Friday, August 11, 2000

98║: Pop group comes home to film Disney special

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

98║ sang the National Anthem at the Reds game Tuesday night. They are: Drew Lachey, Jeff Timmons, Nick Lachey and Justin Jeffre.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        When multiplatinum teen-pop group 98║ comes home to Cincinnati, the guys always hit the old haunts. They eat at Skyline, LaRosa's and Graeter's, hang out on Fountain Square and visit their old school, the School for Creative and Performing Arts. But this week it's different.

        Brothers Nick and Drew Lachey, Justin Jeffre and the group's only non-Cincinnatian, Jeff Timmons of Massillon, did all the usual things. But they are being filmed by a camera crew from the Disney Channel. An hour-long special, 98║ & Hoku in Concert, will air in early October.

        “It's always been my dream to come home and have some kind of huge homecoming show,” says Nick Lachey, 26, as he and the rest of the group takes a break at their local hotel, the Cincinnatian. “Fortunately for us, (the producers of) this Disney special, they really were very open and really wanted to do it here and made a great situation happen.”

        It's been a long road for 98║, the best-selling group to come out of Cincinnati since the 1983 heyday of techno-funk band Midnight Star.

        Mr. Lachey and Mr. Jeffre, 27, used to sing in Kings Island revues and perform in the horn section of local oldies group the Avenues. They headed to Los Angeles in 1995 to join their old SCPA classmate Jonathan Lippmann, who had hooked up with Mr. Timmons, 27. The new group was called JustUs and attracted some label interest. But Mr. Lippmann was beginning to get some small TV roles and decided to focus on acting (he has since returned to music in the Nashville-based Christian pop group True Vibe). Nick's younger brother Drew, 23, was enlisted.

        Newly christened 98║, the quartet released its self-titled Motown debut in 1997. They scored an immediate hit with “Invisible Man,” featuring the group's signature ballad sound, a rich blend of sophisticated doo-wop harmonies with a modern edge.

        But they couldn't get a second hit on the album. Often, that's when record labels drop new acts. Luckily, 98║ was asked to sing with Motown great Stevie Wonder on “True to Your Heart,” the theme to Disney's Mulan.

        A second CD, ...and Rising, came out in 1998, just as Motown and the rest of the record industry was going through major consolidation of ownership. Hundreds of groups were dropped as labels reorganized.

        Fortunately, 98║ was picked up by Universal, and the label supported the group. The hits started coming and the second album went on to sell more than 4 million copies during 1999, as 98║headlined the first year of Nickelodeon's “All that Music and More” amphitheater tour, including a stop at Riverbend.

Hotter by the minute
        The homecoming of 98║ this week finds the group on an even higher level. 98║ is the cover story in the September issue of Teen People. Revelation, their fourth CD (they released This Christmas late last year), hits stores Sept. 26, with the Disney special airing a couple of weeks later. A new single, the Latin-tinged “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche),” is now hitting radio.

        They've also gone through another teen-pop group rite of passage, dropping original manager Paris D'Jon for the team of Scot McCracken and David Sonenberg.

        “I think our new management represents us better,” says Mr. Jeffre. “We tried to step up in every way possible. The (new) record's better, we did a lot more writing on it (the group co-wrote 10 of the 12 songs on Revelation). In general, we just have more control of our career and that's why we're feeling so great about everything.”

Change in plans
        They're feeling pretty great about the way Cincinnati welcomed them back this week, as they sang the national anthem before Monday's Reds game, and enjoyed such perks as taking batting practice with the home team and visiting a Bengals practice. Wednesday, they received the key to the city.

        The weather was not so cooperative. Severe storms postponed the centerpiece for the Disney special, an outdoor concert with Hawaiian teen-pop singer Hoku, at an outdoor stage specially built outside the Waterfront restaurant complex in Covington. The show was rescheduled for Thursday night.

        Before the storms hit, several thousand had gathered outside the Waterfront. Most were 98║'s core fans — teen-age girls.

        Bethany McGannon, 14, and Rachel Shaner, 14, both of New Richmond, had been waiting since 2 p.m. to hear the group, Bethany wearing a 98║ T-shirt, Rachel getting more personal, inking the guys' names on her arms. “We want to support them. They're from here, they're really talented and they're really good-looking,” said Ms. McGannon.

Surreal experience
        The teen idol aspect of 98║ has been hard to get used to, admits Nick, who has seen his relationship with singer Jessica Simpson plastered across the covers of teen fan magazines.

        “It's all very surreal, just a wild thing for us,” he says. “I mean I never in a million years thought that girls would look at us like that. But it's all very flattering. The teen audience is a huge part of our audience and always will be, and we never want to alienate them, we just want to expand off of that.”

        The four guys believe Revelation, as the best statement to date of who 98║ really is, will do just that, separating them from the boy band herd.

        “We feel that this album and us being so creatively involved in it does create a kind of distinction for 98║ above and beyond just being good vocalists. We wrote so much on it and were so involved in the production of it. Hopefully people will love it as much as we do and, as a result, come to respect us as musicians in addition to being Teen Beat pin-ups or whatever.”

        Plans call for tours of Asia and Europe in the fall, while singles continue to spin off Revelation here in the States. If they wind up with a hit album that adds a good dose of uptempo songs to 98║'s trademark ballads, they'll start a national arena tour in January.

        But there's a lot of pressure, as 'NSync and Backstreet Boys have upped the ante, selling more than a million CDs in the first week. Everything hinges on the next few weeks, as Universal rolls out their new disc amid feverish media coverage and the much-touted Disney special.

        Even there, 98║ didn't want to just follow the boy band formula. They wanted the TV show to present them as real people, to showcase their favorite things about their hometown.

        “'NSync has done (a Disney special), Backstreet has done it, a lot of teen groups have done it,” says Nick. “But they haven't done anything like this. This is kind of like our way of presenting the new 98║. We just really want to come out and show everybody what we're about this time around.”


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