Thursday, September 15, 2011

Brothers in arms: Hanson brings mature pop sound to the Depot

Jiro Schneider From left, Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson.
When the Hanson brothers became one of the hottest acts on the planet in 1997, they had to fight the perception that they were a trio of child puppets with some Svengali pulling the strings. But the sandy-haired siblings proved themselves every time they "MMMbopped" onstage, convincing even jaded critics that they did, indeed, have chops -- and a pop sensibility that was pretty darned irresistible.

Fourteen years later, not much has actually changed. Oh, sure, Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson are now 30, 28 and 25, and all three are married fathers (and their hair is darker). They've also been through the major label wringer, from which they rather painfully extricated themselves to form their own label, 3CG Records, in 2003.

They're hardly the flavor of the moment, either. But they still have chops -- sharpened further, of course, by time -- and an unerring sense of what makes a great pop hook. And perhaps most importantly, they've managed to maintain some cred instead of descending into unintentional self-parody, bad rock-star behavior or "where are they now and why should we care" irrelevance.

Need evidence? Just listen to "Thinking 'Bout Somethin'," the first single from the brothers' latest release, "Shout It Out." Or better yet, watch the YouTube video, in which they lovingly re-create the "Shake Your Tailfeather" dance scene from "The Blues Brothers" movie, a send up of the beloved early-era soul music that provides the foundation for their sound. (Whatever cheese it contains -- specifically a cameo by Weird Al Yankovic, shaking his tambourine and tailfeather -- is entirely intentional.)

Or listen to the danceable pop-funk "Waiting For This" and "Give a Little," the soulful "Kiss Me When You Come Home" or the gospel-infused "Carry You There." Hooks abound, and lyrics, too. And according to Isaac, they're still attracting screaming fans, though perhaps not at the pitch that earned them the dubious distinction of having the loudest concert audiences in history (we're not sure if they officially beat the Beatles, but the claim has been made).

"The intensity level of the crowd is surprisingly fervent," said the elder Hanson, speaking from Tulsa, Okla., where he lives not far from his brothers. "They are singing very, very loudly, consistently throughout the show. There's a lot of long-term devotion to the music that we make for which we are profoundly honored."
In other words, the teeny-boppers who fell in love with Hanson 13 years ago have grown up with them -- but not outgrown them. Which is another testament to their staying power, even though they're not headlining arena shows these days. Hanson, for example, is playing at the Depot in Salt Lake City tonight. And frankly, they're just fine with that.

"I don't miss not being able to go to a restaurant without a disruptive thing ensuing," Hanson said. But unlike many artists, fame didn't give them an inflated sense of self-importance.

"We never went around with bodyguards," he said. Unless they had to have escorts to get through a crowd while on tour, they chose not to posture with entourages or show up somewhere and expect rock star treatment. They just avoided causing scenes by going places that were off the beaten path.

"That's also part of why we stayed in Tulsa. We found a lot of peace and sanity here," Hanson added. "There were ways to escape. It's more low-key."

"Though the Hansons have a recording studio there, they laid tracks for "Shout It Out" in El Paso, Texas, at a studio recommended by Austin-based musician David Garza, a longtime friend.

"We didn't want to do it here in Oklahoma with all the distractions," Hanson said. "We had to separate ourselves physically. 'If the atom bomb is going to go off, call us. If not, sorry, we're not available.' "

They spent two weeks in Texas, then overdubbed the vocals and horns -- the latter arranged by Jerry Hey, whose credits include Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones. Hanson also invited Bob Babbitt, one of Motown's Funk Brothers, to contribute bass.

"When we made this record, it was a lot like making our earliest records. It felt really natural and free of all the mess," Hanson explained. "We'd gone through a lot of stuff when we were making, particularly, our third record ['Underneath'], which is what led us to go independent with that album, and then 'The Walk' had all these ties to humanitarian efforts. Intense elements.

"We just felt like it was time to say, 'You know what, we can do good in the world, we can encourage others to give of themselves to people who are in need, but we can also have fun in the process,' " he said. "With this record, we had had a lot of heavy experiences, and it was time to, shall we say, celebrate life as opposed to contemplate life."

One of the heavy experiences he's referencing is their split from Island Records, which had absorbed their contract after Mercury Records was folded into that label. They had no executive champions and faced multiple rejections of material before deciding to go independent (a saga documented in the film, "Strong Enough to Break").

Another was his bouts with potentially deadly pulmonary embolisms and subsequent surgery to remove a rib two years ago. The first serious incident was in Chicago in 2003. The second was in Dallas in 2007. Something felt wrong, so he took some aspirin before bed. The next day, a show day, he continued popping aspirin, which he is convinced helped save his life. By the time the band finished that night's gig, Hanson knew something was very wrong. Thirty minutes later, he was inside a CAT scan machine at Baylor Medical Center. It showed emboli in both lungs. They had traveled from his arm; doctors told him only 1 percent of pulmonary embolism sufferers have cases like his. It just so happens that Baylor specializes in those cases. It turns out his unusually large first rib and the tendon attaching his collarbone to that rib were pinching his arteries, veins and nerves through a small opening, causing clotting from his neck to his elbow. Playing guitar apparently exacerbated the problem.

Yes, he did save the rib.

Of course, it caused some reassessments of priorities. The album did that too, in a way. Hanson said it brought the band full circle, back to the early, pre-label days when it was "just the three of us in a room."
This time, it was the three of them again, with just a couple of engineers on hand.

"We didn't originally think we were gonna produce the record ourselves, but it just kinda happened that way in the end. We just knew what we wanted to do, so we just went in and did it old-school, like we used to do it. We were basically doing it live," Hanson said. "I think it captures a spontaneity and it captures us at our most honest space in a lot of years. It also hits on some feelings ... of just early music that we made. It's a very upbeat record.

"We try very hard to make songs that we feel are worth singing. Or remembering," Hanson said.

Anyone who's ever hummed "MMMBop" knows they've already accomplished that. "Shout It Out" just proves that even though they're all grown up, they can still write hooks with the youthful exuberance it takes to make them soar.

If You Go

When: Tonight at 8 p.m., doors open at 7.
Where: The Depot, 400 West South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets: $30, available at Smith's Tix locations (800-888-TIXX, or at the Depot box office
Info: (801) 456-2888,

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