Boys to men

10 years after hit, Hanson still reaching fans old and new

September 28, 2007
Ten years ago, the album wasn't even out yet but the single already had MMMbopped onto the Billboard charts in the Top 20, and Walker Hanson, father of the three boys who would take his surname into the pop cultural stratosphere, stood offstage in the family's hometown of Tulsa, Okla., plugged his ears against the squealing audience, shook his head and sighed, "I never dreamed it would lead to this."

Today, Taylor Hanson -- the Hanson trio's still-hunky lead singer -- is 24 and has three kids of his own. He can't believe it led to this, either, he says. In fact, a decade after Taylor and his brothers, older Isaac and younger Zac, inflated bubblegum pop to new heights with the megahit single "MMMBop," Taylor was sitting backstage before a show last week in Westbury, N.Y., talking about growth and change and life lessons learned and all the old days gone by.

» Click to enlarge image The brothers Hanson -- Zac, Taylor and Isaac.

Hanson8 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday

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Rewind: He's 24.

"A lot of fans have been there with us from the beginning, but they're not the same people," Taylor says. "Everybody's really changed. ... Time is weird that way. Some things seem like yesterday, some seem like a lifetime ago. Fans are saying to us now, 'Hey, 10 years.' And everybody's got a different story. 'I was doing this when I first heard you,' that kinda thing. But it's 10 years -- and they're still fans."

Why is that, and how has this band of brothers survived? They still sell records -- 2004's "Underneath" wasn't their best effort but it still sold more than 350,000 copies, and the new single, "The Great Divide," was the most-requested song at Chicago's Q101 early this month -- and this weekend's two-night stand at the House of Blues, supporting July's new release, "The Walk," sold out right quick. They were lumped in with their late-'90s classmates, called a "boy band" just like 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. But those confectionary concoctions have melted away (in many cases, imploded), and the hook of "MMMBop" is still alarmingly easy to recall and hum. There have been no tortured Hanson solo albums, and no rehab.

Taylor says today's Hanson fans are mostly the same group that fell in love with him and his brothers in '97, young women (and, yes, some guys) now roughly his age. But he adds, "There's also, like, a younger generation, younger siblings. Maybe their twentysomething friend or sister turned them on to us. Or, for that matter, a parent." And he kind of snorts when he says the word "parent."

Rewind: He and wife Natalie, 23, have three kids.

Thing is, what the fans are paying for is largely what they've always gotten from Hanson: reliable, groove-driven, nearly soulful rock and pop. The band's riffs still can beat down Maroon 5, and Taylor's punched-in-the-gut vocals can still out-soul poseurs like the Fray.

"Not to pat ourselves on the back," Taylor says, "but we've never really done anything that reflects very directly what's going on. We've always been our own beast, drawing influences from places that are not the same as our peers. The thing that's in [the national debut disc, 'Middle of Nowhere'] is the core of our influences, that soul music, that freshness that came from young guys who loved that classic soul music and interpreted it with the energy of young teenagers."

And do they still have that energy, now that they're absolutely ancient in their 20s?

"It's a little different now, but we can still move it," Taylor says. Then he chuckles. "We're sustainable energy. We're moving beyond fossil fuels."

Free of its record company -- the subject of much rejoicing in the Hanson camp, as well as analysis in the documentary film "Strong Enough to Break" -- Hanson returned home to Tulsa to record "The Walk."

"The last album ['Underneath'] was very disjointed," Taylor says. "We wanted to do something that was the opposite of that, something rooted and familiar. Instead of battling record-company turmoil or going in the aimless direction of some A&R guy, we wanted to settle into a place where we felt comfortable and make a great record."

Then he starts talking like a lame-duck president, musing over his band's legacy. (Rewind: just 10 years in pop music.)

"It's really interesting the way history looks at Hanson now," Taylor says. "The evolving perception is that our first record was a garage band with a couple of really talented R&B beat-oriented producers that kind of shared our love of soul music. And we want that to endure."

A decade of Hanson
It seems like only yesterday we were loving, then hating, that furiously catchy "MMMBop" single. But it was 10 whole years ago. A look back at the boys' boppin' ride:

Before the "Middle of Nowhere" album is released in May, Hanson's inaugural single, "MMMBop," debuts in Billboard's Top 20. By the end of the summer, the song -- with a nonsensical chorus that requires no real translation -- has hit No. 1 or at least the Top 10 in every country that keeps pop charts. At Christmas, there's even a fresh Hanson holiday album on shelves, "Snowed In."

The trio tours and tours and tours. To have something else to hawk at each stadium the world over, they reissue songs from their previous two regional releases as a collection called "Three Car Garage," then a live album called "Live From Albertane."

The Music Industry Massacre of 1999 finds Hanson's label, Mercury, folded into the Island Def Jam conglomerate. Relations deteriorate.

The sophomore effort shows up: "This Time Around," a remarkably muscled and rockin' collection featuring guest spots from fellow young phenom Jonny Lang and Blues Traveler's John Popper.

Hanson struggles to escape its contract with Island Def Jam. The brothers tour, but new music is not forthcoming. Meanwhile, Taylor gets married and has his first child.

The whirlwind touring continues, but at least this one's an acoustic affair. In fact, the Hansons record and film their Chicago stop to release later as the DVD "Underneath Acoustic Live."

On its own indie label, 3CG Records, the band releases "Underneath," another strong set featuring collaborations with Matthew Sweet. The album enters Billboard's Independent Chart at No. 1.

Hey, let's tour some more! This time, Hanson stopped at colleges along the way to screen its documentary, "Strong Enough to Break," about its break from Island Def Jam and the road to becoming indie rockers.

The trio travels to South Africa and Mozambique, recording a children's choir to be used on future songs. Both Isaac and Zac get married.

In the weeks leading up to the July release of "The Walk," Hanson's fourth full-length album, the band posts half a dozen video podcasts online about the making of the record.
-- Thomas Conner

Fans, band 'Walk' together
Hanson isn't just talking the talk these days, they're walking "The Walk." Literally.

As part of the tour, the band is staging a one-mile walk in each city, inviting fans to join the Hanson brothers to just ... walk.

"It's amazing to see what happens when you grab a few hundred kids and walk down the middle of the road," Taylor Hanson says. "There's an impact on the people walking -- talking, getting together -- and the people observing."

These events are an outgrowth of Hanson's newly emerged social conscience, itself the result of the band's recent travels in Africa.

"The Walk" album opens with a children's choir in Soweto, South Africa, singing a message of hope. The Hansons found these kids when they joined some friends from a Tulsa, Okla.-based medical technology company, Docvia, on a trip last year delivering goods to a hospital in South Africa. There they encountered the continent's HIV/AIDS crisis firsthand.

"These kids, orphaned in the epidemic, started chanting, 'I have hope.' We just thought that was so powerful," Taylor says. "What we came back with was a sense that the issue of AIDS really relates to middle America and our generation, because we're the ones who can attack it and do something about it. And we thought, one way or another, we need to capture this in our music."

The choir appears in the Hanson song "Great Divide," which was released on iTunes as a charity single, with proceeds going to a Soweto hospital.

The exact location of each day's walk will be announced at three hours in advance. They'll be encouraging you to buy some shoes there, too -- TOMS shoes has offered to donate a pair of shoes to needy kids for every pair purchased. And even if you're not feeling charitable: Fans who participate in the walks will get into the concert each night ahead of the line.

-- Thomas Conner