BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
They've grown up, those Hanson brothers, but they still wiggle and fidget like toddlers.
Stationed in a booth at Brookside's En Fuego restaurant on a July afternoon, the three Hansons talked about their new songs, their upcoming independent albums, their new tour — all while gesturing wildly, rocking back and forth, practically climbing the brick wall behind them.
Taylor, 20, doesn't really sit. He crouches. Like a big cat in a tree, he sits on his heels or keeps one leg bent in front — coiled, cocked, ready to pounce.
Zac — grown now, 17, with short hair — sits on his hands on the edge of the bench, shifting from side to side. Only Isaac, the elder at age 22, occasionally leans back. Two subjects, however, bring him forward with almost spittle-flying intensity: Little Richard and his new iPod portable MP3 player.
And if you understand nothing else about the meteoric musical machine that is Hanson, you must understand that. They're still listening to Little Richard — as crystalline, digitally compressed MP3s.
" 'Rip It Up' by Little Richard still just blows my mind," Isaac says, snapping his head back in an unconscious demonstration of his mind being blown. "The passion ... it's just incredible. And it makes me ask myself: 'Is my record anything like that?' "
Keep that word in mind: passion. The boys uttered it at least two dozen times during a one-hour interview, describing both their own music and that of their 1950s and '60s influences. They're so charged with passion that they can't sit still, and they're so driven to make music that they hardly seem to notice they've lost their label, their manager and numerous producers in the agonizing four-year process that led to their latest recordings.
Of course, you'd be perfectly within your rights to have lost a little — if not all — of your passion for Hanson's music.
In this out-of-sight/out-of-mind culture, the years since "This Time Around" was released in 2000 are like an eternity, particularly when many of the band's younger fans have gone from girls to graduates in that amount of time. Keeping a fresh face before the public hasn't been easy.
Then again, the delays in recording Hanson's new songs haven't caused that much attrition in the fan base. On Saturday, the trio launched a 13-city tour — intimate, acoustic performances in theaters and clubs this time around — and the entire run sold out weeks ago. Ninety percent of each venue was offered in advance exclusively to Hanson fan club members. (The tour does not include a Tulsa date.)
"Our fans are still out there, and they're sticking with us," Taylor says.
The tour is an assurance for those fans that, yes, Hanson is still around and, yes, a new album is on the way. Two, in fact.
"Underneath," Hanson's third proper studio record, is due next spring on the band's own record label, 3CG Records.
Available now, however, is "Underneath Acoustic," a collection of seven unplugged versions of songs from the forthcoming "Underneath," plus one bonus track. This disc is available through the band's Web site (www.hanson.net) and at this month's acoustic shows.
But what took so long to get this music before the fans?
"Patience," Isaac answers.
Not to mention a lot of music industry red tape and stalling.
"When we started this album, we wanted to knock it out really fast. We were excited about the momentum we had, and we were passionate about turning over the new songs," Taylor says.
"We'd just gotten off a successful tour, and we were ready to get it done."
"But anyone who knows anything about the music industry knows it's not only about the music," Isaac adds.
"Things got convoluted."
Hanson originally was signed to Mercury Records in 1997, which released the band's "Middle of Nowhere" album, its hit "MMMBop" single, plus some extracurricular show-me-the-money fare (the "Three Car Garage" retrospective of Hanson's early Tulsa recordings, the "Snowed In" Christmas record).
The sophomore outing was released on Island Def Jam, the conglomerate that gobbled up Mercury in '99, leaving Hanson without the support of the handlers who took them on in the beginning.
The group also lost its longtime manager last year.
"Suddenly everyone we knew at the label was gone, and we had gone from a rich label founded on R&B and Hank Williams to a company that markets rap," Taylor says.
"There wasn't quite an understanding. It was an accident waiting to happen. They didn't know what to do with our music," Isaac says.
"But we did."
So after numerous scrapped recording sessions with several producers, including an aborted coupling with Ric Ocasek, the trio cut its losses in April and negotiated out of its contract with Island Def Jam.
"Underneath" was finished with producer Danny Kortchmar (James Taylor, Neil Young, Don Henley).
"This is the way to do this, right now, by ourselves," Taylor said of his band's new indie venture.
"Artists have the ability to be their own record executive now. There's so much possibility on the Internet. We have the ability to make things happen. Now it's about more direct access to the fans and getting the music out in a more intimate way."
Oldies reborn — with a passion
All of this, though, is business, which the young Hanson brothers discuss with remarkable ease.
It's also the past, which is a place in which these boys do not dwell.
These are young guys living in the moment, spouting all manner of dreamy carpe diem philosophies in their conversation (Taylor: "We're all gonna be gone in a second," "You've got to make it count in this moment," "It's about what's happening now, you know?") and in the new songs.
"Underneath," it seems, is largely about cars and girls.
Which brings us back to those '50s and '60s songs lurking on Isaac's iPod.
Hanson may not dwell in the past, but these guys certainly dig its music.
"I have so much emotion, right here," he says, patting not his heart but his credit-card sized MP3 player from Apple.
"There's enough passion in this little machine right now to blow up this building."
It's from these oldies that Hanson has learned how to write songs. They didn't learn from sensitive singer-songwriters, socially conscious punks or anyone who graced modern rock radio in the '90s.
They learned from the inventors of rock 'n' roll. People with passion.
"We want to be like other people who make you believe it, whatever it is," Zac chimes in.
"When music doesn't feel genuine, it's not enjoyable. Others, when you listen to them, there's this sense of passion to it."
"Look at Norah Jones," Isaac says. "She didn't write that single, but she made you believe it. Aretha Franklin didn't write 'Respect,' but you know she made you believe that."
"She's a goddess," Taylor adds, as if it's an automatic response whenever her name is mentioned.
Isaac's comment is intriguing, too, considering this is a band that spent years making sure we knew they wrote their own material — that they were not a manufactured boy band.
In the last three years, have they decided that it's better to feel good than to look good?
Taylor returns to wrap up the subject more succinctly: "Life is just so f—-in' short, you know? You don't have time to pretend to like stuff that's stupid."
As an example, Taylor cites Hanson's new single, "Penny and Me."
He describes it as a song "about experiencing life in that moment."
It's a song that betrays the band's '50s influences more than most, because it's all about the aforementioned cars — with girls. The chorus:
'Cause Penny and me like to roll the windows down
Turn the radio up, push the pedal to the ground
And Penny and me like to gaze at starry skies
Close our eyes, pretend to fly
It's always Penny and me tonight
Other new songs are equally celebratory and centered in the present.
"Get Up and Go" is an exhortation to "take a walk on the wild side" with "a guy like me."
"Beautiful Eyes" is about gazing into a pair.
"Next Train" opens with the narrator explaining Hanson's basic space-time continuum: "Well, I finally found tomorrow/'Cause I just now found today/And I'm left with all the sorrow/lingering from yesterday."
Even the occasional references to negative forces are nebulous, nondescript; we never hear exactly what is wrong and making it "hard to breathe" in "Underneath," and only "End of the Line" features a character whose future is remotely bleak, who plans to finish her cigarette and "drown this town in kerosene" — for some unexplained reason.
Taylor likes to talk about "Rock and Roll Razorblade," a song that describes the life of a songwriter as nothing short of an addiction.
It's his way of explaining his own passion for this music.
"We've felt that, all of us," he says.
"We've been cut by it. We've been bitten by the bug of rock 'n' roll."
It's a positive outlook and, yes, a passion reminiscent of the boys' oldie idols.
Isaac, in particular, has been revisiting those idols lately. When Hanson broke in '97, many stories in the media mentioned the musical set the boys listened to habitually while growing up: a Time-Life collection of hits from the '50s and '60s.
Then, it was just a biographical anecdote.
Now, it's clear that those tracks were the Hanson fountainhead.
"That whole year, '89 to '90, I spent listening to those records," Isaac recalls.
"They were so familiar to me that I knew the exact amount of space between the songs. I was fascinated by people who could get so wrapped up in their music like that. I bought that old set on CD recently. I just had to hear it again."
The iPod is back in his shirt pocket, forgotten. "One of the things I want to do as an artist," he continues, "is to connect generations.
"People my age don't always know where their music comes from. I want to instill a passion to hear stuff like this, or at least get that passion into my own music.
"It's all about the passion, isn't it?"
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
A couple of months ago, there was another disc like this that turned my head: the Thorns — a supergroup (well, to indie pop fans) comprised of Shawn Mullins, Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge. They got together by happenstance and made a record of acoustic-driven songs loaded with three-part vocalizing. It's a whimsical love letter to the harmony groups that inspired them growing up — America, CSN, the Beach Boys. It's summery, carefree, easy.
The same could be said of the latest Hanson disc, an eight-song acoustic preview of the eagerly awaited third studio outing ("Underneath," due next spring) from the hit Tulsa trio. As much as these brothers are influenced by the spirit of '50s rock 'n' roll, their songwriting on this effort is closer to early '70s soft-rock, especially in this unplugged presentation, recorded live early this summer with a small audience at Tulsa's historic Church Studio. Several of the songs have the same lilt and sensitivity of England Dan & John Ford Coley or, more prominently, Bread (led by another famous Tulsan, David Gates). "Deeper," a powerful and passionate song sung by Isaac, is an example, and the title track, "Underneath," is a remarkably layered and carefully constructed ballad that would prick up Jimmy Webb's ears.
The flip side of this pleasantness is that, even though two-thirds of Hanson is now of legal age, these songwriters are still very, very young. These new songs are not trite, but they are quite light. That is, they breeze on about indistinct emotions and vague promises and lots of seizing the summertime moment. Not a bad thing, by any means — just a warning to the curious that Hanson hasn't exactly started mining much substance.
For instance, this disc sounds like the Indigo Girls' debut not only for its multiple acoustic guitars but because occasionally they throw a lyric at us straight out of a junior-high notebook. Example, from "Love Somebody to Know": "Bubbalicious is what she likes to chew / and Andy Warhol gave her her point of view." Then again, that could be an absolutely ingenious examination of the various definitions of pop. Maybe there are seeds of substance here, after all, but for now, as Taylor sings in "Penny and Me," it's all just a nice ride with the radio up and the windows down.
"Underneath Acoustic" is available only through the band's Web site (cf,fgc www.hanson.netcf,hell ) and at the concerts during this month's acoustic Hanson tour, which begins Saturday. (Alas, the closest the tour gets to Tulsa is Denver on Aug. 24.)
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.