NSYNC Talks Backstreet Boys Rivalry, Justin Timberlake Leading Vocals for "Greater Good" of the Group
The legendary boy band — sans Timberlake — reflects back on their career for the 20-year anniversary of their self-titled debut album.
By spring of 1998, pop had seen a long-overdue resurgence after a Nirvana-driven grunge era, thanks to the to the 1997 breakthrough of megapop groups the Spice Girls, Hanson and most importantly, the Backstreet Boys. With the stage set, another five-piece boy band named NSYNC was ready to join the top 40 scene stateside with their American self-titled debut.
As with BSB, the NSYNC guys — Justin Timberlake, J.C. Chasez, Joey Fatone, Chris Kirkpatrick and Lance Bass — had spent 1996 and 1997 in Europe, working with Swedish hitmaker Denniz PoP and up-and-coming producer Max Martin in PoP's Cheiron Studios. Before heading overseas, the guys (then 15 to 24 years old) had been working together since October 1995, when Bass joined the other four after original bass singer Jason Galasso dropped out of the group.
"I liked them so much immediately, it just felt like fate that we'd all come together," Bass tells Billboard. "But I never felt like — and I still don't to this day — I was ready or prepared about what I was about to get into."
After releasing a European version of their debut LP in May 1997 (released on Trans Continental, owned by the band's co-manager, Lou Pearlman), NSYNC became superstars in the international market — yet no one in their home country had a clue who they were. Upon gaining the attention of RCA A&R rep Vincent DeGiorgio, the guys were offered an American record deal with RCA in November 1997. Initially releasing their first single "I Want You Back" in January 1998, NSYNC switched out a few tracks for a U.S. edition of the album, and released NSYNC in the U.S. on March 24, 1998.
A slow burn at first, the album debuted at No. 82 on the Billboard 200, and "I Want You Back" wasn't seeing the reaction it received overseas. But that summer, the guys performed on a Disney Channel concert special, and suddenly the tides turned. NSYNC mania ultimately ensued, with the album catapulting to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and selling 10 million copies in the United States alone. The set's success kickstarted a career for the quintet that led to two more No. 1 albums, countless classic hits, and coming April 30 of this year, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In honor of the 20th anniversary of NSYNC's debut album, Fatone, Bass, Chasez and Kirkpatrick took Billboard back to the beginning. Sharing stories of working with chain-smoking Swedish producers, recording demos in Shaquille O'Neal's house, and agreeing to that fateful Disney Channel show, the guys detailed exactly how NSYNC came together — and ultimately became established as one of the biggest boy bands of all time.
Here, in their own words, is the history of NSYNC.
"Walking Into Shaquille O'Neal's House Was a Real Moment"
JC CHASEZ: Back in the day, everyone imagined a grand, studio setup, but in today's day and age, people are making records on tour buses and just about anywhere now. We did it for budgetary reasons.
JOEY FATONE: The very, very first time we recorded stuff, it was a demo — and we recorded at Shaquille O'Neal's house, actually. He had a recording studio in Orlando. We did, I think, four songs.
CHASEZ: It was kind of our first break. This guy heard us sing the [National] anthem, asked us who we were. We said we were a new group, and we were looking to put our demo together, and he offered his studio to us. It was a very generous offer, and we took him up on it. (Laughs.) We used that demo to shop our deal.
LANCE BASS: As a kid from Mississippi who had never really left the state, and as a 15-year-old huge Orlando Magic fan, walking into Shaquille O'Neal's house — with the doors being so huge and everything — it was a real moment for me.
CHRIS KIRKPATRICK: We didn't get to meet him, but we saw he had that song with Fu Schnickens and all those [guys]. We saw the gold records, and we were just in awe.
CHASEZ: It wasn't an oversized room or anything — but he built a full-blown recording studio in his guest house at his mansion in Orlando. It was exciting.
BASS: Up until this point, we hadn't recorded in a major studio. We'd always recorded in closets, just little studios here and there. A lot of closets with mattresses on the wall — we've hit all of those. Real glamorous. A new band with no budget, that's what you gotta do.
FATONE: We were literally recording "Sailing," "Giddy Up," a couple of songs in a closet.
CHASEZ: We worked with a producer named Veit Renn and he was working out of a house. He had, basically, his work room set up in what would be an office of a house. The office had a closet, so it was in a separate room, so you had soundproofing. He just took whatever was available, so he just stuck a bunch of mattresses against a wall, and that's what we used — and it worked.
FATONE: I remember, I'm like, "hang on a second" and they're like, "What?" and I'm like, "The mattress is falling."
CHASEZ: Walking into Shaq's place, I think the thing that felt good was, "OK, this is the first person that sees something. They see what we see. We feel like we have something, and now someone else recognizes it." And that's a good feeling.
"We Were Learning the Math of a Song"
FATONE: I think Johnny [Wright, the group's manager] said, "Do you guys write?" and Justin and JC were like, "We write a little bit," and I never really wrote that much. I do more videos and ideas, and concepts for show and stage and stuff. But I never really wrote cause back in the day if I did, it would be about dirty things. So, I tried to refrain from writing.
KIRKPATRICK: I used to play a lot of coffee shops and I did a lot of writing, more singer-songwriter stuff, [so] I'd written before. I know Lance wasn't feeling very confident. Joey is always confident, so I don't know why he said he wasn't.
BASS: That was really hard on me, that first write [for "Giddy Up"], because I was trying to contribute, but I had no idea what I was doing. And I have to say, it was really overwhelming. Because I wasn't used to sharing ideas, and then when people shut down your ideas, it's hard not to get offended when you're 16. You just feel like a horrible person, like you have no talent at all.
KIRKPATRICK: Me, J.C., Justin and Joey would sit down at the dining room table, coming up with concepts and cool ideas. You know, "How about this line," and working choruses.
CHASEZ: It felt pretty organic. I remember, one or two of the guys were sitting in the staircase or something while we were sitting around talking ideas. Overall, I don't remember all the minutiae — I remember sitting there and coming up with it, and feeling good with it.
KIRKPATRICK: Now, writing a lot more as I do, it's cool to remember back to how it was when we started out. We were learning our way of where a verse and pre-chorus and chorus and bridge go, and basically what the math of a song was.
BASS: It was really cool because all five of us were in that, and I just wish we had more time to do that again. We never really got in a room together, all five of us, to write another song — a couple of us would write together, but not all five. All the stuff that we were writing at that time probably wouldn't have made the album anyway. (Laughs.)
"We Were in a Basement With a Bunch of Vikings"
BASS: If you listen to our first German album, there's a lot of songs on there that were not on the American version because we totally were like a techno band on some of those songs (Laughs). When we got together in 1995, we were a vocal R&B group. We loved Boyz II Men. That was our style and we were recording songs in that style in Orlando before we even got a record deal.
And then all of the sudden, we get signed to Germany, and we have to start thinking about the European market — which, at that time, was a different sound than America had. Throughout a whole year, we were in and out of the studio, because we were with Trans Continental records for the first nine months, and then they sent us to Germany. Once we went to Germany, BMG starting picking songs and we started working with their producers. That's when we knew we were building an album — that was July or August , because I was about to go back to school. The next week after we got the call, we flew into Stockholm, and started recording with Denniz Pop and Max Martin.
CHASEZ: We're in a foreign country, and there's a bunch of people speaking a language that we don't know what they're talking about. So the first impression was a little out-of-body. You're outside of yourself, and you're looking at the whole scenario going, "Wow, this is nuts." But, at the same time, it's exciting, you know? It's fun to be on an adventure, and that's kinda what it felt like. It was an adventure.
BASS: That was when in Stockholm, Denniz Pop was huge with Robyn, and we loved that sound that Robyn had. That was the best marriage I think we've ever had. It was more pop than we were used to, but we got to use our R&B vocals with these pop tracks. It was the perfect combination.
This was the first time that we got to work with huge producers that had hits on the radio. And they made us feel so comfortable, and we just had so much fun.
CHASEZ: I felt like I was in a basement with a bunch of Vikings — they all have long, blond hair. These guys were singing back and forth to you, all these vocals, and they were all smokers. So you're in a basement, full of smoke, with a bunch of Vikings that are speaking Swedish. And they were all obsessed with some kind of video game, so in between breaks, they would all be on a computer in a different room, cussing each other out in a different language. We'd be sitting in the kitchen, laughing, going, "These dudes are straight-up nuts."
KIRKPATRICK: They smoked like chimneys. Not what you expected two huge producers of their caliber to look like. You could smell the cigarette breath. Like [J.C.] said, like Vikings. That's the best way to describe them. Whenever they'd start talking to each other or get real excited about something, they'd switch to Swedish. We'd kind of joke around, and of course, our only comeback was to imitate the Swedish accent. That didn't go over so good. They'd be like, (in accent) "That's not what we sound like!"
CHASEZ: I was fascinated by how they were working over there. They were kinda recording in a way that we hadn't done back stateside. They had this crank-it-out kind of mode where they would just do take after take after take. But they were doing it in a way that was more efficient. So it was neat for me to be a sponge more than anything in that situation.
BASS: The first album we had a lot of creative control on, because we had been recording for so long, and we had a lot to choose from, and we had a lot of input. The albums after that, we were so busy and it was so quick, and we had to get an album out within a certain amount of time — you didn't have a lot of time to record a lot of songs, and really get the ones where you perfect everything. We didn't even have time to write the songs.
CHASEZ: Any free time went into three things: sleep, to catch up with somebody back home, or find out what are we doing next. Our schedule was pretty busy, so there wasn't a lot of wasted time. For a few years of our lives, literally every hour was accounted for, and I feel like that's the necessary sacrifice you make. That's the only way you're going to make it in a business that everyone wants to be in.
BASS: I just remember always being so tired in the studio. You get really delirious, and you have a room full of teenagers being really delirious, I remember laughing like pretty much the whole time in the studio, because something was always happening. You put a microphone in front of goofballs like us, and then stupid things happen. Of course, Joey's fartin' all the time (Laughs). It's a funny atmosphere for sure, but I think it's mainly because we were so delirious from always being tired.
We'd always get McDonalds [for meals]. That was our food of choice in any city we were in, because that was the only food that we recognized. We've been to every McDonald's in Europe, I think.
"Everything Was for the Greater Good"
FATONE: It was interesting with the recording process, because sometimes the producers would be like, "All right, we'll let everybody try it, and whoever [fares the best], we'll use it." That's how it started. First, everybody sang leads. Then as it started to go on, more producers were like, "Oh I like J.C.'s voice better on this, Justin's voice is gonna sound really good on this ..."
BASS: There was no real discussion on who was going to sing on what, it was kind of just a known thing. The five of us, our voices [each serve a] purpose for this group, and it's all about the five-part harmony.
That's what I think is so unique about us — we weren't just friends, we all played a part. They wanted me in the group because I'm a bass. Chris was in the group because he has the most alto soprano voice, and Joey was our harmonizer right there in the middle. And then JC and Justin were right in the middle too, so that's where all the leads would take place. It just naturally falls in place.
KIRKPATRICK: J.C. and Justin had by far the best lead voices. It was a matter of which one of them was singing what part, and then, if there were a lot of harmonies, they'd throw me on. I had a really high falsetto, and a really, really high voice, so I could layer and do doubles and octaves, and do octaves of octaves. We almost countrified out some of the songs by putting so many harmonies on everything we did.
FATONE: We were in the studio and it was like, "Here's the lyrics." It was more or less interpreting it, and that was what was so great about J.C. and Justin — a lot of the time when you get into the studio and people record, you're looking at the words the first time, and you really don't get a good sense or vibe of it. I had a hard time, I was 17 years old. Which was amazing because Justin was 14, and to be able to have feelings behind words that he didn't understand fully … [He was] able to just come across vocally with intent, tenacity and feeling.
CHASEZ: Everything was for the greater good. At all times, everything was for the greater good, and that's why we did it the way we did it. It was like, "OK. If you sound great on this, you should be on it." That’s it.
I understand that young people can be competitive. I do understand that mentality, but we made the decision that we were going to be a band. So if it was anything, it was kind of like us against the world. We leaned on each other to overcome that part of it. We all wanted to win. It's like, in order to win, we have to put our best foot forward. For me, it was just like, "Hey, man. What makes the tune great? Alright, let's go there."
FATONE: There was no animosity. There was no, "Oh my god, he's singing more leads than I am." Guess what? We all get the same fucking paycheck. It didn't matter. And that's the thing, we were young, so it wasn't even the concept of the money. We loved [the music], and we still do.
"We Kinda Have a Sound Now"
FATONE: I remember "Want You Back," just being in the studio and recording, [thinking] "What the hell are we doing?" In the sense of like, "I like the song, the song's really good, but do you think other people are gonna like it?" It's like, edgy for pop in a sense, you know. [Beatboxing] Then it drives in and you're like, "This is great!"
BASS: "I Want You Back," I loved it, I just didn't know — it was so new to us, that pop, pop sound — we were just getting used to it.
When we were recording [it], I was 17 at the time, I was like, "We're in Europe, maybe I can get a beer!" I remember we went — it wasn’t all five of us, I don't remember which member went with me, it may have been Joey — we went across the street to this little bar, and I wanted to see if I could order underage. I ordered a Guinness, and I'd never had a Guinness in my life, but I felt like, "I'm in Europe, and that's what you’re supposed to order." They gave it to me, and I remember I couldn't even finish it because it was just so horrible. That was my first underage buying of liquor. So I was wasted as I recorded "I Want You Back." (Laughs.)
KIRKPATRICK: Justin and I had gotten really into rollerblading. I believe we brought our skates over with us, and Cheiron Studios in Sweden had these giant steps next to it. We spent the whole day jumping and riding down stairs and grinding on rails — and when you think about it, that's probably the dumbest thing a record label could ever let their new artist do, is almost break their ankles and knees and everything while they're recording their very first single.
BASS: I remember the first time we heard our song on the radio [in Europe]. Until you hear your song on the radio, it just doesn't seem real. But then it finally felt like, "Oh my gosh, 'I Want You Back' is on the radio, there's thousands of people listening to this right now." We were geeking out. We were actually split up into two different cars, and the car in front of us was waving at us like, "Turn on the radio!" We were all just freaking out in two cars driving down some kind of German road.
FATONE: The first time I heard it on the radio [in America], which was XL 106.7 radio station in Orlando, Florida, that we heard it on the radio for the first time when we were recording. It was the "Survival of the Fittest" or whatever, and what they did was they put two new songs from new people, and people would vote for the one they liked. And all of the sudden it was like NSYNC, NSYNC, NSYNC — we won every day or every week for a bunch of weeks.
CHASEZ: We did a really [cheap-looking] video for "I Want You Back." We were wearing the craziest stuff and were just so excited to shoot a music video.
FATONE: The first [video] was shot on a green screen. We had no idea what the hell [we were doing] ... we were just dancing. And they were like, "All right, you're just gonna walk along this treadmill, just look like you're walking." OK! And we were like, "Oh my god, this is awesome! The graphics look amazing." And when you look at it now, it's like, what a piece of crap. It's so digital and, like, fake.
CHASEZ: We ended up reshooting it for America. We were like, "Oh, we just made a real music video — a video that doesn't look like it cost $5." That was one of the moments for me then where I was like, "I think we just made a real video."
BASS: "Tearin' Up My Heart" was always my favorite. The first time I heard that I was like, "Oh my gosh, I love this song. This is a hit." And I knew that if it was allowed to be played on the radio, that people were going to love it.
CHASEZ: "I Want You Back" had given us great legs, right? When we got "[Tearin' Up] My Heart," and we knew that we were going back to work with the people that had given us the best record that we had so far, we were like, "All right!"
I was excited because it felt like, "This is 'I Want You Back' 2.0. It's got a little bit more pace. I felt like it had a little bit more energy." It was like, we kinda have a sound now.
BASS: I was happy to record "Tearin' Up My Heart" because I was just glad we had something else to add to our arsenal. And I thought it was "I Want You Back" on crack. (Laughs.)
CHASEZ: When we got that record and we had another song to get excited about, it also helped with the shows a lot because if you start the shows with one song, you can end it with the other. You can wake the audience up right away, and then you can close the show. Having two hit records is important.
FATONE: "Sailing" was [a cover of] Christopher Cross. We had a great time with that too, because I remember at the Blockbuster Awards, we did the song "Sailing" and he came out with us, which is cool. He wrote a letter and sent us each a guitar saying "Thanks for reviving my song again."
CHASEZ: I still got mine. I still have my guitars from Alabama [too], because they covered "(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You."
BASS: You better believe [I still have] it. I have it in the corner of my living room. It even has the words to "Sailing" written on the inside of it. We got as much memorabilia as possible.
CHASEZ: We did one or two songs where we would actually put our name in the song, and looking back now, it's like, "Wow, it's kinda funny that you would actually say your own name in the song." Like, "NSYNC has got the flow" [in "Here We Go"] is, like, the most ridiculous thing, ever. And we had the dance moves to go with it. We kinda did a half-Humpty Dance into a flowy arm motion. It was ridiculous.
BASS: "Here We Go" is the bane of my existence. For some odd reason, it's a lot of people's favorite song, I've come to realize, because a lot of people always want to sing that song. And I'm like, "Oh, my gosh." That song always haunts me — one, because it was just way too cheesy for my liking. And I don't like songs that name-check you, and we checked all the names. And it's the only song that's in my head every time that I take off on an airplane. I fly a lot, so you can imagine, 20 years later, how much I really hate that song.
"It Feels Good to Be Home"
FATONE: We were in Europe for about two and a half years, perfecting and polishing our craft. So by the time we came over to the States, we were rolling.
KIRKPATRICK: For us, it was hit or miss. If we didn't break the States, we weren't gonna break. I was real nervous about how it was gonna be perceived by everybody. There was a lot of nerves, but a lot of relief that we got it finished. We'd do a show over in Europe in front of 8 to 10 million people that was the biggest show over there, then we'd come over here, and our parents would forget to pick us up from the airport.
CHASEZ: We basically became Platinum-selling artists all over the world, except for where we were born. (Laughs.) It was more of a sense of relief. We wanted to come home, and it was like, "OK, we're releasing this thing at home. It feels good to be home."
BASS: I definitely had mixed feelings, because I was super excited to be able to come home and release our music that our friends and family can see. A lot of people back home didn't really understand — and half of them didn't even believe — what was happening over there. On the other hand, I was just so nervous, because you really only get one shot in this country. I was so scared that "Want You Back" would come out and it would completely flop, and that was going to be our last shot, we were going to spend the rest of our career internationally and that was it. So I was extremely nervous.
CHASEZ: There is that sense of, when you're traveling everywhere and you become a citizen of the world, I guess, your family and your friends can take your word for it, but they can't see it and they can't experience it with you. They can't feel it. At least from my perspective, we wanted the people that we cared about to see this. To say, "Hey, man, we've been working our tails off, and for good reason."
BASS: It was an overnight sensation over in Europe. We worked really hard to get there, but it happened so quickly. I knew it was going to be hard to get an American audience over a European audience, and we saw that in our shows. Some of the first shows we ever did in America were MTV Spring Breaks — we went to a lot of different spring breaks, and half the audiences were guys. So it wasn't just the girls you had to win over, but the guys. It was definitely a different market and we didn't really understand how America — if they were going to accept us at all.
CHASEZ: We have literally played in front of every kind of crowd you can imagine. From the early days in Europe, there's a bunch of people going, "Who the heck are these American kids jumping around on our stage in space suits?" By the time we got back here, we had to start all over again.
That being said, we had years of experience under our belts, so we were confident in each other. For me, that was always what's in the back of my mind, like, "You know what, this might not be their cup of tea, but they're gonna walk away thinking, somehow, some way, 'That might not be my thing, but I gotta respect it.'"
FATONE: It was cool just because of the fact that it was our first time coming out to the States, and hoping that people would like it, because obviously at that time pop music was coming back again. [Before that] it was grunge with Nirvana and everything else. But the minute that Hanson, Backstreet and Spice Girls came on over, that opened up the door for us to come over, finally. And we're like, "Yay! We're here!"
"It Created a Friendly Competition"
BASS: That was a huge thing of discussion. When we were all over in Europe, we knew we wanted to try to be the first [boy] band out in America. Cause I knew the first one was gonna get the market — there was no room for two groups like that. Lou [Pearlman] promised us, "Oh yeah, your song will be released before the Backstreet Boys," and of course that was a lie. So I was very aware that the first group out in America was going to take the whole market.
CHASEZ: I wasn't nervous about it. My perspective was, "All right, they got it first, but that doesn't mean anything in the grand scheme of things, as long as you can back up what you do." So our goal was, "You gotta be good." We can't control how people are gonna take it. All we can do is control how we give it. The doors are open — we just focus on making our shows good, making sure we sound good, and making sure the records were good.
FATONE: It created a friendly competition. There's nothing wrong with friendly competition — even though we are, of course, better than any of those boy bands. Maybe not right now, a little rusty.
KIRKPATRICK: To us, there wasn't a competition. We just thought we needed to be the best. To them, there was, because they came out and we came out, and they’re like, "Man, we have to be better than them!"
FATONE: Did anyone have any beef? A.J. and Chris did, because they were dating the same girl, she broke up with one — I think A.J. — and dated Chris. They didn't like each other for a little while.
KIRKPATRICK: I wanted to punch A.J.'s lights out for a little while. I was dating a girl, I broke up with her and he started dating her. And I guess he was talking smack to her about me, so I confronted him on it and wanted to kick his ass. I don't know how it got resolved — I saw him out one night and said I wanted to kill him, but I said "Let's get a beer."
I think boy band fights are in the same realm as hockey fights. You fight when you're on TV, but then when you're not, you get a beer together. Now we're really good friends.
"That Really Catapulted Our Career"
FATONE: Backstreet did a lot of stuff before us, because they did come out before us. And they were getting a lot of heat, and a lot of excitement. But they were getting pulled from all these places that they couldn't do everything, so that kind of let us open up some doors.
[There] was this Disney Channel concert series called In Concert. The Backstreet Boys were supposed to do it, but they turned it down [because Brian Littrell needed heart surgery], so Johnny said, "Listen, this new band I got coming from overseas, I represent them as well, they're probably going to be bigger, if not better, than Backstreet." The minute [BSB] said "No," we're like "We'll do it, why not!"
It was in front of the Mann Chinese Theater at MGM Studios, which is now Hollywood Studios in Orlando — and it was 800 frickin' degrees outside.
BASS: We were in such a good mood because we had just experienced that craziness of living in Germany, and now we were just starting to hit America, and we got to go home for the first time in a long time to do this special. We spent a week there, and I think it took a couple of days to shoot it. But we got to really relax, and it felt like a vacation.
CHASEZ: The fact that we performed it on Disney property, in the same space where I'd been working for four years where I'd been doing the Mouse Club — I had driven there just about every day for four years. It was very comfortable for me.
BASS: You really got to know us in our element — each individual guy got to do what they like to do, and everyone got to know us. I loved that, because it was so authentic. Everything that you saw was just pure innocence — no one was jaded, that was just us. Those boys had no idea what they were about to get into. (Laughs.)
KIRKPATRICK: The way I looked at it was that Justin and J.C. were on the Mickey Mouse Club on the Disney Channel, and this was the next step for them, and it was neat. But I didn't think it was going to be any more than tucked under the Disney special archives of "What are they doing [now]?"
BASS: I thought it was going to air one time and that was it. I felt, "Oh, we'll be a big Disney a cappella group and get hired, and have a permanent gig at Disney World," not knowing what was going to happen. It's crazy to look back at that 16-year-old, and that was the biggest dream that he had for this group.
I didn't know they were going to air it like three times a day for four months. Once it started airing, that's when the tides started changing — one morning we woke up, and everyone knew our name.
FATONE: That really catapulted our career in the States itself. People were like, "Oh wow!" and that was the trickle effect that started happening, which was crazy.
KIRKPATRICK: We were getting on a flight in New York, they called our group and everyone started walking on the plane. One of us heard some girl say, "Hey, those are the guys from the Disney special!" We all froze in the jetway and we were like, "She's heard of us!" and came running back off the plane saying, "Hey, how's it going? We're NSYNC!" It was one of those moments like when you hear yourself on the radio for the first time.
[After that] I remember Justin and I always looking at each other, [when we would] go to a different country, you write down your occupation, and we wrote down "musician." We're like, "Man, this is awesome!"
FATONE: We say it all the time, I even said it to Howie [Dorough, of BSB] — "Thank you for saying no."
A version of this story first appeared on Billboard.com. Read the full interview here.