If you can forget bopping along to the end credits of Mulan, over which the massive hit “True to Your Heart” first played, then your heart has probably grown cold.
Twenty years after the song’s release, it remains the ultimate paradigm of radio potential: a medley of 98 Degrees’ honey-dipped male harmonies layered over Stevie Wonder’s warped synth lines, all calibrated somewhere on the funk scale between The Temptations and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. On its heels, the foursome released a wave of infectious earworms – “Thank God I Found You”, with Mariah Carey and Joe; the smoky, Latin dance-inflected “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche)”; and “Because of You”, the final song on many a Y2K mixtape – that live on in our cultural memory forever.
Sincere, sweet and just groovy enough to be represented by Motown, no radio-friendly group of the era ever seemed to match the 98 Degrees formula (or perhaps none ever tried). They were your girlfriend’s boy band, softer than the somewhat aggro Backstreet Boys, but less polished and sparkly than NSYNC. The members – Nick Lachey, Drew Lachey, Justin Jeffre and Jeff Timmons – were dimpled and attainable: the demigod heroes of pop.
Three decades and a hiatus or two behind them, these veterans of road and radio are settling into their renewed union with the last traces of boyishness fully expunged. What remains is a pack of deeply bonded vocalists whose four-part harmonies are finally being put to the inevitable service of all pop megastars: holiday standards. The shift has proven to be a wise one. The band’s 2017 Christmas record, Let It Snow, resulted in some of its best reviews ever; and its new 98° at Christmas 2018 tour began its 36-date journey on November 1. We are smack-dab in the middle of the 98 Degree-naissance.
With a Sisyphean schedule ahead of him, founding member Jeff Timmons was in surprisingly high spirits during a conversation in mid-October just before the tour kicked off. More candid than cagey, Timmons discussed the health of his voice, the band’s return to Christmas songs and what long-time fans can expect when 98 Degrees performs at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center at College of the Canyons on November 16.
The Proclaimer: You have a lower profile than the Lacheys, so I didn’t know that you went to Kent State.
Jeff Timmons: Yeah, those guys and the rest of my group are from Cincinnati. I’m from a small town up by Cleveland. Obviously Nick and Drew are brothers, but I met them through a mutual friend of theirs. I had another group, and those guys quit, so this guy was like, “I know you’re starting this group…” He was from Ohio and he knew Nick from before. It’s ironic that we formed in southern California, but we’re all from Ohio.
It is so interesting to think about your whole energy and your vibe, and how that must have been shaped by the experience of going to Kent State. It seems like such a long time ago now, but at the time, you were not that far away from the Kent State shootings.
JT: Obviously there is a lot of history that goes along with Kent State. I was always interested as a kid in musicals and theater, but where I am from, it is all sports. It’s not necessarily frowned upon – the arts – but my town was a football town. In fact, when you’re born a boy, they give you a football in your cradle. It’s sort of like a Friday Night Lights thing. My friends that I started the group with – none of us were singers. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of success, but if I go back to my hometown now, the local high school football star is still a bigger star than anybody.
It is sort of odd. I think the work ethic of the Midwest helped all four of us in our careers; the blue collar mentality we all had brought that into how hard we were going to work in southern California, as opposed to the other folks going, “Oh, we’re going to go to L.A.,” then they come and blow a bunch of their parents’ money and go home. We were like, “Nope, it is do-or-die for us. We’re gonna make it no matter what it takes.” Years later, the four of us have all experienced different levels of success, but it doesn’t matter how much success we’ve had or how little of it. We still bring that hardhat, blue collar mentality to our work.
It is funny you say that because I’m calling from the hills of Santa Clarita –
JT: Of course, I’ve been there many times.
I went to school up here. In high school, nobody really scorned the people who would become writers for the newspapers, but with football, you always felt that the players were experiencing their highs a little bit earlier than anyone else, at 16 or 17. That can be the sad side of living in a big football town. But now, you are 30 years on from that and experiencing a kind of fame and fortune that most professional athletes don’t get. What kind of a mind trip is that for you?
JT: Oh yeah, it is a trip. But listen: at the end of the day, you can either buy into that, you can buy into the fame, or you can remain the same sort of person. With as many fortunate experiences as I have had – and I’ve also experienced many lows as well – if you don’t take those into account to mold the person you are currently, then you are missing the whole point of the experience. I can choose to walk around with a bodyguard 20 years later and have a separate table than everybody else. It is easy to buy into that lifestyle because people will allow you to maintain it. They’ll feed into it. They’ll be “Yes” people for you. But you are not being true to yourself. You’re not being realistic. Fame is not real.
For us, it was pretty easy to remain humble because we were on Motown Records and we had a huge record on the radio, but Motown chose not to put our image out there. They wanted people to think we were an urban group, a black group. Their strategy was: “Don’t put their pictures on anything. We are going to do a big reveal and they’re going to be four white guys.” So we had a hit record out, but nobody knew who we were. One day I’m begging people to buy my CD in a mall, the next day I can’t get out of my tour bus because we had been on TRL. That was very humbling for us and made us appreciate our success even more. We appreciate that 20 years later, we’re able to go out on tour and we still have fans out there.
I have been listening to your music – or rather, I should say that I heard the music, because I don’t remember having a choice – at a very young age. Mulan came out when I was a child. That was so dominant on the radio that, even if I didn’t want to listen to it, it was everywhere in my life.
JT: You had to.
That’s right. So I’ve known your music for 20 years. But as a Jewish person listening to your Christmas record, Let It Snow, I kept wondering if I was going crazy thinking, “Wait, why does this sound like a classic barbershop quartet record?” It was almost too humble – you guys are doing straight-up a capella on “[The First] Noel”.
JT: I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. I know some people will shy away from it because it’s a Christmas album. We did this holiday/Christmas album not because it’s a religious thing for us. We did it because a holiday album brings people together, whatever religion you are. We have tons of Jewish fans; in fact, some fans that came to our holiday show were like, “Yeah, we’re Jewish, but we love that you guys just sing harmony-based music.” That’s what it is all about: this gave us the chance to do those kinds of arrangements.
Are you the one who’s going, “We have to analyze the harmonic structures,” while Drew Lachey is sitting in the corner going, “Alright, Jeff, here we go again”?
JT: No, no, because – look, we miss it! It’s not like we are a bunch of old guys trying to grasp onto the good old days. Our fans are there for us, so let’s put something out. But traditional music has changed. If you try to do it in a mainstream way, the record companies are going, “Your style is outdated.” We were like, “Harmonies? Since when is that outdated?” Music is very simplistic now: it is a hook and an occasional harmony, maybe two-part, maybe three-part. But those stacked harmonies of Boyz II Men and those intricate chords were what really made us geek out. We sang a capella at a Boyz II Men concert, that’s how we got discovered. I am a big pop geek, but those styles are nonexistent in today’s pop music. So [98 Degrees] jumped at that opportunity.
There are a couple songs on the record that sound like the 98 Degrees version of Bruno Mars. “Season of Love” is the funkiest song you have had in 15 years. But if you guys were to release an all a capella record, and do classic doo-wop like The Crew Cuts or The Drifters, you’d have so little competition that it would be the biggest a capella record in the country.
JT: I love hearing that because we have been talking about it forever. It’s not like we think the population is dumb or doesn’t understand music, but we were like, “Would anybody get it? Are we too old now? Are people going to understand it?” We’re total harmony geeks, but it is not that pronounced in today’s climate.
98 Degrees has lost some of the boyish, sultry sexiness of “Una Noche” – you have aged – but your voices sound strong on Let It Snow. How is everybody’s voice holding up as you set off on this new tour? How are you holding up?
JT: We put that record together very quickly. Back in the day, you would spend a whole year making a record. But we literally recorded that album in a couple weeks. During the 11-year hiatus we had, we were all doing solo stuff, so we didn’t have the opportunity to lean on the other members or let someone take over during a session. I was out doing shows on my own, sometimes hour-and-a-half, 2-hour tracking shows without a band. I had to get better, I had no choice. So vocally, we have become better and have become more stylized as individuals. Certainly we have the ability to do the harmonies and the a capella together – that always seems to fall into place. We’re able to hold up, it’s fun, we take days off to go back with our families each week. It’s not as grueling as back in our heyday – we were on the road for like 5 years. 30 days? 2 months? Man, it’s easy.
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