Howie D Interview: Backstreet Boys Singer on New Documentary, ‘Boy Band’ Label and How He Found His Voice in the Group [EXCLUSIVE]

by | PopCrush
Backstreet Boys
James Henry and Mia Bays

It’s not every day you get to speak to one of the Backstreet Boys. But we got to do exactly that this week, chatting with Howie D about the band’s highly anticipated documentary, ‘Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of’ (which we got to see before it is officially released on Jan. 30, no hatin’), how the guys found their own identity while being labeled as a “boy band,” and how Howie himself emerged from the background and found his own voice.

Be sure to stay tuned on PopCrush for even more exclusive content from our interview with Howie, including how his nickname almost kept him from being in the band and how he may be partially responsible for the creation of ‘N Sync. (Say whaaat!)

Congratulations on the documentary coming out on Friday!

Thank you! We’re really excited for it. It’s long-awaited, something we’ve been wanting to do for a while. I think the stars all aligned when Kevin came back in the group a year and a half ago after taking an eight-year hiatus. We were between the 20th anniversary and the whole reunion and making a new record; it just felt like the right timing. I’m glad we were able to do that, take our fans on a journey with us going back to the beginning and where we’d like to go in the future.

I watched it yesterday and may have cried a few times.

[Laughs] Thanks!

If you had to describe the documentary in three words, what would they be?

Wow. I haven’t been asked that one! I’d say compelling, educational… and… heartfelt? I don’t know if that’s the right word [laughs]. You definitely stumped me on that one.

I mean, I would definitely say it was heartfelt. There were a lot of emotional moments going on… "AJ was this geeky little kid who used to carry a briefcase around, wear a jean shirt with a tie, thinking he was Zack or Screech from ‘Saved by the Bell.’"

Emotional! That’s a good word to describe it, too.

Which moment was the most powerful for you to film?

I would probably say going to each of our homes and also receiving the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

The hometown visits were definitely some of the most emotional moments to watch. What did you take away from each visit?

Actually, it was quite educational — that’s what I meant by “educational” [above] — to be able to understand and appreciate even moreso where each of us came from. We always talked about it to each other — “Oh, I did this growing up” — but to actually see it, and feel like you’re living there for the moment, I think it was a bonding experience for us.

[Sighs] Going to Kevin’s hometown, I could feel what Kevin went through with his father passing away there. Even the weather being a little chilly just made you feel the darkness, the sadness that he probably went through. Going with Nick to his hometown and seeing the rough area where he lived, you can understand why he picks to live it the way he does, and some of the things that I never really understood or possibly took for granted. I think that whole trip for us was a big bonding experience.

Something I noticed throughout the whole documentary was the sense of brotherhood between you guys. 

Absolutely, absolutely. I’m glad you caught that. I think we have a special bond. It’s definitely like a brotherhood. Like a family. Like a marriage almost to a point. We’ve been together for almost 22 years. We’ve seen a lot. We’ve seen a lot of good in each other. We’ve seen a lot of bad. We love each other like brothers; we also fight like brothers. We wake up sometimes on the right side of the bed, sometimes on the wrong side of the bed. We know how to push each others’ buttons. We know how to love each other hard as well. And I think that comes alive [in the documentary]. The passion that we have for what we do, and it’s why — with communication, we can work through anything [and] we have been able to work through everything. We all are coming from an endearing place. It’s not an “I” situation. It’s always figuring out how to make it a “we” situation.

How has your relationship evolved over the past 20+ years?

It’s definitely evolved. I mean, we all started off as young lads, so wet behind the ears, not knowing what was going on or how to do things, to all five of us now, believe it or not, are married. Four of us have kids. I think we’ve found a balance now. Work hard, but also [have] time at home to play hard, with our families, with our kids as well. When we’re on the road working hard with each other, also have play time with each other, just get to always appreciate each other and what we like to do and what we’ve come here to do.

How were you able to maintain your identity as a band when people were trying to label you? "I came to the guys and said … ‘It’s a very hard pill to swallow still, me being in the background and you guys always up in the front.’"

Yeah, you know, it’s been a long, struggling journey to get out of that box. When we first heard the term “boy band” — we heard it over in Europe first — we went over there and there were a plethora of groups out there, and they were like, “Welcome to the boy band world!” and we were like, “What? Boy band?” They’re like, “Oh, it’s just a bunch of pretty faces. Everybody sings and dances. Only one or two can really sing, and everyone else is just there for the most part.”

We’re like, “That’s not us.” We all came from five individual solo backgrounds. We’re all very passionate, strong singers. When we come together, the chemistry just blends. We’re like, “If anything, we’re a vocal harmony group. Like Boyz II Men. That’s who our inspiration is. Like the doo-wop groups.” The next thing you know, we come to America, thinking that we left that label behind, and it followed us over. And then with that it became kind of a stigma. I think in the early days, it was harder for us to accept. We constantly felt like we had to prove ourselves, and that’s why we would sing a cappella a lot, for people who would think we had a track behind us and were lip syncing. But over time, we’ve just gotten to a point where it’s like, “They can label us anything. They can call us a boy band, they can call us whatever they want, as long as they’re still calling us, calling our managers, calling our booking agents, and they’re wanting a show, we’re down with whatever.” [Laughs.]

How did you maintain your own identities when the media and others were trying to label you (like AJ as the bad boy, etc.)? 

It’s interesting, because the media can do that. I think for AJ, labeling him the bad boy, even to a point in his own mind, it made him want to believe that he was the bad boy, the Donnie Wahlberg [of the group] or whatever. But when you really get to know AJ, he is the kindest, sweetest boy there is. I’ve known him back in the early days, before we were even in the group. He was this geeky little kid who used to carry a briefcase around, wear a jean shirt with a tie, thinking he was Zack or Screech from ‘Saved by the Bell.’

It’s funny. Sometimes the media does do that, and people can take on that identity. And AJ, as we’ve all come to know, he was always searching for himself. If you allow yourself to get caught up in the labels, then sometimes you can go off on the wrong path. AJ was very public about his drug addiction, which we had to do an intervention for. I think that [was] because of the fact that he fed into this whole label and believed it. The rest of us, thank God we’ve had pretty good, stable families and friends around us, who were never “yes” people and always kept us in our place. I think that’s the biggest thing — surrounding yourself around good people and not “yes” people.

In the documentary, you talk about how you sang lead at first, which was ultimately taken away from you. How did you come to terms with that?

When you’re young like that [and] you don’t have an chance to experience life and mature, I think [it] definitely can weigh on you and affect you. In the early years, I did a bit more of the front singing, and then when we came into a record label with Jive Records and they put us together with Max Martin, the songs that he had didn’t exactly fit my voice — it moreso fit Brian’s voice, and AJ and Nick’s. At the time, I was a little bit jealous of the situation — that I didn’t have the opportunity to be the singer that I was before I started [in] the group. I had to really take a step back and say, “This is about being in a group. It’s no longer the ‘I,’ it’s the ‘we.'”

And I think over time, as Kevin decided that he wanted to take a break, I finally came to the guys and said, “In the past it was just Kevin and me in the back. It’s easier to swallow that pill when there’s another person next to you not doing as much singing. But I said, now that he’s taking a break, it’s a very hard pill to swallow still, me being in the background here and the three of you guys always up in the front. I really feel like now, at this point, we’ve really established ourselves long enough in our career that not only can we take chances, and also, our fans want to hear different things.”

I had so many fans constantly coming up to me, saying, “Why don’t you sing?” A lot of times, they thought it was because I didn’t want to sing, and it wasn’t that at all! I said, “I really want to have a chance to step up to the plate,” and the guys were actually really cool about it, and they allowed me to, and it made me feel a bit more self-worth in the group. Now, looking back on it, as I’ve had a chance to mature, I understand it now more than ever. Back in the day, that sound just wasn’t my sound, and if we didn’t go that route, who knows if Backstreet Boys would be here this day? It wasn’t anything personally against me, [I just had to] accept and understand the reason why things happen for the reasons that they happen.

In the documentary, there is a really serious moment between Nick and Brian when going over songs for ‘In a World Like This.’ Did you ever think that the tension in the group could have negatively affected the album or prevent it from being made?

Oh, definitely. Being honest, in every album cycle we go through, every tour that we go [through], there’s definitely hiccups in the road. I think it’s very easy for us to feel like, “Hey, hey. I’ve had enough of this.” Kevin actually took a break, and with time, realized that he missed it enough to want to come back. I think that’s one of the things is that you have to go into each cycle as a new cycle. Leave all the checked baggage behind from the last cycle and air out things. We always have to be able to talk to each other and not bottle things up. When you bottle things up, that’s when these outbursts happen. Like I said earlier, I think we all know that we’re coming from a compassionate [place], we have a lot of passion in our hearts about what we’re doing. It’s always about trying to find the best way to communicate and compromise, and through that, I think it’s been the success story of why we’ve been together for almost 22 years.

The credits mention that after you wrap up the world tour, you’re going to hit the studio and start working on your next album. Any details you can give us about that?

Not yet, actually. We have a little bit more touring that we’re gonna try to still do on this leg of the ‘In a World Like This’ tour. We’re gonna take off in the middle of April, we go to China, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and South America. And then after that will be the time we’ll actually really start to focus on getting into the studio — I’d say summertime. Right now, the creative ideas are floating around. There is a creative wish list of producers out there, everybody from our previous people like Max Martin; Pharrell would be great. Right now, it’s so early that we’re not even close to jumping into the studio. So now it’s just the creative process. I think once we do do this record, I think it’s gonna be really great. It’s going to be our second record on our own label. We’re a lot more now in the driver’s seat then we’ve ever been before. It’s a great, comforting feeling.

What is the ultimate message you want fans to take away from the documentary?

More of an understanding of “Wow, I feel like I know those guys now more than I ever did.” And that we’re actually normal guys. We have our ups and downs, just like everybody’s had. Just the fact that we’ve been able to stick around for almost 22 years and the bond that we’ve had thats probably what’s been able to get us to this. There’s been so many things that [we’ve gone through] that for most groups — it would’ve taken them down. There’s definitely a chemistry amongst us that is really special.

See What BSB + More Artists Looked Like When They Released Their First Albums

The Backstreet Boys documentary, ‘Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of,’ hits theaters on Friday, Jan. 30 and is available for purchase on iTunes and Video On Demand.

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