I had to wear my leather jacket. The weather in Los Angeles was unseasonably chilly for the end of summer, which was a good thing, because if I was meeting The Backstreet Boys I had to have on my leather jacket. I’d been waiting for this interview since 1997, and back then they always seemed so cool and sophisticated compared to their other boy-band counterparts. So yeah, for this, I’d need my leather jacket. And of course — always one for branding — I wore a t-shirt with a vintage MTV Moonman on it.
I ordered Uber X because I couldn’t justify expensing a black car to North Hollywood from Silver Lake to meet The Backstreet Boys at the Hilton Universal City. The driver told me it would be about 20 minutes, plenty of time for me to continue prepping for my interview. I started by telling the driver where he had the privilege of taking me.
“I’m going to meet The Backstreet Boys,” I yelled, despite the radio not being on.
“They’re still around?” the driver asked, laughing.
“Um, yeah,” I said, feeling slightly defiant.
“All five of them?”
“Well, yeah. But I'm only interviewing three of them.” That’d be Kevin Richardson, Nick Carter, and A.J. McLean.
“Brian? He’s the one people like, right?”
“No, he won’t be there.”
“Oh.” The driver turned on the radio.
I took the next 20 minutes to scroll through my phone, recalling various bits of information about The Backstreet Boys. A longtime fan, these were all facts and trivia I already knew, but I wanted to refresh my memory. The truth was, I’d need none of this. The interview was part of a junket for a Backstreet Boys collaboration with Chex Mix, the price I was willing to pay to finally make this Backstreet dream a reality. Upon arrival at the Hilton, I was told the guys were running a few minutes behind, but that I would still get my full 10 minutes. Ten minutes to interview The Backstreet Boys is not a lot, but how could I pass up the chance to interview the men who still make me weep when I listen to “Shape of My Heart?” I was never one of those Backstreet Boys versus NSYNC fans. I liked them both. But I always preferred my pop songs from NSYNC and my grown-and-sexy ballads from Backstreet. Sure, they had their share of bangers too, but Backstreet harmonies were out of control. They felt like they belonged on V100. Low-key, JC Chasez should’ve been in Backstreet, because they were the real R&B MVPs.
When I was finally ushered into the room with the Boys — very much men now, but to be honest that’s why you liked them, they seemed like men in comparison to NSYNC — I was shocked at how normal they seemed. As a kid they were — pardon the pun — larger than life. Now, they seemed like dads I might have served coffee to when I had a horrible job working at Coffee Commissary in Burbank. Richardson (weirdly enough, not the first Kevin Richardson that shows up when you google his name — it’s some guy called the “Lion Whisperer”) no longer has his short haircut. He’s more of an elder statesman now, with shoulder-length, slicked-back hair and a goatee. Carter had a short haircut and continued to eat Chex Mix throughout the interview, ever the upseller. McLean had his shirt buttoned all the way while rocking a black, wide-brimmed hipster hat.
I suddenly wished I’d ditched the leather jacket, because they seemed more casual than rock star. But I had no time to remove a jacket. I only had 10 minutes, so I dove right in. “A lot of your recent work has been spoofing your past, like this, um, Chex Mix thing, and your cameo in This Is the End. Where do you see The Backstreet Boys now in pop culture?”
Richardson responded, “I think a lot of people that grew up with us are now in positions of power. They’re CEOs and CFOs and creative directors on film projects and writers and producers, so it’s cool that they reach out to us and say, ‘Hey, would you get involved in this?’”
McLean agreed. “I think it’s a testament to the fans that we’re still making music,” he said. “We’re in the studio right now recording our 10th album, we’re still selling out arenas and stadiums and doing touring. Seth and Jay [Rogen and Baruchel, respectively, stars of This Is the End] and all those guys are huge Backstreet Boys fans. Those guys are from Canada. Canada was a huge market, is still a huge market for us, so when they reached out to us and asked us about it, we said, ‘Hell yeah, awesome.’ And it turned out to be a big highlight in the actual film.” In the film, a sequence taking place in heaven features a performance of “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” by the Boys. He finished with, “It ended up winning us our first MTV Movie Award, which is awesome. I think it’s just one of those things where, as time goes on, when is the right time to kind of make fun of yourself, have fun with yourself? It’s a blessing we’re still doing this and having fun with it.”
We moved on to other MTV awards shows. I brought up Britney Spears’s recent return to the VMAs (she performed at this year’s event) and asked if they’d ever consider a return to the awards show stage, or whether they were ready to leave that part of their lives in the past. “MTV’s a big part of our history,” McLean said. Carter agreed, adding, “We’ve had some pretty epic performances in the past. We’d love to come back. This next album that we’re doing, this next cycle we’re about to embark on, we’re prepared to bring the heat when it comes to bringing new music. And if MTV wants us to bring it back and rock the stage, we’ll be there.”
So, sure, maybe they’re interested in a triumphant return to the VMAs one day, but for now the Boys are mostly about honoring their legacy. “We just make music we wanna hear that we’re proud of,” Richardson said when I asked whether or not they’re actively trying to court a younger fanbase. “And whoever listens to it, whoever it reaches [is great].” McLean realizes that their younger fans will come naturally from the kids of their longtime fans. “Moms are bringing their kids. Families are coming. You also have the bachelorette nights [where you can] leave the husbands at home, leave the boyfriends at home, [and come] watch The Backstreet Boys and just go down memory lane.”
And then things turned toward a more solemn trip down memory lane. I asked how the Boys felt about the recent death of their former manager, Lou Pearlman. Pearlman, who died while serving a 25-year sentence for a Ponzi scheme, had also been accused of stealing money from the musical groups he created and mentored, as well as being a sexual predator of teenage boys. When the news of Lou’s passing broke, McLean tweeted: “Many emotions at the news of Lou’s passing. Without Lou I wouldn’t have met my four brothers or had the opportunity of a lifetime. RIP.” Now, with almost a month gone by, the Boys just felt sadness. “I think we’re a bit conflicted. Because obviously he was a part of our history, he brought us together. So we feel grateful for that,” Richardson said. “But also some of the things that happened business-wise with our relationship with him and, after we left, some of the history he had in his own business — it’s unfortunate that he ended up in prison. I think it’s sad. And I think it’s sad that he spent his last days in prison.”
This reverence for the demons Pearlman faced came from the fact that the Boys have all faced their own personal demons. McLean himself has been in and out of rehab for alcohol addiction since 2001. And most recently, Carter was arrested in January after a bar fight in Florida. Both men have been open about their struggles with addiction and are grateful their fans have been with them every step of the way. I asked if any of their recent struggles might appear on their 10th studio album. “It’s funny that you just say that,” Carter said. “We could touch on those things and we are touching on those things. Thinking about stuff that relates to us now, where we’re at in our life. That just makes us more connected to it, makes the fans more connected when they listen to it. And they can relate to it as well. So yeah, we’re gonna definitely put a lot more of that into this new music we release. The thing about where we’re at in our life, we’re not trying to hide anything. Most of our fans know all that we’ve gone through. We’ve been an open book.”
Books are funny things. Even when the reader changes, the pages remain the same. As you grow older and revisit them, you get a different interpretation than the last time. Books don’t really care about right or wrong. It sounds dumb, but millions of fans don’t need seem to need it explained to them. Or maybe that’s what they say about souls. Either way, I realized The Backstreet Boys don’t need an explanation of how they belong in pop culture now. They’ll always be themselves, no matter how much we change — or the world does. And that’s comforting, like a copy of your favorite book.