TAYLOR Hanson describes it as the album that could almost never have been. After 22 years of writing music and constant touring with brothers and co-songwriters Isaac and Zac, the Grammy-nominated pop rock trio skidded to an unexpected halt in the lead-up to their guitar-soaked ninth studio album, Anthem, which was heavily influenced by their love of ’60s soul and rock’n’roll.
“We really did have some friction and a lot of that friction really came from just being non-stop,” Taylor says from the band’s headquarters in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“We’d never really stopped; we were coming off a long tour and then we went into a really intense process and we just basically hit a wall and had to say ‘Hey, we’re not ready for this’.
“Once we came back together [six months later] the record was made in one of the shortest periods of time and it was really clear what the album was going to be – there is some intensity that’s on there, because we were in an intense kind of spot.
“But part of our whole staying positive ethos – the way our songs sound and our message to people – is we acknowledge frustration and difficulty and all kinds of dark spots that you go through in life, but it’s the music that pulls you through. The music is you’re trying to find an answer; you try and get through it.”
If these musicians were the kind of men to give up easily, they would have had more than enough reasons to do so by now.
Guitarist Isaac, 33, pianist Taylor, 31, and drummer Zac, 28, had already recorded two independent albums of their own songs, Boomerang and Mmmbop, when they were signed to Mercury Records for their first major label album, Middle of Nowhere, which sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and was to become synonymous with the late ’90s.
Released on May 6, 1997 – which Oklahoma’s then-governor, Frank Keating, declared Hanson Day in Tulsa – it found its way into the hands of one in 10 Australians.
The brothers were just 16, 14 and 11 years old.
“WE GOT STARTED SO YOUNG THAT THE MUSIC WAS OUR DRIVER; IT WASN’T FAME AND GIRLS.”
“We got started so young that the music was our driver; it wasn’t fame and girls,” Taylor says of staying level-headed as they grew up in the public eye.
“It was like ‘Hey, we get to be in a band, really? This is our job, this is what we’re going to get to do and people like it?’
“We had a good family around us. We didn’t have a lot of sycophants going ‘You’re the best thing in the world’. We’ve always had people telling it straight and have really focused on what we do best and tried to not do the rest.”
It was this determination that would propel them through one of the most tumultuous periods in their career, when their label, Mercury Records, merged with Island Def Jam Music Group in May 2000.
The album on which they were working at the time, This Time Around, was released just after the amalgamation, but sold poorly due to a lack of promotional funding.
Island Def Jam eventually removed funding for the band’s impending tour – leaving the brothers to finance their travels on their own – and refused more than 80 songs the band had started writing for their next album, saying they lacked marketability.
The brothers decided to leave Island Def Jam in 2003 and establish their own label, 3CG Records, which has released their past four albums.
Taylor said they wished they had broken away even sooner.
“I remember when our first major record on 3CG [Underneath] came out in 2004 as an indie act after our initial success and that feeling of having a number one independent record [on the Billboard Top Independent Albums Chart] – which was for us the goal – and knowing it was our label and we’d really tried to build a team and it had worked to some degree,” he said.
“That was an extraordinary feeling of success and so I think we learnt pretty early on in the label process that you have to sort of define what you want success to be.
“If you go ‘well, success is selling these shows and doing well on the charts and keeping this many fans engaged’, then you can be successful, you can achieve a lot of things.”
Keeping one of the most devoted fan bases in the world engaged is no small feat, with the non-stop entrepreneurs stoking the connection forged over two decades with a range of innovative experiences, including annual Hanson Day celebrations in Tulsa, where fans can buy the brothers’ artwork, their five-day package holiday called Back To The Island that includes activities with the band such as cooking; and a fan club in which members have access to exclusive music, merchandise and opportunities to meet their idols.
“We realised a long time ago that being successful over time is not just about being in the music business, it’s about the Hanson business,” Taylor said.
“It’s about being in the business of connecting with people through all the things we care about and if you can build a community around you where people feel like they’re part of something legitimate, then even when you’re not touring every week or month or putting out an album constantly, people feel connected to each other.
“I love to take photos, to paint, to cook, so if you can share those things with fans, then they have the opportunity to be more deeply connected with you.
“To us it’s a natural connection – it doesn’t seem that out there to try and find ways to be more accessible and interesting and connected with your fans.
“It’s a two-way street – the best street is a two-way street.”
While most of their fan events are held in the US, distance has proved no hurdle to the loyalty of the band’s antipodean supporters.
The upcoming nine Australian and New Zealand shows come soon after their 2012 visit, which saw some fans fly between capital cities to attend every show.
“We did know from the history there that we’ve had a great fan base there for a long time and so I think we were just grateful and excited and really blown away and very much looking forward to coming back,” Taylor says of the fan response.
He continues to write and develop the second album with his side project Tinted Windows, which also includes guitarist James Iha, previously of The Smashing Pumpkins, bassist Adam Schlesinger, of Fountains of Wayne, and Ivy and Bun E. Carlos, of Cheap Trick.
But do not dare suggest this could signal a halt to performing with his brothers.
“I think we’ll be making music as long as we can walk on stage,” Taylor says.
“That doesn’t mean there won’t be times where we take breaks and people do different projects, but the essence of who we are as a band is bigger than just an album or two.
“The people we look up to are the people whose shows you go to and you see three generations – Tom Petty or Billy Joel or Paul McCartney or Bruce Springsteen – that’s what we want.”
After the agitation surrounding the development of their last album, the band have opted not to impose a time limit on themselves for their next release, choosing instead to find a way to share a smaller number of songs with their fans, but more frequently.
But this hasn’t stopped Hanson forging ahead with a storm of other ventures, including writing for other artists, speaking at SXSW in Austin, further developing their craft beer company that produces their flagship pale ale Mmmhops and recently organising a music and craft beer festival in Oklahoma called the Hop Jam.
“I love doing, I love making things, I love being a part of things, I love supporting good causes and so it is a challenge you have to learn how to juggle,” Taylor said.
“But doing things and being involved and connected, that energises me and that makes you wake up every day and a full plate is not the worst thing; an empty plate is much scarier.”
No limits for Fansons
‘‘I lost count at 400 Hanson shows,’’ the brunette American tells the gaggle of young women clutching coffees, counting down the remaining 10 hours until the band takes to the stage in Brisbane.
‘‘400?’’ I ask incredulously, trying to calculate how much she would have spent over the years on tickets alone – and how to get a similar job. ‘‘Do you even remember all of them?’’
I had thought zigzagging from Newcastle down to the Sydney show and up to Queensland was impressive.
She smiles a little sheepishly. ‘‘No, but that’s not the point. There’s always another show that is new and different to look forward to.’’
It’s September, 2012, and we’re sitting in a shaded laneway next to inner-city venue The Hi Fi, with each Fanson’s left hand branded with a number written in black texta indicating our position in the line.
The women at the head of the queue – along with one tired-looking husband – arrived with lawnchairs at dawn and appointed themselves as organisers of this burgeoning brigade who, while undoubtedly devoted, seem relatively subdued.
The line can’t be seen from the main street and the excited expression on the face of each woman – and let’s face it, most of the band’s fans are women – falls after they rush around the corner and realise they haven’t arrived first after all, before they obediently hold out their hand to be marked.
New neighbours exchange shy glances and gingerly make introductions as they claim their patch of ground, but this soon gives way to the kind of judgment-free, wandering conversations that can only be had with others who share the same level of enthusiasm for this underestimated trio.
When they need to go to the bathroom, they save each other’s places, and share lunches if they haven’t ‘done their time in the line’ to step away.
‘‘Are Hanson still around?’’ ask perplexed passers-by who inquire why we’re lining up, some in a teasing tone but others genuinely confused.
‘‘I remember Mmmbop, but …?’’
Some Fansons pretend they can’t hear them. Others see the potential for conversion.
A few become indignant: ‘‘It was 17 years ago! They’re not those little long-haired blond boys any more!’’
Indeed, the three men have grown into innovative entrepreneurs as much as they are talented musicians.
Their fan club comprises a legion of interconnected members from across the world who receive exclusive access to online content, music and events including meet and greets and soundchecks.
Still, those assembled here feel they are more than just fans; they feel part of a movement.
Their dedication, Fansons argue, is no different to travelling to see a favourite football team play an away game.
Nearby, a quintet of excited Newcastle teenagers in matching T-shirts have roadtripped from the Hunter after missing out on tickets to the sold-out Sydney show.
A Melbourne doctor to my left had been enjoying a gap year travelling overseas and had already seen the band perform in New York when she heard they were coming to Australia for the first time in eight years.
‘‘It’s different seeing them in your own country,’’ she explained matter-of-factly.
‘‘It meant coming home early, but it was worth it.’’