Taylor Hanson, right, and his brother Zac of the rock band Hanson pose together before a preview screening of the documentary film ‘Darfur Now’ at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2007. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
TORONTO — Back when Hanson were chart-topping teenybop idols — with piles of gold records to match their long locks — there was one question they heard over and over.
“People would ask us, what are you going to do when you get a real job?” drummer Zac Hanson said in an interview this week at a Toronto pub.
“And we’d say stuff like: ‘Just think of us as old guys with high voices. We’re going to be doing this until we’re old and grey.”‘
Fifteen years since “Middle of Nowhere” catapulted Hanson to pop stardom, the band is still working to deliver on that promise.
While grey hairs are few and far between, the trio certainly cuts a different figure than they did back in ’97, when the sunshine-pop smash “MMMBop” introduced three cherubic siblings gleefully hammering away at their instruments and frolicking over bad green-screen. When their debut album hit stores, Isaac was 16, Taylor 14 and little Zac just 11.
Now? The Hansons are all married and have a combined eight kids waiting at their respective homes. They run their own record label. They order pints of beer with lunch.
But as they promote this week’s Canadian release of their mature sixth record, “Shout it Out,” they acknowledge that it’s still an uphill battle trying to persuade listeners that a former Tiger Beat fave can indeed change its stripes.
“Part of the (process) is just realizing it’s not personal,” said Taylor, 29. “Every brand, every company has to figure out a way to get to people….
“Everyone is kind of in the same spot: how do I reach people?”
On “Shout it Out” — which actually came out Stateside back in 2010 — the band revisited the soul/R&B influences that originally earned comparisons to the Jackson 5.
It’s no coincidence Funk Brothers bassist Bob Babbitt added strings to roughly half the tunes on the album — the band worked hard to cultivate a Motown vibe. Singles “Waiting For This” and the nimble “Give a Little” find a jubilant groove that shows off the trio’s musical growth while sacrificing none of the buoyant enthusiasm of the group’s adolescent hits.
It’s the lyrics that belie how much has changed for the brothers.
“If you look at this record … there’s a lot more songs about keeping love than there are songs about finding love,” said Zac, 26.
“I think that’s probably because we can’t help but writing from our personal experience — all being guys who are married with kids.”
If there’s another recurring theme — especially obvious on spunky anthems “Carry You There” and “Use Me Up” — it’s one of resilience.
It’s appropriate given how Hanson has in many ways defied the odds. Truthfully, “Middle of Nowhere” represented the trio’s commercial zenith, and each successive disc has brought diminishing sales returns.
But the group didn’t pursue chart success with all that much vigour. When the brothers’ record label began pressuring them to conjure more radio-friendly tunes after 2000’s “This Time Around” failed to ignite (it only went gold), they decided quickly that they would rather forge ahead on their own than chase trends.
And beyond conflict with labels, there was also the small matter of the record industry collapsing just a few years after Hanson hit it big. With a characteristically upbeat outlook, the brothers figure they were better prepared to shift gears than some.
“It’s sort of like coming into an industry and being a really successful wagon maker, and then two years later, somebody’s like: ‘Hey have you seen this car?’ And you’re like, ‘crap,”‘ said Taylor.
“So thankfully we were very young wagon-makers, and we weren’t really that invested in the wagon, and we were pretty excited about the car.”
They’re focused on being accessible to fans and on making sure their live show is a hit both with nostalgia-indulgent 20-somethings and newer fans drawn into their accessible soul-inflected pop. They still get a kick out of playing old hits (including, yes, “MMMBop”) even if as vocalists, they can’t always stretch to unlock the same keys they did pre-puberty.
“We do wear very tight pants — it kinda helps bring things together,” Taylor joked.”
When spending time around the Hansons, it becomes obvious how much they genuinely enjoy spending time with one another.
They finish each other’s sentences, they offer one another encouragement and, perhaps most tellingly of all, they tease and prod one another like any brothers would.
When Taylor and Isaac banter back and forth about a complicated metaphor comparing their music to pants, Zac interjects: “Guys, your jean analogies are getting stretched.”
As Oasis, Kings of Leon and any number of other sibling acts have helpfully taught us, a genetic link does not guarantee a harmonious relationship within a band. But the Hanson boys say they’ve worked at it.
“We don’t always get along, we argue, but we’re sort of like an old married triple couple — like we live in Utah or something,” joked Taylor. “The three of us have a very strange relationship on the one hand because we have worked together for so long. But we respect each other.”
“It mostly takes care in actually giving a crap about whether or not your band survives,” said 31-year-old Isaac, clad in a suit with his brothers dressed more casually in jeans.
“With brothers … it is harder to break up in many ways, but also it’s easier in some ways to build certain levels of resentment. Because you’re extra comfortable (and) that line is a little greyer between what you should and shouldn’t say sometimes.”
“What are you going to do?” interrupted Taylor. “De-brother me?”