Hanson: how we made MMMBop

‘Taylor’s voice was breaking as we were recording. We got a vocal coach in and tried to catch him on a good day. But in the end, we cheated and slowed the tape down’

Isaac Hanson, songwriter

We were home-schooled and spent a lot of time reading poetry and listening to rock’n’roll. Although our dad was an accountant, he’d studied ballet at college and had wanted to be a poet. Both our parents were really supportive. They tolerated the drum-set in the living room of our house in Oklahoma – despite people in church circles saying things like: “Why would you form a band? It’s awfully dangerous.”

I was 14, and my brothers Taylor and Zac were 12 and 10 respectively. We listened to a lot of doo-wop, which influenced the chorus of MMMBop. We were trying to write a part for another song and came up with this catchy hook, but it didn’t really fit. Much, much later, I said to the guys: “Remember that hook? It really sticks in your head. We need to find a way to use it.” Then, as we were getting ready for bed, we all sang it together in the bathroom.

A few days later, Taylor was sitting at the keyboard with an intense look on his face. “I have an idea,” he said. “We can make this song about life – and all the rejection we’re feeling.” And he played what became the first verse and a half of MMMBop: “You have so many relationships in this life / Only one or two will last / You go through all the pain and strife / Then you turn your back and they’re gone so fast.”

The chorus might be effusive – “Mmmbop, ba duba dop / Ba du bop, ba duba dop” – but the song is about how in an instant you will be old and grey, so you have to make decisions you feel good about before it is too late.

We recorded it in a one-car garage, put it on an independent album and sold several thousand copies at local gigs. The original version was slower and more brooding, but it was rejected by all the record companies until it fell into the hands of Mercury, who felt they could turn it into a hit.

I’m in my 30s now. I still relate to the song and I’m very proud of it. It’s given us a long career doing what we love doing. We get to stay kids for life.

Steve Greenberg, executive producer

When I heard the original recording, I thought: “No one is doing anything like that.” I went to see them at a county fair in Coffeyville, Kansas, in the middle of nowhere – and signed them straight away.

I had an advance copy of Beck’s album Odelay. The production, by the Dust Brothers, was amazing. I wanted them to produce a new version of MMMBop, but then Odelay came out and the Dust Brothers were suddenly hot. They lost interest in the project after two days in the studio, but it was enough time to get the drums and bass down and maybe some guitars.

I asked Steve Lironi, who had produced Black Grape, to finish it, but Steve didn’t do the vocals, which had to be painstakingly pieced together by another producer, Mark Hudson. As we were recording, Taylor’s voice was breaking. He could barely sing MMMBop in the original key, which I really wanted to keep because it had sounded so exciting.

We tried everything. We got a vocal coach in and would try to catch Taylor on a good day, recording a single line, then trying another on a different day. There was one really high note in the second verse that he was obviously never going to reach again. So for that one note we cheated, slowing the tape down so he could sing it and then speeding it back up. The band never sang it live in that original key again.

MMMBop is catchy and fun, but it is also a profound song about what’s important in life – written by children. I can’t imagine being involved in making a better single. At the time, I was also working with Jon Bon Jovi, who’s really competitive. I was in a car with him in London when the charts came on the radio. His Midnight in Chelsea came in at No 4, making it his highest-charting solo single. Everyone was high-fiving. Then the DJ said Hanson had gone straight in at No 1. The whole car fell silent.

• Middle of Everywhere: The Greatest Hits is out now. The band’s Hop Jam festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is on 20 May. Details: hanson.net.

Contributor

Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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