Hanson at 25: The Brothers Dish on Greatest Hits Album, Track by Track - and Why They'll Always Be Proud of 'MMMBop'
Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson open up to PEOPLE about their 25 years as a band - and a lifetime as brothers - ahead of their Greatest Hits album release
They’ve come a long way from “MMMBop” — and “MMMBop” wasn’t even close to their genesis.
In truth, Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson formed their band in 1992, when youngest member Zac (who is actually the third born of seven children) was only 6 years old. So while 2017 may mark 20 years of loyalty even for the most dedicated of Fansons — who first became acquainted with the towheaded brothers over the summer of 1997 during the time of their breakout album Middle of Nowhere and subsequent sold-out arena concerts, Saturday Night Live appearance, Christmas album and adorable Eggo commercial — for Hanson, it’s really been 25.
And some of those years have seen a bit more conflict than others among the Tulsa, Oklahoma-bred trio. “I actually got into an argument yesterday with Isaac, because I told him I wanted to do a project in a certain way ’cause I knew how much he would fight,” Zac told PEOPLE during a chat ahead of the Sept. 8 release of the band’s first retrospective of their work thus far: Middle of Everywhere — The Greatest Hits.
“And it was funny, ’cause it caused a fight,” adds Zac, 31. “It’s not petty, it’s just … we care, and we do have a lot emotionally invested.”
“A lot” may be an understatement. The brothers have conquered a number of adult-sized hurdles together over the past two and a half decades in a valiant, successful effort to create soul-, R&B-, rock-, blues-, Motown- (and yes, pop-) inspired music on their own terms, from breaking away from Island Def Jam Music Group and starting their own indie label 3CG Records, to traveling to Africa and using their experiences and perfectly harmonized voices to spread awareness about deep issues far outside of themselves.
They’re also all married, with a total of 12 children among them — most of whom appear in the music video for their new song “I Was Born,” the lead track off of Middle of Everywhere. And even after all that, they still found time to start a beer company and annual music festival: The Hop Jam (held in their home base of Tulsa, of course).
“My life experience has been so out of this world, I have to remind myself that what seems normal to me is not normal,” says Zac, who was just 11 when the iconic earworm “MMMBop” infiltrated the airwaves and didn’t loosen its grip for long past the then-foreseeable future.
“[When people ask if I feel like I missed out on things], my response is usually something like, ‘If you want to live an extraordinary life — if you want the chance to do something that could change people’s lives — then chances are you’re gonna miss out on something that seems ordinary,’ ” Zac adds.
One such extraordinary opportunity is that the band is now celebrating a milestone where they feel like they have something cumulative to offer that truly represents who they are and what they’ve been able to bring to the table throughout their musical ride.
“We’re really excited to be at the point of the band where we feel like we have a robust body of work that permits a ‘Greatest Hits’ collection,” says Taylor, 34. “You’re always questioning whether you should really be doing retrospectives … and 25 years in, we felt like we were finally at that point.”
“The collection is really a ‘Best Of’ [rather than a ‘Greatest Hits’],” says Isaac, 36. “We’ve always tried to stay very forward-looking — it’s always about what you’re going to do next, not what you are doing now, not necessarily what you have done. But sometimes there are certain birthdays and anniversaries you just need to celebrate … put a couple extra candles in the cake and invite a few friends over and say, ‘Okay, we did it.’
“It’s not the full picture, but it’s a pretty good flavor of what we do. And that’s what our goal is,” he adds. “We feel like this collection is one of those things where you could say, ‘Well, if you don’t know where to start with Hanson stuff, this is a good place to start.’ ”
Isaac, Taylor and Zac shared the historical significance of many the 2-disc album’s tracks with PEOPLE, detailing the stories behind their writings, inspiration (yes, their kids played a part in some!), production and legacy — plus how Hanson’s fans have helped shape the musicians, and men, its members have become.
1. “I Was Born” (2017)
Isaac Hanson: The song “I Was Born” is about pursuing the dream. It’s about saying, “I have a vision in my mind, I have a vision in my heart, that says to me, “I want to go and do something that no one has done before.” And the great thing about that is just you living your life to its fullest, no matter what it looks like, is in some form or another that dream. But it’s also about saying, “The crazy idea is actually possible — the crazy idea is doable, as long as I’m willing to work for it.”
[“I Was Born”] was actually written during a songwriting session that Taylor and Zac were a part of … the guys came back that day from that particular session and played that song and I was like, ” … I love this. This speaks to so many things that we, as a band, are all about. Whatever we do next, this song needs to be a part of it. Because this song addresses, in a lot of ways, how we feel about music and how we feel about life.”
Middle of Nowhere (1997)
Isaac: Our first A&R guy, Steve Greenberg, had [the] idea [of pairing us up with the Dust Brothers for “MMMBop”]. He approached them about it, and they really liked the idea. And we, of course, knew that record — the Beck Odelay record, since they’d very famously been so intimately involved in it as producers. And they were like, “What do you guys think about working with the Dust Brothers? Here’s the Odelay record.” We were like, “Uh … yeah. This is an awesome record, of course. That’d be really cool.”
We connected [with the Dust Brothers] with the creative process, too. Them being deejays … It’s all about the groove, it’s all about songs, it’s all about mixing and matching things and them being the music nerds that they are in order to be producers and deejays. So we would sit around and talk about Motown records and the stuff that we loved the most, and we connected on that level. And I think they clearly saw that Motown, Jackson 5 influence in us, and the early R&B stuff that we really love … they really connected with us on that level too. It was a good match.
Zac Hanson: To me, the reason we [still] play “MMMBop” [so often] is because there are still people who’ve never seen “MMMBop” [live]. We’ve played it thousands of times, but there’s still somebody probably at almost every show who’s never seen that song, and you’ve gotta remember that … you really need to be projecting for other people.
That’s really the beauty of what we do: We get to tell stories that those who are not fortunate enough to get to be musicians in their lives … they get to take those songs and then use them to express their own emotions. And that goes along with just playing a song I love — maybe they just need that joy. Maybe it’s not about the lyric. Maybe it’s just about feeling good, and you’ve got a song that makes you feel good.
Isaac: “MMMBop” is this chameleon of sorts — “MMMBop,” lyrically, has this slightly melancholy quality to it in the verses where it talks about, “Hey, there are ups and downs in life and you gotta find the things that matter to you. Hold on to them.” And addressing important life choices as best as we could in an otherwise cheery melody.
3. “Where’s the Love”
Isaac: That song was the first that we did with our friend Mark Hudson. That was the first time that we wrote with him. One of the biggest things that changed about that song in the writing was that it was originally called “Give It Up,” and … the melody for the verse evolved a lot. [Initially] it was too happy. It needed to be bluesier and needed to have more intensity about it, because you’re asking, “Where’s the love?”
In the technical sense, it’s not a huge note shift, but the emotional shift is significant. It changes the way you hear the lyric. The bridge is a direct extension of what that melody change is. Because that bridge wouldn’t have happened were it not for the melody change, because it makes more sense melodically, you can hear the intensity and the ability to get there.
Isaac: “Weird” is, to this day, one of my favorite songs that we’ve done over the years. In its own way, “MMMBop” kind of addresses a very similar theme as “Weird” does, but “Weird” is a much more somber and much [clearer] articulation of it. “Weird” is specifically dealing with finding your place in the world: “Where do I fit? Why do I feel so odd, so out of place?”
And that had a lot to do with us being young kids, making choices to do music, which didn’t always make you the most popular person in the world. You had to make certain decisions about your life to pursue the music thing. And that didn’t always mean birthday parties and sleepovers, it meant working at the thing that you really wanted to do, even if it was a sacrifice. So “Weird” has a lot of that in it, but it’s also something I think everyone can relate to. As the lyric says, “We all feel a little bit weird sometimes.”
5. “A Minute Without You”
Isaac: “A Minute Without You” started in probably 1995. It was when I was first starting to get comfortable as a guitar player, and one of my favorite keys to play in was the key of D because it’s an easy key to play in. And I remember that particular chord progression that begins the song. At the time, when you’re a kid just learning how to play guitar, you feel like [AC/DC‘s] Angus Young or something. You’re like, “I’m playin’ a guitar riff, oh yeah!” It’s not a guitar riff [laughs], but it felt like, “I’m writing something unique and special, and I’m finding my own voice as a guitar player.”
The foundation of the bridge is actually what the chorus originally was. The chorus was originally, [singing] “When the minutes seem like hours, that’s when you know how much you care. And when the day, it seems so long, wanna be with you until the sun falls from the sky.” And when we came in with the idea, Mark [Hudson] was like, “I’m not sure that’s the best chorus you got in you. The verse is really cool and really interesting, but it sounds a little bit more like a bridge.”
This Time Around (2000)
6. “This Time Around”
Taylor Hanson: [“This Time Around”] is the song that is truly the rallying cry that a lot of fans responded to at that point in our career — a lot of fans that went from being a fan of a band’s album to becoming a real fan: a fan that came to shows, a fan that had this relationship with the band beyond simply two or three chart-topping songs.
It was the song and the album that really solidified what we’ve seen over the last 20 years, which is that connection that is deeper than a pop hit. It has, in its musical choices, the same level of importance [of] the song itself — the role that it played in our career. It comes out front and says, “We’re making music that we believe in. We’re making music that is not simply about writing a pop song, but continuing down a musical journey.” That song is about fighting for what you believe in, in whatever form that takes.
We knew musically that that song was a bold choice for the second record, but it was what we wanted to be doing — it pulls out gospel and soul, and it had this texture to it that was exciting to us. But in retrospect, we’ve heard [from] a lot of fans that it was a turning point for their connection with the band.
7. “If Only”
Taylor: We met [guest musician John Popper] on the H.O.R.D.E. tour when we sat in with [Blues Traveler] and instantly had that musical affinity for one another. Interesting thing about that song is because John Popper sits in, people assumed that the main hook part was played by John, because it’s this very fast, repetitive part. But interestingly, in the song “If Only,” the part that John didn’t play is the intro and the main harmonica hook of the song. [Laughing] We joked that it was too simple for John to play.
All the harmonica that’s the main hook is what I played, and then of course you hear [John’s] signature soloing in the middle of the song. Which is — for us, as fans of Blues Traveler, especially in ’99 — we were just completely over the top about being able to have him sit in and play on a record.
8. “A Song to Sing” (Live)
Taylor: That song was one of the first songs where we put in motion the theme of finishing projects with a final quiet, stripped-back track. In later albums, we finished albums with [similar slower tracks] “Lulla Belle” on Underneath, “Me Myself and I” on [Shout It Out].
“A Song to Sing” is one of the songs we talk about eternally as the message that truly represents what we do, why we do it. Which is that songs are this way of connecting, and they’re a way of articulating the craving that we all have for purpose. And that song is talking about that human condition — the fact that we all desire a sense of why we’re here and what it is that we’re supposed to do. And music is one of the few languages that actually transcends barriers, and it really does bridge the gap.
Sometimes that seeking for understanding your own place — that one song, or that one voice, or that lyric that someone’s choosing to put into the world … it can be the message or the hope that keeps you on track. It’s really that we all crave a sense of why — where are we going, why are we going there? “A Song to Sing” lays out something that we’ve experienced, both as [artists] putting a message out there with a song, and also receiving that as a fan and hearing something that affirms you and pulls you through.
9. “Penny and Me”
Taylor: Ultimately, [“Penny and Me”] is really celebrating this idea that we go through life and we go on adventures, and we go on different paths, but the people and the songs and the things that become really meaningful to us — we take those everywhere with us … “Penny and me like to roll the windows down,” is like, “I love to be in the moment — I love to go places.” A lot of times, we dedicate that song to many of the fans that will travel. Because I think of it as almost a song that we’re really both singing, ’cause we’re all going places and traveling to different places and having different experiences. You bring with you all those experiences.
I was dating my wife at the time [of writing “Penny and Me”] and there’s a definitely a lot of references to her, and then the three of us in our experiences as a band, what we were going through … [For the couple’s daughter Penelope “Penny” Anne, 12], we fell in love with the name Penelope, and when it hit us that Penny would be the nickname for that, it definitely encouraged us to call her Penny in knowing how much that song means. Not so much that we named her for the song, but the song was something we thought of at the very beginning.
Zac: “Underneath” is a song that remains important for us because obviously it’s the title of a record that is really iconic for our band. When we released Underneath, it was a big risk. Looking back, [it’s been] 14 years [since] we made that choice. And so it seems probably, in hindsight, like it’s safer than it really was and really felt at the time.
So many of our friends who were musicians or managers, or business people in the music business were kinda going, “Really? You guys are gonna go out on your own?” I think what that song illustrates is something about our choices as a band. It talks about, “Can you really see what I’m going through?” … Not only in a business way — like, “Our fans are out there and we’re not talking to them!” — but also from a very personal, emotional way where it’s [been] our dream since we were kids was to be this band and to make music and to inspire the next generation of musicians. And it’s not that someone is actively taking away from you, it’s worse — through apathy, it’s being taken away.
Matthew Sweet is who we wrote [the song “Underneath”] with, and we both took this funny risk on each other. We didn’t really have that much time to write, we didn’t know each other that well. I had never met Matthew until we showed up to write. I think Taylor had met him at a dinner [and asked], “Hey, you wanna write a song?” [Matthew said], “I’ve got four hours.” [Laughs] That’s not a lot of time to write a song. Most songs take days … but there was something really powerful that clicked. It was the first idea, really, and all of a sudden … it flew out, it kind of wrote itself. I don’t remember exactly how long it was, but I do remember that we went and ate lunch because we’d already finished the song. And that tells you, in four hours … we were probably done in two.
It’s probably part of the reason why we called the album Underneath, is ’cause that was one of the bright spots where you found a camaraderie in another musician who’d been through his own versions of our personal hell, and we wrote something beautiful together. And it said something about our band — it said something creatively about the potential of what we could do.
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The Walk (2007)
11. “Great Divide”
Taylor: [“Great Divide”] is celebrating our roots and our musical history and [how they’ve] connected us to each other, and that’s something we bring with us everywhere. Underneath is the album that survived the process of leaving our label — we somehow created that album despite all the toxicity — but The Walk was the first record we made from scratch after starting a label. Maybe there was some angst, maybe there was some fight in us that needed an outlet, but we really felt like the things that were on our mind and in our soul to put out on that record were much more macro … bigger, broader statements beyond ourselves. They were calls to action. Anytime you put out messages that might evoke steering someone to a cause — like understanding poverty issues or disease — you have to tread lightly, because the last thing you want to do is preach and get on your soapbox.
But we felt genuinely that we were challenging ourselves to see how we fit into the bigger picture, and “Great Divide” was really, in part, about fulfilling that song. It became about us challenging ourselves to cross the divide, to cross over past just feeling something personally and then sharing what we discovered — sharing what was happening in us as we were learning and understanding these issues going on in parts of Africa, the developing world … that whole song is a question we’re asking ourselves. It says “We can conquer this great divide” but it could’ve easily been “Can we conquer this great divide? Can we do this?”
When we started the Take the Walk campaign, we never knew what it would produce — we just knew that we needed to do it. [“Great Divide”] itself led us there, in some respects.
Zac: “Go” is a very particular song. A dear friend had marital trouble, his wife was leaving him. I had known them, been in their wedding, and it was very personal to see [my] friends falling apart. We have a songwriting retreat that we host … it’s at a live-in studio and we have friends and musicians fly in and we spend a week just writing songs, pairing up [in] different groups. And this was the very first year we did it, and I came in and started talking to a couple people I was writing with, and that first line of the song was all I had but it was just so defined … I remember walking in and playing those chords and saying [the first line], and it was healing for me, personally. Like, I see that these people I care about are struggling, and this is the honesty of what it is.
Who we are, the reason we care about each other, is the same — we just put things on top of it. We put our scars and we put our dust and we put our rust … but the pipes and the lamps and the things that make everything work, it’s still the same, and maybe this message is what everyone needs to hear about relationships. It doesn’t make them easy — it doesn’t make them not fall apart, but it is true. People never change — that’s the thing that’s said a lot. When [we’re] babies, we’re the same, we just discover ourselves more each year. And sometimes we become a better version of who we are, sometimes we give into our less desirable traits, but [our] core human is the same.
13. “Watch Over Me”
Isaac: [“Watch Over Me”] actually started off as “Wash Over Me,” … but that lyric just didn’t ring true enough. The song is about somebody who’s struggling with … depression, for lack of a better way to say it. Someone who is trying to figure out where they fit in the world and is very desperate for help … as somebody who’s made a variety of decisions that are not the most constructive in their lives and realizes that. The song is kind of about the moment where you realize that you’ve been making decisions that were not good for you, and trying to figure out what to do about it … it’s a cry for help, it’s a prayer of sorts.
That was actually the last song that we sang in Dallas, the evening that I went to the hospital for the second time to ultimately deal with pulmonary embolism, because of a rib issue. That song was very emotional that night and actually very emotional on [The Walk] tour because of the context. I actually very specifically remember singing that song saying, “Please God, I don’t know what the future is right now, but I would really like some grace right about now, and I am just gonna have to give this one up to you and say please watch over me.”
Shout It Out (2010)
14. “Thinking ‘Bout Somethin’ “
Isaac: Weird Al is a longtime friend. We met Al in late ’97, early ’98. And he did a little faux video of sorts with us, where we kind of teased about Titanic … There’s a video for the song “River,” which he actually was a part of. And so we maintained that friendship for many years, and then when it came to “Thinking ‘Bout Somethin’,” we thought to ourselves, “It’d be really fun to have some kind of cameo or something like this, ’cause we’re doing this elaborate recreation of this scene from The Blues Brothers where Ray Charles and The Blues Brothers play ‘Shake a Tail Feather’ … wouldn’t it be cool if Al would be willing to play the part of Murph shaking the tambourine?”
So Tay called him up. He was like, “Hey Al, what do you think about this idea?” And Al goes, “Yeah, totally.” And Tay’s like, “Okay, so here’s the deal: We’re doing the video in like 48 hours, you wanna get on a plane?” And so it was a last-minute thing, and Al was totally into it. It was really fun and it’s one of my favorite videos we’ve ever done, and having Al in it just makes it that much better.
Zac: “Juliet” is a song I started writing about my oldest daughter, whose name’s Junia. I was singing to her, playing around with her name repetitively — “J-J-J,” you know. Playing with those progressive sounds, and then I started writing that song … and I couldn’t help myself, I thought, “Junia is just … is not a very common name. It’s an old, ancient Roman name.” [Laughs] Like how many kids do you know that have ancient Roman names? There are none.
Obviously, the most iconic Juliet is [in] Romeo and Juliet, and then it became such a cool adventure in songwriting, because it was, “How do you pay homage to that story?” And pulling little bits of language from famous lines from Romeo and Juliet without … it shouldn’t be a gimmick. It’s not about a gimmick, it’s about connecting to something that we all understand. When you connect to something that has so much pop culture like that in an original way, you connect to people. ‘Cause so many people have a connection to that, whether they [watched] a movie of it or played it in high school or just read it as a part of literature.
But I just loved the way it turned out because it manages, for me, to be a song deeply about my daughter, but also something that any man could sing to a woman or vice versa, if you just [changed the name].
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16. “Fired Up”
Zac: It’s a little bit AC/DC, it has a little bit of Zeppelin in the turnaround. “Fired Up” comes from listening to the groove — it’s a very simple message. It’s just a fight song. It’s like, “Get ready, here it comes.” When we were writing for Anthem and the idea of Anthem even before it was called that, there was this idea that we wanted to write some songs that were big songs — songs that were about pumping your fist and singing along. And when that guitar riff started to play … Isaac started playing it, and then I think it was Taylor [who] was like, “No no no, drop the beat!” [Hums intro] It drops the beat. And then I started playing straight over it, and it was this beautiful combination of AC/DC, Led Zeppelin … and then us being us, screaming over the top. [Laughs]
We connected to that anthemic feeling. It’s a side of our band that we continue to explore, with Anthem maybe being the first time that has taken center stage … [“Fired Up” is] a pretty legit just rock song. Like if we weren’t Hanson, people would just call it rock. That song goes on an alternative station. And it’s one of the songs, for us, that as you build this picture of a band of 25 years, you’re expressing these different sides of who you are and what you do. Like “Juliet,” “Fired Up” is not a single, but it’s a song that … you have to [hear from] Hanson if you really want to see the picture of what we do — and to some extent, I think where we’re going.