Hanson ~ The Real Deal

Written by Joe Koch

In 1997, Hanson released their first major label debut, Middle of Nowhere, which spawned the number - one hit single “MMM Bop,” selling more than four million copies in the United States. This album earned them three Grammy nominations, MTV awards and ultimately a fan base that remains loyal to this day. Conversely this same song that impacted American pop culture in a way that most artist will never see, has stereotyped them as a one-hit wonder band that has fallen into obscurity. As I watch the original video that premiered on MTV 11 years ago, I can understand to a certain degree why it was a turn-off to an older target audience. Fortunately, I was able to see beyond “MMM Bop” and not follow in the ways of the ones who instantly wrote them off. Whether you’re a fan or not, that catchy phrase that created the phenom is implanted in your brain, somewhere.

It has been more than a decade and a few bruises since that debut. Still, I feel the need to educate people about Hanson: "Yes, they are still around. They are all grown up with families and children. They are still making music and touring the world. You should check them out. I really think you would dig their sound." That’s usually how the conversation starts and if the person is willing to listen, I expand on the band's accomplishments, which include using their status as a world touring band to raise awareness about AIDS/HIV in Africa.

In 2001, they were in for a battle that ultimately molded them into the people they are now. The brothers endured a 40-month, drawn-out, tortured fight to keep the ball rolling on the recording of their third release, Underneath. In the end, they finally extricated themselves from the label that acquired them from a merger (Island Def Jam). This forced them to make the decision to go indie or look for another label. So in 2004, they formed their own label, called 3CG Records, and released the label's debut, the long-awaited Underneath. The risk paid off as it landed in the number-one spot on Billboard’s Indie Chart and the single “Penny and Me” reached number two. In 2006, Hanson instantly went back into their Tulsa, Oklahoma studio to start work on what would wind end up being the band's best work, The Walk. While writing for the new album, they were inspired by some friends from a Tulsa medical firm, and who were donating technology to a South African hospital to help fight the spread of AIDS/HIV. The Hanson brothers were so moved by this that they planned a trip to Africa. During their stay at an orphanage in Mozambique, they were awed by the overwhelming sense of optimism, despite the poverty and disease that surrounded the people. There, they recorded a children’s choir at the orphanage. The phrase “Ngi Ne Themba“ was used on the first single, “Great Divide.” “Ngi Ne Themba” essentially means "I have hope." Hanson also partnered with Toms Shoes to deliver shoes to needy children in Africa. Before each concert, the band walks a one-mile route barefoot, with fans, supporters and people in each city who hear about the effort, to raise awareness about HIV and poverty in Africa. In 2007, they helped deliver 50,000 pairs of shoes to African children. This is something that they have continued while touring in 2008. The Walk, which was co-produced with Danny Kortchmar (Billy Joel, James Taylor and The Eagles), is the first album that Hanson has done from the ground up. Most of the recordings capture the band in a live atmosphere, which adds a new intensity to the music. It’s packed with one catchy number after another. Allowing Zac to take the lead vocals on four of the tunes has added a new depth. The lyrical content evokes a more serious side of Hanson and delves more into the meaning of the songs. As The Walk unfolds, it becomes evident that the brothers are in this for the long haul. This album has gained high praise from publications such as Billboard Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times and People Magazine. This is a must have for any music library. Don’t be afraid to like it.

April 21, 2008: Prior to their show at the Water Street Music Hall in Rochester, N.Y. Hanson did an in-store performance and autograph signing at The Record Archive at 8 a.m. Just before their benefit walk, I talked with Taylor (the optimist,) Isaac (the pessimist,) and Zac (the realist.) We covered the music industry, radio, sibling rivalry and family life.

Hoopla: So, how often do you guys do in-store performances and signings at 8 a.m.? Whose idea was it to set that up? It seemed to be at the last minute.

Taylor: It was the Record Archive's (decision). Usually we don’t do an in-store that early. It was kind of an odd time. But, it was cool. They had a lot of support from the local media. (www.13wham.com for the interview with Zac)

Hoopla: I would think that you would always want to reach out to the independent record stores that sell your music?

Taylor: Absolutely! We want to be out there building relationships with the local record store owners.

Isaac: Indie stores are the pulse of what true music fans are doing in their market.

Zac: They actually have their own fan base. (The Record Archive just had its grand opening and the locals were lined up around the building)

Isaac: You can’t go into Best Buy and be like hey dude, what do you think of that record? They don’t have the same knowledge as someone in an indie store.

Hoopla: How do you feel about the direction that radio has gone, over-playing artists and playing fewer songs but more times?

Zac: They beat them to a dead pulp.

Isaac: It’s to the point where it’s damaging artist. It has damaged artists.

Zac: The amount of times they play an artist's one song, it’s almost ensuring the artist won’t have a career. We’re gonna do our best to burn people out on this artist so much, by the time it comes to the next record, people don’t wanna hear from them.

Isaac: Another way to look at it is, when we find a hit we’re gonna beat it to death, so much, that there’s no way that this band will ever have a hit that big again.

Zac: They played "MMM Bop" to the point of nausea. That was played 6,000 times a week, cross platform. Now they play hits 9,000 times a week and it’s not cross platform. When "MMM Bop" was number-one it was played 6,000 times, the number-two was 3,000 times and the number-three was 1,500 times. Now it’s like the number-one is 9,000, Number-two is 8,000 and the number-three is 7,000.

Isaac: The top five, top 10 pretty much eat up 75 percent of the air play.

Hoopla: Do you feel The Walk is a good representation of where Hanson is at musically and what we can expect in the future?

Taylor: We’ve worked really hard the last five years to get to this point. In reference to "MMM Bop." It’s a lot harder for us in some ways to not have waited, because now we’re always having to explain ourselves. You know what? We’re three years away from 30 and you know, we’re gonna be 40. It’s not gonna change anything. We’re just gonna be guys.

Zac: I’m five years away from 30!

Taylor: Musically this is where we’re at.

Hoopla: As you guys get older, you seem to keep growing as musicians and songwriters. Your new album The Walk shines with depth and character. The lyrical content shows signs of maturity and having Zac sing lead on four songs has added a whole new feel. Do you agree?

Taylor: Absolutely! I think that’s a good example.

Isaac: Honestly, I think it’s a good example of us doing it the way the creating process made it. Instead, what has happened in the past is that sometimes we would restructure the arrangement of vocal parts, almost arbitrarily, because of other factors that didn’t have to do with necessarily how we intended for it to be. I think about the song “If Only.” There was a bunch of really weird; it didn’t really make sense in the demo recording of the song “If Only.” Where there was actually a significant amount of where Zac took a melody in the B section, Taylor took the melody in the chorus and there was a back and forth thing in the verses that didn’t end up on the record.

Taylor: I think the greatest thing about The Walk is, as far as a step forward, we didn’t limit ourselves. I think that’s part of what you hear on the record. We recorded it very much the way we play a live show; like an old-school record. The reason that Dan Kortchmar did some of the co-production with us is he’s a legendary producer and we wanted to capture that as much as we could.

Isaac: We need that fresh perspective from someone on the outside. We can’t sit there and jam it out and then have the perfect perspective on it one way or another.

Taylor: It was good to have that one person’s outside perspective, but for us as a band what we will do on our next few records? We want to keep it open and be able to create something fresh, while still capturing that live energy that is Hanson. I think The Walk is the closest thing we’ve come to that. We just want to keep doing that.

Isaac: I also feel like, you know, the Rolling Stones were really popular, but not necessarily hip. The Beatles were really popular, but not necessarily hip. The Beach Boys were really popular, but not necessarily hip and the list goes on and on and on. And who are the bands that we all love and know? They are the bands that ultimately wrote the most accessible pop music and we remember it. As time goes on you appreciate the more complex level of what ultimately is, don’t bore us get to the chorus music.

Taylor: What are you trying to say Ike?

Isaac: I guess, what I’m saying is, your goal is to write the most memorable, most well- crafted piece of music whether or not it’s the hippest.

Taylor: Keeping in mind, we have to like our music. We have to play these songs every night over and over.

Isaac: Can you imagine how much hell we’d be in, if we didn’t like playing them all.

Hoopla: It’s been 11 years for Hanson to fall subject to the tabloids. But yet, there has never been any bad publicity surrounding you guys. Sibling rivalry, fights you’d think there’d be something. Does it exist?

Taylor: It does.

Zac: But we keep it quiet.

Hoopla: How does it affect the songwriting process?

Zac: Respect is the biggest thing. Everybody has the most respect for each other.

Isaac: We do get into legitimate fights.

Zac: We do have our big differences. But the respect we have each other outweighs it. Taylor: I don’t want to sound like we don’t, because we definitely have our disagreements. But when it all comes down to it, the respect we have for each other has allowed us to avoid things from becoming volatile, even when frustration gets the most of someone and they want to throw in the towel. When it comes down to it, we just respect each other enough to not go all the way. Nobody’s gone off the deep end.

Isaac: We’ve had our moments; the moments of passionate disagreements or passionate frustration or stress, has definitely shown themselves. There has been moments of real legit, like, 'What the heck is going on. I think I’m gonna just quit.' Especially the last few years, there has just been a lot of pressure; the thing with the labels and everyone getting married and having kids. Despite the fact whether we agree or disagree, we grew up collaborating with one another. We grew up working with one another in a way that I think ultimately was productive.

Taylor: It all comes back to Legos.

Isaac: Yeah, pretty much.

Hoopla: What challenges do you see going forward with the music industry and its unknown future?

Isaac: We certainly feel that there’s a lot of work to be done. My feeling on it is, we’re really aggressively trying to figure out how to do this. But we feel like less content more often is a huge part of what needs to change. In addition to that I think that there has to be some kind of catalyst for this to happen. The rebirth of what the music culture really is. It’s died off in the last 10 to 15 years. It really has. You don’t go into Best Buy and ask the guy for his opinion. Because you know he’s a $5 an hour guy that’s more interested in selling VCRs than he is CDs. So you don’t have a trusted source. You don’t have taste makers. You don’t have a main stream channel that sends you, you know, that’s weeded through some of the less savory pieces. And also, you don’t have that on the radio side either. So on both sides of the record business, whether it be the physical sale of it or the promotion of it, and also not to mention the record label side of it. It’s not nurturing any of those bands either. You’ve got a trifecta of a fucked-up industry.

Zac: A tri-fuckta!

Isaac: The tri-fuckta of the music business. There you go, we just coined a phrase.

Zac: You know, I think it’s all about the attention span and about giving them something that cuts through the clutter. And that is powerful enough to counteract Iron Man the movie/video game/you know mini series/whatever; something that is powerful enough to cut through the bullshit and be meaningful enough to people, that they’re willing to spend the time and money on the music.

Isaac: Again, back to the way the business is done. I think it’s less content more often. I think the biggest problem too, is right now there’s not really any physical outlets even though digital is a legitimate opportunity and legitimately can create a greater kind of profit stream for bands. A. One for singles, because singles can actually be profitable. B. Through like EP type things, everything from four to six songs. But there’s no physical product to buy.

Zac: There’s no distribution cost, there’s no stocking, there’s no returning, there’s no breakage.

Isaac: For the first time in the history of music period, there is no, there can be no expense until there’s sale.

Zac: It cost the same to press a million records as it does three.

Hoopla: Can we look forward to seeing any solo albums?

Isaac: Uh, I don’t know, it might happen.

Taylor: What he says, is I want do a solo project. I need you guys to do some session work. Ike, that’s pretty much our band.

Isaac: Laughs.

Taylor: Yeah, but you don’t have any say. You just play whatever I tell you.

Isaac: Exactly. (laughs)

Taylor: Actually we really love doing other things and writing with other people. In fact, we started doing this song writing retreat for the past five years, where we bring together songwriters and artists in one place and collaborate on ideas. That’s where “Running Man, Watch Over Me and Go” all came from.

Hoopla: How do you find a balance with running a label, touring and family life?

Zac: Do you want to know the truth?

Isaac: There is no balance.

Zac: Our wives are saints.

Taylor: They understood who we were and what it was. It was all our lives. They understood it. We met while we touring. We were always traveling when we met our girlfriends, now wives, so it was never a mystery. So hitting the road for three months is part of the normalcy.

Isaac: They also know that us not doing music would be basically in effect ripping out our souls. And not to mention, I think it's the fact that they are inevitably on some level or another big fans of what we do. (Editors note: Zac is now playing the piano in the dressing room as we rap it up) My wife gets really excited when she’s on the road coming to shows. You know, it’s the same with their wives. They’re proud of what we do and they realize that we know that we’re sacrificing. It’s not like we go out on the road and we’re like yahoo! They know that we feel the sacrifice of them not being around us.

Taylor: Somehow we married saints.

Hoopla: Thanks for your time. I appreciate it. Good luck tonight and lets go walk!

Hanson has never been a band to accept status quo. They are always trying to be original with their ideas and bring their music to the next level, while never relinquishing their undeniable talent to write catchy pop rock songs; someday destined to be invited into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. They are entrepreneurs who own their record label and are committed to taking risk with hopes that the rest of the world will be right there behind them as they move forward into the world of the ever changing music business.