Tulsa pop rock band Hanson reflects on its 25-year career and looks ahead

By | June 29, 2017

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By Becky Carman For LOOKatOKC| June 28, 2017

Twenty-five years ago, nearly to the day, Hanson — then ages 11, 9 and 6, respectively — took the stage at their first “real” gig, a set at Tulsa’s Mayfest, in the Brady Arts District.

“It was the first proper concert we did that wasn’t a family reunion or in a living room,” Taylor Hanson told LOOKatOKC.

Hanson’s precociousness was meteoric, manifesting in the release of two independent albums and the acquisition of a manager, whom they famously found busking while at South By Southwest in Austin, over the next four years. Then, in 1997, the release of “MMMBop,” the lead single from Hanson’s major-label debut “Middle of Nowhere,” charted at No. 1 in 27 countries, including the U.S. “Middle of Nowhere” sold 10 million copies worldwide and set ablaze a whirlwind period of international touring and press saturation.

And with that rise came the fall. After a turbulent break from Mercury Records following the label’s absorption by Island Def Jam — the process of which included 80 Hanson songs being rejected for their perceived lack of marketability, uncomfortably documented in 2006’s “Strong Enough to Break” feature-length film — Hanson went rogue, forming their own record label to release their music.

3CG Records, named for the three-car garage the band recorded in as children, is now housed in a former warehouse space in the Brady District. Hanson has released four albums on the imprint, most recently 2013’s “Anthem,” which reached No. 22 on the Billboard 200.

Hanson’s ostensible headquarters includes not only their record label but also a studio space and the operations for the band’s nonmusical passion project, Hanson Brothers Beer Company, which launched its flagship pale ale MmmHops, in 2013, a tongue-in-cheek nod to Hanson, the band, turning 21. That same year, Hanson launched its craft beer and music festival, The Hop Jam, which just wrapped its fourth installment in the Brady Arts District of Tulsa.

With an impressive array of international beer vendors and a music lineup that this year included John Fullbright and Mayer Hawthorne (and, this year, was headlined by Hanson), the festival breathes new life into an already-storied area of Tulsa.

“For the last 10 years, we’ve been set up on Main Street. This area is really a music hub in Tulsa, with the heritage of Cain’s Ballroom, the Brady Theater,” Taylor Hanson said. “Building on all those things, what better place to host our festival than the neighborhood where it all started?”

This year’s Hop Jam featured 65 brewers (Hanson was diplomatic but noted he’s particularly excited about Canada’s Unibroue) doling out samples of over 200 different craft beers. The craft beer portion of Hop Jam is ticketed, but the festival’s music is always free to the public. While partnerships between Oklahoma craft brewers and musicians isn’t new — COOP Ale Works has long sponsored musical events including a stage at Norman Music Festival, and Anthem and Mustang host concerts in their breweries, for instance — Hop Jam is the first beer-centric event of its scale in the state with music free to the public in a popular downtown space.

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“We saw the potential to create something greater than the sum of its parts,” Taylor Hanson said. “You have the craft beer community beginning to grow but without a larger forum to draw in new fans. We thought this event could bring out music fans who could then get exposed to the craft beer community. When you put those things together, you create a kind of happening, you create a moment. You kind of have to come up with a reason to not go.”

Hanson capitalized on the crowds to do some good as well. Proceeds from the raffle of a hop-shaped custom guitar as well as ticket sales from a curated brewers’ dinner benefited the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, a tradition nearly as long as the band’s career.

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“All the way back to our first major tour, people would bring us gifts. At some point, we had to say, we’ll never be able to appreciate this much adoration, so we directed people to the food bank,” Taylor Hanson said. “We wanted to know that enthusiasm was directed in a way that made a difference. To us it’s just a natural fit to find a real, organic way to support the community when you have such a positive event bringing people together. It’s a way to channel some really good energy into something that makes a difference.”

Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame executive director Jim Blair joined Hanson onstage before their closing set to present them with awards marking the band’s induction into the OMHOF. They played a gamut of their more popular material to a thousands-strong crowd, many of whom waited for prime spots in front of the stage well before the festival was underway.

Fan club

Indeed, the healthy mix of beer and music fans at Hop Jam was trumped by the most dedicated of them all: Hanson fans. The band’s headlining Hop Jam performance marked the kickoff to their current world tour and was the capstone event to the four-day Hanson “Day” weekend, a retreat of sorts for people subscribed to Hanson’s fan club, some of whom have been in the inner circle for two decades now.

“It’s bigger than the three of us. A lot of the folks who have stuck with us … it’s pretty amazing,” Taylor Hanson said. “They’re good friends as a result of connecting through music and have known each other for 10, 15, 20 years.”

Events included karaoke, a dance party, a Hansonopoly tournament and an art gallery (with visual art by the band available for purchase), as well as songwriting lectures and special performances.

“There’s a sense of trust, where you know, if you’re interested enough to come this far, then we’re going to allow you to see a bit of why we are who we are,” Taylor Hanson said. The fan club membership includes access to an exclusive annual EP of five new songs unavailable to the public.

“There are live streams of us writing songs, recording, telling stories, and we’re sharing photos and blogs that we don’t really just put out to anyone. The connection these fans have to each other and the consistency are some of the things that have kept this community strong through many different seasons.”

Middle of Everywhere

Twenty years ago, “MMMBop” was lauded as both a timeless classic and a one-hit wonder, with lyrics as catchy as they were prescient: “So hold on the ones who really care / In the end they’ll be the only ones there.”

Hanson’s relationship with its fans has seen the band through six studio albums, with 40 top 40 singles and 16 million records sold, and decades of performing. For its 25th anniversary, Hanson is embarking on a world tour aptly called the “Middle of Everywhere,” as well as the release of a Christmas record (their first since 1997’s “Snowed In”) and a greatest hits compilation that includes one new song, “I Was Born,” released May 26. NPR called the song a “fantastic … life-affirming top-down anthem that’s virtually impossible to resist.”

“We chose ‘I Was Born’” — the refrain of which is, “I was born to do something no one’s ever done” — “because it is just completely to the vein, just true optimism, unjaded, unadulterated,” Taylor Hanson said. “This idea of really believing in what’s impossible is what’s kept us going, always being interested in the future.”

Somewhat ironically, the retrospective of Hanson’s most well-known material is the band’s way of ushering in what comes next.

“We’re giving people permission to celebrate the past, but we’re focused on the future,” Taylor Hanson said. “That’s why we’ve got 20 years behind us, because we were always looking forward. I think that excitement, that energy, that interest, that fervor is so important. We all need that encouragement to keep shooting for what’s ahead.”

Beyond the “Middle of Everywhere,” Hanson is uniquely positioned to have 25 years as professional musicians under their collective belt and still be young enough to look toward entirely new pursuits: Isaac is now 36, Taylor 34 and Zac 31.

“We have this great advantage of having so much history. At 34 years old, I have years and years and years of making music, producing, trying to survive the intense process of all that,” Taylor Hanson said. “I can bring a lot to the table as a collaborator with people we respect. There’s a lot we want to do to show deference to the reasons why we’re here.”

Unsurprisingly, Hanson’s affinity for Tulsa also plays a role. As likely patron saints for the second coming of the Tulsa Sound, a torch suggested to Hanson by Steve Ripley of the Tractors, the band has worked with several area artists representative of those same influences, including Paul Benjaman, JD McPherson and John Fullbright.

“It’s that fusion of melody and gospel and rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, a tinge of Red Dirt. A lot of these artists are part of that lineage,” Taylor Hanson said. “Tulsa’s always had a music heritage, but we see a real through point, a real organic heritage that a lot of us who grew up in Oklahoma feel, whether we mean to or not. It’s coming through in our songs.”

One collaborative project in the works celebrates the work of Leon Russell and other canonical Oklahoma musicians. “We were so devastated to lose Leon Russell last year. When he passed, it was just like a ton of bricks,” Taylor Hanson said. (Taylor Hanson performed at Russell’s memorial service, and the band performed a tribute to his music at 2017’s SXSW.) “It reminded us so vividly why you can’t wait.”

The forward-thinking boldness that catapulted Hanson to widespread success as kids has lingered. There are plenty of nostalgic laurels to rest on … one glimpse at this year’s interview headlines reaffirms that: Haircuts! The ‘90s! MMMBop! … but from Hanson’s point of view, there’s too much work yet to do: “I guess the short of it is that I’m excited to still be using all of our creative energy toward new challenges, new musical challenges. It’s not about replicating what you’ve done.”

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