Zac: That's an interesting one. That song started out really as the background part for another song. We were making our first independent album and we were trying to come up with a background part. We started singing a slightly different incarnation of what is now the chorus of "MMMbop." That sort of stuck in our heads and never really worked as a background part, and over a couple of years, that piece really has stuck in our heads and we really crafted the rest of the song - the verses and bridge and so on.
What that song talks about is, you've got to hold on to the things that really matter. MMMbop represents a frame of time or the futility of life. Things are going to be gone, whether it's your age and your youth, or maybe the money you have, or whatever it is, and all that's going to be left are the people you've nurtured and have really built to be your backbone and your support system.
Zac: No truth at all.
Songfacts: Can you talk about where some of the lyrics came from?
Zac: They weren't inspired by one artist in particular. The first music that we got into was '50s and '60s music. If anything, "MMMbop" was inspired by The Beach Boys and vocal groups of that era - using your voice as almost a Doo-Wop kind of thing. It was something we almost stumbled upon.
Songfacts: Did you guys have any idea that this was going to be a monster hit and take you on this journey?
Zac: Nobody expected it to have that much success. You're proud of everything you do and you're confident in everything you do, but you never know how other people are going to react. You just put your whole self into it and hopefully you can be successful.
Songfacts: Was this the song that got you a record deal?
Songfacts: You performed the song seemingly everywhere. Do any of those performances stick out in your mind?
Zac: Venues and audiences stick out in my mind. In Melbourne, Australia, we were supposed to do an in-store in a little record store. So many people came that they moved it out to the parking garage at the mall. When we got there, there were 21,000 people in a mall parking lot. Playing the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall, venues like that where so many great artists and so many different styles of music have come through, to be able to check even one of those off is an amazing thing.
Songfacts: What about your appearance on Saturday Night Live? (The bit involved Helen Hunt trapping the brothers in an elevator and playing "MMMbop" until they snapped.)
Zac: That was a fun one. To be on Saturday Night Live is a very cool thing.
Songfacts: You poked a little fun at yourselves on that one.
Zac: You've got to take yourself lightly, there's always something funny or stupid that you do, and when it comes to performing on a live comedy show, I think if you didn't poke fun at yourself, you need to question who you think you are.
Songfacts: How do you guys approach the songwriting?
Zac: It really happens a lot of different ways. More often than any other, it's one guy coming up with a part on his own, maybe it's a chorus or verse, or parts to the other guys and saying, 'Hey, what do you think,' and then finishing the song together. It happens where you're just jamming altogether, or one guy will write most of a song, finish it and bring it to the other 2 and say, 'What do you think, is it done?' The only thing that always ends up happening is the 3 of us always get our 2 cents in to make the song better, whether it's just a couple of lyrics, a melody or chord change, whatever it is, everybody ends up coming in and adding their musical sense and ear to each song.
Songfacts: That must be the advantage to being brothers, because I don't think strangers could deal with that after a while.
Zac: I think you're the first person that has ever said it that way - most people say, "How do you do that, you're brothers?" I don't know if it's being brothers, or if it's the fact that we've been playing together for 12 years and we know each other really well, but I think it's really just a mutual respect we have for each other's abilities. I really do love the songs that Tay, and his musical sense that he brings to the table, and Ike's sense, and I think that's what it comes down to - respecting each other's opinions and knowing they've written a lot of songs you enjoy, and you want to know what they think.
Zac: What Penny And Me talks about is how music weaves through your life and sort of how important it is. How it ties in all your friends and loved ones, whether it's a wife or girlfriend or whatever, it's always Penny And Me, you're always bringing these people with you through the music you listen to.
Referencing songs like "Feeling Alright," which is Traffic song, there's a line that says, 'Making it by under a pink moonlight,' which is a reference not only to the Nick Drake song, but that album, which is just an amazing record that everyone should listen to.
It's really a love song to music in a lot of ways, just the importance of what great music does, whether it's the song you dance to on your wedding night or that great album you listened to on a road trip with your friends, it's something that you really relate your life to, through what you heard, albums and songs.
Songfacts: Is there a reason you picked the name Penny?
Zac: Penny was a reference to "Penny Lane," The Beatles. It's a great name, and also just referencing their music sort of subconsciously was definitely a factor.
Songfacts: You wrote that song a while ago, didn't you?
Zac: We recorded it a year and a half ago. That song has been written for a little while. This whole album process for the album Underneath, it took a while. There were a lot of songs written, and we got to the end of this process and we really felt like we hadn't finished the album without that song, so we went back in and we recorded that song. That capped off the album and we said, 'Hey, it's done.'
What it's talking about is that love of music and the importance of it. What it does throughout your life is something we wanted on the album.
Zac: Underneath is the title track for the album. We wrote that with Matthew Sweet. We didn't really know Matthew that well, we heard his music, he's a great songwriter, and through a mutual friend, we sort of ran into each other and we were working on the new album, so we said, 'Hey, we've got some time tomorrow, you want to hang out and maybe write some music?' He had a little bit of time, so we got together and I think it was about 4 hours that we had before he had to go to a meeting and we had to do something else too, and we just threw together this song and we all just sort of sat back and went, 'Wow, it's done.'
Songs can take sometimes years, songs can come together in a couple of moments, the fluidity of how that song came together with Matthew and how natural it felt to write it with him was pretty cool.
Songfacts: It seems like a fairly intense song. Did anyone in particular come up with the idea?
Zac: It wasn't anyone in particular. Matthew sort of came in with a chord pattern and then everybody sort of built off of that, focusing on an idea or a word or a melody part and then you sort of build out from there. It is an intense song, it's a song that I think everyone can relate to, in some way feeling - the line, 'Sitting all alone in this place, even though we're here face to face,' just talking about that ultimate disconnect, where you're right here, but you're not right here, and I think everyone's felt that in some form or another or will feel that in their life. It was just a meaningful song, and really a pillar for the whole album. After that song was written, just the way that song was, the way we recorded it and the sounds we used, it was a cornerstone for the whole record. That was part of the reason we called the album Underneath, in addition to the blatant meaning of a step deeper into who we are.
Songfacts: The tune "Broken Angel," can you take us into that one?
Zac: It's a song about the fact that fairy tales aren't necessarily true, that people's dreams don't always flourish. Loved ones die, people who deserve so much don't get what they should, and you should still believe in fairy tales because of the beauty of it, and you should still get up and strive to be a better person, live a better life and do these things, not to fall into the norm, but strive to do something great with your life. It's kind of cheesy, but I think it's a story that everyone should put to their life and go for a little more.
Zac: That's the title track from our second album. When you hear it, it's about fighting back, 'You can't say I didn't give it, I won't wait another minute, on our way this time around.' The story line in the song, we almost pictured it as someone in the middle of a conflict, maybe a war, and the honor of giving one's self out to say, 'I'm going to go for it all no matter what the consequences are because of what really matters. I'm not going to live a free life with chains on, I'm not going to give away my friends.' It's about that ultimate sticking it to the man, the ultimate fuck you.
Songfacts: Did it have anything to do with your record company at the time?
Zac: Not really. If anything, it's a statement to every artist and every musician out there just to say, go for it, mean something and do something great. Whatever that entails, that's what you should focus on.
Songfacts: On a lighter note, how about the hidden track on your first album, "The Man From Milwaukee"?
Zac: That's a really fun one. Pretty simply, it's about an alien encounter. I don't really believe in aliens, but it was just a funny idea that came along. We got stuck in Albuquerque, New Mexico - we drove out from Oklahoma to make our first album, we do that every time we make an album, we drive across the country, it's sort of the beginning of the journey of making a record and the writing process. The car broke down in Albuquerque. I was sitting on the side of the road, and I started coming up with the chorus part. I brought the other guys in and said, 'I've go this stupid song, what do you think?' They said, 'Hey, it's goofy, but it's fun, and sometimes you need that.' It's just about a guy's slow turn to finally going kind of crazy.
Songfacts: Any reason you guys put it on as the hidden track?
Zac: It represents the joy in music, the same way as "Yellow Submarine." It's not necessarily the most meaningful song or the perfectly well-written song with every edge trimmed and achieved, but it's just about having fun and the joy. That one's kind of back to our roots as a garage band, it's crazy.
We spoke with Zac on August 2, 2004.
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