On Saturday, the group that brought us one of the most endearing and enduring earworms of all time, "MMMBop," will perform live at Wolf Trap with the National Symphony Orchestra (no stranger to pop/rock/hip-hop collaborations) as part of its String Theory tour. Rock band-orchestra collaborations have a lengthy history, from Deep Purple with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1969 to Metallica teaming up with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra 30 years later. But for Hanson, it's a new challenge for a band that's evolved quite a bit in the past 26 years.
In 1997, the Oklahoma-based trio had already been around for about five years but shot to fame when the lead single from their album Middle of Nowhere hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and led to three Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist. Though the band is sometimes dismissed as a one-hit wonder, its continued success has been a little under the radar, with eight studio albums making the Top 40 and album sales totaling more than $16 million internationally.
We spoke to Zac, the band's 32-year-old drummer, about String Theory (which will be released as a double album in the fall) and what propels the band forward. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Bands from Aerosmith to the Indigo Girls have done live collaborations with orchestras. What made Hanson feel that it was a good fit, and why now?
Last year we spent a lot of time celebrating our 25th anniversary and we did a big world tour. People asked us, “Why do you keep doing it? How do you keep going?” And the answer is, the things we haven’t done yet. This was just something we really wanted to do. And it’s not like, “Here’s the hits of Hanson.” It’s more like, “Here’s Hanson’s philosophy for life, through music you both know and music you don’t know.”
Can you speak to that a little bit more, your philosophy toward life?
This process of getting to do what we get to do. I think [with] each of our own individual experiences in life through marriage and children, you come up against a lot of struggles and a lot of choices. And usually, it’s not quite what you expect. But if you have it in you to continue to believe in things and to look for the next thing, then you get to come to the other side and recognize the beauty of pushing through.
What we have in this show is a selection of songs that’s very specific because of the lyrics and the message. You have songs like “MMMBop,” which is about overcoming adversity and loss, that in an MMMBop, everything will be gone and changed and you’ll be at a different point or the end of your life. And you need to choose right now what’s important to you, so that you can grab those things so they’ll still be around when you are at the end of that life. So songs from “MMMBop” to a new song that was written for the show called “Reach for the Sky,” which is about life and about a boy who’s not understood.
Since you’re playing with a different orchestra in each city, do you really get a chance to rehearse with each of them?
It’s kind of intense, but what we do is run the whole show just with the conductor. And obviously, they’ve been prepped and had the music beforehand. And then we’ll run the whole show early in the day, and then there’s a little break and we play with the symphony in front of the audience. It’s a full day—it’s like doing three shows in one day, but it builds that confidence that we want to have when we’re playing together, where everybody really knows where they are and is able to enjoy the music, not simply go through the motions.
What are some of the biggest differences about performing with an orchestra versus performing just with your band?
Volume is a really interesting thing. I don’t think people realize that bands are loud and orchestras are not—violins don’t produce that much volume, and so you really have to consciously put yourself in the right place, especially as a drummer. The relationship with the conductor is different because bands, we don’t read sheet music on stage. We all started off playing classical piano, so we have an understanding of sheet music, but it’s different. When somebody [says],“Let’s play over bar 86,” and you’re like, “Hold on, hold on, bar 86?” We usually just say "bridge." I feel like it’s the way that the Danish and the Norwegians can understand each other, but not completely.
Tell us about the barefoot walks you do with fans before shows to fight HIV/AIDS and poverty in Africa.
We’ve been doing this since 2007, and I think this relates to our lives and our perspective on things, what we’ve gone through. We had an experience where we went with some friends to Africa and [saw] things we hadn’t seen. And realizing Oklahoma in particular has issues with AIDS and HIV and kind of going, “Whoa, I did not realize that.” Through connecting that to experiences in South Africa, we decided we wanted to do something, even if it was very humble, and encourage people that they had this ability to do little things.
It kind of has this ripple effect. Symbolically, walking barefoot is—you’re connecting with the idea of not having things. We started an organization with TOMS shoes. And so that’s been something that’s continued to be a part of what we do because it’s the medicine of life, to find ways to leave it better than you found it, to give to people who have less. We donate a dollar for every single person that chooses to do the walk with us. And then people can also go to the Take the Walk website and host their own walk. I don’t think we’ll actually be doing it at the Wolf Trap show just because the nature of having to do all the early rehearsal.
Switching gears: So, seven years ago, you wind up in Katy Perry’s video for “Last Friday Night.” Tell us how that came about and how crazy it was on set.
It was a pretty crazy video. You know, this stuff is just as random as it probably seems. We’ve been lucky to be successful enough that people know who we are and that there’s this—it's not just a connection to music, there’s sort of a cultural connection to time periods. And also we have this interesting process of being a band that’s gone through, in my case, adolescence through adulthood.
String Theory is already a really large-scale production. Do you think Hanson: The Musical could be next?
That would be interesting. If we could do a musical with people as amazing as we’ve worked with on this project then it’s probably something that we’d like to do. I think many, many, many bands at some point in their career go, “Metallica did it—let’s do a string thing.” And so when this process first came up, somebody said, “Well why don’t you guys do a symphony tour or something?” We said that would be awesome except we don’t want to just put some string pads under our music and do the hits or whatever. We want to do something that is really creatively fulfilling and we want to do it with people that we admire.
There could be a musical. I like the challenge.