For Jeff Timmons, it barely took a second to recognize his bandmate Nick Lachey’s voice behind the piglet costume on “The Masked Singer.”
“I knew as soon as I heard it – then went right down to The Strip and bet!” laughs the Vegas resident. It’s no wonder since Lachey’s was the same powerful, masked voice that first wowed Timmons as he searched for potential vocal group members while forming 98 Degrees 26 years ago.
Sent a tape of a track by Lachey’s band with Justin Jeffre, The Avenues, Timmons knew he’d found a special vocalist. “I heard Nick’s voice and without seeing what he looked like, I went, ‘I gotta get that guy.”
“That’s the only reason I made the cut — there was no picture with the tape,” cracks Nick Lachey.
“I was on the recording too, but he was not impressed!” adds Jeffre, who was later recruited by Nick Lachey.
Eventually joined by Nick’s brother, Drew Lachey, the boy band would sign with Motown Records, release chart-toppers like “Because of You” and “The Hardest Thing,” collaborate with Mariah Carey and go from having Janet Jackson posters on their walls to opening for the icon.
More than two decades on, the Ohio natives are back with their first new non-holiday music in eight years, starting with the summery, up-tempo single, “Where Do You Wanna Go.” “We recorded a couple of other songs too and they’re something different for us, but still fit with the 98 Degrees sound,” says Jeffre, sitting down alongside Timmons and the Lachey brothers in Los Angeles. “We always want that balance of music that’s relevant to today, but won’t make our fans go, ‘This doesn’t sound like those guys.’”
Recording new music was partly initiated by the pandemic, with Nick Lachey chuckling that the band members, “were bored.” Getting serious, he adds” “No, we’ve always wanted to do new music, but being unable to do anything for a year gave us all a new perspective. It made it so exciting to finally get back together. And, we had a great song submitted to us, which we all loved and wanted to record.”
Rather than work virtually, the quartet headed to Vegas and formed a recording “bubble” at Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino.
“You don’t really think, ‘I’m going to Vegas to be safe,’” says Drew Lachey of hitting Sin City amid the pandemic. “But it worked out well because we were at the Westgate, where Elvis used to play, so we had that throwback Vegas vibe, which made us even more excited to put out new music.”
In addition to recording new tracks, the foursome worked with producers like DJ Lux to remix heyday hits like “The Hardest Thing” and “Invisible Man” for upcoming remix EP “Summer of 98.” It’s all part of the band’s 98 Days of Summer campaign, which features new photos, music and throwbacks.
While the campaign celebrates the ongoing nostalgia for ’90s boy bands, the singers note making music today is more enjoyable than during that era. Bursting onto the scene alongside groups like Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, they faced pressure to be like their peers.
“It was tough because we were expected to be a certain way with our label and had the pressure of being compared to these groups, while struggling to find our own identity,” says Timmons. “We had to find an identity and separate ourselves from Backstreet and *NSYNC, which was hard because they were well-oiled machines.”
“And it seemed like everybody was trying to push that narrative [of rivalry] onto us, but we saw ourselves as a different kind of group,” adds Jeffre. “There was only four of us, we weren’t dancers, we were all about the vocals and we were on Motown, so weren’t part of that same machine. But it was to our favor that we were compared to what became some of the biggest bands in history.”
One way the band did set themselves apart — albeit unintentionally — was becoming known as much for their physiques as their music. Timmons notes that staying fit came naturally given their sporty backgrounds, so they never anticipated such attention.
“We were all athletic guys, but when we’d get with the pop photographers — and back then there were only a few — they encouraged us to take our shirts off,” says Timmons. “It’s not like we got out there to flex, but it did become part of our image, so then you have to live up to that image because the second you slipped, someone would remind you you’re getting pudgy!”
Today, the group aren’t fazed by outside pressures and expectations. Nick Lachey notes they’ve also stopped taking themselves too seriously. “In the late ’90s, there was so much pressure and we were on this rollercoaster, so never stopped to smell the roses,” he says. “We have a better perspective now and know this is something we’re blessed to do 20-something years later. It’s like, ‘Let’s work hard for it, but let’s also enjoy the moment.’”
“Everything was riding on 98 Degrees when we were younger,” adds Timmons. “Now we have other jobs, kids, families, girlfriends and we’re able to go out there and just have a good time. We have the best rapport we’ve ever had and our fans seem more exuberant and excited than ever.”
Making music that would form that lifelong fan base is exactly what Timmons dreamed of when he moved to Los Angeles. But after the pal who introduced him to Nick Lachey and Jeffre dropped out of the group, the trio had to find a replacement, with Timmons’ brother Michael briefly joining the band.
Although family members may have seemed an obvious avenue to explore — New Kids on the Block has brothers Jordan and Jonathan Knight, while Backstreet Boys have cousins Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell — Nick was reluctant to suggest Drew.
“I, of course, thought of him, but didn’t want to appear to have an agenda,” he confesses. “[Justin] actually suggested Drew because I felt uncomfortable doing it.”
Jeff says as soon as Drew joined, 98 Degrees’ sound “snapped” into place.
“Life got so much better for everybody,” Drew quips.
Among the standout moments of their early days, the band performed backstage at a Boyz II Men concert, worked with Stevie Wonder, recorded a No. 1 hit “Thank God I Found You” with Mariah Carey and opened for Janet Jackson in Hawaii.
“The spectacle and grandness of that production was amazing,” recounts Nick Lachey. “We were early into our career and had only played clubs, then suddenly we’re on stage in a stadium full of people. We grew up on Janet Jackson. I had the Rolling Stone cover hanging in my bedroom so it was like, ‘Wow, now we get to share the stage with this amazing woman.’”
It’s returning to the stage they’re excited for, starting with playing the Great New York State Fair on 21 August. Additional dates are expected to follow. “The opportunity to tour and perform – none of us will ever take that for granted again,” says Nick Lachey. “We’ve missed it a lot.”