Even on the remote island of Kauai, where I grew up, there was no escaping the craze caused when three fair-haired brothers from Oklahoma released their pop-powered major-label debut album, Middle of Nowhere. Those who experienced the burst of popularity sparked by Hanson’s chart-topping song “MMMBop” know that Hanson mania was a force beyond reckoning.
Where I lived, devoted fans spent hours flipping through magazines, swooning as they sang to lyrics memorized by heart. The faces of Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson were taped to binders, glued to notebooks and plastered to the doors of nearly every locker in my middle school. Indeed, the spring of 1997 carried the brothers on a sensational media blitz that ran across the globe: Middle of Nowhere sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and earned Hanson three Grammy nominations. But for the three brothers from Tulsa, this was only the beginning.
Although the Hanson brothers haven’t had much mainstream success since “MMMBop” ruled the Top-40 airwaves, they have had a remarkably successful career as a touring act, performing for pockets of loyal fans around the globe. In fact, even in the wake of their acrimonious 2001 split with their former label, Island Def Jam, the group managed to sustain itself by touring.
Now on their own indie label, 3CG Records, the group has had a more modest kind of success, with a significant portion of their fan base now located in Japan, Europe and Australia. And those aren’t the only changes: To the devastation of my middle-school friends, the Hanson brothers are all married men, and Isaac and Taylor are fathers.
Hanson’s moderate international success has also sparked an interest in global humanitarian issues. Last year, the group released The Walk, an album that blends their tried-and-true pop sound with a humanitarian message inspired from their travels through Africa. The group even holds one-mile barefoot walks before their shows to raise awareness of AIDS and poverty—and they encourage their fans to join them.
Looking back, has the band been traumatized by their hectic and dramatic initiation into fame?
“Honestly, I think I’ve come out of it OK,” says Zac Hanson, the drummer and, at 22, the youngest member of the trio. “Not too many drug addictions or illegitimate children or anything like that.”
Over the past 11 years, Zac and his brothers have been able to put a little perspective on their explosive success. “When we first came out, I think it was just a combination of the right music and the right timing,” he reflects, adding that their youth appeal and upbeat sound were able to reach “a generation of people who didn’t have something that represented them as theirs.”
But it’s not all happy memories. Zac points to the wealth of “manufactured bands” that the “giant media machine” began pumping out after realizing there was a market for boy bands like Hanson. “Inadvertently, [we] started a trend of things that made me less proud,” he admits.
Hanson’s 2001 departure from Island Def Jam also left the band with a trace of bitterness. When asked about the experience, Zac declares that the recording industry is a “broken system that’s forgotten what it’s selling [and ] forgotten how to create bands and build brands.”
That view was influenced by the often-criticized 1999 merger of Mercury Records (which Hanson was signed to) with Island Records and Def Jam Recordings, creating a highly corporate megalabel with hundreds of artists, but a comparatively small staff and a bottom-line mentality.
Zac and his brothers became concerned about the change. “We looked at the industry and said, ‘Wow, how did we end up on a rap label?’” Under pressure to write easy-to-market songs rather than explore their own sound (and after a rumored 80 song rejections from Island Def Jam), the Hanson brothers set out on their own.
Much of The Walk draws on the experience of traveling through South Africa and Mozambique, particularly a three-month expedition that made a strong impression on the band both personally and musically. Two of the album’s songs were recorded live in an orphanage in South Africa, and it opens with the song “Ngi Ne Themba (I Find Hope),” which features the booming voices of a South African children’s choir.
Upon returning to the United States from their stint in Africa, the band decided that they needed to take action and empower others to take a stand on global issues. Inspired by the philosophy of TOMS Shoe Company, which matches every shoe sold with a free pair donated to needy child in Africa, the band created their barefoot-walk awareness campaign.
“We all know that it’s a small thing, but that’s the point,” Zac says. “The point now is to say that we all know the impact that AIDS is having on the world, and we all know the impact of street poverty. The difference is we have to go from awareness to a state of taking action on those issues. It’s about the start of the walk—it’s about saying, ‘Today we start by doing this.’ It’s about how we can use our skills to do something more.”
With more than a decade of post-“MMMBop” touring behind them, it would be easy to imagine that Hanson’s vision of their music has also changed. But, according to Zac, that’s not the case.
“The way we approach our music has always been the same,” he says. “We make music for ourselves—music that we’re passionate about.”
who:Hanson, with Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers and Kate Voegele
what:Pure pop, with a pinch of message
when:Monday, May 5. 8 p.m. ($28. The band’s one-mile barefoot walk takes place at 3 p.m. outside The Orange Peel, and is free and open to the public. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851)