Article published Sep 16, 2007
Hanson: Far more than a 'boy band'
Veteran rockers headline House of Blues in Cleveland this week
News Journal

Hanson is in it for the long haul. Ten years after the three brothers from Tulsa, Okla., burst onto the music scene with the No. 1 smash "MMMBop," Hanson is back with its fourth studio album and a new tour.

In the fickle world of pop music, Hanson may never again reach the dizzying heights of its debut album, "Middle of Nowhere," which sold 4 million copies. The brothers' latest release, "The Walk," sold a modest 13,000 copies its first week.

Hanson, who started a tour last week, will play Cleveland's House of Blues on Wednesday. All three brothers play more than one instrument, and they trade off on lead vocals. Middle brother Taylor, 24, is the usual frontman. Oldest brother Isaac, 26, mostly plays guitar, and youngest brother Zac, 21, is the drummer.

Isaac Hanson called the News Journal recently from Hanson's homestead.

"On some level or another we've had a real kinship with the Midwest -- even though Tulsa isn't the Mecca of the entertainment industry," he said.

Hanson has blazed its own path in the industry. Before its last album, Hanson split from its major-label record company and formed its own independent label rather than compromise its artistic vision.

"We're lucky (we're still around)," Isaac said. "This is a business of survival. It's kind of like, 'How long can you stick it out?'

"The last 10 years have been a roller-coaster ride."

Some people still may know Hanson only by "MMMBop," a bouncy, infectious song about the short-lived nature of most relationships. U2's Bono called the song one of his all-time favorites.

During the heyday of MTV's "Total Request Live," Hanson attracted a large teenage audience. People who didn't like "MMMBop" dismissed it as bubblegum and deemed Hanson a boy band.

The brothers are more than that. They weren't created in a studio and didn't have a Svengali pulling the strings behind the scenes. Hanson writes its own songs and plays its own instruments. Isaac is proud of the band's history.

"I have no problem with people equating us with 'MMMBop,' " he said. "Every guy in a band would have killed to have that opportunity."

Hanson didn't release its next studio album, "This Time Around," for three years, a lifetime in today's music scene.

"We've always kind of been on our own schedule," Isaac said. "That's not an intended thing.

"It's a result of us being perfectionists. We don't want there to be any fat on any record."

Hanson's sophomore album produced a minor hit with the title track, but didn't sell nearly as well as "Middle of Nowhere." There were problems with the record label before the release of the brothers' third album, "Underneath," which arrived in 2004. The label didn't back the material.

"Doing a harmony-oriented pop/rock album on a hip-hop label is kind of difficult," Isaac said.

Hanson eventually founded 3CG to distribute music on its terms. The brothers released a documentary, "Strong Enough to Break," that highlighted the struggle.

Isaac doesn't regret the decision to leave a major label, which had more money for promotion than a tiny indie.

"It boiled down to two things for us: We wanted to continue to do our music the way we've always done it," he said. "We want to maintain the consistency. These days consistency does not exist. Literally every single person (from our first record label) is gone."

Consistency comes from playing together as a band, something the Hanson brothers have been doing since they were kids. When "MMMBop" broke, Isaac was 17, Taylor 14 and Zac 11.

"If you've been working with someone for 15 years, you understand each other on some level that other people wouldn't," Isaac said. "Music is the primary and not the secondary reason we're still doing it 10 years after 'Middle of Nowhere.' We're really different and somewhat hard on each other. If it were purely up to blood, I think we'd spend a lot less time together."

For Hanson's latest album, Isaac admits the brothers "haven't gone about things in a traditional way."

"We have not gone to radio at all," he said. "We feel like the music business is completely different today.

"Radio stations are not playing enough music, and they're not playing enough variety. What they're playing is cookie-cutter."

Hanson is hoping radio will pick up on its current album while it's on the road. Isaac said a prominent alternative station in Chicago has added "Great Divide" to its playlist. Isaac calls the song a "cornerstone for this record."

"Great Divide" and several other tracks on the album feature a children's chorus, recorded during Hanson's visit to Africa to learn more about the AIDS crisis. The brothers put out a download-only release of "Great Divide" in November, with proceeds going to AIDS research.

Hanson has embraced the Internet as a different way of reaching fans. But touring is the brothers' main way of connecting with the masses. Hanson played 200 shows in support of its last album. Isaac said fans can expect to hear everything from "MMMBop" to "Great Divide" to random covers of Little Richard, U2 and Radiohead songs on this tour.

"We've kind of turned into a '70s band without trying to be," Isaac said of the brothers' sound.

It's enough to have the Village Voice proclaim Hanson "the best straight-up rock band in America."

Isaac vows Hanson will not change, that the brothers will continue "cutting through the clutter." He hopes they're around another 25 years.

"We're doing it our way," Isaac said.