Hanson Is Cool. . . Seriously, Part Two
3 June 2010
To celebrate the upcoming release of Hanson’s newest album, Shout It Out, and to commemorate their recent “5 For 5″ concerts, here is part two of our series on Hanson. Yes, Hanson.
Although Hanson might be a more liberal, non-creepy, modern day version of the Osmond’s, these guys are hipper than you might think. In a time when “indie” rockers are touted by major labels, Hanson is the true definition of a DIY band.
After the sophomore “slump” of their follow-up album This Time Around (a mere 262,000 records sold in 2000) and years of struggles with their label Mercury Records during the messy Island Def Jam merger, they parted ways with Mercury due to irreconcilable differences. Whereas countless bands in the same position were neglected and eventually dropped from their major labels when the overly confident industry of the ’90s was just beginning to collapse, Hanson got out of their contract on their terms and forged ahead on their own, by choice.
In 2003, they founded Three Car Garage Records, named after the place they first began making music together when they were kids. Taylor Hanson says the name of their label “represents unused space,” a fitting description, as they have set out to create and build their own niche in the music industry that no longer had room for them. The band took the songs that no one at their previous label supported and pushed onward, recording their next album on their own and taking its promotion into their own hands.
Without label support, they went back on the road in 2003, playing to the smallest venues in their career since before their glory days at MTV. They started with an acoustic tour, featuring the band in its stripped down form—just the three guys, on piano, drums, and guitar. They debuted new songs to the public for the first time in over three years alongside these bare bones versions of the hits they were famous for. And the new songs they played were GOOD—with the same catchy, floating melodies rooted in solid harmonies that made their older material hits, but without any of the extraneous production (or critics’ speculation).
Loyal fans followed the tour to each show. Those who were skeptical and attended shows out of curiosity or amusement (including yours truly) were quickly converted by Hanson’s charming, more mature pop style and command over their audience. The band sold an E.P of live, acoustic versions of new tunes at the shows, whetting loyal fans’ appetites for their forthcoming full length album. Word spread and the crowds (and the venues) grew bigger. The band (with wives and children in tow) toured consistently throughout the summer and fall of 2003 before concluding with a sold out show at Carnegie Hall. Not too shabby for a comeback.
Once they brought their music back to the masses, it was clear that demand for Hanson still existed, so they took a risk and used their “MMMBop” royalties to release their next full-length album,Underneath, independently on 3CG. Most of the songs on Underneath were written and at least pre-produced (and rejected) during their struggles with Island Def Jam years before, yet remarkable musical growth was already manifest on the album by the time it was finally released.
Underneath is a fun, focused record interlaced with some more mature themes that retain the same distinguishable Hanson sound minus the bullshit (i.e., the overproduction and DJ scratches of their previous hits). What remains are simple pop structures with feeling, catchy choruses, and perfect melodies anyone can sing along to after one listen—basically, what’s left is what the band does best.
The only question was, were there enough people paying attention to the band and their music after three years of silence, when they no longer had a major label to help stimulate the public mindset?
Underneath came out on 3CG in the spring of 2004 and shot to #1 on the Billboard Top Independent Chart in its first week. The album charted at #25 on the Billboard Top 200 and #49 on the UK Top 75. The band has since revealed that the costs of legal struggles and recording the album over such a drawn out period of time prevented them from being able to profit from this record, but it was more than an impressive start to getting their music out there for their fans to hear—it stands as an encouraging model for ignored and independent artists everywhere.
As of this date, Underneath has sold over 139,000 copies. The big, important industry suits who told Hanson that the band and their sound were old news were completely wrong. Isaac, Taylor, and Zac took it upon themselves to let their fans decide, and the resulting sales numbers became their own “Fuck You” to the record execs. So you may sneer at the notion that Hanson and the Sex Pistols have anything in common, but if you look at the facts, the Hanson brothers really are modern day punks. Never mind the bollocks, Hanson is sticking it to the corporate music industry as we know it and taking control of their shit!
In fact, back when they were struggling with the early stages of Underneath back in 2000, they decided to capture every step of the process on camera. What began as a filmed account of the making of their next album became an unfettered, uncensored, detailed chronicle of their battles with and eventual departure from a major label.
The resulting documentary, Strong Enough To Break, was first released in installments on YouTube and later as a full-length DVD, with the gnarly behind-the-scenes drama of the internal strife (and ignorance) within the industry out there for all to see.
The band is unabashed in its honest portrayal of the goings-on, including conference calls with a stuttering Jeff Fenster (their IDJ A&R rep) that become so frustrating the guys are shown giving the middle finger to the phone. Label big wigs are shown continually expressing their dissatisfaction with the new songs Hanson have written and brought to them with confidence, but act confused and become embarrassingly inarticulate when asked to explain why the songs don’t cut it.
“We just had to do something, because the current system is broken,” Zac explains in Strong Enough To Break, admitting something that seems obvious now, but what was then only a growing suspicion among frustrated musicians who suddenly found themselves lacking label guidance and support. Due to Hanson’s foresight and some serendipity, they were able to capture the exact point in time when the flourishing music industry of the ’90s was beginning to self-destruct.
In between more touring in support of a live album they released on 3CG in 2005, Hanson toured the college circuit, showcasing the film and holding question and answer sessions on the music industry and their personal experiences in the business thus far. They went straight to the people and educated them on what’s wrong with the industry today, the importance of the independent artist and their role in the music industry, and how fans can keep the music alive with their support. (To hear their eloquence on the subject, watch one of the Q&As here.)
Hanson may be mistaken for manufactured, sticky-sweet musical puppets of the system, but they are real and open and honest about the bullshit of the industry that gave them fame and fortune in the first place and then took it away. And if you’re willing to take them seriously for a second, they might actually teach you a thing or two.