Hanson evolves into progressive albums, activism
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
By Becky Carman
It's been 11 years since Tulsa's Hanson broke through the grunge-rock cloud looming over popular radio with "MMMBop," the viral, omnipresent hit that went to No. 1 in 27 countries and led the band's 1997 Mercury Records debut, "Middle of Nowhere," to go quadruple platinum in the United States alone.
Blamed for spawning the teen-pop renaissance and widely dismissed as a one-hit wonder, the Hanson trio has weathered a tumultuous decade by forging its own inimitable path in the industry, growing into relatively normal 20somethings (Zac, Taylor and Isaac are all married with children) and championing humanitarian causes, all the while maintaining a passionate and unexpectedly sizable fan base.
"I like to thing that it's because what we do as musicians is really valuable to people, but nonetheless, it's unique to have fans stick around for as long as they have," said eldest Hanson brother Isaac. "Ten years is no small amount of time, especially in people's lives who, when we first connected with them, were quite young. To see those people grow with you over 10 years is definitely something we feel very lucky to have."
The consistency of Hanson's fans is comparable to the band's own work ethic, where even as kids, the Hanson brothres' dedication to their craft and to each other belied their ages. In that respect, little has changed, even as they've taken on progressively individual responsibility both outside and within the group.
"Despite how young we were, we were very, very motivated and very aware of everything," Isaac Hanson said. "When things are really 'happening' in the music business, there are a lot of factors, a lot of potential pitfalls. Luckily, in our youth, we came out relatively unscathed."
The group's willingness to confront difficulty head-on is likely what saved Hanson's career. The comparatively dismal sales of "This Time Around," 2000's follow-up to "Middle of Nowhere," as well as creative disputes over the marketability of the band's new songs, led to Hanson's decision to split from Island Def Jam, the label group that acquired the band after the dissolution of Mercury Records. Hanson went on to form an independent label, 3CG Records.
From studio time to the signing of contract-relinquishing documents, every turn was documented in 2006's "Strong Enough to Break," a gritty, realistic film detailing not just Hanson's difficulties, but the state of the major-label business as well. Hanson toured various universities with the film, later segmented as a free iTunes video download, and participated in 2008's South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, as panelists, discussing the importance of staying independent.
"Hanson is not what people think of as an indie band. So much of 'indie' has been caught up with a stylistic statement rather than a state of mind," said youngest brother and band drummer Zac Hanson. "When we originally formed 3CG, at this point almost five years ago, it was a really big deal. A lot of our friends who are musicians were thinking, 'Really? You're going to do that on your own?' and now, most of our friends are off of their labels. I think it's important to see Hanson, who is obviously a mainstream band, where the music we make has a certain broad appeal, realizing that in this phase of the business, you need to be in a place where people are willing to take risks and not be afraid to make a decision."
Hanson's continued success can also be attributed to its live show, which has garnered critical praise from the unlikeliest of places, including Absolute Punk's Anton Djamoos to New York City culture blog Gothamist. The band admits that widespread appeal is no accident.
"What we've always done, since the beginning, is had a specific focus. We want people who are fans or aren't fans to be able to come to the show and come away having had a good time," said Isaac Hanson. "We pull out classic-rock covers and make them part of the show. I'd like to think that what we d is something that a 9year-old and a 49-year-old would enjoy. What we do is something that I think a lot of people can enjoy because a lot of where we come from as musicians is the root of rock 'n' roll, late Fifties, early Sixties stuff. I think that carries through."
While Hanson shows are designed as unifiers, the act itself has lately taken an increasingly individualistic approach to songwriting, with three tracks on 2007's "The Walk" listing only one brother in the writing credits - a first for the band.
"Everyone's creative process is different. Probably 75 percent of the time, someone brings an idea to the table. Like, 'I've got this chorus, this verse, this progression," Isaac Hanson said. "Then 25 percent of the time, you're sitting there and something just happens and you chase it immediately. I would say Taylor and Zac are more constantly prolific than I am. I need a little bit more headspace, but that's just me. We're all different."
As any musician matures, inspirations change and life experiences tend to more deeply permeate creative output, and "The Walk" is Hanson's darkest album yet. Interspersed with the more standard love songs are tracks about tragedy and contempt, poverty and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which was stirred largely by the siblings' 2006 visit to South Africa. The boys accompanied friends who were donating a cell hone technology designed to aid in the communication between doctors and patients, to a hospital in AIDS-stricken Soweto, an urban area in Johannesburg, South Africa.
"When every eye is on the fortune/It can only breed contempt/They say blood is thicker than oceans/Still we box our brothers in," sings Taylor Hanson on "Great Divide," a song originally released as an iTunes fundraising single for the Perinatal HIV Research Unit in Soweto.
Hanson has also partnered with Tom's Shoes, selling the brand at its shows and even designing a signature "The Walk" shoe. For every pair sold, the company gives another to a child in need. To date, the company reports donating 60,000 pairs to children in Argentina and South Africa.
The line between artistry and activism, between alienation and motivation, is a thin one, and the brothers recognize the risk of sounding like "soapbox teachers" to their otherwise devoted fans.
"There has always been a concern about aggressively breaching an issue like that," Isaac Hanson said. "It has as many potential negatives as positives. The negative for us was people would react poorly, like, "What are these guys doing talking about AIDS? Aren't they a pop band or something?"
Beyond fund-raising, Hanson will continue to host and participate in 1-mile barefoot walks through every city on its latest tour to raise awareness.
"What we felt like is that everything that's big starts small, and we have to be willing to say to ourselves, 'If anything we ever do in relation to this is going to be big, we have to be willing to put ourselves on the front lines," Isaac Hanson said. "Walk a mile barefoot and understand what it's like not to have something. It helps us to connect with the need; it could be a pair of shoes, a 33-cent combination of pills you need for the day. It's not easy. We felt like we had to do it because we didn't feel comfortable not doing it, seeing what we've seen and knowing what we know about Africa."
On this fall's leg, dubbed "The Walk Around the World Tour," Hanson will encourage fans to stage their own 1-mile walks in an effort to compile 24,902 miles walked - the distance around the world. The stroll will also bring the brothers to the Oklahoma State Fair for a 7:30 p.m. performance on Friday.
Blending personal beliefs with art has always been Hanson's formula for success, making Isaac Hanson's remarks about "The Walk" all the more poignant:
"There are a lot of things to be done," he said. "This is not the end of the road by any means, but it's a start."
For more information on how to catch the Hanson brothers on their Oklahoma City "Walk," log on to Hanson.net at 5:30 p.m. Friday - Becky Carman