Every kid reaches an age when they want to be seen as an adult. Whether the transition is leaving behind the kids’ table at Thanksgiving, casting your first vote or having your first legal sip of liquor, the moment is relished.
So it’s no surprise that a bunch of 25-year-olds would hate being labeled a “boy band,” as 98° were when they became worldwide stars in the late ’90s.
“We definitely didn’t consider ourselves a, quote-unquote, boy band,” Jeff Timmons said in a recent call from his home in Las Vegas. “We thought of ourselves as a vocal group — a four-part harmony, doo-wop-based, chamber-based group.”
Pop music is about trends, though, and acts get lumped in with others they have little in common with all the time, so 98° was assigned to the boy-band box with ’N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, O-Town and the rest. As much as they weren’t crazy about that label, Timmons and bandmates Nick and Drew Lachey and Justin Jeffre kept their perspective and are even good with being put in that class two decades later.
“None of us have any complaints, man,” Timmons said. “We’ve been able to live the dream, and have records on the radio and to have a fan base 20-odd years later, so anything they wanna call us, as long as they think we’re nice guys, I’m not opposed to any moniker or label whatsoever.”
They are happy to come to Honolulu on Friday, Valentine’s Day, to perform soul-tinged hits such as “Because of You,” “The Hardest Thing” and “Invisible Man.”
Check that — they are “extremely excited” to be coming to Hawaii to perform for the first time since opening for Janet Jackson at Aloha Stadium in 1999.
Timmons said he’s not much of a beach person, despite having lived right off a beach in Southern California for a while, but Hawaii is “the one place I actually enjoy going to the beach. There’s just something about it — the serenity, the vibe. It’s so relaxing.”
After their shows in Hawaii — they also perform on Maui tonight — the group will do five concerts in Southeast Asia, where they tasted some of their earliest success.
AFTER SIGNING with Motown Records in 1996, the quartet had trouble breaking through in America, Timmons said, and decided to see whether the rest of the world would take to them.
“We went overseas — the Philippines,” he said. “They really just made us feel like rock stars and gave us the confidence and record sales.”
The group also found some success in Canada, Timmons said, and implored Motown not to give up on them.
“‘Look, don’t drop us,’” Timmons recalled saying. “‘We’ve broken in Canada now, we’ve broken in Southeast Asia. Give us another chance.’ … That would not exist today. If you don’t make it right away, you’re done.”
It would have been bad enough being dropped by any record label, but being one of the few white acts ever signed to Motown meant something to the group. They modeled themselves after Boyz II Men — Jeffre even contributes spoken-word interludes, Michael McCary-style, on many of their songs — which was on Motown through its biggest years, but their love for the label went back decades.
“Aside from Boyz II Men being on Motown, we were in love with legends, like the Four Tops, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder. Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five were there for a while,” Timmons said.
“All those people, that’s where the legends are. We were always dreaming of being there, but also influenced by all those doo-wop groups. The Temptations got a guy that sings falsettos, the same as the Four Seasons, and the Four Tops. Stevie Wonder’s a child prodigy that turned into a legend. And to be a white group, it was an anomaly. …
“Unless you’re a musicologist, people don’t really care that we’re on Motown, but to us it’s something that sets us apart from some of the other groups, not to say they aren’t talented and brilliant and amazing — those groups killed it, they sold more records than us and had a lot more success than us, but for us we feel like Motown gives us a little more credibility with regards to where our roots in the singing and our music comes from.”
The quartet had their “We have arrived” moment when they met Motown icon Smokey Robinson at their first label event.
“Smokey walks up to us and says, ‘I heard you guys, you are amazing, welcome to the family’,” Timmons said.
Years later, 98° got a chance to work with Wonder on “True to Your Heart,” from the “Mulan” soundtrack.
“We didn’t record in the studio with him,” Timmons said, “but we met him at the video shoot. He was the coolest guy ever, the nicest guy on the planet.”
MUSIC VIDEOS were a bigger part of their career than just the chance to meet their heroes. Timmons credits visionary music video director Wayne Isham with boosting the photogenic group’s success with his innovative techniques and willingness to aim big.
“He always was cutting edge with everything. He’d be like, ‘I’m gonna put you guys on top of the Golden Gate Bridge’,” Timmons said, describing the production of the “Because of You” video.
“I’m afraid of heights and went, ‘Yeah, OK. I can’t wait till you put special effects and make it look …’
“‘No, you’re going on top. …’ — and sure enough, I’m on top of the bridge asking, ‘Where’s the harnesses?’
Isham also pioneered the transition between scenes by zooming in and out of a close-up (“Miami” by Will Smith) and the camera shift on a frame of film. That last technique is used routinely now, on things as mundane as sports highlights, but one of the first uses was 98°’s video for “I Do (Cherish You).”
“Now you can do it with a couple of iPhones,” Timmons said, “but at that particular time, all those innovations, as much as we had great songs that led to our success, our music videos were equally important in establishing us.”
“I Do (Cherish You),” featuring 98° singing at a wedding and each fantasizing about the bride (played by Ali Landry, a former Miss USA who gained fame that year for starring in a Doritos commercial that debuted during the Super Bowl), helped make the song a go-to song for wedding DJs for many years.
“I Do” was a country hit for Mark Wills but never sniffed the pop charts. Timmons said they knew they could take it there, and though it was not 98°’s highest-charting song, just missing the top 10, it has become one of their signature tunes.
“The first time we heard the song we knew it was gonna be a hit,” Timmons said.
“It was up to us to make sure that we delivered it. Certainly Nick does his thing on that singing lead, as he does on all the songs he sings lead. It really stood the test of time. Anywhere I go in the world, people know that song.”
8 p.m. Friday
ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000