For years, the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC have been labelled rivals despite sharing deep friendships and embarking on professional collaborations. But in the ultimate reminder there’s no bad blood between the two mega pop groups, AJ McLean and Nick Carter have revealed one *NSYNC member made a mark on the group’s upcoming holiday album, “A Very Backstreet Christmas.”
The band quietly dropped the album’s first single, a cover of Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” today (Sept. 6), ahead of the project’s Oct. 14 release. Their first holiday collection features both covers and original music, and when asked about any surprising influences on the new tracks, McLean tells Variety that Justin Timberlake inspired one song.
“Nick would be the first to tell you he really wanted ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling!’ to be the inspiration for one song,” McLean says, referring to Timberlake’s 2016 dance smash from the “Trolls” soundtrack. “He wanted that really happy, funky vibe.”
Adds Carter: “It’s funny because there’s all this stuff about Backstreet versus *NSYNC, but we’re all about good songs and good movies and ‘Trolls’was a movie we watched a lot with our kids. Justin wrote a really great song and we wanted to write a happy, uplifting song that had the same feel. Especially with the way the world is right now. It was like, ‘Let’s put some positive stuff out there,’ so we wrote ‘Happy Days.’”
McLean and Carter cowrote the new tracks with Kevin Richardson, Howie Dorough and Brian Littrell. The group, which is are currently on their “DNA World Tour,”also worked with musicians including Beck’s father, David Campbell, who conducted “incredible” string arrangements.
The record sees them covering classics they loved during their childhoods, like “White Christmas,” and “Winter Wonderland,” alongside the new tracks, “Christmas in New York,” “Together,” and “Happy Days.”
“With another one of the new songs, we wanted something that was Marvin Gaye/Otis Redding old-school vibes,” McLean said. “We never mention Christmas in that one, so it could also be for New Year’s, a party or anything.”
“This is Backstreet in its truest form,” McLean continues. “It’s very mature and the vocals sound incredible. It’s the best we’ve sounded as a group in years. My wife’s like, ‘This will be on repeat in our house.’ She starts playing Christmas music in July.”
Carter agreed that the album features some of the best recordings in the quintet’s 29-year history.
“The sound is so good that so many songs could be singles,” he tells Variety during an interview at his recent Chords & Coffee solo event in Spokane, Washington. “This is probably the best work we’ve done, which is funny because it’s a lot of covers and we’ve been against covers for so long, but these Christmas songs are so ingrained in our souls. It’s been a long time since we’ve had so much great material [to choose from] for a single. ‘Happy Days’ could be one, but we’ll see.”
Taking inspiration from Timberlake isn’t too shocking given the various projects members of the two boy bands have embarked on in recent years. McLean and Carter teamed up with *NSYNC’s Lance Bass and Joey Fatone for a 2021 Pride Month event dubbed “Back-Sync,” then McLean, Carter, Fatone and Boyz II Men’s Wanya Morris headlined “The After Party” in Las Vegas. JC Chasez has meanwhile written tracks for both McLean and the Backstreet Boys.
McLean also has an EDM side project ATCK (All the Cool Kids) with DJ Lux, which features rotating musicians including *NYSNC’s Chris Kirkpatrick. The act is currently opening the “DNA World Tour,” with a lineup including Aaron Space, DJ Lux and Canadian singer-songwriter Francesco Yates – best known for 2015 Robin Schulz collab “Sugar,” which recently reached 1 billion Spotify streams.
Of course, it was another musician who stole the show during one of the group’s recent concerts — Drake, who helped perform “I Want It That Way” in Toronto. Days later, McLean teased a possible collaboration with the rapper to Variety, saying “there are now conversations being had.”
Reflecting on the show-stopping moment, Carter says it illustrated how music has no boundaries.
“It was two types of musicians, different styles and different generations coming together, showing appreciation for each other and proving that the boundaries of music aren’t what they used to be,” offers Carter. “We’re fans of his and he’s fans of ours and that’s great.”
Meanwhile, aside from the “DNA World Tour” and “A Very Backstreet Christmas,” McLean is preparing to release “Electric,” from his forthcoming solo album, “Sex and Bodies.” He premiered the project’s first single, “Smoke,” on Variety, alongside a raunchy video directed by longtime friend and collaborator Rene Elizondo.
Describing “Sex and Bodies” as soulful, funk and R&B, McLean worked with Killa B plus Edwin Honoret and Brandon Arreaga of boy band PrettyMuch on what marks his first solo album in 12 years (following 2010’s “Have It All”).
“’Have It All’ was a great album, but every song sounds like a Backstreet record,” says McLean. “It’s straight pop. I was still learning who I was, coming off of being sober for the first time and trying to find my way. Now, I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been, look the best I’ve ever looked and sound the best I’ve ever sounded.”
“I’m in the right place and writing these songs was effortless,” continues McLean. “I’ve got a great team of writers and an amazing producer. I’m over-the-moon and proud of this entire record.”
Carter also has solo music cooking, having recorded an unreleased track “Good Times” with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s Krayzie Bone. He also plans to write more songs in the vein of recent Jimmie Allen collaboration, “Easy.”
The Backstreet Boys action won’t stop there. After taking their “DNA World Tour”back to the U.K., Europe and South America, the group are hoping third time’s the charm for their New Zealand and Australian run, which was twice postponed amid Covid-19 and will commence in February.
The Down Under dates will wrap in time for the band’s 30th anniversary in April.
“There are two potentially massive concepts being discussed that would break everyone’s brains,” says McLean, who’s also expanding his nail polish line, Ava Dean Beauty. “We definitely want to go back to Vegas. Something else I’ve brought up to the fellas, which they like, is doing a box set for our 30th, but including our ‘red’ [debut] album, which has never been released in the States. We’ve also got our [unreleased] acoustic record we did with Gary Baker, which could be part of the set.”
McLean has also pitched a 10-part documentary series, with each episode highlighting a different album and its era, while Carter would love to drop a 30-song album of unreleased tracks. “There’s so much stuff in the vault that never got released. It would be great to have it on an album so people don’t have to go searching YouTube,” Carter adds.
The ideas don’t stop there. “There have also been conversations about doing a stadium show over multiple nights in Orlando, where it all started for us,” McLean says. “It’s fair to say that on the day, whether it’s a TV special or concert, there will be something big!”