April 17, 2008

'Tangible action' leads Hanson

Jeff Spevak
Staff music critic

As it turns out, Hanson was in on the joke. All of the jokes. Like the 1997 episode of Saturday Night Live, when Will Ferrell held the band at gunpoint in an elevator and forced it to listen to "MMMBop" until the three Hansons went insane. And Celebrity Deathmatch, MTV's claymation series in which offending musical acts were brought to bloody justice. The Hansons died horribly. Twice.

"We have no problem making fun of ourselves," says Isaac Hanson, who has recovered nicely from his grievous chainsaw wounds. "If you don't laugh at yourself and things that are out of your control, like how many times a radio station plays your song, you're going to have a hard time surviving in this business.

"On some levels, it's an honor to be made fun of. It means your cultural impact is significant enough that everybody knows who you are."

We thought Hanson, which plays Monday at Water Street Music Hall, was a boy band that gave us the omnipresent "MMMBop," and then went away. But that's not the story. Hanson did not go away. It merely parted ways with its major label, went the indie route and has continued to release pop albums whose credibility will surprise you, if you continue to think of them as little boys with long, foppish hair. They are, in fact, the age of many of your favorite indie bands, but with a lot more experience. Zac, who was the 11-year-old drummer when they first began playing out, is 22, married and expecting his first child next month. Keyboardist and lead singer Jordan, who was 13, is now 25 and married with three kids. Guitarist and singer Isaac is 27 and married, with one kid and another on the way.

You can blame Hanson for opening the door for the mid-'90s pop epidemic of Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, the Backstreet Boys and N'Sync. But the main difference was, Hanson was a real band, even from the precocious beginning.

"I've never been able to figure out how to categorize who we wanted to be," Isaac says. "I always liked not being a part of a crowd, per se. I think on some level that is part of why we chose to go independent. Who Hanson is today and who Hanson has been has never been forced, or some kind of contrived thing. Like not doing the Hanson's Barbie doll stuff, which everybody wanted us to do because it would make you money. I thought, 'We'll never live it down.' Maybe when we got older, and we got through some of these things, maybe then we can talk about random, kitschy things."

There is still no Hanson doll. Life has moved too quickly into adulthood. Last fall, Isaac was rushed into surgery after experiencing shoulder and chest pain. The cause of that potentially fatal embolism has since been treated by the removal of one of his ribs, which was cutting off the flow of blood to Isaac's arm. "At the time, and after, you realize the degree of your mortality, for sure," he says. "I could have silently, without any real warning, keeled over. Your arm feels funny, and then you're on the ground having a heart attack."

The teen pop sensations are now acting like responsible adults. The band's awareness of Africa's poverty and the HIV epidemic came about on a trip to the continent with friends who were developing medical software. While there, the band recorded a children's choir in Soweto and put it on "Great Divide," the first single from Hanson's latest album, The Walk. But first, Hanson released "Great Divide" on iTunes, having witnessed the need for urgent action in Africa. The proceeds from the song went to HIV research.

"We feel like our generation is in a very unique position, unlike any other, to do something about this," Isaac says. "This could be the time that we fix this problem. About 22.5 million people in Africa have died from it. Those are World War II kinds of statistics."

Fought with these kinds of statistics: A partnership with TOMS shoes, which promised one pair of shoes to African children for every pair sold in America. "We had a goal of 50,000 shoes," Isaac says. "We went with them to Africa and actually put shoes on kids' feet."

It's what he calls "tangible action." Something that can make a difference on a continent strangled by poverty and HIV. "Twelve million kids have been orphaned by this virus," Isaac says. "Sixty percent of the kids who sang on 'Great Divide' were living with extended family because they'd lost their parents to HIV.

"'Great Divide,'" Isaac says, "has become the single and the soundtrack to a movement that's evolved into 1-mile barefoot walks in every city we do concerts in, to motivate people to get involved." Hanson will walk again before Monday's show, starting from the front of Water Street in mid-afternoon, hoping to spread awareness to a daunting world problem.

"We will be walking barefoot," Isaac concedes, "for the rest of our lives."