Thursday, April 17, 2008 11:13 AM CDT
By Dan Craft
Go ahead, take your shoes off. Now, your socks. There. Comfortable? Good: You're ready to join the Hanson brothers, who've also doffed their shoes and socks.
But not for the sake of comfort, alas.
Nope, the "MMMBop" boys from Tulsa are trading in comfort for some hard-earned social awareness.
And they've got the calluses to prove it, swears Zac Hanson, who, at 22, is technically the baby of the sibling bunch.
Actually, the "baby" is happily married and about to greet the birth of his first child around the time that Hanson winds up its spring tour, which is headed to Bloomington's U.S. Cellular Coliseum at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Now about that footwear, or lack thereof ...
Prior to the concert, at around 2 p.m., says Zac, the shoes-and-socks removal will start. And not just on their part.
The Hansons are inviting anyone and everyone willing to follow suit to join them, starting at the north end of the Illinois State University quad. The ensuing mile-long trek will wend its way around the ISU campus, ending up at the Bone Student Center.
Since the name of the Hansons' latest album is "The Walk" and the name of the tour is "The Walk Tour," it all makes sense that way.
But what's really at stake here, he says, is the sibling trio's work to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic and related poverty ravaging Africa.
They've partnered with hipster shoe manufacturer TOMS, whose "Shoe Drop" campaign involves the company donating one pair of shoes to a child in Africa for every pair sold here stateside.
Accordingly, Hanson concerts feature a moveable TOMS shoe store, where the footwear is available for purchase.
As part of the campaign, Hanson traveled to Africa to record the charity single "Great Divide" and help TOMS deliver more than 50,000 pairs of shows to kids in need.
Of this weekend's ISU walk, "We hope it will be warmer," Zac says, adding that sometimes the rigid rules about doing it barefoot are sometimes bent to conform to hard reality.
"When we were in Canada," he recalls, "there was snow and ice on the ground, so we felt it wasn't appropriate to ask people to take off their shoes. Even then, there were still people who wanted to walk barefoot."
The point of all this pre-concert hoopla, says Zac, is not to make a big deal about the "MMMBop" brothers with the formerly flowing tresses strutting around town, their toes exposed.
By exposing their own feet along 5,280 feet of pavement, "we hope we can make people realize what it means not to have a pair of shoes for a mile or the 20 minutes it takes to walk that mile. And a mile really isn't that long, though your feet may be sore and you might wind up with a blister or two."
The same could be said, Zac admits, of the process of baring your creative souls to the world at large at a really young age.
When "MMMBop" was sitting atop the Billboard singles chart 11 years ago this spring, Zac Hanson wasn't even a teenager yet.
He was all of 11, while big brothers Isaac and Taylor were leading the way at 16 and 14, respectively.
And now here he is married and about to welcome another human life into his circle.
"I was talking to my wife last night, and, yes, it's funny to think about myself that way, as I'm about to become responsible for another human life," says Zac. "Some of my best friends are just getting out of college and they're still talking about dating and that kind of stuff."
Ah, well, it's all about perspective, right?
Yes, indeed: "I was 10 or 11. But we had really good people around us and a really good manager, so I didn't have that classic child-star thing where someone takes all the money -- even though that has happened to a lot of child stars, who end up in rehab, or somebody gave them the worst contract in the world and they don't have the money they think they should have."
The Hansons in Hanson are not all the Hansons, by the way. Though not as prolific as, say, Ma and Pa Osmond of Utah, Clarke and Diana Hanson spawned a brood of seven, which means there are four non-singing Hansons to the three singing ones.
They began their harmonizing careers doing a cappella renditions of '50s-'60s pop standards like "Splish Splash" and "Rockin' Robin." In 1992, they went professional at Tulsa's Mayfest Arts Festival, then recorded a couple self-made albums, one of which, 1996's "MMMBop," sported the hit that would make them stars.
The turning point, says Zac, was the brothers' performance at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, which led to a signing with Mercury Records. A year later, on May 6. 1997, Mercury released "Middle of Nowhere," which sported a slicker re-recording of "MMMBop." The upbeat anthem became one of the year's biggest pop hits and gave them three Grammy nominations (Record of the Year, Best New Artist, Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal).
"I think if you're passionate about something, you shouldn't be afraid to grasp onto responsibility at a young age," Zac says in retrospect, even if that responsibility included coping with disappointment after their second record label, Island Records, merged with the rap-leaning Def Jam Records.
Resisting pressures to lean accordingly, the group parted company and went the indie route, which took time, Zac admits, for recovery. But in 2004, their self-made album "Underneath" debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Independent Album Chart and No. 25 on the Billboard 200 Album Chart.
"I'm cynical about the business, very much so," says Zac. "But at some level, you have to put on a happy face and not stop making music."
Ten years and some major business upheavals later, their happy faces are permanently affixed, he insists.
"And we're not gonna stop making music."
'Slap Shot' Hansons
• Country of origin: USA (though many wrongly blame Canada)
• State of origin: Wisconsin
• Decade spawned: 1950s
• Median age: 50ish
• Names on birth certificate: Two Carlsons, Steve and Jeff; one Hanson, Dave
• Hair factor: Long then, scraggly now
• Nerd factor: Dark-rimmed glasses, taped on corners
• Size factor: Huge (all over 6 feet)
• Biggest hit: The goalie in "Slap Shot"
• Words to live by: "Call the pizza man!"
• Country of origin: USA
• State of origin: Oklahoma
• Decade spawned: 1980s
• Median age: 25-ish
• Names on birth certificate: Hanson for all three -- Isaac, Taylor and Zachary
• Hair factor: Long then, shorter now
• Nerd factor: Puberty amok, circa 1997
• Size factor: Average (under 6 feet)
• Biggest hit: "MMMBop"
• Words to live by: "MMMbop tick a ta ba do ba dubi da ba do ba tick tab doo"
Opener grew up listening to Hanson
At 21, emerging pop star Kate Voegele was at just the right pliable age when the Hanson brothers came along in the spring of '97.
Doing the math, we see that Voegele was 10 years old, the same age as baby Hanson bro Zac Hanson and the perfect target for a catchy ditty like "MMMBop."
Recalls Voegele, who opens for Hanson at their U.S. Cellular Coliseum concert Friday night: "I was just a kid in fourth grade, and I loved that song! It was so funny, because I had it on a cassette tape, which shows you how long ago that was. And me and my friends listened to that tape over and over and over during indoor recess."
A decade later, Voegeler finds added humor in the fact that she's become a critic's darling (ranked by Entertainment Weekly in a recent listing of the best of "the new golden age of female singer-songwriters") and, as part of the bargain, has shared stages with the likes of Neil Young and Dave Matthews.
"It's funny that I've met so many people that I look up to, like John Mayer and Dave Matthews, people that I'm completely, obviously just in awe of," Voegele continues, in a breathless, high-energy style that she's says is her average demeanor -- unlike the meek character she played on the current season of the CW's hit series, "One Tree Hill," more about which shortly.
"Even though I've opened for someone like Neil Young, opening for Hanson feels more like a surreal thing because they were kind of the superstars of pop when I was 9 years old. Now it's 'oh my god!' I'm not saying it's a bigger thrill than opening for Neil Young, but, well, I didn't know who Neil Young was when I was 9 years old."
But she did know the Hanson boys.
"As a little kid, I liked to think that they were nice dudes, even though they were just little kids, too," Voegele says.
As an adult, she's happy to report that her pre-pubescent hopes and dreams have been fulfilled.
"The great thing is that they are just some of the nicest, most down-to-earth people around -- cool and genuine."
As for Voegele herself, the past few months have been stellar ones.
A huge boost to her visibility came when she landed the season-long role of Mia on the aforementioned "One Tree Hill," the series created and produced by Mark Schwahn, who grew up in Pontiac and made his first film ("25 Miles From Normal") there a decade or so back.
The character of Mia is, like Voegele, a singer-songwriter. Unlike Mia, who "is really shy and quiet," Voegele is, in her own words, "a very loud and outgoing person."
Though her story arc ended with the March 4 episode, Voegele says Schwahn ("so helpful in showing me all the ropes") has assured that her character will return this summer.
However, courtesy her busy recording career, Voegele says Mia won't become a series regular.
How busy is Voegele's recording career? Her debut album on the MySpace/Interscope label, "Don't Look Away," moved into the top 5 on Billboard's Digital Album Chart and the top 25 on Billboard's Top 200 Album Chart.
No mean feet, that.
Speaking of feet: Voegele wants to meet her fans here in Bloomington-Normal, noting that she always does a meet-and-greet after concerts.
"Oh, yeah, I always hang around after the show," she says, though she had doubts about joining Hanson on their barefoot walk around the ISU campus earlier in the day (see accompanying story).
"It's too cold!," she says from the tour's opening date in LaCrosse, Wis. "From the tour bus I saw a herd of people all walking barefoot! What they're doing is great -- but I think I'll stick to meet-and-greets after the show."