After 20 years and more than 130 million records sold, Backstreet’s back, y’all.
The iconic boy band’s ninth studio album, In A World Like This, will be released July 30, and is the first in six years with the entire original lineup, including once-departed member Kevin Richardson. Its title track has already garnered positive reviews from critics, including New York magazine's Jody Rosen, who called it “awfully good” and “a spiritual cousin” of the group's classic tune “I Want It That Way.”
Backstreet Boys members A.J. McLean, 35, Brian Littrell, 38, and Kevin Richardson, 41, stopped by the Newsweek Daily Beast office in New York to discuss their latest album, 20 years as a band, their rivalry with ‘N Sync, current crop of boy bands One Direction and The Wanted, and their cameo in a certain blockbuster comedy movie out this summer (hint: spoiler alert).
It’s been 20 years of the Backstreet Boys. Are you guys surprised to still be together after all this time?
Brian: I think we’d hoped we would. The music business is about careers and longevity; it’s not about the quick dollar. For us, it’s been a long road. We’ve had a lot of highs and a lot of lows, but we’ve shared them together. We attribute it to our great fans all over the world and good, quality music. That’s why we’ve reached this 20 years!
You’ve had so many amazing things happen, whether it’s singing the national anthem at Super Bowl XXXV or receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. What’s really stood out for you?
A.J.: There’s been so many. Just recently, we kicked off our In A World Like This tour in China, and we got to go to the Panda Research and Breeding Facility, and each of us held and fed a baby panda. It was the most amazing experience.
Kevin: They were about 50 pounds! Singing with Sting, Elton John, Aretha Franklin… we’ve got to do some pretty amazing things. Not a bad gig.
Now, a lot of people are talking about your group’s cameo in the comedy blockbuster This Is the End. How did that come about?
A.J.: It was more Seth [Rogen’s] wife’s idea. They had already wrapped the film and they didn’t really like the way that it ended. It just ended with them in heaven and it was like, “Eh, okay.” But because they literally referenced “Backstreet’s Back” within the first 10 minutes of the film, the thought, Maybe we’ll try to go full circle. Seth asked if we would be interested and I’d already showed the guys the trailer and said, “This is going to be the funniest movie of the freaking year,” so when we got the email from him we said, “Hell yeah, this is going to be awesome!” We came to find out Seth and Jay [Baruchel] are very big fans, coming from Canada—
Kevin: —One of the first places we broke in North America.
A.J.: We had a blast, man. They had to learn the actual choreography to the chorus.
Who’s the best dancer among the This Is the End actors? Rogen? Franco?
A.J.: They got a lot of good shots of Jay, who really gets into it with all the stuff.
What would heaven look like for you guys, and who would you have perform there?
A.J.: I’d probably have The Doors or Elvis.
Brian: I would have to go with Elvis, too, and it’d be just like the movie—we’d be in white and there would be R&B/hip-hop, and then Elvis would walk out.
Kevin: I would have to say Dean Martin.
Was there ever a proper rivalry between The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync?
A.J.: It was all the media. There was healthy competition because we were both out there at the same time, same label, same management, but there was never any beef. I think the media just wanted to try and stir stuff up.
This year is also the 15th anniversary of MTV’s Total Request Live (TRL), which really helped propel The Backstreet Boys to stardom.
Brian: I think TRL was really created by The Backstreet Boys’ fans from buggin’ them so much. Viacom came in and said, “Let’s create a show where we play what everyone wants to hear,” which spawned The Backstreet Boys with “Quit Playing Games (with My Heart),” the Spice Girls, and Hanson. It was a pop culture movement, and I can’t believe we’ve outlived TRL.
The Backstreet Boys’ wild fans and groupies really run the gamut, from tweens to adults. What are the craziest run-ins you’ve had?
A.J.: Lately, I’ve had a lot of girls showing up at my house. Recently, I wasn’t home and we were doing promo and the door rang, and my wife answered the door and it was a mother and her daughter from Belgium looking for me and asking for a picture. It’s just weird.
Kevin: We had a stowaway on our tour bus. Somehow, some way, from the hotel in Hamburg, Germany, a girl got in through the back door of the bus and she hid in one of the bunks, behind the curtains. We were an hour into the trip when our manager went to lay down and take a nap and there was a girl there!
Now Kevin, this is the first album in six years with you on board, since 2007’s Unbreakable. Why did you decide to part ways with the group?
Kevin: Being in a group and doing records, if you go into an album cycle it’s a year or two-year process and if the album is successful, you fortunately get to tour all over the world—but that’s a long commitment, and we had been doing it for a long, long time. After our touring 2005’s Never Gone, I just decided I wanted to step away and focus on some desires and interests that I wanted to pursue away from music, and also wanted to start a family. I wasn’t as excited, hungry, and inspired as I should be, so I felt like it wasn’t fair to the guys. Why I came back is I got that desire again, I felt inspired to create, and I felt I had something to give and say as a writer and artist with 20 years coming up.
Speaking of fatherhood, the new album In A World Like This does focus a great deal on where you guys are now, as family men.
A.J.: Going into the record-making process, we all sat down at Kevin’s house and discussed what the vibe and what the tone was going to be. We all said from day one that we wanted to make a personal record and an inspiring record to us, to our old fans, and maybe to new fans who don’t know the Backstreet Boys and might be skeptical. So we went and posted up in three weeks in London with an amazing songwriter and producer, Martin Terefe, and it will be a year next month that it’s taken us to make the record. There are songs that are straight-up pop records, songs that have a lot of depth, some dance, some acoustic. There’s a song that Kevin and I wrote that’s completely inspired by all of our children, called “Show ‘Em (What You’re Made Of),” and we’re all really proud of this record. In my opinion, I think it’s our best body of work since Millennium.
Brian: That’s a big statement, A.J.!
Over the past 20 years, you guys have had some pretty epic outfits as well. What are the most regrettable outfits you guys have rocked?
A.J.: I used to wear cross-colors back in the day. I don’t know who I thought I was or what I thought I was. And do-rags. And then, it wasn’t Tommy Hilfiger but a knock-off version—these blue-and-red overalls. Really gnarly.
Brian: And everything was too big! Too baggy! We were not a hip-hop group. We thought we were a hip-hop group because of the clothes we wore, but now everything is fresh-cut, European, tailored, which is nice.
I hear there are these Backstreet Boys cruises. What goes down?
Brian: Bring your floaties! [Laughs]
A.J.: It’s fun, man! We do games with the fans and a performance. There’s a different-themed deck party every night. Last year, we did a prom night, an ‘80s night, and a world night.
When’s the next one, and what’s the craziest thing that’s gone down on a BSB cruise?
A.J.: It’s in October. And we did a costume party on this last one where everyone had Halloween costumes, and we were doing a truth-or-dare thing and it got a little crazy with dancing on top of the bar, and singing and doing crazy stuff. For the guys that actually drink, doing crazy shots or whatever.
Boy bands have really seemed to resurface with One Direction and The Wanted. Are you guys fans of theirs?
Kevin: We see ourselves in them. We’ve been there. We’re like, “Oh, wow.” Just seeing how it’s all happening, seeing what they’re going through, and seeing how the media responds. It’s very familiar.
A.J.: The music, production, and melodies are very reminiscent of early us.
Brian: Fashion, music, everything is in cycles. Give it 10, 12 years, and everything will come back. But it’s good music, and you can’t deny good music.
One Direction or The Wanted?
Kevin: [Laughs] We’re friends with both parties, so we’re neutral on this.
Besides the new album, the tour, and the cruise, anything else in the pipeline?
A.J.: We have a documentary that we’ve been filming over a year. It was originally going to give you a ‘making of the record’ type of vibe, but we managed to push the envelope and give it a lot more depth. We did hometown trips for each of the guys to where we grew up, because besides [Kevin and Brian], who are cousins, we hadn’t seen where each other came from. It was humbling and there were some tears shed.
Kevin: It comes out next year and it’s going to hit the film festival circuit.
Brian: We’re hoping for a big, theatrical release!