People’s Brenton Blanchet with the magazine feature!
n most boy bands, there’s one of everything: The funny one, the wild one, the quiet one, the sporty one. *NSYNC was no different in 1998.
After a triumphant introduction in Germany in 1996, the five-piece Florida-made boy band wasn’t necessarily poised to follow up their success with the same album back home. The Backstreet Boys already had the U.S. market on lock, which meant the characteristics placed on the *NSYNC guys — Lance Bass, JC Chasez, Justin Timberlake, Chris Kirkpatrick and Joey Fatone — gave fans in the U.S. a way to connect with *NSYNC outside of the hits that they carried over from Europe.
“We had five individuals that each took characteristics of the next guy, which took your same characteristics and then took characteristics from the next guy,” Kirkpatrick, 51, shares. “And then by the way, Lance sings really low. Joey sings pretty low. JC sings mid. Justin sings pretty high. Chris sings really high. To have that arc vocally, and the looks… We really complemented each other so well in every aspect of what *NSYNC was, from personalities to music to just hobbies to fashion senses, all that stuff.”
Twenty-five years after *NSYNC — the March 1998 U.S. release of the group’s self-titled debut album — the individuals behind the record-breaking boyband are opening up to PEOPLE about what led to the group’s commercial breakthrough and how, by the time of their ’98 U.S. debut, they all had a bit of each other ingrained in them. After all, outside of the harmonies, that’s what made them *NSYNC.
“Everybody helped out each other with that personality,” Fatone, 46, says. “Meaning, sometimes JC was very quiet about stuff. My dumb, goofy ass is outgoing. That helped him to come out of his shell a little bit more. Me being that goofy and dumb, I look at JC and I go, ‘S—, you know what? I need to come up a little bit more correct and start being a little more serious.’ So we had these combinations of each other that helped each other out.”
But before emulating each other and using their respective voices to perfect their now-iconic five-part harmony, *NSYNC had to reintroduce themselves to a new audience in the states, and that’s where their self-titled debut comes into play. March 23rd marks the 25th anniversary of *NSYNC, which helped an internationally recognized supergroup find initial success in the U.S. But by no means did this mark 25 years of the band itself.
*NSYNC’s origin story, which takes place in 1995 and has probably been told as many times as they’ve sold records, starts pretty simply: Kirkpatrick looked to form a boyband in Florida and tapped a teenage Timberlake, now 42, who then tapped his Mickey Mouse Club costar Chasez, now 46, to join. From there, Kirkpatrick reconnected with Fatone from their days working at Universal Studios, and the group eventually — after their original bass singer dropped out — connected with Bass, now 43, through a vocal coach.
After some performances and promotion in the U.S. — such as their ’95 Disney World Pleasure Island showcase full of R&B tracks and a Beatles cover tossed in — the group took their talents to Germany. Backed financially by band developer (eventually realized con artist) Lou Pearlman, and while being overseen by band manager Johnny Wright, the guys were tapping into a different boyband market overseas — one that the Pearlman’s own Backstreet Boys hadn’t already monopolized.
But the music had to be special for *NSYNC to break out in Europe, impress a country of largely non-English speakers, and afford them the opportunity to tour Germany and play for thousands. And that meant getting *NSYNC’s five-part harmony the production it deserved.
“We didn’t even know when we started recording half that album, we didn’t even know what our sound was going to be,” Bass says. “We got with [producers] Max Martin and Denniz Pop, and thank God they helped find our sound because ‘I Want You Back’ and ‘Tearin’ Up My Heart’ — leading into ‘Bye Bye Bye,’ ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ [on No Strings Attached] — that’s who we were. But we were testing out techno and some really horrible songs [early on] that just did not work for us, but we were just testing things out.”
“We were teenagers and none of us had really started writing yet. So we were just kind of coming into our own as artists and musicians,” Bass adds. “And being in the studio with all those amazing producers really taught us a lot of things.”
The late producer Denniz Pop and the now-legendary Martin — responsible for later hits like Katy Perry‘s “I Kissed a Girl” and The Weeknd‘s “Can’t Feel My Face,” among numerous others — gave *NSYNC one of their first studio sessions in Sweden when working on the LP, shortly after the guys signed to BMG Ariola Munich. Those first sessions also included time spent in smaller studios, where Kirkpatrick remembers having to “move a mattress over the door” just to get the vocal booth sounding good. “Getting to work with them on that level, hearing those songs, ‘I Want You Back’ and ‘Tearin’ Up My Heart’ — there’s something different about these two songs,” Kirkpatrick recalls of the Sweden sessions.
“This is almost like a new pop sound coming out. There’s this whole new way of using the same sounds from the older pop days, but making it new — kind of fast-forward a bit. That’s how I came up with the term Dirty Pop, because that’s what it was to me,” Kirkpatrick adds. “It was still very bubble-gummy, but it wasn’t your parent’s bubblegum.”
Some of the debut — or at least some of the group’s earliest demo material — was also recorded in Shaquille O’Neal‘s TWISM (The World Is Mine) studio when he was playing for the Orlando Magic back in the ’90s. While Shaq has since referred to himself as an honorary sixth member of the band, Fatone remembers one specific day when he and Timberlake bumped into the NBA great.
“There’s a picture of me, Justin and Shaq. Shaq happened to be there when Justin and I were there recording,” he remembers. “So we went and took a picture with him. And it was cool, it was interesting. It was one of those things like, ‘Hey man, good luck, guys. You do good, man.’ That’s all he really said — he didn’t really say much. Man of many words.”
The studio sessions weren’t just for Shaq meet and greets, though. The guys were recording an album they eventually hoped would launch them into prominence overseas. And that’s exactly what the first single *NSYNC released in Germany — in October of 1996 — did. The sticky “I Want You Back,” which took off in the U.S. nearly two years later, peaked at No. 4 in Germany at the time and supplied *NSYNC with their first proper hit in any country.
But even as *NSYNC promoted the song overseas, which involved some intense choreography on talk shows and select promotional gigs, Kirkpatrick started to realize that not everybody was up to speed on what made the group so unique.
“There were a lot of times kids would come to our shows and say things like, ‘I’m only here because the Backstreet Boys aren’t here.’ That happened to us all the time! So it was that kind of mentality. The crazy thing is, they all said it. You’re talking about a time way, way, way back where we were trying to promote our first single, and it was crazy because it was obvious,” he says. “There was no point that we’d get mad about that because we know that the majority of the kids were coming to our shows because they were Backstreet Boys fans and they wanted to see what this was like.”
After seven months of promo, etching out a path of their own, and putting the finishing touches on their initial debut, *NSYNC was finally released in Germany in May 1997 — 10 months before it would land in the U.S. To promote the record further, the guys released two additional pre-album singles in “Tearin’ Up My Heart” and the name-dropping classic “Here We Go.”
“From the inside, the early German record was a period of growth,” Chasez tells PEOPLE. “We were experiencing so many new things for the first time. With those experiences under our belt by the time we were shifting focus back to the U.S. releases, we had begun evolving into our next expressions. Every project seems to take on new life, and the fact that the shift to the U.S. felt like a new project even though there was some carryover, we were already naturally shifting into another era and mode.”
While the band began to feel the gravity of their overseas success with early singles, Kirkpatrick recalls a concert where they essentially “walked out expecting applause.” As he explains now, it was the last time that ever happened, and was a grounding moment for the group.
“We were really almost at the top at that point and did this show — ‘Yeah, it’s us, you’re welcome’ type of thing. And it was the craziest thing on the planet because I remember coming off stage and I felt sick to my stomach,” he says. “I felt like, ‘Man, what did we just do?’ That was an embarrassment to us.”
“We sat down and it was like, we have to go out and every show we do, every performance we do, we have to go into it thinking that everybody hates us and by the end of it, make them like us. And that’s what we’ve tried to do.”
With “Tearin'” also charting at No. 4 in Germany (as “the one that solidified everything,” per Chasez), and by the time the video dropped overseas, it was clear that the band’s early approach consisted of some vibrant coordinating outfits — ones that were especially tight.
“I remember we wore these skintight shirts, big black baggy jeans and black combat boots. But at the time, it was the easiest thing to dance in,” Kirkpatrick tells PEOPLE. “It was the easiest thing to perform in. We were doing flips and back handsprings and all this just crazy flipping and jumping around type dancing. So those worked and those made sense. Then we came over here and we still did a lot of the flipping and the break-dancing-type stuff, but it was more of us going, ‘Hey, we want to be a little bit fashionable too when we do this.’ It’s not just us up there: ‘OK, there’s red guy, there’s blue guy.'”
As Fatone shares, that was just “the way that they were dressing up” in Europe at the time. “So they were like, ‘Well, follow this because they’re going to like you.’ As we did it for about a year and a half going, ‘What the f— are we…?’ OK, I get the tight shirts, I don’t mind that. We wear JNCO baggy pants, but we are not really uniformed all the time — we like different things.”
By the time *NSYNC hit No. 1 in Germany, it was clear they accomplished what they set out to, outfits aside. Life had changed drastically for Justin, Joey, Chris, Lance and JC. While they didn’t earn any points for the miles they racked up flying back and forth from Germany (Joey jokingly blames their former tour manager for using those for himself), things were different. Walking around meant screaming girls would follow. Stepping on stage meant things would be tossed at them. Performing live on shows like Wetten Dass meant non-English speakers would still be singing every word. The *NSYNC guys were superstars overseas, but their families didn’t quite pick up on the momentum back home.
“We would be over in Europe and people would be chasing us down the streets. Thousands of people camped outside our hotels,” Bass recalls. “And then we’d come back to America and it’s just crickets. No one knew who we were. And I’d be trying to tell my high school friends. I was like, ‘I swear. I swear we’re like The Beatles over there. It’s so huge.’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, sure.'”
Other members of the group had the same problem — loved ones had no idea how big they were in Germany. And it’s something that Joe Mulvihill, Fatone’s now-manager and longtime friend from their Universal days, as well as the group’s eventual road manager, saw firsthand.
“His mom and I went down to the gate and we had a sign, ‘Welcome home’ — it was just us two,” Mulvihill remembers. “And Joey came out of the plane in this big puffer jacket that had the *NSYNC logo. And he was like, ‘Oh, it’s so nice to have nobody bothering me.’ And me and his mom looked at each other.”
“We thought he was making it up, until one day he showed me a VHS tape, and he popped it in, and my jaw hit the floor. And then I turned ultra-proud like, ‘Dude, are you serious? Is this really happening?'”
Sharing footage of their experiences in Germany seemed to be the easiest way to let their loved ones know that *NSYNC was indeed a supergroup overseas. “Joey would give us VHS tapes or something,” Kirkpatrick now says. “Friends would be around and you’d pop in this tape. You’re up there looking at their faces and suddenly they see this idiot who’s been their friend forever, no big deal, walk out in front of tens of thousands of kids just losing their minds, throwing stuffed animals and shirts.”
“And they’d see that and their mouths would just drop. And we’re like, ‘See, this is what we’ve been dealing with.’ That was the crazy part. We’d be over there and kids would be pounding on the vans, sleeping outside the hotels trying to sneak into the rooms, crying like they just saw God or something like that. It was so intense and so crazy. And then we’d come back here and we’d be calling our friends like, ‘Hey, did you want to go see a movie or something tonight?’ They’re like, ‘Nah, I’m busy, dude. Call one of your other boys,’ or whatever.”
For Chasez, his family had to see it all firsthand to really believe it.
“The first time my family could truly see where things were going was when they flew over to Europe,” he tells PEOPLE. “That moment when they were able to physically experience the amount of people we were actually reaching proved the gravity of the situation. Sharing magazine spreads and even videos of performances with them were impressive, but when one feels the kinetic energy of a packed concert in real time, it communicates something different and special.”
But it didn’t take long before *NSYNC’s family saw their fame carry over to the states, although the album’s success was far from immediate.
In 1998, *NSYNC officially signed to RCA, and their takeover began with “I Want You Back” dropping on their home turf that January. Then, the updated version of the album was released two months later — this time not including a few Europe-specific cuts and now including four new U.S. songs, such as “I Just Wanna Be with You” and “Thinking of You (I Drive Myself Crazy).”
“The first memory of the U.S. release that comes to mind is the feeling of coming home,” Chasez says. “We as a group had been spending all of our time touring the rest of the world, connecting with fans and audiences everywhere but the U.S. When we finally were able to perform stateside, it felt like a true homecoming.”
Some of the U.S. album’s changes meant new videos, new verses and new promotional approaches — but by ’98, the guys were up for the challenge. “We did a lot of songs that I would go in and do the leads, do a lot of the leads on, and then they’d come back like, ‘Yeah, you know what? You sing really good harmony, bro.’ And it was kind of like, ‘Does that mean…?’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to have JC do this part or whatever,'” Kirkpatrick laughs.
One notable instance of a JC/Chris verse-flip was on “Drive Myself Crazy,” where in the U.S. version, Kirkpatrick sings lead vocals on the opening verse as opposed to Chasez — who occasionally did so during early live versions. “I don’t think we made a conscious effort to go, ‘Oh, let’s put Chris on this one.’ I think it was just they heard the versions and they were like, ‘Let’s change it up a little bit and do it like this.'”
With an image to revamp in the states, *NSYNC had to shoot some new visuals for the U.S., too. The “I Want You Back” video, at this point, was two years old and was a tight-shirt green-screened sci-fi clip that was in desperate need of a 1998 update. And that’s exactly what happened with the U.S. video — a fresh clip that was more reflective of the band’s individual styles and personalities, rather than being “the Spice Girls version of The Wiggles,” as Kirkpatrick joked.
“I had an eyebrow piercing which I did, honestly, right before we shot the “I Want You Back” video. I had a ski cap on because they were freaking out because I pierced my eyebrow,” Fatone remembers of the shoot. “Everything else was cool, but we couldn’t do the eyebrow piercing. I’m like, ‘Well, why not?’ ‘Well, we don’t want you to do it for the first video.’ I was like, ‘OK. I’ll hide it.’ If you see it, a couple of shots I don’t have it, and then the next day my dumb ass got it done in between while we were shooting the video — you can see the ski cap way low to cover the eyebrow ring, which is hysterical.”
While eyebrow piercings were not always appreciated in the world of boy band music videos at that point, the album itself was also not doing well upon release. *NSYNC moved a mere 14,000 units in its first week in the U.S., debuting at No. 82 on the Billboard 200. And it took another six months for the album to peak at No. 2 on the chart — all thanks to a cartoon mouse, a kid’s TV channel slowly nearing its heyday, and their boyband competition deciding to pass on what would’ve been a major, major performance.
As the story goes, the Backstreet Boys dropped out of a performance for the Disney Channel in Concert series in May of ’98, and as Joe Mulvihill remembers, Disney was “breathing down” manager Johnny Wright’s neck to make something work. At the buzzer — literally a week and change before the performance on May 23, 1998 — *NSYNC signed on to do the special. “He was managing both bands,” Mulvihill says of Wright. “And he pitched *NSYNC to Disney probably a week and a half before that special. And these guys were so well-rehearsed, those [same] songs, those dance moves — they were so prepared.”
“If you ever look at that, it doesn’t look like we look completely frazzled or anything. People on stage — you can see if they’re not rehearsed or it’s been thrown together,” Fatone says of the Disney performance. “It didn’t look like that because we were doing it for two and a half years in Germany already. We were already ready to roll.”
Two months after the debut album’s release, *NSYNC filmed that breakthrough performance for the Disney Channel in Concert series. The show featured a set of essentially self-titled cuts — “I Want You Back,” “Tearin’,” “God Must Have Spent” and the works — and aired on July 18. It was all they had practiced for since their days in Germany, and while the network teased them as a “hot new band,” the guys were already pros. “I thought it was going to be our Super Bowl. I thought everything that we worked for was this show. And not knowing that it was going to go on after that, but having that mentality of ‘This is our Super Bowl’ was big,” Kirkpatrick says.
“I look at it [like] when people run for president of United States. For almost a year before the election, these people are touring and they’re everywhere and they don’t sleep,” he adds. “And every day — ‘Oh, now they’re in Miami, now they’re doing this, now they’re on this show.’ And you bust your ass to work so hard and then boom, they become President of the United States. And it’s like, now the real work starts.”
As Bass adds, the Disney special was the one that “really blew us up.”
“You could definitely feel the energy,” Bass adds. “I felt like this was really going to put *NSYNC on the map in a major way. Disney Channel had already done a couple of these concerts and all I know is that they played them over and over and over again so it would definitely add to our success.”
“So that album went from maybe being in the top 50 to just skyrocketing. I think it went to No. 2 and it just didn’t stop, and it stayed there for months, and it just grew and grew. And as big as we were in Europe, we had no idea that a debut album with half the same music we already released would sell over 10 million records,” he tells PEOPLE. “I mean, we never thought that could be done by us. So it was an intense time. But wow, what a fun time because so many years of trying to make it was good validation for us.”
Since it took two months before the special finally aired, *NSYNC had no way to predict that it would end up being the success it was. And for Chasez, finishing the gig gave him a feeling of relief,” as it ended up being “a spark we needed to finally open the doors for us stateside.”
Thanks to the success of the Disney special and an eventual No. 2 album on the Billboard 200, *NSYNC were on their way to becoming superstars in the U.S. with the fifth best-selling album in the United States that year (4.4 million copies by the end of the year). And that meant touring back home once and for all.
*NSYNC trekked around the U.S. for 18 months in 1998 and 1999 with their NSYNC in Concert run of shows, among other gigs. With Britney Spears opening for the group on one leg, and the group even opening for Janet Jackson‘s iconic The Velvet Rope Tour right before they went solo on the road, the guys were in good company.
And even when it was just them, *NSYNC was fixated on the ways they could improve their performance. “We were anal with our stuff. Even when we were touring in the states, right after the show we get handed a VHS tape. We would get handed a tape — there were two buses, Justin and Chris and JC were on one, they got the tape, they looked at the performance on the way to the next city,” Fatone says. “When we’d stop and pull over, they would hand us the tape, me and Lance, they’d say, ‘Listen, this is what our notes were,’ or, ‘This is what we didn’t like. Take a look and tell me what you think.'”
“Somebody would be like, ‘I missed the wrong note there, it wasn’t that good,’ or, ‘You see what happened over… Let’s keep…’ That’s what made us what we were, is because we kept correcting it. We didn’t just go, ‘Let’s just dance, let’s just do the moves and move on.’ It was, ‘Let’s see it again. What does that look like? Dude, your hand is not high up. Let’s fix that.’ So I think that’s what made us… And again, our name was *NSYNC, so we had to keep up to it.”
It wasn’t all intense problem-solving, though. *NSYNC’s tour bus was also filled with treats, games, and anything to keep young adults occupied as they traveled around the country together. That included — but was not limited to — an occasional supply of Barq root beers, a VHS collection of Dune, Scarface and South Park, a dog named Buster, and a “junk bunk” where they’d toss garbage (for the most part). “Every place I have ever lived in has that ‘kitchen drawer’ or that closet that everything seems to find a way to pile into,” Chasez says. “As far as adjusting to tour life, it’s really a mindset. You put your mind there and make it work.”
“A lot of times we went on JC and Justin’s and Chris’ bus because they would play more of the video games,” Fatone says. “And they had one TV in the back of the bus, and we would run the wire all the way up to the front so we would plug it in, so we’d be able to fight and see each other, one team would be in the back of the bus, the other team would be in the front of the bus.”
After regretfully admitting to buying three Sega Dreamcasts during those early days, Fatone says he and his bandmates also collected a few items that fans gave them during meet-and-greets. Fatone, of course, announced to the world numerous times that he was big on Superman merchandise, so he was treated like a superhero by die-hards. Kirkpatrick, on the other hand, was given, at one point, a scroll featuring the handwritten phrase “I love Chris” penned 30,000 times.
“Back in the day, especially in Europe, they used to give us a lot of gummy bears. Somebody — I don’t know if it was JC or Justin — said, ‘Oh my God, I love gummy bears.’ The minute you say you love something, it was a wrap,” Fatone says. “So I was like, ‘I like Superman collectibles.’ So some of them were giving me comic books, they’d give me hats, and somebody knitted me a sweater.”
When asked about his own favorite gifts from tour during their early years, Kirkpatrick reiterated how much all of it meant to him. “I grew up in trailers, trailer parks — really, really poor, like welfare poor. Lived in a Suburban for a couple weeks, lived in motels — one-room motels. Grew up really poor. This was a whole new strange world,” he tells PEOPLE. “I’m like, why us? We’re not any more special than you or anybody else. But just the chemistry we had together and the things that we worked on — the insane part of it is, there’s no word that could probably describe us as a group more than *NSYNC. *NSYNC was just like us and it was who we were.”
And he’s right. *NSYNC was just that. Even 25 years after the release of their debut album in the U.S., the band still manages to pull over 6 million monthly Spotify listeners, sell probably just as many T-shirts of their debut album cover as the album itself at this point, and cause a stir anytime they reunite — just as JC, Joey, Lance and Chris did during Ariana Grande‘s 2019 Coachella performance.
After going on an indefinite hiatus in 2002 — of course, following the release and success of 2000’s No Strings Attached and 2001’s Celebrity — *NSYNC have all come into their own as individuals formerly known for borrowing a bit of their personalities from each other. There’s Timberlake’s extensive solo career in music and film, Chasez’s detour into different mediums and numerous production credits in music, Fatone’s work in television and film, Kirkpatrick’s work in television (specifically as the iconic fictional pop star Chip Skylark in The Fairly Odd Parents), and Bass is a popular media personality and creative. But there’s still something special for each of them about listening back to 1998’s *NSYNC.
“[Listening now] brings me back to a lot of great times because we were so innocent and young and we were just getting into the musicality of what we liked,” Bass shares.
While Fatone jokes that he won’t be able to recreate much of the group’s original choreographed magic on tour in the future, at least without an oxygen tank, he looks back knowing their debut era was more than just expertly choreographed pop performances — it was their intro to great music.
“It is truly an amazing thing to be here today talking about this kind of stuff, and people still interested in this stuff, and knowing how powerful it is… Not power, but the vibe and the feel of boy-band music, or pop music I should say, will never go away,” he says. “It’s pop, it’s popular, it’s fun, it’s catchy.”
Kirkpatrick, too, understands the importance of what *NSYNC did with that first album — and how monumental it was not just for music, but his own life.
“My wife likes to play scratch-off lottery tickets and all that. And I’m always like, I don’t need to play the lottery. I already won the lottery,” he tells PEOPLE. “I’m not going to be that selfish person that goes, ‘Ah, I need to win it a couple more times.’ It’s like, ‘Man, this was such a few five people that have ever lived [that] have gotten to have this experience and do what I’ve done.’ And to have that, to have that going forward — I could lose everything, hopefully not my wife and kid. But I could lose everything and still have everything — still have those memories and those moments and that time.”
Perhaps best summing up that moment in the guys’ careers is Chasez, who says that the album now brings him back to the exact sessions where they made it — as a hungry, young kid coming off the Mickey Mouse Club and eager to captivate. Now, 25 years later, he can look back and be thankful for all the album afforded them.
“Whenever I listen to the debut, I truly get transported back to some of the exact sessions and recording studios where the music was made,” he says. “I can literally hear them, smell them, and experience them vividly. I can also feel those early performances. I feel the nervous tension of fighting for an audience’s approval early on, to the elated feeling of connecting with the fans. It’s pretty wild what those memories were for me in contrast to my other bandmates and the listeners. I’m very thankful for the ride.”
For more from *NSYNC, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere now.