“It’s kind of a brutal story,” Jerry Hannan says. “Brutal, but beautiful.”
The Marin County musician is describing Mad Hannans, a new documentary about the legendary folk-rock band fronted by Hannan, with his late brother Sean Hannan on drums. Sean passed away in 2013. His battle with cancer—just as the Hannans began recording a new album following a bitter, yearslong separation—is now a major part of the film, sensitively directed by the Hannans’ longtime friend Martin Shore.
Mad Hannans will have its world premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Considering the enormous popularity of the band in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Hannan expects to see a large number of old fans at each of the movie’s two festival screenings.
A concert at the Sweetwater Music Hall, following the film’s debut on Friday, October 6, is already sold out.
“Can you believe that?” Hannan says. “The concert is kind of a reunion, a reuniting of people who played with us over the years, along with some special guests. But tickets disappeared as soon as we announced the show. I have people calling me up from all over the country saying, ‘Hey, I know the show is sold out, but can you get me in?’” Laughing, Hannan adds, “No. No I can’t get you in. I’m lucky I can get in.”
Taking a short lunchtime break at his Sausalito music studio, Hannan describes what he’s been working on this morning. He’s recording new material to go with tracks that were left unfinished when Sean passed away. It’s part of the album that he hopes to have completed in time for an end-of-the-year release.
“It’s weird, a little, but I’m working on unfinished stuff that my brother played drums on,” Hannan says. “He’d finished recording all of his stuff when he died. For years, I couldn’t even listen to it. It made me really sad. But now, it actually makes me happy to hear him playing, to hear him talking before and after the tracks were recorded. It makes me feel close to him, to be finishing this project that we started together, and had such high hopes for.”
There is footage, in the film, of those final recording sessions with Sean and Jerry. They were filmed as part of the documentary originally conceived as a brief 12-minute short about the Mad Hannans reuniting and recording a new album.
Asked what it was that split the Mad Hannans to begin with, Hannan pauses a moment. “I don’t know; it became impossible to work together, which was a real bummer,” he says. “At first, it was so easy and so fun. The Mad Hannans were just plain fun, because Sean and I had fun together. When people came to see us, it wasn’t just the music, but the whole thing about us being brothers. They liked the love story between us, ’cause that’s what it was. We loved each other, even when we couldn’t stand each other. And that love was infectious.”
But Sean had a drinking problem, and according to Hannan, he often became angry, leading to the deterioration of the band.
“I was probably too controlling,” Hannan says. “I was part of the problem, I guess. Anyway, we split up. I played with other drummers, who were good, but I missed playing with Sean. He was the best drummer for me to play with, by far. I don’t know if it was a genetics thing, or what, but he and I just clicked together when we were playing.”
Eventually, Sean cleaned up, and began sitting in on gigs with his brother. “And then he got a bump in his toe, and it turned out to be cancerous,” Hannan says. Sean’s foot was amputated, but that didn’t stop him.
“He always preferred to drum standing up, anyway,” Hannan says with a laugh.
But the cancer returned, and a few months later, Sean was dead.
“We were on our way to making some amazing things happen, and then we basically get struck by lightning,” Hannan says. “Like I said, it’s a brutal story. It’s a story of heartbreak and loss and brotherhood and love. But it’s great, because it’s a love story, too. And it just happens to have some really great music in it.”
‘Mad Hannans’; Friday, Oct. 6 and Monday, Oct. 9; Sweetwater music performance, Fri., Oct. 6; mvff.com.