actually I got a little bit annoyed with it on the last record, because people were like, "Man, you guys write your own songs, and play your own instruments and sing great," and I'm like, "Wait a second -- these are things that people are pointing out as really unique, positive attributes?" I mean wait a second - that's normal stuff.                                                      

TAYLOR: What else are we supposed to do? We write, we play, we sing - that's why we're a band.

ISAAC: Exactly. I have nothing against the concept of people being singers and performers purely, and not writers, or not players. Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin

STARPOLISH: Frank Sinatra

ISAAC: Yeah, hello

TAYLOR: Great singers But there is a difference in the stuff now, 'cause there's a real insincerity about it, it's about this (holds two fingers slightly apart) deep, and everybody knows that it's fabricated. And Frank Sinatra was a great performer and amazing singer, and Aretha Franklin is the same way. So I think it's kind of weird, because when our first record came out, it was sort of like, "OK, it's too poppy" -- we were really young then we're still young, but we were really young then - and it was like, "Ooh." And it kind of turned slightly to where we're like the rougher side of those bands

ISAAC: We're like the old-timers now (laughs).

TAYLOR: Yeah, we're like the old school compared to the rest of those bands. But to be honest, we've always been just a band, and those comparisons have always been, well, we don't even really fit into that category. So I just hope we're seen for who we are

ISAAC: As opposed who are in comparison to other people.

GAINING CREDIBILITY

STARPOLISH: So do you think there's been a renewed sense of respect for Hanson among fans? Because it seemed like you always had the respect of your peers

ZAC: We never had a problem with

TAYLOR: Credibility in the industry.

ZAC: From the first record to now

ISAAC: The reviews have always been very, very good

ZAC: The reviews have been good, besides the fact if they don't like the record. I think that's only been a wrong public people who didn't give it a chance to even listen to the music...

ISAAC: OK - here's the easy one, though, for like a young guy who's my age -- he goes, "Oh man, they got long hair and they look like girls." Oh, that took a lot of thought

ZAC: Or, "They must be gay three guys, they spend a lot of time together." (everyone laughs)

STARPOLISH: The fact that you're brothers doesn't

ZAC: No, we're not from Arkansas(laughs). Oklahoma - close, but no cigar. You didn't go to school, did you?

TAYLOR: I think you can almost blame those misconceptions on all of the broad press. You're right -- the industry, as far as the people in bands, anybody who knows what we do knows who we are as a band. So that's never been a problem. But it is in the broad sense - yeah, there are huge misconceptions about Hanson, massive. It's so funny that so many people know the band, but have so many misconceptions about it. And so it's always just like, "I'm glad you know who I am, but do you know who I am, do you know what the band is about? And that, I think, is where we are, trying to make sort of continuing to put out records and continue to let people know what it's about. And then it's just about us enjoying music, and that's all that really matters.

ISAAC: The reason that you get guys like we worked with -- Matthew Sweet, we wrote a song with him

TAYLOR: And Ric Ocasek.

ISAAC: Or all these different people, is that when you actually get in the room with these people (snaps fingers), like that there's no ego involved, there's no nothing, because you're musicians and you instantly connect on that level. And everybody realizes that. There's no question like

TAYLOR: Like a camera sitting there, or some person from Bop magazine, saying, "Oh my god, your hair," or "What toothbrush do you use," or comparing you or Rolling Stone saying you can't possibly be with Ric Ocasek 'cause he's cool and you're not. Because you're sitting there and he goes, "Oh, I heard your record and I liked it," and we say, "We heard your record and we liked it." And if it worked, then it worked, and that's what it comes down to. You sit in a room and just do it.

SONGWRITING

STARPOLISH: What was it like working with Carole King? Was it intimidating?

ZAC: The amazing thing about that was that it wasn't like that. When you step in the room with her I mean, I scared myself, going, "Hey, when I was working with Carol" (laughs). That's cool Ooooh! (laughs)

ISAAC: We're on a first-name basis with Carole King! (laughs)

ZAC: It's such a curious experience. It has nothing to do with egos, and anything -- all the crap, the phlegm -- kind of just goes away.

ISAAC: Phlegm? That's a really nice picture I just got there(laughs)

TAYLOR: You know, on the first record we did a couple of co-writes, and we'd never really done that before, it was kind of like, "Why would we need to co-write with someone?" But you're right -- it was always just the three of us writing songs. There are struggles in co-writing and a lot of people don't ever do it because its kind of a pain, like, "Well, there are personality issues" But when it is cool it's really cool, and when you find someone you mesh with, it really works, and it should just be like as if it were these two guys. The only difference is, the three of us know each other really well, and we deal with each other in a way that's comfortable because we know what's going to come out. If you get a co-writing situation where you go, "Wow, Barenaked Ladies" or "Matthew Sweet," who are people we've worked with, "Let's see what happens." And if you connect in the right way, then it's great, and it is a different thing. More than anything it's just about learning to work with people and get around personality issues, and trying to just get through to the music.


THE NEW ALBUM

ZAC: We've been down in Dallas working on demos for that record for a couple of months now -- it's just the process it takes to get into the studio to do it. We're right about to go into the studio now, and the album should be coming out early next year.

STARPOLISH: Have you announced that Glen Ballard is going to be producing it? Have you made any announcements about who'll be producing it?

TAYLOR: Actually, we haven't made an announcement yet about the producer, because there's going to be a couple of different [ones]. There's a new producer who we're really psyched about -- his name is Greg Wells, a young guy and he hasn't done a lot of things you would know, but we really connected with him musically, and we're going to start the record with him. And probably Glenn Ballard, we'll do a few things with. There are a lot of really great producers we're really psyched about working with, so we're not really looking to say yet, 'cause it would be kind of stupid to make that point this early in this thing

ISAAC: We've been talking to a lot of people and there have been no definitive decisions besides the fact that we are going to be doing some stuff with this young producer, Greg Wells, to start things off.

DEALING WITH FAME AND FORTUNE

ISAAC: I think that the main issue that's held us together is, number one, our relationship with each other, but also

TAYLOR: Common sense

ISAAC: Common sense, but also we have a really good relationship with the rest of our family. And I think that's kept us in check, in that they've kind of they maintain being our family, and we maintain being brothers and band mates and then it all kind of balances itself out, in a sense. I think we never really cared about being world-famous rock star something-or-others -- I think it always sounds funny

ZAC: We're not rock stars

ISAAC: We're really just guys in a band.

ZAC: [A] rock star is not something you are, it's something you becomelike something that you put on. Bono is a rock star, not because that's what he really is, or whatever his real name is, it's because he's made up this person that he becomes when he's the "I'm Bonohear me roar (laughs)." It's whether you let yourself become that or not. In the end, I think it should always - and will always - come down to you as a musician. When you spend all your money on Ferraris and escort services and whatever things you want, eventually you're going to have to come back to the music again, and

ISAAC: And make another record

ZAC: And make another record, and have to be successful at that, and if you can't, then you're just

ISACC: A lot of people lose grasp of who they are because they get so excited about the fact that, "Oh my gosh, I've made money"

ZAC: People love me!"

ISAAC: And they don't realize that one, they haven't made as much money as they think they have, and number two, they made some crappy deal, and number three, they have to pay the record people back, you know? And it all just starts adding up And you have to keep it all in perspective, as Zac said, it has to be about you musically and what you're trying towhat you're going for in the first place. We were never in it for the girls, we were never in it for the money -- we were in it 'cause we couldn't help it.

ZAC: Just the nice things(everyone laughs)

ISAAC: We couldn't help but just being a band. It was one of those things we tripped over..

SURVIVAL

ISAAC: I know we were too na´ve then, but now we're all cynical and skeptical

TAYLOR: Actually, I think we've always had early on we met up with several really, really smart people and kept ourselves from doing really stupid things. And I think we got really good advice from several different peopleattorneys who saved us from deals that would have killed us. Honestly, the music industry is one of the worst businesses in the world as far as (looking at camera) "Hi everybody, I'm in the music industry"-- and anybody in the industry knows it And the reason is because the people who are in it, the people that originated it, it's a creative thing, so what happens is it just gets raped. As long as the bands do what the bands are supposed to do, and they realize that there's those other guys who are making money off of them, and they just remember that it's about the music, and the fans and the shows and the passion that comes out of it, and that they're not stupid enough to get screwed, then they'll be OK

INFLUENCES

ISAAC: Chuck Berry

STARPOLISH: Really? I've heard that he's one of the nastiest people(everyone laughs)

ISAAC: I know, I knowvery nasty. But here's the thing-the record company made him a nasty man because they stole all his money

ZAC: Nooo (everyone laughs). If he's old man, then he's a nasty old man

ISAAC: Some people just let themselves become nasty old men, I don't know, but he gets paid in cash and all that kind of stuff because he did get ripped off, he really did seriously

ZAC: He's a music icon, a huge influence, he was a huge influence on us from the beginning I don't know if that's who I'd choose, but I mean, he was one of the originators of what is now known as rock 'n roll. It's hard to be much more influential on music if you're not the Beatles

ISAAC: He was one of the first people to introduce "lead guitar" as kind of a main musical theme in a song. Here's my riff

ZAC: (hums riff to Johnny B. Goode)

ISAAC: Keith Moon!

ZAC: Oh dudesomething musical

STARPOLISH: Not just crazy?

ZAC: Yeah -- boom!

ZAC: I try not to choose drummers because they're a sort of psycho, blowing themselves up.

STARPOLISH: Like Spinal Tap

ISACC: Zac's actually tried that several times - it hasn't worked yet

TAYLOR: There's so many I'd actually like to play with Michael Stipe, that's one that seems cool and of course Michael Jackson, what an amazing artist. What about you, Zac?"

ZAC: Yanni (laughs).

ISAAC: Maybe Billy Joel or something?

ZAC: Yanni Kenny G, maybe

ISAAC: Kenny G, Yanni and John Tesh - together, in concert! (everyone laughs)

TAYLOR: With Zac on drums!

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