Extended Adolescence: A.J. McLean on 20 Years as a Backstreet Boy - Rolling Stone
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Extended Adolescence: A.J. McLean on 20 Years as a Backstreet Boy

37-year-old singer opens up about his group’s new doc and old battles with Lou Pearlman

A.J. McLeanA.J. McLean

A.J. McLean says the Backstreet Boys are preparing to work on their 10th album.

Scott Legato/Getty

The Backstreet Boys break a lot of boy-band rules. According to a script established decades ago, these acts are supposed to have an extremely limited shelf life. The journey from middle school showcases to sold-out stadiums and back to oblivion is supposed to take, roughly, four or five years. Young fans, it is said, grow up quick, and there’s always a new teen sensation waiting in the wings. If you don’t believe us, go ask the Jonas Brothers or ‘N Sync.

Somehow, it has been over 20 years since the Backstreet Boys formed, and the group is still going strong. The days when Nick, Kevin, Brian, Howie and A.J. shut down Times Square every time they appeared on MTV may be long over, but they retained a hugely loyal fan base and continue to release new music. In Europe, where they broke long before anyone heard of them in America, they continue to pack arenas with screaming fans.

To celebrate their 20th anniversary, the Backstreet Boys hired director Stephen Kijak to create a documentary that tells their whole story. Accordingly, Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of is a warts-and-all look into the screaming arguments behind their last tour, addiction issues from the height of their fame and even their fractured relationship with boy band svengali Lou Pearlman. We spoke to A.J. McLean about the making of the film and what’s ahead for BSB.

How did the idea for this movie first come about?
A couple of years ago we were all hanging out at Kevin’s house in Los Angeles. It was a little group powwow to talk about the upcoming album and who the producers would be. Nick kind of threw in, “What if we film the making of the album and the tour?” That started the whole thing. We started brainstorming all sorts of different concepts. We said, “Do we want this solely to be about music?” Then we thought it should be more of a full-fledged documentary about our backstory. What I liked about the idea is that we all lived it, but even our real die-hard fans don’t know what you see in the film.

It’s really not your typical music documentary of this generation. The Katy Perry one was a lot of live performances. The One Direction one was almost strictly live performances. This has very, very few live performances. It’s the whole story of our ups and downs, the highs and the lows.

I liked how it wasn’t presented in linear order like a Behind the Music or something.
Absolutely. That was a big hurdle for us, to find that arc. I can’t even tell you how many edits we went through. The original was over three hours long. We were like, “People will fall asleep. We have to condense this down to an hour and 45 minutes, two hours max.” We had to find the arc. It turned out that was Brian’s vocal problems. Figuring that out became a real turning point for us.

“We’ve been doing this for 22 years. If we were going to end it, that would have happened 11 years ago.”

How did you feel as you walked through Lou Pearlman’s house?
It wasn’t as gut-wrenching for me as it was for the other guys. Lou and I actually stayed in contact after we let him go. He bought some cars from me and I’d speak with some of his people around the holidays. But for some of the other guys, he was a real father figure. They felt like, “How could you do that to somebody? You pretty much had everything you could ever dream of and you still basically fuck us?” It was especially hard for Kevin because he didn’t have a father and he really looked up to Lou like a father figure. It’s like your dad coming home and saying, “Oh, by the way, I’ve been cheating on your mom for the last 20 years.” That’s a hard thing to swallow. I didn’t walk through the house as much as some of the other guys. Brian couldn’t walk through it. He got halfway through and was like, “I’m done.”

You all must have complicated feelings. He’s responsible for breaking you, but he also stole from you.
It was lie after lie. It’s one thing to be the sixth Backstreet Boy and be making exactly what we were making. And that wasn’t for doing nothing. He did help fund our very early beginning stage. He got us on those school tours, and he got us the chance to meet [manager] Johnny Wright. There was a lot of positive stuff. Sometime in the middle, around the time that ‘N Sync happened, I feel like he lost his passion for us. He was trying to become more than a mogul. It wasn’t enough to be an entrepreneur. He was trying to become a label. He was trying to become things that he had no knowledge of. I think he just got too big for his britches.

It’s gotta be weird for you to picture him in a tiny prison cell now.
It is weird. One thing we tried to accomplish in the movie, that unfortunately didn’t happen, was they were trying to get us into the prison to actually talk with Lou. We wanted to have a heart-to-heart and just simply ask, “Why?” The parole officers and the warden were being cool about it, but then for whatever reason they shut it down. We were saying, “How about a phone call? We could do a conference call.” They refused, but then said one of us could do it. We were like, “If all five of us can’t be there, it’s not going to be as impactful.” So it kind of got lost in the sauce.

Was there a time around 2003 or whenever when you thought the group was just going to end? It just seemed like that whole scene was over and everyone was moving on.
There were a couple of points throughout our career when we really weren’t sure what was going to happen. There was a transitional period between Black and Blue and Never Gone where we had no management and no representation. We were sort of floating in limbo. It was definitely scary because we still wanted to keep making music and going forward, but we didn’t know if that would happen.

How did Kevin’s return a few years ago change the group dynamic?
It was actually a pretty lucid transition. We were worried it was gonna be kinda sticky-icky and rough. There was almost a seven-year break with him, and there was a certain dynamic that we had prior to him leaving. There’s almost a 10-year age gap between him and Nick, so they didn’t always see eye-to-eye. Kevin is very strongly opinionated, as we all are, but sometimes he takes a little too long to make a decision. He’s just a perfectionist.

I always felt when he was gone there was something missing. That fans definitely felt that way. We carried the torch as best we could as a quartet, but when we came through the Staples Center on the New Kids tour and Kevin popped up on our B stage for his part of “I Want It That Way.” In our entire career, we’ve never heard the decibel level we heard in that moment. That’s when I knew the impact of the five of us. The Backstreet Boys is five. We kept the brand going as four, but in my opinion we weren’t truly the Backstreet Boys until Kevin came back.

We’re all married now and, besides Nick, we all have kids. I think there’s a better dynamic now. We can communicate on a much more grown-up level. We can still be immature, goofy kids, even though we’re grown men in our mid-to-late-thirties. We’re all still kids at heart. I’m a huge sneaker head. I have a massive collection of sneakers that I don’t even wear because I just love sneakers. And video games: Nick still plays World of Warcraft. I mean, come on.

What are your future plans? New album? Another tour?
We’ve been on a really nice, well-needed break since the end of the summer. It’ll be almost six months by the time we get back on the road. We’re getting back on the road in April to finish up our 20th anniversary tour. By that time, it will be our 22nd anniversary. We’re going to finish up the Pacific Rim, Australia, New Zealand, South America and Mexico. Then we’re going to go back in the studio and start work on our 10th record.

How is Brian’s voice doing these days?
I feel like it’s getting better. It comes and goes. It’s been a struggle for all of us, especially Brian obviously. I can’t imagine what he feels like on a daily basis. Sometimes he struggles to speak. Sometimes the words come out when he sings, and sometimes they don’t. I feel like there’s a certain register in his voice where he sounds like Brian, and there’s another register in his voice where it’s just not there.

We’ve had many conversations about it. Doctors have tried to label it as “hypertension dysphonia,” but it could be something mental. It could be to the point now where his brain is convincing him that he just can’t get it out. He’s going to therapy and doing as much work as he can on it. We’re all praying for him. We hope everything will be back to normal. I don’t know if it ever will, but hopefully it is.

On the second leg of the tour we did in Europe and in the U.S. last summer and even on the cruise in October, there were moments he sounded great. After the show I would say, “Dude, you sounded awesome tonight.” I think he needs to hear that. We’re going to do whatever we can to get him into that positive frame of mine.

How much longer do you see the group lasting?
As long as the fans want us around. We’ve been doing this for 22 years. If we were going to end it, that would have happened 11 years ago. Once we reached our 20-year mark, I think we’ve gotten over the hump. I think now we’re going to embark on 20 more. We’re still dancing. Kevin is 43 years old, and we’re still up there dancing like we’re 18 and 19 years old. We’re having fun. We’re feeling the crowd. We’re feeling the energy. We’re just gonna keep on doing this until we can’t.

In This Article: Backstreet Boys


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