Hanson cherishes autonomy
Group withstood ridicule in early days, rejected marketing deals to maintain control over the music they make

Mari Sasano

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

EDMONTON - In the late '90s, Hanson's first hit, MMMBop, was so out of place during that grungy, angsty time that it was used as an instrument of torture on a Saturday Night Live sketch. And sure, to a morose teenager, there was nothing hip about the bright, Jackson 5-inspired tune, but admit it: secretly we all loved the song. You have to. It's the happiest song on Earth.

"It is! I love that song," laughs drummer Zac Hanson, 22, the youngest of the three brothers.

"We wrote it when I was about eight years old, but the lyrics and music are so contrary to each other. It's about the way things in life are fleeting and you have to figure out what to hold onto."

At the time, Hanson were setting themselves apart from the boy-band crowd -- by playing their instruments and eschewing choreographed dance moves or slick Tiger Beat marketing. Not that they didn't appear in the magazine -- they did -- but they preferred being goofy boys to a band like today's Jonas Brothers, with their careful coifs and tween heartthrob images. Zac is grateful Hanson never went that route.

"We turned down deals with Target, we never wanted clothing lines or anything like that," he says. "I'd never want to be part of that Disney Channel machine; you'd get stuck not knowing who you are or being able to evolve. That would be a bad place to be. I hope (the Jonas Brothers) are talented enough to make it through."

Creative autonomy has always been one of Hanson's strong points, but the Oklahoma natives took it to another level in 2001 when they decided to break ties with the major label system.

During a corporate shuffle, Hanson ended up on Island Def Jam, which deals mostly with hip-hop artists. Knowing this was a bad fit, they left and and formed 3CG Records.

"We looked at the label we were on and thought, 'There is no way this company would be able to put out a Hanson record,' " says Zac.

"As we left, we struggled and we might have gone to a different label, but looking at the field, it seemed like they were all suffering the same problems. We knew that that's not the future of the industry, and we needed to go somewhere to be in the place the business was going."

They decided to go indie, and it's turned the brothers -- including frontman Taylor, 25, and guitarist Isaac, 27 -- into businessmen.

"It's much more time consuming, the things no artist wants to deal with, but at the same time, it's better to be in control of those things," says Zac, because it means that they are free to do things their own way and explore new avenues. Their latest record, The Walk, for example, still has hints of their Motown influences (and those killer harmonies that not even puberty could stop), but it was made exactly how the band wanted: recorded live off the floor, the old-fashioned way.

The group's second indie release also features African sounds, courtesy of children's choirs from Soweto.

"This album was inspired by some guys in our hometown who were giving away some technology to a hospital in South Africa. When we saw what they were doing, how AIDS is affecting Africa and Tulsa, where we're from, we felt inspired and wanted to be a part of it. So we stopped recording and went to Africa and did some recording while we were there."

So, on top of producing a critically acclaimed album, Hanson initiated a movement. The brothers have released charitable song downloads and published a book called Take The Walk about their experiences in Africa. (Proceeds are donated to organizations in Africa.) In each city they visit, they also invite fans to walk, barefoot, to show their solidarity. The band donates a dollar for each person who walks a mile, and the TOMS Shoe company pitches in shoes to send to impoverished South African children.

"It's not really until this generation engages with the issues that the so-called war on poverty and HIV can be won," says Zac. "We're a powerful group of people, and when that happens, the government will do what we command. There are so many issues of poverty: access to water and health care, education. And they don't necessarily cost that much, but it's about having the people with skills to put it together. There is no reason that within a few generations we can block the virus out. But we need the people to set up clinics, with doctors and nurses. Money is not going to do that; people are."