In 2003 after years of success that saw them tour the world and notch up plenty of hits, the band went on hiatus as they pursued solo endeavours. 9 years later, the band reunited and in 2013 they released new album ‘2.0’, which was followed in 2017 with the festive collection ‘Let It Snow’.
This year, the band is celebrating their success with #98DegreesofSummer on social media and last Friday they released new single ‘Where Do You Wanna Go’.
I spoke to Jeff this week to discuss the return of 98 Degrees, look back on the band’s huge success and find out how he feels about his foray into releasing music as a solo artist…
Let’s start by saying that it’s one of Pop’s great injustices, that 98 Degrees weren’t bigger here in the UK…
There’s always still a chance, right? With the new song and the way things are so viral now, compared to when we were out the first time, there might be an opportunity for us just yet.
I was championing you guys all the way back in the 90s. I discovered your music when I was interning at a national newspaper and I was handed a CD of ‘Invisible Man’…
‘Invisible Man’, although it was our first song, I feel like that one made the most impact in the UK. We tried to come back several times but every time we went back to the UK, our label was getting sold. Every time we went there, unfortunately, we had a different staff so the only song that really sort of stuck, and it was only there for a second, was ‘Invisible Man’. Literally it was a blip on the charts. At that time the UK charts were quite different than the US. You had to follow up with single after single because they would come on the charts and then they were gone. I’m glad that you remember that and I’m flattered you know that song.
98 Degrees is back with a new song, ‘Where Do You Wanna Go’, and it sounds like classic 98 Degrees but also works in the current pop climate because it sounds so fresh. Why did you decide to release that song now?
We got really lucky with that song. We had been gone for a little while and music changed quite a bit (in terms of the) the way you distributed music, the sound of music, and all that stuff. We were traditionally known as balladeers and when we came back, we were trying too hard. We adopted a different sound and it didn’t really translate. We went with a label that had a different angle for us that they thought would be amazing and it didn’t work. This time, we were like, ‘look, how can we adopt the current sound while being true to what our sound is?’ and we felt that this exemplified exactly that. I’m glad you think it’s fresh, but you can still recognize that it’s a 98 Degree song. For those that don’t know, maybe it’ll introduce us to a new audience, which is always the hope.
I was surprised in the 90s that the press was so quick to just lump you in the boyband group with Backstreet Boys and N’Sync. To me, you were a lot closer to Boyz II Men, as 98 Degrees were all about the vocals and the harmonies. Was it frustrating for you to be categorised with the boybands?
I’ll be honest with you, at first it was. When I started the group Boyz II Men was the model. I was so enamoured with their sound and thought that there was a certain uniqueness that would apply to the way I would love to have my music out there, that we were really flattered when we got discovered at a Boyz II Men concert and we got signed to Motown like Boyz II Men. Boybands weren’t prevalent here in the United States yet and it wasn’t until we went overseas and saw this onslaught of these boybands that we started being affiliated with this term. We felt that it was an insult in the beginning but certainly being lumped in with groups, and considered in the same era, as the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync, who we are dear friends with, now we’re embracing it. It’s always interesting to me that even though we never broke the UK, it was always the UK journalists like yourself that recognised that the sound was a little bit different. Here in the States they saw basically four white guys doing harmony and it was ‘oh, they’re a boyband’. It was a bit frustrating but certainly when you get all the drippings that come along with it – the worldwide fame and the fandom – you’re like, ‘OK cool, it’s not such a bad thing after all’.
For me 98 Degrees has always been about soul and the vocals. That’s always been the focal point and no disrespect to Backstreet Boys or N’Sync, both of whom I’m a fan of, but their brand was a little more smoke and mirrors and big production…
I’m very flattered that you have observed. Obviously you’ve done your homework. You were around in the beginning as an intern so you understood the gestation of that group and the foundation was the vocals. When we started out it was just four-part harmony. None of us played any instruments and certainly it was very difficult, unlike today, to just create tracks from scratch with inexpensive equipment. All we had was our voices and quickly we learned that performing live and outside and acapella got us very far. We were always priding ourselves on a true quartet – tenor, tenor, bass and baritone – and we’ve stuck with that for the songs. Production’s changed so it’s harder for us to get the younger producers to understand that we need to incorporate all four of the guys and their strengths, but we somehow are able to pull that across it and get that accomplished, especially with the most recent stuff we recorded.
You’re in the middle of #98DegreesOfSummer, which is going to end with the release of an EP. Where did that idea come from?
I wish we could take credit for coming up with the concept. We’ve got a new manager Johnny Wright, who as you know he manages Justin, he managed Backstreet (Boys) and N’Sync, and we never had a really, really strong management team. We thought this time, ‘this might be the last time we ever come out. Let’s do it right. Let’s go get Johnny Wright, he knows how to do this stuff’ and it was his brainchild. He was like, ‘let’s revisit and embrace the mistakes while we’re releasing new stuff. We’ve got the remix album coming out and the new music and and let’s pay an ode to your fans by allowing them to share in the nostalgia of you guys coming back’. He timed it out that 98 days would be a sufficient amount and teamed up with iHeart, because of our strong relationships and friends, they’re really supporting this and we can’t thank them enough. The campaign is just something that’s really smart and clever. Again, I wish I could take credit for that but you’ve got to give credit where it’s due and Johnny’s the man behind that.
It’s a genius idea and what an incredible way to celebrate everything you’ve achieved with the fans. I think it’s often overlooked just how much success 98 Degrees had and all the things you’ve achieved, especially by the press…
It was tough because those (other bands) had huge machines behind them. While we did eventually have Universal on board, it was really at the tail end before they really started doing the marketing. We did a lot of grassroots on our own. We literally got in a Winnebago and drove all over the place and wrapped it with our picture, and handed out swag that we paid for it. We got the bullhorn out and said, ‘hey, look, here we are’. That was able to strike some noise with traditional press. I also think that a lot of that gets lost today with social media. Not a lot of people go out and do that kind of stuff in conjunction with all the tools that are available at your disposal. For us, we never had that Jive, Johnny Wright and Lou Pearlman – everybody has their ups and downs and there were some flaws with that model as well with Lou – but for us, we didn’t have the machine. We had to depend on ourselves and the press looked at us as a third place group. We were doing our own thing and we had our own sound, but again, no complaints. We sold millions of records and toured the world, but it would have been great for us to get more recognition like that, but I absolutely have no complaints.
The fact that more than two decades on, you’re still together as a band, making music and selling out shows. That’s an incredible achievement and not many bands are able to achieve that longevity…
It is such a blessing to be able to do this. I started the group to meet girls, get famous and make money, you know the things that young guys think about, and the music was in there as well. Never did I think in my late 40s would I be going out releasing music to radio and performing for sold-out crowds. I never thought it would last that long. I was doing it for fun and had the vision that we would we would be doing it then like that, but not this much later in my career and my life. I would never take it for granted.
As you mentioned earlier, the music industry has changed so much since 98 Degrees first came on the scene. Chart positions don’t mean what they used to and success is quantified very differently, with streams and selling tickets more important now. Does that take some of the pressure off you?
Absolutely. I don’t know if we would have survived in the way we did with social media back then but I think we would have been exponentially more famous. We were so young. These young people have to be so self aware of everything they say (on social media) and that’s a good thing, it’s just a different animal. At the same time, success is measured differently now. You can still curate your music to your fans and engage them without having the power of a major label and utilising relationships. Back then we had so much competition with groups like the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync, and there was a lot of pressure on us. Now we’ve been able to go on and have families and different careers and for us it is all about fun. We are having exponentially more fun at this stage of our career than we did when we were really, really famous. Even with each other. We’re like brothers, of course a couple of guys are brothers, but there was always so much tension to try to be the best and compete and fit into this mold and that was very stressful for us. Now it’s a blast. We’ll go have a couple of drinks and get up on stage, and people are more excited and exuberant than ever to see us. That’s something that not a lot of people get the opportunity to do.
This may be a controversial thing to say but I don’t think that anyone is making pop music that stands up to what we had when 98 Degrees first came out. The only people still making good pop music, for the most part, are the bands that are still around from that era…
It was definitely a different era. I’m a fan of pop music and a fan of the studio. How it’s evolved, I find ways to enjoy it because I’m a nerd in the studio. What these guys are doing – the tricks and the way they’re using sonics and great sound and better resolution – I’m always a fan of that. There are good melodies but those guys back in the day just had a science to it that just was amazing and they applied it in different ways while being creative. That era, the way that pop explosion (happened), I don’t think that that’ll ever happen again (because) you have so many choices with the streaming services technology. I agree with you, it is controversial and not to take away from the brilliant artists that are out there like Bruno Mars, The Weeknd, Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus, but it was a different era for sure.
Nostalgia is playing a big role in music right now too. We saw back in 2019 the demand for music from the 90s when the Spice Girls sold out 80,000 seater stadiums for their Spice World 2019 tour. It’s incredible to see the demand for these bands I grew up with…
They’re legends. That brand was a legendary brand. We were actually hoping to get on that tour but they didn’t need us (laughs). It’s just a testament to that time and groups in that era, and what that was all about. It’s not just about the music, it’s about the nostalgia that came along with that era. It was an innocent time and a it was pre 9/11 when a lot of things changed in the world. People reminisce about not only the music, but the era itself and then, as much as we like to think we’re cool, it’s the people that they met during that time and formed those bonds with other fans, which is something unique. When you’re a group like ours, at the time we had a lot of very young fans and pre-teen fans, that we didn’t feel like it was cool. Years later, we see what that impact had on all of those fans. For us, it was bigger than what we probably even thought of or imagined.
Are you seeing at your shows your fanbase bringing their kids along now?
That’s amazing and that they love the music so much that they’re introducing their kids to it. What’s amazing beyond that, is that their kids like it. In the era that you have all these cool choices, a bunch of old guys getting up on stage singing ballads, and having these young kids becoming fans and contacting you in DMs and going ‘I’m a fan’ when they’re 13 is crazy. That’s what music does. It has an impact beyond what some of the vanity aspects have.
You did dabble with solo music after 98 Degrees went on hiatus. Your debut solo album ‘Whisper That Way’ really showcased just how soulful a vocalist you are. It’s never easy to go solo once you’ve been part of a successful group so what was that experience like for you?
Well, you’re now my favorite interviewer ever, that you know that record at all. It was a very difficult situation. None of the labels would even listen to the music so I ended up having to really get crafty about putting that together. If you look at it in retro, I appreciate you recognising my vocal ability, but the production on it I did it all myself in my house. I was new in the studio after being tutored by some of these great folks and I didn’t know what I was doing. I listen to it and I wince about the sound and the songwriting and all that stuff. I’m not proud of the quality of the music but I’m proud of the project. I’m proud and honoured that you know that, and very flattered about the compliments, that means a lot to me.
You shouldn’t wince. It sounded great to me when I had a listen to it again earlier, and I thought the production sounded fine…
Well, you’re probably the only person that says that, but I appreciate the compliment. I just didn’t know what I was doing, I just knew I wanted to do it. It was sort of a fly-by-night learn as you go along (project). It was when nobody would touch us so I couldn’t get any producers to come on board. Pop music had changed and the program directors didn’t want to hear any more pop music outside of Justin (Timberlake). Nick (Lachey) had some presence because he had a TV show so he had an opportunity to do it. It was a tough experience for me because I was so spoiled by having sold millions of records, and it didn’t sell anything. I was disappointed in it being a perfectionist, more so than wanting to showcase my talent. It was a tough experience but the experience of promoting it, and learning the inner workings of how the business works to even get it out there from retail to marketing… I did my own radio promotion. I was a fake guy on the phone, promoting my own records with radio… that experience was invaluable for some of the things that I’m doing later on in my career.
I really enjoyed the cover of ‘Where Are You Christmas?’ that you released with your daughter Ariahuna. How did that come about?
I have five kids. I have two stepkids. My older kids were never really interested in the business. I was out of the business and doing behind-the-scenes stuff and really focused on being a dad so they didn’t really get into it. My youngest daughter, she lives it and she wants to do it. I would never push my kids into it because it’s such a hard business but if they want to do it, I’m supportive of it and have some experience. She was insistent that we do that song – JoJo Siwa is her favorite and she did a version of it – and then she was insistent on me getting her on TV to sing it, which was really crazy. It’s something that I’ll cherish forever and never forget, because it’s an experience that we have together and it’s our first one. Now she really wants to get into movies and be a singer and all this other crazy stuff. I’m glad that you got a chance to see that. That might be one of the things I’m most proud of.
She’s definitely got the drive by the sound of it…
Yeah, she’s got the drive and she’s got that thing where she wants to be a star. Right. I’ve tried to reel that in. My wife loves it because it’s her little baby and she sees what she has. She’s a natural at it. Having a drive is an understatement with her. I can’t keep up with her!
What else do you have in the works for the rest of the year?
I appreciate you asking. I’m working on this thing called ATCK, ‘All The Cool Kids’. It’s a collaboration – I’m sure you’ve seen the BackSync thing going on – but this more like a DJ driven thing with original songs that we’re going to be singing together. It’s Chris (Kirkpatrick) from N’Sync, AJ (McLean) from Backstreet Boys, Chris Blue from ‘The Voice’ – he’s an amazing vocalist, I don’t want to be on stage with him at the same time, because he’s too good – but nonetheless, we’re going to do covers of our own stuff for the audience but also some new stuff together. We’re releasing new music together to make it interesting. What’s interesting about that band is not all of us can do it all the time together so it’ll be a revolving door for other artists to come and collaborate, and just create a unique experience for the audience with recognisable faces. On the 14th I’m hosting this Free Britney (event) on 50 to 100 stations, in support of Britney Spears. I was honoured to be asked to be the voice of that. It’s an ode to her records and we’re doing some interviews in the process about what’s been going on with that. We certainly love Britney and are supporters of her and fans of hers. We hope that brings some light into the situation, although I think it’s going to get resolved on its own, but we’re drawing attention to that as well.
98 Degrees’ new single ‘Where Do You Wanna Go’ is out now. Watch the video below: