Improvisation isn’t really the norm in today’s somewhat over-produced music world but the Hanlon Brothers really aren’t the norm when it comes to being song writers either.
Since forming their first band in their early teens, a dedication to honing their musical chops and a genetically inherited work ethic has seen this “family” develop a solid musical foundation that allows them to use improvisation as their creative muse.
From Australian Idol winners to Dixieland covers bands these guys have done it all and managed to create their own pieces of musical magic along the way.
Blank’s funnyhairyman caught up with main men Saia and Omar Hanlon for a chat about all things Hanlon and their new album Featured.
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If you’ve ever seen the Hanlon Brothers perform you’ll know there’s a lot of them. Are they all brothers? What’s the family dinner table like? I pose the question. Saia tells me there are seven or eight members of the band depending on the gig.
“Myself and Omar are the actual brothers and the main writing and producing members of the band,” he tells me. “We have amazing support and collaboration from the other members of the band, they are all really talented.”
Like many musicians, the brothers grew up in a musical family, telling me their dad was a drummer and that there was even a rehearsal room at home. “We grew up listening to him playing and that’s rubbed off on most of the members of the family including our sister who is a singer,” Omar said.
But she’s not in the band. Is she some kind of Janet Jackson, I ask. “Yeah kind of. We would have to change the name of the band for starters,” Omar responds. Saia adds that their love of music comes from the style of music their dad was playing at the time: a lot of tower of power type stuff, earth wind and fire and also heaps of drummers, jazz guys.
“So we grew up listening to that,” Sais said. “A lot of that old funk stuff we come back to but it mixes with the music we were listening to growing up, we were 80s kids so that’s probably the main influence on us. Culture is the other thing that influences their music.
“We are Maori with a bit of Tongan in the there too,” Saia said. “They are very musical people and love having a good time and that “good time” vibe definitely has an influence on our music. We were brought up listening to predominantly brown music.”
Like many with mixed island blood, they grew up on the Gold Coast, with that musical father working in music here in the 70s, 80s and 90s. “In those days a lot more places had live music compared to now, so he got the opportunity to play a lot and make a living from music,” Saia said. “He would play every day and two shows a day on the weekend, this was before pokies, smoking rules, noise restrictions and all those “party poopers” came in.”
“We started really young and formed our first band when I was ‘round 14 and like all young bands we needed a bass player,” Saia tells me. “Omar was 11 and we got him to play bass. He quickly became a weapon of a player and eventually went off to the Conservatorium of Music. It was around then that our father died and our mother really didn’t want us to be musicians so she got us to do a trade. I became a carpenter and Omar was a scaffolder / rigger.”
I laugh at this. It means Omar can set up the stage and then get up and play on it.
“Yeah, I can play and also advise that they need a handrail over there,” Omar said.
“By the time we were in our early twenties we decided that we really wanted to be musicians and took it really seriously, big practice hours and totally focused on improving the musicianship,” Saia continued. “Our dad had a really high standard, he was an eight hour a day practice kind of guy and a real mother of a player. We took that on board, that real work ethic and taking the musicianship really seriously. So while everyone else slept we just practiced hard for a few years.”
Making music your day job often means having to start out playing covers and some people struggle with that compromise. Not so much these Hanlon Brothers. Omar says they just struggled through trying to avoid getting a day job.
And Saia saysthere was definitely a transition between playing covers and introducing their own songs, “but covers are still a part of our set,” he said. “I mean good music is good music! It’s strange when people get labelled covers muso or original muso, music is music and everyone takes ideas from everything. We hear people all the time that will only play their own stuff and can barely hold a note. I think maybe you should learn to play some stuff from these great artists, they are great for a reason! Then you can learn your way around your instrument and develop your musicality in general.”
Omar agreed. “You have to do that, to learn your chops, chord progressions and then you can really write better music. We all need something to aim at.”
The brothers also did their time in backing bands. “When Stan walker won Australian Idol we were already working with him and his brother so he asked us to join his band and that exposed us to other opportunities,” Saia said. “We got to play with lots of great artists like Ricky Lee Coulter and Jessica Mauboy. We also played with Paul Gray from Wa Wa Nee which was just crazy, hundreds of screaming cougars.”
“ We have also played with Galapagos Duck an amazing Australian jazz band and even played in a Dixieland kind of band but ultimately we decided we should really be doing our own thing, we know we can do it and wanted to build our own name rather than as a band for someone else,” Omar said.
Their new album Featured was released in March. It’s a great, fun listen – a real Friday night groove kind of thing. They style is hard to define with RnB, funk style stuff, reggae and a jazzy feel. It’s a bit of a melting pot but each one of the tracks definitely has its own identity. Omar says there’s a bunch of different things going on which comes from the writing process.
We have a different approach to writing,” Saia said. “We just strip off down to the socks, Red Hot Chilli Peppers style and get into it. What we really do is bring ideas together, chord progressions and different grooves and then we improvise on those ideas at gigs and the songs come from there.”
I can’t imagine what it’s like to improvise songs in front of a live crowd. It’s the exact opposite to how many bands create their music. I’m curious as to how they made the decision to do it that way.
“It is scary!” Saia said. “We were watching YouTube one night and saw Brian McKnight, Justin Timberlake and Wayne Brady doing an improvised song and thought we could do that. People would not believe it at first and would say that the songs must be pre-recorded. But the players we have in the band make it do-able. We would get the crowd to choose a word and our amazing vocalist Roman would just build on it.”
Omar said it was common by the end of the night to have nine or ten good grooves that had already had a test drive in front of an audience so they’d know it would work and it would be a keeper.
We would record the gigs and review them, cut them up and decide what to keep and develop more. Using that process over three years or so we have over 2000 songs,” Saia said.
I can’t help but suggest the next album should be a 100 CD set with 2000 songs included.
“Well that could be the next 100 albums,” Saia said. “For the latest album Featured we went through them, picked the best ones and reworked them. It can be a problem having so much to choose from, like optional paralysis.”
“The lyrics are tougher,” according to Omar. “It can be a had to be there type thing. So we rewrite or reinvent the lyrics, change things so they make sense and have a good flow.”
The new album is a more organic thing. Saia said they went into the studio with the bare essentials instrument wise and just looped verses and choruses and then listened to what sounded good, what felt good with a fun groove.
“We knew that if the foundation was good the song would be good,” Saia said. “But if you heard the song from the improv night to the album there is a big change and development it’s almost a different song,” Omar added.
“You couldn’t just start out doing that,” Saia is quick to add. “It’s the talent and years of playing that the musicians in the band have that makes it work.”
As a great man once told me “you gotta get tight to get loose”.
Hanlon Brothers new album Featured is out now and well worth a listen. They are literally always gigging so for all their info check out their web site – hanlonbrothers.com.au
Interview by Iain Wright, story by Samantha Morris