Not a Liquid Dream: O-Town's Back, Baby. But Where’s Ashley?
The last great boy band of the early 2000s, O-Town, is back with Lines and Circles.
Erik-Michael Estrada, Dan Miller, Trevor Penick, and Jacob Underwood, all now in their mid-30s, wade back into the boy band game, after a 30-second ‘N SYNC reunion at last year’s VMAs and the great Backstreet Boys cruise of 2014. Though they shed one member along the way (the requisite heartthrob, Ashley Parker Angel, declined to be part of the comeback), Underwood says it was only a matter of time before the band got back together—but first, they had to find the right management.
“That was a big part of it, finding the right team,” he says. “Once we felt like we had a good team around us and we were all somewhat close in area, it just felt like the right time. And then it hit 10 years so we felt like it was now or never.”
O-Town was the product of ABC’s Making the Band, a pre-American Idol reality show that whittled down hundreds of boy band hopefuls to five future “superstars.” Lou Pearlman, the mastermind behind LFO, ’N SYNC, and the Backstreet Boys (and a Ponzi scheme enthusiast largely remembered now as one of pop music’s sleaziest swindlers) was the show’s puppet master, overseeing every audition to handpick his next hitmakers. The experiment was a success: In 2001, O-Town went platinum with their eponymous debut and “Liquid Dreams” and “All or Nothing,” their most popular singles, hit no. 10 and no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, respectively.
But then the dream ended. O-Town’s sophomore record, O2, delayed numerous times before its release, moved far fewer units than the band’s debut and, by November of 2003, the group had been dropped from J Records and disbanded. The era of denim-on-denim boy bands was over—until, with the rise of another group of reality show-made teen pop idols, One Direction, it wasn’t.
The voices harmonizing on Lines and Circles are huskier than they were 11 years ago—but the quartet is still, undeniably, a boy band in all their hook-laden, lovestruck glory. “Skydive,” the album’s lead single, is an early-aughts throwback with a modern sheen, a theme worked heavily into the album to please old fans. It seems to have worked: While touring Europe for the first time in 12 years this past summer, O-Town was greeted in droves by die-hard loyalists at airports and venues.
Erik, Trevor, Jacob and Dan talked to The Daily Beast about their return to music, bad fashion choices, dirty lyrics, and returning to the stage without Ashley Parker Angel.
The first thing I wanted to say is, for the record, Erik, I like the album cover you came up with.
DAN, TREVOR, JACOB: (Laughter.)
ERIK: Yeah man, my ass was too big.
What are your plans for this reunion? Do you want to tour America? Or maybe line up a cruise boat like the Backstreet Boys?
JACOB: Yeahhh, let’s do a cruise!
TREVOR: Yes. Please.
JACOB: You guys plan it, we’ll go.
DAN: We’re just trying to take it one step at a time. The 10 years away gave us good perspective. We realized as quickly as it comes, it can go away so we’re just trying to have fun this time and embrace everything in the moment. Right now we have a bunch of shows lined up. We did a bunch of shows in Europe. And whatever comes in the future, we’re looking forward to.
You guys disbanded after only your second album and then we pretty much didn’t hear from you again until now. What was life like as you fell out of the spotlight?
TREVOR: It was pretty much what it was before we got into it. It’s not like we were the biggest thing in the world for like 15 years and then we had to go into obscurity. It wasn’t that hard for us to just go back and be normal again. It wasn’t that hard for me, I don’t know how it was for the other guys—I assume it was the same. We went through an audition and then we worked for four years and then we each went and did our own individual things.
DAN: There was an adjustment period though because it’s like, no matter how far we move away from the band, it wasn’t like, “This is Dan.” It was always, “This is Dan from O-Town. This is Erik from O-Town.” But even though it had been at some point, nine years since the group had been together, it was always gonna stick with you, so it was like the same questions over and over. I actually enjoyed getting away from the spotlight and celebrity but at the same time, you had to come to grips with the fact that it was never going to leave completely. Like, even though you weren’t on TV every week or on the radio all the time, people were always gonna recognize you [and] associate you with the group.
Music has changed so much in the past decade, where do you see O-Town fitting in now?
ERIK: I think the best way for us to stay relevant is to stay true to ourselves. That being said, I know all of us have acquired new tastes in music. Our tastes are just, across the board, super eclectic, so I think staying true to ourselves and saying, “All right, this is what we do. Let’s see how we can add a contemporary feel to all the music that we have,” keeping that music fresh is exactly what’s gonna keep us relevant and keep us around. All four of us pretty much have a good pulse of what’s hot and where we wanna go. I think that’s the one thing that’ll help us stay around this time around.
Do you guys see yourselves in bands like One Direction, which were also brought together on a reality show?
ERIK: Oh, absolutely. That’s why people will be like, “Oh, you guys are from TV, like One Direction!” We had our opportunity and now they have their opportunity and we definitely see a lot of ourselves in them as they experience this thing on that major level. We look back and are like, “Wow. We experienced that.” And now they get to go through it and grow with their fans, just like we got an opportunity to grow with our fans. And hopefully 10 years later, they can get together and put out an album that they can be proud of just like we’re proud of Lines and Circles.
Is there any advice you would give modern boy bands?
JACOB: I’d say just enjoy every day. Like we are examples of how it goes as quickly as it comes and you never know what’s gonna happen to your life, but day-to-day if you’re enjoying it and really experiencing the moment without looking too far ahead or too far behind.
What has getting back together been like without Ashley Parker Angel?
ERIK: I think it changed the focus a bit, where we knew that—you know, let’s be honest, when we first started, he was the face of the band. We were selling records to young girls, it was clear that he was, you know, the fan favorite back then. But we knew that moving forward without him, we have to stand on something a little more solid. We had to make sure that the music was really there, fun and introspective at the same time. And I think that’s the biggest difference now: We’re relying solely on our album and our live performance. There is nothing else that’s driving this group.
When was the last time you guys spoke to him?
ERIK: He texted us about a few weeks ago, just to kind of give us a congratulatory text on “Skydive” and the video. It was a classy move on his part. But I haven’t spoken to him physically in quite some time.
DAN: I went out to lunch with him recently and it was just like old times. I think he just wasn’t interested in being in the band right now, it was a risk he wasn’t willing to take. And the four of us were.
Is he an underwear model now? That’s what I gleaned from his Instagram photos.
TREVOR: Yeah, I think he is pursuing modeling, I think that’s what I gather from all his Instagram photos. I think that’s what he’s trying to do.
DAN: I think you might have to ask him what’s going on with the underwear pictures.
What are the other main differences between the O-Town of now and a decade ago?
ERIK: We’re wiser now, I think that’s the number one thing. We have that opportunity right now to do what we did when we were younger but with the minds we have now and the work ethic. Everyone has improved, thankfully. The bottom line is it comes down to having improved as a person, so the amount of input and contribution from every single member of the band has just been in spades. That just was not present before at all and it truly is this time around. I mean, Dan has done all of the design work for the album, including the butt shot, Jacob with the management and Trevor with the live performances, and myself with songwriting. All of us have contributed so much to it. That’s the major difference.
DAN: The music industry is always going to be shady. It’s always gonna be a tough business to stay in. But what’s changed for us is, like Erik said, the knowledge that we gained and the bad experiences that we were able to build on in the past to make sure we protect ourselves no matter what going forward.
Was working with Lou Pearlman one of those bad experiences?
JACOB: We could categorize working with Lou Pearlman as both bad and good because we learned what not to do and how to spot faulty characters. And then the experience of working with Clive Davis was a great one. We learned about big business and how the big labels do it, and how it runs, a big machine. Those aren’t bad experience but it definitely shaped how we view the industry now and where we see that we fit and the role that we play.
What was life like at the height of O-Town’s popularity, when “Liquid Dreams” was on the radio? You guys were so young and fame came about very quickly for you because of Making the Band.
TREVOR: We were definitely, like 21 years old, 20. It was a whirlwind. Literally, we had something to do every single day. We toured and did 300 shows in a year, we had like four days off the whole year in like, 2001. It was just a whirlwind. It’s hard to remember…We all have great memories of it and remember small, little things but it’s hard to remember specifically a lot of what it was because it was so crazy.
ERIK: I think it was intense at first because it was a television show. That television show really sparked the whole process, it just created such a high standard for us. We had to work so hard just to even think of matching that standard. Like Trevor said, it was a blur.
Now for the fun part: Let’s talk about the clothes you guys wore back then.
ALL: (Laughter.) Oh no…
Honestly, as far as boy bands in the early 2000s go, your clothes weren’t as outlandish as, say, ‘N SYNC’s. But I did see a photo of Dan wearing a see-through mesh tank top and there were some studded belts, baggy pants…
DAN: I’m not sure what you’re talking about with this mesh tank top thing. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
TREVOR: We were kind of the last boy band through that window in the 2000s, and because we were always compared to ‘N SYNC and Backstreet Boys, it was intentional on our part to be a little bit less cohesive than they were, a little bit less matchy-matchy. We’re all individuals, so we were trying to have a little more individual style. But unfortunately, along that way, we had some mesh tank tops and we had some baggy denim Sean John jumpsuits—
JACOB: Sean John!
TREVOR: There were some bad decisions. But let’s be honest, Melissa, we don’t exactly have pictures of you in the 2000s, I don’t think you’d be impressed with what you wore either.
[Laughs] Fair point. Although denim-on-denim is actually making a comeback, like what you guys wore on your first album cover.
JACOB: Yes it is, totally. Totally.
ERIK: Just not two sizes too big.
So I listened to “Liquid Dreams” again for the first time in a few years and noticed it’s a pretty dirty song for a boy band.
TREVOR: Well we know the whole time exactly what it meant. But when we first started, our main core audience was 14, 15 years old and there’s no way we dropped records saying “It is what it is.” For those who knew, they knew, and for those who were young and didn’t know, they clearly found out when they were old enough to find out. [Laughs] But if you look back at the anthology of O-Town, we’re pretty much a dirty band. We sang a lot of risqué songs that were kind of like under the radar ’cause of how cleverly they were put together, but I mean come on. “Fitting Together Nicely,” “Every Six Seconds”? The list goes on and on.
“I wanna go inside every corner / Girl, you really turn me on / I wanna go knock, knock our bodies to the beat”? That’s intense.
DAN: We’re actually talking about going inside of a dance club and knocking on the door. Like, “knock, knock” trying to get in.
TREVOR: [Laughs] We weren’t talking about that. “Fitting Together Nicely” was about being physically with a girl and “Liquid Dreams” was about nocturnal emissions, I’m just gonna go ahead and say it.