Hanson: 25 Years of Music on Their Own Terms

by Yasmine Shemesh

Published in print and online in the October 2017 issue of BeatRoute Magazine

In 1992, three golden-haired brothers took the stage at the Mayfest Arts Festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Each standing behind a microphone, Isaac, Taylor, and Zachary Hanson — 11, nine, and six years old, respectively — sang a cappella, harmonizing and snapping their fingers. A fuzzy videotape shows them wearing matching sunglasses, black jackets, and blue jeans, singing “Summertime Blues” and “Rockin’ Robin.”

Back then, they were known as the Hanson Brothers. Soon, they’d go simply by Hanson. They had already begun writing their own songs, mostly fifties-inspired — a musical era they were educated in from listening to a Time Life cassette with Chuck Berry and Little Richard on it over and over again. This, though, was their first gig. Before they learned how to play a handful of instruments other than piano. Before they released their first two independent albums, Boomerang and MMMBop. And before their third record and studio debut, Middle of Nowhere, would sell 10 million copies and “MMMBop” became an iconic hit.

When Hanson finished their set, a man approached the band and asked for their autograph. He thought they were amazing. “It was like a spark,” Zac, now 31, recalls, speaking over the telephone. “Wow, okay, somebody was listening. That was cool. Somebody wanted to remember that we performed. We should do it again — maybe that’ll happen again. That was the one moment I remember from the whirlwind of starting this journey that, at that point, was like, ‘Okay. This is what it means to get a reaction, for someone to feel connected.’”

It’s been 25 years since Mayfest. A lot has happened in that time. Hanson is celebrating with a greatest hits album, Middle of Everywhere, and a largely sold-out tour. Today, the band is in Atlanta, Georgia, where they’ll play the historic Buckhead Theatre. The anniversary felt important, Zac says, because it recognizes not only their success, but all the choices they made along the way to get there.

Hanson signed with Mercury Records, after busking at Austin’s South by Southwest festival landed them a manager. The Dust Brothers, who had just worked on Beck’s Odelay, were brought in to produce “MMMBop,” Middle of Nowhere’s first single. The song was released in April 1997 and quickly climbed to the top of the charts, where it stayed at number one for weeks around the world.

Suddenly, the boys covered magazines like Tiger Beat and Entertainment Weekly. Posters of them were plastered on bedroom walls. They performed the national anthem at the World Series. They were nominated for three Grammy Awards.

Despite urging from the label, Hanson didn’t churn out a follow-up album. They embarked on a tour through North America and Europe, and solidified their fanbase. This Time Around, their sophomore studio effort, came later, in 2000, just as Mercury was absorbed by Island/Def Jam — a corporate merger the band would suffer from. Hanson hit the road again, paying for it out of their own pockets after funding and promotion was cut.

There is a line in Hanson’s newest single, “I Was Born,” that goes: “There’s a road out in front of me, nobody can see, I’m paving it as I go.” “It does connect to something we believe about ourselves and about the world,” Zac says, of the verse. “That this idea of living your dream or living a dream or chasing something that is powerful and meaningful, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy.”

For three years, after This Time Around, Isaac, Taylor, and Zac fought with Island/Def Jam to complete their next record. The band had written and demoed almost 100 songs. Fantastic songs, in their blend of pop, rock, and soul. Some they’d worked on with Carole King and Matthew Sweet. Executives rejected every one, arguing that they weren’t radio friendly. The frustrating struggle is chronicled in Strong Enough To Break, a 2005 documentary that highlights both the brothers’ commitment to artistic integrity and the superficial nature of the industry. In the end, Hanson walked away. They formed their own independent label, 3CG Records, under which they’ve released music ever since. Underneath was the first full length, the victory of that battle (although maintaining sanity might’ve been the real win). It entered at number one on Billboard’s Independent chart in 2004.

When Zac looks back on it, Hanson probably could have left Island/Def Jam earlier. But they are people who like to fix things. “I’m proud of that,” he states. “I like building bridges and mending fences. I think we need more of that in the world. That’s probably part of why I like to live in Oklahoma, you know, I like people who wanna be that way. But there are times when you need to see certain relationships — you have to move quicker to the conclusion.

Risk is not such a scary thing when you realize that the inaction is just as risky as the new endeavour. And I think that was our ultimate decision. We’re taking risks, we’re giving up our time and our relationship with our fans by waiting, by trying to fix things that wasn’t — both sides weren’t trying to fix it, it was just us. And so we had to kind of come to that realization.”

Hanson has never done anything for the sake of fame. That is not what they are about. They could have capitalized on commercial triumph, but they didn’t need to. They are not a corporate commodity. They are concerned with making music they believe in and connecting with people honestly.

“Ultimately, we feel really responsible for our own legacy, if we get to have one,” Zac continues. “And we want it to be something that — we don’t want to give up parts of it so that we can be more successful. I want to be proud of every moment and that sometimes means you take a path that leads away from pop culture or leads away from the known direction. ‘Why didn’t you work with this producer or why didn’t you have a sexy girl in your video or why didn’t you date this person?’ Or whatever it is, these known commodities. And we tend to go and want to build our own.”

Is it frustrating, then, to hear “Hanson is back” when they’ve always been here? Zac says not in the way one might think. “There’s no real storytelling when you say ‘Hanson is back’ because that’s not the story. It’s just — people just want a little piece. ‘I’ll just have one bite of pie,’ you know. There’s a bigger story. But I’m okay with that, because sometimes people need to play games to make themselves feel connected to what you’re doing. And we are back. It’s just we never really left.”

Integrity is a major part of it. “I don’t think we know how to do it any other way,” Zac maintains. “When I say what I do to people, I don’t say I perform music, I say I make music. I make music. That means you make it. Every part of it. The lyrics, the melody, the way it’s performed, the chords, the arrangement that comes behind the song. And then, the act of performing it and going on stage is really being proud of what you do and wanting to share it. It’s like the reaction to the action of making something that you feel maybe people in the world need to hear.”

Live performance remains a fundamental element of the magic. Attend a concert or listen to Hanson acoustically to understand why. They are exceptional musicians — Zac on drums, Isaac on guitar, and Taylor on piano — and can switch between instruments effortlessly. Lead singer Taylor has an impossibly soulful voice, an ability to give goosebumps. Their harmonies perhaps pack the most impressive punch. Playing live keeps Hanson going, Zac says, particularly for how it allows them to go further as songwriters and relate intensely to the audience. “Without those kind of experiences, I think we easily could have stopped years ago, but every time you go on stage, you can’t help but remember why you’re there. All the crap you go through to get there doesn’t matter anymore.”

The relationship with fans is paramount: Hanson release an EP exclusively to their fan club every year and things like weekly newsletters, chances to interview them, and weekend-long celebrations with the band in Tulsa cultivate a community and share an enthusiasm for the music. They are just as invested in their fans as their fans are invested in them. “I think, for us, it’s about building deep connections,” Zac adds. “It’s about this idea that music has a power that transcends language and borders and we want to be the kind of people that are fuelling that, because that will last forever.”

And they are: Take The Walk, Hanson’s grassroots campaign to help fight poverty and HIV/AIDS in Africa, has funded medical missions and provided shoes to children in need. It’s something that will continually be a part of what they do, Zac stresses. It makes you re-think your priorities.

A few weeks ago, Zac and Taylor learned how to skydive. Before that, Zac completed a muddy obstacle race called Conquer the Gauntlet. In June, all three brothers leapt off the Auckland Sky Tower. The adventures are part of Hanson’s I Was Born Challenge, which the band launched with the single earlier this year. Both the song and challenge are about purpose: finding ways to face fears and be brave. Zac wanted to see where something like skydiving would take him. What could that inspire? What could that change about him? How could that make him stronger? “It’s okay to be afraid,” he says. “It’s okay for this to be hard. That’s not actually the bigger problem. The bigger problem is when you come back to this moment years from now, whether you regret your choices.”

Isaac, Taylor, and Zac have always been sensitive to the human condition. It’s a thread that has woven through their work since the beginning, from “MMMBop,” a song about life’s futility; to “Great Divide,” a rally for hope; to “A Song To Sing,” a call for the lost. Zac credits part of it to being people of faith — not a topic of their songs, but something that comes through their music and outlook on life. Mostly, it’s due to regarding music as medicine. “It’s a form of something that can heal people and I say it simply because I’ve experienced it, personally, from other people’s music,” Zac explains. “And it can get you through. I think what we would like part of our legacy to be [is] that the music that we make made people stronger or made people better. Helped people through it. Built stronger relationships. I’d like to think in every song there’s a little bit of timeless truth.”

Hanson is writing while on the road. But then, they’re constantly writing. A holiday album, Finally It’s Christmas, is on the way. A new record is to follow, after that. Right now though, they’re looking around — at each other and their fans — at what they’ve accomplished together so far. The music they have made, the connections they have fostered. At what can happen when one stands up for what they believe in and refuses to be compromised.

“I wanna be somebody that is trying to be the best at something,” Zac says. “Not for the sake of beating someone else, but for the sake of achieving something for myself.”