November 09, 2018 03:00 PM
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In an MMMBop, they’re still here.

Twenty-six years after pop-rock trio Hanson first went from brothers to bandmates, they’re still taking on fresh challenges — and as it has always been for their fans watching them run the gamut from blues, soul, gospel and more over the past two decades, their newest venture has been all about pushing their musical limits. This time, it’s through collaboration with a symphony.

“We [usually] spend most time looking forward and looking at the next project, but [last year] was a time where we embraced reflecting on our history and it was a great year for that,” middle brother Taylor Hanson tells PEOPLE about the difference in touring for and promoting their new album String Theory, out Friday, and 2017’s Middle of Everywhere album and tour, when he and brothers Isaac and Zac celebrated their 25-year milestone — and released their second holiday album, Finally, It's Christmas.

“This thinking began even before the anniversary tour began, but as we were thinking about what will follow, it was just really important to have something on the horizon that was challenging and inspiring and had a story behind it,” says Taylor who, with his brothers, perfected the idea of storytelling even before String Theory: through their 20-year-plus discography and 2005 documentary Strong Enough to Break, which chronicled the band’s struggle in separating from Island/Def Jam and opening their own independent label, 3CG Records, which they still own today.

The guys crafted String Theory — a tour and album made up of old and new tunes alike, performed in a show that Taylor, 35, describes to PEOPLE as “a bucket-list idea” and “almost like listening to one 90-minute song that has a lot of sections” — alongside composer David Campbell. They had worked with him previously on their hit albums Middle of Nowhere and This Time Around, and saw a perfect opportunity for Campbell to fill a role that no one else could.

“So both the story — as far as, ‘Wow, there’s a new project,’ but also for us, the idea of telling a story through the music was something that we thought would make this different than anything we’d done before,” Taylor adds, explaining of the record itself, “It’s almost like two complete albums born together but having to be married in that final step of mixing.”

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Hanson
Jason Kempin/Getty

RELATED: Hanson at 25: The Brothers Dish on Greatest Hits Album, Track by Track — and Why They’ll Always Be Proud of “MMMBop”

Campbell, who also happens to be Beck’s dad, helped the band with symphonic arrangements and was key to assisting Hanson in “marrying” their recordings with that of the Prague Symphony, which is the symphony heard on the String Theory album (the guys practiced in their hometown and home base of Tulsa, Oklahoma, with the Tulsa Symphony, and have played with many other symphonies during their tour).

“There were so many questions that we really needed to have a partner that was at his level — that had his level of experience,” Taylor tells PEOPLE of Campbell. “And there are really very few people that can even say they match him. His career arc has been made up largely of collaborations between contemporary music and symphonies, so he’s the perfect translator, so to speak, between our world and the symphony world.”

“And having him sign on to do it really gave us the confidence to not hold back, to not try and limit ourselves because maybe the person on the other side didn’t have the same appetite for giving it as full a spectrum as we would want to have,” he explains.

Hanson performs "MMMBop"

RELATED VIDEO: Blues Traveler and Hanson Join Forces for an Epic Collaboration

Taylor — the middle of the three oldest of the seven Hanson siblings, to Isaac’s age of 37 and Zac’s 33 — recalls the “biggest challenge” of bringing the record to fruition not having to combine multiple recordings into one album, but choosing which songs not to include in its story.

“Once we discussed the nature of the project and determined that we weren’t going to exclude historic songs that we knew we wanted to incorporate, both old and new, it made the task of looking at all this music really sort of daunting,” he admits. “The thing that helped us … is we found that the strongest through-line for the project was the lyric and being able to tell a story.”

The end result? A mix of ballads and upbeat tunes alike that longtime Hanson fans will recognize (more famous tracks like “MMMBop” and “Where’s the Love” but also less-oft-performed ones like “Yearbook,” “Me Myself and I” and “Broken Angel”) plus new songs like “Reaching for the Sky” and the Zac-led temptation anthem “Siren Call.”

“Once we decided we want to weave a narrative that people feel like they can get a message through the entire show, almost like big song … that allowed us to justify, ‘That song can’t be in it because of this reason, and this song should be in it for this reason,’ ” Taylor says.

Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson
Carly Earl/Newspix/REX/Shutterstock

RELATED: Taylor Hanson and Wife Natalie Expecting Sixth Child

“Yearbook” and one of the band’s early fight songs, “This Time Around,” were almost “destined” for a symphonic platform, Taylor says, but he also implores fans to look at some of the newer tracks and consider their deeper meaning as they apply to the show and album — like  “Reaching for the Sky,” which has two versions that open each of the concert’s two parts and that the soon-to-be father of six says “really sets the tone” for the rest of the story.

“The show is ultimately about having the courage to reach, having the courage to go through the process and take on the challenges that come with a life lived well and not ignoring that there’s issues along the way but recognizing them and embracing the fact that that’s part of the journey,” he says. “So that song is, starting with the piano and starting with something stark and clean and pure, is really important to this show, just to say, if you’re paying attention, this is not like anything we’ve done.”

Other preexisting Hanson songs like “Tragic Symphony” and “Got a Hold on Me” have their place in the show as well, where the listener can hear the influence of Latin percussion instruments and be transported to a new place. Explains Taylor, “It’s almost like when you introduce new instruments, it’s like you’re introducing a new character and a new dynamic, and without saying anything you’re telling people how to feel.”

Hanson
String Theory album cover

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At the end of the day, Taylor hopes fans take away from String Theory a special chapter in the band’s book, with the same message they’ve been putting out there since day one: They’re here to stay.

“Part of our story is what has been shared by people who have followed us and stuck with us through the seasons, and I hope what [fans] take away is we’re still looking forward and we’re proud of where we’ve been,” he says. “The takeaway is really that we’re still reaching. We’re still interested in the future and the message that we’re leaving with this show is a hopeful one, and one that is encouraging the listener to forge ahead.”

“A well-written song, in our mind, is one that can be reinvented and refined and re-skinned and still be good,” Taylor continues. “A song like ‘MMMBop,’ our most known song, we’ve played it acoustically [and so many other ways] … and now it’s wrapped around a symphony and a whole new life and energy comes to it. So our takeaway is that a good song can stand the test of time and can take you to new places.”

Hanson’s String Theory is available now.

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