Backstreet's back ... again.
The Backstreet Boys, one of the top-selling boy bands of the 1990s, has something in store for fans missing its unconditional ballads, larger-than-life choreography breakdowns and starchy, coordinated airport attire. Twenty-five years after the group's debut, the group is holding strong with its original lineup and is set to release its ninth studio album, DNA, on Jan. 25.
DNA marks the group's first album in six years. A lot has changed for members Nick Carter, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, AJ McLean and Kevin Richardson during that time, including overcoming substance abuse, getting the hang of fatherhood and fielding controversy.
In 2017, Nick Carter was accused of sexual assault by singer Melissa Schuman. In a statement shortly after, Carter denied their encounter was anything but consensual. Schuman filed a police report against Carter; in 2018, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office said the case would not be pursued due to an expired statute of limitations. (NPR reached out to Schuman for comment regarding the allegations; her response is included in the highlights below.)
Brian Littrell and AJ McLean joined NPR's Audie Cornish to talk about what '90s pop nostalgists can expect on DNA, earning a 2019 Grammy nomination for the song "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" and more. Hear their conversation at the audio link and read on for interview highlights.
On being labeled a "boy band"
Brian Littrell: You have to continue to grow. I mean, one of the struggles for us early on was this box that society or the press wants to put you in. Like, "Oh, you're a bunch of pretty faces, you don't really sing. You're a boy band, you'll be the flavor of the month, or maybe the year if you're lucky, and then you'll be gone."
AJ McLean: We have always considered ourselves to be a vocal harmony group. And we do actually finally have an a capella song on this album; we haven't had one since the very first record.
On band member Nick Carter being accused of sexual assault
Littrell: Well, he's come out and have been very, very public about his statement, of his side of the story, and I think it's important that people focus on the facts. The facts are the facts. It's unfortunate in this situation, but he's made his statement, we stand behind him as a band member, and we're here to move on. [Regarding people who now feel ambivalent about the group], I guess that comes down to individual opinions, to be honest with you. Tying an artist to personal ventures and things like that, you know, it's part of who we are and it's part of the media and the world that we live in today. ... The personal world of the entertainment business has become so intertwined with the actual business itself. You know, we all put our Backstreet Boys hats on even when we step out as individuals. And being famous is not something that's very easy.
(Editor's note: NPR asked Carter's accuser, Melissa Schuman, for comment after this interview taped. She responded, in part: "Why is Brian Littrell, AJ McLean, or anyone else from Nick Carter's camp, always the one speaking on Nick's behalf? Nick Carter has never been interviewed or asked to answer directly on the spot by the media about my allegation. He has made one public statement through his PR.
As a victim, I have been interviewed multiple times and had my sources, witnesses, family, therapist all vetted. In addition, all witnesses, including myself, cooperated in a full police investigation by the Santa Monica Police Department, which was dropped by the Los Angeles District Attorney solely due to the expiration of the statute of limitations.")
McLean: I just turned 41. To be 41 and still be sitting here talking to you is a miracle within itself. With drugs and alcohol and all these things that I've had to overcome, it will forever be a daily struggle. And that's why we've always prided ourselves on just being honest with our fans and being honest with each other. That is probably one of the biggest reasons why we've been together for almost 26 years. We're family, we're brothers, we've seen the highs and lows with each other. We've been through everything together. We're all fathers now, we're all married. We've literally lived lives together — good, bad or indifferent.
On their favorite song on DNA, "No Place"
Littrell: "No Place" to me, is really something that we could not have done years ago. The new video that's out now has all of our families, and it just shows that we're not trying to be anything that we're not, we're comfortable in our skin, and we're happy to be doing what we're doing, still, so many years later.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now a little treat for anyone out there suffering from '90s pop music nostalgia.
BRIAN LITTRELL: This Brian here.
AJ MCLEAN: And this is AJ.
CORNISH: That's Brian Littrell and AJ McLean, two of the five Backstreet Boys. Twenty-five years after their debut, the group still has its original lineup. The other three include Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson and Howie Dorough. They have a new album called "DNA." They say it's a return to the musical recipe that solidified their fame. Take, for example, the album's first single, "Don't Go Breaking My Heart."
MCLEAN: We have so many songs with the word heart - the "Shape Of My Heart," "Quit Playing Games With My Heart," "Don't Go Breaking My Heart."
CORNISH: How have I not noticed that (laughter)?
MCLEAN: I'm definitely sensing a pattern going on here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T GO BREAKING MY HEART")
BACKSTREET BOYS: (Singing) Baby, don't go breaking my heart, breaking my heart, baby, don't go breaking my heart, breaking my heart 'cause it's the only one I got, 'cause it's the only one I got.
CORNISH: But the Backstreet Boys are now men. They're married. They've got kids.
LITTRELL: You have to continue to grow. I mean, one of the struggles I think for us early on was this box that society wants to put you in or press wants to put you in. It's like, oh, you're a bunch of pretty faces. You don't really sing, and you're a boy band. You'll be the flavor of the month or maybe the year if you're lucky, and then you'll be gone.
CORNISH: Well, a quarter-century later, they're not gone. In fact, they just received a Grammy nomination for "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," and they still insist they're a vocal harmony group, not a boy band.
MCLEAN: We have always considered ourselves to be a vocal harmony group. And we do actually finally have an a cappella song on this album when we haven't had one since the very first record.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREATHE (DNA)")
BACKSTREET BOYS: (Singing) Sand keeps slipping right through my hands, days all feel the same, still numb from you, first step off of this plane I knew I suffocate without you, the heart beats for two.
LITTRELL: Not to toot our own horns, but singing a cappella is something that the fans really love. I know every chance we get, we try to do that just to prove to people that we are real.
CORNISH: It's weird to hear you talk about proving things. I mean, I think 25 years seems like a pretty good run, especially to have, like, another Grammy nomination. Do you still feel at times that you're having to prove something?
LITTRELL: Yeah. I mean, why not? I think even if we were a star athlete, you know, when LeBron James goes out on the court every night, he wants to perform. I think if you keep that mentality like there's always something to prove, then it's always going to keep you on your game. I mean, that's just kind of how I look at it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREATHE (DNA)")
BACKSTREET BOYS: (Singing) Breathe, ooh.
CORNISH: You all became famous at such an absurdly young age, right? And that means that when members of the group ran into legal trouble, and in this case I'm talking about Nick Carter, who was accused of sexual assault and harassment, you know, what is your response to people who think that allegations against him haven't been adequately addressed?
LITTRELL: Well, he's come out and been very, very public about his statement of his side of the story. And I think it's important that, you know, people focus on the facts. You know, the facts are the facts. And it's unfortunate in this situation, but he's made his statement. We stand behind him as a band member, and we're here to move on.
CORNISH: I think I'm asking because we're in this conversation right now, this #MeToo movement where people are asking, you know, can the work be separated from the artist? People who are going to say, like, you know, in his case, let's say in the allegations from the pop singer Melissa Schuman - you know, that case did not move forward because of statute of limitations - there are people out there who are saying I don't think I can support an artist with this question mark in my mind.
LITTRELL: I guess that comes down to individual opinions, to be honest with you, you know. And tying an artist to, you know, to personal ventures and things like that, I mean, it's part of who we are, and it's part of the media and the world that we live in today. But...
CORNISH: You said - what do you mean personal ventures? Just so I can understand that.
LITTRELL: No, I just mean, like, you know, if AJ or myself, you know, stepped out - we've all had solo ventures. We've all stepped out on our own. And the personal world of the entertainment business has become so intertwined with the actual business itself. You know, we all put our Backstreet Boys hats on even when we step out as individuals, and, you know, being famous is not something that's very easy.
CORNISH: Do you look back on that period and really, you know, find yourself surprised at the ways you did or did not survive it?
MCLEAN: Oh, I mean, I just turned 41. To be 41 and to still be sitting here talking to you is a miracle within itself with drugs and alcohol and all these things that for me personally that I've had to overcome, and it will forever be a daily struggle. And that's why we've always prided ourselves on just being upfront with our fans and just being honest with our fans and, you know, being honest with each other because, you know, that is probably one of the biggest reasons why we've been together for almost 26 years because we're, you know, family. We're brothers. We've seen the highs and lows with each other. We've been through everything together. We're all fathers now. We're all married. You know, we've literally lived lives together in and out of, you know, good, bad or indifferent.
(SOUNDBITE OF BACKSTREET BOYS SONG, "NO PLACE")
MCLEAN: I wanted to ask you a question.
MCLEAN: (Laughter) Have you listened to the entire "DNA" album?
MCLEAN: If you don't have a copy, we'll send you one for sure.
LITTRELL: We will definitely do that.
CORNISH: (Laughter) OK.
CORNISH: Now that you have called me out for not listening to the whole album...
MCLEAN: Not intentional, not intentional.
CORNISH: This is the moment where I would love for you to let us go out on a song that you think people should take a listen to that maybe feels different from something you've done before or something you couldn't have done, you know, when you first started, something that's what they call the deep cut.
LITTRELL: Well, I'm going to go with track eight being "No Place." "No Place" to me is really something that we could not have done years ago. The new video that's out now has all of our families in it. It just shows that comfortableness that we have in our own skin as individuals and as a band. We're not trying to be anything that we're not. We're comfortable in our skin, and we're happy to be doing what we're doing still so many years later.
MCLEAN: I forgot about that song, and it's already out right now. I totally forgot about it.
LITTRELL: (Laughter) It's just something we couldn't have done when we started, you know, because...
MCLEAN: No, of course, because we hadn't experienced...
MCLEAN: ...What we're singing about yet.
LITTRELL: And it's really DNA. Like, when you think about the album "DNA," I mean, it's just the makeup of who we are as five individuals. So there we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO PLACE")
BACKSTREET BOYS: (Singing) Wherever you are, baby, that's where I want to be. I've been all around the world, done all there is to do, but you'll always be the home I want to come home to.
CORNISH: Well, Brian Littrell and AJ McLean, thank you so much for spending this time with us and...
MCLEAN: Of course.
CORNISH: ...Being candid. We appreciate it.
LITTRELL: Thank you very much for having us.
MCLEAN: Thank you very much for taking the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "SOCIAL INSECURITY")
CORNISH: And we reached out to Melissa Schuman, the woman who alleged that Nick Carter sexually assaulted her. She expressed frustration that Carter has never had to answer to allegations made against him, either in the media or in a court of law. Schuman also said that Brian Littrell was not present when she alleges Carter assaulted her and therefore is not entitled to question her integrity.
(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "SOCIAL INSECURITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.