Though some might want to dismiss them as a mere boy band, the Backstreet Boys have sold more than 130 million albums in the last 17 years, making them one the biggest-selling groups of all time. With a recently released album, a summer tour, and their first BSB cruise on the way, we sat down with two of the group's members, Brian Littrell and A.J. McLean, to chat about growing out of the boy band label, insane groupie encounters, and supporting their gay fan base.
Out: I was reading a press release for This Is Us, and Brian, you said, "We made a conscious effort to go back to being ourselves." What were you before you went back to that, and what have you returned to?
Brian Littrell: I think, today, you will find that the Backstreet Boys are comfortable being who we are. There was a time when we were young men that we were trying to discover a sound that we wanted to have for the future. When you back up to after the Black and Blue CD, we took a little bit of time away. We came out with the Never Gone CD, which was a more pop/rock direction -- we kind of got away from what the Backstreet Boys are known for. In that turn of events, after Unbreakable, we were trying to get back to that dance-oriented music that people know us for. The pop, easy songs. Again, it's not rocket science, it's just easy-listening music that you want to move to. So in that, I think with This Is Us, you'll find that the Backstreet Boys, after 17 years together, we're comfortable being the Backstreet Boys, we're comfortable making music that is what it is. We do have a -- we call it some sort of "magical sound" that, when we all sing together, is something that is special that's lasted us for a long time. And you'll find that we're not trying to be anything that we're not. Like I said, it is what it is, and this is us.
A.J. McLean: Well said, well said.
Brian: [singing] Yeah, oh my God, we're here to stay. Brothers, sisters and this is A.J.
You have worked with some of the biggest producers in the industry, especially on the last album.
Brian: Like myself.
So how do you make sure that you're not dwarfed by their contributions? How do you make sure in the end it's a Backstreet Boys' song and not a Red One song?
A.J.: Working with the producers that we've worked with -- like T-Pain, Jim Jonsin, Red One, Max Martin, again, Ryan Tedder -- they're all artists, as well. So they understand when we go in the studio that it is about the Backstreet Boys -- we are making a Backstreet Boys record. Not even once have we felt that any of the writers or producers were trying to one-up us. They're all just great guys to work with. We definitely would work with them all over again. And we now have a lot more creative control than we used to. Back in the day, when we first started, it was kind of like point and shoot. Now, we're the ones holding the gun, so to speak.
Brian: [gun shot noises]
A.J.: And we kind of call the shots. And say, "You know what? We don't really like that part, or I don't like that sound. Can we try this? Can we try that?" We even get more into the production side now, whether it's a keyboard sound, or a guitar lick, or whatever it is. We never used to do that before. It makes the recording process much more fun now than it ever was before.
Brian: It's funny, because when you go back to the beginning, the beginning times for the Backstreet Boys were about the success of the Backstreet Boys. And then there was a time when the industry kind of turned to who was writing, who was producing. And if you do go back, way back, on our second record -- that was our first record in the U.S. -- we even had songs that we were writing and producing at that time. I think, we talk about this term, "dwarfed by the producers," or, "how can we make it ours when we're the Backstreet Boys and we're working with somebody amazing," it's a good collaboration because we have many, many years in this business. And I think we're seasoned artists. A lot of times we're great writers that have been also overshadowed by our own success. And in that, when you really think about it, it's something to take in. And these producers know they are the guys that read the liner notes on the CD, and they know who wrote something, and they know who produced it. Working with great producers now, in today's world, it's all about who produced it and who wrote it, so it's kind of turned, but I think it'll get back to us again -- hopefully.
Tell me about this cruise you guys have coming up in December. It's already sold out.
Brian: [Makes cruise ship horn noises]
A.J.: Yup. The Backstreet Boys Cruise. It's the first of, hopefully, many. We'll see how the first one goes.
Brian: Carnival Cruise!
A.J.: A bunch of artists have been doing it. I know the New Kids did it. Rick Springfield did it.
Brian: Yeah! Go, Rick Springfield.
A.J.: It's just -- it's something that's more intimate for us to be with our fans. It's kind of a vacation for us, but not really. It's a vacation that involves work. But...
Brian: We're on a boat.
A.J.: So obviously, if we get a little stressed out, we can't just jump overboard. But...
Brian: Send in the chopper.
A.J.: Give me a dingy.
A.J.: It's going to be fun. We're going to do a lot of personal stuff with our fans. Whether it's hosting a pool party or a casino night.
Brian: I ain't doin' that.
A.J.: Heck, it could be even bingo, who knows?
Brian: I ain't doin' that.
A.J.: And then we'll do a proper concert -- we'll have our dancers.
Brian: I ain't doin' that, either.
A.J.: But Brian won't be there.
A.J.: It's just going to be fun. It's our very first time doing it. I'm not a big boat guy, so I'm a little leery about the boat part. I know it's a cruise, and they tell me that you don't feel it. But if I get it in my head that I'm feeling it, I'll be all, [singing "I Want it That Way"] "Tell me... [throw up noises]" I'm not trying to throw up on a fan, but, it should be fun.
Brian: [In the tune of "I Want it That Way"] Ain't nothing but a stomach ache [throw up noise].
A.J.: We start in Miami and then go down to Cozumel and end up in Key West and then back up to Miami.
Brian: It's fun; we've been talking about this cruise for like five or six years. It's actually now come to pass where we can say, "Hey, we're doing a cruise." So hopefully it'll turn into something that's a yearly charity event type thing that we could raise money for a great cause out there.
How do you guys feel about the term "boy band" being equated with the Backstreet Boys in 2010?
Brian: It blows.
A.J.: It sucks.
Brian: Yeah. [Laughs]
A.J.: You can call us a boy band -- we don't care. Back in the day, when we first started and we were over in Europe, we kind of were blindsided by the fact that we got thrown into this big melting pot of the boy band era. We were the only group really like us coming out of the U.S. So going over there, there was Take That and all those bands. And now, it makes us feel young again if you want to call us a boy band. I mean, you can call us a "man band," too. But we've always prided ourselves on just being a vocal harmony group. And we fought tooth and nail for the first, probably, five, six years of our actual career to claim that name. And now, if you wanna call us a boy band, call us a boy band. It's kind of cool -- it's retro.
Brian: It's cool, in a way, and also it sucks, on the other side. Because, to be honest with you, the label "boy band" or the facade of what people think boy bands are, you think of Backstreet Boys and, "Oh, yeah. They're like the king boy band of the 1990s." But, at the same time, there is a future, unfortunately for a lot of people out there, there is a future for the Backstreet Boys, and fortunately for a lot of fans that we have. We have another 17 years in us. There's more music to be made, there's more history, there's more events, there's more moments that we can share with our fans in the future, and, you know, someday that term will probably go away. Or it'll transfer to the Jonas Brothers. They didn't really call Boys II Men a boy band. It's a European term that we kind of got smashed with. But again, in the U.S., it's turned against us to try to be played on the radio today. In today's market world of radio, if you're not working with the right guy or you have the label that we have right now, people kind of run from it. So we're tryin' to change people's thought process on -- it's still good music, and it is what it is.
Perez Hilton is looking for the new big boy band. He's conducting a search with Simon Fuller right now.
Brian: It's not going to go away. [Laughs]
You're one of the biggest-selling boy bands in history. Do you still worry about competition? Where's your head at when you think about new bands?
A.J.: I think it's cool, in some aspects, that if another group does come out like us and does very well, it just opens the doors for us, as well as any other new artists, and even seasoned artists -- it kind of starts that whole pop explosion again. Look at the New Kids again, for example. I mean, they were gone for 15 years and came back, and it was like they were never gone. No pun intended on our end.
Brian: Never gone.
A.J.: But -- like what Brian said -- it's always going to be happening. People like Perez that are knee-deep in the media and in the public eye and know and have seen so many artists --
Brian: And have a huge influence --
A.J.: I think it's something great. Hopefully it's a good group and it does very well. We've been around for so long that, if we can even help, you know, in any way, to any new groups, and give them any kind of advice... We're always here to kind of give our side to what we've been through for 17 years. Obviously something's been working, if we've been doing it for so long, and we have such an amazing fan base.
What has been your most insane encounter with a fan?
A.J.: If we wrote a book about it, between the fans and tour life, it would be bigger than War and Peace. Some of the craziest things I can remember, we had a girl stow away on our tour bus. She was a girl that was actually trying to get to me. She had given me these two rings. I didn't think anything of it. Come to find out that they were both real, and that they were her parents' wedding rings and realized that she was in deep caca. And she just hopped on our bus and stowed away in a bunk. Our old manager was rummaging through his bunk and he felt a leg and was like, "What the hell?" We were like four hours away from the city that she hopped on the bus. We had to put her in a cab and send her back home.
Brian: We had gone, like, 200 kilometers, it was like...
A.J.: Yeah. We've had girls be sitting in our dressing room when we show up to a gig. We had these girls -- I think we were in Spain -- we walked into our dressing room and there's two girls with their jeans ripped, they're bleeding, they had jumped over a barbed-wire fence, and they're just sitting there. When they see you, they don't really know what to do because they're like, "Oh my God, you're really here." And then when it comes time for them to be asked to leave, that's when they put you in a choke hold, and they don't want to let it go. We've had girls jump on stage. We had a girl once, on the Millennium Tour, Brian tends to sing with his eyes closed a lot.
Brian: No I don't.
A.J.: This girl was just freaking. This girl was standing right in front of him when he opened his eyes, and she bumped the mic and hit him in the face.
Brian: We were singing "I'll Never Break Your Heart," and we were on the center of the stage where the center used to rise up in the middle, and it would turn around. And I was singing, "I'll never break..." and it was like, [makes sound of mic hitting him in the mouth]. My mic hits me right in the teeth, and my lip starts bleeding, and I'm like, "What the heck?" And I look up, and this girl's going, "Hruuuuh" [sound of inhaling horror], right in front of me. And our security guard, Marcus, about that time -- she'd timed it perfectly. I don't know how many shows she had seen to know right when the stage lifted up, because it separated from the rest and lifted up. So our security guard is trying to climb the ramp as the stage is lifting, and he can't even get up there, he's sliding down, and he's going, "Come here, girl! Come here, girl!" trying to get this girl off. And then she runs and gets Nick in the headlock, after she bashes my mic into my lip. So that was interesting.
We had another two girls. We always have a press schedule that we look at, or an e-mail that comes in, of the city that we're at and the stations that we're doing interviews at and who's working that day and who's doing press. I was backstage with my security guard getting ready to have dinner, and these two girls -- they were probably in their early 20s -- come walking down the ramp to the arena. And they had these huge press badges on that were laminated with their picture and all this stuff, and it says underneath it, "Makeup." And I was thinking -- I'm not shy in saying that when we do TV, or whatever, we try to get a little touch up so we look like we're young pop stars. But I knew on that day that we did not have any press, so we didn't have makeup that day. And these girls just walk right down and backstage, so I asked my security guard "Raul, why don't you run and check on those girls because we're not -- one, we don't have press today. Two, we're not doing makeup. And three, they don't belong back here." So he goes and gets them, and they're walking them out, and she's like, "Oh my God. We made these passes, and we love you." It was kind of one of those situations like A.J., where I was their favorite. And she was like, "We just want to meet you and say hello." So I ended up taking pictures with them, and I was like, "All right, you guys have to go." They get pretty smart, they get pretty smart. The older they get...
A.J.: Fans get really creative nowadays, especially with the Internet. They can burn a copy of a backstage pass, or whatever, which is also scary at the same time, cause we do have the occasional stalker-fan that, like, "I'll kill you and then kill myself." It's like, "Whoa. OK, you've got issues."
Brian: It's only music.
You guys have a lot of gay fans, too. When did you first realize that you had a gay following, and do you have any kind of relationship with your gay fans?
A.J.: I think, I mean...
Brian: I have gay friends...
A.J.: Years and years ago, especially over in Europe, it's funny, a lot of the boy bands, a lot of the members that were in a lot of those boy bands were actually gay, and it was just something that was normal over there. Doing a lot of these outdoor festival shows, you would see a lot of gay men and gay women just chanting and going for it. It kind of started over in Europe, and we did this show with Divine Brown years ago and it was during gay pride, and we were unaware of who she was, we had no idea -- I didn't put two and two together with her and the whole Hugh Grant thing. And, you know, it was amazing. We have a huge gay following -- it's awesome. I, personally, am trying to get more and more involved with the gay and lesbian movement, very much so. I've got quite a lot of gay friends back in L.A. No on Prop 8. It is a really huge market, and people are people, it doesn't matter what you believe. And we make our music for everyone, and whether you're gay, straight, black, white, it doesn't matter. Young or old.
Brian: Yellow or red.
A.J.: Music touches everyone, and if our music touches the gay community, I think it's awesome. I think it's absolutely brilliant. We're actually going to be doing the Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco. We are the Grand Marshals. We're going to perform -- it's before we do our show in San Francisco. So I'm looking forward to that -- we all are. It's going to be fun.
Brian: We are not here to judge, we are here to love.
Is there a song from your catalog that you hate or wish that you never had to perform again?
A.J.: There's one that is the general consensus of the group, and unfortunately this song was written by an absolutely amazing songwriter, Mutt Lange. But I think it was Mutt's approach to being a Max Martin'type song. It was called, "If You Want it to Be Good, Girl, Get Yourself a Bad Boy."
Brian: And that's one of the longest Backstreet Boys titles in history. Probably one of the...
A.J.: It was a political thing. Our record company was friends with him. They wanted the song on the record.
Brian: They managed him.
A.J.: Yeah. We were like, "No." We've never performed it live. It's actually in our show, now, as the end of Brian's video. We each do four individual films that we've been kind of CGI-ed into. I do Fight Club, Howie does The Fast and the Furious, Nick does The Matrix and Brian does --
Brian: Enchanted, the Disney --
A.J.: Enchanted. And at the end, when the dragon comes up, that song's playing. So that's the only way that song will ever get into any of our shows. Ever.
Brian: I always say, "If we were Shania Twain, then it would be cool." But we're not Shania Twain.
A.J.: Man, I feel like a woman. Like that? Yeah. That song sucks. It's horrible.
On the flip side, if you had to pick one song from your catalog that best describes the Backstreet Boys, or one that you think is most representative of your career so far, what would you pick?
A.J.: Let's not go with the predictable. Let's try something different. I would say, "I Want it That Way," but let's try something different. I don't know, because that's the one we always say, so I'm drawing a blank.
Brian: Well, I'm going to go with the new record, This Is Us, and go with the song called "Undone." It happens to be my favorite song on the record, and the Backstreet Boys are unfinished, we're undone. There are new memories, new things that we want to do. So for the future, I would go with that. But for the typical, boy band label, I would have to say we'll probably still go down in history for "I Want it That Way."
For the latest info on the Backstreet Boys, including a full list of their summer tour dates, visit their official website.