They invented nineties teen-pop. Now the masters of “MMMBop” are reinventing indie rock. No, really.
15 February 2004
By Bart Blasengame
The Chicago gig sold out in 10 minutes. For the past two days a perfumed shantytown outside the hotel has staked out the band around the clock. By 11 P.M., fishnet ****s, white-collar punks, and dead-eyed scenesters are battling for prime spots near the stage. From a box seat above the masses, Billy Corgan–draped head to toe in black wool like a fuzzy Darth Vader–nods his bald head to the band’s chart-bludgeoning hit: a little ditty called “MMMBop.”
Wait a…What the…You mean–?
Yes, Hanson are back. That Hanson.
The three-part-harmonizing, cute-as-a-bug’s ear brothers from Tulsa, Oklahoma–a.k.a. the “Middle of Nowhere,” title of their 8 million-sold debut–who kicked the late nineties into pop overdrive.
Hanson? Weren’t they on a box of Eggo Waffles? Well, yes, but six years later, Isaac, 23, Taylor, 20, and Zac, 18, have gone from “MMMBop: to Mmman-meat, stalked by dirty little minxes who have long since outgrown their training bras. The girls aren’t lobbing flowers and teddy bears onstage anymore; they’re tossing thongs and room keys. And in November, as is so often the case with hard-livin’, hard-lovin’ longhairs, Isaac was rushed to the hospital, the result of what his publicist calls too much “rocking out.”
With millions in the bank, a legion of loyal fans, and tossed-off chops that make peers like John Mayer and Michelle Branch sound like American Idol rejects, Hanson are in an interesting position. After wriggling out of their record deal, they’ve un-plugged, all Neo-like, from the industry matrix: This month they’ll release the self-produced Underneath on their own 3CG Records label, and they’ve managed to get it distributed to all the big chains. With no label to siphon off profits, Hanson stands to make [a lot].
Ever since downloading began kneecapping the majors, forward-thinking audiophiles have been waiting for someone–Aimee Mann? Wilco? Pearl Jam?–to lead the way into the post-MP3 future. Nobody figured that maybe–just maybe–rock’s savior would be Hanson.
“Did you know they wanted to make Hanson lunch boxes?” Isaac says, as he tries to light a dog-turd cigarillo.
“The likenesses always come up a little shy,” Zac says, shaking his head. “And besides, they couldn’t get my package size right.”
Folded inside the dark shadows of a Bedouin tent in Chicago’s Kaz Bar, the Hanson brothers, who once preached the value of strong bones with a “Got Milk?” ad, are momentarily snipped free of their marionette strings. Out come the smokes, the booze, the profanity. Along with road stories that might shatter their fans’ little tween hearts: tales of stalkers, hotel-room invasions, and Taylor’s 2002 wedding, which preceded the birth of his son by six months. But somehow the brothers went through the Tiger Beat meat grinder and came out pretty normal, if a little [angry] at the way their label [mishandled] their careers. It has been four years since their last album.
“I think some people thought of us as one-hit wonders,” says Isaac. “They probably wondered where we went. And where were we? We were in Tulsa recording 80 songs for a new record.”
None of which will sound like “MMMBop.” That song made them rich, but it also dug the band’s grave as a novelty act and harbinger of the boy-band revolution. But when Hanson took a stab at mature, Byrds-style organic rock with 2000′s This Time Around, it barely went gold. “It’d be retarded to say we weren’t disappointed,” Taylor says. Kicking them in the nuts while they were down, Universal punted Hanson from Mercury to its rap stable, Def Jam. Predictably, Def Jam met the Underneath demos with a shrug. “They figured Hanson was done,” says a former Universal employee.
In hindsight, it’s a good thing the brothers were too nerdy to obliterate their trust funds on boob jobs for their girlfriends, blow, and other rock-star frills. Let’s not forget this is a band that moved in excess of 9 million albums–$12 million in sales–and grossed nearly $9 million on their 1998 tour alone. “We didn’t suddenly become jackasses and buy really stupid stuff,” Isaac says. Their only confirmed spending vice is a pure middle-American lust for dirt bikes and paintball guns. Instead, Isaac says, “We invested in ourselves and built a studio.”
With financial guidance from their dad, an accountant, and spiritual advice from Bruce Hornsby, Hanson regrouped and formed 3CG Records, spending $1.5 million to produce and distribute Underneath. And thanks to a self-constructed business plan–yes, Hanson has a business plan!–they’ll keep about $6 for each disk sold, rather than the less than $2 bands get in conventional deals. Their new manager, Allen Kovac–who’s updated the careers of Blondie and Motley Crue–claims the trio can break big.”
The rebound may be here already, even if it doesn’t equal the boys’ precious-metal past.
Hanson has already sold almost 50,000 copies of an EP online and at stops along their recent acoustic tour, which culminated in a sold-out, ear-shattering show at Carnegie Hall. Last night, at the House of Blues, the boys wrung blue-eyed soul from the simplest songs. Top 40 blasts like “Where’s the Love” have grown a big, swaying backside of groove. And when they put their Chuck Taylors to the floor and rock, the club’s trademark yogi quakes in his frame.
“We want people to think we kick ***,” says Taylor. “Girls, our peers, guys who like Led Zeppelin, 40-year-old soccer moms, all of them– don’t you know that we kick ***?”
Maybe not yet…but soon? So says Steve Greenberg, who originally signed Hanson to Mercury:
“They’re one song away from a comeback.” Or something even more ambitious. Chris Holmes, a Chicago indie fixture who’s played with the Smashing Pumpkins, among others, says simply, “These guys have a Pet Sounds in them.”
“I still drive a 1986 Econoline van,” says Zac, playing post-show fun boy. “It’s totally [decked] out, with, like, fluorescent lights and sheepskin and a bed in the back. It’s a shaggin’ wagon.”
As the youngest Hanson shoves a mangled backstage pizza into the fridge, Isaac talks about the rise of Black Eyed Peas with a DJ friend and Taylor discusses chord progressions in the corner. King Corgan just left the premises. (“He said he enjoyed the show,” Isaac beams. “That’s good, right?”)
Among the tribe of friends are a few members of Chicago indie-upstarts the Assassins. You know they’re in a band because they look miserable and hang like carcasses on the couch. “Have you heard these guys?” Isaac asks. “They’re great–and good friends. They’re thinking about signing with RCA.”
Funny. Don’t they know major-label deals are for suckers?
Source: Details Magazine