Hanson don’t follow trends. They make them.
Back in 1994-95, Hanson released their first independent record. At that same time software companies began to pioneer sound on the Internet. In ‘97 The three brothers, came out of the Middle of Nowhere to storm the pop music world with the eight-million worldwide-selling CD of the same name, lead by an international smash single “MmmBop”. Following that release the band’s online site developed into one of the largest sites in music history at a time when the net’s potential was in its infancy.
Coming up on a decade, Hanson has recorded three watershed records: “Nowhere…” which opened up a crucial demographic of fans, “This Time Around” which was a precursor to the current wave of singer-songwriters (Michelle Branch, John Mayer etc.) and the upcoming third release “Underneath” which could prove instrumental in bringing a wounded industry back to their audience while ushering in a fresh new breed of credible artists. The attention the band has maintained with its internet fan base is paying dividends today. Now once-alternative artists like Liz Phair talk about (in a recent Billboard Magazine article) having to play by record company rules. Rather than playing by the rules, Hanson has taken matters into it’s own hands, selling out the first 10 dates of their recent acoustic tour completely through the bands site and their new acoustic EP sold solely on the Internet and at each show.
While the industry is having an identity crisis as college kids with high-speed access jump on the Napster bandwagon, Isaac (22), Taylor (20) and Zac (17) remain true to their art, the Net and their fans.
The release of their long-awaited third studio album, the epic, more-than-three-years-in-the-making, Underneath, on their own 3CG Records (distributed through independent ADA, an AOL-Time Warner-owned company) augurs yet another seismic shift in the shrinking corporate pop music landscape. The vanguard mentality which led the group to put out their own independent releases in the early ‘90s, (whose material later produced multiple hit singles) has similarly informed the decision to release Underneath themselves, only this time on a global scale. Says Andy Allen, President of ADA, “This is another example of artists taking control of their music, what Hanson is doing is the wave of the future.”
“It all starts for us sitting around with acoustic guitars or pianos,” says Taylor, the group’s keyboardist, and the new album bears those days when the three grew up singing along to classic Rock n Roll, R&B and soul albums. The new album sticks close to those roots, as all Hanson’s albums have. Eight of the songs appear on the band’s Underneath Acoustic EP (an unplugged foretaste to Underneath), which showed Hanson’s patented hook-filled melodies in their purest form.
When the band reached a creative crossroads with their label, the group suggested they part ways with the company. Hanson decided to produce Underneath themselves to maintain their creative vision, though they did work with several different collaborators: Greg Wells (Rufus Wainwright, Michelle Branch), Bob Marlette (Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper), John Shanks (Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow) and Danny Kortchmar (Don Henley, Billy Joel), who co-produced the first single, “Penny and Me.”
“We were writing songs with a definite flavor,” says Taylor. “We wanted that to survive to the final mix.”
“Our goal was that every part that was played had a clear purpose in order to make this album more dynamic,” adds Zac. “This leaves the music feeling complete without overwhelming the listener.”
Underneath represents the group’s most accomplished work yet, mixing their love of lush melodies with a production that leaves the rough edges in, but is still larger-than-life when called for. After all, this was the band that, along with the Dust Brothers, combined the scratching of hip-hop and a driving guitar riff with the rhythmic pump of classic Motown.
The haunting title track, co-written with the Thorns’ Matthew Sweet, features yearning falsetto and subliminal strings underlining the aching plaint, “Is there a resolution for this pain that I’m in?” “Penny and Me” has a pure spirit and a rhythmic uumph that captures the essence of blue jeans and Rock n Roll.
Then there’s the new wave punk-rock Elvis Costello and the Attractions buzz of “Lost Without Each Other” (co-written with the New Radicals’ Gregg Alexander), the gospel funk of “Hey,” the anthemic chorus of “Deeper.” The “Let It Be” refrains of “Broken Angel” points the way to a possible next direction, an expansive, wide-screen orchestral masterpiece featuring the band at its most vulnerable.
“That was an especially inspired moment,” says Isaac. “Zac presented this song to us, and it captures a side of us we’d never shown before. I think you’ll see a lot more of this in records to come.”
With all Hanson has accomplished in their careers, it’s hard to remember they’re still in their early twenties. Their contemporaries include singer-songwriters like Michelle Branch, who as a fan opened for the band for their second album and was then signed and became a star in her own right. Branch has returned the favor by singing on the new album. “I’m definitely a fan of those guys,” she told MTV. Just like Avril Lavigne, who told the media Hanson was one of the main influences in recording her multi-platinum debut.
Always ahead of the pack, in 1997, when grunge-rock and flannel was still the only thing in site, the Tulsa trio came out with the infectious pop single, “MmmBop.” The song led to three 1998 Grammy nominations for the band, including Record of the Year, Best New Artist and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals. Middle of Nowhere soared to #2 on the Billboard top 200 and carried with it two other top ten singles.
Rolling Stone named Middle of Nowhere one of its “Essential Albums of the ‘90s,” Q Magazine and Melody Maker tapped it as one of the 50 Best Albums of 1997. Spin raved: “Hanson songs… are about the pure pleasures of sound.’
By 2000, Hanson once more leaped into a daring new direction, defying expectations with their second album, This Time Around. This time around, the group stressed their self-contained nature, their song writing prowess and musicianship and the fact that they produce their own records, though they did welcome collaborators such as Jonny Lang and John Popper into the studio. The introspective album turned out to be another harbinger, this time of the new breed of singer-songwriter that included not only Branch and Lavigne, but soon-to-be-contemporaries like John Mayer, Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz, Vanessa Carlton, etc.
Although it sold a million copies worldwide, This Time Around was widely viewed as a bit of a disappointment, especially after Middle of Nowhere’s 8 million. Still, the album earned the band even more respect in critical circles.
Rolling Stone surmises: “Like a blonde three-headed hydra, Hanson loom over the competition…on This Time Around, Hanson leave the rest of the teen pack eating their Oklahoma dust.” Despite the pressure of the consolidated music industry and the frenzy at radio to play the plethora of manufactured teen-pop, Hanson retained their credibility at the expense of radio airplay and sales for their second release.
David J, a former member of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, was recently quoted in the New York Times saying, “Today’s consolidated music industry is not interested in taking risks.”
Agrees Isaac: “The music industry has failed to cultivate its artists. They’re just after the quick buck. We want to be part of seeding an industry that grows artists with careers.”
Like such major bands as the Eagles and Pearl Jam, by releasing Underneath independently, Hanson is reaching out directly to its fan base, one more sign this is the way things are going to be in this brave new record business world. The music biz has undergone revolutionary change every decade with Elvis in the ’50s, the Beatles in ’60s, FM radio, punk and disco in the ’70s, CDs and MTV in the ’80s and the Nirvana-led Seattle rock revival and Rap in the ’90s, and this new decade when artists like Hanson seek independence in the creative process and business of their music. “That’s really the message of this album,” explains Taylor. “It’s time to turn the ship toward the artist and their audience. It’s about the girl who goes onto a website to hear a song, or the businessman who goes into a store to buy a record. They have the same love for music. And that’s all that matters.”
At the launch of the bands debut album the bold statement on advance copies of the music claimed that Hanson was “Where music is headed”. As they take greater control of their fate with Underneath that statement may ring more true than it’s authors had originally portended.
“We want to inspire the artists of the future,” adds Isaac. “Working for your audience is about digging deeper inside yourself. You have to strive for that. That’s what every record should be.”
Take a listen to Underneath. If the past is any indication, it’s the future.