Hanson’s answers: Oldest brother Isaac talks ‘MMMBop’ band’s legacy, future

By | November 14, 2010

Lehigh Valley Music

It may seem odd for a singing group whose members all are still in the 20s to be putting out a five-DVD career retrospective.

But the band we’re talking about is Hanson, the former boy band whose signature song, “MMMBop” first was released 13 1/2 years ago, when even the oldest of the sibling trio was just 16 and the youngest 11.

The fact that we’re still talking about Hanson — brothers Isaac, Taylor and Zac — all these years later is an indication they are, indeed, worthy of a such a retrospective.

That, and the fact that they’ve released four more critically and commercially successful discs since then and had nine Top 40 hits. And that their latest studio disc, “Shout It Out,” released in June with its single “Thinking ’Bout Somethin’,” not only was one of their better efforts, but hit Billboard’s Top 30.

They’re on yet another tour that Friday stops at Stroudsburg’s Sherman Theater, at which, eldest brother Isaac says in a recent phone call from the group’s Oklahoma studio, you can expect “you’re going to hear a good portion of songs that you know.”

In the call, Hanson spoke about the band’s legacy and its place these days, including the forthcoming DVD set.

Here’s a transcript of the call:

Issac Hanson: “We are just working away at a massive, massive project that’s coming out at the end of the year.”

Lehigh Valley Music: Well, now you’ve got to tell me about it – tell me what it is.

“Well, the massive project is a five-DVD box set with a best-of compiling of songs. It’s basically a CD and then also a five-DVD box set. And so what it is basically, when we launched ‘Shout It Out,’ a month before we released the record, we did a week-long stint in New York City, at The Gramercy, and we played all five of our albums night after night. And we also recorded and filmed that, and so that is what this project is – it’s about to release. It’s called ‘Five of Five’ and it will be shipping at the end of November.”

Oh cool, right in time for Christmas

“Exactly. It’s a mail-order type of project that we’re doing directly from the website. So it’s really cool.”

HANSON, With Kicking Dasies and Jarrod Gorbel (formerly of The Honorary Title), 8 p.m. Friday, Sherman Theater, 524 Main St., Stroudsburg. Tickets $28, www.shermantheater.com, 570-420-2808.

Are you are break from touring right now?

“Yeah, we have basically a month of dead time. Of course, right now we’re finishing up all the edits of this five-DVD massive thing [Laughs] and all the mixing that goes along with it, all the audio stuff. So we’re still in the throes of things.”

“We’re really excited about it. It’s looking really good and we’re really proud of how it’s coming out so far.”

It sounds like a product that you guys haven’t really done yet.

“Yeah, it is something that we haven’t really done. And in fact, interestingly, we’ve released some live records over the years, but it’s been over 10 years since we’ve had a plugged-in, electric live concert DVD of any sort.

“It’s kind of unfortunate. It’s kind of one of those weird oversights where, with all the touring we’ve done over the years, you would have thought we would have released another DVD of some sort. We did one in 1998, we did another one in 2003, but the 2003 one was acoustic. And then we did a live record in 2005, which we were really, really happy with. But unfortunately we didn’t film that one. So it was actually, in a lot of ways, a long time coming.

“And so we’re really, really happy with it. It’s kind of one of these things – to be able to see all of our records in context like that, and to be able to kind of hear the difference between ‘MMMBop’ and ‘Thinking ‘Bout Somethin,’ and literally be hearing them only four days apart from one another as far as being performed, I would say it gives an interesting perspective on who we’ve been as a band over the past more than a decade now.”

Well, now, I’m going to continue on this line of questioning. Do you see any evolution in the songs. I’ve seen you play MMMBop full instrumentation and then I also saw you do that stripped-down, almost acoustic version that you did. Over the years, so you see evolution of your big songs?

“Well, there is as much evolution as there is similarity, in the sense of, as far as the music and the albums over the years, ‘cause, well, basically, evolving is just, amongst other things, is just time. Different songs come out, different inspirations. And really has more to do with just that specific reality of, ‘Wow, years go by, things about your life change, inevitably certain parts of your emotional life and your life in general create different scenarios in which you’re writing songs.

“But ‘MMMBop,’ interestingly, when we toured more extensively on the record in ’98, which was the summer following the release of the record, it actually really has not changed a lot, as far as arrangement, as far as performance. In fact, we actually perform it higher than we did then.”

Are you serious? Really?

“Yeah, yeah.”

That’s interesting. I would have never thought that.

“Yeah. So I don’t know. It’s definitely, there’s no question that the music has evolved over the years. There’s no question that the fan base in some form or another has evolved. But in the same way – to reference the DVD we’re doing – it kind of is interesting that when you watch ‘Middle of Nowhere’ and you watch ‘Shout It Out,’ the difference is the horn section. And it’s not so much that – I mean, I really do feel that in watching all of these show that we worked hard to get all of the arrangements and the kind of details, within reason, as close as we could to the record. And we’re really stickler about saying, ‘OK, five guys onstage, this got that, how we gonna make this thing work – in some cases actually ended up playing with some drum loops and some things like that to be more true to the original records. And I have to say, I kind of feel like – especially in that context – you realize that the songs themselves could move from record to record and you probably wouldn’t notice much difference.”

That’s wild. Let me ask – the shows that you’re going to be playing in November, are they going to be any different than the ones you just played for “Shout It Out?’

“Well, I think considering the ‘5 of 5’ product is going to be releasing, I imagine that we’ll make a real clear effort to draw attention to some of those details and pull out – maybe even kind of segment certain parts of the set and say, ‘Here’s four songs from ‘Middle of Nowhere,’ and four from ‘This Time Around’ and so on and so on. So I think that there’s a real possibility for something along those lines. But that being said, we do a lot of that anyway. And because of the fact that we played all that music in April, a month before ‘Shout It Out’ was released, we have definitely been sprinkling a lot of variants into the show because of the fact that we worked up all of the material.

“So I would say if you’re familiar with very current Hanson music, or if you are very unfamiliar with Hanson music as a whole, you’re going to hear a good portion of songs that you know. If you know any given Hanson record, you’re going to hear probably three, four songs for sure from a record that you know.”

I want to ask you specifically a couple of questions about “Shout It Out.” You mentioned the horns, and there’s an R&B influence. How did that come in there? Where does that come from?

“Well, in a lot of ways, it actually connects most to our earliest inspirations and even our earliest records. ‘Middle of Nowhere’ definitely had a bunch of kind of moments of ‘60s R&B and Motown influences and even a song like ‘MMMBop.’ In a lot of ways, the reason why that chorus is the way it is is because we were so familiar with ‘50s vocal groups and the whole kind of doo-wop section of early rock and roll. And so there’s certainly a reality to that being inspiration for us in the very, very beginning. So I think in a lot of ways, it connects the dots to our earliest musical influences. And I think what had happened was we made ‘Underneath,’ which was our third record and had really – we kind of joke that it’s ‘the record that survived because it was a four-year process and it required us getting off of our record company and starting out own and the whole nine yards. So it was an ordeal in and of itself. So it was the record that survived and it kind of was a wonder that it had any kind of cohesiveness to it at all, because of the extensive process that was that album. And then ‘The Walk’ was a very kind of self-contained record but it was a little bit more akin to our second record in that it had kind of a little bit more of kind of a gospel-y, and some more rootsy kind of qualities in a different way. It was a little bit less pop overall, although there definitely were some songs that were still kind of familiar Hanson arrangements and qualities. But it was a little bit more like the second record was – which was a little bit more anthemic and kind of gospel-infused and a little bit more kind of minor key in several cases and stuff like that.

“And so when we hit ‘Shout It Out,’ I think we kind of made full circle. We kind of went, ’Well, ‘Underneath’ was that kind of more introspective record and it was more acoustic and ‘the Walk’ was this kind of anthem-y, kind of big-chorus, ‘we-can-conquer-this-great-divide’ kind of album. Now, here we are, fifth record. We just felt like drawing attention to the fact that we really love what we do. That we love old R&B and pop music, and that certain elements of that kind of excitement, and I guess you could say very-comfortable-in-our-own-skin element just really saturated the process. And we just were writing kind of more upbeat-sounding songs. There are some hidden melancholy in there, as far as the lyrics are concerned, which is kind of indicative of the way in which we’ve tended to write songs over the last decade plus. But it certainly is an upbeat record – if nothing else, tempo-wise, I think it’s the fastest record.”

My reaction to it, when I first heard it, I think it comes through that you guys are comfortable. To me – I don’t want this to sound bad – you’re playing loose, but in a way that is as if you’re comfortable. That it’s just flowing naturally.

“Well, it’s a very live record. We did almost all of it in one room.”

I did want to ask you, though – by the time you guys play in Stroudsburg, you’re going to have turned 30 (his birthday is Nov. 17).

“Yeah” [Laughs]

Sorry for reminding you. But does that factor into the way you approach things – and music.

“Well, you know, life is weird, man. One minute you’re 16 and the next minute you’re 30 and you kind of go, ‘Whoa, what happened.’ We’ve live a lot of life. We’ve seen a lot of things and have had an incredible, incredible ride that has been this kind of crazy, music business career. And I have to say, 25 was weird for me because I kind of joke it was the quarter-life crisis. I wasn’t married then. My later-to-be-wife and I were dating at the time, but things just weren’t real clear in my head, and we had kind of gone through a really intense process of making that ‘Underneath’ album. And I think I kind of had a lot of unusual headspace going on at that particular time. But 30 kind of feels like 23 for me – it doesn’t feel like a whole lot has changed for me from that point of view. And I think on some level, maybe making music has a way of propelling the illusion – or delusion [Laughs] – of being young. You get to go out there and do the same thing you’ve been doing since you were 16 years old. Well, actually since I was 11 years old, but on a larger scale since I’ve been 16. It’s kind of like ‘Wow, OK.’

Your pulmonary embolism episode – everything OK with that? You’re past that?

“Yeah, everything’s good. That turned out to be kind one of these weird things that, probably, if I wasn’t a guitar player, I wouldn’t have noticed till I was 40 or 50, even – or maybe ever. But it was just one of those random things where my body was made a certain way, and it just so happened some ligaments and things were a little out of alignment –mostly because of just, literally, the way I was born. And it just kind of showed itself partially – and I say partially ‘cause it’s not wholly – but partially ‘cause of playing guitar and just being kind of active in that way. So it’s good. It was primarily about an opening between my first rib and my collarbone and a vein getting pinched in between bone and ligament. And we dealt with that, everything’s good, and there’s no reason to think I will ever have that issue again.”

Is Taylor going to continue with Tinted Window, the side project with Smashing Pumpkins’ guitarist James Iha, Fountains of Wayne bassist/singer Adam Schlesinger and drummer Bun E. Carlos of Cheap Trick with whom he released an album last year?

“Uh, I don’t know for sure. I definitely wouldn’t rule it out. You know, maybe … my guess would be if something happens with that, it probably wouldn’t be until sometime around 2012. But you never really know with that kind of stuff – I mean, when inspiration strikes you. It’s hard to know for sure. But there definitely have been some songs that he and we have written during the process of just kind of being creative that have definitely seemed to lend themselves more towards the Tinted Window style of things. Which makes me think that there might be something sooner than that. But I don’t … I think he would be the only one really able to say that for sure. But I do know that we will be working ‘Shout It Out’ and all this kind of stuff through next year.”

You talked about doing now what you’ve been doing since you were 16. Do you guys foresee something that will show people that you’ve grown up? I mean, some significant change or anything like that? And does your family life make a difference in what you’re doing?

“Family life always makes a difference, because you wouldn’t get married and have kids if you thought you were going to just keep being single, you know? [Laughs] And just kind of be out there on your own. “So yeah, that changes things. And of course, being single on some level complicated things sometimes. Most of the time it’s just been a great part of living life and – for lack of a better way to say it – getting older and things of that nature. But that being said, with regard to the music and peoples’ perception on whether or not who we are – man, I mean, among other things, the ‘5 of 5’ thing, if people see it, I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t find themselves, if they were unfamiliar with Hanson, scratching their heads. [Saying] ‘Wait a second, do I need to rethink my opinion?’

“Here’s the thing: We’ve been lucky to do it for so long and we just so happened to start off as young kids and have had our biggest hits to date as teenagers. So there’s a real reality to that, and that’s fine. But I don’t think, in retrospect, if people really looked at ‘Middle of Nowhere’ or most of the music that we’ve released, I don’t think that our age defined us, from our perspective. I think our music has maintained to have the same core principals and even lyrical content as it did from the beginning. And I think youthful exuberence might lead people to think we were writing music that had no depth. And I don’t think that that’s the case.

“We like to think that we’ll be doing this a long time and that ‘Shout It Out’ would be just another record that we’re proud of 10, 15 years from now, too.”