Fifteen years ago, you could have been watching Daria after school – fostering the baby hipster within, or perhaps concocting conspiracy theories around the shooting of The Notorious B.I.G. You could have been agonising over which Spice Girl you wanted to be, or wondering why your parents were so sad that a fat guy called the King had fallen off his perch while sitting on a throne. Or you could have been belting out ‘MMM Bop’ knowing with total conviction it was the coolest song in the world.
Fast-foward to today, and the three Hanson brothers: Isaac (31), Taylor (29) and Zac (26), who in 1997 were the second youngest artists after Michael Jackson to achieve a number one hit, have now produced eight studio albums together. Not to mention made many cameo appearances (notably on Sabrina The Teenage Witch in 2002) and started their own label 3CG Records.
On the eve of their first Australian tour since 2004, Tone Deaf had a chat with the now fully-grown Isaac about Hanson’s latest album, their upcoming visit to Australia, and what it’s like to be considered a ‘classic’.
At the end of 1997, their break-out year, one in ten Australian households owned a copy of Hanson’s debut album Middle Of Nowhere, not to mention at least 52 Hanson posters if there were any teenage girls in residence.
Now, the trio of brothers having since finished puberty, had eight children between them, and produced seven more albums; you could be forgiven for not making the connection between Hanson and Chuck Berry.
According to Isaac, the sound of their latest record Shout It Out goes right back to the artists they were listening to growing up. “Some of the first people we were inspired by were the earliest rock ‘n’ roll superstars like Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Eddy Cochrane,” he lists “Jerry-Lee Lewis, and Ray Charles. Then going into the ’60s we had a lot of the early Motown stuff – people like The Jackson 5, and Marvin Gaye, even some of the southern soul artists – Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and people like that.”
The upbeat, uninhibited feel of their latest record was something that the band had wanted to make for a long time, but the mood had never been right. “For some reason we kind of found ourselves in this situation where we’d gone through a lot in out personal lives and in our career,” explains Hanson Snr. “We’d separated from a record company that was not working out very well for us…we also parted from our manager just before going in to do Shout It Out… so we went into this record with a very clear idea of what we wanted to do and no additional dramas surrounding the process, it was really just a purely artistic exercise.”
“The sound of the record for the first time ever really connects that dot for people, where they realize ‘oh, oh yeah,’ this band really is heavily inspired by that early ’60s RnB and rock ‘n’ roll stuff.”
Most of the final recordings on Shout It Out came straight from live takes, and layers of production were stripped right back to make the final sound as authentic as possible. “The song ‘Thinking ‘Bout Something’, which is the first single off the record,” says Isaac, “even the lead vocal is a live take, which is very rare.”
After listening to Hanson’s latest recording, a few things can be quickly noted. (Slightly) lower pitch – check. Motown sound and feel – check. Lots of rolling keyboard solos – what?
When asked about the origin of this new element to their music, Isaac’s eyes surely glazed over as he brimmed with admiration for Billy Joel: “I wanna be that guy, I wanna write those songs. Those songs are spectacular, lyrically, melodically, rhythmically – it’s just amazing music.”
For a band that started playing pop music with traditional instruments before synthesisers were all but sold in toy stores, it would be easy for Hanson to demean the skill of amateur electronic artists that can be found in every crevice of the interweb. Ever the diplomat though, when asked his thoughts on the merits of electronic music, Isaac casually replied, “all I will say is, far be it for me to judge what is and isn’t music. As one of my friends eloquently once said: ‘opinions are like assholes – everyone’s got one and they all stink’”.
He does concede that the thinks the waves of electronica currently saturating pop music has caused a backlash from listeners, which means the likes of Adele, The Black Keys and Mumford And Sons rise in popularity. “Because of the amount of electronic music that is out there in the sphere of popular culture,” he continues, “there has been a natural reaction where people have been going: ‘I just want something that sounds like a human can make it!’”
One perk of having sold 10 million copies of a record and going platinum in the US four times over is having your own ‘day’. In their hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, May 6 is traditionally ‘Hanson Day’ with nearly five thousand people gathered to celebrate the band’s twentieth anniversary earlier this month. But even after two decades of making music, “there’s nothing more strange than being thirty years old,” explains Isaac, “and having the ‘‘’80s ‘90s and today’-type stations playing music of yours that’s fifteen years old, and you’re like ‘wait a second, what’s going on!?’. Talk about having a quarter-life crisis. That’s a bizarre experience.”
Despite the ‘classic ninties’ tag, when asked if the days of screaming teenage girls were over, Isaac responded (with good-humoured resignation), “oh they’re not over – I don’t think they’ll ever be over!”
Hanson are set to play six dates across the country, and have promised several AC/DC covers. Here’s hoping they stick to their word.
– Dannika Bonser