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Urban Tulsa Article
August 1997
"The Sky's The Limit For Hanson"


The brothers in the pop trio Hanson are young, very talented, and signed to a major recording contract with Mercury Records.

And they're from Tulsa.

What? You haven't heard of them? Well, don't worry...you're not alone.

Hanson has been one of Tulsa's best-kept little secrets for several years now, but that's about to change in a big, big way. With their major label debut CD, Middle of Nowhere, set for release in May, and their unbelievably catchy single and video "MMMbop," soon to be injected into the international pop mainstream, you might not be able to get away from these blond wunderkind come summertime.

So count yourself forewarned. Hanson is about to happen. Catching Up With The Boys

The story of Isaac (16), Taylor (14) and Zac (11) Hanson's burgeoning pop career is almost too perfect-too fairy tale-like-to be true. As some of you may (or may not) remember, Urban Tulsa last spoke with the group nearly two years ago, when they were known locally as a kind of "little white boy hip hop trio" that drove all the pre-teen girls mad (and charmed more than a few "older" girls as well.) A brief recap of Hanson history goes like this:

Years and years ago, Walker and Diana Hanson taught their three eldest kids how to sing "Amen" in harmony after saying grace at the dinner table. Soon after-somewhat to their parents surprise-the boys began to improvise on their own, working up '50s and '60 rock and soul standards and popular Christian songs with supertight three part harmony and, most impressively of all, penning their own songs. Walker and Diana had always known their sons were bright and talented, but they hadn't expected this...

It wasn't long before Hanson began performing locally, debuting on the community stage at Mayfest, then at parties and festivals all over town. At some point, the multi-talented siblings developed a knack for dancing as well, (picture a white New Edition), and began performing during assemblies at area elementary schools, driving hundreds of pre-teen schoolgirls into mini-frenzies of gleeful Hanson-mania.

Two years ago, the boys had just released their first locally-recorded CD, Boomerang, full of slick Boyz II Men meets Ace of Base-style pop. After years of classical piano training, they were beginning to teach themselves how to play other instruments, with Isaac taking on the guitar, the irrepressible Zac finding the bash and clatter of the drums naturally attractive and Taylor splitting his time between keyboards and drums. The family had begun screening all their telephone calls by that point...the better to avoid yet another earful of screaming and squealing from the young girls who frequently called the family's west Tulsa residence. Walker and Diana were contemplating getting a second phone line...

Skip forward to early March of this year. Scene: The musty-yet-cozy confines of the old Tulsa Little Theater at 15th and Delaware which Mercury Records has rented out for a week in order to give the boys a real stage on which to practice before they head off to perform at an important conference in New York City. I arrive during their dinner break (they've been practicing a good portion of the day) and walk in on them jamming with the studio musicians Mercury has hired to help fill out their live sound.

I'm floored immediately.

It's not that the boys are playing anything all that difficult-it's only an impromptu jam session after all-but they're performing with a confidence and competency usually reserved for much more experienced musicians. Just two years ago, these boys were rudimentary at best on their instruments, bashing about in their living room like so many other young rock dreamers. To see them holding their own with professional studio cats is a real eye-and-ear-opener, to say the least. "I guess they've been practicing," I comment to myself. "If they sound this good just goofing off..."

Gone are the guys' page boy haircuts and semi-hip-hop clothing of two years ago, replaced now by long, golden "musician-like" tresses (read: just scruffy enough), and decidedly mod (read: just "alternative" enough) clothing. The five months they spent in Los Angeles between July and November writing and recording Middle of Nowhere certainly seems to have influenced the boys' personal styles. Even when they're in dressed-down practice mode they look MTV hip. And comfortably so.

Chicken Chat

When the guys spot me, the impromptu session promptly ends. Though Isaac, Taylor and Zac's days are ruled by music, at 6pm hunger rules their stomachs. And mine too. We hasten down the street to Rex's Boneless Chicken to catch-up on calories and life in general.

Seated at a window table, with the last rays of dusk faintly creeping across our faces, I cut straight to the chase (between mouthfuls of mashed potatoes), asking the question most every struggling musician wants to know.

Me: So...how did you get signed?

Isaac: Well, after Boomerang, we started playing instruments...drums, guitar, piano. We went into a garage studio with a guy and recorded our next album MMMbop, which we produced ourselves and played all the instruments on. We released it in May of '96 and about two months after that we did a show in Coffeyville, KS, and an A&R guy from Mercury came to see us. We had been shopping ourselves to a lot of major labels at that point, and had gotten a lot of interest from them...

Taylor: But with Boomerang, they were afraid to sign us because we were white kids doing R&B music, and it didn't exactly work. So with MMMbop, we started shopping ourselves as white kids doing what white kids actually do...rock and roll. Mercury picked up on that, and they signed us.

Isaac: MMMbop kinda crossed-over. It was more pop rock.

Me: Was that based a lot on just what you were listening to at the time?

Isaac: It was just natural evolution. We wanted to play instruments. We just decided what we wanted to do and then recorded an album that way.
,BR> Me: You guys must find it easy to pick up various instruments. Is it just in your blood?

Isaac: Yeah...it's in the genes, I guess. Our parents did a lot of music stuff in high school and college, and our mom was a music major. It came fairly easy, but there's always work involved.

Me: So you did MMMbop, and the right people heard it, and you got signed.

Isaac: Yeah. And we got a lot of enthusiasm from the label, too, which is really good because you really can't go anywhere unless the label is behind you.

Mercury's enthusiasm for the band runs deep, it turns out. They secured top-notch producers for Middle of Nowhere including The Dust Brothers, who produced Beck's Grammy-winning CD, Odelay, and Steve Lironi, who's worked with British pop bands Space and Black Grape.

Mercury executives were so jazzed by three of the songs on MMMbop, (the title track, "Thinking of You" and "With You In Your Dreams") that they had the boys re-record them for Middle of Nowhere. In addition, they brought in platinum-selling songwriters to co-write 9 of the CD's 13 songs with the guys. Among those songwriters are Mark Hudson (who wrote "Livin' On The Edge" for Aerosmith), Ellen Shipley (Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven is a Place on Earth" and "Circle In the Sand"), Desmond Child (many, many songs for artists such as Bon Jovi and Aerosmith) and the legendary Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (who penned "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling" for The Righteous Brothers as well as scores of other hits for artists such as the Animals and The Crystals).

In addition to all that, Mercury also dropped an extra bit of change on a video for "MMMbop" which was shot at the end of February in L.A. with director Tamara Davis, who worked on the Adam Sandler flick Billy Madison as well as directing videos for Sonic Youth, Amp and Luscious Jackson. Earlier that same month, Hanson appeared as musical guests on an episode of MTV's The Jenny McCarthy Show which will be aired sometime in June. They also performed an impromptu in-office set for the staff of Spin Magazine.

The promotional gears, it would seem, have definitely kicked into gear.

Me: Before you went to California to record this CD, you guys had written more than 100 songs together, just the three of you. What was it like to suddenly be working with all these big time songwriters?

Isaac: It's weird at first, just because you're learning to work with other people and learning how to exchange ideas...

Taylor: And not irritate each other. But we actually had really great experiences with everybody. First of all, it was cool because we got to write with some incredible people, but it was also very weird because we've always done it by ourselves.

Me: So how would that work? You'd walk into a room...there was a piano there...or a guitar...or...

Taylor: It happened in different ways. With Desmond Child, for example, he had an idea for the song "Weird..."

Isaac: Well, we had been talking about the word "weird."

Taylor: We were talking about the fact that nobody had ever written a song about "weird." It seemed strange to us.

Isaac: 'Cause you use it so much.

Taylor: Think about how many times you say "weird."

Me: So you just kinda dropped that idea into his head.

Isaac: Yeah. We said let's try that, and he sat down at the keyboard and we just started doing melodies and lyrics, and certain things stuck, and then the song came out. That one came together really quickly. It was very much a mood thing.

Taylor: Now with Mark Hudson, he had some ideas for songs already. We wrote "Lucy" with him and "Where Is The Love," and we finished "Minute Without You."

Me: So with him, he'd come in and sing for you what he had so far...

Isaac: Yeah. He might have a verse or a chorus or something like that and we'd say 'Oh, that's cool. Let's write the rest of the song.'"

Taylor: But for "Minute Without You," we had written just about all the song and then he finished it off.

Me: Were you ever nervous going in with these strangers? I mean, writing a song is a very personal thing. Didn't you ever worry you might sound stupid in front of them?

Taylor: At first it was strange 'cause we didn't know what it was going to be like. But once we got in there, most of the people were very easy to work with.

Me: I would imagine they'd need to be, professional songwriters and all.

Taylor: Yeah. They kinda have to be.

At this point, Zac, the band's official comic relief and resident hyperdrive who's been unusually quiet during the course of the interview, reveals to us the masterwork of neo-modernist portraiture he's been working on. His medium: extra fancy ketchup and packaged honey. His canvas: A used paper plate. After we chuckle our approval he rushes away to show his dad, sitting a few tables away.

Me: So what was it like to work with the Dust Brothers? I know they're interesting guys.

Isaac: They were really cool to work with. The whole vibe of the studio was very laid back. We'd come to the studio about noon and sit down and talk a little while, and when we felt like starting we would. And they have a great record collection, obviously, 'cause they use a lot of different sampled things. So they'd play us different records. It was really cool.

Me: What kind of records did they play for you?

Taylor: Every different kind you can think of.

Isaac: Three Dog Night. The Pointer Sisters. They have all the Beatles records.

Taylor: It was really pretty amazing.

Me: They didn't light up any of those "special" cigarettes in the studio, did they?

Taylor: (laughing) No. Me: Would you say the Dust Brothers radically changed the way you guys sound with their production values?

Isaac: Not radically I wouldn't say, but they added some interesting elements that we might not have thought of. "MMMbop" is a good example. They added a "ruh-uh-ruh-uh-ruh-uh" scratch thing. But that's really all the scratching that's on the album.

Taylor: I think what the Dust Brothers and Steve Lironi kinda brought back to our sound was a little of the R&B-with the loops and scratches and sampled sounds-and combined it with pop rock.

Me: Did you miss home after being in L.A. for so long?

Isaac: We definitely missed home. But it's kinda cool, we've gone back to L.A. a few times since then...

Taylor: And it really does feel like a home away from home now.

Isaac: But when the process was finally coming to a close we were definitely ready to come home.

Me: You were living in a rented place?

Taylor: It was a house in the Hollywood Hills

Isaac: You could actually see the Hollywood sign from the deck on the back of the house. And you could see Mann's Chinese Theater.

Taylor: We were looking down on it.

You Oughta Be In Pictures The boys having very recently returned from several days' worth of filming in L.A. for the "MMMbop" video, I decide to ask what it's like to be in pictures.

Me: So, what's your video about?

Isaac: The video is based on the lyrics to the song, and the song is basically about friends...

Zac: ...And holding on to the ones who really care, which might be your brothers and sisters if you have them.

Taylor: But really it's just a fun video. There's lots of running around. And there's apart where we sing "Plant a seed/plant a flower/plant a rose" and we throw some seeds down, and a flower grows and we end up playing as a band on top of the flower. And then we're bouncing on the moon. And then we're with Einstein.

Me: Flowers, moon, Einstein. How random. Did you see the storyboards before you filmed this?

Taylor: She (Davis) called us. What was really cool about her was she really wanted input, and wanted to know what we thought. So she called us before she told anybody else about her ideas for the video. She kinda polished the ideas we'd given her, and put some different things in there and that's what the video turned out to be.

Me: So, some of your creative vision is in the video?

Isaac: Very much so. She was very inclusive and there was a lot of creative input on both of our parts. It was very much a collaborative effort. Back To Work

The evening has grown dark and chilly, and Isaac is informed via a discreetly passed note from his dad that the boys need to get back to the theater to resume practicing. Peter Schwartz, the music director Mercury Records has hired to "crack the whip" and get the boys and their band into top performance shape (he's also worked with the likes of David Bowie, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Toni Braxton) will probably be wondering what happened to them.

Back on stage, Hanson wastes no time launching into a loose performance of "MMMbop" which sounds, quite literally, like a million dollars. Even though the sound man only has a monitor mix up--declining, for some reason, to turn up the huge main speakers dominating either side of the stage-the boys voices easily cut through Isaac's joyfully loud rhythm guitar, Taylor's alternating keyboard grooves and conga pounding, and Zac's impressively solid drumming, to fill the stage with those undeniable harmonies that are still their signature sound.

I watch Schwartz for awhile as he plays along with the band on his own keyboard near the back and side of the stage, behind Taylor. Every once in a while he stops and just listens to the sound of the young pop band before him gleefully dashing through their first major label single as if there's no tomorrow.

He's all smiles.

Jarrod Gollihare