Hanson sheds its sugarcoated innocence and makes a solid, mature album. Really.

Mmm ... Pop? 

Hanson sheds its sugarcoated innocence and makes a solid, mature album. Really.

The first thing I saw was the candy. A shitload of candy. Twizzlers, M&Ms, Kit-Kats, Hershey's Kisses, Big League Chew, Blow-Pops, Atomic Fireballs, malted milk balls -- all piled high on a huge table surrounded by cases of root beer. It was like a Willy Wonka version of Mötley Crüe's debauched backstage spread. And it was all for Hanson.

It was a spring night in 1998, and I'd been invited up to a New York City radio studio to interview the three-headed teen-pop beast from Tulsa, Oklahoma, while it was in town to promote its album Three Car Garage: Indie Recordings 1995-1996 with a 2-hour radio special.

At that point, the Hanson brothers were superstars. "MMMBop" wasn't just a chart-topping smash; it was a cultural phenomenon. The blond, wholesome moppets had dominated MTV for almost a year and graced the covers of leading teen magazines. The group's 1997 major-label debut, Middle of Nowhere, had already passed the 147 bazillion mark in sales.

In New York, a phalanx of publicists, managers and record execs scurried around the room, triple-checking every detail and attending to every need. Two dozen or so screaming girls hyperventilated on the other side of the glass in the control room, contest winners who were crying, holding their Hanson posters and excitedly debating what they would say to their idols. A gaggle of screaming, sign-bearing teens who weren't able to get into the studio waited outside on the sidewalk.

But singer-guitarist Isaac (then 17), singer-keyboardist Taylor (then 15) and singer-drummer Zac (then 12) were preoccupied with the candy. And by the time I was granted my 10 minutes to speak with the trio, the sugar had already kicked in.

"So, has all this stardom been hard to handle?" I asked.

"Well," said Taylor, "we're really grounded, so ... "

"You know what's really hard to handle?" Zac blurted, a Twizzler sticking out of each nostril. "A big steel ball with giant spikes sticking out of it! Yooowwww! Pooowwwww! Gworrlll!"

The trio burst into an uncontrollable giggle fit. And that's how it went for almost the entire interview. I'd ask a question, Isaac and Taylor would attempt to recite coached responses for a few seconds, Zac would spazz out, and all three would lose it.

Yeah, good times.

After it was over, I thanked them, gathered my stuff and watched as handlers descended upon the brothers to prepare them for the radio show. Then I snatched a pack of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups as I walked out of the room, passing the group of delirious contest winners.

"Oh, my god, did you talk to Hanson?" one girl gasped.

"Yep," I said, nodding. Instantly they started shrieking and jumping up and down as I scurried to the waiting elevator. After the doors closed, I could still hear them screaming.

You could say things have changed a bit in 6 years. Phenomenon? Not so much. That ride ended shortly after that night in 1998. The Hanson posters came down, and the Backstreet Boys posters went up. Hanson's 2000 album, This Time Around, tanked. Remaining fans were clearly unprepared for, and unimpressed by, the band's attempt to distance itself from sugary lite pop with a dose of earthy blues-rock.

And because major labels don't have the stomach for such setbacks, Island/Def Jam -- assuming Hanson was finished -- kept the trio in limbo, rejected demos for a new album, then finally parted ways with the band in 2003.

The brothers shook off the snub and formed their own label, 3CG Records. Earlier this year, Hanson released the self-produced, 4-years-in-the-making Underneath. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard independent charts. The single "Penny & Me" landed at No. 25 on the Billboard Top 200.

Critics have been kind, and rightly so -- Hanson knows how to write solid, appealing pop songs. The harmonies mesh in a way only siblings can manage, the brothers have improved tremendously as players and arrangers (bits of Underneath suggest that they've been studying Pet Sounds and Summerteeth), and they recruited Matthew Sweet and former New Radical Gregg Alexander for collaborations.

Hanson still has "MMMbop" stigma, but Underneath is deceptive in its ability to have music snobs wondering who this cool new indie-pop band is. It's vindication for a band once in danger of turning into a permanent punch line.

"This has been our way of being able to own our content and brave the waters, no matter what may be," says Taylor, who's 21 now but seems three decades older, wiser and more thoughtful than the giggling 15-year-old I once met. He is a husband and father now, but Taylor says all the brothers matured when they seized control of their music. Independence comes at a cost, but it's one that Taylor is eager to pay.

"I won't deny it -- the route we've taken is intense and cumbersome, and it takes a huge amount of belief that you can persevere," he says. "Yeah, there's risk. But isn't that the point? As long as artists try to navigate this industry outside of their own fear, that's what will keep their music alive and thriving."

Everyone loves a comeback tale, but the "Return of Hanson" storyline has been embellished with rumors of groupie sex, partying, drug use and (horror of horrors) cigarette smoking --as if to prove these boys are now men compelled by vices darker than mountains of candy. The Hansons admit to the occasional smoke or glass of wine, but Taylor laughs off the more lurid accounts.

"You can't control every article and every word that's spit out about you," he says. "The way we're portrayed is never perfectly accurate. But ... you just have to take the pieces that were right and run with them."

Taylor knows Hanson will always contend with the burden of its history, and he accepts that people will always ask what it was like to be so popular -- and then not so popular -- but he and his brothers are adamant about focusing on the present and the future.

"For us, it's like, OK, here's the next phase," Taylor says. "It's all about saying, you know, this is who we are, and this is what we're doing now."

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