Article published Oct 5, 2007
ALL GROWN UP: With kids of their own, the brothers Hanson are teens no more

By Steve Wildsmith
Of The Daily Times Staff

Like a lot of 16-year-olds, Isaac Hanson had to cope with his fair share of peer pressure and ridicule.

Unlike millions of other teens, however, Hanson and his two brothers, Zac and Taylor, had the luxury of basking in the adoration of thousands of girls and the cash from a smash hit single.

That would be “MmmBop.” If you were alive and self-aware in the summer of 1997, you no doubt remember it. It’s catchy, infectious nature was almost maddeningly sunny. It made the Hanson brothers mega-stars, setting them on a career path that continues a decade later, but it also provoked a backlash that was, at times, harsh in its ridicule of the three youngsters.

Monday night, Hanson comes to Knoxville for the first time. They’re no longer the long-haired boys depicted in the video for “MmmBop” skateboarding and rough-housing — all three are married, and Isaac (the oldest) and Taylor (the middle brother) both have children of their own. Their new album, “The Walk,” holds its own on the rock ‘n’ roll battlefield as well as anything that passes for mainstream success these days; the instrumental prowess the brothers display shows growth, maturity and — shall we say it? — depth.

OK, that’s a statement we’ll get into in a bit. First —back to “MmmBop.” No matter how much they’re saddled with the burden of being the artists who created the song, they remain proud of it to this day, Isaac Hanson told The Daily Times this week.

“‘MmmBop’ was a huge hit, and we’re very proud of it to this day,” he said. “We know that if it wasn’t for that song, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. We wouldn’t be selling out shows at places like the House of Blues in Chicago. But it’s only one small part of one larger picture. If someone was only familiar with ‘MmmBop’ and that was their perspective on Hanson, and then they heard ‘The Walk,’ I would think they would seriously doubt right off the bat that it was the same band.

“There are several key reasons for that — one, it’s 10 years later, and the change in all of our voices is fairly dramatic. I can still understand how some people had a hard time processing it — I mean, it looks like some record industry svengali’s dream of this perfect record-selling idea. But because of the long hair, etc., I think the image was misunderstood on some level. I think we didn’t realize how much some people were so image-conscious. We were trying to go out there and play music and not think so much about it in some ways, and what we quickly realized was that no matter how seriously we took the music, sometimes there was still room for misunderstanding.”

The brothers Hanson first started out as a garage band in 1992, five years before “MmmBop” made them international stars. They made garage recordings in their hometown of Tulsa, Okla., and from the outset, they were determined to make it big. Regional shows led to a gig at the fabled South By Southwest Music Festival, where a record executive saw their set and signed them up.

The rest is history — although how much people know of that history after “MmmBop” is up for debate. No matter how much the three brothers have accomplished in the past 10 years, they constantly battle with being overshadowed by both its success and the ensuing backlash. A lot of it, Isaac Hanson said, had to do with being in the right place at the wrong time — grunge was on the way out, and youth-oriented bubblegum pop by such acts as the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls was taking over mainstream radio. Hanson, unfortunately, was lumped in with the latter, even though the guys play their own instruments and, to their credit, write most of their own material. (On their major-label debut, “Middle of Nowhere,” “MmmBop” is the song credited solely to the Hansons without any additional co-writers.)

“At the time, we certainly we weren’t going after that market intentionally — that movement toward more upbeat pop stuff — but ‘MmmBop’ was the right song,” he said. “It was a catchy song that came out at a moment when everybody was looking for something like that. And because of our youth, there was a huge level of misunderstanding. I mean, it’s really easy for a 26-year-old to make fun of a 16-year-old with an 11-year-old in his band. It’s easy for high school guys to say, ‘Huh huh, you’ve got long hair; you’re a girl.’

“We were easy targets because we were young, and unfortunately, I think, you then had a huge insurgence of manufactured stuff that immediately followed our record. I think that created a larger level of backlash. People associated us with the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync, and we were sitting there going, ‘Huh?’”

Poking fun at “MmmBop” — and, by association, the brothers themselves — became something of a pop culture phenomenon. They took it in stride — they even played themselves on a “Saturday Night Live” skit in which comedian Will Ferrell and host Helen Hunt took them hostage in an elevator and forced them to listen to “MmmBop” over and over until they went insane — but it still stung a bit.

“It’s hard to be the butt of a joke all of the time on some level,” Hanson said. “There were guys and girls alike who poked fun at the band, but the people that mattered to me were people like Lenny Kravitz, who walked up to us at an awards show in 1998 and tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Man, I love your stuff; we should work together sometime.’ It’s that kind of thing that’s worth the misunderstanding that was out there.”

These days, all three brothers are married. Taylor, the singer, has three children; Isaac and his wife celebrated the birth of their first child in April. They’ve made a handful of albums since “Middle of Nowhere,” and “The Walk” has received generally positive reviews and modest sales. It’s even won over new fans — Chicago alternative rock station WKQX-FM put “The Great Divide,” off the new record, into rotation and credited it to a “mystery artist.” It quickly became the most-requested song on the station before deejays revealed that the “mystery artist” was actually Hanson.

In addition, the guys are getting involved in charitable causes in a way they haven’t before. A friend who created a new medical technology and donated it to a hospital in South Africa convinced the brothers to accompany him to that continent. What they saw and experienced there both moved and inspired them, Isaac Hanson said.

“This record kind of started off as a record where we had the goal of combining the last three albums as much as we could into one artistic piece,” he said. “We performed it live in the studio, and we felt like that created a gel, a consistency throughout the album that allowed us to still be slightly eclectic, but just limit the colors.”

In other words, he added, the guys have learned to customize their band to the songs rather than the other way around. They’re not trying to recreate “MmmBop” (not that the jaded and cynical consumers of popular culture would let them, anyway). They’re not content to sit around cashing royalty checks. They’re still driven to do what they’ve always done — play music because they love it, not because it’s made them rich or famous.

“I think really, for us, it’s a music thing,” he said. “It really comes down to the fact that we really, really like playing music, and we all have similar goals. That unites us as a band more than our blood. Blood ain’t gonna work through the rough stuff. There are plenty of family members who work together and say, ‘I quit — I’m moving to Des Moines and I’m not gonna talk to you anymore because I can’t take it.’

“For us, we really like playing music together, and we really feel like we have something that’s satisfying for all of us in that. There are times we would love to slug each other, and times that we have, but in the end, it would be a shame for all of us to start all over in the beginning without that bond. It’s not always easy, but we don’t do our dirty laundry in public.”