They'll forever be known as a boy band, but 98 Degrees is not a boy band.
The foursome of brothers Nick and Drew Lachey, Jeff Timmons and Justin Jeffre — who 20 years ago found massive success, selling 10 million records and a scoring a No. 1 hit — are more accurately a man band. (And also a dad band.)
Decades removed from boyhood, Timmons still shows a little resistance to the label affixed to their late '90s and early '00s heyday, when groups of handsome hunks like Backstreet Boys, ’N Sync, LFO, O-Town and, of course, 98 Degrees were singing, dancing, crouching and clutching their hands over their hearts on MTV (and just about everywhere else).
"Back in the day we were heavily influenced by Boyz II Men and Take 6 and the doo-wop groups of the '50s and '60s and rock groups that stack harmonies like Journey and Boston and the Eagles," Timmons said by phone as the 98 Degrees tour bus moved from Los Angeles to Modesto, California in mid-November. "We all play instruments and know how to work the studio and are engineers, you know? We're really into the musical element of things. I think fans that really know us ... they know those things. But I think the general public doesn't."
While the "Total Request Live" era of the boy band pretty much ran its course a few years into the new millennium and 98 Degrees spent the better part of a decade on ice, the reunited team of 40-somethings are on their second year of touring for the holidays. They'll bring their "98 Degrees at Christmas" show to the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton on Dec. 21."There's a misconception that we were put together and we were sort of in this factory of boy band groups," Timmons continued. "Certainly we rejected that in the beginning, but when you're lumped in with groups like Backstreet and ’N Sync and you're part of that phenomenon, that fan base allows you to travel the world and experience things that most people don't, you definitely don't shy away from it anymore. We grew to embrace the term.
With more than two decades separating today and their self-titled debut, the distinctions drawn between smooth-singing R&B groups and bubblegum pop stars have in some sense melted away. When 98 Degrees reconvened in 2013, it was for the Package Tour with Boyz II Men and New Kids on the Block — one group that inspired them, another that set the mold in the '80s for what would come a decade later.
They've toured a handful of times since, with this Christmas tour being their second in as many years. Going out during the fall and winter means they're all able to be home with their families during the summer — an ideal dad band setup.
As you might guess, there's a lot less madness on the road these days. A lot less shirtlessness, too. But Timmons said there's still a comfortable and worthwhile place for groups like his. After all, those girls who once screamed in hysteria at the whiff of a Lachey have grown up, too, and are more than willing to take a seat in a theater or performing arts center for a night of piled-up harmonies and some nostalgia. They also might have children capable of being wooed by "I Do (Cherish You)," "This Gift" and the like.
We caught up with Timmons to talk tour, fan hysteria and fashion regrets.
How's the tour going?
Fantastic so far. I couldn't be happier with it. Better turnout than last year (and) last year it was a really nice response. We're having a lot of fun. We get to go to the Midwest a lot more this year. We're all from there so we're excited about that part of it too.
Are you seeing a second generation of 98 Degrees fans now?
Yeah, it's interesting just because we had some very, very young fans back in the day because we did tons of stuff with Nickelodeon and Disney. So, some of them are still in their mid-20s. We have some fans up into their mid-40s and yes, they're bringing their kids. Even when we did stuff with New Kids, they have a slightly older fan base. We gained some of those fans, they're bringing their kids.
How different are the shows now compared to 15 or 20 years ago?
I think we're a lot more comfortable on stage, believe it or not. Certainly we had a blast of popularity in the late '90s and early 2000s and did really big shows, but I think since then we've had 20 years to go on our own and not be able to lean on each other on stage and hide our flaws. You need to go out there on your own sometimes to figure out how to work the stage, how to become a better artist, how to be a better performer and singer and I think if anything we've gotten better as individual performers and I think that sort of helps us when we get back as a group with timing and everything from mic technique to the way you perform to interaction with the crowd. Those things are all better than they used to be, I think.
Was it hard to get your chemistry back after the long hiatus?
You know, that's what a lot of people ask and it wasn't. It was very interesting — the very first time myself, Justin and Nick got together, it was before Drew had gotten with us — we sang together and there was instant chemistry there. And, of course, Drew was that missing element. When you're in a group like this, you've grown up doing so many things together. We started out singing a cappella together. We didn't have money for instruments, we could only rely on our voices to get our message across and spent a lot of time doing intricate arrangements on these four-part, five-part songs and it's like riding a bike, you get back together, you fall into where you were harmonically and with balance and dynamics. And that part was easy for us.
Looking at all of the videos and photo shoots that you took part in in the late '90s, is there one outfit you look back at and wish you could erase from history?
You're killing me. You're killing me. All of them. I go back and, with the exception of some nice tailored suits, if I could burn pictures — unfortunately the internet has made them live for eternity — I would.
We had firemen outfits, we wore silver shiny jumpsuits, we had the overalls, of course, which are coming back in style. The clothes were like 10 sizes too big, super huge baggy pants, baggy shirts. I could go on and on if you wanted me to. Someone tailored me in a dress shirt made of plastic once. I try to block those memories out.
Do you have one go-to story that encapsulates how crazy some of your fans were back in the heyday?
There's not one go-to because there were plenty of crazy ones. I think the main one we all talk about that seems pretty crazy is one time we got room service and there was a girl hidden under the cart. We got some breakfast wheeled into the room and some girl popped out after the hotel delivery guy left food there. So that was pretty crazy.
We've had people camp out on our tour bus without us knowing it until we get to the next city. We've had crazy — I don't want to say crazy, I want to say excited, loyal fans — follow us sometimes for 10 cities in a row. There was one lady who had a kid with her forever, which made me wonder about the child's well-being.
... We had a fan who posed as a news reporter one time in our dressing room, but she had no film in her camera. Her camera man had no film. Our security guy caught that one. The list could go on and on. All that does is tell us that we were having success and we certainly embraced fun times like that and certainly it was a safer time so you didn't have to deal with too many dangerous situations — but there were many crazy ones.