A.J. McLeanDate of Interview: 04/22/2010

Although A.J. McLean is well-known for being the most out-spoken member of the Backstreet Boys, the most intimate side of his musical life would not be revealed until 2010, with the release of his first solo project: Have It All. Venturing beyond the “safe” confines of his “boy bad” experience, McLean was able to experiment with rock, funk and dance in ways that he had never done in the past. And thankfully, these new musical paths did not interrupt his membership with the Backstreet collective or progress on the band’s seventh studio album, This Is Us.

As part of a promotional campaign for the Backstreet Boys’ eight concert tour, A.J. McLean managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on his mother’s influence, working with T-Pain, and the band’s successful blending of pop and R&B.

Clayton Perry:  The Backstreet Boys are often credited for redefining the modern musical landscape.  What do you consider to be the group’s greatest contribution to the music industry?

A.J. McLean:  The sound that we created, along with Max Martin and all the guys from Stockholm, we found a direction and developed a niche that opened up doors to a whole new kind of genre of pop music. It’s always been about the music for us since the very beginning of our entire career. We’ve always stressed to say that without great music we wouldn’t have great fans, and without great fans, we wouldn’t have great music. It is kind of a big loop-de-loop. It’s a constant circle. It’s been very positive. Yes, we’ve had ups and downs, but who really hasn’t? Over the past seventeen years, we have shown a great deal of longevity and stability.

Clayton Perry:  Yes, that’s very true. In spite of musical boundaries and genre classifications, the Backstreet boys were able to blur the lines between R&B and pop.  Was the task as easy as it seemed?

A.J. McLean:  We all grew up from different backgrounds and musical tastes from rock to pop to R&B to soul, funk, country, Christian, whatever it was. I think we tried to combine all of our likes together as a team, and just kind of come up with a sound that really defined who we were. We also wanted to emulate a whole bunch of bands that we grew up listening to, from Boyz II Men, Jodeci, Shai and Commissioned. All these different groups, we wanted to be like. So we would strive to almost sound like them, yet we had that whole pop look, the pop feel to us. But you give us an R&B song, and we can definitely do it.

Clayton Perry:  Agreed.

A.J. McLean:  But we were also younger then, and some of us weren’t doing the riffs that we’re doing today. Some of us weren’t doing the runs we’re doing today. And some of us weren’t really that big into R&B. I know for me, personally, I grew up listening to a lot of rock, because of my mom, and then I kind of transcended into Stevie Wonder and Prince and Bowie, and went more into the R&B funk direction. For me, both sounds just kind of bled into one another.

Clayton Perry:  Considering your life journey, your mom was one of your biggest cheerleaders. When you reflect upon the success attained in your early years, what credit do you attribute to her energy and efforts?

A.J. McLean:  She was my backbone. And she was my biggest fan. Besides my grandmother, she was always there to support me – 1,000 percent – from taking me to auditions, helping me go over my lines for theatre stuff or whatever I was doing in the performance field. Between her and my grandmother, that was pretty much it for me. My grandmother would pick me up after school every single day, take me to all my auditions and then my mom would help me rehearse my lines late at night or take me to auditions, as well. She was just a real strong, strong woman – working two jobs and trying to raise me as best as she possible could. I think she did a pretty good job.

Clayton Perry:  As you came into your own, as a man and as a professional, is there a particular moral lesson that you find she has instilled within you?

A.J. McLean:  I think probably one of the biggest things that she would tell me or tell anyone is that you just have to know that if you fail, it’s okay. If you don’t always come out on top, it’s okay. Just keep trying to be the best that you can be. And as long as you’re happy and you’re enjoying what you’re doing, then you are the best at what you’re doing. You don’t have to be number one. You don’t have to sell a gazillion records. You don’t have to win a gazillion Oscars. You can just be happy with who you are and be happy doing what you’re doing, and you’ve already won. Period.

Clayton Perry:  When you look back on the recording experience for This Is Us, what thoughts immediately come to mind?

A.J. McLean:  I think just the fact that we kind of went with a sound that is kind of who we are – a mixture of pop, R&B and dance – but a little bit more grown up, with different producers, like Jim Jonsin, who has worked with Lil’ Wayne and Sean Kingston. You would never expect a boy band to work with anyone that’s worked in the rap community or in the hip-hop community, but it turned out great, and you know, to work with Jim was awesome. Jim’s a huge fan of ours, and we’re a huge fan of his, and the stuff that we came up with, with him was frickin’ phenomenal. We also had some amazing writers.

Clayton Perry:  Any memorable behind-the-scenes stories?

A.J. McLean:  T-Pain was hilarious to work with. The guy is definitely a big, old kid. You know, he’s younger than all of us, but he’s a big kid. I’ll never forget. We finished up one of the sessions one night, and me and Nick took him out to a club here in L.A., because he doesn’t really hang out that much here in L.A. We took him out to a club in L.A, and then like around eleven o’clock, eleven thirty, he was like: “All right, well, why don’t we just go get some cocktails and go back to A.J.’s house?” I was like: “Well, why do you want to go back to my house?” He was like: “Because I’ve heard you’ve got every nerf gun known to man.” Which I do. So we came back here and had a frickin’ nerf war! [laughing]

Clayton Perry:  You have a songwriting credit on “She’s a Dream,” which T-Pain also produced. Walk me through the songwriting process.

A.J. McLean:  It was interesting. While we were cutting another other song, “International,” he had been playing a bunch of songs that he had been working on. At the time, that was the only song that we had scheduled to cut with him. But with T-Pain, anything can happen. I’ll admit he’s a little bit ADD, and he had his little own mini-studio setup inside the recording studio. He’s always working on something. But when he played “She’s a Dream,” it only had a first verse. There was no second verse. And we were like: “Dude, that song is sick. Have you given it to anybody? Are you going to cut it? Where’s that song going?” And he said: “If y’all want to cut it, cool.”

Clayton Perry:  Just like that! [laughing]

A.J. McLean:  So we all just kind of took a stab at it. The four of us wrote the second verse and we all wrote the bridge together and we also went back and tweaked some of the first verse. And the song, it turned out amazing. We had some battles with the record company about the word “shorty,” which was funny, because it’s like: “Come on, if Justin Bieber can say shorty, I think the Backstreet Boys can say shorty.” He’s a sixteen year old kid talking about being in love! You know what I mean? [laughing]

Clayton Perry:  That’s an interesting backstory. While working on This Is Us, you were also juggling your first solo project, Have It All. What does this particular album mean to you?

A.J. McLean:  I wanted to make a record that wasn’t right up the middle. It’s a little bit left field. And I’m excited about it. It’s been harder than I thought it would be, but it’s been definitely an amazing learning experience. I mean, I’ve been working on my solo record now for about five, six years, obviously taking breaks to record with the boys and tour with the boys. But any chance I’ve got, on downtime, I was in the studio, not taking a vacation but working on my record. I’m extremely proud of it. I busted my butt on it. It’s a very personal record. It’s a little more grown up. It’s a little bit more sexy. It’s a little bit more not so innocent, so to speak. But then again, neither am I! [laughing]

Clayton Perry:  At the moment, your album is only available overseas. But when I think about it, the Backstreet Boys has always had a strong international following. According to some estimates, three-quarters of the bands albums have been sold in markets overseas. At what point did you realize that that Backstreet Boys had become international superstars?

A.J. McLean:  When we released our very first song, “We’ve Got It Goin’ On,” it peaked at No. 69 on the dance charts here in the U.S., but the rest of the world just opened their arms. So we jumped ship from our home turf and went overseas for about almost two years before we even touched American soil again. So I think our whole career really started over there, more so than here.

Clayton Perry:  Did you find that experience to be awkward?

A.J. McLean:  Yes, it was a little bit frustrating when you’re from the U.S. I mean, it was so funny. Once we came back to the U.S., so many TV shows and radio stations and people all thought that we were from the U.K., because we had spent so much time over there and over in Europe. And we’re like: “No. We’re from Florida. We’re not from the U.K.” It took some time for people to really accept us here, but once it hit, it made our heads spin. It was a complete whirlwind. And then especially with like 1999 and 2000, with the Millennium CD, it was the biggest thing anyone had seen in so long, and it’s still something that we haven’t really wrapped our brains around. It really is an actual phenomenon. I mean, we still don’t get it completely. I get what it is in some aspects, as far as it’s all about the music. But we do have the best fans around the entire globe. I mean, we’ve got dedicated fans that believe in us through our good times and our bad times, and they’ve become like our second family.

Clayton Perry:  Millennium is often referenced as the key benchmark in the band’s career? What other event do you think was pivotal in the evolution of the Backstreet Boys?

A.J. McLean:  There’s been so many, like from our very first solo show in Europe. We started over there opening up for different European groups that we really didn’t know about, and kind of got thrown into this whole melting pot of boy bands, because there were so many over there. Then once we did our first headlining tour it was kind of surreal, because we were still really young, touring all over Europe, selling out arenas and stadiums and it was just, it was very surreal. For us, we didn’t really know what to expect. We thought we were going to have one hit single and one album and then that was it – like a flash in the pan! [laughing] And then it just kind of kept growing and growing, and then by the time we hit Millennium… it really makes no sense. “I Want It That Way” was our biggest pivotal point. That song, to this day, will forever be our biggest song, and it’s a song that makes absolutely no sense. It really makes no sense! [laughing] Ask anybody what that song means to them! [laughing continues] I have no idea. It really makes no sense.

Clayton Perry:  Is there a particular song in the Backstreet Boys catalog that you really felt never received the attention or status it deserved?

A.J. McLean:  There are quite a few, actually. There is a song off the Never Gone CD called “Siberia” that was an absolute genius song. Max wrote it, too, and the track never saw the light of day. Ironically, it was one of our most popular songs on that particular tour. So many of our fans were able to hear it performed live. That song, along with another from the very first album that was only released in Europe: “10,000 Promises.” I would also add most of the unreleased tracks from our Millennium CD. There were so many great songs on there that were never singles, but totally could have been and should have been. But I think on that particular record, we made the right decisions.

Clayton Perry:  As the band has gotten older, how difficult has it become to balance all of your personal and professional lives?

A.J. McLean:  Now, everybody has to really work together. I think because we’re older, because we have families and girlfriends and fiancées and wives, I think now, for us, it’s a much more deeper understanding of scheduling and timing, and what’s really going to work best for everyone. Before it was kind of like, let’s just get up and go. It didn’t matter if we were out for three months straight. Now, it definitely does. We’re all older and we have our lives. We have our families and friends and our loved ones that we definitely want to spend time with. But we’ll fly our families out. We all kind of have a two week limit without our loved ones. Usually after two weeks, that’s pretty much it. We don’t want to go past two weeks where we’re not with our loved ones, because that just kind of sucks.

Clayton Perry:  I recently discovered that you have an alter-ego who goes by “Johnny No Name.”  Who is he exactly? And at what point did you adopt this persona?

A.J. McLean:  Johnny was kind of a joke, so to speak, that got turned into something serious. It was my 22nd birthday. I wanted to do something that wasn’t like a normal birthday. I wanted to be onstage. So I kind of developed this whole character that was kind of like my alter ego. Kind of the person I couldn’t really be as a Backstreet Boy. He was a real bad boy. He was a real party animal and total crazy guy with a British accent that was taking the piss out of everybody. That didn’t really care about anybody but himself. It was just this kind of whole persona that I created, and it just kind of became like its only little mini-phenomenon. The fans loved it. Started websites for it. And wanted a proper tour. And people have been asking me, is Johnny going to come back? Is he going to make an album? And I’m like, maybe. I mean, who knows? Let me get my record done first, and let me see how that goes, and then, who knows? I would love to make a Johnny record and do a Johnny tour and do all the promotion as Johnny. It’s a lot of speaking in a British accent, but I don’t mind. It’s fine. Got to stay in character at all times and dress the part. I think it would be a blast.

For more information on A.J. McLean, visit his official website: http://www.ajmclean.com/

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