For the record, Hanson brothers stay true to selves, fans

By | August 19, 2010

Columbus Dispatch

Likening the men of Hanson – three Oklahoma siblings who wrote clean-cut tunes, sported asexual hairdos and introduced MMMBop into the 1990s cultural lexicon – to the Jonas Brothers – the 21st-century teen-pop musicians as famous for their fashion sense, love interests and acting pursuits as their tunes – might seem rational at first glance.

Isaac Hanson couldn’t disagree more.

“We were a band first, songwriters first,” said the eldest Hanson, 29 – who noted that his trio turned down a wave of TV-series and merchandising offers in its teenage heyday, opting to focus on music instead of commercial ubiquity.

“We had the advantage of doing this for years before being signed,” he said. “We had done 300 shows and made three records. There wasn’t this kitsch factor or support from a Disney thing or some producer.”

Yet an organic appeal existed that launched the three from an ensemble playing small clubs to a pop-rock juggernaut that headlined stadiums and major venues – including a free 1997 concert in Columbus City Center, where about 10,000 fans crammed the Downtown mall’s three stories for a performance.

Their Mercury Records debut, Middle of Nowhere, sold 10 million copies worldwide, produced three hit singles and made the three-piece a sensation – non-threatening enough to please parents, credible enough to deflect some music snobs.

They were lauded, too, for skillful musicianship in concert – if one could hear them over the screams, that is.

“We always had an immense amount of respect for the fact that people were so in tune with what we were doing,” said Hanson, who plays guitar, bass and keyboard; and provides some vocals.

“It was like ‘This can come or this can go quickly.'”

Superstardom was fleeting.

After Mercury was absorbed by Island Def Jam Music Group in 1998, the conglomerate label maintained what Hanson called a “really unproductive relationship” with the young artists, rejecting scores of new tunes and pairing them with hip-hop producers who didn’t align with Hanson’s creative vision. Executives pulled promotional and tour funding for the 2000 album, This Time Around.

Three years later, the brothers severed ties with the label and founded the self-run 3G Records, an arrangement that has allowed the men to write, record and tour on their terms.

They’ve hit the road every year but one since 2004, in smaller venues without the spectacle of years past. All three are married with children and still live in their hometown of Tulsa, Okla.

It’s a curious undertaking for the brothers, who probably don’t need to work another day – or pluck a note – again.

“We love what we do,” said Hanson, who met his wife by spotting her in the crowd at a 2003 concert in New Orleans. “By no means is it about the money.

“If you want to do it forever, you’ve got to be an artist.”

Despite a new album – the horn- and piano-heavy Shout It Out, a homage to 1960s R&B musicians and keyboard players such as Billy Joel – those hoping to hear the group’s No. 1-charting MMMBop single needn’t fret.

“If your fans like you and that’s music that has inspired them,” he said, “I don’t know why you wouldn’t play it.”

Although the band’s longtime fans have aged in tandem with their idols, a crop of teenage ticket holders – both male and female, mere infants during the group’s initial ascent – increasingly numbers among the faces.

Some things, though, haven’t changed.

“I’ll tell you what: Even these days (onstage) it’s hard to hear,” Hanson said. “Once people get going, the frenzied pitch of things, it can get really over-the-top.”

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