Arts & Entertainment

Hanson Doesn’t Stop at ‘Mmmbop’

It is extremely rare, since the days of Our Gang and Freddy Bartholomew to the present, for child performers to transition to successful adult careers in entertainment. Far more are the crash-and-burn accounts of used and abused kids whose lives wind up in the toilet as adults.

Even rarer are the cases of an entire group that hangs together through the transition.

Enter Hanson, an original “boy band” of three brothers who grew up playing together in their garage, on street corners and at churches in Tulsa, Okla., who scored their first big hit “Mmmbop,” when they were barely teenagers, and now, 10 years later, they’re on yet another national tour, one that brought them to Falls Church’s State Theatre last week.

At their sold-out concert here, they rocked the house with all original songs, a combination of lively acoustical, electronic and a-cappella performances. Even otherwise cynical rock purists, there for a variety of reasons besides any desire to see Hanson, could be spotted gettin’ their groove on big time. These guys were really very good.

Their original music takes off from late 1950s, early 1960s pop and ranges from gentle ballads to high-energy rock. There is a lot of harmony and very little attention to individual parts.

“We’re a real boy band,” said Isaac, the oldest, in a pre-concert interview with the News-Press on cushy couches in the modest back-stage lounge at the State set aside for performers. “The other so-called ‘boy bands’ are really ‘man groups,’ formed by grown men to mass market.”

Isaac is now in his mid-20s, and he was joined by the youngest, Zac, just turned 21, for the first part of a very casual, and cerebral, interview. Taylor, the one in the middle, turned 24 in March. He’s the real ringleader, as exhibited during concerts and in an unusual Pied Piper-like walk the brothers led on a sunny afternoon before the May 1 concert.

Hundreds of young Hanson fans, many of whom have been fanatically loyal to the group for over a decade and now “grown up” like their heroes, gathered in the parking lot beside the State Theatre starting around 2 p.m. At 3 p.m., they got an instructional talk on a bullhorn from Taylor, and began walking quietly behind the three Hanson brothers up North Washington Street.

The idea was to walk in bare feet as a symbolic form of putting them in others’ shoes, so to speak, or more correctly, others’ lack of shoes.

The current Hanson tour is called, “The Walk.” The brothers got the idea after a trip to perform in southern Africa. Upon their return, they learned of a small shoe company that wanted to donate 50,000 pairs of soft walking shoes to poverty-ridden people in Africa, but could afford to do so only if they sold 50,000.

The Hanson brothers decided to take this up as a cause. They’ve organized walks on every city they go to, urging their fans to show up to both walk and buy the shoes. They accomplished the goal on their tour last year, and are at it again now.

In Falls Church, Taylor led them with his bullhorn up N. Washington, right onto Columbia Road and right again on Lawton to Madison Park. There, he climbed onto a large rock as hundreds of fans gathered around in the afternoon sun, and he told them about their potential for good.

“Look at what you’ve got on you right now. You have cell phones and I-Pods, you have access to the Internet, these are tremendously powerful resources at your fingertips, each of you, to make a change for the better in the world,” he intoned.

He said it was not enough to wait until everything’s ready or in place to do something. The purpose of the walk, he said, was to demonstrate that you just have to start, even if it is just by taking off your shoes, walking or buying a pair of shoes. “Your tremendous energy must be harnessed for good,” he said.

Prior to this, in the interview with the News-Press, Taylor admitted that having such a fanatically loyal fan base “can be kind of intimidating,” because music has “such power to evoke emotions in someone else, to conjure them up. It enables you to connect your feelings to other persons.”

“It makes you feel like you have such power to influence them. It makes you think how important it is to have the right kind of influence,” he said. “You can screw it up, or do it well.”

“All celebrities are faced with the same thing,” he went on. “Some react one way to it, others another. Some just flaunt it, some get very withdrawn. Ultimately, they either turn into a pompous ass or something better. The power can be used and abused.”

Taylor said he and his brothers first stumbled on the idea of helping needy folks in Africa when a friend developed a new computer software, called Doc Via, that he donated to an African organization. It turned out to have an almost revolutionary impact on being able to, very inexpensively, detect and thereby help prevent the transmission of the HIV virus from mother to child.

This model of a small contribution having an enormous impact in Africa led the brothers to discover the shoe company that also wanted to help.

Their fans, they remarked, have maintained a “fervent” and “fever pitch” for many years, and are somewhat unique. “They’re not jocks or cheerleaders, they’re a little ‘out there,’ something a little quirky about them. The most popular kids tend not to be Hanson fans,” Zac said. “With us, you either love us or don’t like us at all. We’ve watched our fans grow up with us, and change the way kids do as they grow older. Some become very clean cut, others become Goth, they all change some way. There’s a lot of diversification now in their cultural elements. But they remain loyal to us.”

They don’t think a lot of “American Idol,” by the way, noting that Paula Abdul’s screw up on the show last week had to do with the fact that not everything is truly live, but that some of the songs are pre-recorded. “It’s entertainment. It’s more like a quiz show than a music show. It’s designed at best to identify one particular kind of singer, the solo pop singer, that can be mass-marketed successfully,” Isaac noted. “Many of the great singers who’ve been around the longest, like Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen, would never have made it on that show. For me, it’s painful to watch.”

Since their first hit, “Mmmbop,” written by the brothers in the same way they have continued to write all their own material to this day, Hanson endured the years of being on the countless covers of teenie-bopper “Tiger Beat” and “Pop Star” magazines, appearances on Saturday Night Live and sold-out crowds of mostly pre-teen, squealing girls at larger venues such as the Nissan Pavilion, where they performed in 1998. They’ve also performed at the Warner Theatre in D.C. and the Birchmere in Alexandria.

“There have been terrific pressures to break us up as a group, even to this day,” Isaac said. “But through it all, we’ve been able to make good decisions because we’ve always judged our options from the standpoint of what will be best for us over the long haul, and not for the moment. Our barometer is what will help us for years to come.”

Isaac and Zac talked a lot about longevity. Zac joked that they’d have to keep on performing because “we don’t know how to do anything else.”

But the careers of the Rolling Stones, all now well into their 60s, and even older performers like Bob Hope, who toured into his 90s, are looked on with envy by the Hanson brothers. “Music keeps you young,” Taylor said. “Bob Hope in his 90s talked about how he loved to make people happy. It brought him joy and kept him in good health, also.”

They’ve gone from being tossle-headed middle school phenoms to semi-scruffy young adults. Isaac is clean cut, but Taylor and Zac dress in leather and denim with beads, earrings and modest amounts of facial hair. All three are now married, and all either have kids, already, or are expecting.

All three, also, live with their young families in Tulsa, although that’s a big town and it doesn’t mean they’re on top of each other. They’ve had stints living in Los Angeles and New York, but they have excellent recording capabilities in Tulsa, and enjoy for the time being in the city where they grew up.

Asked how they get along so well, in such close proximity as concern tours require for so many years, they all piped up. “We don’t, necessarily. It’s just that we work well together,” Isaac said.

All their writing is a collaborative effort, worked out on paper and in rehearsals, where changes are introduced.

And when they’re on tour, they stay on tour. “We’re not weekend warriors,” Taylor said. “We stay on the tour for the duration.” Their tour bus was parked outside. That’s where they were headed right after the State Theatre concert, which didn’t end until after midnight. The plan was to take off right away and steam north to some new venue in Pennsylvania for concert the next night.

“You have to love this to do it,” Taylor said. “It’s too much work if you don’t love it. The fact is, I’m afraid I couldn’t do anything else without wishing I was doing this.”