Mmmbop till you drop

By | May 30, 2011

London Times
(Thanks to Kari for sending this our way)

Hanson were teen sensations who slipped from view. Yet they never went away, they got smarter and their fans remained loyal
Tim Cooper Published: 29 May 2011

O n a sunny street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1,000 mostly female fans have just made a barefoot pilgrimage to see their heroes. They have come from all corners of the globe to watch a one-hour concert and walk in the footsteps of a band most of us remember as one-hit wonders from the summer of 1997. That’s when Hanson — three blond brothers aged between 11 and 16 — kept the Verve and Radiohead off the top of the charts with a slice of infectious retro-pop called MmmBop. You probably remember the video: goofy Isaac, cute Taylor and little Zac scampering and skating in their baggy clothes, with long blond hair.

So what happened to Hanson? Fourteen years on, they’re all married with kids, still living in Tulsa, still making records and, as the line outside Cain’s Ballroom amply demonstrates, still attracting hordes of loyal fans from all over the world. Tracey, 27, has come all the way from London. Like most of the others, she has been a fan since MmmBop days. “Their music’s so happy, bubbly and infectious — you can’t help but feel happy and upbeat when you hear it,” she says. “No matter how much of a bad day you’re having, you can’t help but feel good.”

Even staunch fans such as Tracey, a married web designer, concede that Hanson have been out of the public eye for a while. But she believes firmly that their new self-financed, self-recorded and self-marketed album will put them back on the map. “I’ve a feeling this one is going to be huge,” she predicts. Of course, their appeal was never limited to the music. Tracey thinks all three of them are almost as lovely as each other. “Taylor is the pin-up, and Zac has a smile you can see from the moon,” she says. “But my favourite is Ike — he has that classic movie-star heart-throb look.”

‘We were turned down 13 times – three times by the label that eventually signed us’

There’s no doubt that being a “Fanson” (“We don’t encourage the word,” Taylor will grimace later over a post-gig pint of Guinness in an Irish bar) is a girl thing. Tracey confides that her husband, who is not here, “tolerates them at best”.

Still, there are exceptions. Lars, a fork-lift driver, has come all the way from Norway with his wife, Froydis, a teacher. But he is the fan. “People think it’s strange that I like Hanson,” he confesses. “The first time I saw them, I wondered where all the men were. But I think there are more and more of us listening to their music.”

One of the more fervent fans at the fan club show is Xenia, 26, a bar manager from Phoenix, Arizona, whose exotic facial piercings, tattoos and hairstyle — half of it shaved, the other half dyed blonde and pink — do not immediately mark her out as a fan, although she has seen the band 60 times. “I like Marilyn Manson and Garbage, but I’ve never outgrown Hanson,” she says. “I feel like I have evolved with them. When I was 12, I wanted to marry Taylor, and I still do — even though he’s married with four kids now. And I once moved to Tulsa for a year just to be near them.”

Hanson were never really a boy band: even as children, they wrote their own songs and played their own instruments. They still do, except they’re better at it now. For the past decade, they’ve been running their own affairs, creating a model that enables them to claim they make more money now than they did in their heyday on a record label.
Just down the road from Cain’s, opposite a Tex-Mex restaurant and an English-style “pub”, is the hub of Hanson’s business operations. Marked only by their company logo (3CG) and a gaggle of girl fans lurking with cameras, it’s two blocks from where they played their first show, at a local arts festival in 1992, when Zac was only 6, Taylor 8 and Isaac 11.
Back then, the three home-schooled brothers sang a cappella pop hits such as Johnny B Goode, Splish Splash and Rockin’ Robin, which they’d first heard during a year spent in South America, when their only inspirations were an oldies cassette and the encouragement of their mother. She had abandoned her own singing ambitions to raise the three boys.

The brothers began performing on the street, outside bars and clubs, and the novelty of the three cute kids with their three-part harmonies soon built them a reputation locally. Their father, Walker, an accountant for an oil company, paid for them to go into a studio to record an album, which they sold — on cassettes — at the shows they did at weekends, first in Tulsa, then further afield in other parts of Oklahoma and neighbouring Kansas.

The next step was to take up instruments, Isaac choosing guitar, Taylor keyboards and Zac the drums. By 1996, they had made a second album, “literally recorded in a one-car garage”, according to Ike, featuring the original version of the self-penned MmmBop — a song that Isaac describes as “basically about the fact that we were young kids making music, trying to be a band”.

Walker, who is now 3CG’s chief financial officer, says: “They were always really focused. They knew what they wanted to do from the earliest age.” Inevitably, sacrifices were involved. “Everyone around us thought it was weird that they would invite us to a party and we would tell them we had to practice for a gig,” Zac recalls. “We were losing friendships and becoming alienated from people our age, but we had to decide between our friendships and what was important in our lives.”
They headed to Austin, Texas, to try their luck at finding a record deal at the annual SXSW music conference-cum-festival. “Our parents drove us there, and we just started busking in the hotel lobby,” Taylor says. “We had no bookings, but the way we had gotten gigs in Tulsa was by walking up to people and saying we wanted to sing at their bar or restaurant or festival, so we did the same thing in Austin.”

I think that surviving success is harder than surviving failure. By the time we got through our second album, it was excruciating
That earned them a meeting with a young lawyer who offered to manage them and, using their self-recorded album as a calling card, tried to find them a record deal. He was not immediately successful. “We were turned down 13 times over two years, including three times by the label that eventually signed us,” Zac says.

In the end, a performance at the Kansas State Fair caught the attention of a Mercury A&R man, Steve Greenberg, who signed them almost on the spot. Things then moved pretty fast. The label hired the super-hip Dust Brothers, who had worked with Beck and the Beastie Boys, to produce the album, retooling MmmBop from a ballad into an uptempo pop song, and hired an “edgy” video producer, Tamra Davis, who had worked with Sonic Youth, to shoot the home-movie-style video.

Released in June 1997, the song instantly went global. It topped the charts simultaneously in Britain and America, followed by 25 more countries, and Hanson became the biggest teen superstars since the Jackson 5. “What happened with MmmBop is that it was the opposite of what was going on in the charts at that time,” Isaac says over burritos and beers. “There was no pop stuff — it was mostly grunge.”

Hanson’s first “proper” album, Middle of Nowhere, sold 8m copies, and their fame was such that the governor of Oklahoma declared May 6 “Hanson Day” in Tulsa. The label rushed out a Christmas album to cash in on their overnight success, followed by a live album from their US tour of stadiums and arenas, and the band had a string of hits, especially in Britain, which has always been the epicentre of what Taylor calls “Hansondom”.

To the public at large, though, they effectively disappeared. And behind the scenes there was trouble. Their record label was swallowed up in a merger with Island Def Jam, and the team that worked with them was fired just as their second proper album, This Time Around, was released. What followed was a three-year battle with what had essentially become a rap label, documented in an eye-opening DVD, Strong Enough to Break. Says Taylor: “To be perfectly honest, I think that surviving success is harder than surviving failure. By the time we got through our second album, it was excruciating.”

Eventually, they were released, only for their managers to go bankrupt. They responded by setting up their own label, Three Car Garage (aka 3CG), running their own affairs close to home. The next two albums were self-released and self-promoted. They might have disappeared off most people’s radar, and they no longer sold millions, but Hanson maintained their fan base through acoustic shows at the colleges where their former child fans were now studying, accompanied by Q&A sessions, regular member-only CDs and gigs, and an ever-expanding range of merchandise.

It’s a model that is far more economically sustainable than the one of old, though Hanson made plenty of money from their initial success because they wrote their own songs and hung on to their publishing. “In comparison to working inside of a major-label system, there is no question that we make significantly more than we would otherwise,” Taylor says. Adds Zac: “It’s ridiculously more profitable owning your music and selling it on your own. We could sell 50,000 copies of a record, not do a really big push on it and make a ton of money.”

The secret here is the bond between band and fans. This remains extraordinarily close, thanks in part to the one-mile barefoot walks that the brothers have organised before every gig since a trip to Africa five years ago, raising money for Aids charities there — and giving fans the chance to rub shoulders with their idols. They also organised a benefit for the Japanese tsunami victims at SXSW, persuading Michael Stipe to join them.

On the musical side, meanwhile, there is more to Hanson than shiny happy people making shiny happy music. Their latest collaborators include the Funk Brothers bassist Bob Babbitt and the horn arranger Jerry Hey, while Questlove and RAC have remixed their latest single, Give a Little — as perfect a slice of summer pop as you could hope to hear. Their sound remains unchallenging: it’s pure pop, with harmony vocals and big melodic hooks, infused with influences of Motown and soul. But these guys can really play and really sing.

They will continue making records and playing concerts like the forthcoming five-night stretch in London, when they will perform each of their albums on successive nights. It’s sold out, by the way. And their latest album, Shout It Out, paid off its recording costs in advance through the sale of more than 100 gift packs, including individual paintings by each brother, at $800 a go. They sold out, too. 

Hanson play five nights at King’s College, SE1, from June 5; Shout It Out is released the same day; hanson.net