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Skeptics, be silent.
Twenty years after Lou Pearlman (who would later be convicted of perpetrating one of the longest-running Ponzi schemes in American history) brought five teenage boys together to form a new boy band, The Backstreet Boys are not only surviving in the music industry — they’re thriving.
With a slew of globally-successful albums to their name in the ‘90s, the early 2000s proved to be a trying time for the group. After the release of their first compilation record, The Hits: Chapter One, tensions among the members bubbled to the surface through a series of events, including a shift in management, a solo album from Nick Carter, a lawsuit against their label and band member A.J. McLean’s open battle with drug and alcohol addiction.
Since then, the group has released two moderately successful albums: 2005’s Never Gone and 2009’s This Is Us, marking the band’s first effort without Kevin Richardson. But their career received a mega-boost when the four active members joined forces with a newly-reunited New Kids on the Block to form the pop supergroup NKOTBSB. The subsequent tour placed the boys at No. 17 on Billboard’s annual top 25 tours list in late 2011 and brought in more than $40 million.
While Richardson made multiple appearances alongside his former band mates during that time, it wasn’t until April 2012 that the 41-year-old made his return official.
Now, as the band celebrates their 20th anniversary, the quintet has a new album on the horizon, a newly-minted star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a world tour on the schedule, a tell-all documentary in the works and their third fan cruise set for October.
“I just wanted to be back,” Richardson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “My personal goal when we started this journey was to have fun with it, don’t stress out too much and enjoy the ride.”
The group’s freewheeling attitude this time around (says McLean: “We really wanted to push the envelope now because we have no one to answer to but each other.”) is a marked departure from their structured beginnings. Asked about their memories from recording their self-titled debut in 1995, McLean recalls, “We were still flabbergasted that we were in the studio, making a real album. We were in Stockholm, Sweden, it’s our first time leaving the country to make a record deal and it was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re actually doing this. It’s not just a middle school tour on a Winnebago.’”
On their eighth studio effort, the boys are maintaining full control. “Because it was just us creatively A&R-ing the record … we didn’t have to run it through the record company,” says McLean. “We could write about whatever the heck we wanted to write about, whether it was being fathers or bullying or love or whatever, and it turned out amazing. We’re really proud of this record.”
But some things will never change.
While the group cites some of their current influences as Jason Mraz, Coldplay, Train and One Republic, Backstreet did get back in the studio with hitmaker Max Martin — with whom they worked closely in the ’90s.
“You’re always drawing inspiration from different places,” says Richardson. “We try to evolve and not do the same thing over and over again.”
For what it’s worth, Carter told reporters gathered for a press conference that Martin’s contribution to the album is being strongly considered as the new album’s lead single. “He’s super special to us,” adds Brian Littrell of Martin.
And as the group works to expand their musical offerings, they are happy to acknowledge the chart toppers and Total Request Live mainstays that made them stars.
“’I Want It That Way’ is one of the top five best pop songs in history. That’s a nice list to be on,” says Littrell, adding with a laugh, “but at the same time, there’s other songs we don’t put in the [live] show.”
McLean clarifies: “For me, the one I could live without — but I know it’s one of the fans’ favorites — is ‘Quit Playin’ Games.’ There’s just been so many better songs that we’ve done since then, but that is a moment in time … ‘Quit’ put us on the radio. MTV, too.”
While they’d be happy to leave the catchy tune in the past, Richardson has fond memories associated with the song.
“First one I ever heard on USA radio,” he says. “We were right in the parking lot of Downtown Disney when ‘Quit Playin’ Games’ came on the radio, and my mom was in town visiting me. I stopped the car, my mom got out and was dancing in the parking lot. Those are great memories.”
Backstreet and New Kids aren’t the only boy bands to reunite as of late. Joining NKOTB on the road is the Nick Lachey-fronted 98 Degrees and Boyz II Men. Meanwhile, Brit newcomers One Direction and The Wanted have spurred a resurgence of boy band mania in today’s teens, and are trailed by the Nickelodeon-created Big Time Rush.
Out of respect to their comrades, the Backstreet Boys decline to choose sides in the epic non-feud between One Direction and The Wanted (BSB vs. ‘N SYNC, anyone?). Instead, they have an idea.
“Now, you’re seeing a lot of acts teaming up, doing the double headliner thing, after we did NKOTBSB,” says McLean. “Who knows, maybe somewhere down the road we can do the biggest tour with all the boy bands together. It would be huge.”
“Boyapalooza!” exclaims Richardson, while Littrell chimes in with “Summer Boys Series” and “Boy Band Palooza.”
But in the meantime, fans can put in some quality time with the boys (er, men) on their third official Backstreet Boys Cruise, operated by Carnival Cruises.
“They left last time without Captain Stubing,” says Richardson, before the group launches into The Love Boat theme song.
“Hopefully the bathrooms work,” says Littrell, referencing the February mishap oft referred to as the “poop cruise,” in which an engine room fire left one Carnival ship adrift in the Gulf of Mexico for four days. When passengers finally arrived on U.S. soil, their ship had been filled with human waste.
Asked about their contingency plan in the unlikely event of disaster, Richardson jokes that he’s bringing his own life boat, while Littrell and McLean weigh the benefits of inner tubes vs. floaties. “Hope I don’t have any shiny jewelry or cuts in the water…” says McLean.
Email: Sophie.Schillaci@THR.com; Twitter: @SophieSchillaci
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