The Hippo


Jul 16, 2019








O-Town. Courtesy photo.

O-Town with Todd Carey

When: Friday, Jan. 15, 8 p.m. 
Where: Jewel Nightclub, 61 Canal St., Manchester
Tickets: $25 at (21+)

Boys to men
O-Town grown up, reunited

By Michael Witthaus

 Long before The Voice or American Idol lit up U.S. living room screens, Making The Band invented the formula for reality television talent competitions. Launched in 1999, the MTV show gave the Real World treatment to eight aspiring pop stars, five of whom became the platinum selling group O-Town. 

For three seasons, film crews chronicled O-Town’s formation, rise and ultimate decline as the boy band craze waned.
Making The Band was so new that many things now taken for granted didn’t occur to the show’s producers. 
“We had to tape over our shirt logos and rip off labels from water bottles … because they couldn’t pay a license fee,” O-Town member Jacob Underwood said in a recent phone interview. “They didn’t even know how to create product placement for a reality show, and now that’s all they are.”
MTB’s first season ended with O-Town signed to Clive Davis’s J Records. When they completed the deal at the industry legend’s New York City home, an English A&R man with TV dreams of his own also sat in the room. 
“It was Simon Cowell, and he just kept talking to us about the show,” said Underwood. “He said, ‘I don’t understand this, tell me a bit about that.’ He took the best parts and created American Idol, and we just happened to be there.” 
Alas, fame, sold-out shows and a No. 1 record didn’t translate into fortune for band members. Business naiveté cost them plenty, and manager Lou Pearlman stole the rest, Underwood said. The boy band mogul launched and fleeced both Backstreet Boys and N’Sync, according to numerous media reports, before getting his hooks into O-Town. Pearlman is now in federal prison for a half-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme.  
Rather than stew in bitterness, the experience spurred Underwood’s intellectual curiosity. After O-Town disbanded in 2004, he began work on an MBA. 
“Because we had so much money stolen from us, I realized you can be the best musicians that you hope to be, but if you don’t know the business, you’re just the artist,” he said. “If you want to be successful, you’ve got to know both.”
In the years following the breakup, fans clamored for a reunion. In 2014, four of O-Town’s five members — Underwood, Erik-Michael Estrada, Dan Miller and Trevor Penick — returned with a new single, “Skydive.” Its positive reception led to a follow-up, “Chasing After You.” The song’s name-check rap outro served as an update of their first big hit, “Liquid Dreams.” Finally, they released the summer comeback album, Lines & Circles.
It’s a surprisingly good record, with more grit and funk than anything from their boy band days. Bringing it to fans, along with hits like “We Fit Together” and the chart-topping “All Or Nothing,” is more hands-on, and happier, than life in a reality television fishbowl, asserts Underwood.
“I’ve taken over the management side, and our responsibilities are divvied up,” he said, adding that Miller has a graphic design degree and does both website design and merchandising. “It’s a lot more gratifying when you can go out there and book and promote the show, set up your merch and you’re selling out. Not the 10- to 20-thousand-seat arenas, but it’s still so much better because we did the work, and the fans showing up are excited and singing back to us. It’s a lot more satisfying.”
Underwood, however, did wax nostalgic for a few niceties from O-Town’s days of high-flying fame. 
“I miss the responsibility of being signed to someone like Clive Davis. I loved having those kind of people to learn from,” he said.
That perspective was something that changed as he grew up.
“As a kid, I thought, ‘Who is the old guy telling me what to do or what to sound like?’ As an adult, I can’t be more thankful for having ‘the old guy’ tell me what to do and what to sing and how to listen for a hit song and how to put writers in that complement each other. I think as adults we know how to appreciate what we were blessed with.”
What the band doesn’t miss is the frenetic schedule of its early years. These days, everyone except Underwood has wives and kids to think about. 
“We go out for one to two weeks a month max, and then we are home for family time,” Underwood said. “Back in the day, it was 320 or more shows a year. … I don’t want to be back in that again. We have a good balance now.”

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