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Entertainment Weekly

Issue #821/822

May 27, 2005

Summer Music Preview

Backstreet's back-allright?

By Dave Karger

 

On the eve of their first new album in five years, Howie, Nick, Kevin, Brian and AJ are hoping fans react like the Boys were 'Never Gone'

It's just seven weeks before the release of their new record, so on this late-April afternoon in Los Angeles, the Backstreet Boys are busy with the typical llth-hour t-crossing: inspecting the proposed CD cover photo, tweaking their brutal publicity schedule, and scribbling thank-yous for the liner notes. Oh, and one other thing: They're still recording the album. • In the musical equivalent of a last-minute reshoot, the five group members—Nick Carter, 25; AJ McLean, 27; Brian Littrell, 30; Howie Dorough, 31; and Kevin Richardson, 33—are hurriedly laying down three final tracks for Never Gone, their first new release since 2000's Black & Blue. "In a perfect world," says Dorough, "we would've had this already packaged and done, and maybe all taken a week or two vacation." But that would have been uncharacteristic for the Backstreet Boys, who seem to have courted drama throughout their career. Since forming in Florida in 1993, the quintet has seen tremendous success combined with seemingly endless legal battles with their management companies and label, Jive Records. Their recent history has been just as tumultuous: In July 2001, McLean entered alcohol rehab, prompting a group sabbatical. The following year, Carter broke from the fold to release Now or Never, a poorly received rock record that led to a lawsuit between the Boys and Jive (since settled) and caused a rift between Carter and the rest of the group. Another blow. It languished in the shadows of Justin Timberlake's solo success. After firing their managers at powerhouse the Firm, the Boys reunited in late 2003 on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show and then reteamed with Johnny Wright, who helped guide them in the early days (and whom they sued to sever their partnership in 1998). "We're not naive teenagers anymore, says Littrell of their new attitude. "We're full-grown men, and we want to be able to take control of our environment."

Recording Never Gone, due in stores June 14, began early last year when the Boys spent time in the studio with R&B producers the Underdogs (Tyrese). But early sessions—including one extraordinarily misguided attempt at Limp Bizkit-style rap—failed to galvanize the group, whose conflicted thoughts then turned to their old-time hit-maker Max Martin, the Swedish genius responsible for "I Want That Way" as well as career-making singles for 'N Sync and Britney Spears. "After all the other artists that he worked with," explains Dorough, "the whole pop sound that he created with us got so played out." The reluctance was mutual: "Sometimes you have to think about letting people move on," says Martin, who co-wrote and produced Kelly Clarkson's current smash "Since U Been Gone." “I felt that at first: 'Maybe they should try to work with someone else.’”

But when BMG chairman and CEO Clive Davis heard a Martin demo called "Climbing the Walls" (which the songwriter initially intended for the Spider-Man 2 soundtrack), he pegged it as the perfect Backstreet song, and the relationship was renewed. In all, Martin ended up lending a hand on four of Never Gone's 12 tracks, including one of the late-breaking recordings, "Just Want You to Know. " “Basically, the idea is to do 'I Want It That Way' with a little distortion," says Martin. "And not try to be something that they're not.”

The resulting sound, while instantly catchy, is quite different from Backstreet's late-'90s synthesized pop (see box below). “ My worry for us when I fall asleep at night is failure," says AJ whose vice of choice these days is apple tobacco inhaled from a hookah pipe. "We're experimenting, and our fans that have grown with us hopefully haven't grown apart from us."

The Boys got their answer on a small-venue mini-tour this spring, which brought out their loyal female fans in droves. But niche success doesn't always translate into massive sales. "Some people said, 'If it ends now, you guys went out on top. But if you come out with another record and it flops, then how is that going to feel?'" adds Richardson. "But I'm not going to live my life in fear.” He does admit to one major worry: "Is radio going to give us a shot? Because bottom line, they hold the keys, unfortunately." So far, results have been mixed: The kickoff single, "Incomplete," catapulted to No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 in its second week, but has risen no higher since.

In a strange way, "Incomplete" became the lead single by accident. "It got leaked out on the Intenet and radio stations started playing a 90-second version of it," says McLean, who blames an unnamed group member for leaving the track in a hotel room. "Would 'Incomplete' have been my first choice? No. I honestly didn't even like the record when we heard the demo." Which isn't to say the guys don't care how it's being received. "I'm listening to KIIS out here in L.A. every single day trying to see if the song is going to be played on the radio," says Carter. "It's just like it was in the beginning."

In short, an act that's sold 73 million records worldwide has now become an underdog. It's a status that can be traced back to 2000, when 'N Sync's No Strings Attached topped Backstreet's Millennium as the fastest-selling CD of all time. A year later, it looked like Timberlake and Co. had usurped the boy-band throne at the 2001 Super Bowl, when 'N Sync performed with Spears and Aerosmith during the halftime show, upstaging the Backstreet Boys, who sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the game.

Richardson insists they were offered both options. "At the time we felt like it was more prestigious to do the anthem," he says. "Afterward, some of us were like, 'Man, I wish we had done the halftime show.' We don't want to bad-mouth them because they're talented as hell. They may hold the record for most albums sold in a week or whatever, but if you go look at record sales, on every album we put out, we outsold them, in the United States and all over the world. And we're still together."

Although three of them are in their 30s—Richardson and Littrell are now married and Littrell is the father of 2-year-old son Baylee— they're not calling themselves the Backstreet Men. The topic came up during their first recording session in March 2004 and unearthed lingering tensions between Carter and the rest of the group. "There's the Beastie Boys, the Pet Shop Boys," said Richardson, reciting his stock explanation. "They're men, and they still go by 'Boys.'"

"I want to talk about it," Carter blurted out.

"Well, up until today," said Richardson, clearly perturbed, "no­ body's had any problem with it."

"I just want to talk about it because it's like we're starting over again," Carter continued.

"Maybe we'll change the S to a Z," McLean joked. "Backstreet Boyz."

"How about Street Boys?" suggested Carter.

"Nick and the Street Boys," Dorough said. "That's what Nick wanted!"

"You know what?" Carter said. "F— it. I don't care."

These days, a surefire way to get Carter riled up is to mention the avalanche of tabloid press he received thanks to his recent rocky relationship with Paris Hilton and his DUI arrest in California earlier this year (he has pleaded not guilty...to the DUI, not to Hilton). "If they're so interested in my life," he says, "then I'm going to bring 'em into a portion of my life that they obviously haven't paid attention to before. Which is I'm a f— ing singer."

We'll find out how much people care about Carter's professional doings when Never Gone is released—almost five years since their last studio album, Black & Blue. "Sometimes that long of a break is the kiss of death," says Dorough. "It's like out of sight, out of mind. But if we had tried squeezing out another record, it would've been oversaturation, because people were probably ready for us to go away. I'm sure there's people who wish that we were still gone."

Despite the naysayers, the guys are hopeful that they still have a place in their once-preteen fans' hearts, if no longer on their bedroom walls. One of the group's favorite songs on the new record is "I Still...," a straightforward midtempo love song that Littrell hopes will take on a special added meaning. "I think it could be the fans saying it about us," he says, offering an acappella rendition of the song: " 'Who are you now?/ Are you still the same or did you change somehow?... I still need you.' The first time I heard it, I thought, If the fans all over the world could write a song and dedicate it to us, I feel like they would write something like that. I think they would." He pauses. "I hope they would. Please!"

 

NEVER GONE "We've shifted into an alternative rock-pop-type sound," says McLean. With the title track co-written by Richardson in honor of his late father and another tune ("Just Want You to Know") about a dead girlfriend, McLean says, "There's some deep lyrical stuff on this album.”


 

BOY STORY

1993 The Backstreet Boys form.

1997 BSB's self-titled U.S. debut album stays in Billboard's top 10 for 44 consecutive weeks.

1998 The boys spend much of the year in lawyers' offices, suing to end relationships with band founder Lou Pearlman and manager Johnny Wright. Both suits are settled out of court.

February 1999 BSB receive a Grammy nod for Best New Artist

June 1999 Millennium debuts at No.1 and sells a record 1.1 million copies in its first week.

March 2000 ‘NSync sell a record 2 .4 million copies of No Strings Attached in its first week. Nick Carter constructs a Justin Timberlake voodoo doll.

November 2000 Black & Blue sells 1.6 million copies in its first week. Justin feels shooting pains in his left arm.

January 2001 The group watches as 'N Sync, Aerosmith, Britney Spears, and a tube sock on Britney Spears' arm coheadline the Super Bowl XXXV halftime show.

July 2001 AJ enters rehab for alcoholism and depression.

Oct. 29, 2002 Nick's solo project Now or Never, is released; former fans resoundingly cry, "Never!"

January 2004 Nick begins dating Paris Hilton. The couple, who frequent New York, L.A., and Star magazine, are dismayed to learn that laser surgery may erase his-and-her tattoos, but not bad relationships.

March 28, 2005 Nick is arrested for DUI.

April 28, 2005 The "Incomplete" video debuts on MTV's TRL. Fifteen-year-old girls everywhere remember what it's like to simultaneously weep and cheer. —Tim Stack