Hanson eye Newcastle show 20 years after Mmmbop

By | December 4, 2017

The Herald

FOR Isaac Hanson, it’s the perennial “elephant in the room”.

Speaking to Weekender from the band’s hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, he says he and his brothers Taylor and Zac are all too aware their fans have “had to deal with a variety of misunderstandings about who the band Hanson is and what the band Hanson represents”.

They’ve heard it all: that Hanson are one-hit wonders, too young, too pop, too earnest, too clean, too traditional, too 1990s.

While these perceptions have dogged the band throughout their 25-year career, their longevity and success within the music industry – a just-wrapped 60-date world tour, three Grammy nominations, six studio albums, more than 16 million record sales and their own label – and their fan community speaks for itself.

The brothers have established a beer company; a craft beer and music festival; an online store that sells everything from Christmas ornaments to cookie cutters, baby apparel, poker chips, coasters, pillowcases, temporary tattoos and Hansonopoly; and organise getaways to Tulsa and Jamaica.

“The fans inevitably get frustrated by that [misunderstanding] and I get that,” says Isaac, now 37, who was thrust into the spotlight at just 16 with the band’s breakthrough, Mmmbop.

“We’ve always been very focused on the future and on continuing to make music.

“[But] we wanted to [create an opportunity to] say to them, ‘You guys are bad-ass, you stuck with us and we appreciate that.

“We know this hasn’t been easy for you, because it hasn’t been easy for us.

“We appreciate you, we thank you, because it matters to us and we know it matters to you’.”

Pausing midway through their rousing two-hour set in Sydney in June, the trio dedicated Strong Enough to Break to “anyone who has ever had to stand up for this band”.

The audience, including many who had been queuing since before dawn, erupted, their faces glowing with pride.

“We know you guys have taken some shit,” Taylor, 34, said.

“But let me tell you what –  this is real talk here – it’s not about the battles, ladies and gentlemen.

“It’s about winning the war.”

It’s a quarter of a century since the brothers formed the pop-rock band and 20 years since they released Mmmbop, from their first major label album, Middle of Nowhere.

This year they played to full houses across the globe on their Middle of Everywhere 25th anniversary tour, released a greatest hits album featuring single I Was Born and saw their second festive album, Finally It’s Christmas, hit the ARIA Top 10.

It features four uplifting original songs, as well as covers of classics including Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You, Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime and Stevie Wonder’s Someday at Christmas. Isaac takes the lead in the rollicking ‘Til New Year’s Night, which was inspired by the late Chuck Berry and the film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.

In the Hunter, more than 850 fans have mobilised behind Facebook campaign Bring Hanson to Newcastle. Isaac says the trio would “love” to make their first visit to the city on their next tour down under.

“Who are we to complain?” Isaac says.

It would be easy to find targets for any lingering frustration.

Attitudes of “ageism and condescension” that meant many “didn’t realise we knew what we were doing”; record company executives who failed to support their vision, prompting the band to start their own label; and the world’s enduring image of the brothers, forever frozen in time as long-haired and baby-faced.

“There are a lot of people who have never left high school and can’t get over the fact their girlfriend had a crush on some guy in a band and it makes them uncomfortable about themselves,” Isaac says matter-of-factly.

“So they still go back to this ridiculous high school nonsense commentary.

“[But] we have crossed over, we’re 25 years old as a band and there are very few people that get that far.

“We have sold out shows all around the world and it’s because of those consistent, stubborn, amazing fans.”

Isaac singles out the “enthusiasm and interest” of Hunter devotees, who have campaigned to the band for a Newcastle show and started a change.org petition.

“We would love to go to as many places as we possibly can on the next set of shows … and so if we can get an offer from a promoter in Newcastle, we will come,” he says.

“I am hopeful and we will look into it and see if there are people that are willing to bring us.

“We’ve had great success with the last three runs through your lovely country, so Australia is always at the top of our list.

“I expect there will be Australian tour dates that go along with whatever touring it is we’re doing next year or the following year.”

Hanson were just 16, 14 and 11 when they were embraced by tweens who were, for the first time, seeing musicians their own age writing songs, playing instruments, storming the charts –  and crucially, venturing online.

Mercury Records talent scout Steve Greenberg told the Washington Post this year there was “no way” he was going to sign the brothers so soon after the grunge era – until an epiphany in the supermarket.

“I pulled out one of those teen magazines and realised as I was looking through, there were no pictures of any musicians,” Greenberg said.

“It was all pictures of Jonathan Taylor Thomas and actors. Of course, you can’t put Eddie Vedder in there.

“I just realised there was a huge hole here. I thought, ‘I wish there was somebody like that.’”

The brothers had already recorded two independent albums when they signed to Mercury and released Middle of Nowhere.

The label merged in May 2000 with Island Def Jam Music Group, which cut promotional and tour funding for their second album and turned down more than 80 songs they’d started writing for third album Underneath.

They responded by setting up 3CG Records, which has released their past four albums.

The gamble paid off: Underneath hit number one on the US Billboard Independent albums chart.

“We’re a one-stop shop,” Isaac says.

“It’s our record company, it’s our band, our songs and there’s no middle man.”

This air of accessibility is one reason why, while some of the original fans have moved on, many of their now 30-something-year-old admirers show a level of devotion arguably unrivalled by any other fandom.

The band recently sold out tickets to their sixth Back to the Island event, at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica in January.

The brothers host events including tie-dye, games such as Cards Against Humanity and a dance party as well as perform each night.

Hundreds also congregate each May in Tulsa for Hanson Day celebrations, which this year included sampling Hanson Brothers Beer Company’s new Redland Amber Ale, a concert, karaoke with Isaac, Hansonopoly with Zac and a DJ set from Taylor.

Stores sold Hanson chocolates, ‘’Mmmbopper’ car stickers and ‘Tulsa is my Graceland’ badges. Baristas used stencils to sprinkle Hanson symbols atop coffees.

When the band visited Australia in June, many fans flew between cities to attend all eight shows (six sold out). Some slept on the streets to get front row.

It’s behaviour replicated across every continent.

“The truth is, I’m not sure I know the answer,” Isaac says, about why Hanson inspires such dedication.

“I hope that it has a lot to do first and foremost with the fact that we care deeply about the music we make and the quality of the music we make.

“Because fame is fleeting and popularity is not something that you have a whole lot of control over, but what you do have control over is what you do and what you are famous for.

“My hope, my goal, is to be famous for being really good at making music and writing songs.”

Isaac says the band realises just how fortunate they are to have had such a commercially successful “banner year”.

“We’ve sold as much or more [ticket-wise] than in previous years and so it’s continuing to build when it could have been the opposite –  there were a lot of years in between our last tour and this one,” he says.

“In a world where people are not buying music or spending money on music, our fanclub membership has grown significantly this year and shows indications of continuing to grow significantly into next year as well.

“That puts us in a position where we have a lot of ability to continue to do exciting new things.”

Even after spending more than half their lives as professional musicians, Isaac says there is still plenty of new ground to break.

Asked about rumours rife within the fandom about an orchestral tour, Isaac says “there are not any specific plans for things of that nature yet – but that would be fun”.

“We’ve considered a lot of concepts.”

The band are midway through their first Christmas tour, playing songs from 1997’s Snowed In (which they’ve reprinted) and this year’s Finally It’s Christmas through Canada, the US and England.

“We were a bit bummed out we weren’t able to do a Christmas show in Australia – we definitely talked about it, but we thought ‘We might not be able to pull that off, it might be a little close to our last tour’,” he says.

“But if the chart position means anything, we could have totally done a couple of Christmas shows in Australia, so we’ll remember that for next time.”

While they may now all have children of their own – Isaac is a father to three, Taylor to five and Zac to four – the brothers have no intention of slowing down.

Isaac says they’ve “always” been motivated by the kind of legacy they will leave, and never more so than after the death of one of their own inspirations, Tom Petty, “which stung really hard for us”.

“The next five years is definitely going to include a lot more music,” he says.

“There’s always a mountain to climb … there’s always hearts you want to touch and connect with and people you want to encourage.

“It’s about the people and the opportunity to be there for others in some way or other, because music is medicine.”

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