The last time Zac Hanson talked with us, you could practically hear him wiggling impatiently on the other end of the phone.
That’s no surprise: One decade ago, Zac was 12 years old. And he was happy to hand the line over to his older brother Isaac to finish the interview ahead of his band’s first Detroit concert.
Pop superstardom was a bright, fast flash for the blond band Hanson: two years in the eye of the storm, led by the contagious single “MMMBop” and all the resulting teen-idol glory—shrieking girls, magazine covers, platinum sales plaques.
Zac, now a husband and father-to-be, laughs warmly when reminded of the long-ago chat, conducted before the trio’s June 1998 show.
“When was the last time you saw a 12-year-old who could sit down and have a long conversation with somebody?” he says. “But I look at it as a good thing, to have been a band as long we have, to be only 22 and be able to say, `Hey, I talked to you 10 years ago!’”
The fidgety kid drummer has matured into a thoughtful adult musician with a solid grasp of the big picture. He and his brothers made it through the fire intact, seemingly healthy and free of the tabloid drama that so often plagues grown-up kid stars.
If you get your music from pop radio, Hanson disappeared years ago, supplanted by the latest hot new things. But for die-hard fans—and there are more of them than you might realize—the band never went anywhere. A series of independent albums, including last year’s “The Walk,” has seen the threesome digging ever deeper into the vintage rock and soul influences that lurked in earlier hits.
The idea of endurance was valued by the Hansons even amid the mania of `98, when the precocious brothers sagely referenced the careers of bands like the Beatles. Every artist “hopes that people will continue to enjoy their music and that they can take their audience with them to other places,” 17-year-old Isaac told the Detroit Free Press at the time.
Zac says there was no specific career blueprint for the brothers, including Taylor, then 15. But they were smart enough to know that pop fads don’t last forever.
“We were aware of where we wanted to be. It hasn’t been necessarily the exact way we thought we’d get here. But we have our label; we have a fan base where we can tour and release records, a passionate group of people who are part of an underbelly culture of this band,” he says. “That’s where we wanted to be, and that’s where we want to continue to be—still putting out music that’s accessible, but music that’s quality, the best you can possibly do.”
The brothers have come to see themselves in the mold of a 1970s pop-rock band, the sort of outfit that once regularly roamed the mainstream.
“That was a time when you saw bands that still had harmonies, had multiple vocalists. They did rock `n’ roll music but had backbeats,” says Zac. “I don’t think there are a lot of bands like that anymore. The Doobie Brothers of today isn’t around. We’ve evolved our love of `50s and `60s music and incorporated the influences, in the same way those bands did.”
A variety of fans make up Hanson’s audience today, says Zac. Some supporters never abandoned the group. Others set it aside as they grew out of adolescence only to later rediscover the band.
He particularly likes meeting musicians who credit him as an influence, like many of the players he encountered during last month’s South by Southwest festival.
“Now they’re 18 or 20, and they’re like: `Yeah, dude, I grew up listening to your music. My sister had it. And I started a band playing drums to you!’”
It’s easy to forget how much different—and older—the Billboard charts looked in 1997, when the Hanson brothers emerged from Tulsa, Okla., with a set of catchy songs they’d cowritten. A decade of Britney, Christina, Justin and others has made teen-pop dominance seem like a given.
The Hansons certainly weren’t history’s first Top 40 teen idols. But they were the first of the millennium teen-pop wave that has become one of today’s most familiar features. Bolstered by the biggest youth population in U.S. history—the baby boomers’ kids—Hanson led a trend that continues with acts such as Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers.
“It was like there was this whole generation of people—who happened to be our peers—and they were just being completely neglected by the music and the culture,” says Zac. “There was nothing that represented them in a way that was compelling to them. It wasn’t that we were the shining stars. But we came out, and we were the young guys, a band who were their peers. And they grasped onto that.”
Zac is quick to point out, however, that although Hanson and those other teen acts may be part of the same cultural phenomenon, they’re not necessarily musical peers. He has long bristled at critics who lump his group in with the bubblegum dance-pop that followed. `N Sync may have been dubbed a “boy band,” but it was Hanson—armed with long hair, plaid clothes and instrumental chops—that fit the traditional notion of the term.
“I wouldn’t want to take credit for so much of the terrible music that was part of the huge marketing machine that came after us,” he says. “We don’t like being put in that group because it’s not really related. It would be like putting Metallica on the next Hilary Duff tour. Even if Hilary Duff were wearing a torn black T-shirt and chained handcuffs.”
Ten years after a tour that found the brothers stealthily adjusting song keys to accommodate their changing voices, Hanson is comfortable in its own skin. The trio has grown up, says Zac—even if the personalities once sketched out in gushing Teen Beat profiles still hold true.
“As you become older, get married and have kids, you evolve and change,” he says. “Your skills and role in the band become more developed. But I think the core of who we are is still there: Isaac has always been the big idea man, kind of this dreamer. Taylor has always been more of an executor. I’ve always been more of the practical person. We’re still us.”