Taylor Hanson discusses indie success and how he’s using it to help in Africa
I’ve just rolled out of a bed on a Friday, and a representative from Three Car Garage Records, Hanson’s indie label, rings me on the phone. The representative is a polite British woman calling to inform me that Taylor Hanson needs to push back the phone interview; he will be calling me in a hour. I imagine the father of three doing fatherly duties, which explains why the 25-year old would already be behind schedule by noon on his day off. (I later decide my assumption is correct after hearing a crying child in the background during the interview.)
An hour later Taylor calls. On the dot.
I have to admit, I’m a bit surprised that Taylor has held true to his word to do an interview that we planned when we met at 3 a.m. at the Perez Hilton party at SXSW. I begin the interview already pleased with his genuine character, true to his Oklahomie roots.
Naturally, I ask him about the SXSW festival and how it has evolved. After all, the festival is where the band was essentially discovered over a decade ago, not to mention where we met. It’s no surprise that the conversation lends itself to how technology and the Internet itself revolutionized the festival. I recall dancing around this topic in our conversation at the party where we first met.
“It’s kind of turning more into a reflection of the fact that there’s a lot more collaboration, like the fact that the multimedia stuff is a lot stronger. You know, you have a lot of web shows. Everywhere you look there is someone with a camera, or they’re doing radio shows. Everything is so much more mobile and it’s a reflection of the way the business is going. On a strange sidenote, there’s the whole Perez Hilton thing – if you think about the fact that here’s this guy that blogging and has built up this attention just because he has a loud voice in this pop culture thing, and he’s throwing this party that is a big deal for the festival. In a way, that’s kind of an odd reflection of where things have gone. I think that’s weird reflection of how pop culture has changed; it’s changed the way people market themselves. But, ultimately, for me it felt like it was a good year for the festival. It’s good to see bands there that are succeeding on their own terms,” he says.
Hanson is one of those bands that also seems to be succeeding on their own terms these days. After dumping their major label after series of mergers that left the band on Island Records, a predominantly hip hop label, Hanson went on to form their own label and release their own records.
”When we started the label in 2003, there were a lot of things changing, but there was a lot of people looking at us like we were kind of going off the deep end [by starting our own label]… not expecting it to stay alive. It wasn’t really about us figuring things out as a band, as much as it was just doing what needed to be done. If we would’ve been signed to another label we could have so easily been caught in the middle of merging labels with people we didn’t trust and in contracts we couldn’t get out of and without ownership of our music and control. We were like, ‘Wow, this doesn’t even make sense.’ The changes I’ve seen I think is a growing realization in my peers, artists, managers and labels going ‘Wow, this really has gotten this bad.’ Not to say, ‘we told you so,’ but it has gone that direction. It doesn’t mean it’s been easy at all. In fact, it’s challenging, but the transition has gone further. More and more artists in the industry are realizing that the stuff that’s working is either, you’re one of the few that has focus from one of the majors, and they’re just force feeding to succeed by putting so much money behind it to sell a certain amount of records. Or, there’s the future model, which is establishing more base and a core group of people, and they’re building fan bases through alternative mediums… Whether it’s licensing, touring or partnerships with other bands. It’s who is really willing to work hard. I think the Internet in a lot of ways, it’s not really so much making it easier for a band – in a way it’s like if you think you are any good, well, you better be good because anyone can steal your music by downloading it, but if you want people to pay for it, buy a ticket to a show, buy a T-shirt, be a part of a fan club, or even do something that involves commitment, you are going to have to really be a great band. It’s definitely weeded out some people who aren’t willing,” he says.
Since the band broke from its label, the indie community has embraced the brothers, and their talent is gaining respect from a culture that’s often times quick to snub pop stars. Hanson hangs with the Dim Mak crew. And last year, the brothers were featured on a NYLON TV segment. And this year, web sites like drivenbyboredom.com have been raving about their talents.
“I mean, it doesn’t surprise me, but it’s a weird thing. You can’t stand around and say ‘Yes, we should be getting credit for being a good band.’ Of course we should be getting credit for being good or getting respect, but at the same time, we’ve always been the same band that writes, plays, and is passionate about what we do, affiliates ourselves with people we respect. I would say I’m proud of some of the things that have really been coming to the surface as far as what people have been saying. I mean, I see it as a total blessing, but a lot of people would have thrown in the towel as far as the labor of transition we started. The idea of breaking into the industry the way that we did – a lot of people get overwhelmed by that. It’s so weird to reach that many people. It’s so strange to have any impression on the world. We just try to stay focused on what it is that makes us tick. Music is our passion; and it’s also what we want people to get out of the music. Am I surprised? Well, I am just happy that it’s coming to the surface, and I hope that continues,” he explained.
He describes his fame so humbly that it takes me a moment to really fathom the concept of “breaking into the industry” the way he did. At age of 13, he was already an internationally recognized celebrity with a number one single and teenie boppers screaming in his ear at every turn. There’s so many variables in that equation that I don’t even try to conquer it. Rather, I re-focus the conversation on Hanson’s new philanthropic efforts revolving around their latest album, The Walk.
The Walk is not only an album, but basically an awareness campaign developed by Hanson to raise awareness and money for Africa. He tells the story best:
“Africa could be a whole subject matter. Discovering a lot of the issues that Africa is faced with and also realizing our role in that – I think honestly a lot of those realizations are just kind of as average Americans and getting our heads around what these issues mean and realizing how closely linked we are to those issues. I think a real spark for us came as we were making ‘The Walk’ because we were really inspired by these friends of ours in Tulsa. They developed a technology that they sent to Africa. As we were making this record, we just began sharing stories about issues in Africa. It was a realization that everyone is waiting to solve these issues, and feeling like there needs to be some big answer. And also that these big issues across the world, they aren’t necessarily your issues – they don’t necessarily affect you every day – but what we realize as a generation is that we are so much more connected and we are so much more dependant on one another by the things that we buy and the things we trade. Ultimately, we came to the realization that someone in Tulsa, Oklahoma, can have a medical technology and they can decide to give it away to hospital in South Africa. I think it was just a real realization for us, like ‘Wow.’ Just realizing the fact that everyone has something that they can give. At the same time realizing that the issues in Africa are some of the greatest challenges of our time. It’s not just trendy. Just because Madonna adopts a baby – and Brad and Angelina have been there – I feel like there’s still a sense in the pop culture that issues like this are ‘too far removed’ or almost like, ‘Okay, well, that’s been taken care of.’ Really, the challenges there are so huge that it’s only going to be when the whole generation of people who are privileged enough to make a difference decide that they will do what they have to to be a part of it,” he says.
Despite the band’s reluctance to be yet another band releasing a charity single for PR points, Taylor describes realizing that it really just didn’t matter what everyone else thought. Single sales for the song “Great Divide” on iTunes and T-shirt sales go directly to Africa.
“Anyway, we went there when were making the album basically saying we had no idea what we were going to do, and we felt almost embarrassed to act as if we were going to go do something that someone else hadn’t already done. We just went there to learn. We met with different doctors and we went to an orphanage in that week. We tried to set up two recording sessions with kids in the area we were in just to capture musically what we were experiencing. As artists, we felt we needed to reflect this time, and we didn’t know for sure what would become of it. We basically had some simple tracked music – vocals and guitar for three songs – and we sang choir over those original tracks. Basically, we said we didn’t know if it was good or not, but when we were there it was so powerful because we ended up finding a school in Sowetto that ended up singing on ‘Blue Sky,’ and these weren’t trained choir kids. These were kids in elementary school who were everyday wondering whether or not they were going to get to go to school the next day – kids that are fighting AIDS and poverty everyday. There was such an innocence and purity of having them collaborate with us. We kind of jumbled through it and came out with something really special. You can really hear the texture in those songs. The album actually starts with the kids in Sowetto chanting the phrase ‘Ngi Ni Themba,’ which means ‘I Have Hope.’ The word ‘hope’ is kind of an inescapable message that has followed us through what we’ve done,” he says.
The band also paired up with a little known company called Tom’s Shoes to take it to another level.
He explains: “We came across this company called Tom’s Shoes. I reached out to Blake who started the company, and we sat around over coffee and I said ‘Hey, we have this idea. We want to do one mile barefoot walks with all of our shows. The idea is that we can talk about the shoes, which you guys focus on, and we can also talk about the issues in Africa.’ Really, it’s just to inspire to take simple action. We set out to help them to reach their goal of selling 50,000 shoes. We said we are going to walk every shows. And it first, it was kind of scary, because we have great fans, but we thought ‘will they show up early in the afternoon and walk a mile barefoot and hear us talk about this stuff?’ The response was phenomenal. We started on the last tour and ended up walking 48 miles. Anyway, I wouldn’t call it a ‘movement,’ but it has been. People have joined us on those. We walked 48 miles, everywhere from blistering heat to snow. It was amazing. We helped Tom’s Shoes reach their 50,000 shoes goal. We went back to Africa and really delivered shoes one-by-one; that was our next step, no pun intended. Since then, The Walk has been taking on a whole new level of excitement. Seeing fans – not just fans, also other artists – people looking for ways that they can do things. The Walk will continue on this tour, and we’re also having a new shoe with Tom’s, the Hanson ‘Great Divide’ shoe. We’re also raising money for the hospital. We’re including a download card with the shoe for ‘Great Divide,’ and if they download it, that’s just more money for the hospital.”
The band will also be featuring a special coffee table book inspired by their efforts to fight poverty and AIDS in Africa. The book, called “Take The Walk” presents the bands own story and the importance of individuals taking simple actions to fight poverty and disease in Africa. The book will also feature a special EP with new tracks recorded especially for the project. With both the music and the book raising further funds for aid groups in Africa, including continued support of Tom’s Shoes and HIVSA.