With a Las Vegas residency launching March 1, the pop heartthrobs share uncensored tales from their larger-than-life 24-year ride.

By Nolan Feeney
February 22, 2017 at 10:15 AM EST
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You can hear the Backstreet Boys before you see them. At an unassuming dance studio in Los Angeles in mid-February, the group’s catalog blasts from an open door, and inside, its five members are reacquainting themselves with the moves they’ve been breaking out on stage for nearly a quarter century. Whether you turned up your nose at them during their heyday or plastered their posters all over the walls of your childhood (or adult) bedroom, you know these songs. The Backstreet Boys are the best-selling boy band in history, and their hits—from “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” to “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”—are as iconic as their sales figures are impressive: That’s 130 million records sold worldwide and nine top 10 albums. From their unglamorous origins in Orlando, the group helped create the modern pop-music machine, defined the TRL era…and left millions around the world wondering what the heck “I Want It That Way” was all about, anyway. (Spoiler alert: They’re still not sure.) As they prepared to launch their new Las Vegas residency, Backstreet Boys: Larger Than Life, which kicks off at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino’s AXIS theater on March 1, the band sat down with EW to share their story in their own words.

In 1992, the entrepreneur Lou Pearlman placed an ad in the Orlando Sentinel looking to form an all-male vocal group in the vein of New Kids on the Block. After a few member changes and lineup replacements, he found his crew in AJ McLean, Nick Carter, Howie Dorough, Kevin Richardson, and Brian Littrell, who came together for the first time on April 20, 1993.

NICK: Lou had a blimp business at the time, and we were rehearsing in a blimp hangar. We would be there five days a week. There was no air conditioner. It was insane, the amount of work we put into it. We were doing vocal lessons, dance lessons, recording sessions.

AJ: Lou brings in Johnny Wright, who had road-managed New Kids on the Block. He knew what it was like to be with guys like us. But at the time there was a lot of backlash from New Kids.

BRIAN: Radio was all grunge and rap. We would go to New York and sing a cappella for record executives, but none of them were really into it.

KEVIN: We played anywhere we could. Johnny got us these school tours. One day we might be at a middle school out in the woods of Pennsylvania, the next day we might be at a high school in inner-city New Jersey. It gave us a lot of experience in terms of how to win a crowd over. We would occasionally get club gigs, though some of us were underage.

NICK: They snuck us in, we did the show, and then they kicked us out.

KEVIN: What got us signed was Johnny would send footage that AJ’s mom recorded at these schools to the record companies. We were in Columbus, Ohio, playing a Mothers Against Drunk Driving event when we got signed.

In 1994, the Backstreet Boys signed with Jive Records, who sent the group to Stockholm, Sweden, to record with Denniz PoP and his little-known protégé Max Martin, who would go on to write and produce hits for Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, and other superstars. The group’s early recordings were hugely popular in Europe, but Stateside success was elusive.

NICK: At the time, Denniz had a lot of success with Ace of Base and Robyn. It was a movement that [Jive founder] Clive Calder caught on to early. We thought it was dope. We were young, but it took us a long time to get to that point.

KEVIN: We dropped a single, “We’ve Got It Goin’ On,” and it peaked at No. 69 [on the Billboard Hot 100].

HOWIE: It was Johnny’s idea to go to Germany. He knew a promoter over there. We stumbled into a world that accepted us because [Europe] was already used to groups like us. But when we performed, we sang a capella, which most artists weren’t doing.

KEVIN: They were lip-syncing.

AJ: We used to come back here [to the States] and call it No Fan Land. There’d be nobody at the airport, nothing. We were spending all that time in Germany and Austria and Switzerland, but that’s how we finally got accepted here: through Europe. France passes [the music] over the pond to Montreal and Quebec, and it floods down into the United States.

KEVIN: Cities like Buffalo and Detroit would hear the radio stations across the border. People were calling to request our songs, but the DJs were like, “We don’t know who they are!”

NICK: Then the Spice Girls dropped “Wannabe” [in the U.S. in ’97] and that really helped us. That and Hanson’s “MMMBop” broke open the door for pop music to flood into America.

In the summer of 1997, “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” became the group’s breakout single in the U.S. Their self-titled U.S. debut also became a top five album the following year. But problems with Pearlman had already surfaced.

KEVIN: When you play a 20-day tour in Germany and come home and you ain’t got no money, that’s a red flag.

BRIAN: I remember doing two sold-out European tours. I get home, and I’ve got $88,000 in my bank account. That was more than I’d ever seen in my life, but on the other hand, why wasn’t it three or four times that? Then I started doing the math.

KEVIN: Lou was taking one-sixth of everything, he was taking a 25 percent management commission, and he was being recouped all of his expenses. That’s called triple-dipping, and as a manager, it’s a breach of fiduciary duty, and it’s illegal.

BRIAN: I asked Lou to make it right. But he never did. I got an attorney through my parents and ended up filing a lawsuit [in 1997].

KEVIN: Lou was pitting us against each other: “I own the name. I own the copyright. Your next album won’t come out [if the lawsuit continues].”

BRIAN: The guys were all meeting in a room in Sweden. When I showed up, they were like, “Why are you breaking us up?” I said, “I’m not breaking us up, I’m trying to get for me what I want for everybody else!” They came around.

The following year, the other members joined the suit, which was later settled for an undisclosed amount, and the group cut ties with Pearlman. In 2007, Vanity Fair published an article in which a former assistant to Pearlman claimed that Pearlman—who also managed *NSYNC and other boy bands—was a “sexual predator” who behaved inappropriately around the young singers he mentored. In 2008, Pearlman was sentenced to 25 years in prison for a Ponzi-scheme conviction. He died in 2016 while serving his sentence in prison.

AJ: When all the allegations started coming out about Lou, I couldn’t believe it. I knew the way he was around us me, the way he was around us. Never did I think anything like that was possible.

NICK: We never experienced anything.

KEVIN: I never experienced any of that. Now, did I wonder often if he was possibly a homosexual? Yeah. But he never did anything to me that made me feel compromised or taken advantage of or harassed ever—other than in business.

After moving on from Pearlman, the group focused on recording its second U.S. album, 1999’s Millennium. The lead single, “I Want It That Way,” became a No. 1 hit in 25 different countries and helped Millennium sell more than 12 million copies in the U.S. alone. But with great success came great personal turmoil.

HOWIE: I didn’t think “I Want It That Way” was that big of a song. Because our earlier stuff had such strong R&B influences, [the demo] didn’t grab me. It didn’t have that soulfulness.

AJ: The label was like, “This doesn’t really make much sense, maybe we can go back and restructure the lyrics.”

NICK: They brought in Mutt Lange, a legendary producer who did all this stuff with Shania Twain, to doctor the song.

KEVIN: And it made sense, but it didn’t sound as good!

NICK: At that point, we had enough power. We had the meeting with [Jive president] Barry Weiss. We were like, “We want to go back to the original.”

AJ: If it hadn’t been that version, who knows what would have happened?

KEVIN: When Millennium took off, we went from being recognized occasionally to not being able to go anywhere.

AJ: I’ll never forget the day that it came out. We did TRL and shut down Times Square, and right after we went next door and sat next to George freakin’ Lucas at the premiere of Star Wars: Episode I.

KEVIN: At the same time, some of us started to retreat inward. We didn’t spend as much time together.

NICK: There was a lot of friction inside the group. The guys would always want to do more. I was 19 years old. I just wanted to go back home and play basketball with my friends. So Brian and I formed an alliance.

KEVIN: We’d say, “Guys, we have this amazing opportunity to perform with Aretha Franklin!” And they’d be like, “Nah, we’re not doing it.”

NICK: Maybe that was the rebellious teenage side of me, but at the same time, we were tired.

BRIAN: The managers would say, “If you don’t say yes to this, I’m going to get *NSYNC to do it.”

KEVIN: We toured Millennium for a little bit, not as much as we could; then we went right back and did another album [2000’s Black & Blue].

BRIAN: We did Black & Blue in nine days!

AJ: We felt beat up, black and blue.

KEVIN: Emotionally and spiritually we weren’t into it, which led to AJ going to rehab.

AJ: At 22, I fell in love with Jack Daniel’s. These guys had seen me on this downward spiral and hired this therapist to come on the road, but we never talked. One day, we were in Boston and were supposed to throw the pitch out at a baseball game. I was like, “I’m not going to do it. They can sing without me.” Kevin started blowing up my phone. The hotel-room door was bolted with a little chain, and he burst right through that. He broke the damn frame and everything. We exchanged some words. We sat in Kevin’s room with our management and decided to cancel the tour. They sent me off to rehab, and the next day these guys went to TRL and made the announcement. To this day, I still can’t watch that video. I’m sure my daughter at some point will Google it.

The group’s next album, 2005’s Never Gone, introduced a mature rock-inspired sound. Yet the band struggled to adapt to a dramatically changed music industry.

AJ: The album didn’t come out until 2005, and that’s what started the “Oh, you guys are back together?” They thought we broke up! The first half of that [period] was legitimate time off. Then Nick does his solo thing.

KEVIN: We’d just finished our Black & Blue tour and had a meeting at Jive records. Barry Weiss was like, “Now Nick’s going to do a solo record.” It got a little heated in the meeting. He’s like, “Why can’t we have a Nick Carter album and a Backstreet Boys album in the same year?” I told Barry, “Why are you trying to destroy the group? We’re already worn out, and now you’re throwing this at us?”

NICK: At the time I was having serious family issues. All the money was tearing my family apart. I was using. I was drinking. I remember being on the road doing some solo touring and feeling empty. I told my manager, “I want to come back to the group.” That’s when it started back up again.

KEVIN: When we finally started making the record, none of us knew how we were going to fit back into pop.

NICK: The label didn’t know what to do with us. But we ended up really lucky with a song called “Incomplete” that didn’t even sound like us. People liked the song for what it was, not for the people who were singing.

BRIAN: They probably thought we were Nickelback.

KEVIN: It was a top 20 single [on the Hot 100]…and fans were calling in to TRL requesting our next two singles. The head of our music marketing [department] told us, “MTV said they’re not going to play it. MTV dictates to the audience what is hip and cool.” That was disheartening.

HOWIE: We weren’t able to do things on the level we used to. Kevin took it the hardest.

NICK: We were still able to tour. We have a loyal following, so we were able to go out even though radio at the time said “F— you” in so many words. They gave up on us after “Incomplete.”

KEVIN: We were on tour when Johnny was like, “We need to start talking about the next record.” I was like, “Whoa, hold up! I don’t know if I’m ready.” Between Black & Blue and Never Gone, I got to do the musical Chicago on Broadway and in the West End in London. I wanted to explore the actor side of myself. At the same time, my wife and I wanted to start a family. The guys were like, “Well, we’re going to do a record.” So I said, “I give you my blessing, but I’m out.”

The group would release two albums without Richardson: 2007’s Unbreakable, which continued the sound of Never Gone, and 2009’s This Is Us, which marked a return to their dance-pop roots. In 2010, they announced a joint tour with New Kids on the Block.

KEVIN: Howie and I would see each other while they were doing their next two records. He said, “We’re thinking about doing a joint tour with New Kids, do you think you might be interested?” I was like, “I don’t know if that’s the right timing.” But when I saw the press for it, I was like, “Man, am I missing out? Two huge groups from different decades coming together and touring the world?” And then I started singing with a friend of mine—he had a cover band—and I was like, “You know what? I miss this.” I called all the guys up and said, “Whenever you’re ready, I want to come back.”

BRIAN: Timewise, it happened to be our 20th anniversary [approaching], and we were like, “That’s perfect!”

Richardson permanently rejoined the group in 2012. The reunited fivesome released their next album, In a World Like This, the following year. Not long after, discussions of a Las Vegas residency began.

AJ: Celine [Dion] was obviously the start for pop music [residencies], but Britney really paved the way for our generation. It’s also nice to put on a show like we used to. We’ve had to downsize the production over the years, but when you’re doing Vegas, you’ve got to go balls to the wall. I would compare this show to a Millennium-type show. People are going to lose their minds.

HOWIE: Now our fans have their own money—they’re not using mom and dad’s money! They’re going out and celebrating birthdays, bachelorette parties. Vegas is a hotspot for our fans. It just makes sense.

KEVIN: It’s also nice for our lifestyle. We’re all fathers now. When you’re in and out of hotels every other day, that takes a toll on you. And we’re not 22 years old anymore.

HOWIE: When people ask how we’ve stayed together this long, I always say that it seriously feels like a second marriage.

AJ: It’s our first marriage!

HOWIE: You’re right—our wives are our second marriage. And like all marriages, you have to work at it. We feel like we owe it to our fans, and to each other. I don’t want to let these guys down.

AJ: At the end of the day, we’re still having fun.

NICK: We enjoy entertaining our fans and making music for them. And we’re fans of our own music. We love our music. We’re looking forward to the next album.

KEVIN: We’ve enriched each other’s lives. It’s not always easy because we all have five different opinions about the way something should be done. But when we all get rolling in the same direction? We can accomplish great things.