From left to right: Isaac, Taylor, and Zac. Credit: Jiro Schneider
It's a spring day in New York City, and I am in a room full of crying women.
Before us, a band made of three handsome haircuts jump up and down, playing what some people might label as soul rock 'n' roll, and what others might label as manufactured Top 40 bullshit. Both opinions are probably correct in some fashion, because those handsome haircuts before me are attached to Hanson. Yes, that Hanson, who's playing a show for iHeartRadio in a tiny venue of about 200 people in Lower Manhattan. It's raining outside. Everyone is wet in one way or another.
The show continues, and so do the tears. About a third of the way through the set, lead singer Taylor Hanson pauses to address the crowd. "Would you guys like to eat this like it's a small piece of cake?" he says. Everyone screams uncontrollably. In a flash, the singer realizes that he's accidentally said the most sexual sounding thing ever, and backtracks. "I mean, the music, guys. The music." After some laughs, the band kicks back into jumping up and down and playing songs that, if you are reading this site, probably pisses you off.
And speaking of that, today Hanson releases their ninth studio album, Anthem, a better-than-you-might-expect record composed of 13 breezy songs with fun titles like "Fired Up," "You Can't Stop Us Now," and "I've Got Soul." The names of these songs are also very literal. Examples: "Get The Girl Back" is about getting the girl back. "Lost Without You" is about being lost without you. "Tragic Symphony" is a symphony that is very tragic.
Let's be real. A scene of crying full-grown adults at a Hanson concert—and Hanson themselves—is pretty low-hanging fruit that's easy to make fun of. I mean, "MmmBop," right? But dudes are older now. They're grown-up. They're married. They're fathers. They cut their hair. Even if you wouldn't be caught dead listening to bubble gum pop like this, these guys have been in the same god damn band for 21 years. That's longer than most marriages, and that fact—combined with the poignant truth that these dudes earnestly believe in what they're trying to accomplish as musicians—shows they're worth at least some respect and admiration, even if you consider them a walking corporate advertisement.
The day after this concert, I called up Isaac, the group's bassist, and talked with him about what it's like to have the world hate you, about how the band almost broke up while recording Anthem, and how being a celebrity guest at BuzzFeed makes you feel like a zoo animal. He also said he'd buy me a birthday drink because his album comes out on my birthday, so if you're reading this Isaac, don't think I forgot.
Noisey: So you were just at BuzzFeed. What was that like?
Isaac Hanson: BuzzFeed. It was really fun. They had a bunch of random Hanson stuff over the past few months and they asked us to come by. So we thought, why not? We had a good time.
Twitter was lighting up with all sorts of awkward selfies with you guys.
Yeah. We felt like chimpanzees in the zoo. [Laughs.] We were behind a glass conference room window doing an interview and there were people who started crowding around the glass. There were literally… I haven’t had quite… I can say that was a unique experience. I’ve never have that same scenario happen before.
If you could label Hanson with a BuzzFeed button, which one would you choose?
Oh! My gosh. I don’t know. Probably LOL. We really tried over the years to not take ourselves too seriously. Life is crazy and you really can’t be too self-obsessed. It is kind of ridiculous to get your ego consumed with anything too much beyond what it is that you do.
That being said we are kind of music nerds, always have been. And that is part of the reason why you don’t see a bunch of pictures of us all over tabloids. That is just not really who we are. We are little bit more casual, a little bit more private. We really enjoy having a good time, but we are the guys at the bar watching the basketball game kind of people, versus feeling the need to make asses of ourselves in public too much. Maybe that's where the LOL thing comes from.
You've been a band for 21 years. How do you deal with the misconceptions that have come with you getting super popular when you were so young?
That is a really hard thing to answer. The truth of the matter is I don’t spend my life worrying about what people don’t understand about me particularly. What I do is I go out every day and I be me. Growing up, we were a band kids who were songwriters who write songs and we did hundreds of gigs of a region in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Southern Missouri. We had very ambitious, very driven parents who were willing to take us seriously. We wanted to do this and they didn’t look at us like we were nuts or convince us to do something else.
We just had constant venues: schools, block parties, on patios, arts festivals. We did one gig and then we did another gig and next thing you know, we had 100 shows under our belt and were a year into it. We have always put one foot in front of the other and it always has been a musical decision. I truthfully wish that in the early days, we would've done even more concerts than we did. We did a lot of promotional events and a lot of 30 minute shows, here and there.
That is who we have always been and that is who we always were. To me, any quote-unquote misconceptions of our band disappear when you see us live. Because then you understand, "Wait a second, they are a band." Because of our youth, that is the one thing that never registered with people. We were a really, really young band. And so the instant result is, well, you got that whole teen idol element because you are a teenage.
And in those [teenage icon] scenarios you are not talking to the press about how much of a nerd you are about 1950s music and why you stay up late listening to Steve Winwood in his early days playing with Spencer Davis group. No one would ask us, "Why are you opening your show with "Give Me Some Lovin', why is that in your setlist?" Instead, we got into this scenario full of female adoration—which is extremely awesome; I would not have met my wife if it were not for that. But at the same time that chatter becomes so loud that, really, what we should be talking about why I love the Bill Withers. I feel like such a nerd.
You sound like a musician.
Yeah, and I guess that never registered on a broad scale. I try to not really worry about it. I keep [making music] and then eventually everybody gets around to saying, "You guys have been pretty consistent." Actions speak louder than words: If you look at our actions, they make sense with who we are now, and how they did when we were young.
With this new record, what do you feel like you are trying to accomplish? By the way, it comes out on my birthday.
Oh it does? I am happy for you that it is your birthday. I will have to send you a note on the day of the record release. We will probably be doing a little release week part you should come out for that. I’ll buy you a drink for your birthday.
I feel like that could be a great story to tell anybody.
I would be glad to do that.
Anyway, the new record.
With the new record, it's like the patterns of life and how actions speak louder than words. This record is a little bluesier and rockier than the last record. It is probably the most full scale rock song on any Hanson record. It is from top to bottom basically an ACDC tune. An old school high voltage ACDC. It is very simple. It's guitar. It's bass. It's drums. There is only one guitar. It is not a bunch of layered 80s rock or something. It is very like when there is a guitar solo there is no one else playing underneath. It is very raw bare bones rock n roll.
Even though you have 21 years behind you as a band, did this record feel like a rebirth?
Well, there is a rebirth in the sense that this album almost didn’t get made.
What do you mean?
We had a full-scale band breakup before this record. We started writing in the beginning of 2012 and it didn’t go very well. We almost broke up for good, to be frank. It is a weird thing because we are family. Basically, we looked at each other and went, "We are going to kill each other." We had been running this label. We just came off the most extensive world tour we have done in like six years and we found ourselves in the situation where we were not able to create in the way that we wanted to. We were looking at each other like, okay, we have got to stop or this is going to get real bad. Because it was getting bad.
So how did you get over that? How long did you take?
Time. Space. After February , we didn’t start writing together in any real capacity until September. It was a long time.
What brought you back together? Was it just the fact that you guys are brothers?
It was the question of, if we are going to make a record, we need to look at it now. We entertained the idea of trying to work on the record a little bit more in the summer, but it felt too soon. We got together for a few days and just said, well, we are not ready.
How intense was it? Did anyone get punched?
It feels catty to get into the details of it. But it was very tense. People were not on the same wavelength. We were just not able to write music. It was unfortunately a little bit aggressive. Some of it is really a combination of working together for 20 years. So you know how to push each others buttons, whether you mean to or not. Plus, the stresses of life were kind of rearing their ugly head right at the same time. It's no coincidence that the theme on this record is fighting for something. Working through that challenge.
When you came back to the studio in September, what was different versus the summer?
We took it piece by piece a little bit more. We literally just went around the room each day and rotated ideas. Some days we didn’t produce very much or anything at all. And some days produced great stuff, but it was a process of establishing a little bit of trust creatively. The truth is that the first part of that process was not necessarily producing the songs that ended up on the record. But it was a process of recommitting to the band. That was going to be the decision. Either we were to go into this next record and figure out a way to get it done and feel good about it and feel rejuvenated by it. Or we were going to take a much longer pause, and it would be 2015 before our next record comes out. Luckily what actually happened was that we took a few baby steps and the next thing you know we are running straight at these more intense, more aggressive versions [of songs]. We shed a layer of skin as a band.
How do you feel now about the final product?
I feel really good about the record. Whether or not it will sell a gazillion copies or not god knows. But you know, I have no idea on some level, but do I feel like it is something exciting for me? I think it is an exciting record. It has a lot element of soulfulness and pop sensibilities that are indicative of a Hanson record. But it also has size and intensity that no other Hanson record up to this point had. Not to this level.
You played "MmmBop" last night, and I was surprised. Is it weird playing those oldass songs?
There are two answers to that. The first one is I love playing the music from the last 15-20 years. Absolutely. We have a relationship with the audience that is as old as those songs are. In a way, you would never ever want to in any way say to a fan, "Well, that is not who I am now," because in a way you are insulting them. It grows and changes with you over the course of time. The song "MmmBop" is actually about holding on to things that really matter to you because there will be few things that last through your whole life. Hold on the things that are precious to you because life is fleeting. And it happens to have a catchy little chorus, a little nonsensical, scatty thing. When people are singing it now, there are a lot of people singing it for that reason and I feel that, from them, I see it in there face. I have a huge pet peeve with artists who start off young and [won't play old songs]. When you do that it is like you just gave a giant middle finger to your fans. What an insecure, and frankly kind of pathetic thing to do. It is kind of self-righteous, really. You are kind of dissing your fans.
I was surprised that you looked like you were having a good time while playing that song.
Don’t get me wrong. If somebody walked up to me and said you have only got one song to play right now on the air, that would not be the song that I play.
Eric Sundermann once yelled at a girl for putting Hanson on in 6th grade art class. He's on Twitter — @ericsundy