Hanson tells its story with an orchestral assist
The 2019 Mayfest marks 27 years since Hanson first took the stage.
Pressed about the ardent devotion of Hanson’s fan base—many of whom celebrate and follow the band with the same fervor as they did when “MMMBop” dominated airwaves in 1997—Taylor Hanson offers an explanation as simple as it is true: “It’s hard-fought,” he said. “We just keep putting in the time.”
It’s been 22 years since “MMMBop” and 27 since the brotherly trio’s first-ever performance at Tulsa Mayfest, when its eldest member (Isaac) was 12 years old. The true believers who have followed the band since those early days will have much to celebrate this month, starting May 16 with the start of the annual “Hanson Day” gathering celebrating the band’s formation. Thousands of Hanson fans from around the world will descend on Tulsa for the three-day event, with a stacked itinerary including a dance party, a painting class, karaoke, and a Saturday night concert at Cain’s Ballroom available only to Hanson fan club members.
Following Hanson Day, The Hop Jam—the band’s annual beer and music festival—takes place May 19 in the Tulsa Arts District. The fest includes another Hanson concert performance, as well as sets from the newly reunited Phantom Planet and Joshua & the Holy Rollers, fronted by the youngest Hanson brother, Mac (not a member of Hanson, the band, proper).
The weekend also marks the band’s first Oklahoma show on their String Theory tour, an international slew of dates pairing Hanson with orchestras across the globe for a two-act performance. Hanson partnered with renowned composer David Campbell (Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Taylor Swift) for the orchestral arrangements, and Campbell also led the symphony that performed on the companion album. The sold-out Friday concert with the Tulsa Symphony will feature old and new material from the Hanson catalog to tell the story of the band’s nearly three-decade arc in a way fans have never heard before.
String Theory, a couple of years in the making, launched in the fall of 2018, following the band’s two 2017 releases, a Christmas album and greatest hits compilation Middle of Everywhere, commemorating Hanson’s 25th anniversary. The landmark afforded Hanson a reason not only to embark on an ambitious project like String Theory but also to contemplate the career that led to it.
I spoke with Taylor Hanson about String Theory, the dedication of Hanson fans, and looking back on 27 years as a band.
Becky Carman: When did the idea for String Theory start to take shape, and then how long did it take to actually bring it to life?
Taylor Hanson: We had it on the bucket list of possible ideas, and it actually became a project when we headed toward our 25th anniversary. The original idea was to do 25 cities for 25 years with an orchestra. There was a lot of interest, and it was great to see that, but also we had a long runway to figure it out. We needed to find the right arranger and get plugged in with some of the symphony programs, and that was going to take more time.
While we were working on the groundwork, it really started to become clear what the creative project would be. We recognized that it needed to be new work, a new message. We decided to use the show to tell a story instead of saying, “Let’s pick the most famous songs,” or, “Let’s pick the songs that are most likely to have strings on them in the original recordings.”
We said, “Well no, can we tell a story? Can we take people on kind of a journey with this show?” And that kind of liberated us to think about every song as a possibility, and it also inspired us to write more. We saw the gaps in the narrative we wanted to tell and wrote those new songs.
Carman: How did the partnership with David Campbell happen?
Hanson: He’s an icon, kind of known for working in contemporary rock, pop, R&B, and working with classical. We met him on our first record when he did some arrangements. We kind of did a Hail Mary [when we] reached out to him … He’s working with Paul McCartney and Muse and Pharrell—all kinds of incredible people—but he was excited about it. He understood what we wanted to do, that we didn’t want to just do string pads behind a song, that we wanted to really create something that was exciting to an orchestra. And he signed on.
There were at least 12 months of really active work on the creative but much longer than that working on the vision, the logistics, and the process, understanding how to actually go about implementing it. We wanted the project to be something that, after we’d done the show, we wanted people to say, “This is rewarding and engaging and musically exciting.” That’s what we were hoping, and we could not have done that without David.
Carman: From a songwriting and arranging perspective, what was the most surprising part of turning your older material into something essentially different?
Hanson: The most surprising thing I think is that all of the DNA is in there. You learn that from producing records over time, that a good, core melody is something you can grow from and something you can shrink down to. We definitely had questions about some of the songs that were not especially, immediately identified as poised for classical treatment ... Some of the songs that have ended up being really great in the show, like “Where’s the Love?” or even “MMMBop,” which people know as a very straight-up pop song, work really well with the symphony.
Carman: This project is interesting because it’s a challenge to yourselves as artists, but it’s a little bit of a challenge to your fans to ask them to come along with you. How have these audiences been compared to what you guys are used to seeing?
Hanson: One of the things that’s cool … is it sort of gives everybody permission to just be mellow and quiet. We’ve certainly seen some online posts where people came to the show not knowing what they were in store for, and expecting to be jumping up and down and being raucous from the beginning, and this is a show that starts with a ballad. Seventy percent of the show is new songs or deep cuts—with an orchestra.
We’ve heard some great feedback, which I think says that it’s resonated. There is a deeper message through this sort of project that really speaks to who we are and what we’re about, why we do what we do. It’s really a show about perseverance, about surviving through challenges and seeing the bigger picture. Most concerts, you do that in maybe one or two songs, but in this particular show, it’s one building arc. That’s something I’m really proud of, and I feel like a lot of the audience has joined us in that.
Carman: What imprint has String Theory left on you as a songwriter or a live performer?
Hanson: It has forced us to take on the new. Even though we’ve done many tours, and every tour is different, this is different on a whole other level. When we walked into those first few shows, we had genuine nerves about it because you’re working with the best players in a completely different discipline, performing to a chart that’s not going to change. If you step left, they’re not going to step left with you; you have to hit your mark. It made us really have to pay attention and not give ourselves any passes. As a result,
I feel like we’re tighter and hopefully sharper than we’ve been.
Carman: The past few years, you’ve taken some time to look back. Are there any reflections about your career so far that maybe felt like new information to you?
Hanson: We try to not spend too much time looking back. You’re always struggling to add new things to the story, a new song, a new tour. Partly, it’s been enjoyable just to have permission to reflect … because you’re consciously saying hey, we’ve reached a benchmark, and this is a great time to recognize that history. We’ve gotten past a bunch of things that might have killed us, but we’re still here. I think that gives a little boost of confidence, and for the fanbase that has stuck with us, I hope for them it’s an affirmation that they backed a group that has been in it for the long haul, and it has been worth it.