The Backstreet Boys Talk About the Making of Their Latest Album
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Date: Nov 07, 2007
By Jonathan Widran
Ten years after taking over the pop chart with their 14 times platinum debut album, the Backstreet Boys are indeed back and in fine form on their new Jive Records release Unbreakable, out October 30. The upcoming disc’s first single “Inconsolable,” written & produced by Emanuel Kiriakou (Nick Lachey, Katharine McPhee) was released to U.S. radio outlets on August 27 and hit the Billboard Hot 100 in late September.
Like the title of their previous album Never Gone (2005), the name of the new collection is an obvious reference to not only the enduring impact of the group, but also to the Backstreet Boys’ unwavering commitment to each other. A lot has changed since 1997, when the Orlando, FL-based unit of Nick Carter, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, AJ McLean and Kevin Richardson began their impressive run. Today, like so many of their fans that bought those 75 million albums and helped them score a dozen Top 40 Hits (including “As Long As You Love Me,” “All I Have To Give,” “Larger Than Life” and “I Want It That Way”), they’ve grown up and started families.
Carter and Littrell have recorded successful solo projects and Richardson starred as Billy Flynn in Chicago on Broadway. In 2003, McLean appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, where he came out for the first time about his drug and alcohol addictions. In the early to mid-2000s, they left their original management company The Firm and filed a $75-100 million lawsuit against Jive Records’ parent company Zomba Music Group, claiming breach of contract. Yet even with all those extra-Backstreet happenings, the “boys” (who now range in age from 27 to 34) never lost their touch, coming back in 2005 to release Never Gone, which sold 10 million units worldwide.
The Backstreet Boys keep that momentum going on Unbreakable, but with a catch: this is their first album since Richardson exited the band in 2006. Dorough says, “Kevin actually came to us right before we started recording this record and told us that in his heart he just wasn’t feeling the passion to go forward with another project. His life is taking a different departure, with his wife just having a baby and him wanting to have time to be there to raise a family during those early years. We all know from past experience that between writing and recording, an album can sometimes be a long two-year process. So we totally understood and gave him that space and time. He in turn gave us his blessing and encouraged us to move forward, with absolutely no hard feelings. He’s at a great place in his life now and we’re happy for him.”
Dorough adds that while it was a challenge trying to reconfigure the lead and harmony vocals as a quartet, there was never talk about replacing Richardson. “Making this record, we consciously had to make a decision on how we were going to do this with just the four of us so that people wouldn’t feel we were missing something. And I think we were able to really do that. We actually partnered up with a great team of writers and producers and did some writing as well ourselves. I think everyone’s going to be really happy with Unbreakable. It definitely represents the Backstreet Boys of the old and new. And we’re looking forward to moving on with this next chapter in our lives as Kevin moves on with his.”
The Backstreet Boys spent a year and a half recording Unbreakable, which marks a confident return to the pop template that best defines the group’s sound. All 13 tracks demonstrate an organic ease with material that is an ideal fit. “Helpless When She Smiles” is another hit-worthy midtempo ballad produced by Grammy-winning John Shanks (Kelly Clarkson, Sheryl Crow, Bon Jovi, Hilary Duff). A number of other tracks were produced and co-written in Nashville by Dan Muckala, who worked with the group on Never Gone. Among his standouts is the moody Beatles-esque “Unsuspecting Sunday Afternoon” - a song that all four singers herald as a highlight of the set. BSB asked well-known songwriter Billy Mann (Pink, Jessica Simpson) to collaborate on the song with Muckala. The result, says Littrell, “is a love story, but with an unexpected message that really makes you think. Melodically, the bridge becomes another song, which I love. It’s really all about the emotion of the vocals, and it’s different than any other track we’ve recorded.”
Another priority was to include various uptempo tracks on the new album that would translate into some serious trademark kinetic energy when Backstreet Boys start touring again. The synthesizer-driven “Everything But Mine,” lively and frenetic “Panic,” rollicking “Any Other Way” and creepy crawler “One in a Million” fit this bill perfectly. The other producers involved in Unbreakable are Rob Weiss and *NSYNC member JC Chasez.
McLean says, “One of the things we really strived to do was just really have fun again as far as the creative process. We spent almost a month and a half working with Dan Muckala and some other really talented writers. We essentially lived in the studio and took a full, hands-on approach to the entire record, predominantly A&R-ing it ourselves, along with management and the record company. It was very similar to making records like the old days for us. We were just really excited about it, wanting to find the sound we’re known for but kind of modernize and update it and try to be trendsetters again. The idea was to be a little bit more on the edge but also have timeless classic Backstreet with really good harmonies and melodies and great lyrical content. We did some organic pop rock for a while, but those songs didn’t allow us to dance as much. On this record, we’re going to be dancing all over the place, having a good time and putting on a great show again!”
As exciting as all the new collaborations are, there is one obvious element missing: Max Martin, the mega producer who has worked with Backstreet Boys since the very beginning and is the sonic force behind most of their best known hits. Carter insists that the group still has a great relationship with Martin, but they ultimately decided to experiment with a different direction and try some new things on Unbreakable. “It went into a new direction just naturally,” he says. “We worked with Dan Muckala a majority of the album and he wrote the song ‘Incomplete’ on Never Gone. And I think we wanted…we had done so much with Max in the past, I think we just wanted to break the mold and do some stuff on our own, too. We worked extensively this time in Nashville and wrote and mixed and matched different writers and producers that we wanted to be on the album. That’s not to say we wouldn’t work with Max in the future. We love everything we have done with him in the past, but for now it was time to move on and try another approach.”
While the Backstreet Boys can easily claim (with their new album) that they’re back - the truth is they never went away. Over the course of 15 years, the group has maintained relevance in an industry that often disposes of pop acts with haste. Littrell reflects, “The pop bands of yesteryear that don’t exist anymore were centered around one or two central vocalists. What has allowed us to keep going is that we were always a team of well-rounded singers, with a similar vision. We’ve been through so much together, on equal terms, and that either tears you apart or brings you closer. When we took a break from 2002 to 2005, it was such a blessing to step outside of our own spotlight and focus on the value of something other than being a pop star. We needed to go through that character building in order to maintain respect for what we all have as a group.”
Dorough adds, “Our music has evolved with our fans. We were young pups when we started. With each album we’ve had the opportunity to grow more mature, lyrically and vocally. We’ve also had the chance to educate ourselves about the business, about artistry and becoming real musicians. I hope that shows with each step we’ve taken.”
Echoing the sentiments of his bandmates and looking ahead towards a still bright future for the boys, McLean concludes, “We’ve been part of this group for half our lives - it’s crazy to think about. If you asked me in 1992 if I’d still be a Backstreet Boy in 2008, I’d have thought we’ll make some records together and have a good little run. But we continue because we love what we do. We thrive being onstage and seeing the faces of little girls and boys and couples and grandmothers, all cutting a jig in the front row. If we were to write a book based on our experiences, I think it would be longer than War And Peace. When I’m a grandpa, I’m going to have a lot of stories to tell.”
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