"This is so indie,' says Isaac, the leader of one of the nation's most recognizable indie-rock bands, as he grabs his guitar and takes a stool on the makeshift stage in Regis University's cafeteria. "And that's all I gotta say: This is so indie.'
Behind all the clanging trays, you can hear the buzz of the students, who can't believe what they're about to witness. Neither can I. And then, a voice from the back of the room climbs on top of all the others. "'MMMBop,'' the guy yells. "Play 'MMMBop!''
What's that? Oh, you thought I was talking about Isaac Brock, the main rodent in Modest Mouse? My bad. Actually, it's Isaac Hanson, the eldest member of the Hanson clan, who's on stage right now.
"I'm sure you guys are thinking, why in the hell is Hanson telling me about indie music, right?' asks Taylor, the middle sibling.
Actually, I'm not at all surprised to hear the Hanson brothers espousing indie rock. Sure, the grizzled old punk in me would say that Hanson is to indie rock as Chipotle is to Mexican food. But this Isaac's right. On paper, Hanson is so indie -- more so these days than the mighty Mouse, I'd argue. After all, turn on MTV and you're likely to catch fragments of "Float On,' Mouse's current hit that's become as ubiquitous as "MMMBop' was in 1996.
You see, indie rock is the new alt-rock. Remember way back in the mid-'90s when seemingly every band was filed under "alternative,' regardless of what it sounded like? Before the term became a terse buzzword, alternative meant just that. But it soon got played out. Fast-forward a decade, and with indie rock you have the same clowns, different circus.
Hanson, on the other hand, is a real indie-rock band. It wrote, recorded, produced and issued its own disc. And it's touring on its own dime. Granted, the act's not Steve Albini indie. But what band is? If anything, Hanson is more on the Samples side of things than the Decemberists. Still, the boys from the Middle of Nowhere are infinitely more indie than the fellas from the Moon & Antarctica. Mouse's latest disc is on Sony, for chrissakes. How indie is that?
In the beginning, the term "indie' was basically a euphemism for "do it yourself.' Don't rely on corporate sugar daddies, just rely on your damn self. But over the years, as the bigger bands moved on to the majors, the term turned into a description of the music's aesthetic -- the look, the sound, the lifestyle -- rather than its ethos. With its latest record, Underneath, Hanson has embraced the latter.
As a result, the group is in a precarious position. The hipster contingent obviously won't touch Hanson with a ten-foot pole; even fans willing to listen to new music are predisposed to thinking that Hanson could only produce vapid, soulless, pre-fab pop. Moreover, the band's die-hard fans have grown up, and even if they remember the earworm that was "MMMBop,' they've frozen that frame in time. So if Hanson somehow makes it back to the radio, will anyone be listening?
Outside Regis, a few minutes before the surprise three-song acoustic set, a couple of girls smoke cigarettes. Next to them are two homemade signs. The first reads "I love Taylor.' The other reads "MMMBop.' The second belongs to Stephanie, who is clad in a pair of plaid hip-huggers and a faded Hanson T-shirt.
"So, are you a Hanson fan?' I ask.
"Um, sure,' she says with a giggle. "I really used to be back in the day.'
"What do you think of the new stuff?'
"I haven't heard it yet,' she admits, as songs from the new record fill the courtyard. "There's a song -- something about Penny -- I heard, that's really good.'
"So when did you lose track of Hanson, exactly?'
"After 'MMMBop,' I guess.'
As Stephanie and I talk, the brothers are being interviewed on KRCX, Regis's radio station. Taylor discusses Britney Spears and other TRL fodder. "A generation is being defined by music that doesn't represent it,' he says.
Likewise, Hanson is saddled with a name and an image that don't necessarily represent it anymore.
"Hanson will always be represented by the name,' Zach, the youngest brother, quickly points out in a post-show conversation. "We will, as musicians, always be Hanson. Our philosophies about music have always been the same, and the music we were influenced by -- '50s and '60s rock and roll. I mean, fuck, I was eleven when we released our first major record. I was six when we started singing.'
As I try to process that F-bomb, Taylor picks up: "We've reached a lot of people doing our music, but we're in a very different place than we used to be. The reason why we played 'MMMBop,' and we didn't say 'Forget that "MMMBop,' that's not who we are,' is because it is who we are. It's who we were, which means it's who we are. And as we go forward, we want to be able to go forward and have people go, 'Wow, that's really cool,' and then go backwards, and vice-versa.'
Even so, in order to go forward, might the brothers need to make it clear that this isn't your little sister's Hanson? An Australian paper recently made the mistake of mentioning that to Taylor. "The guy was asking me all about what we're doing with the record,' he recalls. "And then he said, 'Don't you think you guys should be doing blow or doing something else like that to re-image yourself as a true indie band?' It pissed me off so much, because that's exactly the thing that's wrong. Everybody is so focused on all the peripheral crap -- whether you're wearing leather or whether you're wearing a mohawk or whether you're wearing your Gap jeans or whatever. And the last thing anyone thinks about is the kind of music people are making.'
Oh, yeah, the music. Regardless of how you feel about Hanson, the new album is pretty tuneful. And the brothers' fraternal bond is undeniable -- all you have to do is listen to their stunning ability to harmonize with one another. If Underneath was released under a different moniker, it might even be considered cool. But cool or not, Hanson is determined to take its music to the people, which is why the boys are hitting college campuses across the country.
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"Our goal is, like Tay said, to gain more attention to the independent music scene,' Isaac concludes. "Because right now, one in four records sold are independent records.'
"And six in ten records released are independent,' adds Zach.
As I'm leaving the KRCX studios, Jason Spies, who helps run 3CG, Hanson's label, asks, "See you at the show?'
Whoa, let's not get carried away. Even I'm not that indie. Besides, my alt-rock heroes, the Pixies, are playing tonight.