Band of Brothers: An Oral History of Hanson's 'MMMBop' and Their Debut Album
Something huge was happening at New Jersey's Paramus Park Mall. Police lights flashed, enthusiastic screams punctured the air, and a wave of anticipation swelled like a tsunami.
The day before—May 6, 1997—a band of three young brothers from Tulsa, Oklahoma, had released their debut label album, Middle of Nowhere. Isaac, Taylor, and Zac Hanson were in the middle of doing serious promotional work (they'd appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman the night before), and were set to perform a few acoustic songs at a record store in the mall. Hosted by radio station Z100, the event was expected to draw a few hundred people. But thousands of screaming pre-teen and teen fans—anywhere from 6000 to 10,000 of them—showed up. As the mall was shut down to accommodate the zealous crowd, it became clear that life for the three brothers was about to change.
Middle of Nowhere went on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide, spawn two Billboard Hot 100 singles, and earn Hanson three Grammy nominations. Two decades after the album's release, Mental Floss spoke with middle brother Taylor Hanson, former Mercury Records executives, and Middle of Nowhere’s producers, engineer, and mixer to get a behind-the-scenes view of the band’s rise from obscurity to super stardom. They discuss how "MMMBop" evolved from a melancholy ballad to an upbeat earworm, the challenges of recording vocals as a pubescent boy, and the band’s upcoming world tour, aptly called the Middle of Everywhere tour.
Isaac, Taylor, and Zac started Hanson back in 1992, after they fell in love with classic rock and Motown from the late 1950s and early '60s. Inspired by artists such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Otis Redding, the brothers sang a cappella, performing tunes like "Johnny B. Goode" and "Rockin' Robin." Although Isaac was 11, Taylor was 9, and Zac was just 6 years old, the homeschooled brothers began appearing around Tulsa, singing covers as well as songs they had written together. One of their original songs was "MMMBop," a melancholy, mid-tempo song that the brothers recorded in 1995 and released independently in 1996.
Taylor Hanson: "MMMBop" started as a background part. We made an [indie] album called Boomerang and we were working on another song and looking for a background part, and that background part later became the chorus for "MMMBop." It was sort of too hook-y to be a background part, so it just kind of sat on the back burner.
Zac Hanson (via Songfacts, 2004): If anything, "MMMBop" was inspired by The Beach Boys and vocal groups of that era—using your voice as almost a doo-wop kind of thing.
Taylor Hanson: The verses were formed after the chorus had existed. Isaac and I would be sitting in the living room—we took over the living room of our house as rehearsal space when we were kids, so we completely dominated the household—playing these very simple chord patterns.
Isaac Hanson (via Noisey, 2013): The song "MMMBop" is actually about holding on to things that really matter to you because there will be few things that last through your whole life. Hold on to the things that are precious to you because life is fleeting. And it happens to have a catchy little chorus, a little nonsensical, scatty thing.
Taylor Hanson: The process of writing the song really came out of a very challenging moment as kids—deciding to play music. It was over the course of several different afternoons in our band setup in the living room. We were reflecting on what was very much happening in our world at the time, which was seeing how even as 12 and 14 year olds, friendships and relationships would come and go. Some people really didn’t get what we were doing … We were facing down the barrel of continuing to pursue a path that was different than most everyone around us.
By performing at hundreds of local art fairs, block parties, and schools across the Midwest, Hanson built a fan base of a few thousand people. The band had a manager and attorney who pitched them to major labels, but nothing was happening—13 labels turned Hanson down, partly because their poppy, Jackson 5-esque sound was dated compared to the darker grunge music that was topping the charts in the early- and mid-'90s. But the rejections ended when Steve Greenberg, an A&R executive at Mercury Records, heard one of the band’s independent albums. Greenberg traveled to Coffeyville, Kansas, to see the brothers perform at a festival, and Mercury Records soon signed the band.
Taylor Hanson: "MMMBop" became a mainstay that we would play in our little sets around Oklahoma and Arkansas and Kansas and wherever people would listen to us. It was definitely one of the songs that was a [crowd] favorite, but it wasn’t the favorite.
Danny Goldberg (former CEO of Mercury Records): Steve Greenberg played [the "MMMBop" demo] for me. Sounded like a hit, but more to the point, I had great faith in Steve's judgment.
Taylor Hanson: "MMMBop" was more of a campfire song in its original version—it had a little bit more of a storyteller arc to it. It’s very "Let me tell you a story, let me give you this parable," which is so interesting because it obviously was interpreted in its final version as being so pop, celebratory, pure sunshine.
Steve Greenberg (former Head of A&R for Mercury Records): I loved the juxtaposition between the extremely joyous music and the dark lyrics. The entire album has dark lyrics, actually. People just didn’t notice because the music was so upbeat. But from the start, I realized this was a band that was addressing serious subjects.
Taylor Hanson: I think the song survives in part because it was saying something real—you get a lot more out of it on the second, third listens when you really dive in.
Margery Greenspan (former VP of Creative Services for Mercury Records): The minute I heard "MMMBop," I knew it was a hit … it was so catchy and fun, and the boys enjoyed performing it. There was a real joy to it.
Taylor Hanson: ["MMMBop"] is really kind of the song that started the theme of Hanson's songwriting, which is songs that make you feel something very uplifting when the story is actually acknowledging the absolute opposite of that. Kind of happiness in spite of what life brings.
Goldberg: To me, the big thing was it sounded like a hit chorus.
Greenspan: What was so unique about this band is that they were kids. And they were the real deal—they wrote and played the music.
Allison Hamamura (former West Coast General Manager for Mercury Records): It was perfectly clear to me that Taylor was a songwriter and a burgeoning talent. I absolutely loved the family dynamic and the boys obviously loved playing together.
Taylor Hanson: You don’t have a band of three brothers playing gigs around town and all over three states without really supportive parents. But it absolutely was them following what they saw in us, and what we thought we could do. We kind of had this pure, unadulterated ambition.
Armed with a record deal, Hanson and their mother, father, and three younger siblings traveled from Tulsa to Los Angeles in the summer of 1996. The brothers first worked with producers John King and Mike Simpson—collectively known as the Dust Brothers—on "MMMBop" and "Thinking Of You." Up until then, Hanson had written, recorded, and produced their songs independently, without outside forces or opinions weighing in. At the Dust Brothers' studio in Silver Lake, Isaac, Taylor, and Zac experienced what it was like to collaborate with producers for the first time.
Greenberg suggested that the band increase the tempo of "MMMBop," and the Dust Brothers convinced the band to try making "MMMBop" a more upbeat song. They started recording, increasing the tempo and using a Jackson 5-like rhythm. Greenberg also connected Hanson with a handful of collaborators, including producers and co-writers such as Desmond Child, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Clif Magness.
Mike Simpson (of the Dust Brothers, via WaxPoetics, 2013): When I first heard the demo tape of Hanson, it took me back to my childhood. I would come home and lip-synch Jackson 5 songs every day after school as a little kid. I heard Hanson and thought, "Oh my God, this sounds like really cool music."
Clif Magness (co-writer and producer of Middle of Nowhere track "Madeline"): My manager at the time put me in touch with Steve Greenberg. He then set up a writing session with myself and the band ... Their father sat in the room with us as we wrote the song, most of the time reading a book. At one point, he stepped out to check up on his wife and three other children who were playing with my two children in the backyard.
Taylor Hanson: The strong thing we took away from walking into the room with other writers was you had to show right out of the gate to these extremely credible and gifted and experienced writers that they would be writing with you. I think it was daunting at first to sit in the room with people who wrote "On Broadway" and other completely epic and legendary songs. But very quickly we earned respect from Barry and Cynthia simply through music, sitting in the room and sharing ideas.
Cynthia Weil (co-writer, with Barry Mann and Hanson, of "I Will Come To You," the third single off the album): Hanson were our youngest and among our coolest collaborators.
Taylor Hanson: It was a huge opportunity to be able to—on our first record—sit with people who crafted songs on a level you aspire to. Always having a learner’s ear, but being gutsy enough to speak up, because ultimately this is going to be our song. Barry and Cynthia are and were brilliant and very generous. It was never intimidating—it was always in the sense that we were being invited in to collaborate.
Hamamura: The band was very involved for their respective ages and experience in the making of Middle of Nowhere.
Magness: Taylor’s voice was so strong and natural that I didn’t have to coach him much at all. They were all that way actually. We even created a high part for Zac because he is the youngest and his voice was quite cherub-like back then.
Ultimately, the Dust Brothers didn’t finish the project they started with Hanson—Greenberg hired Stephen Lironi to finish "MMMBop" and "Thinking Of You" and produce the rest of the album. Working out of Scream Studios in Los Angeles, Lironi, a few engineers, and Hanson spent almost two months recording Middle of Nowhere onto analog tape, polishing the songs and finishing arrangements in the studio.
Doug Trantow (second engineer on Middle of Nowhere): The Dust Brothers came over [to Scream Studios] and we transferred the work they had done onto our tape machines ... and then we never saw them again. I’ve heard people say "MMMBop" was recorded in the Dust Brothers’ living room, and though they did start the song there, I absolutely guarantee every single part of their work was replaced by Stephen [Lironi] at Scream, with the exception of one record scratch on "MMMBop."
Greenberg: The Dust Brothers were very in demand at the time and frankly it wasn’t a great temperamental fit between the band and the Dust Brothers. So the Dust Brothers started working on other things and the two tracks ["MMMBop" and "Thinking Of You"] were unfinished.
Trantow: Things were definitely tense when the Dust Brothers showed up. It was kind of like we were transferring what they already recorded. It wasn’t like they were going out of their way to be helpful or cool about it, so I could tell there was some tension, like maybe they weren’t happy about not being able to finish the songs.
During the recording process, Greenberg hired several vocal coaches to help Taylor hit the higher notes he had sung before his voice began deepening. They were unsuccessful until vocal coach Roger Love began working with the brothers. To speed up the recording, Hanson moved to a nearby studio, LAFX, to finish the vocals with Love and producer Mark Hudson, while Lironi and his engineers worked concurrently at Scream.
Trantow: On the second day in the studio, an impromptu jam session happened between Taylor, Isaac, and Stephen [Lironi] while they were listening to a drum loop and working out the parts for "Where's the Love" [the album's second single]. At that moment I absolutely knew something special was happening.
Roger Love (vocal coach on Middle of Nowhere): I was brought in initially by Steve Greenberg and the record label to finish the lead vocal on "MMMBop." After the first day in the studio, when they heard the song done, Steve and the band asked me to vocal coach most of the remaining songs for the album.
Trantow: The vocals took a long time to record—young boys and long hours in dark studios don’t mix too well—so we started to fall behind schedule. The label knew what they had, and they were desperate to get it out.
Greenberg: I knew the world needed to hear Taylor sing the song in its original key on the record, even if he would have to drop the key for subsequent live performances. So I made sure we got it in that key before it was too late.
Love: Taylor had recorded about half of "MMMBop" before his voice had changed due to puberty. The band and the record company both loved the way the music and vocal sounded, and they didn't want to re-record the tracks in a lower key and potentially lose any of the magic … I worked with Taylor to build a lot more power and freedom in his new high "head voice." Then I used that voice to finish "MMMBop" and whenever I needed higher notes for the other songs we recorded.
Trantow: The kids at that point were much better singers and writers than anyone of that age had any right to be, but their instrumental playing was understandably not up to studio standards. While Isaac did play most of the main guitar parts for the songs, Stephen replayed many of them later. The same goes for Taylor's piano and organ parts. This was done only because of their very young age and lack of studio experience … when possible we used their playing, but mostly it had to be replayed by Stephen or a studio musician afterwards.
Love: The boys were such great kids, and both parents were very loving, involved and present … But there were certainly some challenges other than puberty. Zac was only 10, and a heck of a drummer, but he wasn't always thrilled with stepping up to the mic and singing. And he wasn't used to having anyone, even me, saying things like, "That was good, but now let's try it again, and again, and again to make it perfect." That's a lot of pressure on a little kid, no matter how nicely I said "please."
Trantow: We even recorded Zac playing drums for a couple songs, but in spite of being surprisingly good for a boy who just turned 10 years old, it just wasn’t good enough to be on the record. I should say that now they are so well accomplished that I wouldn’t hesitate to hire them to replace the playing of other less-talented musicians! But in this case we had to bring in studio cats.
After Hanson recorded Middle of Nowhere, the band and their family returned to Tulsa. To replicate the sound of the album on stage, the brothers began searching for a bass player and a secondary person to play guitar and keys. While the album was mixed and mastered, the band did advance press and photo shoots, and executives at Mercury Records prepared marketing and radio campaigns to gear up for the April 15, 1997 release of the "MMMBop" single.
Tom Lord-Alge (mixer on Middle of Nowhere): The two Steves [Greenberg and Lironi] would join me each day while I was mixing in Miami Beach. They allowed me the creative freedom I needed to deliver great mixes but also were key in keeping the album sounding natural and focusing on the vocal performances.
Christopher Sabec (former manager of Hanson): The time between the recording [and the release] was an exciting time. We all knew that the album was special.
Taylor Hanson: That period [before the release] is interesting because you’ve created something but nobody knows it. You're sort of anticipating the big moment—will anyone care when this record is released? It's like you have a secret. You feel like you've got this thing that has all this potential, but you're just sort of waiting and hoping.
Lord-Alge: Middle of Nowhere is a very strong record and all involved were certain it would do well, but I remember that none of us would utter anything about how successful we thought it would be as not to jinx it! We stayed focused on helping the boys make a great record.
Greenspan: It was my job to figure out how to image them … Through the photos, I wanted to showcase that they were fun, great looking, and talented. And I wanted to make sure there was a level of sophistication in the images because their music had this quality, too.
Lord-Alge: I was very impressed with the vocals on Middle of Nowhere and love the way the guys harmonized with each other. Obviously "MMMBop" stuck out as being a very strong song and I can remember doing a couple mixes of it until everyone involved was happy. The main difference was on the last version of "MMMBop" where we created the breakdown chorus. It just felt great.
Greenspan: After meeting with them a few times I thought they needed to be more urban-edgy, style-wise. They were from Oklahoma and they did have their own style, but it was a little suburban. I think we moved the style needle slightly from Gap to Urban Outfitters. Of course there was a little resistance at first but then I think they enjoyed feeling a bit more edgy.
Love: I loved "MMMBop" in particular, but honestly had no clue that the band or album would skyrocket to the levels of success they achieved. When I work on a project, I always hope for the best. But there are so many intertwined factors that lead to super-success or failure. From timing to luck, to management and promotion, to making sure that all of the stars align, it's never a sure thing. When it happens it's like magic.
Ravi Hutheesing (Hanson’s backup guitarist from February '97 to February '98): I realized quickly that this project was different from anything I had previously been a part of. The young age of the Hansons and level of commitment from Mercury Records made it evident that there was going to be a major effort to push this to the top. I also felt from the moment I first met Ike, Tay, and Zac that they were three of the most talented kids I have ever met.
In the spring of '97, Isaac was 16, Taylor was 14, and Zac was 11. To promote "MMMBop" and Middle of Nowhere, the band’s schedule was jam-packed with promo appearances, radio station visits, and short 20-minute acoustic concerts. The strength of the song and the band’s hard work paid off. "MMMBop" reached No. 1 in 27 countries, and Hanson appeared on MTV, performed everywhere from the Grammy Awards to the White House, and became teen heartthrobs in the pages of Tiger Beat and Bop magazines.
Hutheesing: Things were pretty crazy … There were a lot of very early mornings and late nights, but because Ike, Tay, and Zac were all minors, child labor laws gave us every third day off. Sometimes we appeared in multiple cities on the same day.
Taylor Hanson: Steve was very conscious of our age, as our A&R guy, but I didn’t feel any pressure from the label at all [about my changing voice]. I felt pressure from myself.
Hamamura: [His changing voice] was a conversation [at Mercury] but never an issue. I actually felt very strongly that Taylor was such a superstar and that their family values were so strong, there was no doubt in my mind that they would continue making music.
Taylor Hanson: Once we were really touring in late '97 and '98, [my changing voice] was a challenge. Essentially we changed keys and the way you invert things and the keys you pick to make it sound as close to the original recording.
Isaac Hanson (via Vulture, 2016): "MMMBop" was originally in the key of A, and we currently play it in F sharp. Sometimes in F.
Hutheesing: Tay's voice was changing almost weekly, and we had to constantly change the key of the songs to accommodate it. The bigger issue was that Zac was young and his energy would burn out quickly ... but he hit those drums so hard for 20 minutes!
Taylor Hanson: Part of it is the psychological effect of deciding "this has definitely got to change; you can’t sing that note anymore." But it happened so fast—most of the performances people saw of us, it was already underway. I was 13 when we recorded the album and 14 and 15 when we were out pushing it. There weren’t a lot of Peter Brady moments.
Sabec: One of my life’s honors was touring with the band and their family, along with my business partner Stirling McIlwaine. I loved the Hershey, Pennsylvania, show because it was sheer madness in the size of the crowd. The big shows in New York (at Jones Beach) and L.A. (at the Hollywood Bowl) had an energy you only find in those respective cities.
Capitalizing on Middle of Nowhere's success, Mercury Records also released, in '97 and '98, a Hanson Christmas album, a collection of the band’s independent recordings, and a live album. Despite Hanson’s massive commercial appeal, there were critics who disparaged the band's success at their young age, mocked their long blond hair, and even doubted their ability to play instruments and write songs.
Sabec: My advice to the band, which they actually understood intuitively, was that the crowds and their fans were why they were in this business in the first place. Welcoming your fans and making them feel appreciated is your number one goal and Isaac, Taylor, and Zac always accomplished this effortlessly.
Hutheesing: The most aggressive haters were actually the paparazzi. They often hurled insulting remarks at us in airports as we would try to hide from them. While the Internet and online posting were just beginning to surface, the true fans were much more vocal than the naysayers.
Sabec: As for the haters, life is too short to really worry about them, right?
Goldberg: [Middle Of Nowhere] was a very important record and album for Mercury that year. It was a global hit and was the biggest album by a new signing in commercial terms we had while I was president.
Taylor Hanson: Music gave us a platform to channel that larger-than-life time when you’re seeing the world, you’re feeling what’s going on, and you’re seeing relationships come and go and ebb and flow. And a song gives you a way to crystallize that. I think there was a little bit of magic in the timing [of "MMMBop"]—the right three chords with the right message.
Hamamura: I look back on [that period of time] with gratitude for having been some part of what was a global musical phenomenon. And though some may disagree, the kids bent the culture, even if it was short-lived in the scheme of things.
Greenberg: The period of time was magical because we were—along with the Spice Girls—ushering in a revival of pop after the grunge era. So it was really exciting being at the vanguard of the next era and seeing it develop. And seeing teen audiences respond to music that was uplifting.
Middle of Nowhere is still Hanson’s most commercially successful album to date, but the band never stopped making music. After releasing their second album in 2000, the band founded their own record label, 3CG Records (standing for 3 Car Garage, the name of their 1998 compilation album), and has steadily toured and released new studio albums for the past two decades: Underneath (2004), The Walk (2007), Shout It Out (2010), and Anthem (2013), all of which charted well on the Billboard Top 200 albums. Despite achieving fame and making millions before they were old enough to drive, the brothers didn’t go down the dark path that plagues many who become famous as children.
Lord-Alge: I’ve watched the guys over the years mature musically and they have really become one of the last great rhythm & blues bands. Their sound is very organic.
Weil: Very proud of these talented boys—excuse me, talented men.
Hutheesing: They were very grounded and kind people, so I would never have expected them to drop off the deep end and wind up with addictions and scandals. Certainly that happens to many, and they would have been vulnerable based on their fame and age. However, their parents did a great job of striking a balance between the responsibility and vulnerability of fame and fortune.
Taylor Hanson: The main thing is [our parents] never treated us like we didn’t have to hold our own, and treat people the same as we always had from the very beginning, regardless of success. They were always there saying, "Don’t be afraid to work for it, to try, to strive and push through when things are hard." That work ethic is the mindset we grew up with. That sense that character is more important than whether you’re super successful at this.
Goldberg: The fact that they were such a close family precluded a lot of the problems that sudden fame often engenders.
Taylor Hanson: I remember the feeling that almost to a fault, we wanted to make sure it was about the music. And having discussions with people, to them, it was just a "You guys are young, you have fans, we should merchandise and sell these [items], people will buy them." And thinking to ourselves we're not going to be taken seriously [if we do that]. We really fought for it at every stage. We didn’t do lunch boxes, we didn’t do a lot of things. I remember thinking, "We’re not in it for that, we plan to be here 20 years from now, making music."
Today, the brothers are in their thirties and are all married with children: Isaac has three kids, Taylor has five, and Zac has four. The brothers are also entrepreneurs, running their record label, a beer company (MMMHops, anyone?), and the annual Hop Jam, Oklahoma’s largest craft beer and music festival. Besides gearing up to release new music and a Greatest Hits compilation album, Hanson is also preparing to embark on a world tour to celebrate 25 years as a band. From June to October 2017, the band will play shows throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., and Canada.
Taylor Hanson: The message for us this year has always been about the music, and about how music facilitates the connection with people. It's about the timelessness of hopefully great songs and songs that stand up. We want people to remember the songs.
Sabec: I am very proud of the guys. I think their music continues to resonate and their ability to take their brand into other ventures has been exciting to watch.
Taylor Hanson: We’re still going forward and we’re still hungry and desiring that spirit that got us started … You're proud of where you've been, you have that history, but you build a history based on where you're headed. It's exciting to look back because you were always driving, always pushing, always hungry for the next thing.
Greenberg: Regarding Hanson's music today, I think they've matured into a great rock band, and of course they remain great songwriters. The songs were, and always will be, the key.