Whether riding high as multi-platinum chart-toppers or being derided by music critics, the Backstreet Boys have experienced all of the highs and lows in the lives of pop stars. Twenty years into their career, the quintet of Brian Littrell, Nick Carter, A.J. McLean, Kevin Richardson and Howie Dorough are learning to enjoy this phase: A loyal fan base, consistent touring, radio play – but no more pressure to score massive album sales or dominate the airwaves.
"We were finally able to accept the shoes that we're in," Dorough told Rolling Stone backstage at Irvine, Calif.'s Verizon Wireless Ampitheater following rehearsals for their upcoming tour. "We've also accepted we are what we are – most of our success was a while ago, in the late Nineties and early 2000s – and being able to poke fun at ourselves, like doing the Seth Rogen film [This Is the End], doing the Old Navy commercial. We're laughing with them instead of looking at them laughing at us."
Being included in This Is The End was a big win for the group. "These guys are current comedians in the mainstream and respected, and they call upon us to be in their movie. It was an honor. It's just little things like that that happen that remind you," Carter says.
Reaching the point where the group was able to poke fun at themselves was an ongoing process through two decades, according to Carter. "I think we had to evolve to get to this point. It's twenty years in the making right now," he says. "We're like a grown, almost-boy band. We got to a point where even some producers and writers didn't want to work with us anymore. It got to that weird stage, but I think that now it's coming around."
McLean admits even their longtime producer, pop Svengali Max Martin, was uncertain about working on new album In A World Like This. "When we first approached him he was a little on the fence about it," says McLean. "This is somebody who was with us from the very beginning, that wrote every hit we've ever had, and for him to come to us and go, ‘I don't even know how to top what I did before. How do I top what we used to do?' How do you make another ‘I Want It That Way'? How do you make another ‘Quit Playing Games'?"
The answer was not to attempt to remake their huge hits, but to try and grow as a group. From playing instruments, which they'll do on the upcoming tour, to collaborating on songwriting, the Backstreet Boys grew up. Richardson and McLean cowrote the ballad "Show ‘Em (What We're Made Of)" for their children. "We set certain goals for ourselves that we wanted to achieve," McLean says.
Richardson, who only rejoined the fold last year, had his own priorities. He wanted to write from a place of honesty that revealed the band members' personal lives as husbands and fathers, and going into the studio as a group got him there. "When we went to London to work with [Swedish producer/songwriter] Martin Terefe, that was a great experience. We spent three weeks together in the studio every day – the first time in our careers we all collaborated and wrote together to make an album like a real rock band," Richardson says. "We wanted to try it ... That was a nice place to start, and for us to get reacquainted. But some of those first songs we did in London – like ‘Madeline,' ‘Trust Me,' ‘Try' and ‘Breathe' – were amazing."
At least six songs from the new Backstreet Boys album will make it into the live show, which will also include an intimate, acoustic segment. And the fan favorites will not be neglected."We have a loyal fan base," Littrell notes as two girls are thrown out for attempting to sneak in to the venue. During the hour-long rehearsal, the group ran through choreographed routines for BSB hits like "As Long As You Love Me," "Larger Than Life," "I'll Never Break Your Heart" and "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)."
But while the tour will feature plenty of nods to the group's past, the members are excited about performing the new material they've written and recorded. "I feel as if it's a brand-new beginning, that we're a brand-new group. This album just feels that way to me," Littrell says.
"We've grown up in the industry and we're now ready for the next 20 years," adds Carter. "We have to keep things different. We have to keep challenging ourselves."
Listen to "Show 'Em (What You're Made Of)," from In a World Like This, the Backstreet Boys' new album, out July 30th and available for pre-order on iTunes.
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This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone: Backstreet Boys 'Grow Up' on New Album and Reflect on 20 Years of Pop