Hanson are marking their 25th anniversary as a band by heading out on a world tour in support of their latest album String Theory.
The trio – brothers Taylor, Isaac and Zac Hanson – had a global smash with their single MMMBop in 1997 and their major label debut album Middle of Nowhere was certified 4x Platinum in the US alone. Since 2004 the band have been releasing music via their own label 3CG and their latest album String Theory arrived in November.
I caught up with Isaac, the eldest of the three brothers, to discuss their impending visit to the UK, talk about the String Theory project, and find out the secret to the band’s longevity.
You’re back in the UK in February with the String Theory World Tour, in support of the album of the same name. How did it all come about?
The concept of the String Theory Tour and the album goes back to probably sometime around 2016. We were planning for our 25th anniversary as a band which happened in 2017, which also coincides with the 20th anniversary of our first worldwide release Middle of Nowhere. That was the first time that anybody in the UK ever heard of the band Hanson. That was kind of an important milestone for us. We wanted to make sure to do something special. When we were talking about doing special things we thought, ‘oh man, wouldn’t it be really cool to do some special shows with orchestras and maybe build some kind of special anniversary show around that idea.’
We started to talk about it and we realised that it was definitely a doable idea but we were going to have to push it back about a year (laughs) because the process of preparation, even though we actually had quite a bit of time for the actual arrangement of it, there were just a lot of other logistical details with regard to getting some of the things in line. Like for example in the United States, we perform with the National Symphony in Atlanta and the National Symphony Orchestra in DC and also in Boston and so on and so forth. They’re were a lot of symphonies that we wanted to be available for that event and you basically have to go a lot further out (in time) than that in order to make sure that that they are available.
It was actually a blessing in disguise too because we found ourselves in a situation where we could make whatever fun show as part of the 25th anniversary that we wanted but that we could build the orchestra show with a different goal in mind. Last year we released a greatest hits along with that 25th anniversary the Middle of Everywhere Tour and that Middle of Everywhere collection is really what we’ve done in the last 25 years. String Theory is really more like why we do what we do. It really talks I think in a more deep way emotionally and lyrically and musically about where we’ve come from and where we’re going. I think it does a pretty good job of articulating that especially since we’ve got the assistance of a symphony to help us set the mood.
Some of the most interesting moments on String Theory are your biggest hits reimagined in a different way. How difficult was it to revisit those and put a new, and more modern, twist on them?
I have to say it was surprisingly easy to do because we’re very well rehearsed at those songs (laughs). For example MMMBop happens early in the show in part because it happened early in our career. There’s a certain chronology to this show. It is not literally autobiographical but it pulls on the ups and downs of our lives. One of the other things too is that the actual lyrical content of song like MMMBop or a song like Where’s the Love, which are both very early in the show, talk about a somewhat similar theme, solving a problem and trying to find an optimistic way around it. Trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel or something to that effect. MMMBop talks about how you’re going to lose relationships but you got to hold on to things that matter. Where’s the Love says there’s a lot of trouble in the world but I gotta put good into it.
For us it was really just a matter of saying, ‘do these songs serve this show properly in the place in which they’re in?’ Also if we’re playing these songs with an orchestra, we better make sure that you notice what the orchestra is doing. One of the biggest challenges that I think many bands will run into when they do shows like this, is it’s really easy to just play your song and just have the orchestra do a bunch of stuff behind you and it not actually be written into the DNA of the arrangement of the song. What we did was we said, ‘no, no, no, there’s less guitar parts, there’s less keyboard parts, there’s less things up front’. We need to make sure that the violins, the French horn, the oboes, the flutes, the timpani, the cellos… they’ve got enough room. Either we should have them playing parts that we would normally otherwise play, which is also fun, but we also need to make sure that we make enough room that there’s opportunity to reinvent and reinterpret because there’s a mood that you can get from an orchestra that you can’t capture in the same way from your traditional electrified band environment.
This must be a really exciting tour for your fans, especially the ones that have seen you many times over the years. Are you finding that the fans are embracing these new arrangements?
Yeah. I always say that you have to focus first on serving the song in whatever way is best but in this context I think in many cases it is about reinventing them because you want to make sure that as I said before that there’s enough room and that you’re doing something unique enough. For all we know, we may never do this again (laughs). This may be once in a lifetime… that’s it. If that’s the case then you want to make sure that you that you didn’t just bunt, you want to make sure that you hit a home run or at least that you swung for a home run. Our fan base has reacted really, really positively to the show and I think it’s been really fun.
At first some of the most dedicated and enthusiastic crew of fans didn’t quite know what to do with the show because the show starts with a ballad. It starts with a setting of a tone. The show’s not a musical but it has a certain arc that is similar to that. It introduces a character at the very beginning of the show. It talks about what the character’s motivation is, what the character’s going through and the challenges that the character must resolve within their own existence and life. Then the show begins and it goes through the process of saying, ‘yeah you’re trying to chase the dream but here’s the troubles that you’re going to run into and so on’. It’s been fun to take them along on the journey and they have definitely enjoyed the changes and the rearrangement, and the interpretation of the music that they both know and also that they had never otherwise heard before.
You started off signed to a major label but you’ve actually been indepently releasing your music for a lot longer now. Does that give you an unparalleled level of freedom?
As an independent band it gives us a lot of freedom for sure. What I would say is this: the reason why we started the label was more about us being able to hold on to any kind of future and any kind of career that we felt was stable. We had seen what having success and then being shoved into a completely different label environment, even though technically your contract was still held by that new conglomerate company, what that looked like and how that does not produce success. Just because someone spends money doesn’t mean they know where to spend it and it doesn’t mean that they care or give a damn about your career or your music.
You have to make the adjustments that you feel like you need to make in order to create some level of stability. So for us being independent is as much about consistency and stability as it was about anything else. In fact actually I would say that was mostly what it was about. In spite of the fact that we were young, I think it is very safe to say that we were never ever at risk of being pushed around by anyone. That may sound a little strange considering that we were a band of teenagers but the artistic vision was very much ours. The direction we were going was very much our own and we luckily didn’t make compromises that I felt in any way unhappy with. However the thing that we do that is really, really cool (laughs), and we would never be able to do on a standard record label deal, is we make music for our fan club every single year no matter what we’re doing. We have a discography of music that is at the same quality of every single record we’ve ever made but the whole discography has never been released to the public, only fan club members get access to (it).
That has been since being independent. We’re actually working on our newest EP right now and that’s actually one of the things that I’m also super excited about is how that is going. It has provided a lot of freedom and a lot of stability for us as a band. It has allowed for us to take a lot of risks and String Theory is in some ways a culmination of those risks and choices but it’s by no means the only example. There are many examples like the fan club things that we do year in and year out. I think it’s actually some of our best material that we’ve made in the last 20 years.
You’ve been pretty ahead of your time really. The idea of a direct to fan relationship that takes out the middle man is what artists are trying to do now. Is that one of the secrets behind your longevity?
I feel like the jury’s still out on that always (laughs). We’re very happy with what we’ve been able to do and we’ve got a lot of goals for the future to improve on that as well. All that aside, if you’re not making music that you’re proud. If you’re not making music that you love and that you could stand up for the next 20 years proudly, it’s not worth it. Luckily no matter whether it’s a fan club EP, String Theory or our first album Middle of Nowhere, or frankly other things before that, I can honestly say I feel I could stand confidently and sing any of those songs and any one of those records proudly for the next 20 years.
Why should people come out to see the String Theory World Tour when it arrives in the UK?
The reason why people should come and see String Theory is because it’s unlike anything we’ve ever done before. I believe it’s also unlike anything that almost any other band like us has done. We have not just rearranged songs that people know, we have taken music that is new and old and combined it in a way that tells a story. Every single time I’m a part of these shows, there are different points of the show that really hit me on an emotional level. There’s a lot of emotional complexity to the show and it really, I believe, will find you with a new sense of optimism for the future in spite of the inevitable challenges that you’ll face.
Hanson’s String Theory album is out now. They will be in the UK in February to play the following live dates:
Mon 11 Feb – Birmingham, Symphony Hall (Live with Orchestra)
Tue 12 Feb – Manchester, Bridgewater Hall (Live with Orchestra)
Thu 14 Feb – Nottingham, Rock City (Non-Symphony Show)
Fri 15 Feb – London, Royal Festival Hall (Live with Orchestra)
Sun 17 Feb – Glasgow, Royal Concert Hall (Live with Orchestra)
Buy tickets for the shows at https://ticketmaster-uk.tm7559.net/gGxPg.