Call them pop's longest-running, most persistent group. Call them men, not boys. Just don't call it a comeback. "We almost named the album that," jokes Nick Carter, one-fourth of the Backstreet Boys, whose seventh studio effort, This Is Us, is slated for release on October 6th. "We're the Brett Favres of the music industry." Clearly, he and his bandmates are fed up with the public perception that they've taken an extended time out. They're not 'NSync, after all. "It does frustrate me," says Brian Littrell. "Everybody asks, 'Where have you been? What have you been doing?' When we're, like, 'We've been touring the world, and working our butts off!' "
OK, so maybe the boy-band racket isn't what it used to be. There are no million-plus first week sellers in today's music business, and so many outlets vying for your attention that it's easy to miss a respectable showing like Backstreet's 2007 album, Unbreakable. Which is one reason why A.J. McLean, Howie Dorough, Carter and Littrell are looking back to a proven formula with This Is Us. "The idea was going back to those great R&B ballads as well as dance songs you can shake your butt to," McLean explains. "And we were fortunate enough to work with some amazing writers and producers who got our concept and everything fit perfectly."
Among the industry heavies to lend a hand: Ne-Yo, T-Pain, Pitbull, Ryan Tedder, Max Martin, RedOne, and beatmaker Jim Johnson. "The production on this record has been pushed a little more," says McLean. "It's edgy and current but also shows our love for the pop-R&B that we grew up on." Carter interjects: "Jodeci, Boys II Men, Shai, New Editionâ€¦ we had to go back and remember our influences and what taught us in the years when we were developing into a band." And Littrell adds that if you were to take away all the bells and whistles, the basics of the song with that Backstreet sweet spot is what defines their raison d'etre. "That's why Michael Jackson was a true artist," he says, "because you could take away every beat and every layer and just dance to his voice. That vocal instrument is what we've always known, and I can honestly say without this sounding egotistical: when we sing collectively, there is a magic."
Of course, they weren't always in control of their instruments. Dorough likens recording sessions in the group's early days in Florida to a "cold audition." "We were all trying to find ourselves and our sound and working with producers that didn't know any of our voices," he recalls. Says Littrell: "We'd go in the studio, sing the whole song and we wouldn't know who was singing what until we got the final mix from the label. We were kids and it was, like, 'Wow.' "
Having seen their share of highs and lows over a 17-year career, the guys say that they're now in a good place. "There's really no conflict at all," says Carter. "Our chemistry flows, we know what our strengths and weaknesses are, our goals are all the same and we work as a team." Adds Dorough, "There's no egos, no competition, we just want to make the best record we can."
And aside from Carter's brief stint as a TV star on E!'s House of Carters, the group hasn't resorted to the usual promotional ploys — not that reality shows haven't come knocking. "We had one offer to do a show about replacing Kevin [Richardson, who left the group in 2006], which we would never do," McLean scoffs. For now, Aaron Carter will keep a foot in that world by competing on Dancing With The Stars this fall. "I'm so proud of him from coming out of such lows," says the elder Carter, who's lost 56 pounds in the last two years. "I've been there — I've changed my physical appearance and done things to better myself and he's doing the same thing. I think he's going to show a large amount of people how talented he is and that he really does deserve to have a shot in this industry."
To that end, Carter and crew have some wisdom to impart on their presumptive successors, the Jonas Brothers. "Have a good balance and perspective on what you do," offers Littrell. "I call it clocking in and out — I clock in to be a Backstreet Boy and at the end of the day, I wanna clock out, go home and be a husband and father. We rode a wave for, like, 10 years straight that was just go, go, go! We knew nothing different and we were sacrificing relationships with our own families because we were working all the time." Adds Carter, "And invest your money wisely. Everybody knows you have your peaks and valleys and you need a good foundation." Litrell couldn't agree more. "Have a backup plan of who you are as a person," he says. "Because once you get to the top, there's only one way down and you have to land like a little butterfly — softly. That's what we've done."
Watch the video for the Boys' new "Straight Through My Heart" here:
• Backstreet Boys Beat Odds: Behind Their 2005 Return
• Q&A: Nick Carter