Interview: Backstreet Boys' AJ McLean on growing (and sobering) up, touring with NKOTB
More than 15 years after their first single, the two boy bands have joined forces
Members of New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys perform at 1st Mariner Arena. (Handout photo, Baltimore Sun / May 24, 2011)
New Kid Donnie Wahlberg was a spry 17 back then; so was the Backstreet Boys' AJ McLean.
A lot has happened since then. They've grown up, for one.
"Some of the New Kids have kids of their own," McLean said.
Wahlberg and McLean are even members of the same country club in California. Along the way, McLean checked in and out of rehab, and Jonathan Knight came out of the closet. They've gone from being the most popular boy group in the country to being has-beens and, eventually, nostalgia acts.
While demand for a comeback concert by just one of the groups might not have materialized, combined, they've engineered an unlikely return to the arenas that they could fill effortlessly during each others' heydays.
The so-called joint NKOTBSB — a combination of the bands' names — tour has been a huge draw, so much so that they had no qualms about scheduling two back-to-back shows in the region — one at 1st Mariner Arena on Sunday and a second June 3 at the Verizon Center. The tour comes with a combined greatest hits album of the same name.
"About 98 percent of the tour has been sold out. We've got so many dedicated fans between the two of us," McLean says. While the Washington and Baltimore shows still have seats available, it's easy to see McLean's point. Between the two acts, they cover two generations of unapologetic pop fans.
McLean says that while it's unlikely there will be another boy band renaissance like there was in the late '90s, the tour also owes its creation to the recent spike in dance and pop music.
"It couldn't be a better time for both of us to go on tour," he said.
The two bands have only performed together at a handful of promotional appearances, including the American Music Awards.
They've been in rehearsal since April — when the Boys returned from a tour in South America, where they're still a big ticket — and would be until a few days before the first show, earlier this week.
"Once you get off a tour, we usually take a week or a month to decompress," McLean said. "This is actually cool because we still had that momentum going."
McLean said the new tour will outdo their previous ones, as they're under the guidance of a new choreographer, Marty Kudelka, who has worked with Chris Brown and Janet Jackson. It will be dance-heavy like in the past but a lot of the routines and the stagecraft have been altered to make use of the larger venues they're playing.
For instance, this time, there will be more interaction with the audience, with someone even going on stage at one point during the show. McLean it's probably been 10 years since something like that happened.
McLean said the two groups start and end the show together, but alternate songs throughout. He said fans should expects duets and mash-ups. In one routine, the Backstreet Boys kick off the Kids' hit single "You Got It (The Right Stuff)," and sing the chorus while the two groups do the choreography together.
McLean said rehearsal has been upbeat, and the two groups have built a bond.
"When you get nine of us in the same room, it's A.D.D. overdrive," he said. "We're all focusing for an hour and then we go goof off," which includes riding McLean's segway and throwing the pigskin.
He said they're all still kids at heart, and the show will reflect that.
"We're still young guys," said McLean, 33. "We're still in great shape. We always try to keep it youthful but mature. It's a sophisticated youthfulness."
McLean said the Boys admire the Kids.
"When we first started, they immediately compared us to New Kids on the Block," he said. "They've been down the same road we've been down. They pretty much paved the road for us."
McLean has struggled with drug and alcohol abuse in the past and has checked into rehab three times, most recently in January. But he said the band members have been supportive.
"My boys have been very supportive throughout. It makes it easier for me," he said. "It'd be difficult if they were all party animals."
He said the tour bodes well for their future — the Backstreet Boys are about to go into the studio in the fall to record a new album — and his own. He's getting married later this year.
"I've got four and a half months sober," McLean said. "I'm in the best shape I've been in my life. Between rehearsal and eating better, my focal point in life is different. There's life outside Backstreet Boys that is going on and continuing."
If you go
The Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block perform Sunday at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $29.50-$93.50. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the member of the New Kids on the Block who came out of the closet. It was Jonathan Knight. The Sun regrets the error.