Words by BMA’s own Tamsin Kemp. Pics by Ball Park Music’s own Dean Hanson
Picture the way shiny sitcom buddies are friends – listening to each other, sensing tension but ultimately sorting it out, looking out for each other, doing stuff together, road trips together, dinner together, and celebrating each other’s success. Mates forever. We love these cosy, warm feelings; these friends to whom we have bonds of the heart. Doesn’t happen in the real world, right?
Except, sometimes it does.
Ball Park Music are these very friends. Fifteen years strong and getting stronger, there’s no discord or distance to be had. Indeed, not even the arrival of offspring for four out of the five members of the band over the past few years has hampered creativity nor dampened enthusiasm for making and playing music.
I spoke with Dean Hanson about all this, and more. Dean generously shared his insights on juggling acts, remaining faithful to one’s imagination, and how to stay friends in the music industry whirligig.
Yes, the Ball Park Music troupe have been touring. Again. To say they tour a lot is putting it mildly. The 500 or so shows over the band’s lifetime gives an average of one every ten(ish) days. Of course, there are intense periods of activity and quieter times between, but it’s an impressive stat that comes via a gruelling schedule.
Since they started touring in 2010, only 2015, 2017 and 2021 have seen them stay at home (and let’s face it; everyone stayed at home in 2021). I asked Dean how one maintains relationships, both at home and on the road, and other projects, living such a peripatetic life.
“It’s just about learning and adapting as you go,” he reveals. “There was never a point in our career where we’ve hit that, ‘We’re successful now! We don’t have to worry about doing other jobs!’ moment.
“I always feel like your career is in the palm of your hand until it’s not. “We’re constantly adapting, constantly juggling things, and just hoping that we can keep it going.”
Dean is candid about recent challenges familiar to so many creative practitioners.
“COVID was a struggle, obviously,” he states. “It made us reflect, and think, ‘Wow, this can get taken away from us; taken out of our hands at the drop of a hat.’”
”Luckily for us, the fans kept growing over that period of time,” Dean muses. “I don’t know why; I don’t have an answer or know if there is some magic ingredient.”
If they have a “magic ingredient”, it’s undefinable to Dean, but he talks about being lucky multiple times. One could quickly counter by saying luck has nothing to do with it; good talent and sustained commitment always win out. But that would be a falsehood. Timing, serendipity, and blessed chance do play a part in most creative’s trajectory.
But Dean’s description of the band’s ethos is all about, “passion toward what we do and the love for what we do”. In this humble writer’s opinion, I’d call that a magic ingredient.
Whatever it is, it’s working, so it’s little surprise that the band’s intent is to “keep doing what we’ve been doing”. This includes the all-important approach to the relationships and respect between the band members.
“It’s a balancing act, pure and simple,” Dean admits. “And there’s always new challenges. Jen’s little son is nearly one year old, and he’s been touring with us this entire year now. That alone has made things completely different.
“When we started out touring,” he goes on to explain, “the last thing you’re thinking of is that one day, you’ll be getting up for a 3 o’clock lobby call and Jen will be there with her son. You think, how is this going to be logistically possible?
“But then, when you’re actually there in the moment, all of this stuff is beautiful, and worth the sacrifice to be able to do what we love.”
But even with the love of their craft and great friendships at the core of it, touring remains a demanding beast. Is there conscious work put into the emotional intelligence expressed with each other?
“We have a very healthy relationship, all five of us, and openly communicate about our needs,” Dean reveals. “Our chemistry and understanding of each other is so solid. Tension can exist within the group, sure, but it’s never too much. It doesn’t become something we’re able to communicate about.
“It’s so peculiar; we live inside each other’s pockets. We know everything about everybody, and we consider everybody’s factors.”
Harmony reigns! So what’s their secret?
“We’re psychos,” Dean laughs. “In the sense that, when we’re on tour, we all have breakfast together every day, we go to the venue early, we sit down and have a beer, then we go out to dinner with the rest of the band and the crew. We do activities together.
“There’s many bands that will only see each at sound check and at the show, then go their separate ways. But for us, it’s a community; very much a family. It’s like our natural habitat.”
Throughout the interview, Dean’s affection for his band mates is tangible. They are a chosen family.
Talk turns to previous big tours across Europe and the USA. As exciting as it clearly was, it doesn’t sound like the band is in any hurry to return.
“When you go overseas as an Australian band there’s a lot of groundwork you have to do,” Dean reveals. “It’s never been something that is our strength.
“We rely heavily on putting forward our music, and our performance. The rest of it—like, trying to manufacture an inspiration to somebody to come—doesn’t come very naturally to us.
“Pushing yourself in a particular market, or trying to convince people that you’re good without actually convincing them with your music—through networking or schmoozing—has always been a barrier for us.”
Smooth but not schmoozy, then. Got it.
Of Ball Park Music’s many sterling qualities, their dedication to being the band that “surprises everybody in the room” is one they take great pride in. Dean says they thrive with opportunities like SXSW in Texas.
“We’re not performing as if our career depends on it,” he states. “Or as if we’re vying for a great opportunity to come out of this little gig in a pizzeria in Austin somewhere. We play with no expectation, and that reflects on the audience.”
Dean expands on this point.
“We still have people coming back many years after playing SXSW, telling us, ‘I can’t believe I was in that room of 20 people and saw you; you blew me away!’
“I feel like we’ve built connections with audiences like that our whole career,” he continues. “A raw connection via the feeling and the energy in the room. It’s the reason why people keep coming back to see us… to have The Best Time Ever and scream every lyric to every song.”
Still in the US mindset, I can’t help but ask if the band would fancy playing a Tiny Desk Concert. His response is enthusiastically affirmative, and one that leads to the obvious follow up question: What song would you play? What would best tell America about you?
“Good question!” Dean chirps. “Our focus when we write records, regardless of where a song goes in terms of production, is always making sure that you can always strip it back. That it can be performed even if it was just acoustic or Sam and Jen’s vocals together.
“So with that in mind, I’d probably play Cherub.
“It’s one of my favourites,” Dean reveals. “It’s a slow burn song… I think it’s a great reflection of a lot of elements of our band.”
Ahhhh, yes. Cherub. The song that moves from intimate jingle to prog-rock fuzz in the space of five minutes, all whilst making you cry in the bargain. As I sit here composing this article, I am now kicking myself for not suggesting they enter Eurovision.
The film clip for Cherub—familiar and fragile, like the song itself—is also Dean’s work. He describes his interest in visuals and photography as “something I fell into, became passionate, learned more about”.
“It’s beautiful when you have a skill that people appreciate, and that you do out of love,” he continues. “I love taking our own press photos. It makes it easier, too, because the band can tell me if they hate the picture of themselves and I’m not going to be offended!”
Indeed, the cover shot for their fifth album, Good Mood, is of Dean’s authorship. Having a photographer in your ranks is a bonus, gifting us fans with a special feel for the relationships at play. It’s different when your family portrait is captured by a member of the clan.
I find Dean grounded, real, and thoroughly decent. During the course of our conversation, I decided that Ball Park Music—home bodies, best friends, good eggs—must be the most wholesome band in Queensland, if not all of Australia. They have nice hair, don’t behave badly on planes, and they like each other. They play everything from gentle optimism (It’s Nice to be Alive, which one might call their signature song) to ironic and, yes, sometimes dark (Nihilist Party Anthem and Hands Off My Body).
And I am chuffed to hear Dean say they could get louder still.
“There’s definitely some punk energy in Ball Park Music we’ve still yet to explore,” he touts. Good news.
Even better news is that Ball Park Music will return to Canberra for Stonefest, alongside Bakar, Dune Rats, Becca Hatch, Ike (From) Pluto, smartcasual, and Sophie Edwards. It happens on Saturday, 7 October, from 3pm to late. Tickets are $59 for students, $99 for general admission via Moshtix.