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Friday, October 16, 2009
RIFFS: Hanson records, tours, ages gracefully


Andrew Leahey

Young stars ruled the airwaves during the late 1990s, when groups like 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys parlayed their boyish charisma into platinum-selling albums. It was a good time to be young and talented, and Hanson easily fit the bill.

Made up of three photogenic brothers, the band proved to be both visually and musically endearing. "MMMBop," Hanson's first single, topped the charts in 1997, while its accompanying album earned three Grammy nominations. Mercury Records capitalized on such popularity by releasing a flurry of Hanson products — a Christmas record, a live album, a collection of demos — within a span of two years.

The popularity of "teen pop" plummeted in the early 2000s, when a combination of maturing audiences and oversaturation forced many groups to throw in the towel. The Hanson siblings had rarely confined themselves to pop music, however, and their songwriting chops only improved with age. With their audience slimmed down to a modest, respectable following, the band continued making music.

"We've been touring for years," drummer Zac Hanson says from his native Tulsa, Okla., "but we still really enjoy the live shows. It's a huge part of what we want to be known for."

Hanson is touring the country to drum up anticipation for the band's next album, which is slated for release in the spring. "We like the idea of introducing our fans to the music a bit early," Zac explains. "It's exciting to play a new song for the first time and see a person's reaction. It's not like you're playing the song for your buddy, who's going to respond well no matter what he really thinks. The response from an audience will be genuine. It'll be immediate."

Much has changed in the 12 years since Hanson's emergence. Topping the list is that all three brothers — guitarist Isaac and lead vocalist Taylor are the other two — have become fathers and husbands.

"The wives helped inspire this new record," Zac explains. "We basically wanted to say, 'Thank you for sticking around through this crazy life we lead.' But having kids also plays into it. [The experience] changes your life so completely that I don't know how someone could write songs and not have it affect them."

To record the new album, Hanson briefly left those wives and children behind and relocated to a 2,500-acre pecan grove in El Paso, Texas. There was no cell-phone reception, no cable and no Wi-Fi hookups. Between meals of homemade Mexican food, the brothers focused exclusively on the recording process.

"If you're not able to get into the right head space, you're not able to make the record you want," the drummer says. "We wanted to go somewhere with zero distractions, even family distractions. We did 80 or 90 percent of the record at that grove."

Now that Hanson is back on the road, the band has resurrected its tradition of walking one mile before every concert. Fans are encouraged to join the barefoot walks, which are intended to spread awareness of the lack of basic amenities — including shoes and medication — in Africa. For every mile walked, Hanson donates $1 to charity.

The walks have grown in popularity since Hanson initiated the practice in 2007, shortly after the band returned home from a trip to Africa. Despite the ever-growing number of participants, Hanson is content to spearhead the event alone.

"We like the idea of having more partners and getting more people involved," Zac Hanson says, "but at the same time, we've never wanted to say something like, 'The Walk: Sponsored by Coca Cola.' That can start to pollute the message. We don't want people to lose the point of what we're trying to do, which is very organic, very real and focused on the individual."

• Local fans can walk alongside Hanson on Tuesday, several hours before the band's performance at the 9:30 Club. Hellogoodbye, Steel Train and Sherwood also will play. Doors open at 6 p.m., and tickets are $30.