Hanson stays true to itself, and its music

By George Lang
Assistant Entertainment Editor
Isaac Hanson and his younger brothers, Taylor and Zac, are men unstuck in time. It doesn't mean that they choose to live in their '90s pop-idol past, but their reference points are from another era. And it all comes down to the Time-Life Music collection of classic rock 'n' roll that the boys constantly played before they formed Hanson and tipped over the pop world with "MMMBop.”

Over a decade after the Jackson 5-like "MMMBop” and "Where's the Love” bounced through preteens' personal soundtracks, those classic R&B artists, doo-wop vocal groups and rock 'n' roll pioneers remain imprinted in Hanson's DNA. In 2008, it's as if these men in their 20s started out in 1956 and lived every musical transformation that followed in the next 15 years: Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke, girl groups, The Beatles and the singer-songwriter boom that was launched by James Taylor and Elton John.

"I joke that we're not dissimilar to a rock band in the '70s,” said Isaac Hanson, who will perform with his brothers at 7:30 tonight on the Toyota Stage at the Oklahoma State Fair.

"I kind of feel like every single time we sit down and play with one another, we rediscover how elemental it (the Time-Life collection) was, and how elemental it still is. You can't get away from the fact that what we were listening to was two minutes of straight-to-the-hook rock 'n' roll,” he said. "It was the birth of modern music in many ways. It helped us hone what we thought was a good song and helped us understand what song structure was all about at an early part of our lives.”

That knowledge served Hanson well when 1997's "Middle of Nowhere” sold 10 million copies worldwide and made them, at least for a while, superstars. It also kept them steady when the music business ripped the rug out from under them. When their label, Mercury Records, was folded into Island Def Jam during the spate of mergers that resulted in the Universal Music Group, Hanson soon found itself without the leadership of the core people who helped shepherd "Middle of Nowhere.”

Compounding their problems was the state of pop music as Britney Spears, ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys took over not just radio, but most record executives' idea of how Hanson should progress. Isaac, Taylor and Zac weren't ready to grow sculpted facial hair and do synchronized dance moves in videos.

"I certainly feel like where we were going musically was not where pop culture was going,” said Isaac Hanson, 27. "As much as we were very proud of being a pop band, I know we never felt like we fit into that category. We felt like, first and foremost, we were songwriters. That was a big difference between us and a lot of things that happened at that point.”

As they grew up, the Hanson brothers' music retained its pop sensibility but became less easy to pin down, and that didn't play well with the record company. "This Time Around” from 2000 showed considerable maturity but got lost in the merger shuffle. In "Strong Enough to Break,” the documentary the Hansons produced about the struggle to release the next disc, "Underneath,” the brothers are shown getting picked to death by executives and producers until they leave the company and form their own label, 3CG Records, named for the "three-car garage” in Tulsa where they recorded their first songs.

"It's a classic sob story, but nonetheless, for us, it's not a sob story,” Isaac said. "We've spent the last 10 years of our lives staying true to ourselves in one way or another. The only way that you can ever continue to have a career and have success and have hits is if you are honest to yourself in the same way that you were in the beginning.

"I think we're in a good position. It's a very difficult business to be in,” he said. "We made the best decisions we could given the cards we've been dealt, and we feel really good about the future. It's a weird business. I feel like there's 10,000 ways things can happen, and it's really about reacting to your circumstances as best you can.”

Hanson released a new studio disc last year, "The Walk,” produced by Danny Kortchmar, a Los Angeles session musician known for working with Carole King and Don Henley, and who helped them finish "Underneath.” A disc with several introspective ballads, it shows the band's continued evolution. But after all his band of brothers endured, Isaac Hanson said the group's next record will be brighter, lighter and celebratory. Fun will be the premium ingredient.

"One thing I do know is I've been really excited about the music we've been writing for the next record,” he said. "There's a certain levity that we're looking forward to in the future. Not sacrificing a good song or something that's musically interesting, but a levity and pop sensibility that's ...”

Then the word comes to him, and naturally it's a term from another time. "I think swing's coming back,” he said. "Not like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, but a nice swung groove is a good thing.”