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Hanson Reveals the Surprising Story Behind 'MMMBop'

The 20-year anniversary of the mega pop hit also marks the day grunge died and pop music was re-embraced by teens round the world. And it was all thanks to a bunch of indie-rock hipsters.

by Jonathan Parks-Ramage
May 23 2016, 6:50pm

Jeff Kravitz via Getty

Weary millennials, let me take you back to 1996. It was a simpler time, when Leonardo DiCaprio was our God, Jonathan Taylor Thomas our Jesus, and Tiger Beat our Bible. It was also the year that a little-known band called Hanson would record the original demo for "MMMBop"—a song that would eventually rule the radios and hearts of teens across the globe and become the final death rattle for grunge music. "MMMBop" ultimately served as the bridge from alternative music back to pure pop.

"MMMBop" became the defining pop anthem of the late 90s and the runaway hit of Hanson's album Middle Of Nowhere. It reached #1 in 27 countries, earned three Grammy nominations, and led the band to massive success, with over 16 million records sold worldwide. While Hanson has often been dismissed as bubble gum bullshit for the grade-school demographic, their debut album's pedigree was actually rooted in the alternative rock scene of 90s Los Angeles.

The Dust Brothers, who oversaw the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Beck's Odelay, produced Middle of Nowhere. Tamra Davis, who had directed videos for the Beastie Boys (her husband is band member Mike D), the Lemonheads, Veruca Salt, and Sonic Youth, helmed the "MMMBop" music video. David Campbell, a prolific composer who worked with Beck (his son), Green Day, Hole, Alanis Morrissette, laid down arrangements for the album.

But before all that, the Hanson boys were just three kid brothers making music in the garage of their family's home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Here, then, is the oral history of "MMMBop"— told by the brothers and those who engineered their iconic success.

Three Kids, A Garage, and A Dream

Taylor Hanson: We grew up around music in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We got turned on to rock and roll and R&B, and very quickly that spark happened. Zac was really young when we first started.

Isaac Hanson: You were four, Zac!

Zac Hanson: I wasn't that interested in making music when I was four. [laughter]

Taylor: We started officially playing together in 1992. We stood up there in our leather jackets like 1950s greasers and sang covers of 50s songs from Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Bobby Day.

Isaac: Our first proper gig was at this local music festival, when I was eleven, Taylor was nine, and Zac was six.

Taylor: We were building [our careers] from the ground up. We had several thousand fans on a mailing list. We'd send out mailings, literally licking stamps and sending out cards [that listed our] gigs over the next month.

Christopher Sabec [Hanson's first manager]: I was at SXSW [when I discovered Hanson]. These three kids had been going up to people in the crowd and asking to perform for them. Taylor asked if they could perform for me and I said, "Sure." They sang "MMMBop" for me a capella. When I heard them sing that song, I knew they had huge potential. I pursued them to get a management contract.

Taylor: Over the five years before we [became famous], we made a couple of records locally. Our second independent record was called "MMMBop," which got its name from that song. [The original, indie version of MMMBop] was a different tone when it first was released in 1996.

Sabec: [We used] that independent record, and shopped [the band] to at least 14 labels.

Taylor: We were turned down by everybody in the industry. But we're stubborn.

An Empty Gig Leads to Surprise Success

Steve Greenberg [A&R for Mercury Records at the time]: By the point [I got their MMMBop demo], I think twelve labels had passed on it. I heard it and thought it was a great song. But often, when you get these demos from very young people, there's something wrong with the picture. I was like, "OK, this was really good, but is this for real?" So I decided to go see them in April of 1996. I went to Coffeyville, Kansas, where they were playing at the Coffeyville New Beginnings Festival. There were very few people there.

Taylor: Steve Greenberg came to see us play that show in Coffeyville. We'd been trying for years to get record labels to come see us, and they kept turning us down. But then you go and have this small show that you don't want anyone to see, and that's the one they decide to come to.

Greenberg: The festival wasn't well-attended, but they were really good. I went backstage and met them. I told them how much I liked them, and that I hoped [Mercury Records] could do something with them. I'd been looking for a "Hanson" before I knew that they were Hanson. In 1996, you were coming out of the grunge period. The world had been dominated by dark, alternative music. I had this notion that kids in America weren't really as pessimistic as all that.

Photo via Getty

Danny Goldberg [CEO of Mercury Records at the time]: Steve Greenberg put them on my radar. I'd hired Steve to be head of A&R after I became president of Mercury Records. He played me the demo of "MMMBop," and it was a one-minute decision-making process. A young band that looked great, with that song—it just made sense. We made that deal quickly.

Taylor: Surprisingly, that random concert turned into an offer from Mercury Records in 1996. We switched gears from trying to grow our local fan club into going to California and recording [an album] with a budget.

Building Indie Street Cred with Alt Elders

Steve Greenberg [Executive Producer of Middle of Nowhere]: The album took about six months to do. We were coming out of this alternative rock moment, and everything was about alternative cred. People were very skeptical that we could do a pop record. And, as it happened, somebody at the label had an advance cassette of the Beck album, Odelay, a couple of months before it came out. I heard the album, and arranged to get [Odelay producers] the Dust Brothers to produce Hanson. [Hanson] headed to California in June of 1996 and set up their equipment at the Dust Brothers' studio, which was at this house in Silver Lake. It was the Dust Brothers' involvement that helped us achieve alternative cred.

Taylor: I think one the biggest shifts for us was learning to let certain things go. We were kids, but we had really produced our music all ourselves [prior to that point]. To give credit to our partners, the shape of [the new version of] "MMMBop" came out of a conversation with the Dust Brothers, talking about the Jackson Five. They grew up listening to the Jackson Five.

Isaac: And we grew up listening to the Jackson Five!

Taylor: The definitive shift from a melancholy mid-tempo beat [in the demo "MMMBop"] to being a completely upbeat song came down to picking a Jackson Five-like rhythm.

Steve Greenberg: I also brought in [music producer] Stephen Lironi, who had just produced the Black Grape album, to do additional work on the single. The vocals on "MMMBop" were recorded by a vocal coach named Roger Love. It was very unsteady with the vocals, because Taylor's voice was changing. On that great demo version of "MMMBop," it's sung in a very exciting key. I really wanted to keep that key. But his voice was changing, and it was really difficult. We brought in Roger Love to coax him through the vocals. It's a really high note, and we kept fighting and fighting and we finally nailed it right at the end of the project.

Danny Goldberg: Steve and I wanted to create a patina of hipness around a pop record. I think we picked exactly the right people. They didn't try to make it like Nine Inch Nails or too hip. But they did add a hipness factor that smoothed the pathway to quick exposure in all aspects of the business.

The MMMBOP Music Video: Only Dorks Rollerblade

Danny Goldberg: The big thing at that time in breaking a record was MTV. MTV was still at its peak of influence. I had worked with [music video director] Tamra Davis when I was a manager of Sonic Youth and she had made a great video [for them]. So I suggested Tamra make the "MMMBop" video.

Tamra Davis [director of the MMMBop video]: Danny [Goldberg] sent me the track for "MMMBop" and three passport photos of those kids. I looked at Taylor and I was like, "Oh my god, if I was a thirteen-year-old girl, I would be madly in love with that kid." And the song was really cute and catchy. I had done music videos for a bunch of other stuff the Dust Brothers produced. So I was like, "Yeah, let me meet Hanson."

Taylor: Tamra Davis was connected to that whole LA indie scene. We had a very specific idea of what we wanted the video to be, but we sat down with Tamra, and her vision was more organic. So it was this fusion of our ideas and hers.

Tamra Davis: We shot it over two days, trying to be spontaneous. We definitely had a concept, but a lot of it was like, "I want to go jump out of that trash can" or "Let's run through the rocks and go through this cave." All that stuff is a kid's imagination. [The rollerblading] was totally spontaneous. They were like, "We like rollerblading!" At that time I was, like, too cool. I was like, "Rollerblading? Only dorks rollerblade." Then I was like, "Alright, alright, let's put some rollerblading in." It's that thing of encouraging people to be who they are. They just had so much fun doing it, and it worked.

Taylor: [The Dust Brothers'] studio at the time was a house they rented in Silver Lake, and they had a big living room that looks out on a swimming pool. That's where we set up the drums. The performance in that music video is exactly in the spot where we sat and talked with [the Dust Brothers] to write the song.

Isaac: It's also where we recorded the song!

Danny Goldberg: After it was finished, the video went to MTV's heavy rotation.

Steve Greenberg: MTV totally helped make Hanson. Tamra Davis made a great video, and was a "cred" director. In all our decisions, we went the "cred way" as opposed to the obvious pop way. It took Hanson from boys who wouldn't have been taken seriously—instead, they were taken very seriously.

Tamra Davis: What I loved about those Hanson kids was that their family was so close. In addition to doing the video, [their parents] had them write a report on their music video experience. That was part of their homeschool assignment, to write a paper on it!

The Squeal of Optimistic Youth Heard Round the World

Taylor: We made our first appearance to promote the album [and] it was supposed to be just us and a couple hundred fans...

Isaac: ... In a record store.

Steve Greenberg: Z100 did an event at the Paramus Park Mall in New Jersey, and Hanson was gonna sell the ["MMMBop"] singles from the record store in the mall. We got to the mall and the whole mall had been shut down because 10,000 girls showed up. It was insane. There are thousands of girls screaming in this mall. I called Danny Goldberg on my cellphone, and he said, "What is that high-pitched squeal in the background?" I said, "That's the fans." He couldn't believe it. Danny had managed Nirvana at their peak—and he said, "I've managed a lot of really big artists, and I've never heard that sound." At that point we just knew.

Taylor: I remember sitting in our van that day, seeing the flashing lights of our police escort, and fans crowded around the car. The thought I had was not, "Oh my gosh, we're gonna be famous." It was, "This is extraordinary..." We'd always had a deep appreciation for the opportunity to do music.

Isaac: We were also excited to find ourselves in a spot like Michael Jackson when he was a kid in the Jackson Five. Maybe, just maybe, we could be like the Jackson Five.