Zero degrees of separation with 98 Degrees
One-fourth of the ’90s boy band opens up about meeting his heroes and his new Christmas album
It was the golden era of boy bands, and 98 Degrees was unlike the rest. Other groups in the ’90s like ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys had been assembled by major labels, but 98 Degrees formed organically: Brothers Nick and Drew Lachey, along with Justin Jeffre and Jeff Timmons, started the group with heavy R&B and soul influences. Then, 98 Degrees was discovered backstage at a Boys II Men concert when they sang a capella for a radio station. After that performance, the band signed to Motown records in 1998.
Timmons caught up with SN&R to share what followed for the group of friends: a duet with one of their biggest influences, Stevie Wonder, for the soundtrack to the Disney movie Mulan; a couple of opening gigs for Janet Jackson on her Velvet Rope tour; the platinum-selling album This Christmas. After a total of 10 million records sold, 98 Degrees went on a decade-long hiatus starting in 2003. But now, the (boy) band is back together. They’ve just recorded a new holiday album, Let It Snow—released on October 13—and launched a 31-day tour. SN&R chatted with Timmons about the group’s days on Motown, the innocence of the ’90s, and his love for hard rock music like Metallica and Guns N’ Roses.
How did it feel to get back in the studio with everyone to record Let It Snow?
We had an amazing time. This Christmas was an album that stood out in the past, and it was always a perennial success for us. We like holiday albums because we can step away from the pop-stuff and do a little bit more harmony-based music with cooler arrangements and a lot of orchestra. We really wanted Let It Snow to match the previous album, and I feel like we did it.
Boy bands were all pop in the ’90s. Was it hard to incorporate that genre into your music as an R&B group?
Our original record that we did when we were on Motown was very R&B as opposed to pop. Of course, the times changed, and then the Backstreet Boys came out and pop was more of the style as opposed to when we were originally out in the late ’90s, early 2000s. So, we sort of morphed our sound from R&B. … We were really influenced by groups like the Four Seasons, the Temptations and Boys II Men. I think doing a Christmas album reflects more of that kind of sound. And on Let It Snow, we have all of it. We have like a Beach Boys sound and even a Chuck Berry sound, so we feel like we have everything on it.
When you were first signed to Motown, who were you starstruck by?
When you think of Motown, you think of Berry Gordy, and you think of all these groups, but we were heavily influenced by Boys II Men. We wanted to be just like Boys II Men. We wanted to be on Boys II Men’s label and all that because they had that throw-back harmony. If you remember, they had a song called “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” out and it was an a capella song. We fell in love with that, and we were hoping we’d be discovered like that. And we got discovered at their concert when we were singing a capella. So, it’s a part of our history as well.
Tell me about the duet with Stevie Wonder.
It was an honor. But, not only that, it was Stevie Wonder with Disney. We got to shoot a video with him and hang out in his trailer where he had all kinds of musical equipment set up in there. And he had his harmonica with him the whole time and he couldn’t have been more gracious, and humble, and amazing. It was another dream come true. There were a lot of things that we got to do that were a real blessing to us and that’s one of them.
What’s changed in music since the ’90s for you?
I think the music in the ’90s was really great. I mean, there was a mix of R&B and pop and this kind of this explosion with 98 Degrees, Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, Britney [Spears], Christina [Aguilera], and you had a bunch of great R&B music out there. But as far as like the innocence of the time, it was pretty cool. It was pre-9/11, and the world has changed since then. I think the most important thing about it for me is those fans that were there for us in the late ’90s have evolved with us. I carry a part of it with me in my career. I have fans that remind me of things all the time when they post stuff on Instagram with our frosted tips and our big, baggy jeans. You can’t escape it.
It’s no secret that 98 Degrees is in good shape. How many crunches do you do a day?
(Laughs.) Not enough. I was up all night working on some other music. I actually need to get back in the gym. Crunches, I’ve never been a fan of. I choose to not eat food instead. (Laughs.) It’s definitely not the healthier route.
Name a musician or band that would shock fans that you’re into.
We’re guys from the Midwest and Ohio, so we grew up with all these soulful groups. But we also grew up with Warrant and “Cherry Pie” and Quiet Riot. I think Metallica is one of my favorite bands that folks wouldn’t assume that a group like ours would like—or Guns N’ Roses. We’re, like, mad fans of those guys.