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Music: MMM-boppers grow up ... and get hip?
Ten years since its cute mega-hit, Hanson hits its stride as an indie band with a do-gooder attitude.

By Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune

Last update: December 9, 2007 - 7:16 PM

Ten minutes into a phone interview, Isaac Hanson had to be stopped.

The eldest of the brothers/band-mates from the late-'90s pop trio Hanson was going on and on, talking passionately about Africa. He and his brothers had just returned a day earlier from their latest humanitarian trek to the continent.

"We come home incredibly inspired each time," Isaac said. He even postulated, "Helping Africa is the mission that can make our generation great, like fighting world wars did with our grandparents' and great- grandparents' generations."

That's when he got interrupted: "Would anybody believe this is one of the guys behind 'MMMBop' talking?"

Yes, indeed, the Hanson brothers of Oklahoma have grown up.

All three of the siblings, ages 22 to 27, are family men now. Middle brother Taylor ("the pretty one") has three kids. Even little drummer boy Zac -- whose cherubic face and wiseacre smile made it impossible to hate the band a decade ago -- is an expectant father.

More startling is the fact that the Brothers H also have a pretty fertile music career.

Hanson's latest album, "The Walk," rose to No. 1 in Internet album sales and No. 4 on the independent albums chart in Billboard. Heck if it's not a pretty good record, too. Put it on alongside 2007 releases by the similarly poppy, R&B-copping rock acts Maroon 5 and Matchbox Twenty, and tell me Hanson's doesn't stick in your head the most.

An alt-rock station in Chicago, Q101, recently turned heads by spinning the trio's single, "Great Divide," without naming the act. It became the No. 1 requested song.

Another sign Hanson has turned out cool: Its first-ever gig at First Avenue is tonight.

"We've always believed in our music," Isaac said. "We said from the very beginning that we're in this for the long haul." He laughed. "I'm glad others are starting to see it our way."

Tulsa to Africa

One of the keys to emerging from the teen-pop shadow was when the band gave up on major labels and started its own independent record company in 2004.

A little-known tidbit about Hanson: The trio was discovered at the perennially hip and trendy South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, where it serenaded record execs on the street.

The brothers' "MMMBop"-buoyed 1997 debut CD, "Middle of Nowhere," went on to sell 4 million copies on Mercury Records. By the time Hanson made its second studio album, though, the label went through consolidation and more or less hung the band out to dry.

"We essentially wound up on a hip-hop label," Isaac said. "Imagine you're 20 years old and trying to tell a bunch of hip-hop executives how to market your pop/rock band."

Steering their own ship nowadays, the brothers turned to Africa during the making of "The Walk."

Several songs were inspired by trips to Mozambique and South Africa, including "Great Divide," which features a chorus of children recorded at an orphanage. Hanson issued the single online as a benefit track for African AIDS relief. Since then, the band has worked closely with Tom's shoe company, donating footwear to African children.

The humanitarian efforts are just one reason Hanson is being taken more seriously.

"We may still be young," Isaac said, "but we're not exactly green anymore. We've done enough -- and made enough mistakes -- to pretty well know how to guide our careers ourselves."

While the music biz is tough, the celebrity/tabloid side of teen stardom can be even rougher. The Hansons came through that roller-coaster ride without a single blemish on their good name.

"We probably benefited a lot from staying in Tulsa and never moving to New York or L.A.," Isaac theorized. "But for us, the music has always been everything. We weren't just guys who started a band to party and score chicks."

That doesn't mean they didn't score chicks.

"We actually did all meet our wives at shows," he admitted with a laugh, "but that was just a nice byproduct of being in the band."

One thing you won't catch the Hanson siblings laughing about is the single that made them all famous. "MMMBop" might have been a kitschy, cutesy, bubbly piece of pop fluff, but at least it was their piece of pop fluff.

"Even after we've worked with famous songwriters and big-name producers," Isaac said proudly, "we're still best known for a song we wrote ourselves while we were playing in our garage in Tulsa."

Come on, admit it: They're pretty cool guys.