Backstreet Boy Howie D. talks “Quit Playing Games,” “I Want It That Way,” and This Is The End

Backstreet Boy Howie D. talks “Quit Playing Games,” “I Want It That Way,” and This Is The End

In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.

The artist: As one-fifth of the now very manly boy band Backstreet Boys, Howie Dorough has spent the past 20 years singing, dancing, and looking sultry. That’s helped the group sell tens of millions of records, with all seven of its previous LPs having made Billboard’s top 10. After a couple of years off, Backstreet’s back, and the group’s latest record, In A World Like This, just came out. The Boys’ month-long North American tour kicks off July 31 in Los Angeles.

“In A World Like This” (from 2013’s In A World Like This)

Howie Dorough: It’s funny, because we’re just in the process of taking all of our songs from the set list and writing one or two lines about each, and that’s the first song on the list. This is perfect timing. Besides being one of my favorite songs on the record, this is a song I’m very proud we’re releasing as a first single. It was written by Max Martin, who is pretty much known for all of our biggest hits. He did “I Want It That Way,” “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” “Larger Than Life,” “I’ll Never Break Your Heart,” “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” and on and on and on. He’s pretty much the sixth Backstreet Boy. In the early days, he’d create our sound, and he was there for us recently when we received a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. He actually presented it to us and there couldn’t have been a better person. He really helped us to create the group and we’re very thankful to have him back in the picture.

It’s a great, great song. It’s pretty much saying that with all the crazy ups and downs, love can prevail over all. It’s such a great title, too. I knew this could be the title of the album because it fit so well and it’s a statement about everything going on in the world.

AVC: As you’ve said, Max Martin has worked with you guys for years. How do you decide as a group what works for you now compared to what worked for you 15 or 20 years ago? 

HD: This is the first time we’re doing it all. We’re the label, the artist, the A&R, the everything for this record. We recently fulfilled our contract with Jive and this is the first time we’ve ventured out on our own. I’m thankful to Jive for giving us our start and for helping us become the group that we are now and giving us our legs to stand on to do this on our own. This time, though, we’re not only financially putting up the money to create this record, but we’ve also allowed ourselves the creative control to decide what we want to write about and the direction and the selection of the songs. It all starts with a good melody and lyrics and, this time around, we had a little bit more to say now that we’ve been going 20 years and life is changing for all of us. Now, four of us are married with kids, Nick [Carter] is engaged and on his way, and we have more things that we want to say and are able to say. There’s a song on the record called “Show ’Em (What You’re Made Of)” that I’m very proud of Kevin [Richardson] and A.J. [McLean] for having the chance to write on, and that’s them talking about their kids. Kevin, when he was growing up, his father was always telling him when he was going out on the football field, “Hey, son! Show ’em what you’re made of!” So this time around we did have different stuff to say than 10 or 20 years ago when we weren’t in the relationships that we’re in now and not in the mind and headspace. I think we’ve all evolved and that’s always been our biggest thing, evolving with each record and opening doors that we didn’t on the previous records. 

“Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” (from 1997’s Backstreet’s Back)

AVC: We should talk about This Is The End and [spoiler alert] how you guys came to be in the final scene of that movie. 

HD: We were approached about six months ago by Sony Pictures, and I guess Seth Rogen had our manager reach out to us and ask us if we’d be interested in making a cameo at the end of the movie. And the first thought going through your mind is, “Okay, what’s going on? Are we going to be the brunt of the joke, are we going to be punked on this movie set?” So we asked if we could see the treatment of the film and, to our surprise, we were like, “Wow! They’re actually doing us well, they’re actually doing us justice!” And they told us that they’d already played the song one time in the beginning of the movie where Jay [Baruchel] is, I guess, talking about riding in his car. I, of course, haven’t had a chance to see it yet since we’ve been so busy, but my goal is to try and see it this weekend before I take off out of town.

So we got there and, once again to our surprise, Seth came up to us and was like, “Hey guys I just want to let you guys know, again, that I’m so, so thankful. Before all this came about we didn’t really know what we were going to do for the end of the movie.” And we found out that it was actually his wife’s idea and that they’d had some other ideas for the ending and but they didn’t test well and so his wife was like, “Why don’t you guys just get the Backstreet Boys to cameo in heaven?” And he was like, “That’s a great idea.”

We didn’t realize how big of fans they were of us until after we found out they were from Canada. Canada was definitely where it started for us coming back to North America. They embraced us all across Canada, especially Montreal where Jay is from. Even in the early days, Montreal along with Toronto had some of the biggest crowds we had in North America. 

Anyway, it was really great. They brought in our original choreographer—Fatima Robinson, who choreographed “Backstreet’s Back”—and told her that they wanted to learn the dance moves and be a part of it with us. It’s one thing for them to just stand around and want us to cameo, but it’s another thing for them to be gracious enough to come in and be a part of the whole scene with us. It was really, really cool that we were all able to experience that together and it was awesome. I can’t wait to see it myself.

AVC: Jay Baruchel said in an interview recently that Quebec was a test market for you guys in North America. Is that true?

HD: That is absolutely true. We started our career over in Europe. Well, we actually had a single come out in America called “We’ve Got It Goin’ On” when we started off with Jive, but it just wasn’t the right time in America. The song went up to like No. 69 but then, little by little, started coming down. Our manager at the time had worked with several artists over in Germany and had some success with them over there because they were influenced by American artists, so he talked with the label and said, “Let me take these guys over here and see how it does.” And we exploded in Germany. 

We were over there for probably three years before we came back to North America and it was because of France and their connection with Montreal that our music came across the pond. The next thing I know, Montreal accepted us with open arms and then from there it spread all across Canada to Toronto and then America couldn’t deny it. Montreal, especially back in the heyday, you’d have thought Michael Jackson was coming into town. It was some crazy mayhem with the streets being blocked off and people hitting the buses. We didn’t know why it was the way it was, but we were fine with it, that’s for sure. 

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“Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” (from 1996’s Backstreet Boys)

AVC: Your first big single in the U.S. was “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart).” Is it true that it wasn’t the label’s first choice for a single?

HD: Believe it or not, the label wanted to go with another song that was written by Mutt Lange, who is known as one of the greatest writers in America and around the world. He’s done everything from AC/DC to Bryan Adams to some of the greatest love ballads. We were all huge fans of his and he actually came to the table with a song called “If You Want It To Be Good Girl, Get Yourself A Bad Boy” and we all, out of respect for him, sang it 100 percent. We did vocals and everything, but after recording it, we realized it wasn’t the right sound for us. The lyrics, the sounds, the production, it didn’t really fit with the rest of the record because we’d worked a lot with Max Martin and some other R&B producers and this one had kind of an electronic synth sound that wasn’t right for us. Don’t get me wrong, though. He took that sound and made it a huge hit for Shania Twain and it worked for her. The same sound was in “That Don’t Impress Me Much” and that worked amazingly for her but, for us, that might have been a song that came out and then we wouldn’t be the Backstreet Boys right now.

We’d already had some success with “Quit Playing Games” over in Europe and in Canada and in other countries, so we were like, “This has already proved itself. Let’s go with it.” The label had actually gone back and forth and they agreed with it. We feel like it was the best choice we could have made at the time.

AVC: There’s an Italian version of this song, and you guys have recorded versions of quite a few of your songs in foreign languages. Why is that important to you?

HD: I’m actually Hispanic and my mother is Puerto Rican. I always talked with the guys about how I grew up and was very close to being in Menudo back in the day when Ricky Martin was a part of it and, you know, I’ve always had a Latin influence. Seeing how Boyz II Men translated “End Of The Road” into Spanish and were able to capitalize on the other market and fan base out there, I’ve always felt a big push to influence the guys to record our songs in other languages. And the label finally saw eye to eye with me and decided to not only record “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” in Spanish, but they also said, “Why not record ‘Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)’ in Italian as well?” and we were like, “Absolutely. Let’s go for it.” 

It only makes sense to embrace our fans in other countries and show them that we’re not scared to sing their language and we appreciate them. They listen to our music in English. We go to several countries in Southeast Asia where they don’t even know a lick of English, but they know every word to our songs. I’ve heard so many stories from fans who have said, “It’s because of you and your music that I went out of my way to learn English.” It’s crazy that music is such a universal language. 

“I Want It That Way” (from 1999’s Millennium)

AVC: The video for “I Want it That Way” is a bit of a love letter to fans.

HD: Absolutely. That was the first video where we decided we wanted to embrace our fans and put them in the videos with us. That song, coincidentally, was re-recorded as well because Max’s first language is Swedish and when they were writing some of the stuff didn’t exactly make sense in English. So we re-recorded the song but, believe it or not, even though the lyrics made more sense, it lost its feel. Sometimes in music it’s hard to replace that feeling, so we went with the original lyrics and decided to embrace our fans in this video.

It’s a total love letter to our fans and how they’re the heart and soul of Backstreet Boys. They supported us through the ups and downs. Now 20 years later when the radio didn’t want to give us a shot, they’re still there for us and we’re able to tour anywhere from theaters to stadiums. 

AVC: That song was so popular, but it only hit No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. That’s crazy that it didn’t even make the top five. 1999 was a different time. 

HD: I saw something on Wikipedia that “Quit Playing Games” was bigger than “I Want It That Way,” which was surprising to us as well because that’s the signature song. If anybody knows who The Backstreet Boys are, it’s because of “I Want It That Way.” TRL had to retire that video because it was played so much. Now I have to find out what was charting higher than “Quit Playing Games.” 

NKOTBSB, “Don’t Turn Out the Lights” (from 2011’s NKOTBSB)

AVC: How did your collaboration with New Kids On The Block come about?

HD: We were talking with the New Kids On The Block about going on tour together, and we were thinking about coming on and off stage together and doing each other’s songs, but we thought, “What better way than to make this is a historical moment than by doing a song together?” It was a song that Eman Kiriakou had written for us. Emanuel was a producer that had worked with both of us in the past, and it was this great thing. I think it’s a great summer song. It really felt right and those guys were just class acts. We were fans of them growing up ourselves and they took their break and passed on the torch. And the song, I think, was really, really cool.

AVC: Had you met the guys before you went on tour?

HD: I’d pretty much met all the guys except for Donnie. Everybody else I’d met. We’d had a previous manager, Johnny Wright, that was their tour manager back in the day. 

“The Call” (from 2000’s Black & Blue)

HD: This was one of the first “big” videos we’d done. As the label saw that we were having success around the world, they started to open up a little bit more budget for videos. “Backstreet’s Back” was probably our first epic video. We did a modern-day version of “Thriller” and that was like $1.5 million. “Larger Than Life,” I think, was the most expensive video we’ve ever made and that was like $2.3 million, which is kind of crazy nowadays. You wouldn’t spend that making a record itself, let alone a video. 

But anyway, “The Call” was one of my favorite songs. The video was done by Francis Lawrence, who’s a well-known director now. At the time, we’d seen his Jennifer Lopez video for “Waiting For Tonight” with all the lights. I just remember getting his treatment with the idea of us playing the same person and this girl pulls the trick on us. It was the first time we’d used those kind of special effects. 

AVC: You rip your face off! 

HD: It was cool. They made this synthetic rubber mask of me. Little by little, these videos had become mini-movies. We had a remix done for that song by The Neptunes. Before they became successful with Justin [Timberlake] and a bunch of other artists, they did remixes and then became successful with their own songs. They did this R&B version of “The Call” that is one of my favorites and, to this day, we try to incorporate both versions into the show. It’s just a great song.

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