They were supposed to have performed on CBS’ The Early Show, but instead they were gulping tea in their hotel lobby and praying they don’t get sick as well. I asked them about their scrapped PR plans, their new light-hearted outlook on their careers, and why they agreed to be Auto-tuned on one track on their new record, This Is Us. Then I bathed in Purell.
Music Mix: How disappointed are you that you had to cancel your Early Show performance this morning?
AJ: Obviously we’re all bummed out, but there’s not much we can do. We are trying to work around the situation, and at least do the couch on Conan and Jimmy Kimmel. I know we’re not doing Ellen because she’s a little freaked out about the whole thing.
AJ: It sucks. I feel really bad for Brian. The poor guy’s like a freakin’ leper in his room right now. He can’t leave.
Music Mix: You guys worked with several big producers on this record: T-Pain, RedOne, Ryan Tedder. But you’ve also faced resistance from songwriters and producers over the years, right?
Nick: It wasn’t easy. With all the backlash that we’ve had, some people didn’t necessarily want to work with us at first. I called up T-Pain, and I felt like I was just hassling him. I don’t know if he was at a video shoot or something, but I’m like, “Hey, is T-Pain there?” He’s like, “Who’s this?” I’m like, “It’s Nick Carter from the Backstreet Boys.” “Hold on, he ain’t here right now. I’ll have him call you back.” And it was him! I brought it up to him when we were recording. I’m like, “Pain, dog, you remember when I f—in’ called you?” He’s like, “Yeah, man, I’m sorry, I didn’t know what to say at the time.”
Music Mix: This record is a return to the R&B-tinged pop that made you huge in the late ’90s. Why did you ever veer away from it in the first place?
Howie: I think it all stems back to back in the days to when we and *NSYNC were on the same label. You go back and listen to songs like “Shape of My Heart,” those songs that went to that pop/adult-contemporary vein, they wanted to separate the two styles of the groups, and they made *NYSNC more of the R&B group, with the duet with Nelly. We obviously went with the flow. We all knew in our hearts and our souls that it wasn’t exactly the right direction for the type of group that we are. We’re not a rock band.
Nick: When we first got together, what was it that influenced us? It was R&B music. We thought we were black.
AJ: Especially with the huge success of “Incomplete,” people started trying to pigeonhole us in this whole AC [adult contemporary] world. We’re not an AC act. You come to our live show, it’s full of energy. We’re not just sitting on stools singing “Incomplete,” “Inconsolable,” and “I Want It That Way.” But unfortunately, the songs that got released put us in that whole limelight. But now, with the first single off this record [“Straight Through My Heart”] being an up-tempo dance record, it’s opened doors again to a whole new look on us, hopefully.
Music Mix: I was looking at the Billboard Hot 100 today thinking, “Why isn’t ‘Straight Through My Heart’ anywhere on here?”
Howie: We’re wondering that too.
AJ: I think it’s more of a teaser, like knocking on the door: “Hello? We’re still here. We’re not doing what everybody thinks we always do. But now we’re going to smack you in the face with [second single] ‘Bigger,’ and you’re going to go, ‘Oh, okay, now I get it.’” We’ve already got an idea of what the third single can be: “Undone” [co-written and co-produced by Ryan Tedder].
Music Mix: From a PR perspective, it seems like you guys are doing things now that you wouldn’t have done at the peak of your popularity. I saw a clip of Brian running on an underwater treadmill from some show in Spain.
Nick: Okay, this is what’s great about the group now. Now, we’re freakin’ retards. I mean that in the most fun way. Before, we were always so damn serious. It’s just like, it’s freakin’ pop music, you know what I mean? When you talk about TV shows where we’re acting stupid and just having fun, it’s because we really never had a chance to do that. I personally believe when you have that mentality, that’s when things start happening. We’re more approachable. We’re having the time of our life right now, and it’s showing in our music.
Music Mix: What’s the one song each of you would take out of your live set if you had the power?
Nick: “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” for me.
AJ: To be honest with you, I would take out “The One.”
Howie: That’s the one I was gonna say!
AJ: And I know exactly which song it would be replaced with: “If I Knew Then.” I freakin’ love that damn song.
Nick: Why don’t we do that?
Music Mix: One last thing I’ve got to ask: As guys who have always taken pride in the fact that you can actually sing, did you have any hesitation about letting yourself be Auto-tuned on the track that T-Pain produced, “She’s A Dream”? Isn’t Auto-tune for people who can’t sing?
AJ: I actually asked for it. I want to bring that effect into our live show. I think it’d be dope.
Howie: That song is a unique song. The first verse and chorus were already written. And there was a dilemma going on between us and the record company because of the word “Shorty.”
Music Mix: Which you sing 11 times in the song. I counted.
AJ: That’s awesome.
Howie: And we’re a bunch of white kids, and it’s not exactly the thing you normally hear from us. But that’s why we said the Auto-tune works, because we want people to know this is a T-Pain song. It’s his influence. It’s not us trying to write out “Shorty” and be something else.
Nick: Now we all say “Shorty” to each other.
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