"Are We There Yet?"
They certainly are. For Tulsa tykes Hanson have arrived with a yelp, some screaming and an impressively executed paradiddle, slap bang in the middle of a car park called fame. Nick Duerden meets Isaac (16), Taylor (14) and Zac (12) and their in-no-way svengaliesque Dad to be assured "We don't sing about lollipops."
Zac Hanson is dead. The youngest of the all-singing, all-smiling musical trio from Tulsa was killed in a car crash in France. Within hours of the tradgedy, reports were already pouring through to America, but bypassed every US state, save for Texas and their native Oklahoma.
"It was weird," comments Zac's 14-year-old brother Taylor. "We had all these girls coming up to us, tears streaming down their faces, telling us how horrible they felt and what a tragedy it was and how Hanson will never be the same without him."
"Apparently, he was riding his motorbike through Paris," says the eldest Hanson, 16-year-old Isaac, "and I crashed into him when my Ferrari went out of control. There was nothing I could do."
Zac himself, meanwhile, sits quietly, as befits a corpse, and chews contemplatively on his recently braided hair.
"When a rumour like that surfaces," says Taylor, a look of bemusement on his cherubic face, "you tend to wonder who you should punch first. Like, who started it? Why would anyone decide to claim Zac's dead? I suppose that's the Internet for you (where the rumor began). A lot of weird people surf the Internet. We read stuff like that and we think, 'Oh wow, we must be pretty famous for people to start inventing crazy stuff like that.'"
Zac suddenly springs to life. "Of course I'm not dead!" he screams in his Lisa Simpson voice. "I'm not dead because..." switching into the metronomic cry of a robot "...I AM SUPERHUMAN! I CANNOT DIE! I AM SUPERHUMAN!" He staggers around the suite like an out-of-control R2D2 until he finally tires of this wheeze and flops back down onto the chair.
Zac, remember, is just 11 years old.
"Twelve!" he corrects. "I had a birthday!"
Six months ago, the shockingly swift arrival of Hanson, three overbearingly adorable teenagers from -- where else? -- the US of A, was largely greeted with derision from anyone who wasn't a prepubescent school girl. Their infuriatingly catchy debut single, MMMBop, was an appropriately nonsensical piece of pop fluff which went straight to Number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in 23 other territories, and the phenomenon had duly begun. The band -- Clarke Isaac Hanson (born November 17, 1980, Scorpio), Jordan Taylor Hanson (March 14, 1983, Pisces), and Zachary Taylor Hanson (October 22, 1985, Libra) -- were not only a dream come true for that prepubescent school girl, but also for the parasitic ad man. Cute as munchkins, with Colgate-bright smiles, Timotei-blonde hair and Oxy-clean complexions, it was only a matter of time, surely, before such wonderful visages would help shift enormous "units" of Hanson-flavored crisps and Hanson-fragranced toilet water. If it's good enough for the Spice Girls... (Hey, isn't it Zachary WALKER Hanson? Zachary Taylor was a president....and don't EVER compare Hanson to the Spice Girls.)
But, no. It wasn't to be. Product placement, it transpires, isn't Hanson's thing. "We're in this for the music," they chime in perfect unison. "We're not a manufactured band in it for the money, we're in this to write, record and perform music. Music," they suggest with an air of almost grave solemnity, "is in our blood."
And then: "We've worked hard to build up some respect. All we'd have to do is one crummy advert and that would be it, we'd be finished."
Hanson, it quickly becomes clear, are old heads on young bodies.
"For all I know," suggests Zac, I could be 30 years old."
And so they stuck to their music. In June they released their first album, "Middle Of Nowhere", which was written by them, and co-produced by Beck collaborators The Dust Brothers and Scot Steve Lironi, who worked on Black Grape's "It's Great When You're Straight, Yeah!." And while gut reaction was to scoff further at this seemingly unstoppable onslaught of The New Osmonds, even their fiercest doubters were soon forced to concede that Middle Of Nowhere was actually quite possibly the greatest Bratpop album since Michael Jackson left The Jacksons behind.
"I understand and appreciate that, initially, people want to hate us," says Isaac. "I would be the same in their position. To like a band like us does take a lot of convincing. Because, let's face it, three teenagers who write, play and sing...well, it's pretty weird, isn't it?"
"But MMMBop is the only 'young' song on the album," he argues. "You look at every other track and you realize that we're not just another boy band. We don't write about lollipops. We write about everything even if we haven't experienced it yet. We've got great imagination."
Which explains the surprising amount of love songs written by boys who have yet, they claim, to start dating. Perhaps fittingly, then, the rather touching Lucy ("The day that I left Lucy/A tear fell from her eye") was written about the Peanuts cartoon character of the same name.
Asked whether there is much difference between working with Hanson and Black Grape, producer Steve Lironi suggests, "None whatsoever. Kids and junkies are pretty similar. You've got to spoonfeed both." He does have a point.
"I worked on their album because theirs was the best demo I'd ever heard," he says. "It's all there in Taylor's voice. He's got real soul in him. In fact, I was surprised to learn that they were white -- whiter than white. But they really do have *it*. When we finished recording, we knew it would sell millions, no doubt whatsoever."
The album has since gone on to spawn two more huge hits (Where's The Love, and the current I Will Come To You), and has recently notched over 5.5 million sales worldwide.
"That," concedes Isaac, "is really pretty wild. We're having a hard time getting our heads around that. It's weird to think that we have fans in places like Italy, Germany, even England."
"Yeah!" adds Zac. "Totally crazy, man!" He then makes several peculiar noises to indicate just how crazy this - and he - really is.
Reared on their parents' rock'n'roll and classic soul collection, the boys made music for as long as they can remember. It wasn't until 1992 that they attempted to secure a record deal, however. In the next three years, 12 labels declined to sign them, unimpressed by their apple pie appeal. Nevertheless, they played in Oklahoma on a regular basis, an indulgence financed by their father who, until he quit to look after his boys full-time, was "big in oil."
In 1995, they met their soon-appointed manager Christopher Sabec, in a restaurant in Austin, Texas, and interrupted his meal so that he could hear them sing. Transfixed, Sabec soon found them their deal.
"When Chris first approached me," says Mercury's American A&R man, Steve Greenberg, "I didn't really want to know about them. Even though I loved MMMBop, I was still convinced that their manager was just using them as puppets, with session musicians behind them. And for me that was just too cheesy."
To confirm his worst fears, Greenberg turned up to a "dismal country fayre" in Kansas where they were appearing. "I couldn't believe it. For starters, they were really playing -- and I checked. And secondly, Taylor could really sing. After that I couldn't sign them fast enough."
"Believe me," he continues, becoming perhaps a little too excited, "they're just beginning. They've got a Christmas album coming out soon (the not-as-horrible-as-it-sounds "Snowed In"), and I think it will prove that Taylor has the most incredible voice. I seriously believe he could become the greatest R&B singer of his generation. He can be the next Aretha!" Blimey.
Sex-change pending, Hanson will have to content themselves with being one of the fastest-rising acts in America today. "In the last few months," says Taylor, "we've been all over the world. People would die to be in our position. It's been an amazing time."
Ask just how they've managed to keep their feet on the ground, and Zac will immediately scream: "With really heavy weights tied to our shoes! Ha ha ha!" What a hoot.
"It helps to have our parents with us," says Taylor, possibly the most articulate of the three. "To have the family around keeps things normal and sane. Whatever it was that happened to The Jacksons isn't going to happen to us."
When the band traverse the world on promotional trips, the whole family comes along, except, until recently, Mom, who in addition to looking after three non-singing Hansons, is due to squeeze out her seventh any day now.
If it's Thursday, then this has to be Chicago. The Hanson circus rolls into The Windy City to perform at tonight's Halloween Bash, a concert featuring US chart debutantes Robyn and Aaliyah, alongside Backstreet Boys and En Vogue, who will take the show to a suitably stylish climax. The Rosemont Horizon is, by 7pm, foggy with the perfumed whiff of almost 16,000 screaming girls, ranging in age from five to 17. While the younger contingent have scrawled messages of love for each Hanson member across their cheeks and arms, the older girls are intent on transforming the Backstreet Boys' lumpen performance to a backing tape into something approaching mass full sex.
Elsewhere, in the venue's endless outer hallways, clusters of spotty teenage boys gather around the hot dog stalls and toilets, delivering chilling hoodlum stares. And then, of course -- this being America -- there are undesirables: a selection of single, middle-aged men, some in costume (Dracula, Batman, etc.) whose attendance at a teen concert can't help but raise questioning eyebrows. One such example is forcibly ejected from the venue at one point for reasons that never become quite clear, although many of the assembled crowd have insalubrious theories.
Meanwhile, on stage, disaster strikes two songs into Hanson's set. As one of only two bands playing live (the other being En Vogue), they suffer what they will later refer to as "technical difficulties". Halfway through Where's The Love, Taylor's keyboard cuts out, swiftly followed by Isaac's guitar. Only Zac's clattering drumming is audible over the vocals, which are now practically screamed out to compensate. It gets progressively worse from here on in.
Despite Isaac introducing the band's new single I Will Come To You (complete with release date and a plea for everyone here to buy a copy), Taylor launches into Thinking Of You, and the result is a chaotic cacophony. That they actually manage to hold it all together before an audience so enraptured that they don't even notice the technical cock-up is really rather admirable.
"Everyone suffers technical difficulties from time to time," avers Isaac sagely afterwards. "That's OK, we'll learn from it."
Backstage, some 30 minutes after their set, comes the perfect opportunity to observe the Hanson circus in full effect. It quickly becomes clear that they don't exist individually. When they emerge from their dressing room to sign autographs and press the flesh with local radio station winners, they move through the crowd as if joined by the hip, moving, posing, and signing their names in perfect sync. And then it's a swift transfer into the van which weaves through the car park, carefully avoiding the boys' most vocal female fans, who clamber dangerously close to get a peak. Were it not for a police escort, their van would have remained surrounded by swooning, fainting girls well into the early hours.
The boys, however, remain unfazed. "When a girl screams at you," says Tayor with the levelheadedness of his grandfather, "you've got to appreciate that they're into the music, not the person. They're just a little over-excited. We don't take it too seriously."
"Yeah, how can we take it seriously," adds Zac, "when they just stand there saying gngungungunggng to your face?"
"The Prodigy? Euch!" says Zac. The Firestarter is playing on MTV and Keith Flint is inspiring Hansonian revulsion. "Now there's someone who was rejected as a child."
It's the morning after the night before and Hanson have slept well. They are currently in their swish penthouse suite 32 floors up above the city of Chicago, having make-up applied in preparation for the Q photo shoot which, they are pleased to hear, will take place on the roof.
"You wanna know why Chicago is called The Windy City?" asks Zac, before explaining at great length exactly why, and thereby offering proof that their program of home schooling keeps them up to date in history and geography, at the very least. "Think we'll get blown off the roof?" he speculates.
Walker, the boys' father, who has an irritating habit of filming absolutely everything Hanson do on his camcorder, expresses concern about, as he so delicately puts it, Isaac's "teenage marks" (ie. spots), and the make-up artist duly buffs him up with "skin-colored" foundation (ie. bright yellow).
As today is October 31, Halloween, MTV is celebrating by screeing The Scariest Videos Of All Time, of which Firestarter is one of many, alongside Ozzy Osbourne, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, and -- moments before the band head for the roof -- Hanson's own MMMBop, introduced by the monster-attired VJ as "definitely the scariest video ever."
Isaac, Taylor and Zac's jaws visibly drop. The eldest laughs uncertainly, the 14-year-old shrug it off with his typical sang-froid, while the little 'un looks discernibly shocked.
"They're kidding, right?" he asks.
As our time with Hanson draws to its close, Q wonders aloud about the strain that must inevitably come from spending so much time glued together. With Dad always at hand, and the rest of their entourage just over their shoulder, doesn't it ever get a little too much? Do they never -- like "ordinary" children of their age -- crave a little independence, some time alone?
"We get time time on our own whenever we want," says Taylor, who looks like he's become possessed with the spirit of Zac. "Watch!"
He rushes across the suite, squeezes himself behind the TV in the corner of the room and slips behind the curtains, pressed tightly against the window that overlooks the city below.
"You can't see me, can you?" he says. "See, I'm now having time alone!"
He remains there for the next 15 minutes, and whatever he's doing, he does it very quietly.