Hanson Brothers Grow Up, Give Back and Stay True

By | November 16, 2010

New Haven Advocate

Hanson is coming to the Oakdale

Thirteen years ago, three brothers from Tulsa, Okla., sang their way into pop music history and the hearts of countless pre-teen girls around the world.

Brothers Isaac, Taylor and Zachary Hanson released their first record, Middle of Nowhere, to positive reviews from critics, and its lead single “MMMBop” hit No. 1 in a handful of countries, including the U.S. and the U.K. They’d mastered the art of pop at quite a young age, incorporating their childhood influences of ’50s and ’60s rock ‘n’ roll with straight forward, feel-good pop music. Since then, they’ve amassed an impressive discography, with four more studio albums, a Christmas album, five live albums and a handful of hits collections. But chances are you, the average music consumer, haven’t been listening. You’re still stuck in 1997.

“We’re not still 16 years old,” says Isaac Hanson with a laugh in a recent phone interview. “We spent a lot of time in our lives trying to make the point that we were songwriters and musicians and singers, and that we weren’t kids.” Isaac, the band’s guitarist and the eldest of the three, was precisely 16 years of age when Middle of Nowhere hit record store shelves in May of that year. Brothers Zac (drums) and Taylor (keyboards and lead vocals) were 11 and 14, respectively. That they earned their first record deal on account of their talents and not as part of some marketing machine should be considered a consequential feat. And family bands have been quite common in popular music over the decades. But nay-sayers found the boys’ long hair and the notion that puberty hadn’t yet hit as reasons to disregard them. “I think in some cases, because of the youth, people very often tried to paint us into a corner as a band, saying that we were lightweight, and we were just teeny boppers, trying to write us off,” Isaac says.

Hanson has survived label turmoil and the uncertainty of the future of their career with a diehard fanbase and their integrity intact. As they themselves have grown up, so has their writing style and performing chops (Taylor could wail the bricks off a building), leaving non-fans susceptible to covert conversion tactics. In August of 2007, Chicago radio station Q101 played “Great Divide,” off Hanson’s then-newly released album The Walk, without revealing the artist to listeners. It became the station’s most requested song. See, when you take the stigma of the band’s name off their music, it becomes a hit. Joke’s on you, haters.

“Great Divide” was also a charity single of sorts, and like other songs on The Walk, featured kids from sub-Saharan Africa on backing vocals. “We felt like it was the right opportunity to start raising money in a way that seemed natural,” Isaac says of his and his brothers’ philanthropy. “On a moral level, we showed up there knowing the situation was challenging, and then walking around and seeing so much of it, there was both inspiration and positivity to it.”

Their trip during the recording of The Walk inspired the band to, among other charity efforts in Africa, host one-mile barefoot walks before shows in the U.S. and Canada (including one with the band starting at 5:15 p.m. before this Saturday’s show at the Oakdale). “We’ve hosted over 165 walks,” Isaac says, and adds that along with others who’ve hosted walks through takethewalk.net, they’ve collectively walked more than twice the distance around the world.

Life as a Hanson hasn’t been all success and fulfilling charity work, however. After the success of Middle of Nowhere, the band’s label Mercury Records was absorbed by Island Def Jam, itself already the product of a previous merger. Hanson started work on their sophomore effort This Time Around, and seemed to hit roadblocks at every turn. Isaac notes that due to things like the merging of Mercury with Island Def Jam, “You ended up with a group of people that love the idea of Hanson being successful, but ultimately did not really have any investment or any understanding of what got us to where we were in the first place.”

The brothers submitted 80 songs to the label for this record; all were rejected. “Before that, the most we’d submitted was 25,” Isaac says. “They were not in the business of making Hanson records.” But a record contract is not something you can just walk away from, no matter how detrimental to the record-making process. “They wanted to keep you in limbo, because no record company wants to let any potential success go, but they were not particularly interested in helping out, either.” The struggle is evident on the recordings that ended up becoming This Time Around, as well as much of their next full-length, 2004’s Underneath, and Isaac remarks that conquering adversity is a common theme among Hanson songs.

They pushed through, and started their own record label, 3CG Records, so they’d never have to relive another Island Def Jam ordeal. New album Shout It Out, released in June, is the band’s third album released on their own label. “It’s kind of a groovy, upbeat R&B/pop record,” Isaac says, “one of the most upbeat records we’ve made in a long time.” It’s a return to their roots; a return to crafting fun, energetic, structurally-sound pop songs. At the show this Saturday, anything from the Hanson catalog is fair game. “We generally play close to two hours, and play pretty much all the singles and everything else along the way,” Isaac says of the band’s live shows.

So what are you waiting for? The Hanson brothers are tremendous musicians who’ve time and again proven themselves to be more than a flash in the pan, with a dedicated legion of fans and critical acclaim. Whatever’s keeping you from enjoying this music, get over it. You have no idea what you’re missing.