Throughout their career, 98° has been labeled and marketed as a “boy band,” but their creative roots stretch much deeper than that. Inspired by R&B acts like Boyz II Men, the Four Tops and Stevie Wonder, the vocally-driven quartet began their musical journey as an a capella group before becoming international pop stars thanks to hits like “Because of You” and “I Do.”
We recently sat down with Jeff Timmons to discuss how life on the road has changed for the group, why an 11-year hiatus was necessary to refuel the creative tank, and how performing the Christmas classics has opened them up to an entirely new audience.
TrunkSpace: You’re kicking off a 36-date tour in just a couple of days. Do you enjoy touring as much today as you did when you guys first broke and everything still had that new car scent?
Timmons: That’s a really great question. I think that when we were younger, the tour was 98°. That’s all we had. We were young guys who didn’t have families. It was a lot of traveling, certainly – we toured for about five years straight, consecutively on the road, worldwide, and we never had a break and it became arduous and certainly stressful. We were blessed and fortunate and had exciting, great times and got to share experiences that not a lot of people get to go through in their lives, but it was really hard being a young person and sort of thrown into the fire… into that mix.
I think as we get older, all we do is have fun. We all have different areas in our careers that we pursue outside of this. We all have great, wonderful families and wives… except for Justin, he’s still single. (Laugh) But you know, we’re enjoying it more than ever. I think the fans, they’re still turning out for us and they’re having more fun than ever. A lot of them, they’re not young, little kids anymore. They’re adults. They go out and party and have a good time with us and we live as a sort of nostalgic part of their lives and it just makes us feel better. We’re having a lot more fun with each other as well. It’s sort of a renaissance for us.
TrunkSpace: In terms of experiences, are there still firsts for you guys out there on the highways and byways?
Timmons: Look, you’ve been through so many things, but you’re never surprised by anything, if that makes any sense. We’ve been through it all. We’ve been though the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. You’re in entertainment yourself, a journalist, so you understand how competitive it is and how hard and how cyclical everything is and how technology is always changing. It’s stressful. We’ve experienced huge crowds and great turn outs and we’ve experienced no crowd and low turn outs and everything in between, but for us, it does still feel fresh.
It was new coming back after being on an 11-year hiatus and immediately going on a major arena tour with New Kids and Boyz II Men for 20,000 fans a night. That felt new and fresh, although we had experienced that before. And then us headlining our own summer tour was like, “Okay, can we still do this? Are they gonna come out?” They came out. And now with this Christmas tour and us doing a more intimate thing, a more specialized theatrical side in a more family-friendly kind of show, that’s fresh and new for us.
TrunkSpace: Do you think that it was necessary to have that 11-year hiatus in order to keep it feeling fresh and new? Did you need the time to refuel the creative tank?
Timmons: Yes, I think we were just burned out. When you’re a young guy in college you’re thinking, “Oh, I wanna be a rock star.” And most guys think that for various reasons, and not necessarily business reasons. You want to start a group so you can get the girls or be famous or get rich. You don’t necessarily think, “Oh, this is a business. This is a business and we’ve got to put our business man hats on as young men and put the right team around us and write current tracks and make sure we don’t find this and make sure we do this sort of promotion…” And so all of those things can be really, really stressful and I think that when you’re able to do this business and you kind of get an idea of what it is and it becomes fresh and exciting for you and more of an experiential kind of thing rather than a business, it’s always more fun in that respect.
TrunkSpace: We know that your passion is being behind the scenes in the studio. Does being out on the road take away from that part of your life?
Timmons: That’s a good question. I’m glad you know that because a lot of people don’t know that, so I appreciate you knowing.
That’s my favorite thing to do. I’d rather be in the studio. I love performing and all that, but I feel… it doesn’t matter, I can get in front of 12 people or 1 million people on TV and I get nervous every time. It’s something that happens to me. It’s a process I go through. I feel like a fight or flight kind of thing and then once I get on stage it’s cool. But I love being in the studio. I love cultivating other artists. I love creating and tweaking knobs and pressing keys and playing music and putting samples together.
Fortunately now, you can do that with a laptop. I used to lug around a big suitcase worth of equipment, set it up in my room and it would take me 15 minutes to put all of the hardware together in my hotel or in the bunk. I’ve always been able to bring that with me, but nowadays technology affords you the ability to bring a small laptop, a small keyboard, and a small interface and you can create records in your bunk on a tour bus or in a hotel room, so I always make sure that I have that outlet with me whether people hear it or not. It’s something that I have to do. Whether it’s 3 in the morning on a tour bus or in a hotel, or in between shows, I always bring that with me. It’s something that’s part of my being and again, fortunately now, you have the technology that it’s not that imposing and it doesn’t take up too much space and you’re able to be more creative than ever.
TrunkSpace: Has that love for tweaking knobs and pressing buttons changed the way you approach your own role in 98°?
Timmons: Yeah, I think so. You just learn more. I love the internet and I love YouTube. I used to have to sit in the studio with these amazing producers… and 98° was very fortunate to work with some of the best, so I used to just study them and watch what they did and take mental notes in my mind or write things down. Now you have the ability to go on the internet and watch tutorials of some of the best people and what they do and their tricks of the trade and I think it just makes you better. And certainly nowadays the resolution of the sound is better and the sonics are better. You become faster at what you do and you don’t have to spend time literally cutting tape. You can edit in certain ways. I think all of those things have helped me in a way to develop our sound or work in conjunction with the producers in the studio. We all do that. We all just use our ear to arrange and put our two cents in or go tweak a knob. You learn in the studio just by watching great talents – and sometimes emerging young guys that are just brilliant. I think all of those help to get you a little bit better – hone your craft a bit.
TrunkSpace: In terms of the holiday songs, from a production standpoint, does holiday music lend itself to what you guys do best, which is the four part harmonies, or did the songs themselves take some tweaking and massaging to get right for your particular sound?
Timmons: Well, I think it’s both. You answered your own question. We modeled ourselves after the R&B groups like Boyz II Men, which had sometimes eight part harmonies in their music. Certainly music has become a lot more simple. And I’m not downplaying it – I love current pop music, so I’m not saying it’s not as good, I’m just saying it’s not as complicated. They’ve made the songs a lot less complicated – a lot more music-driven than vocal-driven. It’s a lot less complicated in regards to harmony, so modern day music and mainstream music today, in regards to pop and crossover, it doesn’t stimulate us as much as some of the older R&B with saturated harmonies, thick vocal production and stacking vocals… and Christmas music does just that. It’s more choral and it’s more complicated with the progressions and the changes, and lyrically sometimes it’s cool, and not necessarily for the religious aspects but just the overall design of the songs. I think that’s one of the main reasons we decided to do another Christmas album.
TrunkSpace: As an artist, there’s got to be something exciting about doing a take on a song that so many other iconic artists have worked on over the years – Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra. The list goes on and on.
Timmons: Oh yeah, and for us, we were always influenced by all of those guys. I know we ended up being considered a boy band, but we loved the vocal groups. We loved the Four Tops. We started off a capella doing ’50s and ’60s doo wop stuff. And Stevie Wonder was a huge influence. And then we did the Beach Boys stuff. And then you have the classics like you said, renditions that have been done by Johnny Mathis, who is just an amazing vocalist. It’s given us a chance… not to show off, but to show off how much we were influenced by all of these people. It’s hard to match legendary productions of those songs but you can certainly pay tribute and homage by putting your own twist and spin on it with your own talents and resources that you have creatively and with your skill set.
TrunkSpace: Has this recent Christmas album and these tours, which you also did last year, opened you up to a new audience?
Timmons: I think it has and I think it’s for a variety of reasons. One, a lot of folks don’t know that we have a much younger fan base than is expected. We’re all in our 40s, but our fan base… we were doing so many things with Nickelodeon and Disney, sometimes playing for really young kids in the audience. We had one with the Nickelodeon tour where sometimes there would be 7 or 8 year old kids in the audience. And we were like, “Wow! This is cool, but what are we doing here?” Well, now those fans are in their late 20s and 30s. Also, by doing performing arts centers, we have exposed ourselves to an older audience, people who are seasoned ticket holders for some of these places that might not be familiar with 98° because they were in their 20s and 30s and they liked older music like I did like the Guns N’ Roses of the world or The Bangals and all of these ’80s acts that were out. It was the generation before us. So I think that holiday music gives you that flexibility and that most people enjoy holiday music, can relate to it, regardless of their religion. It’s a time of year when a lot of people come together, celebrate their lives together, families, and sort of relate to that music. I definitely think that we’ve grown the fan base with this tour.
TrunkSpace: Do you see the holiday tour becoming an annual tradition?
Timmons: Well, it’s our second year. Last year we were like, “Okay, let’s see if it works. If it works, we’ll do it again next year.” And it did work, so we’re doing it again this year. We all have kids – except for Justin – and we like to be with our families quite a bit. The tours before, when we were younger, took us away from our families for a long time and so we care so much about our families. Christmas, that holiday, it’s tough to be away, but again, we’ve had success with it, we’ve had fun with it, it’s something different, so I can see it happening again, but I can also see us, maybe next year, foregoing the Christmas tour and maybe doing another summer tour, a national tour. Maybe a more mainstream event that allows us to bring our families with us like when we got back together and did the package tour with New Kids and Boyz II Men.
So, it’s something we’re trying to take day by day and just kind of see if we want to do it. As long as the fans want us to do it, I think we’ll do it, but we want to keep all of our options open. We’re fortunate enough to have options.
For a full list of tour dates, click here.