No boy band ever had it easy, but imagine how it must have felt to be in O-Town the first time around. Like One Direction, they were assembled on a reality television show, MTV's 2000 series "Making the Band." They were famous before they even signed their record deal, famous for nothing at all, followed around by screaming girls, who they knew would have screamed at any five guys wearing the same suits.
Problem was, their timing was off. O-Town emerged about 18 months after the boy band explosion peaked, and about two years before it became acceptable for pop stars to live their lives on television. They released two albums, then broke up in 2004.
Sometime during their years apart, they realized they might spend the rest of their lives being known chiefly as former members of O-Town. The group had become shorthand for a certain kind of cheesy, early millennium prefab pop, and that was when anybody thought of them at all. This was unacceptable. "When people said O-Town before, there was a connotation that went along with it that was less than flattering," says band member Erik-Michael Estrada, carefully. "I felt like it was probably a misrepresentation of us collectively. So for us to have any control over that, (we had) to come back and make something we could be proud of. Because we're never going to escape it."
The members of O-Town, without member Ashley Parker Angel, reunited last year, and released the album "Lines & Circles" in August. It was their first official release in 12 years, and the first they ever had much of a hand in.
"As a kid, you're not really sure how things work," says Jacob Underwood, one of the group's four members. "You're signed to Clive Davis' (label), the next thing you know, you do your single, you do your video, and then you're on MTV and you're performing on 'TRL.' Things just happen. You're in that machine. This time, we've been doing this for 14 months. We did our single and our video ourselves. It's so much more fulfilling, because we did the work. We made the phone calls."
In its earliest days, O-Town had every advantage. The group was overseen by Davis and Lou Pearlman, who then also managed fellow boy bands the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync. (Pearlman was later convicted of money laundering and conspiracy, and is currently in federal prison.) They had one hit single, the dirtier-than-it-sounds "Liquid Dreams," and a debut album ("O-Town," 2001) that went platinum.
But they never made it out of the boy band second tier, then populated by bands like LFO and Dream Street. "We were lucky, because we did have the television show," recalls Trevor Penick, in a phone interview with his bandmates. "The market was already saturated with so many boy bands. But at the same time, it was, 'Oh, they're manufactured. They have no talent.' It was a double-edged sword."
O-Town's role in "Making the Band" lasted for three seasons (it would continue with other artists). "People would run away from us when we had the cameras," Underwood recalls. "Everyone was like, 'I'm not going on TV.' Literally, we'd walk into the (record label), and all the executives would run into their office and hide. Now everyone wants to be on TV."
After being dropped by its label following disappointing sales of the quartet's sophomore disc, O-Town disbanded. The members kept in contact over the years, worked on solo projects and spoke vaguely of reuniting, though nothing happened until 2013. According to Penick, the existence of O-Town 2.0 has nothing to do with the successful reunions of peers like the Backstreet Boys, or with any desire to retroactively improve their standing in the boy band history books. "You never want to try to prove yourself to the people out there, because you're fighting a losing battle. It's more about doing it for ourselves. ... We had a good thing going with O-Town, but we never had a chance to see what we could do unhindered by the machine."
O-Town reunited without Parker, who had a fitfully successful recording and reality TV career of his own after the band broke up. Parker contacted the group after the release of their post-reunion single "Skydive," but has otherwise stayed away. "I probably would've been surprised if he'd said he wanted to do it," says Estrada. "He tends to want to just roll alone, which is fine. I tend to treat this project with a different approach. As much as it's us coming together to do our music because we love to do it, we know that together we mean a lot more to our fans than separately."
The reunion has so far gone better than anyone expected, perhaps in part because O-Town, which is mostly playing clubs on their current tour, is more accessible than most acts from the Big Era of Boy Bands. "So far, it's been a surprise," Underwood says. "I don't think any of us (was) expecting this reaction, being gone 10 years. It's weird, because it's back to deafening screams and then following us back to the hotel and chasing the cars. We didn't think it was going to happen again."
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Mojoes, 22 W. Cass St., Joliet
Tickets: $25-$50; 815-714-2688 or theticketrumba.com