Paul Hanna on Solo Projects, 'Tommy' Benefit and 30 Years of Annex

matty day | paul hanna & tommy 14 | nov. 2016

With respect to all of the past and present members of Green Bay rock band Annex, there's simply too much history to even try and tell the whole story here.

There's the time, fresh out of high school, the band's thirty-foot backdrop caught fire and burned a Grand Rapids, Michigan venue to the ground; they suffered burns and smoke inhalation, lost all their gear (save a heroically grabbed Stratocaster) and were nearly saddled with a million-dollar lien.

There's the time Fast Lane Records signed them, at the urging of Minneapolis glam-rockers Flipp; they were promised worldwide touring and promotion but ultimately walked away when the label failed to deliver.

There's the time they were in talks with Bill Aucoin, the original manager of KISS (perhaps the band's biggest influence) and Billy Idol; they learned shortly after that he'd died from cancer.

In 2017 Annex will somehow celebrate 30 years as a band. That milestone, however, hadn't even occurred to lead singer/guitarist Paul Hanna. Chatting at his home studio, with new tracks of solo material displayed onscreen, it's clear Hanna's more focused on what's next than what's past.

The New Stuff

As frontman of a band that's landed every prominent Green Bay gig possible, it's understandable if fans (or non-fans) assume Annex is all Paul does. Not only has he filled his calendar with solo shows for over a decade, but he's collaborated extensively outside of his big gig, including with former Packers linebacker Nick Barnett.

Barnett had hired Branson Sagear from the Chicago Recording Company to be the producer at his home studio. Looking to add guitar and vocals to the mostly hip-hop tracks, Sagear hollered at Hanna.

“I went there and we did a couple tunes, and all of a sudden Barnett just kept callin'," says Hanna. “It got to the point where he said, 'Well, maybe I won't pay you today, and we'll just do some studio time.' So then I was going to use that studio, but he ended up getting traded or whatever."

Though Paul missed that opportunity to record his own material, the experience forever changed him; Sagear not only stoked Hanna's interest in music production but also taught him how to do it.

Working with pop and hip-hop was brand new for the lifelong rock 'n' roll musician, too. Not only did it open Hanna's mind, but through Barnett, Hanna connected with Swedish pop artist Rebstar. The two collaborated online, co-writing a song, “Take Me Out," which Rebstar released in Sweden.

More non-Annex material would follow, but not exactly out of Hanna's own plans.

Though Annex has released two full-length albums and an EP, and has an original catalog 40 songs deep, their reputation as a cover-heavy band kept them out of Appleton's Mile of Music in 2015, with its original-only ordinance. Hanna accepted the festival's suggestion to instead perform solo with acoustic guitar. In time for the event, he self-recorded and released an EP, “Capture Me," for fans of his new act and got invited back for another run at this year's Mile.

Other than that EP and recent releases from GB songsmith Kurt Gunn, Paul mainly uses his home studio for his own demoing and songwriting. But he's surprised himself in enjoying the recording nearly as much as the composing.

“It's not just writing [music]," says Hanna. “It's, how do you make it sound so good?"

But Hanna's excitement for songwriting has kept pace thanks to a newer, more confessional approach. He's found the shift as rewarding as it is terrifying.

“For so many years I tried to write stuff that I thought would sell," says Hanna. “[But] you've just got to write what you're feeling, which is crazy for me. It's completely uncomfortable, but I like that! That expression. It's refreshing right now.

“For the first time, I feel like I'm challenging myself in that aspect. It is so different from any of the Annex stuff, the new stuff that I'm writing. And it's nothing like my acoustic solo album. All of this stuff is very, very different."

This writer can attest; the demos Hannna showed me conjure comparisons anywhere from the Beatles to Portishead. Paul's not sure if he'll release it under his given name, or christen the project with a new title, but we'll find out soon; the album will be recorded and hopefully released next year. Offered free rein at an impressive, private local studio, Hanna's demoing the raw songs on his own equipment to be prepared as possible.

For a hardworking guy who's seen more than a few opportunities fizzle out, Hanna's fully invested, eager to see this experiment through.

“The new stuff is definitely where my heart's at right now," says Paul. “I'm trying to reinvent who I am."

Tommy: 14 Years of Giving Instruments to Kids

I'd looked forward to writing about Paul for a while; I've respected him as a musician and entertainer who puts maximal effort into every set he plays and for a generously long time.

But perhaps his most generous contribution is the annual “Tommy" fundraiser at Green Bay's Riverside Ballroom. It's on Black Friday (November 25th), with doors opening at 6 p.m. and a loaded bill of local music starting at 7: Music U students, The Wide Right Turns, Consult the Briefcase, Big Mouth and the Power Tool Horns, Johnny Wad and Annex.

Ten dollars at the door gets you into an experience that goes well beyond the performers, who play the event for free. Likewise, the sound production company and the venue offer their services at no cost. Merchandise fees are covered with sponsorship.

If no one – including organizer Hanna – takes any compensation, where do all the funds go? Finding out is exactly what keeps crowds coming back: all money raised is used to buy music equipment for Green Bay kids and teens.

“I started going to teachers and asking, 'Do you have a student that maybe needs a new instrument?'" says Paul. “You see serious accomplishment in these kids or dedication – I want to help those kids out."

These life-changing gifts are then presented onstage at the end of the night.

“We do it in front of everyone, so everyone sees where their money's going," says Hanna. “If you spend $20 that night on a hoodie, you know that that money's going towards buying that guitar – that the bass that kid's holding, you helped contribute to that."

The bands that play are almost certainly upstaged by the beneficiaries.

“All of a sudden we drag these kids up, and they have no clue what's going on. Not a clue!" says Hanna. “You bring 'em up, like, 'Hi, nice to meet you. I hear you play guitar. Here's a Les Paul.' And they open it up and they're just bawling.

“We've done drumsets, basses, guitars, amplifiers. We started doing brass and stuff for Washington Middle School, and we bought brand new instruments for Green Bay East," says Hanna, who, along with brother and Annex drummer Craig, are alumni of those schools. “All the stuff belongs to the school now, instead of just giving to one person, so each year these kids can still use these instruments. Every year it just keeps things going."

Hanna's concerned by cuts in music funding; he credits music for keeping him out of trouble as a teen. Back then he'd play gigs Wednesday-Saturday nights – provided he kept his grades up.

“Looking back, when I was in high school, that kept me out of a lot of trouble. You'd think it'd be the other way around – you know, I'm in a bar, and I'm playing music and I've got temptation with girls or booze or drugs or whatever," says Paul. “You'd think that's going to add all that temptation, but I felt like it kept me more focused, if you will, to have my instrument."

Hanna sets up the event out of a love for music, to change lives and to help local schools. It's also a chance to honor the event's namesake.

“Tommy was just the nicest guy," says Hanna of the former Annex bassist. Tommy Steinbruecker was killed in 2003, moments after speaking with Paul; Tommy'd taken his motorcycle to check out that night's venue and was riding home to get Annex's gear. Hanna was nearby but thought nothing of the sirens he heard shortly after their phone call.

It was a deeply saddening chain of events. Steinbruecker was hit by a driver rushing home with news that her cancer had gone into remission. Tommy died instantly.

Compounding the tragedy, the driver's cancer would return, this time fatally. Hanna feels her guilt caused her to give up.

“She'd driven down this road probably a billion times in her life, not thinking anything of it, so excited to tell her dad that she's healthy now," Hanna explains. “I wanted to go talk to her, because it was an accident, obviously. But she wore that. And it wore on her. Just a horrible situation."

Annex played a benefit shortly after to raise money for the Steinbrueckers' funeral expenses. After that, Hanna decided to turn “Tommy" into the positive celebration it's become.

“You're having a moment with these people; you're changing their lives. And I think that's probably the biggest compliment I can get," says Hanna. “I'm not looking for a thank you. I've never wanted this to be an event about Annex or me. This is Tommy."

Search for “Tommy Steinbruecker Memorial" on Facebook for details on this year's event.

30th Annex-versary

Annex has soldiered on through a lot. Though Paul hadn't realized his band was completing its third decade, he's certainly enjoyed returns on his long-term investment. Perhaps greatest of all was the recent, life-affirming opportunity to open for Hanna's all-time guitar idol, Ace Frehley from KISS.

“I was crying!" says Hanna of his learning the news. “I had to pull the car over and call my mom."

When the big night came, Paul not only got to hold and play his hero's guitars but got to talk with him one on one before the show. Ace actually walked up to and introduced himself to Paul!

In 30 years Annex has had a lot of special moments. They toured hard once Hanna graduated high school, leaving for two- or three-month stretches all over the country; for a decade they'd spend just a couple weeks home before heading right back out.

They also got to record at legendary Smart Studios in Madison.

But yes, Annex does play a lot of cover songs live, which simply damns their credibility in certain circles. Hanna's never understood it, but remains unaffected.

“If you play cover songs during the week to pay your bills you're the antichrist or something," says Hanna with a shrug. “It's just weird to me."

The amount of originals Annex plays simply depends on the show.

“We originally did a lot of writing," says Paul. “[But] when I play a Packer game it's not the time or place to be like, 'Hey, here's a new original!' I'm being paid to entertain at that point. And I just want [the audience] to have fun."

For Hanna, the distinction doesn't matter, so long as he's accomplishing his life's goal.

“I never wanted anything else; I just wanted to play music. And I didn't care if it was covers, I didn't care if it was original. I just want to play music, because I love playing music."

One might say that Paul Hanna likes to play music. Originals, covers, electric, acoustic, solo, full band, live or in the studio. If you've never seen him, check him or Annex out. If you've seen him before, see him again and witness a talented musician enjoying his craft more than ever. Cheers to a guy who's experienced a lot, given even more and is brave enough to continue to reinvent himself.

Matty performs with the Priggs, the Foamers?, J-Council, Muddy Udders, Cory Chisel & Adriel Denae. Write: | Tweet: @PollutedMindset

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