2018 brought something big from Nick Carter, A.J. McLean, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, and Kevin Richardson—those names ring a bell?
“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” their new sticky pop delight, wasn’t exactly the Backstreet Boys you remembered, though. The boy band who had teenage girls swooning over “You are my fire / The one desire…” and their cheeky synchronized choreography re-emerged for the first time since 2013 with a totally updated sound. Featuring the group’s harmonies whipped to perfection and a giddy synth-driven melody, the single proved one thing: Backstreet’s back, alright.
The quintet has logged over 25 years in the music industry, a two-year residency at Las Vegas, a recent return to the charts for the first time in 11 years (since 2007’s “Inconsolable”), and is readying a 70-date world tour. But perhaps the most important number is 10; Backstreet Boys marked their comeback on January 27 with DNA, the group’s tenth studio album and first offering since 2013’s In a World Like This.
Per its title, the album is inspired by a mélange of sounds: There’s the funk-flavored “Passionate,” playful late-night banger “New Love” (with A.J’s opening line, “Who are you, the sex police?”), and the Ryan Tedder and Shawn Mendes–penned number “Chances.” But DNA is dotted with nostalgia, too. “Breathe,” a mellow a cappella piece, puts the harmonies that catapulted them to fame in the ’90s on full display.
ELLE.com caught up with the Backstreet Boys to talk about their comeback, the best thing about each member, and the most embarrassing moment during their Las Vegas residency.
Boy bands sometimes struggle with chemistry and staying together, but you’ve managed to do it. What’s one good thing you’d say about each other?
Nick Carter: These guys, they’re my family. I’ve known them since I was 12, 13 years old. They’ve taught me so much, and been there with me through thick and thin. They are incredible human beings. I come from a family of five and I was the oldest, and then I became like the baby of this family. So this has been the gift that continues to keep giving. I’m very blessed to have them as my family.
Brian Littrell: These guys taught me a lot about myself. They taught me how to stand up for what I believe in. They also taught me how to compromise, how to be strong and demanding. Growing into the person I am has a lot to do with journey that we’ve all been on together and I’m thankful for that.
A.J. McLean: Hmm, I’m sitting here trying to think. They’re a bunch of asses. [Laughs] No, I think I’ve learned something different from each of the guys, whether it’s to not take yourself so seriously, not take life sometimes so seriously. Stop, smell the flowers, enjoy the moment, live in the moment. I’ve definitely learned to really not care as much anymore about what people think of me in particular or of us as a whole. Also, I’ve definitely learned, because I was the second to last to have children, what it means to be a father from these guys. I’m an only child, so these are my brothers.
Howie Dorough: These guys here have taught me a lot about life, and what it is to be a team player. I didn’t really play a lot of organized team sports, so I really didn’t know what it was to be willing to be in a situation where you share. These guys have taught me to try to be a little more lighthearted. We’re not actually trying to create a rocket here. We’re just making music. We’re trying to make people happy, and trying to make ourselves happy. I think that’s the probably thing I learned from these guys, how to be a team player.
Kevin Richardson: Nick and A.J., these two guys, the way they are on stage, and in the vocal group, they’re fearless. They don’t analyze themselves. They’re not in their head. They’re just free. So they’ve inspired me in that way. Brian’s work ethic, his competitiveness, his beliefs. Howie, as he was saying himself, his sensitivity, his compassion, his Zen vibe inspires me. And his work ethic.
How does it feel to know that after 25 years, fans still want more Backstreet Boys?
NC: It’s awesome.
KR: Having our first hit single since “Incomplete” feels good. You have moments in a long career where stuff that you’re making breaks through and resonates on a massive scale, and sometimes you don’t. To have that happen right now, with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” being nominated for a Grammy Award, feels really good.
When you guys were creating “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” were you thinking about the music industry and the way music is released and digested nowadays?
NC: We want to have success in anything that we do. That’s that competitive thing that Kevin was talking about. It’s in every single one of us. To say that you don’t want to win a Grammy, or you don’t want that number one record, or you don’t want people to be paying attention to what you’re doing, that would be a lie. We search for that. We long for that. We’ve had it before, and with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” it happened organically.
What was the genesis of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart?”
NC: We had been recording music for a year or so prior to that song, and we were in Las Vegas doing the residency. Nothing was clicking up to that point. We just had not found that song we felt would best represent the Backstreet Boys being re-introduced into this new world of music.
How could we fit into this world? We knew we had to have something that could fit into the fast pace but at the same time was still us. Trying to solve that equation and that puzzle became really difficult. But, then we met Stuart Crichton, an incredible producer, who has been in the game for a very, very long time.
BL: He came to watch us perform in Vegas, and he became highly inspired, and said, “I know what I need to do. I know who you are. I see where we need to go.” He went back in the studio, and he wrote “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.”
NC: We heard it. We fell in love with it. We cut it, and it just made sense.
KR: We wanted to make something that could fit with what’s happening on the radio, but not sound like anything on radio. Also, not sacrifice who and what we are. Once we broke through that with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” all the chips started falling into place.
The album finds you guys experimenting with a bunch of different sounds. What’s the significance of the title “DNA”?
AM: When we were in Vegas, we were talking about whether this album was going to have a theme, like Millennium and Black and Blue. We’ve always had both a digital sound and an analog, acoustic, live sound.
KR: Way early in the game, we took a trip to Nashville, and sat down with a couple of publishing companies, and listened to a bunch of songs. We wanted to have some Nashville flavor on this album because that’s part of who we are. We are country, hip hop, rock, pop, gospel. That’s our DNA.
AM: Kevin was talking about how we should maybe do a double CD: a digital side, and an analog side, and a light bulb went on. Digital and analog. Why not just call it “DNA”? Every song, every style that’s on this record is exactly what is what we have all grown up being fans of: country, pop, hip hop, urban, whatever, rock, gospel.
“Breathe” sounds like classic Backstreet Boys.
NC: We have to go back to the very beginning of the Backstreet Boys. We were inspired by bands like Boyz II Men, Shai, Jodeci. We loved all those vocal harmony groups. We embraced a cappella as being our little tool that we could use to stop people from doubting us. During the mid-’90s when we first formed, there was a backlash—[because of] Milli Vanilli and lip syncing. At that time, everyone was like, “Can Backstreet Boys really sing?” So we would go into record labels and sing a cappella. We got our first deal from singing acapella in an office. So we always wanted to eventually do a true a cappella song, but it’s hard to find a song that could be very good on its own in that format.
HD: Initially, it wasn’t an a cappella song. When we were putting together our final list of songs, that one came up. We were all like, “There’s something here.”
NC: But how could we make it—
HD: Then the label came to the idea and said, “What if we turn this into an a cappella song?”
A.J: RCA represents Pentatonix, so they put us in the studio with their vocal arranger, Ben Bram, who is beyond talented.
What was the funniest moment during the Larger than Life Las Vegas shows?
AM: I ripped my pants and fell on stage.
BL: We’ve got this amazing intro where we enter in these boxes, and they lift up from the back of the stage, and they turn together towards the audience. One night, there was a glitch in the system, so we get up really high in the boxes—I’m scared of heights and I’m right in the middle—and we’re turning sideways, and the system just shuts down. We just stop right there, high up. So, we’re stuck up there, and “Larger Than Life” is beginning, so I started singing the verse even though I’m facing the wall on the side, and Kevin is in the corner on far stage left.
KR: I think everybody is already down on the stage and I’m stuck up there by myself, because I can’t see anybody behind me.
BL: I’m thinking, “Damn, we’re all stuck up here. What are we going to do?” Well, we got to get on with the show. I was singing from up there, and finally they worked it out.
AM: Damn near halfway through the song by that point, but.
NC: I think one of the funniest things was James Corden actually performing with us.
Best sixth man ever!
NC: The crowd had no idea it was him, and we were filming it for his show. So the boxes turn around, and James is in the middle, and they’re like, “What the hell is going on?”
AM: He learned all the choreography that day. He is a trooper.