From cutesy bubble pop to manicured dirty indie: The Hacks discuss what pushed them to make the shift and how they navigated their way out of the big machine
by Riley Reynolds
It’s an early afternoon on a sunny Saturday. Summer in LA is hitting hard, relieved only by the Santa Monica sea breeze that occasionally hits the outdoor table where I’m sat waiting for the last of the Hackley siblings — Tyler is thirty minutes late. I can tell this is standard behavior by how the oldest brother and band’s guitarist Todd jokes about the lead singer operating by his own timezone. I can also tell Tristan, the youngest drummer to play in a commercial record ever, doesn’t find it funny at all as he fumbles with a thousand and one wristbands that almost completely cover his right forearm. His shaggy hair and beachy outfit are a stark contrast to his brother’s formal button-down shirt and dress pants. At first glance, you wouldn’t say they’re in a band together. But when the missing brother finally arrives — in a black leather jacket and long hair tied in a low ponytail — they strangely make sense as a unit.
“Traffic at 405 is always a nightmare. I hate this city,” Tyler declares as he sits down in-between his brothers, still clutching a cup of coffee. Todd laughs while Tristan rolls his eyes at me — and here you have the entire band’s dynamic in a nutshell.
If you were alive and didn’t live under a rock in the late 2000s, you know The Hacks — they were everywhere. Their first single, Boo Na Na, was dubbed the song of the summer in 2007 and the three then-kids appeared in every single TV show playing instruments that were almost bigger than themselves. Tristan was an 11-year-old hyperactive chubby child the first time I interviewed them. Fast forward 10-plus years, he’s taller and broader than both of his siblings. Such change is a perfect mirror metaphor for their sound — while their debut record Meet The Hacks gave us bubbly pop tunes such as Boy Without a Car and Love Sick, their most recent release, I Was Born A While Ago, sat comfortably among indie-rock fellows, with such gems as drum-heavy Thank You For Not Dancing and a remarkable guitar solo in Fortnight.
“It’s been a dark decade for the music industry,” Tyler says somberly behind his over-sized sunglasses, “it’s hard not to think ourselves lucky to still manage to be doing this.”
Indeed, especially for a band that wandered so far out the road that started their journey.
After releasing their second album two years after the first and breaking a record for the loudest concert at their US tour, the band fell off the radar suddenly. We all thought we’d seen the best of those blond siblings until six years ago when they resurfaced through their own independent record label.
“The thing with us is that we always wanted to experiment with music,” Tristan explains. “We didn’t set out with the idea of making hit songs or fitting into one single genre. We didn’t set out with any idea whatsoever. I mean, I was ten!”
The first album out of their co-owned endeavor hit number one right out of the gate — and stayed there for three weeks. No small feature for an independent act composed of musicians barely out of their teens.
“It was a testament that we were doing the right thing,” Todd tells me. “So many people were skeptical that we could pull it off, it was nice to see them having to swallow their unsolicited opinions.”
The fallout with their former label is still a sensitive subject, though. They have never publicly talked about it and, when asked, it seems they’re willing to sustain the mystery.
“There’s nothing to say,” Tyler tries to dismiss the whole ordeal. “We wanted to do something they weren’t supportive of. So, we left.”
The nonchalance with which they address this issue seems to be their trademark. They speak of selling out concerts, touring the world, and the future of music business as if they’ve got it all down to a formula. It’s easy to let the fact these are all twenty-something boys go over your head, especially when the conversation verges towards the music itself.
Set to be released by the end of next month, their fifth studio record — titled simply Elizabeth, the third album out through their own label H3O — has them as excited as I remember them being when they were little kids. If there was any doubt about how they fit together as a band, it vanishes the minute they start babbling about their writing sessions and creative processes. Hearing them talk about their 1970s influences and off-the-floor recording techniques is refreshing in this age where synths and preset beats are making a hard comeback. They’re ambitious and sure of themselves in a way that borders arrogance, yet never fully gets there.
After lunch — a salad for Tyler, a burger and fries for Tristan, and smoked salmon for Todd —, we all pile into Tristan’s SUV and head south to the studio where they’re putting the finishing touches to their most honest project to date, according to Tyler. Traffic at 405 is indeed jammed, but Tristan manages to find shortcuts as if he was a local — which brings up another curious fact about these three: they never moved out here.
“How can anyone live here is beyond me,” Tyler scoffs, again irritated with the slow-moving cars in front of us. “You spend half of your life inside a car just going from a place to the other.”
Tyler is the only one who never left the band’s small hometown of Sherwood, Oregon.
“I like it there,” it’s his simple answer as to why he decided to stay.
Todd was the first to leave the nest, having called Nashville, New York, Seattle, and Miami home. He currently lives in Salt Lake City.
“I have to be moving around otherwise I feel like I’ll burst,” he says. “Different places, different people, different cultures — that’s all fuel to the songs I write.”
I catch Tristan rolling his eyes yet again through the rear-view mirror. Despite being the youngest and arguably coolest one, he seems to be already over some of the aspects a rockstar life provides. He’s moved to Chicago when he was seventeen and has no plans of relocating.
“I can see Lake Michigan from my apartment window. It never gets old waking up to that,” he says with a dreamy grin, just to add with a startle when he realizes he’s given away his location, “I probably shouldn’t have said that.”
“We already spend too much time together,” Tyler says with zero bashfulness when I ask if living so far apart doesn’t make things harder for the band. “The prospect of going home and not seeing these two for weeks at a time is what actually keeps me going.”
“Yeah, I love you, too, brother,” is Tristan’s answer, which is met with a generous laugh from the rest of us. And, with that, I can’t gauge whether Tyler meant what he said or not.
Forty minutes later, we arrive at a small, secluded beach house that looks like anything but a studio.
“We rented this house to work on our last album and it turned out to be the perfect place to do it. So, here we are again,” Tyler informs as he unlocks the front door and finally gets rid of the sunglasses and leather jacket. I get why he wears them — stripped down to tight jeans and a white t-shirt, he still looks like a boy, even more so than his younger brother.
They lead me through the dark, eerily quiet house. Every window is shut, there are empty food boxes and dirty glasses all around, and the old living room couch is stained with a mysterious red splotch down the back. If any of this bothers the young musicians, they don’t let on. Another door is opened at the end of a corridor and I feel like I’m entering a different dimension.
“It’s all second hand,” Tyler says proudly as I gape at the size and variety of equipment they have. “It took us a full year to assemble everything. It’s our happy place now.”
They fall right into work. Today, that means Todd layering some last-minute guitar chords in the booth under Tyler and Tristan’s directions. He’s clearly uncomfortable with the arrangement, stopping every five minutes to complain — or humble-brag — about his limitations. As expected, his brothers-turned-bandmates know exactly what to tell him to make him produce that perfect sound they’re looking for.
“We’re not using a producer for this one,” Tyler says when I ask with whom they’re working with in this project. “We’re doing everything we can ourselves.”
I think my skepticism must be visible because his blue eyes sparkle with joy when they play me a few of the finished songs later. The tunes are clearly missing the refinement and trademark a producer would bring, yet the sort of chaotic energy they give out seems to be what unite them. They play me five wildly different songs with productions that range from their roots in pure pop — with the catchy Heartstrung — to a loud, distorted rock anthem — with Bare (With) Me. Both songs share a simplistic lyric structure and theme, which almost makes the instrumental feel wasted — the keyword here being almost.
The next song takes me by surprise when Tyler’s gritty, melodic voice is not the one that streams out of the speakers. The song is titled Boy and it tells a dark tale — both lyrically and melodically. “Spiraling down, down, down / Feet never touch the ground / It’s when he thinks he’s got it figured out / That he realizes he’s just a boy”, sings Tristan against a background track heavy on bass and piano. His soft tone adds a rich layer of haunting-ness that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand.
“I’m terrified,” he admits when I ask how it feels to be the lead as opposed to sitting behind his drum-kit. “But it felt right, you know? It felt like the right moment to do this.”
Tyler comes back for the last two, You Get Away With Everything and Purple Heart. They form a fun mirror duo, where in the first he complains about his lover getting everything she wants while in the second he’s the one offering her everything she wants.
We spend the rest of the day reminiscing about good old days — days when these kids weren’t even born yet. The way they’re able to mix the youthfulness of their tender age with the experience that comes from their old souls (and good taste in music) results in a unique, explosive combo. Their sound is all over the place, as indecisive as any twenty-something; yet, it’s in the chaos that their identity shines the brightest. Experimenting in such a wide range of genres, one might think the end result is shallow and lacking in meaning. Yet, they somehow manage to infuse some sense in what they’re presenting. I’d say they’re towing that fine line between madness and genius, giving the listener the full power to decide to which side they’ll bend.
We meet again a week later on the other side of the country — New York City. It’s the kick-off night for an acoustic summer tour they put together to promote the new album ahead of its release.
“We thought this would be a good way to create buzz for the new music,” Todd says. If the fans lining up in front of the Gramercy Theatre hours before the show are any indication, it was a safe bet.
I follow them and their small crew, witnessing their hands-on approach to the load-in, stage setup, instrument tuning, and, of course, soundcheck. We can hear the fans outside screaming when they recognize old favorites, like Save Me and the ever-present Boo Na Na.
“We can’t not play it,” Tristan says. “It’s the song that started it all. It’s almost like our lucky charm at this point.”
It’s surprising to see how well the silly first single blends in with the rest of their extensive catalog. It’s also clear this is a carefully-thought marketing strategy that might play in their favor when long-time fans are confronted by their boundary-challenging new sound. They don’t hesitate to give credit where credit is due, though, mentioning the plan came from the brilliant mind of British veteran Neil McRoy, a former executive of Blast Records in the UK.
“We’ve been working with Blast and Neil since we became independent. They’re the ones responsible for distribution and touring across the pond, and we’re very lucky to count on Neil’s free advice whenever we ask for it,” Tristan tells me.
After they’re satisfied with the pre-show preparations, everyone gets a few free hours to walk the stress off. The Hackley brothers decide to band together for the sake of our interview, with Tyler confessing, “We’d probably all run in different directions if you weren’t here,” which makes his brothers laugh. I can’t help but ask about any internal conflict since it seems they don’t agree on much outside the making of music.
“We have our moments,” Tristan shrugs. “We’re very different people with very different ideas of how to best spend our free time.”
How do they spend their free time, you ask? Tristan enjoys video-game championships — online or with friends, his favorite activity is locking himself in his room and playing for hours. Todd likes socializing, or, as he himself calls it, networking. As someone who’s been all around, he has many connections and likes to keep those relationships fresh. When I ask how many of those could be defined as ‘romantic’, he only laughs. And Tyler, for my absolute surprise, likes history — you’ll often find him perusing museums, monuments, historic buildings, and sites.
“It’s good that we each have our own thing, though,” he says, “it keeps us sane.”
We walk down a few blocks to a hidden coffee shop in Chelsea, not far from a very familiar place for them — Madison Square Garden. The Hacks was the youngest band to sell out multiple dates at the famous venue, which is one of six records they hold in their careers. They don’t seem to care about it as they only shrug when I mention this little fact.
“We’ve probably broken more records than that,” Todd says. “It’s just that nobody is counting anymore.”
“Yeah, you probably broke the one for the most well-dressed at any occasion,” Tristan jokes. If there is a record for that, he’s probably right.
“The one for the most wristbands in one arm is yours,” Tyler points at him.
“Yours would be the longest without cutting your hair,” Todd retorts.
“No, man, I cut my hair every month!” Tyler chuckles. “It grows that fast.”
The banter goes on for a little while, which makes me remember they’re actually related. It’s easy to forget they share the same genes when they look and behave so differently from each other. It’s only when they relax and become what they truly are — young men in the city — that the resemblance stands out. Well, in that, and in the smile, as well — they all have the same smile.
The conversation turns into a discussion of the best bands they’ve seen live in NYC and I take the opportunity to bring the MSG back into the light. Do they dream of playing there once more? Do they miss those days?
“Been there, done that,” Tyler says jokingly, without any trace of bitterness. “It was a crazy time for us, especially being so young. But we did it, we went through it, and I like to think we didn’t take it for granted.”
“I think we didn’t,” Todd adds. “I think we’ve made the most of it.”
“I barely remember it being crazy, to be honest,” Tristan admits. “I just remember traveling around with our family and having so much fun playing in front of so many people.”
In a way, having disappeared from mainstream might have been a blessing in disguise to these guys. Losing their place under the spotlight seems to have grounded them in a way very few young artists experience. Had they bent to the will of the industry, who knows if they’d be able to avoid the pitfalls so many of their peers fall for. One thing is certain — their music certainly didn’t suffer with it. If anything, the experience has opened up an unlimited number of new paths for them to follow, paths that they’re unafraid of taking, which is already more than I can say about most of their contemporaries.
PS.: The NYC concert entered to my top 10 best live performances of all time. The Hacks might not be planning to take over the world but, if they’re not careful, they might.
» Would you like to suggest the theme for my next short story? Send me prompts! Leave a comment below or hit me up on social media.
∴ Subscribe the Newsletter to be the first to know when there’s a new post up! ∴