John Hancock III is in an emotional state of transition. The man behind the project is ‘MJ’ Hancock whose kind face, floppy hair and panoramic smile belie a pensive spirit and erratically inventive mind. MJ’s history as a musician, songwriter and searching individual explain why in his early 30s and newly experiencing fatherhood, he’s only just nailing the precise expression for his endless outpourings of honest, melodic creation.
In 2014 that still manifested itself mainly as ‘Awesome New Republic’ (ANR), an indie rock outfit he dedicated 10 years to with his brother-in-all-but-birth Brian ‘B-Rob’ Roberts. But alongside that MJ himself was exploring a fascination with ’70s funk and psych (Sly & The Family, Can, Kraftwerk etc), blue collar rock and classic pop, which he’d make while on-the-road with ANR. Late last year, he discovered new territory while he was struggling to write a pure pop record around one song called ‘Left Me’, soft released in 2014 and now re-released as part of 10K Islands’ singles club for 2016. What evolved was a necessary catharsis for ‘John Hancock III’ – an electronic, mid-tempo concept album named ‘Boardwalking’ which spilled out of him in the fallout of ANR. It was a reinvention, a makeover of the soul, a quest for answers to questions he’d ignored too long.
Coming on like a poppier Animal Collective fronted by Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, ‘Boardwalking’ is a collection of synths, drum machines and thoughts MJ had walking up and down the Miami boardwalk he called home, trying to figure out how to deal with simple emotional truths. Falling in love, losing a relative, stepping into a new unknown as a solo artist. ‘Boardwalking’ neutralised his palette, drew a line in the sand, and made sense of the chaos. MJ describes it as “a warm-up before the marathon”. The exorcism forced his passion projects to develop a thrilling new sense of cohesiveness. MJ no longer feels the inner turmoil that forced his many sonic loves to battle against each other for prevalence. Now they co-exist under ‘John Hancock III’. Writing earnest Springsteen-indebted rockers comes easily. Producing them as extreme, Tame Impala-style freakouts is where the challenge he sets himself pays dividend.
MJ was born in Washington, DC. A hyper-productive musical anomaly within his family, he found the piano at the age of three and began writing ‘dopey classical songs’ devoid of influence. As class clown he’d make comedy skit tapes to deal with any leftover nervous energy. The young MJ didn’t discover other people’s music until he came across The Beach Boys and The Beatles – specificallymovies like ‘Help!’. That’s when he realised a pop concept could have a surreal, comedic edge too.
Referencing only ’60s pop does ‘John Hancock III’ a disservice. An hour in MJ’s company is like standing by a bookshelf stacked with vinyl, being frantically Frisbee’d record after record. Tom Petty, Prince, Queen, Elvis Costello, Weird Al Yankovich, Harry Nilsson, Michael Jackson… The only common thread is smart songwriting. That’s MJ’s daily grind. Based in New Jersey, he spends each day exploring possibilities, spurned by a desire to play by his own rules, undefined by one genre or the music industry at large. That punk ethos is the backbone to MJ’s philosophy. He’s been doing-it-himself since day one; from the tapes he’d make and sell in school by overdubbing between two boomboxes and the lo-fi bands he’d form as a teenager to making a living off being in a band for a decade without a traditional deal.
MJ has the untenable work rate of a Thom Yorke, a Beck or a Smashing Pumpkins. “If Billy Corgan wasn’t such a dick I’d say he was an influence,” laughs MJ. “At his peak he was able to try everything.” MJ has been throwing everything at the wall, but now ‘John Hancock III’ is sticking. And he’s going to use every colour in the pack to paint this mural.