One Direction may have famously formed on The X-Factor, but they're certainly not the first boy band to have come together thanks to a reality show. In 2000, O-Town, who mounted a reunion in 2014, came together on Making The Band. Infamous producer Lou Pearlman had decided to add to his stable of group talent (which already included *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys), but this time, to put together a group right in front of fans' eyes. As the first season unfolded on MTV, contestants were whittled down, and the resulting five-member boy band was on its way. Seventeen years later, a group that was launched under perhaps the most corporate circumstances possible are living an unexpected second phase: this time, as independent artists. Speaking to Bustle via phone before a concert in Agoura Hills, California, the current O-Town line-up of Erik-Michael Estrada, Dan Miller, Trevor Penick, and Jacob Underwood all seem to agree that their new happily indie band existence is actually a direct result of their manufactured origins.
"Right now, as adults, we chose to put it together, we chose to make it work, and we get a lot of joy out of being involved in every single decision as a band," Underwood says of the O-Town reunion, which kicked off in earnest in with the release of the single "Sky Dive" in 2014. "From the artwork, to designing it, doing the choreography, setting our shows, it’s something that we love to do. We kind of missed each other, and missed the fact that we’re the only four that knows what we went through, and the only four that put O-Town back together."
"Four different egos, who didn’t know each other at first, coming from a reality show. You wouldn’t expect that 17 years later, they’d still be doing this sort of work together, let alone drama-free."
That last bit is a reminder that Ashley Parker Angel, the fifth original member of the "All Or Nothing" artists, declined to take part in the reunion. ("We don't talk to him on an everyday basis," Penick says. "I don't talk to him on an any day basis," Miller interjects.) But figuring out how the band functioned as a foursome was just one item on O-Town's to-do list when they decided to get back in the studio and then, back out on the road — a decade after they parted ways. (What was initially meant to be a six-month hiatus had stretched into years.)
"The first time around, there was absolutely, like, this sense of ‘What do we sound like together, 10 years later?' And, 'What do the fans expect from us?'" Underwood remembers. "We just had to get to work and figure out what was going to work for us. That’s the beauty of the last record and now this one, is that it really feels like a product of us."
Earlier this summer, O-Town released the "Part 1" EP, a title that's both literal (as in, a Part 2 is on its way) and symbolic. So though the band had fully mounted their comeback with 2014's LP Lines & Circles, Part 1 still suggests that this is another rebirth of sorts. The EP and its follow-up were fully funded by fans via a Kickstarter campaign, which raised over $80,000. It's evident that the guys feel like the apparatus between themselves and their audience has been eliminated. "Now we're responsible to only one party," the Kickstarter page reads, "our FANS!"
Penick recalls a time when an album, two EPs, and a couple U.S. tours weren't a part of the plan. "When we started this [reunion]," he says, "We were gonna just release a song and do a little European tour ... But once we released the song, and social media and Twitter and everyone was talking about it, it was kind of like, 'Oh wow, maybe they do want us back in the States."
And a huge piece of the band's resurgence has been getting face-time with their fans. Since re-forming, O-Town has shared tours with 98 Degrees, Ryan Cabrera, Dream, Salt 'N Pepa, All 4 One and other nostalgic acts; as well as going out on the road as the sole headliner. The first time I saw O-Town perform, they were opening for Britney Spears in a 15,000 seat arena. But they seem to be enjoying these intimate gigs even more. "We’re kinda the kings of the 300-seat venue," Penick laughs.
Much was made in the press of the "rivalries" between boy bands in the '90s and '00s. But as boy bands become grown-ass man bands, O-Town is more interested in alliances. Miller says that the more New Kids On The Block and Backstreet Boys were making moves as adults, the more people in their lives pestered O-Town about getting back in the game.
"I mean, back in the day, 15 years ago or whenever it was, there was this competition among all the bands, and it feels like it was fueled by just what was going on around us and a lot of people pit us against each other," Miller explains. "But now I think we’re kind of inspired by these other bands, because all the bands from that era, we all went through a similar situation, we all run in the same circles. We know a lot of the same people, and ultimately, we can help each other out a lot."
One of those shared experiences for several artists is the experience of being managed by Pearlman, who died in prison in 2016, per Rolling Stone, after a convicted of conspiracy, money-laundering, and making false statements. His practices included allegedly holding back earnings from his artists. And O-Town's Part 1 includes a track called "Shady Business," a scathing indictment of a double-dealer. Here's a snippet of the lyrics:
"You should be ashamed the way you played the game
Thinkin fame was enough for us to think we getting paid
But hey I guess this is our thank you, so thank you for doing wrong.
We'd have never hit rock bottom if you never came along."
Underwood says that "it was just nice to lay it out there" with "Shady Business," but also insists that the song isn't just about the band's experience with Pearlman, but with other tenuous relationships too, both business and otherwise.
"We’ve never talked about Lou, we’ve never written about him. It was kind of a one and final what we wanted to say, and what we kind of felt about it," Underwood says. "But it applies to everything, and I think now we’re kind of giving it a longer intro in the show to really show that we’re not angry about it. We actually feel blessed ... We learned a lot from it."
"A part of why we are the way we are now is those 10 years we spent learning and kind of discovering 'shady business' on our own," Estrada adds. "And we were able to come back, and 'let’s do business the right way, with each other.'"
The venues may not be as large in 2017, nor the MTV appearances quite as frequent, but having complete control of their destiny seems to suit O-Town just fine. "Four different egos, who didn’t know each other at first, coming from a reality show," Miller sums up. "You wouldn’t expect that 17 years later, they’d still be doing this sort of work together, let alone drama-free — like we are, thankfully."
There is life after TRL, and apparently, that life is good. After this round of shows, the band will get back to finalizing their next Kickstarter-funded EP. The majority of the work is on them, but Underwood says the band is having "more fun, collectively, than we ever had before."
"Who doesn’t want to be in a boy band at 37 years old?" Estrada laughs. "Come on."