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Interview: New Kids on the Block

Grant Walters Grant Walters Interview: New Kids on the Block
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After carving out their own place in pop music history more than three decades ago, the New Kids continue their lengthy legacy with "The Mixtape Tour"

“This tour has been an absolute blast. It’s been one of the most fun ones that we’ve done,” New Kids on the Block founding member Jonathan Knight-Rodriguez tells me over the phone during a day off in between shows in Des Moines and St. Paul.

The Mixtape Tour, which kicked off on May 2 in Cincinnati, will stop in 53 North American cities before it concludes on July 14 at Hollywood, Florida’s Hard Rock Events Center. Joining them on the road is a rather robust line-up of their contemporaries: Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, Naughty by Nature, and Salt-N-Pepa.

For those of us Gen X-ers who were raised on pop radio waves, it’s a ticket that’s hard to resist.

“Yeah, it’s definitely a lot of people’s childhoods wrapped up in one tour,” Knight-Rodriguez affirms. “You know, we’ve known Debbie Gibson forever. And just touring with Tiffany before was so much fun for us. We had her come out when we did a show at Coney Island, and we asked her to do one song with us, not even thinking about the future. She just did so well, and we were, like, ‘This is a no-brainer. We need to get out and tour with Tiffany again.’ And it just went from there.

It was a lot of phone calls and a lot of discussions back and forth about who we thought would fit on this bill. And, of course, Salt-N-Pepa, and Naughty by Nature, and Debbie — it just all came together and it was perfect.”

The Mixtape Tour also culminates the recent 30th anniversary celebration of Hangin’ Tough, the 1988 breakthrough album that sent the then-fledgling careers of Knight-Rodriguez and younger brother Jordan Knight, Donnie Wahlberg, Joey McIntyre, and Danny Wood, skyward. Their prevalence shifted music culture and conversation, especially in North America. In March, they reissued their juggernaut, which included a new single, “80s Baby,” along with two additional new tracks: “Boys in the Band (Boy Band Anthem),” and “The Way.”

Their broad appeal is helping the New Kids fill up many of the same venues that they sold out in their teens and 20s — the good fortune of which is not lost on Knight-Rodriguez and his band mates.

“We’ve had such a great career, and to still be here 30 years later and playing arenas is something really special.”

The Mixtape Tour lands in Columbus on Saturday night at the Schottenstein Center. Knight-Rodriguez and I spent some time discussing the band’s lengthy career and what has kept them moving onward and upward in a changing musical landscape.

Hangin’ Tough changed absolutely everything for the five of you. What do you remember most about making that record? And what about once it gained momentum and began to ignite?

“Just the whole process of making an album back then, compared to now, was so different. You know, we all had to be present in the same room when we were recording. Now, somebody could be on the east coast, west coast – somebody could be in a hotel room on vacation and sing some lines and get them sent over to whoever’s producing it, and you can put it all together. That’s a big difference.

It’s hard to believe that it was thirty years ago. We were just little kids. So, you know, being young and recording the album, having a record label, being in stores and on billboards and all that stuff – it was just an amazing experience.”

I was in high school when the tour that followed Step by Step stopped in Winnipeg, and I remember so many of my classmates who went to the show were just reduced to rubble the next day because of the experience. It was the first time I’d seen people react to a band with such vivid emotion, and I can’t imagine how it must have felt to be on the receiving end of that. How did you protect yourselves from that level of mania and stay grounded? 

“[laughs] You know, that’s funny because we actually talk about that all the time — how did we not end up addicted to drugs, or in trouble, or in jail, or stuff like that. It was just so much craziness around us. But, I think we were just brought up by really strict parents. And, we had each other, we had to answer to each other. If someone was getting out of line, they’d get pulled aside and told, ‘Listen, you can’t do that. You’re gonna screw everything up for everybody!’ The madness back then was crazy — we were touring 364 days out of the year.

And, even when we came home off tour and tried to take a break, it was just…there really was no break for us. Everywhere we went — airports, restaurants — people would recognize you. So, that was a hard thing to deal with. You know, but, we all made it through and came out unscathed.”

I imagine touring now must be a much more…maybe ‘pleasant’ isn’t the right word, but certainly the immense pressure that used to come with touring while you’re trying to fulfill an obligation to ‘make it’ is probably off your shoulders at this point. 

“Yeah, exactly. There’s not 300 people hanging out in front of our hotel, and we can’t leave. You know, the fans have grown up, as well. Even us walking through the audience in a 15,000-seat arena — everybody’s not rushing out to grab us or rip out hair out. So, yeah, it’s definitely a lot more enjoyable this time around.”

You and Jordan grew up in a musical household. How did that contribute to your coming-of-age as musicians and performers?

“My dad’s a minister, so we always sang in the church choir. And, actually, the four New Kids besides Joe all went to a performing arts elementary school — so, we had school chorus and all of that. It was just…music was just always around. If it wasn’t my big sisters blasting Elton John, Journey, or, you know, all those great acts…it was just constantly around us, and just something we really enjoyed.”

And do you have any go-tos in your own music collection that you return to when you need fulfillment outside of what you create with the band?

“Ooh, that’s a tough one. I listen to every kind of music. You know, thank goodness for satellite radio. One day I’ll have on some heavy metal, the next day it’ll be some dance/electronica, and then 90s pop. All kinds. As long as there’s noise in the background, it’s good [laughs].”

What would you say is most misunderstood about New Kids on the Block and your lived experience as a collective?

“Goodness. You got me. You know, I think a lot of people think…I don’t know. You’ve got me stumped on that one…”

Well, let me ask this instead: what do you hope people say or remember most about your work as a band?

“I mean, good memories and happiness. I know in meet-and-greets now, we hear stories from fans about when they were younger and they were going through troubles that we were a joy to them. They were able to put on our music and get through hard times. I think that’s the biggest thing I’m proud of. Music brings joy, and we were able to bring joy to people’s hearts.”

Now that you each have an extra 30 years of life experience accumulated since Hangin’ Tough, I’m curious what your backstage and tour bus conversations are like now compared to when you were on the road in 1989? I’m guessing they’re a bit different.  

“[laughs] Yeah, conversations in our dressing room are a lot different. I would say the biggest thing we talk about now is politics and world things. You know, when you’re 20 — there are so many things you just don’t think about or care about. Now, it’s really cool to have conversations about stuff like that — grown-up stuff like parenting, sports talk, political stuff…”

You mentioned how much the music industry has changed over the years. What’s something you’ve seen progress or happen within it that you never thought you’d see when you were younger?

“There are so many record companies going out of business, and that you can make a record and not be signed to a major label and still get exposure. Social media has given so many young artists a platform to just do their own thing and not really have a company behind them. Radio stations and stuff that are all closing down. Everything’s streaming now. Everything’s changed — even in the last 10 years that we’ve been back. So many things are done differently than how they were done back in the day.”

You give a lot of praise to your fans for their dedication to your music. I’m sure you’re also seeing newer generations of listeners who are now just discovering who you are for the first time.

“We’re seeing a lot of our fans bring their daughters, and they’re as young as, you know, 10. So, that’s been pretty cool. It’s funny to me, too, because here we are — 50-year-old guys — and we have teenagers coming to our show and they know all the words to our songs and they sing along with their moms. I know if I were 12 and I went to a 50-year-old’s concert, I’d probably look at my mother, like, ‘Who are these old dudes?!’ [laughs] It’s pretty cool.”

New Kids on the Block’s “The Mixtape Tour,” featuring guests Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, Naughty by Nature, and Salt-N-Pepa, stops at the Schottenstein Center on Saturday, June 22. Available tickets are $26.95-$146.95, plus applicable taxes and fees, and are available via Ticketmaster. Learn more about New Kids on the Block via their official website, or follow them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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