As my 12-year-old self rejoices at the sight of the three Hanson brothers with beers in hand sitting across from me in a downtown New York City bar (Barcade, to be precise), my current self notices that it's particularly challenging to get a word in.
The brothers, and band mates, are aware of that: “If you have learned anything from this conversation, is that we have strong opinions,” says Taylor, 34, the second oldest, towards the end of our time together.
Referring to them as “strong opinions” is a bit of an understatement. Often speaking over each other and at times even disagreeing (who could ever expect three distinct individuals to agree on everything?), the musicians boast the sort of passion and intensity that only people entirely sure of their place in the universe, let alone in the current musical landscape, can truly harness. Take youngest brother Zac’s, 32, thoughts about being asked to perform the 20-year-old hit that propelled them to fame at the ages of 12, 14 and 17—“MMMBop”—at every concert for over two decades: "I like to play 'MMMBop' as much as I like to play any other song," he says, joining the conversation a few minutes late because engrossed in a vivid The Simpsons video game. "The only time I don't like to play [it] is [in] some situation that it's taken out of context." Now men, all three brothers steadfastly oppose being referred to only as a '90s boy band. "When your history is taken completely out of context," continues Zac, "It's extraordinarily annoying."
Taylor, who echoes Zac’s sentiment, acknowledges that there’s a business aspect that needs to be taken into account as well. They are, after all, the owners of their own independent record label, 3CG Records, which they started in 2003 after a falling out over their second studio release with their original label. “The other thing to keep in mind is our role in our own career,” says Taylor. “To get an understanding of us and how we’ve done things, you have to basically recognize that we’re thinking of ourselves as a business, as entrepreneurs and saying ‘The band Hanson needs to move past ‘MMMBop’ to succeed,’ so in that sense you’re always pushing to increase the story, to extend the story, to grow the story. You never want to be only referencing X, right? You want X, Y and Z.”
Said growth doesn’t often get the recognition that the band’s steady career most certainly deserves. After releasing their first album, Middle of Nowhere, back in 1997, the guys have dropped new music every few years. Even more recognition-worthy than the longevity of their act is the currentness of their entire musical repertoire. Play songs like "Weird" (1997), “This Time Around” (2000) and "Already Home" (2013) today and be amazed at how of-the-time they still sound. The band’s consistency is obvious in their output, their genre and their tone: Live or recorded, their voices never crack and all three brothers are perennially on pitch, even while playing a variety of instruments.
“When we did the 10th anniversary acoustic recording of Middle of Nowhere,” recalls oldest brother Isaac, 37, “after we were done mixing, I said: ‘I’m kind of stating the elephant in the room but this is crazy to me, we’re playing these songs and most of them feel like they could be on our current record.” The only difference 25 years in? Their gone-through-puberty voices.
Photograph: Rebecca Sarkar
Other than their distinctive sound—a very specific fusion of pop and rock with a dab of soul mixed in as well (“For better or worse, we’re very isolated creatively,” says Zac. “I don’t know of any band that sounds like us.”)—what has historically (yes, 25 years constitute a history) defined the band’s career in the eyes of the public is the utter lack of any sort of drama or scandal between the brothers. When pointing the fact out, they nod in tacit agreement and mention their shared goals as the basis of their out-of-ordinary-in-Hollywood wholesomeness.
“When you look at our band, the reason why you don’t see a drug problem or a womanizing, he-went-with-that-girl-and-now-he’s-with-this-model [news story] is because the goals are just different,” says Zac. But is that true? I bet the likes of Justin Bieber and Britney Spears had similar goals in mind when starting out. When, and how, does a celebrity stray off course and forgets to rely on wholesome goals as anchors to a drama-less career? “I really do think that more than a lot of other artists, we have had the value of time show us that few of the distractions will create more personal benefits than the pursuit of the craft,” continues Zac. “In my case, when we started the band I was too young to care about women for many years. By the time we had our first record, I was the age of someone probably having their first girlfriend. But I had already spent several years making albums, writing songs, touring around and you see so much of what everyone cares about is going away.”
Of course, a diligent commitment to values and ethics, especially when genetically shared, is somehow rooted in family life as well. “Not being excessively distracted by fame and popularity has to do with the fact that one of the challenges our parents never had was looking at us and saying ‘Be confident in who you are and go for it. If you got the skill set and you are willing to work for it, we got your back 100 percent’,” says Isaac. “I give kudos to my parents, I think there are lots of things we have struggled with as human beings but our parents always treated us with dignity and respect and encouraged us to take risks and be responsible for the choices we make.”
Lest we get too philosophical about the concept of fame, Taylor—who is clearly the most press-conscious of the three, checking his watch and trying to stop his brothers from over-answering each question, a habit shared by all bandmates, including Taylor himself—stops Isaac after a few minutes: “I think you should let her get another question in.”
Next up: Their relationship with each other and with their other four siblings (Jessica, Avery, Mac and Zoe). “What’s extraordinary about our relationship is not that we don’t fight, it’s that we fight three times a day like it’s breakfast lunch and dinner and we’re ready for it,” says Zac about the dynamics within the trio. “Do we want to kill each other? Yes, absolutely! I am certain that they have both planned my death at times and at times I planned theirs. It’s an unfortunate side effect of human nature to be self-centered and so one day you just walk in and you say something stupid that makes you feel better and it crushes the work that the other guy did.” As for the rest of the siblings, all younger than the bandmates: “[The relationship with the others] is really, really good but because of what we’ve done, it’s not necessarily that [us three are] closer [but] we know each other in a way that nobody should ever know each other,” says Taylor.
As the happy hour crowd parks into Barcade and the sound effects of the tons of video games surrounding us become almost unbearably loud, it’s time for one last topic of conversation. I dare ask: Given the music industry's recent push for diversity, do they think that three white, undeniably good looking brothers could be successful releasing the sort of music that they have been producing for the past 25 years if they had started out in today's cultural atmosphere?
Without missing a beat, Taylor demands to be the one to answer: “Let me just pause for a second, let me just take this in. Ask yourself where that question is coming from,” he says, effectively tossing me in the kind of situation at first loathed (Did I say something untrue?) and then treasured by the average reporter.
“Ever since we began, we have sort of been singled out as being [...] wholesome. For one, that whole perspective is really not looking at what we are,” Taylor explains. “We are really more like the guys you are probably friends with, real people that have foundational moral codes and character that you’d probably go have a beer with. We just grew up with those same ideas and also a drive to create music and got famous doing it. You’re commenting from a good place in your heart,” he says while I breathe a sigh of relief at the thought of not having antagonized the subjects of my story. “[You] said that the fact that the world has marginalized being black or red or green makes me want to look at three white guys and say how do you feel about being three white guys in 2017? Think about how weird that is! The thing that we’re all afraid of has turned into the question. I will say this: We have always been personally seeking our own purpose though music, a moral to the story: What’s going to happen? How am I going to get through it? I think that story is what or community is about, what our music is about. It’s not about whitewashing things. There’s a problem and I want to go through it so I feel more proud and more confident and more excited about the future, about who we’ve been, because I think the world is really hungry, really lonely, really afraid and I’m so proud to be a 6-foot-2 white, American man because the opportunity that each of us have is to set an example with our choices [and] our actions.”
Taking a deep breath, he concludes: “By the way, this is the second time today that question has been asked of us.” Which, in a way, confirms the source of my initial query: I was clearly onto something. It suddenly occurs to me that the flair and passion with which the bandmates responded to my question had nothing to do with potentially getting offended and had everything to do with that wholesomeness of character and hopefulness in humanity that we spent so much time discussing. The Hanson brothers are just as pure of thought as they have appeared to be over 25 years: Nothing about them is an act—which, in a world now dominated by flamboyancy lambasted across all sorts of mediums, is a refreshingly hopeful character trait.