If nothing else, the Backstreet Boys are realistic.
Reunited after four years, they don’t have any illusions that they’ll be able to dominate the pop scene as they did when boy bands ruled the world — and they were the kings.
“We know that we’re gonna have to pay our dues again and we know that we’re going to have to start from scratch because everything has changed,” said A.J. McLean, the heavily tattooed, shades-wearing member of the group. “We’re not looking to be the group that we were in ’99 and 2000.”
Just a few years ago, the Backstreet Boys burst out of Orlando, Fla. to become a pop phenomenon. Their three albums sold a total of more than 35 million copies and ushered in a new teen music craze, buoyed by their soulful harmonies, synchronized dance steps, clean-cut good looks and teen-fanzine charm.
But then, “Behind The Music”-style troubles plagued the quintet — McLean’s substance abuse problems led him to rehab, and infighting, management changes and other problems beset the group. Meanwhile, hip-hop supplanted teen pop from atop the charts, and boy bands became as uncool as New Kids on the Block.
So in 2001, the disillusioned fivesome went their separate ways.
“We lost perspective pretty much,” said Kevin Richardson, the eldest of the “boys” at 33. “If we hadn’t walked away from the business and each other, we might have self-destructed because we needed some time away from each other.”
‘We’re underdogs again’Now, fully recharged, the Backstreet Boys have returned this week to release “Never Gone,” their first full studio album since the 8 million-selling “Black & Blue” in 2000. While they’re not expecting an automatic ride to the top of the charts, they think they still have a shot at reaching the No. 1 spot with a more adult, edgier sound that tilts more toward rock than pop.
“We feel as strongly about this record as we did when ‘Millennium’ came out,” Brian Littrell, 30, said of their blockbuster 1999 album that went on to sell more than 13 million copies.
“We know where we’re at, and we know where we fit,” said Nick Carter, the youngest of the group at 25. “And I love the fact that we’re underdogs again.”
And acting like underdogs, the Backstreet Boys have left nothing to chance in mounting a comeback. Earlier this year, the group tested the waters for their new material by embarking on a club tour — a marked departure for a group that on their last tour played stadium dates.
They’ve also visited radio stations to push their new record. So far, the formula has worked — their first single, “Incomplete,” reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, though it has slipped in recent weeks.
“I think it’s very smart. They really put their egos aside,” disc jockey Paul “Cubby” Bryant of WHTZ-FM (Z-100) in New York said of the strategy. “They didn’t come in here like ‘Hey, we’re back, we’re the Backstreet Boys.’ It might have been tough for them to do that, but I think it was smart for them to break in small.”
“It was just a lot of fun. The energy in the small venues is different than in an arena or a stadium,” said Richardson. “It was like the old days, when we were just starting out.”
‘We were burned out’That kind of fun had eluded the group in their heyday — when a succession of No. 1 hits and albums made them more of a commodity than a musical group. They say their handlers at the time put too much focus on trying to cash in on their immediate success rather than formulating a long-term career plan. So they churned out albums even when they thought they needed time off.
At the same time, ’N Sync was overtaking them in the sales, and McLean was falling deeper and deeper into drugs and alcohol.
“When it’s no fun anymore, that’s the big thing. I think across the board, none of us were having fun,” Littrell said.
The fun stopped completely when McLean’s entry into rehab in 2001 forced the band to postpone their “Black & Blue” tour. Soon after that, the band decided it was time to take a longer break to reassess their future.
“We had been touring for eight years straight, releasing albums,” recalled Carter. “We were burned out, really burned.”
So the Backstreet Boys scattered, and pursued their individual goals for the first time in years. Carter released a solo album that fared poorly; Littrell and his wife had a baby; Richardson appeared on Broadway in “Chicago”; McLean concentrated on his sobriety, while Howie Dorough focused on producing and writing songs for other acts.
Blame it on Oprah
If it wasn’t for Oprah Winfrey, the band might not have gotten back together. But on a show focusing on McLean’s battles with substance abuse, she coaxed the remaining Backstreet Boys to surprise him on air. After the emotional reunion, the group holed up in a hotel room and started talking about a comeback.
“There was probably even some doubt among us when we first started talking about it,” said Dorough. “But I think no matter what we did individually ... we all realized our strength was among the five us together.”
The group spent more than a year recording their latest album, and reunited with old manager and producer Max Martin, who was responsible for many of their early hits. The result, they say, is their best album in years.
“You had that feeling like you walked out the studio like, ‘This song is good, and we hadn’t had that feeling in a long time,” Littrell said.
Far from cocky, the group knows that there is no guarantee of another blockbuster.
“To be honest, of course, we’d love to have the success that we had before. Who wouldn’t want to have that?” Dorough, 31, said. “But this time around, we’ve realized that the music scene has changed. We had to go into it with an open mind, realizing that it’s not going to possibly be that way.
“If it does come again, God bless it; but if not, we all had to be in a good place to be able to say that we could continue going forward and accept the way it is.”