Monday, May 23, 2011

AJ McLean of the Backstreet Boys wants you to know: ‘We are true artists’

In their heyday, they made millions off a song that rhymed “fire” with “desire.” Today they’re an ironic pick at karaoke bars and a nostalgia trip for women in their 20s and 30s. The Backstreet Boys are slightly washed-up singers dealing with receding hairlines, children and rehab. They’ve never done a reunion tour because they never stopped making music (yup, they released four albums after 1999’s Millennium). This summer, the group teams up with New Kids on the Block to tour as NKOTBSB. The superboyband’s album (a compilation of classics and two new recordings) hits stores on Tuesday.

While preparing for the tour in Los Angeles, Backstreet Boys member AJ McLean spoke to The Globe and Mail by phone. The tour ends Aug. 7 in London, Ont. .

How are you doing?
I'm good. I'm sitting on a big orange ball in my underwear.

Is that the outfit you usually have for interviews?
I was in the middle of changing because we were doing our fittings for the show and they were rushing me out to get to the phone so I was like, “Can I put pants on?” And they're like “No, just go ahead.” I’m like, alright fine. I'm an exhibitionist. I'll walk around the whole office in my underwear, no problem.

Good. I feel like we can venture into topics now that we wouldn't have been able to.
There ya go!

Has there been any rivalry between you [and New Kids on the Block]? Like ’N Sync vs. BSB, Part II?
No, absolutely not. There’s been such a time span between the two groups. When we first started we were looking up to New Kids and Boyz II Men and any of those kind of groups. If anything, it’s more wanting to be them when we were younger.

This morning I re-watched the VH1 Behind the Music special on the Backstreet Boys. It wasn’t like Motley Crue, but it was pretty crazy. There was the breakup of the band, there was the porn, the drug and alcohol addictions. Suing your old manager. Did that help you shake the bubblegum boy band image at all?
There is that stigma on us that people just automatically assume you see five white guys and you’re like, “Okay they’re gonna be bubblegum pop.” Yes, we sing live, yes, we can drop some a cappella on your ass within the drop of a hat. We are true artists and we definitely have grown. We’ve become better writers, better producers, better artists.

You’ve talked openly about how you were in rehab for the alcohol and drug addiction – I think the most recent time was earlier this year. Was it hard to be open about that given the age of your fan base and how straight-laced the group’s image was?
Yes and no. I definitely wanted to be honest. I didn’t want the media to contrive their own opinions about things. Being open about it, it was not only helpful for myself, as well as hopefully for any other people out there who are struggling who can see he is human, he’s not this pop idol person that’s untouchable. I took myself to rehab this time because I saw myself going back down that same road again.

Kevin [Richardson] left the band in 2006. How often do you talk to him now?
Pretty regularly. I haven’t spoken to him in a few months, but I know he just saw Howie [Dorough] and Brian [Littrell] the other day at Howie’s son’s birthday party.

Oh wow.
I know, it’s kind of crazy now. Howie’s son’s second birthday party.

Things have changed!
Things have changed a little bit. It’s been really cool. The relationship has never changed. We’re all still family. As we’ve said to everybody time and time again since [Kevin] left, the door’s always open. I think the fans would absolutely die to have the original five on stage again.

I read this book recently about the history of karaoke where the writer points to the release of the Millennium album as one of the three things that helped karaoke make a comeback. Have you ever sung any of your own songs at karaoke before?
When I used to drink, yeah, maybe once or twice if there was a request or if I heard other people that saw me there and saw them singing my song and they were murdering it, I’d run up there and save the day. There was a point where karaoke really was big here in Los Angeles at this place called Miyagi’s. Every celebrity and their grandmother would come to do karaoke. …[In] one night you could see Jamie Foxx and Whitney Houston – I mean Whitney Houston doing friggin’ karaoke! – it was awesome. There was a couple nights when Joey Fatone used to live out here and he would go up and sing Backstreet, I’d go up and sing ’N Sync.

Of all the music videos you’ve produced over the years, which brings you the deepest shame these days?
Quit Playin’ Games [With My Heart]. It’s one thing for us to be wet and dancing in the rain, it’s another thing for us to be wet, dancing in the rain [and] in pastel-coloured shirts.

When I was 13, MuchMusic up here in Canada had Backstreet Boys Day. For a full day, they aired specials, music videos, live appearances, all that stuff. To commemorate, my best friend Kyla and I, we wrote you this five-page letter on green construction paper with black Crayola marker –

My question is, why didn’t you write us back?
I don’t think I got that. But I’ll tell you, if I did, I probably would’ve written you back.

This interview has been condensed and edited.