In Tune Hanson harmonizes local roots with musical ingenuity.

By | August 29, 2010

Tulsa World

Published: 8/29/2010 2:25 AM
Last Modified: 8/29/2010 4:36 AM

On a warm summer evening, Hanson is home. There is a lag – one hour until the pop trio has to be back to the venue.

Today, there have been charity walks, press interviews, sound checks, travel, autographs, meet-and-greets. Later will be a two-and-a-half hour homecoming show to a capacity crowd at Cain’s Ballroom.

But now – right now – brothers Isaac, Taylor and Zac are hungry. They squeeze into a car and out of the venue’s back lot. This is their time.

Well, sort of.

At the restaurant, Taylor puts down his sunglasses and picks up a camera and looks around. He runs his hands through his cowlicked bangs and mentions that he would never be so “casual” about just any interview.

“But we’re at home and this is Isaac’s favorite food,” he said. “So here we are.”

Minutes ago, the three strolled nearly unnoticed into the cool air of El Rio Verde, a tiny authentic Mexican restaurant in north Tulsa. They joked, took pictures, checked phone messages, heckled a photographer, talked about music idols (Tom Petty) and regaled each other with memories of practical jokes – good and bad.

“Cayenne pepper on the microphone is always a bad idea …” Zac said.

“That really happened,” Taylor confirmed.

“… Especially when you find out someone’s allergic to it, too,” Isaac said, eyes wide. All three laughed.

“A very bad idea,” Taylor said.

But the guys prank each other – and the bands they tour with – often. With more than two dozen tour dates planned through the rest of this year, Zac said, “You learn to prank the bands you like the most.”

Capers include handing out newspapers to the front row of music fans before a band starts – the giggling audience is in on the joke. Taylor mimicked the popping hand motion of opening a newspaper across his face. “That can get to a band, you know, being ignored,” he said with a grin.

Baby oil on drum sticks, turning stage set-ups backwards, hiring marauding mariachi bands to invade a set – with Hanson, even fun and games are well-planned endeavors.

A musical evolution
Hanson, the three-time Grammy-nominated band of brothers, are a potent pop juggernaut now winning over its second generation of young fans. Their devotees cut a vast swath across cultures and ages, continents and genres.

They formed the pop-funk and soul group as preteens, in 1992. Millions of albums later, they own their own record company and work with whom they choose, when they choose.

The band’s music is bright and airy, infinitely poppy and powerful. Hanson’s newest studio release, “Shout It Out,” is crisp and lyric-driven – and quite possibly the best album from this Tulsa trio, ever. And they do it all themselves.

“Taylor doesn’t like the word ‘no,’ ” Zac said as he leaned forward over the table, toward his brother. For a moment, they speak like the businessmen they are.

“Yes, we’re brothers,” Taylor adds. “We work together. Talk to anyone who’s an entrepreneur who runs a company – what we do has to stand up to what everyone else is doing in order to be successful.

“The aesthetic of all of this brotherly love is completely meaningless if the goods aren’t there to support it.”

Said Isaac, “We spend 80 percent of our lives together. This isn’t hokey ‘Partridge Family’ type stuff. … If people see the day-to-day, it can get real, and brutal. We are one another’s worst critics, but we’re also respectful.”

Despite the millions of fans, to this day there remains a small core of devoted “haters” that consistently rail against a sticky – and outdated – image of a “flash in the pan boy band” named Hanson. They are just as rabid as those who have traveled across continents to see a Hanson concert. (It happens. Regularly.)

Nearly 20 years into their music careers, Taylor adds perspective of the persistence of both. “Yeah, I’d like to think we are just at the cusp of a long, happy career. We’re definitely not old-timers. I mean, Isaac’s not even 30.”

But flash in the pan? Well, not so much, said Isaac. “If anyone still sees us like we were in 1997 or 1992 or 1999, they must be stuck in some time warp and never graduated high school,” he said with a laugh. “That stuff doesn’t bother us at all. We’re a lot more than ‘MMMbop.’ ”

Admittedly, the trio’s early success – and early major label promotion and support – schooled the boys on the business and put them into contact with the industry’s insiders. “Producers should be like an extension of a band. Good ones should be,” Taylor said as he spooned from a bowl of steaming tortilla soup. “They should be like a member of the band, adding perspective and input.”

Hanson’s early years with Mercury Records included sessions with powerhouse producers like the Dust Brothers (Beck’s “Odelay,” Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique,” the “Fight Club” movie soundtrack). Later, the boys built friendships with veteran rockers and Motown greats, including the influential Michael Jackson, horn and pop-music arranger Jerry Hey and Motown funk bassist Bob Babbitt.

The major label representation fizzled, but their experiences shaped the Hansons. They took notes. The bonds they developed with many of those early mentors have lasted well into adulthood and flavored the band’s recipe for success.

A big appetite for indie creation
In 2003, the guys took a “leap of faith” and settled into Tulsa for good, they said. The Hansons made a major commitment to their careers – and their home town – and started 3CG Records, “mainly so we could have a medium to release music,” admitted Isaac.

The following year, they wrote, recorded and released “Underneath,” which quickly became one of the fastest-selling indie albums in music history. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Independent Albums chart and No. 25 on the Billboard 200 album chart.

3CG has since become a model of do-it-yourself music industry entrepreneurship, with the brothers leading panel discussions on the topic at 2008’s monster industry conference and music festival, South by Southwest.

“Inspiration comes from life lived, not from the pictures taken at last night’s party,” said Zac. They’re not interested in topping summer playlists or recording radio hits, he said. “Ten years ago, with the major record label, goals for us were completely different.”

Today, they play by their own rules.

Hanson pulls it off with almost no radio airplay, no major label backing and no worldwide ad campaigns. The band’s official website is run by New Medio, a local Tulsa startup. Its videos include Tulsa filmmakers, choreographers and actors. Promotion is largely fan-driven via message boards and social networking sites.

Small time, right? Wrong. Hanson videos consistently burn up the likes of YouTube and MySpace with millions and millions of views. Earlier this summer, MTV named Hanson’s latest single, “Thinking ‘Bout Somethin’ ” one of the top 10 best dance videos in music history just weeks after its release, ranking it with the likes of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

Being a “major indie” has its perks – the Hansons get to keep everything, every dime from single and album sales, all tour revenue. They do their own production and recording, choose when to release music, when to tour, when to collaborate.

“We also get to keep our failures,” said Zac. Brother Isaac agreed.

There’s less blame, too. Said Taylor, “It keeps us responsible and motivated. When we do really well, we could sit back – like after this meal – and undo our belts and just relax. Do nothing for awhile, you know? But this gives us a reason to keep pushing ourselves, to get back out and not gorge ourselves to begin with.”

If there’s a gluttony in any area of their lives, it’s in the area of creation.

“Honestly, I’d say we’re still naive about what we can and can’t do,” Zac said. But naiveté doesn’t equate to stupidity. “One of us will get an idea, the other will add to it, then the third will fill it out and we all just make it happen. … One person might not be able to make it happen, but as a group we can.”

Life imitating art
And have.

In fact, they’ve since dropped the “Records” from their 3CG label and “used it as a medium to bring people together. It’s not about marketing, it’s about people and art.”

It just so happens that the idea is a marketable one. Isaac, Taylor and Zac have used their youth – and independence – to closely connect with fans like few bands can. They have immersed themselves into community work and philanthropy, and welcomed close contact with fans willing to do the same.

Tens of thousands of fans have walked that many miles to raise awareness and money for AIDS education, treatment and prevention, and to fight poverty in Africa.

“We’ve tried not to hit cruise control,” said Taylor. “It’s (success) about staying hungry and interested. A lot of what’s missed as band’s go forward is life as art. When you have a history, it becomes your own bag that you carry. It’s not anyone else’s.”

As the men turn toward the back door of Cain’s Ballroom and their homecoming concert, someone jokes about their first show at Tulsa’s Mayfest back in 1992. How much have they really changed? Or have they changed at all?

Slowly, a large black SUV rolls up behind them. As they turn around to look, the sound of power windows buzzes. All lower at once.

“Hi daddy! Hi daddy! Hi daddy!” rises a chorus of excitable young chirps from the windows. They pass around hugs and kisses, then stride toward a venue overflowing with shouts and cheers.

The Hansons are home.

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