Q&A: Backstreet Boys Seek 'Closet Fans' With New Album, Tour

Reunited quintet seize creative control on 'In a World Like This'

The Backstreet Boys
Courtesy RCA
The Backstreet Boys
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For the first time since Kevin Richardson left the Backstreet Boys in 2006, the group has reunited as a full quintet on their new album, In a World Like This, set for release on July 30th. It's a big time for the group, who are celebrating their 20th anniversary with a tour that kicks off stateside on August 2nd in Chicago.

The tour setlists will be full of fan favorites; the group tells Rolling Stone they will play every hit from their last 20 years. However, when it came time to make a new album, the five of them wanted to assert their independence and maturity; they touch on subjects like fatherhood, as four of the band members are parents. The beats and melodies suggest their familiar pop formula in "Show 'Em What You're Made Of" and also borrow from the current dance craze on "In Your Arms."

Kevin Richardson Rejoins Backstreet Boys

Members AJ McLean and Howie Dorough were very enthusiastic to talk to Rolling Stone about the trip to London that shaped this record, breaking out old choreography and how A Tribe Called Quest and Metallica helped influence the upcoming BSB documentary.  

Talk about the writing process for this album; it was different than previous albums.
AJ McLean: Absolutely. Since we did have complete creative control, we decided to steer this whole ship and this whole process started almost a year ago in London with Martin Terefe. We spent three weeks out there living in a house together, bonding again. Kevin [Richardson] had just come back in the group, so he was kind of reconnecting with everybody and it was an awesome creative process. And we probably wrote about 22 songs; not all of them got cut, but we just kept writing and writing and writing. We had four different writing rooms going every single day, we played a little round-robin and we popped in each room. [We wrote] whatever you were kind of feeling that day or whatever subject matter you wanted to write about. And the whole record just kind of took off from that point and that was the catalyst that led us into making this a very personal record. There were two or three we didn't write; the rest were all written by us with other writers and other producers and we're so excited that we got to have this much creative control.

Howie Dorough: This album Kevin came back in and said, "Twenty years have gone by, our lives have changed and not only our lives, but the lives of the fans have changed. And we have a lot more to talk about: we've grown up, our fans have grown up. Now four of us have kids, four of us are married, Nick [Carter's] engaged, we have a lot more to talk about now." And that's what we did on this record: when it came to writing, we touched on subjects and really not putting any boundaries or limits on where we go with our music. We just really took the challenge, even if just taking a trip all together, the five of us over to London, last July. . . . We hadn't all been living in one situation since 12 years ago, if that. But we had a chance to bond, talk freely and write about things freely. I think it made this album more personal for sure.

How did the interactions change between the five of you after the time apart?
Dorough: When Kevin stepped outside of the group about six years ago, the four of us really had to all step up to the plate if we were gonna continue on. Looking back on it, Kevin was always the ringleader of the group, so when it came time we were gonna do it by ourselves, we all had to work together. It made the four of us really strong so when Kevin came back, we all had a lot more to say. We all got to know not only the business, but we learned how to really put together a great show, just really mature. And so now that Kevin's back in the group, the dynamic is different. Kevin is a hard worker, a perfectionist, but now there are five of us that are that way. And I think now we raise the bar on everything that we do now.

Are there moments you're most proud of from a writing standpoint?
Dorough: When we first went over to London, I didn't really know what to expect because the five of us in one room – last time we did that, we took a trip down to the Bahamas and we did it for the Black and Blue record and it was great. But I was a little skeptical because sometimes when you have a lot of cooks in the kitchen you can almost have too many hands in the pot and a lot of the ideas kind of get stifled and creativity doesn't happen. To my surprise, it came out better than I expected it to be and the reaction we're getting gives me encouragement we're finally becoming a self-contained band.

McLean: "Show 'Em What You're Made Of" is one of my personal favorites, myself and Kevin wrote that record with Morgan [Reid] and Prophet, who are two amazing songwriters and producers. Kevin was like, "Why don't we write something that's about our kids or is a positive reinforcement-type song because there is so much negativity out there and bullying and all this crap that's been going on? The world needs positivity." Not only was it my daughter and his son, but it was all of our kids that were influenced and even other people's kids and just fathers, mothers, people that are the kind of people that encourage you to go out and to show 'em what you're made of, give it your all and the song turned out beyond what I ever expected it to be. It became this huge emotional record and I can't wait for us to perform it live, which we are doing in the new tour.

In the tracks, I heard there was a strong dance feel on a few, but that one had a big rock feel. In general, it felt like a big record. Is that indicative of the whole album?
McLean: Yeah, this whole album goes up and down. There are probably three or four up-tempos and then the rest are like mid-[tempo]. Songs like "Permanent Stain," which go from mid-tempo to tempo back to mid-tempo. The Max song, "In a World Like This," is pretty consistent all the way through. And then "Show 'Em What You're Made Of" is one of those just epic records; it reminds me of a U2 record or an Aerosmith record. It's kind of up there, in my opinion, with the hugeness that was "Incomplete." That was a big rock ballad and this song is pretty much right in that same role. And just to hear it live, just in the past two weeks doing it in our rehearsal, it's such a big record. So hopefully it'll be a single at some point.

Do you see this as an opportunity to reach new audiences?
McLean: I hope so. Obviously if people buy the whole album and they hear it and they hear songs that may not sound like your typical Backstreet record, that may encourage people that were closet fans, that maybe didn't want to admit they were fans or fans that have a husband or a brother or a sister that were like, "Oh, Backstreet Boys suck, but I actually like that song." We definitely geared this record towards the masses and we wanted to make a record that wasn't just typical Backstreet Boys for just our fans, but to reach the outside world and people that aren't fans, people that are potential fans. Obviously we've got an amazing core fan base that have stuck with us for the past 20 years and we're so blessed and so grateful for that. But there are so many other people that we want to touch and hopefully this is the album that does it.

What are some of the BSB favorites you're looking forward to playing live on this tour?
McLean: That was a really tough part and a long process for us to put this whole setlist together because there are so many songs we haven't performed in years – like the last tour, we did a snippet of "We Got It Going On." Now we do the entire song. And we do the original choreography with a little bit of new choreography. We're bringing back old choreography, stuff that people haven't seen in probably 15 years, from the hat routine to the original "As Long As You Love Me" mike routine, stuff like that that is gonna take fans down memory lane and really bring them back to the "Never Gone" tour, the "Backstreet's Back" tour, the first album. Then we have five new songs mixed in there so it does kind of make it like a new experience and the visual aspect of this entire tour is gonna be what's the most alluring because it's just us five; we don't have a band. It's visually the sickest show I've ever seen. All this video content that we have, it's gonna take you on this hour-and-a-half, hour-and-45-minute journey that is gonna be a whirlwind. And we are putting in every single hit we've ever had with a little bit of a twist here and there. I don't want to give too much away, but there are gonna be a couple of surprises, songs people haven't heard in a very long time and are hopefully gonna be ecstatic about.

Dorough: This is our 20 anniversary and all five of us are back together. It's a big reunion record and tour and we're gonna bring people back on a trip down memory lane with all the hits from the past 20 years. It's a great show we've put together; we have some of our original previous choreographers, Fatima Robinson and Rich+Tone, who worked with us in our early years and have gone on to work with other major artists: Madonna, Usher, Black Eyed Peas, Cee Lo. They put together a great show [in which] we're able to do some of our nostalgic dance moves and some of the signature dance moves that our fans recognize.

Can you give us some previews on the visuals?
McLean: Some of it is hard to explain, really; it's a lot of electronica visuals, it's a lot of landscape visuals, but the way that our stage is set up, we have so many LEDs that it looks like a giant movie screen. The whole premise of the show is we wanted to write out a script and make this like a mini-film or like a Broadway show. It's very theatrical; it's unlike any tour we've ever done before and we're taking it back to the grassroots of just being about us and our music. And I think the fans are gonna freaking love it.

Going back to the writing, were there challenges where you were able to surprise yourselves?
Dorough: There's one song that didn't make the album but will probably be on the soundtrack to the documentary that we're making called Home, and we all picked up instruments. I actually picked up the bass guitar and we recorded it with us playing that and it was fun. The early days that we did over in London are some of the memories I'm gonna take with me for a long, long time.

What was the thinking behind the documentary at this point?
Dorough: We've actually talked about doing a documentary for many years. We grew up watching many other great documentaries that were out there and Nick about a year ago saw this one about A Tribe Called Quest; it really inspired him. Then Metallica did a really, really cool documentary as well and we started thinking, "We really have a story to us. A lot of our fans know a lot of it, but a lot of them don't know a lot of the personal stuff in the early days, where we came from, what it's like making a record, the creative part of it, the good and the bad." We're stepping out of the box not being on our label anymore; we're doing it on our own. We have a lot more creative decisions and business that we're doing on this go round. So we really wanted to show our fans and we actually opened up and things I didn't think we would even touch upon, we did.

We were very honest about this documentary and I'm excited. Hopefully we're gonna get it out for the Toronto film festival and Sundance, end of this year and next year, and then hopefully have a small theatrical release and then DVDs and get it out to all of our fans out there. We've got a great director, Stephen Kijak: he did Stones in Exile and won some awards for that. He's got a great team he put together and made it really us for to be natural on camera. And we're documenting everything, it's all coming out.