From the 1997 world hit MMMBop to 30 years in music: interview with Hanson

MMMBop by Hanson

MMMBop by Hanson

Anyone who’s old enough to remember the summer of 1997 will smile at calling up the massive global phenomenon started by the pop-rock trio Hanson with the smash song MMMBop which reached number one in at least 12 countries including the United States and the UK, was nominated for two Grammys and became a worldwide success: the huge Hanson’s popularity started with that hit, but this didn’t turn the talented boys into a one-hit wonder.

MMMBop videoclip by Hanson - 1997

MMMBop videoclip by Hanson – 1997

Given their young age, people did think that Tulsa-born Hanson brothers Isaac, Taylor and Zac, who were respectively 17, 14 and 12 years old at the time, had just started out in music back then, but their career had actually started well before MMMBop won Best Song at the 1997 MTV Europe Music Awards; five years earlier, when the siblings were 12, 9 and 7, they would already tour all the venues of their hometown that would allow performances by young kids; they would sing a cappella and perform classic 1950-rock’n’roll songs like Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry and Rockin’ Robin by Bobby Day, as well as their own music.

Middle of Nowhere by Hanson

Middle of Nowhere by Hanson

The first, Grammy-nominated studio album by Hanson, titled Middle of Nowhere, sold 10 million copies worldwide and, in addition to MMMBop, included other amazing singles like Where’s the Love, Thinking of You and the so very beautiful I Will Come to You.

The trio has since released many other studio albums, Christmas albums, live albums and compilations, and had eventually had to fight hard to get their artistic freedom back; in 2003, after struggling for three years to record and release their third album because of label executives who refused over 80 songs from them, Hanson said goodbye to mainstream music and went independent; their self-funded recording label 3CG Records has been recording and producing all the band’s releases since then.

Zac, Taylor and Isaac Hanson © to the owners

Zac, Taylor and Isaac Hanson © to the owners

They admittedly had to give up something as “there are just certain things that you may not be able to quite do at the same scale” as Isaac will acknowledge in this interview, but the freedom and creativity that came with self-determination have allowed the band’s career to develop and flourish towards excellence: they have been able to put together a loyal and dedicated fanbase in every country of the world and they have come up with meaningful projects like the double album String Theory featuring The Prague Symphony Orchestra which peaked at number 4 in the US Top Classical Albums in 2018.

Red Green Blue by Hanson

Red Green Blue by Hanson

And whilst May 6 – which is the day their debut album Middle of Nowhere was released in 1997 – was declared Hanson Day in Tulsa by Oklahoma’s then-governor Frank Keating, the year 2022 has marked the 30th anniversary for the band which was officially founded in May 1992, and celebrations were carried out everywhere in the boys’ hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

As of May 2022, the trio is launching a new studio album titled Red Green Blue, which draws together each band member’s voice with a third of the album written and produced by each brother: Taylor’s Red, Isaac’s Green and Zac’s Blue. Three singles have been released so far: Child At Heart, by Taylor, Write You A Song, by Isaac, and Don’t Let Me Down, by Zac.

Hanson are also embarking on a world tour that will bring them literally everywhere across the globe until October 2022, from the United States to Australia, from Europe to Latin America and pretty much in every corner out there where hordes of women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s without their jealous boyfriends just cannot wait to scream their heads off

Isaac and Taylor Hanson by The Shortlisted ©

Isaac and Taylor Hanson by The Shortlisted ©

May 6 is Hanson Day in Tulsa, Oklahoma

May 6 is Hanson Day in Tulsa, Oklahoma

It looks like somebody’s missing.

Taylor:
Yeah, you’ve got two out of three: Taylor and Isaac here today.

Where’s Zac?

Isaac:
Unfortunately, he had a last-minute parenting-related conflict, haha. He got a call about 15 minutes before the interview started and he was like: “I’m sorry, I can’t make it.”

Oh, no.

Taylor:
Yeah, but you don’t want to talk to him anyway! Haha!

I really did want to talk to him, instead.

Isaac:
Haha!

So, what does the new album Red Green Blue mean to you two?

Taylor:
For me, anytime you’re putting out new music is exciting, having the gift of getting to have an audience that stuck with us through time is a big deal: we’ve been making music for 30 years, which is a whole lifetime. So, in general, I’m just too excited to have something fresh to share. And being able to combine that with a world tour where we actually and finally get to get back on the road after two very quiet years for most of the music business is just a good feeling of kind of relief and anticipation.

Isaac:
I agree with Taylor. It’s a unique record, a record unlike anyone that we’ve ever made, and it’s really exciting to have the chance to share the music, especially after several years of not being on the road. It’s exciting to have a very robust touring schedule and be able to share this record and the music from over the last 30 years with people again.

Red Green Blue by Hanson - 2022 Tour announcement

Red Green Blue by Hanson – 2022 Tour announcement

What achievements are you most proud of, at this stage in your career?

Taylor, Isaac and Zac Hanson by Jonathan Weiner ©

Taylor, Isaac and Zac Hanson by Jonathan Weiner ©

Isaac:
More than anything, I think the thing we’re probably the most proud of is just being able to say: “Wow, we’re still able to do this”. We’re still able to tour around the world, we still have hundreds of thousands of fans that will come out year after year, show after show, and are interested in what we’re up to, and we love being able to share in some sense our life experience with people through songs. It’s because songs are like therapy for me, they get you through hard times and they give you the motivation and joy that you need sometimes to get up and maybe do a workout or sometimes just to represent a beautiful sunny day that you have outside.

Taylor:
Or a rainy day.

Isaac:
Yeah, a rainy day, too. And so it’s just a pretty amazing thing to be able to share your version of that with people and let them identify with it.

Taylor:
As far as other milestones’ sort of things that we’re most proud of, there are some key moments where we had to make hard decisions that have, ultimately, I think, paid off for the career. I mean, one of them that we’ve talked about is starting the label back in 2003-2004 and building an independent record company again, and really just having the independence to make those decisions; you continue to think about a career versus being in a very corporate environment where you really don’t know what your next day is going to look like and you don’t know what company you’re going to be with. And so, that change was a big one; it’s been imperfect and challenging, but it’s something that was pivotal because it represented a sort of a path forward that has been lasting almost 20 years.

Isaac:
To give you an example, we had one record contract, but we were basically on three labels in the course of it and in the corner of a corporate merger, which is why we started a label: it’s because we had no consistency. You know, every single record we released or worked on was with a different group of people.

Taylor:
But as far as other milestones, you have little small things that stand out. A couple of years ago, we did our Symphony tour [the album String Theory was released in 2018], we put together this show that was really a story and we got to work with symphonies all over the world and play in some of the most amazing venues, from the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles to the Sydney Opera House in Australia, where we played two nights back to back which were sold-out and with an orchestra behind us. Both of those nights were a real pivotal milestone to just go: “This is incredible”. And, you know, there’s a lot of those pivotal small moments that are important because they represent a lot of other things, they represent the effort to reach that moment and all the work that has gone into it to be able to have the opportunity to stand on those stages. And you just kind of hope that you continue to have more milestones and keep climbing new mountains and having new stories to tell.

What are the pros and cons of running your own independent record label?

Hanson by Jonathan Weiner ©

Hanson by Jonathan Weiner ©

Taylor:
The pros are having independence, and having the ability to plan and envision and build a team that is really your team. I mean, we hired a publicity team, a radio team, we have a product manager that’s focused on getting the product done and building the partnerships, and it’s really something we’ve constructed, we’ve assembled versus feeling like we bought into a whole system that you kind of end up working for them in a way and as artists that can be hard because they’re not always aligned with your goals. The challenge is this, really: just being able to balance, and as anybody that’s a performer and an entertainer, you do have the responsibility to do all those business aspects. So it’s not like you can turn them off completely. But I’m definitely taking the responsibility that we have of investing in ourselves, trying to hire a team, trying to build something that has a structure that is really ours. It requires to take more ownership, to balance time and to make sure to give focus to what matters most which is: we started a label so that we could have the freedom to continue to do great work as musicians, and not lose sight of that.

Isaac:
I would even describe it differently, too. I think we started a label so that we could think about the future, not just think about the right now. Because that was the problem we found ourselves in: we had one record contract and we were on three different labels in the process of that one contract, and not a single record was made with the same people. That’s a real problem. You can’t, it’s a really hard way to have any kind of long-term thinking when every six to eighteen months you’re dealing with a new group of people trying to introduce themselves, so the reason why we started the label was so that we could think long term and we could have more consistency. And the con of it is just that you’re a smaller fish in a larger pond, and so you have to make certain decisions. You know that you’ve got more limited resources than the Universal Music Group, and so there are just certain things that you may not be able to quite do at the same scale. But you also have a lot of flexibility and a lot of opportunities to do a lot of other things that most bands never can do. Because you know that you will be able to make another record.

Which one of your songs are you most attached to?

Taylor, Isaac and Zac Hanson by Jonathan Weiner ©

Taylor, Isaac and Zac Hanson by Jonathan Weiner ©

Isaac:
A lot of, there’s a lot of songs. Where do I begin? I don’t know. Well, right now I would say Write You A Song. It feels very personal. It’s hard, you know, especially when you’re working on new music, you inevitably feel the most personal and the most attached to it, just because it’s the freshest, but it doesn’t mean that songs from the past are not incredibly valuable and important, and ones that you’re proud of. But you inevitably feel a little bit closer to the ones that you’ve recently written. So, a lot of the stuff from Green [Isaac’s part of the new album Red Green Blue] feels very, very present and very 2022 and valuable. And so it sounds like Write You A Song and No Matter The Reason are certainly the most important ones to me right now.

Taylor:
There are just so many songs that you can’t really say one means the most to you or it’s the number one. But just going back to the symphony project, it opens up with a song called Reaching for the Sky. Really, it just says something that I’m really glad exists in the world and I’m really proud of how it was ultimately put together. It is a small song with this incredible orchestra behind it, this arrangement, and you listen to that song and it’s telling this very honest story which is about this idea of aspiring and continuing to aspire and the fact that you have to hold strong and withstand challenges when you decide to live out a path that you believe in. A lot of times, anybody, not just musicians, have to make a decision saying: “I’m going to stick to something that I believe in” because oftentimes people don’t necessarily see what you see for your own life… well, they can’t. And so Reaching For The Sky just frames that in a little bit more grand way of this boy that is believing in the potential that’s up in the sky and kind of having to overcome the naysayers. So, musically, that’s really one that stands out. And this whole new project, Red Green Blue, definitely has a lot of personal touches to it because everyone is really leaning into their individual voice.

How do you feel when you hear MMMBop playing on the radio?

MMMBop by Hanson

MMMBop by Hanson

Isaac:
I’m like: “Oh, that’s us. That’s cool!”

Taylor:
Yeah, at this point in our lives, it feels like familiar territory because it’s been a part of the story of life. But I’m always blown away by the power and the reach of music. And it amazes me how songs can go out into the world and you don’t know who they’re going to reach. And that song has reached so many people. It’s in so many different people’s life stories, whether it was a sad moment where the song lifted him up or whether it just got them excited to follow the band, or whether it was a surprising situation where people had a life-changing situation. We heard a story of someone saying that Mmmbop saved their life because it came on the radio and there was a fire on the other side of the house and it woke them up and they got out of the house because they heard the song came on loud, and that saved their life. So there’re all these funny things once you release music, you share what you think is something you want to share and then you kind of give it away to the world and hope people find it. And a lot of people found that one.

What do you think of talent shows like The X Factor?

Isaac:
Yeah, it’s good TV. I think that probably the results prove to be consistent which is good TV does not necessarily make good music careers, because the nature of those shows is not necessarily accentuating the things that make those artists unique or truly good at a certain thing. Like for example, we’re a band that is very good at certain things and not so good at other things, and if you put a band like us who’s been doing it for 30 years successfully in an environment like that, there will be certain things that we just kind of can’t do – and that’s okay.

Taylor:
This means that an artist would not necessarily be successful in it.

Isaac:
But then again, I have no problem with it, it makes for good TV even it does not necessarily seem to produce super successful artists and careers, or people that have passionate fanbases. There are cases where it does, but it’s inconsistent. Because you would think that the winners of all of these TV shows would be selling out arenas all over the place constantly around the world and that doesn’t seem to be the case, which is interesting.

Oftentimes, the kids that start out in music at a very young age don’t end up very well; what did prevent you from getting in trouble?

MMMBop videoclip by Hanson - 1997

MMMBop videoclip by Hanson – 1997

Taylor:
Well, it’s actually such an interesting question. Music particularly has a reputation, especially since the birth of rock’n’roll, to have been associated with excesses and people kind of losing themselves regardless of their age. And so, it makes sense that people had an expectation that that would happen for us as well.

Isaac:
There’s a lot of pressure, a lot of personal pressure that you have to be on all the time, and everybody wants your attention, and so you have to both figure out how to be extremely available, but also create boundaries for yourself. And that’s an impossible scenario.

Taylor Hanson, MMMBop videoclip by Hanson - 1997

Taylor Hanson, MMMBop videoclip by Hanson – 1997

Taylor:
I think there’s no one answer for staying out of the worst kinds of trouble except to say that if you start off with an intention of actually doing a certain thing a certain way for a reason and say: “I’m here for the music. That’s what I’m here for”, that helps a lot. Most musicians probably start off with music in mind, but then there’s so much else that gets added to it. We had a really strong drive and I think almost a healthy fear of wasting it because we were already fans of a lot of artists that had been long since and broken many, many, many years before we came around, so we were really attached to artists that had careers already. So, our aspiration wasn’t to be competing with pop artists of the moment; our aspiration was to think “How did Ray Charles have songs that are still successful some 30 or 40 years later, and people were regarding him as a legend? Look, what did he do?” So, I think those are the things: having a goal in mind, having something else that you’re looking to that’s bigger than you and, in a deeper way, having a sense of purpose in your life. Because yes, there are all of the screaming fans and the arenas packed, and the millions of albums sold, but in the end, you’re alone in a hotel room somewhere along the way, and you’re alone with yourself, so having a sense of purpose and the vision of something you’re working towards is so essential to survive and have extraordinary success, – or failure.

Isaac:
And I think in some cases, we were a little bit high-minded in a certain way and that hasn’t always served us in the moment because I think we were very afraid of not being taken seriously and very concerned about people judging us based on our age. And so I think, in certain cases, we probably didn’t do certain things that would have been perfectly fine to do, and would have been quite successful and probably even more lucrative, and would have therefore fuelled us to take other adventures later on in life, but we just felt like it was important to take our music as seriously as we wanted other people to take it and so we avoided the lunchboxes and things like that, that people probably already thought we did anyway. So, you know, some of our fans didn’t get some cool merchandise items that they could have gotten because we are so focused on the music!

In a 2012 episode of the popular TV series The Mentalist, one of the female characters admits that her room was full of your posters when she was a teenager. I’ve always thought I would tell you this if we ever met. How do you feel when you bump into something like that? 

 

[Both smile]

Isaac:
It’s wild. I mean, I don’t know how much that phenomenon is still happening in the same way because of technology changing and so on. I mean, how much is the poster on the wall still a thing for a 16-year-old or a 14-year-old or a 10-year-old? I don’t know. But it’s wild. It’s really cool that we had that kind of effect on people that were that interested and they got to get the tenth poster, not just the first poster!

Taylor:
The pop-culture element is pretty wild. And as you’re going through life, you find yourself coming up against the random and the surprising like getting mentioned in a TV show or a book. And really, for us, it’s just a compliment to the level of reach that certain things have had and how grateful we are for the opportunity to have been just in the psyche of people at a level that you can find your way into the mention of somebody’s story. And that goes back to what we were saying about songs: you share the songs, you work on them, you hope they succeed, you hope somebody cares. And then other people become a part of their story that you never knew… like a TV writer that decides to put it in their episode!

Isaac:
Exactly, haha!

How did you manage to keep the band together for all these years, why do you think other bands split and what does it take for a music band not to break up?

Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson by Jonathan Weiner ©

Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson by Jonathan Weiner ©

Isaac:
That is a good question. I know the guys don’t like this analogy because it is an awkward analogy to give, but it’s the only one that I can possibly compare it to. When you’re in a band, and you’re good friends, the guys in the band will be like, “Look, it’s like we’re brothers, we’re really good friends”. But when it comes to keeping something together for as long as we have, it’s more than just friendship. It’s sharing ups, sharing downs, and sharing the challenges of evolving as human beings. Zac is not the same person he was when he was 12 years old. I’m not the same person I was when I was 16. Taylor is not the same person he was when he was 14. And so we’ve been multiple different bands along the way. And people’s needs evolve over time, and who they are becoming more significant and important in how they manage their day-to-day life and expectations. So I think what you have to do is continually ask the right questions, and sometimes you don’t do a very good job of that, things blow up and people get mad, and they say: “Screw you, why the heck are you doing this constantly? You’re driving me crazy.” And so you have to figure out whether or not you’re willing to trust each other first by asking the question that follows the trust, which is, “Hey, what do you need from me different than what’s going on here? So because I don’t want to blow this up. We’ve got a good thing. We’ve worked very, very hard for this. And I think we all like doing this, right? So if we don’t like doing this, what do we need? How do we need to change things so that people can kind of stay happy enough, motivated enough, inspired enough to make it through the next year or the next, you know, 10 years?” So it’s just a constant question of honest, direct, truthful conversation. And that’s really hard. It’s really hard. There’s no simple solution, and that’s what my wife and I have had to learn to do as we’ve been married for 16 years. You’ve got to say: “Hey, this is what I need from you”. And she says: “Well, this is what I need from you”. And you have to find a way to have an honest conversation, as unemotional as you can make it, and as frank and clear as you can make it and without pointing too many fingers and yelling too much. It’s not easy. It’s not easy, and there’s no simple way to say it other than that, I think.

Taylor:
Yes, it is definitely the kinship to marriage, I think this is a good one because it’s so all-encompassing.

Isaac:
Especially because we’re brothers, I think that’s part of why I use that analogy.

Taylor:
I use it that too, it’s true, it’s certainly awkward but true. We’ve all been married for a while, I’ve been married for almost 20 years and I’ve joked since early that she was my second marriage, as my first marriage was with the band because it is a relationship that goes very deep. One of the key things I would say to the longevity of anything related to business from my experience now is just having a vision, having a perspective that is about something. If you don’t at least say: “I’m hoping to climb that mountain”, you definitely won’t. You may not meet the goals exactly that you wanted to reach, you may make changes in your path and turn left and right, but without some call towards something, you really don’t have anything to inspire you to survive, inspire you to try, inspire you to withstand. And so you know, it’s really hope and it’s really aspiration and then, combined with that is grit, and the grit is the ability to kind of get through the not-so-good days. But without hope, without extreme excitement, without a potential vision for something, you don’t have the strength to overcome all this. And gratitude is probably one of the most overlooked things, having gratitude so that you can not be too frustrated with the pain. Because you know, wherever we are at, whatever job people do, at some point, it becomes normal, and somewhere there are all the billionaires that have had so many resources, but at some point, they are like: “Man, I sprained my ankle”, or: “I gotta get from Qatar to London at night on my jet”, and you are going: “Oh my God, that’s crazy. Look at what life he has!” But that’s just his life, or her life, and it’s still exhausting for them. Wherever you are you can have plenty of excuses, plenty of reasons to go: “Wow, this is hard and frustrating and not going to work”. So, having those aspirations and gratitude is essential, to seeing where you are at and appreciating it is something that’s not easy, but I think is incredibly helpful and important in our times.

How can musicians avoid being forced to take a stand about whatever is written on the global political agenda these days?

Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson © to the owners

Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson © to the owners

Taylor:
Once you step into the public eye, you do have a challenge, which is you’re visible. And we’ve never done it perfectly. But I think one thing we’ve learned is just to try and make who you are actually about what you are, and that means sometimes not being making a commentary on every single subject because frankly, you just don’t know. Like back to the joke about watching the Disney movie [Bambi] where Mrs Rabbit says “Thumper, If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. It’s not looking to be an expert on everything that is really important for all of us in this culture of social media, too, and especially people that are performers and entertainers that do feel the pressure to have an idea or a comment or a statement about virtually everything, because you’re supposed to somehow be a voice that influences others, but really remembering that you’re there because of something specific you do, not because you’ve got all the answers. That’s what we’ve tried to do, and we haven’t always been successful at that.

Isaac:
No, definitely not.

Taylor:
But we’ve definitely tried to do our dirty laundry in private and also to not try to make every thought and every opinion be something that’s public. No, that’s bad. There are a lot of amazing people doing lots of amazing things and lots of people with lots of challenging things going on and we don’t have to comment on everything. Nobody does. As an entertainer, you really need to be conscious of avoiding the trap of feeling that you need to give an opinion.

Isaac:
[Nods] It’s hard. You want to be the glue rather than the break. It’s easier to take sides, it’s a lot harder to be the glue and to say – you know what? I love you no matter who you are, I love you no matter what you think, let’s sing a song together. You know, I’d rather be that guy. And that’s not easy. That’s not easy. It’s very difficult, very difficult!

When it comes to live performances, do audiences from different countries behave differently?

Red Green Blue by Hanson - 2022 EU Tour announcement

Red Green Blue by Hanson – 2022 EU Tour announcement

Isaac:
Well, the short answer is yes: whether it’s Brazil or whether it’s the Philippines or whether it’s all across Europe or whether it’s Australia or the US, there are the crowds that even depending on the region of the United States look different.

Taylor:
But the makeup of guys and girls, I think is fairly similar, with a high percentage of females. I think one of the unique things about our band because we broke so young, is that we have connected with people at such different points in their lives. We have fans that discovered the band 10 years ago, or 15 years ago, and then others that have been there for 25 years with us, and I think part of what’s cool about it is that it does make the audience even more diverse because you have somebody that was kind of a preppy kid, and then they became a punk rock kid or vice versa: they were kind of punk rock and then they got really clean-cut and now maybe somebody’s got kids, maybe their life path changed but they have stuck with you… all of these different people with different worlds… we have all kinds of people that have a connection, and that connection is there and they’re a fan of the band. So, I would say it’s very diverse. The one thing that is common, of course, is just the music itself. People respond to music, it truly breaks the barriers and it still blows my mind how you can be in places where people speak different languages in different cultures, and they still feel the emotional responses to songs.

Isaac:
There’s something powerful about that. I would also say the audience is continually evolving, because if you’re doing your job right, different people are showing up, and I think we are seeing a continual evolution of the audience. We’re still maybe not necessarily on a mass scale at every single point and at every single tour, but we’re continually connecting with younger audience members, we connect continually and kept connecting with new people, like the friend of the fan or the boyfriend or girlfriend of the fan, and those kinds of things are continually making new fans along the way, and that’s what we see in the evolution of the audience. I love being able to talk with people after the show because you get a really good feel for what’s going on. And inevitably, you do have, as Taylor said, the people that have been around for different stages of life and then you’ll run into the fan who is like: “Hey! I’ve just heard your music last week for the first time”. And I’m like “What?” And they’re like: “Yeah, this is me and my five friends. We all came to your show!” So it’s continually happening in these very interesting ways because when you’re a band that has been doing it for as long as we have, you don’t necessarily expect that conversation, but it’s really cool to still be having those conversations. So it continues to evolve and it’s exciting!

★ If you love 1990s and 2000s music, you may also like our interviews with electronic music legend Moby, The OffspringTom Higgenson of Plain White T’s (remember Hey There Delilah?), The Prodigy, Ronan Keating of Boyzone, Skunk Anansie, Amy Macdonald (remember This Is The Life?), The Vamps, Passenger (remember Let Her Go?), The Lumineers (remember Ho Hey?) 

★ If you were a screaming teenager in the 1990s, you may also like Dedicated to my fellow 1990s Take That screaming fans and All the rules I broke to meet Take That

Hanson MMMBop Interview

Hanson artwork by The Shortlisted © original pictures to the owners ©

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Founder of The Shortlisted Magazine

The one behind the wheel.