In their heyday, 98 Degrees sold nearly 15 million records, had four top 10 singles and regularly graced the covers of teen magazines alongside the likes of ’NSync and the Backstreet Boys. Despite their outsize fame, Ohio natives Drew and Nick Lachey, Jeff Timmons and Justin Jeffre say they never took success for granted — or stopped hustling. “We call ourselves the blue-collar boy band,” shares Drew. Adds Nick, “Our mindset was always, ‘You might out-dance us, you might out-sing us, but you sure as hell won’t out-work us.’ We got discovered the old-school way, singing for money and food. I’m very proud of how we came up.”
More than two decades later, Drew, 47, Nick, 49, Jeff, 50, and Justin, also 50, are still grinding. Now managed by Johnny Wright of Wright Entertainment Group, they’re working on new music, embarking on a 25th Anniversary Tour and, they tell Us exclusively, rerecording their masters. But today, they’re better able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. “We’re more relaxed,” says Jeff, the band’s founding member. “Everything is more fun.” The guys sat down with Us at the Hotel Covington in Covington, Kentucky, to talk about their early days, returning to the studio and their unbreakable bond.
It’s been 25 years since you guys broke out onto the scene. How exciting is that?
DREW It’s one of these moments where you have to look back. It’s like, “Has it really been that long?” In some ways, it seems like just yesterday that we got together.
How did you initially form the band?
JEFF We started it ourselves. You didn’t have YouTube or American Idol back then. I went to L.A. with some other guys, and they dropped out. Then I was introduced to Nick. When I heard his voice, I was like, “I’ve got to get this guy out here.” I didn’t even know what he looked like…
DREW Otherwise he never would’ve called him!
JEFF I tricked him into coming out to L.A. I lied and said I had a lot of stuff going on even though I had nothing. He brought Justin and Drew with him, and that’s how we got started.
Did you instantly know that you had something special?
DREW We had something different. We pride ourselves on our vocals, and we’d rehearse nonstop, just a capella and harmony. It didn’t come without a lot of effort and hard work.
NICK There are a lot of great singers out there, but it doesn’t automatically lend itself to harmonizing. So I think when people heard our harmonies, it was like, “Wow, OK.” It set us apart from other bands that were out trying to do the same thing.
How did you decide on the name 98 Degrees?
DREW We voted on it. We wanted something that represented the mood and tone.
Can you share some band names that didn’t make the cut?
JUSTIN There’s a long list. Spontaneous Combustion was a personal favorite.
NICK I still stand by Inertia. What did we start out as?
JEFF It was Just Us. First Four was another one.
DREW Which was terrible. [There was also] Next Issue.
You had your first hit with “Invisible Man” in 1997. Did it feel like success came quickly?
JEFF It felt like it took forever. We got signed in ‘95 and recorded all of ’95 and ’96. We came out in ’97, but we weren’t really marketed. We weren’t on MTV. Our label was Motown, and they didn’t want to put our pictures on anything — they wanted to keep this mystique that we were an R&B group. It took another album and TRL to come out, and then that exposure happened in ’98 and ’99.
JUSTIN Once you’re signed, you realize, “Oh, that doesn’t mean you made it.” It’s still a lot of work ahead.
What was the moment when you felt like you’d finally made it?
NICK We were in Asia touring, and I vividly remember I was in the hallway of our hotel, and Jeff came out and said, “‘Because of You’ just went Top 10.”
DREW Then you’re like, “Alright, are we going to be a one-hit wonder?” So you have to continue grinding and promoting.
NICK We didn’t have the easiest road. We weren’t put together by some magical guy putting pieces in.
There were a lot of boy bands vying to be No. 1. Did you feel any rivalry with them?
JEFF We thought we were more of an R&B vocal group. Not to disparage those bands — we love them, we were friends with all of them — but we thought we were different. Once the media started saying, “Well, you’re like Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync,” then we were like, “Oh, do we need to start dancing more?”
NICK It was a blessing and a curse. There was so much momentum behind the boy band craze, and it was nice to get caught up in that, but it also caused pressure.
To achieve a certain level of success?
DREW There was this completely unattainable bar that was set. People don’t come out and sell 2 million records in the first week — that’s an anomaly.
JEFF There was an article about how our next record was about to come out after Britney [Spears] and Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync consecutively broke records, and it said 98 Degrees is set to do it next. Sadly, we only sold 536,000 records in the first week, and it was a big disappointment.
DREW At this point, we have a better perspective on it all. We enjoy the moment more. We put out projects we’re happy with, and whatever happens with them, happens.
Which song are you most proud of?
NICK “Invisible Man” will always have a special place in my heart. It brings back memories of calling the radio station as you’re driving your motorhome down the highway, requesting your own song.
JEFF They’d call you out. “Is this 98 Degrees?” I hung up the phone immediately. “Because of You” is also a good one. Once that took off, we were everywhere.
What was that like — being thrust into the spotlight?
DREW It was awesome but also overwhelming. I kicked a hole in a wall at one venue because I was so frustrated. I had to pay for the repairs!
Did you all keep each other in check?
NICK You become a brotherhood in all the best ways — and sometimes not the best ways. You lean on each other. To have my own brother in the band was very cool for me — he might say it wasn’t for him [laughs] — but it’s fun to go through it together. Getting chased out of a mall in the Philippines — if you were by yourself, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.
Any major fights through the years?
DREW [Most] of our disagreements were about which song should be a single or which deal to sign. It wasn’t like, “Oh, you stole money from me.”
NICK There was the Kinder egg incident.
JEFF We were in Germany. I was bored. At every stop, I’d get Kinder eggs — these chocolate eggs with a prize in them. I was opening them and playing with the prizes, but not eating the chocolate. It was super-annoying to the guys — chocolate and wrappers everywhere. They kept stepping on them. They wanted to kill me.
NICK If anything, we’re guilty of being too nice to each other. We probably could’ve used a few more air-the-dirty-laundry fights.
What led to your 2002 hiatus?
JUSTIN We’d just been on the road for so long. We were ready to have more of our own lives outside of the group.
What brought you back together?
DREW We had an opportunity to go back out on the road with New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men. That was the nudge we needed.
Do you guys ever watch your old music videos?
DREW I went back before this new run of shows. There were moments when I was like, “Oh, my God, I forgot that happened!” We have kids who are old enough to understand it. They’re like, “What was that?” Well, kids, this is a VCR with a VHS tape. [Laughs.] It’s fun to walk down memory lane.
Any regrettable fashion moments?
NICK So many to choose from. It was bad skin, bad outfits, a lot of bad hair. It was just a lot of bad choices.
Do your kids listen to your music?
DREW They don’t listen to it at all. For the most part, It’s other people that I work with who are of that age that look up the videos on YouTube and think it’s fun. My kids are just like, “Oh my God, how many concerts do we have to sit through?”
NICK My kids hate when I sing.
JEFF My kids like it a bit, but they’re over it — they’ve been to too many concerts. They like Little Uzi Vert or whatever.
Justin, are you still living the bachelor life?
JUSTIN My girlfriend has a son, so it feels a bit like there’s a fatherly role — but fortunately, it’s more like I get to be the cool dad.
How’s it being back on the road?
DREW We have a different take on touring now. It’s about [figuring out] what amount of time we feel comfortable being away and how we can route the tour so we can bring our families.
Who forgets the lyrics most when you’re performing?
DREW Nick. In his defense, he has the most lyrics to sing!
NICK But I’ll always sing something! I’ll improvise. It may not be the actual lyric, and our fans will call me out, but it’s proof we’re singing live.
How do your wives feel about you being on tour?
DREW They’re like, “Go, bye!” [Laughs.] They’re supportive. There are moments our families like to be a part of, and those are the moments you really hold on to.
Tell Us about your new music.
JEFF We’ve tried a few things that might not have been our lane. And you see these different things, and the evolution of music. The new music has new sounds in it, but I think the inspiration is our old stuff.
DREW Yeah, we sing love songs. Ultimately, that’s what we do. That’s what we’re most comfortable with, and that’s what we’re best doing.
JEFF My wife is a boy band fan now. Sadly she’s more of a New Kids On The Block fan, but that’s a good test market. So I will run songs by her and she’ll say yay or nay.
You’re rerecording songs as well.
JEFF Record companies traditionally do deals where they take percentages of everything. Ours, EX1, is partnering with us and allowing us to own parts of our masters, and we’re re-recording some of our old hits. It’s exciting.
All of you are working on solo projects as well across entertainment and business.
DREW We’re all exploring other opportunities. In the past [being in the band] was all-consuming. We learned that you have to have other things that inspire you and move you outside of just this group. So yeah, we’re all hustling on our own too.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
DREW I have a side business with my wife. And my son and daughter are a part of that as well.
JEFF Just normal dad stuff. When you do this for so long, that’s kind of our vacation — getting to be with your family and experiencing sports and choir and cheerleading.
NICK My favorite thing to do with my kids is taking them to school. It’s just the things you talk about, the conversations that come up, the laughing, the music.
There’s a rumor that the Super Bowl halftime show will feature a bunch of boy bands — 98 Degrees, Backstreet Boys, Boyz II Men. Would you be up for that?
NICK We’d love for that to happen.
Boy bands are having a resurgence. Why do you think fans keep coming back for more?
DREW I think it’s just going back to a simpler time. The music was fun. The world seemed a bit safer and less divided, and the shows are upbeat and energetic and bring joy to people.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
JEFF Our reputation and our work ethic — as well as the music — those are the key things.
DREW We’ve always tried to treat people well. We went through this industry, and we took our lumps, but we did it with dignity and respect.
JUSTIN Many parents talk about how they were just happy to have music that they didn’t feel awkward hearing in the house and in the car, so I think that we’re proud of that.
You’ve got the new tour, a new label and new music. What else do you hope to accomplish together?
DREW We want to do music and a show we’re proud of and just appreciate the ride.
NICK If we start sucking, we’ll be like, “OK, guys. it’s time to hang it up.” But as long as we still feel like we can have fun with it and be good at it, why stop?