Walking the walk

Apr 17, 2008 | 

Go ahead, take your shoes off. Now, your socks. There. Comfortable? Good: You're ready to join the Hanson brothers, who've also doffed their shoes and socks.

But not for the sake of comfort, alas.

Nope, the "MMMBop" boys from Tulsa are trading in comfort for some hard-earned social awareness.

And they've got the calluses to prove it, swears Zac Hanson, who, at 22, is technically the baby of the sibling bunch.

Actually, the "baby" is happily married and about to greet the birth of his first child around the time that Hanson winds up its spring tour, which is headed to Bloomington's U.S. Cellular Coliseum at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Now about that footwear, or lack thereof ...

Prior to the concert, at around 2 p.m., says Zac, the shoes-and-socks removal will start. And not just on their part.

The Hansons are inviting anyone and everyone willing to follow suit to join them, starting at the north end of the Illinois State University quad. The ensuing mile-long trek will wend its way around the ISU campus, ending up at the Bone Student Center.

Since the name of the Hansons' latest album is "The Walk" and the name of the tour is "The Walk Tour," it all makes sense that way.

But what's really at stake here, he says, is the sibling trio's work to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic and related poverty ravaging Africa.

They've partnered with hipster shoe manufacturer TOMS, whose "Shoe Drop" campaign involves the company donating one pair of shoes to a child in Africa for every pair sold here stateside.

Accordingly, Hanson concerts feature a moveable TOMS shoe store, where the footwear is available for purchase.

As part of the campaign, Hanson traveled to Africa to record the charity single "Great Divide" and help TOMS deliver more than 50,000 pairs of shows to kids in need.

Of this weekend's ISU walk, "We hope it will be warmer," Zac says, adding that sometimes the rigid rules about doing it barefoot are sometimes bent to conform to hard reality.

"When we were in Canada," he recalls, "there was snow and ice on the ground, so we felt it wasn't appropriate to ask people to take off their shoes. Even then, there were still people who wanted to walk barefoot."

The point of all this pre-concert hoopla, says Zac, is not to make a big deal about the "MMMBop" brothers with the formerly flowing tresses strutting around town, their toes exposed.

By exposing their own feet along 5,280 feet of pavement, "we hope we can make people realize what it means not to have a pair of shoes for a mile or the 20 minutes it takes to walk that mile. And a mile really isn't that long, though your feet may be sore and you might wind up with a blister or two."

The same could be said, Zac admits, of the process of baring your creative souls to the world at large at a really young age.

When "MMMBop" was sitting atop the Billboard singles chart 11 years ago this spring, Zac Hanson wasn't even a teenager yet.

He was all of 11, while big brothers Isaac and Taylor were leading the way at 16 and 14, respectively.

And now here he is married and about to welcome another human life into his circle.

"I was talking to my wife last night, and, yes, it's funny to think about myself that way, as I'm about to become responsible for another human life," says Zac. "Some of my best friends are just getting out of college and they're still talking about dating and that kind of stuff."

Ah, well, it's all about perspective, right?

Yes, indeed: "I was 10 or 11. But we had really good people around us and a really good manager, so I didn't have that classic child-star thing where someone takes all the money -- even though that has happened to a lot of child stars, who end up in rehab, or somebody gave them the worst contract in the world and they don't have the money they think they should have."

The Hansons in Hanson are not all the Hansons, by the way. Though not as prolific as, say, Ma and Pa Osmond of Utah, Clarke and Diana Hanson spawned a brood of seven, which means there are four non-singing Hansons to the three singing ones.

They began their harmonizing careers doing a cappella renditions of '50s-'60s pop standards like "Splish Splash" and "Rockin' Robin." In 1992, they went professional at Tulsa's Mayfest Arts Festival, then recorded a couple self-made albums, one of which, 1996's "MMMBop," sported the hit that would make them stars.

The turning point, says Zac, was the brothers' performance at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, which led to a signing with Mercury Records. A year later, on May 6. 1997, Mercury released "Middle of Nowhere," which sported a slicker re-recording of "MMMBop." The upbeat anthem became one of the year's biggest pop hits and gave them three Grammy nominations (Record of the Year, Best New Artist, Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal).

"I think if you're passionate about something, you shouldn't be afraid to grasp onto responsibility at a young age," Zac says in retrospect, even if that responsibility included coping with disappointment after their second record label, Island Records, merged with the rap-leaning Def Jam Records.

Resisting pressures to lean accordingly, the group parted company and went the indie route, which took time, Zac admits, for recovery. But in 2004, their self-made album "Underneath" debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Independent Album Chart and No. 25 on the Billboard 200 Album Chart.

"I'm cynical about the business, very much so," says Zac. "But at some level, you have to put on a happy face and not stop making music."

Ten years and some major business upheavals later, their happy faces are permanently affixed, he insists.

"And we're not gonna stop making music."

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