Hanson on 20 Years of ‘Middle of Nowhere’ and Why They’ll Never Break Up
Hanson have never left. Twenty years after the three brothers from Tulsa, Oklahoma recorded that indelible chorus to “Mmmbop,” Isaac, Taylor, and Zac Hanson—now 36, 34, and 31—are still writing, singing, and playing together. This May, they’ll head out on an international tour marking their 25th year as a band and the 20th anniversary of their debut album, Middle of Nowhere (they’ve since released five more). They’ve never seriously considered doing anything else.
The brothers first came to the South by Southwest festival in 1994, and their 2017 shows still draw long lines of adoring fans. SPIN sat down with all three of the Hanson brothers in Austin to talk about bringing the band full circle, and about more recent passions. They say they treasure every minute of what they do, and when they start spontaneously harmonizing mid-interview, it’s not hard to believe. But as a band who hit it big selling actual CDs, they’re also vocal about the uphill battle artists face for fair compensation in the age of digital streaming.
You guys were famously discovered at SXSW in—what was it, 1994?
Isaac Hanson: ’94.
Zac Hanson: We don’t think of it as discovered because we’re pretty positive that someone discovered us before that. But we have a deep connection to SXSW, just because we came down here when we were kids, a few years after we had started. You know, we busked in the streets, nobody wanted to listen to us, but eventually we found a guy who came up and was like “let me hear your music” and that guy became our manager, helped us get signed, and was with us for years. I think the real spirit of SXSW is more that kind of a story. There’s so many people in the streets who are trying to find a way to get their demo into somebody’s hands. Not just like the big showcase where the big band from where ever comes to play, but the kind of nobody who meets someone or gets a chance or networks their way into a deal.
Taylor Hanson: SXSW, all the different events—it can get a little crazy, but one of the things that’s unique about it is that it’s really not a conference. It’s a festival, and so much of what happens is not what you’d think is going to happen. It’s not like I’m going to Bonnaroo, and I know there’s gonna be these bands, and it’s gonna be a great experience and amazing music and maybe there’ll be a party that I wasn’t aware of. But at SXSW, it’s all about the extending web. With us, as well, our SXSW story is not “we signed up for a showcase.” We just showed up. We got into music because it was inside, and you gotta get it out. We didn’t think it was something we had to wait to do.
Isaac: We also didn’t want to go to Nashville, ‘cause Nashville is country land and that just wasn’t what we were pursuing, especially 25 years ago. Austin felt more right for us, as far as there’s going to be industry people, doing the kind of things we’re trying to do.
You said you were busking in the street as children. Is that even legal?
Isaac: Texas is a pretty free state.
Zac: Singing is still, you know, considered a First Amendment right. So, yeah, it’s legal. Twenty-three years ago when we we came down, South By wasn’t quite the spectacle it is today. We were walking around, standing on a corner, singing our songs. We went to the industry softball game and sang for people while they ate their barbecue, whether they wanted us to or not. Somebody might’ve called child services on us if there were more cell phones or something, but we had our parents with us.
Taylor: Our parents were there with us, we had a very supportive family.
Isaac: They were just a safe enough distance away.
Taylor: You don’t sit there and micromanage it. Nobody knew exactly what would come of it; it was more just that desire of, “Well, how do I reach more people? How do we do this?” Nobody’s told us exactly how you’re going to find a manager, how you’re going to find a label. We just think we should keep swinging for it.
One of the first CDs I ever owned wasn’t Middle of Nowhere, but 3 Car Garage, the demos album. When was the last time you guys listened to those?
Taylor: Oh, gosh. Well, Middle of Nowhere we listened to more recently, because we were looking back at the greatest hits and assembling the list. 3 Car Garage, I don’t even remember the last time. It’s interesting putting that out because that kinda tells you, even back then, when it first came out, we were talking about telling the complete story. Not that it was like we just showed up, and suddenly we’re successful. The fact that we started and made stuff in our garage—It was always important to us to tell that story.
Isaac: When we were in Jamaica earlier this year, we played “Ever Lonely.”
[All three sing”Ever Lonely”: “If you’re ever lonely you can call on me.”]
As a kid, I would pore over that CD booklet—you guys were teen style icons. Was there any intention behind it? Did you have a stylist?
Taylor: Our style was very much who we were, but at some point there’s a stylist involved because you’re doing shoots and you’re traveling. We had to have someone buying clothes.
Zac: You also get to a point, whether you want it or not, where people start to try to give you clothing.
Taylor: But our personal style—we were never monkey-suited up, like “Alright, put on this, kid.” To our detriment, we couldn’t do it.
Isaac: There were a couple of photographers who had very well-meaning, elaborate concepts that we didn’t like very much.
Taylor: But let’s be honest, also: All of us surviving the nineties, there were some very, very bad materials that were being sold to everyone. Synthetic.
Taylor: Horrible things.
On the whole, I think you came out pretty unscathed. Google those photos of young NSYNC, when they’re all wearing the matching silver suits.
Taylor: That’s good to hear. When we first came out, being so young, the attempt to group us into the teen-pop thing was strong. But we were like: We’re just a band. We just happen to be really young. You’d be amazed at how many situations were like, “Put on a suit, it’s very nice, very flashy.” You’re like, that’s not happening .
Did you know at that age that you were committed for the long term?
Isaac: Yeah, absolutely.
Zac: You should search for early Hanson interviews. We sound exactly like we do now.
Taylor: Except for the voices. Yours especially.
Zac: We would talk about it. People would be like, “So, what are you going to do when you grow up?” We’d be like, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” I have a career, I’m a musician. Are you still going to be a journalist? Why would you ask that to somebody. When [Blues Traveler’s] John Popper guested on our second record, he was like, “You guys need to make more lunch boxes.” We were like, “But John, credible bands don’t make lunch boxes.” “Dude, take the money. If I could make lunch boxes—” But here you are at 14, talking to John Popper, we’re going, “We want a credible band.”
How do you know that at 11?
Taylor: I guess we were just snobs. We were always just musical snobs, because we became students of rock ‘n’ roll early.
Isaac: The most influential song to me is the beginning song from that 1958 compilation, which is “Johnny B. Goode.” And then it goes into “Summertime Blues” and “Rockin’ Robin” and “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and you’re like, all this stuff, this is amazing.
Taylor: What’s so funny about us is, I think there’s a perception of Hanson of being pop music, and upbeat. You know, we’re not drug addicts.
Zac: We do drink a lot of alcoholic substances.
Taylor: We sell beer, but if you think about the way we are, we’re very purist about the music. We’re more hardcore in that way than maybe a lot of bands of our time. [They’re] a little more like, I got into a band to hook up with girls. Inevitably girls like guys in bands, it’s a thing. But we’re here for the music, you know?
Isaac: We’re kind of boring like that.
How do you stay earnest and not get jaded?
Zac: You let it out in your music. That’s the answer to everything. How do you stay together? You let out all the shit in your music. I was watching Mick Fleetwood on an interview, and he was talking about Rumours and he was like, “It’s probably in some ways a mistake how much we shared publicly about all the shit that’s in that record, because it sort of taints that record publicly.” But the reality is, you’re always writing about your life, and that helps you get through it. That’s why people respond to music so strongly, because they take your writing and they associate it with their own life experience, and then it becomes the way that they filter this human condition.
Do you ever get bands who are as young as you were when you were starting out approaching you for advice?
Taylor: Absolutely. They don’t necessarily turn out to have a trajectory, but often times people will reach out. Especially the dad manager that’s trying to be the manager, maybe doesn’t really want to be, like, “Hey, my kids are musical.” It’s a hard question to answer. The first question is: Do you have to do it? Is it something you really have to do? Not like you wanna do it. Especially if you’re young, it needs to be something that you just have to do. If you could sort of do it on the side, don’t do it. It’s going to suck. It’s going to be hard. You’re going to get a lot of failure.
Zac: And the rate of failure is so high.
Taylor: It needs to be one of those things where you will just be happier as a human knowing that you’re doing it, and then succeeding with it, really succeeding with it, is more of an inevitability of who you are.
What are you most tired of hearing about yourselves?
Zac: How attractive we are, mostly. [All laugh.] It’s just so hard to deal with…
Taylor: That we may be Mormon. This confusion, “Is Hanson Mormon?”
Zac: Or that we’re from Australia.
Taylor: We’re married with kids, so every time someone has a child, there’ll be some kind of commentary, either Mormon or Catholic.
Zac: No, we just like procreating, and then practicing procreating.
I’m sure you hear about “Mmmbop” all the time, but what is a song that you’re most proud of?
Isaac: There are a lot that I’m very proud of, but the top two for me—’cause I have to pick two, ’cause I can’t just pick one—are actually “Song to Sing,” which is off of the second record [This Time Around] and then “Been There Before,” which is on the fourth record [The Walk].
Taylor: They’re songs about songs. Songs about connection.
Zac: I think they’re songs about what music does to people.
Taylor: Music, and art and design, is really about connecting. It’s human: I need to feel alive, I need to feel connected to others.
Isaac: Those two are really high on the list for me.
Do you ever think about what you’d be doing if you were not doing this, or is that not even a relevant concept?
Zac: It’s sort of an odd feeling, more maybe for us, because we started so young. We started performing, doing shows on stage, when I was 6. There isn’t a lot of life association pre-music, so it can be hard to distinguish what you do otherwise. I do this, this is what I do, it’s not a thing, it’s just who I am. But something in the arts, I imagine. I do a lot of painting and a lot of design for the band, so probably something like that. I’ve always figured myself the next Tex Avery. Maybe I could just be that
Isaac: I’d probably try and do something in radio, something like that.
Zac: Something where you could talk a lot.
Isaac: That or write books.
Does Hanson ever come to an end? Do you think about the next stage?
Taylor: If it stops being good—and the world can’t define that for you. If you stop feeling excited about creating something, then we should stop.
Isaac: Yeah, exactly.
Taylor: And sometimes you go through periods—at the end of the last record we decided to quiet the cycle a little bit, to bild a beer company, build a beer festival, to get out of the complete cycle we’ve been in for the last 20-plus years, album-tour album-tour. The benefit of that now is appreciating being inside it. We’ve done SXSW a million times, we’ve played in the crappiest venues in the weirdest places and toured the world and played stadiums, we’ve seen so many things. Last night we had no monitors, we had no sound check, we had 30 minutes late stage, things were feeding back, instruments weren’t working. But I said to our bass player, sometimes it’s important to just remember, even in those moments, this is what we’re doing. We’re here. People have been waiting since 8 a.m. We’re in a band. If you have a problem, you’re just an ass. Remembering that is really important.
You have no complaints?
Taylor: Oh, we have tons of complaints. We’re grateful for what we have. But you wanna talk about the industry, about artists—there’s a thousand things we’re not happy about. Let’s talk about something that’s a challenge, and I don’t want to go on a diatribe, but something that we all need to look at as artists and creators in this industry. The first night we were here, we went from the Pandora party, to the Apple Music party, to the YouTube party. It’s like, where is the music business?
Zac: And those are some of the better platforms.
Taylor: I’m not saying, “Keep the albums, guys, hold on to the CDs.” But artists and creators of all content—video game programmers, designers, painters, filmmakers—need to recognize that they’ve got to build a future. They’ve got to take responsibility for the fact that content, intellectual property, is getting used by technology as a loss leader, as a draw to build brands. You’re like the worm on the hook.
Isaac: You’re gonna get eaten.
Zac: You’re calling in the dinner for somebody else.
Taylor: There’s always going to be that balance of art and commerce, and that’s fine, as it should be. But we’re at an interesting tipping point where artist and creators need to have a loud conversation about the fact that if art’s value is pushed too far down, the Billy Joels of the future, instead of saying, “I’m going to change the world, because I wanna be in a band,” they’re gonna say, “I want to change the world by starting, y’know, ‘Footbook.'” If there’s not value attached to what you make—
Isaac: It devalues the human being, period.
Taylor: We need to figure out real models for the future. And not just like, “Gimme my money, I’m a band, you need to pay me what you did at some point for a CD.” We’ve got to actually understand the ecosystem around creation.
Isaac: There’s no problem with fans and bands. There’s a problem with the economics of the outside disruption of the industry.
Taylor: The failure has been within the music business itself, which has let the wolf into the henhouse. The wolf is every other innovation that is not in the interests of the chicken. […] The system didn’t advocate for itself. That’s the challenge for us, and now young artists and creators need to realize it’s gonna be their job to try and forge a path.