Although Brian Littrell is best-known for being a member of the Backstreet Boys, he is also a highly-regarded contemporary Christian recording artist. And while Brian’s secular journey with “the Boys” never clouded his spiritual faith, his openness about his faith made him stand out from his fellow band mates. Together, however, the Backstreet Boys would define (and in many ways, reshape) the contemporary musical landscape.
Over the past two decades, the Backstreet Boys have sold more than 100 million records. And within the annals of history, they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best-selling artists of all-time. Beyond all shadow of doubt, as far as vocal groups are concerned, the Backstreet Boys paved viable, commercial paths for N*SYNC, 98 Degrees and Westlife.
Upon the release of This Is Us, the band’s seventh studio album, Brian Littrell managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry—reflecting on his faith in God, the Backstreet Boys’ legacy, and the group’s successful blending of pop and R&B.
From the very beginning, God has shown tremendous favor over your life. Do you ever wonder why you were chosen to lead the life that you lead?
You know, we tend to forget how good God is in our lives. It’s a wonderful, wonderful opportunity. The funny thing is that I am human and I ask myself that every day. It’s a lot to take on, I’ll tell you that. It’s a lot to take on. But at the same time, I do Christian music as a solo artist on the side, so I can make people think about other things as well. You know, I’m not a preacher. I’m not an evangelist. I don’t go around, wanting to tell everybody that they’re going to die and burn in hell [laughing].
So, I know why God has put me in this situation. I get to go to work and do something that I still love and that I’m still passionate about and affecting people’s lives in a positive way through pop music with the Backstreet Boys. My job is to use my gift that has been given to me and I’m going to use it as long as I can. But yeah, I mean, I’m blessed. I’m blessed. I’m fortunate. I’m happy to be able to articulate thoughts and feelings through music. I’m fortunate to be able to have experiences in my life that I can share with fans through music and be able to translate that. I mean, that’s what music is about: tying into an emotion where you remember a song of the girl that you were dating at the time in 1988, listening to whoever you were listening to, sitting on the side of the curb, thinking, “Man, I just broke up with my girl and that’s the song that I heard.” We share a lot of memories like that with people. We share a lot of first concerts with people. I get every day somebody at the supermarket or somebody on tour like, “You know, you were the first concert that I ever saw when I was nine,” and now they’re like 20.
Wow, that’s amazing!
So they’re still coming to the shows. That’s a blessing.
You, A.J., Howie and Nick all have unique, God-given gifts, which fuse together wonderfully. A recent press release honed in on this and gave you guys credit for redefining the modern musical landscape. What do you consider to be the Backstreet Boys’ greatest contribution to the music industry?
Wow, that’s a good question. I don’t know that I would say that we could take credit for redefining the landscape of music. But… I think that we were right on top of a certain time in our lives. With this generation – our generation of music lovers with the boom of the Internet and how things have changed in the past ten years – yes, the Backstreet Boys have been right on the cutting edge or the cusp of that. But, you know, at the end of the day I just hope that people look back at the material that we’ve done and will eventually look at it as something that was great – as something that was great for that time, something that people looked at as we continued to grow, as like, “Wow!” We are musicians, we are songwriters, we are a lot of other things other than the typical boy band. And I think as we’ve changed the landscape or whatever the bio says, I think at the end of the day, we just try to make good quality music. It comes down to the music. It doesn’t come down to the hype or the look or the feel or the time, it comes down to the quality of the material on the record. We’ve always talked about from day one, quality is better than quantity.
Even though quality is better than quantity, to date, the Backstreet Boys have sold over 100 million records.
And you know, there was a time in the music world that you could sell ten million albums in the US alone. There was a time that you could sell a million in the first day. And I think artists and the musical landscape has changed over those past years – there’s been so many artists that have had one successful great song that has been played on the radio, and you buy their album and their album is nothing. It’s nothing but that one good song.
And I think that the Backstreet Boys have always prided ourselves in having ten, eleven, twelve singles – what we call singles – on a record. You know, every song that is recorded for a Backstreet Boys record has a shot to be the first single. We don’t record it if it doesn’t have a shot to be the first single, you know? And it’s – I think, as I look back on what we’ve done and hopefully continue to do – our biggest benchmark that we’ve gotten through over the years is just sticking together, to be honest with you.
Why do you think you succeeded when so many others failed?
You know, a group like us doesn’t have a long shelf life. A group like us is lucky if we have two records. Well, we just released our seventh album. Today’s generation of music lovers that maybe didn’t grow up with The Beatles and grew up with The Backstreet Boys don’t know that The Beatles were only together for seven years. And their legacy continues to live on. That’s what I hope for us someday. That’s what I hope, that people turn around someday and say, “Wow, you know, they did it. They stuck together. They did something that no other group did.” There is no N*SYNC anymore. There is no 98 Degrees. There are no other boy band that’s out there. The New Kids on the Block took a fifteen-year hiatus while we were working our butts off, and then came back with their CD. So, you go and interview them and they’ll tell you a lot has changed. But, you know, from our impact in the industry, I just hope that people look back and say, “Wow! These guys really did it. They stuck together and they stayed true to who they are as musicians.” You know, if you listen to This is Us that came out [October 6, 2009,] versus our very first CD, you’ll find a lot of similarities. You’ll find a whole lot of similarities of the sounds and the things that we were using fifteen years ago that are back in style now today on radio. And it’s crazy. I mean, music is like fashion, you know? It just comes in circles and waves. And you stick around long enough you’re relevant again.
Yeah, it comes right back at you. You know, when you go back to your first album, [Backstreet Boys], and it’s kind of similar to your latest, [This Is Us]. One thing that I think the group just has been very good at is kind of blurring the lines between R&B and pop. You were able to reach a wide audience and pull from people of all backgrounds. Was the task as easy as it seemed? When you are formulating your albums, how much of it is conscious and how much of it is unconscious?
Well, I’ll say that we all grew up listening to Shai and to Jodeci and to Boyz II Men and New Edition – groups like that. So our influences initially were more rhythm and blues, you know, there wasn’t really a hip-hop at the time, unless you were like Kris Kross or something. But it’s funny that you say that because we have the R&B influence, but when we sing, as much as we try to be R&B, we’re really not. And I think that’s how the lines of blurring in between the R&B and the pop has been so successful for us. We’re singers first, you know, and in a boy band you always have one guy that can kind of do everything and everybody else just sits back and looks pretty [laughing]. That’s not the case with us.
Very true [laughing].
We sing a capella. We sing for real. When you come to a show, live, you know we’re singing our butts off. We’re not playing the CD and miming everything! [laughing] But for us to kind of blur the lines it was – in the beginning it was a conscious effort. In the beginning it was a little more of the R&B and kind of trying purposely to blur the lines, because that’s the music that we like. That’s the music that we still like today. So when you listen to a song like “Undone” on the record, or you listen to the title track, “This Is Us,” it has that urbanesque feeling to it. But again, you put all of our vocals over an urban track and it makes it a pop song with an urban feel.
So blurring those lines, the older we got, we never really tried to blur those lines; it just is what it is. It’s not rocket science, you know? It’s like we do have that special sound when we all sing together that is recognizable. It’s like, “Wow! Where have I heard that before?” You know? “Well I might have heard it on ‘Quit Playing Games’ or I might have heard it on ‘I Want it That Way’ or ‘Backstreet’s Back’ or ‘All I Have to Give’ or ‘I’ll Never Break Your Heart’ or . . . ” You know, the list goes on and on.
And on and on [laughing].
And on and on [laughing]. And again, it’s like that signature sound. And in radio today and in the music industry today, a lot of people don’t get that life on the radio for people to really connect to you. You know, you get one shot and that’s it and if you don’t succeed on that one shot, you just go away.
When you look at this particular album, [This Is Us], within the context of your 16 year career, what thoughts immediately come to mind?
Well, “Straight Through My Heart” was actually the last song that we cut for this record. That’s normally the story of our life: it’s always that last song that ends up being the first one.
Interesting. Has your recording process changed?
You know, it’s funny. When you’re recording a record, you always continue to raise the bar. You have one song that happens to be your favorite and then every other song has to measure up to that song. We were able to work with the producer and writer RedOne, who did all of Lady GaGa’s stuff – like “Poker Face” and “Just Dance,” and things that are very, very hot on the radio for the past couple of months, and probably will continue to be hot on the radio in the future. When we had an opportunity to work with him, the really cool thing was we found out that he was a huge Backstreet Boys fan. He grew up in Sweden, where, if you are a Backstreet Boys fan, you know that Sweden is special to us because that’s where we first went to Europe and started working with a guy named Denniz PoP who did all of the Ace of Base stuff. His successor would be a guy named Max Martin, who did anything and everything from 1996 until now – from Pink to Kelly Clarkson to Backstreet Boys to N*SYNC. I mean, you name it, Britney, everything. And if you’re not a Backstreet Boys fan, we went into recording this record with the attitude that we wanted to make a dance record. We wanted to make a record that made people feel happy, that you could put it on and listen to the whole thing, want to dance to it, want to move to it. Not only are we known for our melodies and our sound, but we’re known for putting together an entertaining show.
Is there a particular tour that holds a special place in your heart?
Back in the day, we got an award for our Millennium tour: [“Most Creative Stage Production” from Pollstar]. It blows my mind that 1999 was almost eleven years ago. But at the same time, the past two records, the Never Gone CD and the Unbreakable CD that came out over the last four years, have really been a growing process, I think, for us as a group. Because every artist kind of searches for themselves, trying to find what is really them, what’s right for them, what’s their niche. In the beginning, we had so much success from our early stuff that it really dictated who we were at the time. And as we started to grow up and as we started to venture out into other musical realms, our tastes started to change. You end up putting together new music, putting together stuff that you’re happy with. So at first when we go into the mindset of recording, we want to do music that we know we like that we’re a fan of. Because if we like it, then we feel like we can share it with the world. It’s not always an easy thing to share your songs with the whole world because even today, still, I’m running around singing “Quit Playing Games With My Heart,” and I’m sick of it, you know? Because I’ve been singing it forever! But at the same time, it really put us on the map in the music world, being a silly, happy love song that people remember at a certain time in their life – whether they were in grade school or they were in middle school or high school or college, it doesn’t matter. That’s the thing. But we always try to raise the bar. We always try to continue to grow. I want people to look back on us and say, “One, they’re still doing it. Two, they’re still relevant in today’s music world.” And that’s difficult. That’s very, very difficult to say stay relevant, I think, because the US market is so fast that everything is just hit and miss, you know?
For more information on the Backstreet Boys, visit the group’s official website.