Growing up in the late ’90s and early ’00s, you swore allegiances. You were staunchly Team Backstreet Boys or Team ’N Sync. But if you preferred your frosted-tipped group of matching-outfitted crooners to harmonize on love songs instead of dance in unison, you were part of a third just-as-passionate faction: Team 98 Degrees.
The adult-contemporary-flavored option of the turn-of-millennium boy-band craze, 98 Degrees broke out in 1997 with the swoonworthy ballad “Invisible Man,” sung by four swoonworthy young gentlemen: brothers Nick and Drew Lachey, Jeff Timmons, and Justin Jeffre. A bit older than the Timberlakes and Carters, 98 Degrees carved its niche as the mature boy band, going on to sell 10 million records and score eight top-40 singles, including “I Do (Cherish You),” “The Hardest Thing,” and “Thank God I Found You” with Mariah Carey.
The group disbanded in 2002 and is now reuniting for a new tour with New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men and a new album, 2.0, out Tuesday. The individual Degrees’ roads to the reunion have been unusual and unexpected. Nick Lachey became more famous than ever as Jessica Simpson’s first husband, delighting MTV viewers as the reality-TV version of Lucy and Ricky on Newlyweds before releasing a solo record, becoming the amiable host of NBC’s The Sing Off, and becoming perennial Us Weekly cover star following his divorce from Simpson and subsequent marriage to Vanessa Minnillo.
Timmons released some solo material and participated in VH1’s ill-advised series Mission: Man Band, which concocted a new pop group from former members of ’N Sync, Color Me Badd, and LFO. All that was before he pledged to “flex his vocal cords and muscles for four weekends only” as a celebrity guest emcee for the Chippendales show in Vegas in 2011. Jeffre, on the other hand, launched an unlikely political career, even running for mayor of Cincinnati in 2005.
As for the younger Lachey, Drew performed on Broadway in Rent and Spamalot before becoming one of the first big breakout participants on Dancing With the Stars, thanks to a shockingly popular routine set to “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).” With all those experiences under their belts, what’s it like for the men of 98 Degrees to revisit their boy-band mojo—singing about, among other things, oral sex on their first reunited single, “Microphone”? We’ll let Drew—who called The Daily Beast to talk about the reunion, the reaction to “Microphone,” and what the hell the group has been up to over the past decade—tell you himself.
When word got out that you guys were reuniting, a lot of people were surprised. What was behind the idea to get back together again after all this time?
It’s always been our intention to get back together and make another record. We weren’t one of those groups that had a terrible fallout and broke up and never wanted to speak each other again. It was just time to take a break. People started doing things individually, both in our personal lives and professionally, that made it difficult to do something. So it really took getting everybody on the same page and making the commitment to take the time to really get together and do it. It was never, in our minds, a matter of if but when.
“We were young and had thousands of girls screaming for us. You think it’s never going to end, and you’re on top of the world. With time comes a little bit of levity.”
Why now? Did seeing other bands like the Backstreet Boys get back together make you think this was a good time to reunite?
I think it was a combination of multiple things. One was that we wanted to. We always wanted to get back together and make music together. Two, our fans have been asking for it for a while. New music from 98 Degrees was something that we were getting requests for so we wanted to do it for that. And of course you see other groups reuniting and having success and going out and doing it. We were like, oh, maybe this is a good time. There’s the success of other pop groups, boy bands, whatever you want to call them right now, with One Direction and the Wanted. Obviously New Kids have had tremendous success over the last five years with touring. You can’t decide to come out and release a pop record when music is in a rock phase. It won’t be as successful. You really have to wait and time it right, and everything lined up to make this the right time.
Plus, it seems like right now we’re at this time where there seems to be peak nostalgia for the late ’90s and early ’00s.
Yeah. I think a lot of that has to do with the change in music and how people listen to music. People really invested in the artists in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Now it seems to me that it’s more song-driven as opposed to an investment in a new artist. I might be mistaken about that, but that’s the feeling I get and the way I am as a music consumer right now. So I think people are going back to the artists they were last really attached to, and those are the artists from the late ’90s and early ’00s.
You guys were obviously part of the boyband craze. Do you now, reunited 15 years later, identify as a “boy band”?
I don’t think we ever set out to be called a boyband. I think with the term “boy band,” there are negative stereotypes that come along with that. The flip side of that is that if you’re considered a boy band, that probably means that you sold a lot of records and had a lot of fans. So it’s kind of a badge we wear with honor now, people calling us that. But a couple of the guys are turning 40, you know, and I’m a couple of years behind, so yeah, to be called a boy band is a little ironic at this stage in the game.
What about the term “man band”?
When people asked how does it feel to be a boy band, even in 2000, we always said, “Well we’re more of a man band,” because even then we were 27, 25—we weren’t necessarily boys. We weren’t one of the groups that came out that was full of teenagers. Our focus was always on the music, too. It wasn’t necessarily always on the dancing or the stage show or any of that. It was on the music and the harmonies. I’m sure everyone says, “We were different from everyone else,” but that was always our focus: to make good music, never to become a boy band. But if being called a boy band means we were successful, we’ll take it.
That time with you guys and the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync was always painted as this three-band rivalry. Did you ever get a sense of that?
Competition? No. Not between the three of us. We’re actually good friends with ’N Sync. We toured with them overseas when we had our first single out, so we go back a long way with those guys and have respect for them. Backstreet Boys, we never were as close with, just because we never had the opportunity or situation to become close. But we all sold a lot of records and had a lot of hits, so it wasn’t like, oh, they had success and that took away from us. There was more than enough to go around. We were kind of saying, “All right, their success is kind of our success,” because we were doing it together, building this genre. It was never like, oh, man, they sold a million records this week; now we have to sell a million records.
Is it wild to you that those songs you were making back then could technically now be considered oldies?
Yeah. I mean it’s weird to me when I listen to a classic-rock station and I hear Nirvana. It doesn’t fit right with me. It doesn’t feel right. Our songs always had a lot of play on adult-contemporary stations, because they were love songs, so to hear that they’re being played there and not top-40 radio, that’s not a surprise. But it does make you think, where have the last 13 years gone?
How do you think the songs have held up?
I think there are a couple that were different from that time period. But I think “Invisible Man,” “Hardest Thing,” “I Do,” I think those are classic love songs that could translate even now. We just performed an acoustic set today and were singing those. Really, you just change the production a little bit on them, and they’re just timeless melodies and lyrics. So I think they held up pretty well.
You’ve been working with your brother now for over 15 years.
It’s great. Even if we weren’t working together or seeing each other all the time, we’d still talk every day. That’s just the relationship we’ve had our entire lives. So to have someone that you know is always going to be there for you and have your back professionally and personally, that’s a great comfort. It’s the same situation with me and my wife. We work together every day and have pretty much for years, for the most part. So for me it’s the norm. I work with two of my three best friends on a daily basis.
How are things different now than they were then?
With time comes wisdom. You’re able to look back at what happened in the late ’90s and early ’00s and think, maybe I should’ve appreciated this situation a little more, or maybe I should’ve handled that differently. In retrospect, you’re always able to look back and say that there are a couple of things that you might have done. But all in all, looking back at the big decisions we made, I feel very confident with the career path we took and the decisions we made and how it all shaked out for us. There are some times I think that I was a punk and shouldn’t have been. But we were young and had thousands of girls screaming for us. You think it’s never going to end, and you’re on top of the world. With time comes a little bit of levity.
How does what you went through with fame back then compare to what you’re seeing boy bands like One Direction go through now?
It’s completely different. The paparazzi really didn’t become a big thing here in the States until two or three years after we started making music together. Social media didn’t really blow up until 2006, 2007, with Facebook and Twitter. It was different. It was a lot easier to disappear and have your moment of sanity. So I have a lot of respect for these new groups that can go through with it and deal with all that and keep a level head and keep it in perspective. It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by it, because you have to be on pretty much 24/7 now, with camera phones and Facebook and Twitter. There really is no escape, so you really have to be comfortable with who you are and confident in what you’re doing to really be able to live that life 100 percent all the time.
What are your fans like now? Are they the same ones from a decade ago grown up, or are there new, younger ones?
A lot of of our hard-core fans from back in the day have stayed with us and are still around. They reconnected with us on Facebook and Twitter and all that stuff. And there’s the newer fans that have come on board since we released our new single, “Microphone,” and have seen us on TV, or they were a fan of Nick from The Sing-Off or Newlyweds, or they were a fan of mine from Dancing With the Stars or Broadway, or they like Jeff’s solo record or saw him in Vegas, or they saw Justin and liked what he did politically. We’ve all been able to branch off and do things, so we have 98 Degrees fans and were able to make new ones along the way and bring them into the fold.
When “Microphone” was released, the lyrics were a bit more risqué than what most people were used to from the 98 Degrees of the ’00s. Was it a conscious decision to announce that you’re more grown up now?
Our goal when we were making this record was to make the best songs possible. We made a conscious decision that we weren’t going to write on this record. We wrote 11 of the 13 on the last record. On this one, we really just wanted to make sure we found the best songs possible. When “Microphone” came to us and we listened to it, it wasn’t really about dissecting the lyrics or looking for double entendres or anything like that. It was, this is a great song. It has a great hook. A great track. A great melody, and it’s very catchy. So that’s why we recorded. And as we were putting our whole record together, it still was just standing out as a great song. That’s why we put it out. It wasn’t a conscious decision to break some image of who we are. We’re still the same guys we’ve always been. Maybe we weren’t afraid to do this kind of music where people would be like, “Oh, I didn’t expect that from 98 Degrees.” But it wasn’t a conscious choice to reinvent who we are. We’re the same 98 Degrees, just a little bit older and better.
So there was no trepidation at all about the suggestiveness of the lyrics?
I mean, if you listen to the content of the songs on the radio right now, there’s nothing in “Microphone” that would stand out from any of the other songs on the radio. The fact that it’s coming from guys who have predominantly sung love songs, I can get why people would be, like, that’s not what they were expecting a 98 Degrees song to sound like. But all these people coming up with these questions—they’ve got some dirty minds. We thought this was about microphones! As an artist that’s one of the first lessons you have to learn, mike technique. So I’m really shocked at all these people floating around with dirty minds. They’ve got to get their heads out of the gutter.