During the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, director Aaron Kunkel and fomer N’SYNC singer Lance Bass spoke to Solzy at the Movies about The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story.
How honored are you to premiere The Boy Band Con at SXSW?
Lance Bass: So honored. I’ve always been obsessed with this festival. I’ve never been able to come to it because I told myself I will never go to SXSW until I have a film there. So I am super excited to be here because it’s the perfect mixture of film and music and that is my life.
Aaron Kunkel: And on top of that, it’s one of the best film festivals in the world. So it’s a huge honor just to even be invited to be here.
Lance Bass: It gives you a cool factor.
Aaron Kunkel: And Austin is awesome.
What led you to decide to tell Lou’s story?
Lance Bass: Well is a story I knew I always wanted to tell because as a young entertainer. I started at 16. I wanted to give a good cautionary tale to any younger performer and their families on what to look out for when you start in this business. There’s so many layers to this story. I just thought it was intriguing especially all the stuff I didn’t know from his childhood to the Ponzi scheme. I didn’t know all the true details of that so uncovering all of that and listening to the victims stories was just really, really intriguing.
Aaron Kunkel: I think it was really on my side, Matt Ducey—our producer—has been fascinated by this and he’s who got me really fascinated in it. And then from talking to Lance, it’s awesome just to hear Lance talk about how much he really wanted this story to be told the right way for the first time because it just hasn’t been and it’s never been told by the guys who actually lived it by the people who were there. So all of that was really inspiring to get you really into the story and make you want to be the ones that told the story the right way. Hopefully, we did that.
Both Backstreet Boys and N’Sync were among the bands to capitalize on New Kids on the Block and the boy band craze. Lou tried his hand at putting other groups together but didn’t have the same success. Why do you think this is?
Lance Bass: So many record labels have tried doing the boy band thing. When we first started, there was no such word as boy band. There was no, Okay, we’re gonna be this. New Kids On The Block, Boyz II Men as yet. Those were the ones that influenced us so we thought we were gonna be an acapella RB band. That’s all that we thought it could possibly be and maybe get hired by Disney. I don’t know. But we didn’t really dream as big as it would actually get. But after we formed—and we put ourselves together. There was no audition process. I think that’s what made it very authentic and I think that’s why we lasted so long. Same thing with Backstreet Boys. Some were family members. They all kind of knew each other in some way. After that, it became a cookie cutter type situation whereas this machine that was just pumping out bands and you can’t force people to like each other. You’re like, “Oh, you’re a great singer. Oh, you’re a great singer. Guess what? You’re a band.” Well, they might not want to travel on the road for the next 10 years together. So I think that’s what made us very authentic. We all lived together for a year before being at a record deal. So by the time we got a record deal, we knew we loved each other and that we could actually stand each other and that we’ll make a band go a lot longer.
Aaron Kunkel: I think there’s a lot of ebb and flow in the music industry, too, where there’s Motown back in the day and then that kind of went away and then it kind of came back with you guys. It went away and then there was One Direction. So I think at all it’s kind of an ebb and flow in the music industry, too.
While Justin Timberlake’s career has skyrocketed on the heels of N’SYNC’s success, could boy bands succeed in the same way some 20 years later?
Lance Bass: Oh, definitely. I’ve been waiting for that band. Like I said before, a lot of record labels they don’t understand how to get an authentic band together. They just think five good lead singers and they’re going to love each other. It just doesn’t work that way. So yeah, I think there is gonna be sometime very soon an amazing band that just blows everyone’s socks off and at this point in age, all those kids—they were raised watching American Idol and X Factor. We didn’t have that inspiration on television. We had Star Search and that was it. But now, these kids have been grooming themselves since they were 1 years old to be so talented so the talent is just insane these days. And I know there’s going to be a group that comes together naturally that is the best dancers, the best singers, their harmonies—it’s gonna be incredible but that will be around the corner.
Lance, at one point in your career did you start to hear about Lou’s dark side?
Lance Bass: Well I didn’t really. I’ve always heard stories of Lou because he would always—y ou could tell he was lying about different things. It wasn’t even big lies. It was little lies. Like why are you even lying about that? So I always knew that he was an embellisher but I just thought that was just his little quirky thing. I didn’t realize that he was a scam artist until we sat in a room with him and his lawyer and just asked to renegotiate our contracts since we’ve had a very successful album. We’ve had two albums that sold millions. We’ve had #1 tours. We’ve made him a lot of money and we were still in debt to him so we needed to renegotiate just so that we could start paying him back. And he just said no—flat out this is not happening. And that’s when I realized, Oh, we aren’t family. Because anyone that loved you would have been like “Yeah, let’s work this out. Y’all have been working your asses off for three years.” But he was just so cold like it just went cold. That was the last time I spoke to him was in that room went from Papa Lou, best friends—I lived at his house at one time—to you’re dead to me.
Other than the 1999 legal battle, could you ever predict what was to come ahead with regards to Lou?
Lance Bass: No, nothing. I didn’t know how bad it was going to get. In our minds, we knew if we went to court that it would be the end of us. We knew out of sight, out of mind. We knew that lawyers would have us held up in court for years if you wanted to as long as you kept paying them. Lou owned the name of the group so we weren’t able to use our name. So we were really contemplating, All right, do we start over as The Artists formerly known as N’Sync? We were literally like thinking about that—starting own label because our record label didn’t believe us. RCA was like, “Nope, we’re siding with Lou.” So we were free agents for a bit there and it scared the crap out of us because we didn’t think that anyone would care enough. And we knew the industry would definitely back Lou over us. And in fact, we saw that in the room because we tried mediating with Strauss Zelnick, the boss of BMG. Strauss sat in a room with just us and Lou and said if he goes, “You boys might have one album in you. I’m going to side with Lou.” And that was it.
Did you ever find it fishy how a guy who owns aviation companies was always sending you out on companies that were not owned by him?
Lance Bass: (Laughs) Yeah. There was a lot of confusing things.
Aaron Kunkel: When Joe said that in the doc, that was the hardest you laughed the first time you watched the rough cut.
Lance Bass: Oh G-d, yeah. It was interesting because it made sense to me because he owned this blimp business and an airline, which was not an airline now that we know that. But it made sense that he was like, “Yeah, I flew the New Kids on the Block on a plane.” I couldn’t believe that these kids had this much money to do a private jet so I need to get in that business. So it made sense that this was why he thought, “Okay, I need to get the music industry because I want to piggy back on some success like that.”
Did you ever think that the situation would lead to his going to prison?
Lance Bass: Well, I never really thought he would go to prison just because everything he did to us, he legally stole from us. I knew that he was always covered with contracts. I didn’t know in depth what was going on with the Ponzi scheme. None of us knew that. Until that came out, I didn’t think there was even a reason for him to be arrested or put in jail. But very quickly, once we found out how horrible of a Ponzi scheme he enacted, he needed to go away.
Is there a chance that N’SYNC reunites?
Lance Bass: I mean there’s always a chance but I don’t think anytime soon. That is for sure. It was fun. I felt like there was our college days. We all grew up on the road together, learned a lot about ourselves, and I have to say in some way kind of got burnt out. We did so many years together where we didn’t have one day off. I think they purposely did that. I think Lou and our management just made sure that we never had much time to reflect on what was going on because I think if we did, we would start saying things like, “Wait, no, maybe we need a week break so we can actually like sleep and take care of ourselves” and then maybe now that we’re talking like, “Wait, did Lou say that to you? No, he told us—”. We’d start figuring out things. As long as they kept us busy, we couldn’t complain and figure things out.
Do you ever stop and think about what your career would look like had the Backstreet Boys not backed out of that Disney performance?
Lance Bass: Yeah. (Laughs) Who knows. It definitely helps our career, I have to say. You physically saw the difference a week after that started airing. Our singles and our album just started blowing up on the charts. That just led to more people wanting to hear us. It was just that perfect moment in time. So we were very lucky that they turned it down. It’s funny because we keep hearing other stories about how that all went down. I thought it was like, Oh my G-d, how embarrassing, y’all turned that down and we took it but actually they had a Nickelodeon deal so I think there was a part where they couldn’t even really do it.
Aaron Kunkel: Technically they weren’t even allowed to dance in the special, which we found out two weeks ago. (This interview took place on Tuesday, March 12, 2019.)
What was the most fascinating thing you learned while making this documentary?
Lance Bass: There’s a lot of things that were just jaw dropping to me but I think the fascinating thing for me was looking back at his childhood and seeing this little kid have to create this whole world because no one liked him. I think everyone can relate to that of just wanting to be liked. You have empathy for this kid that had to create this whole life just because he wanted people to like him and it just kind of snowballed into something bigger and bigger and just made him become a scam artist.
Aaron Kunkel: I think for me it was just the sheer amount of lies in this story that he was lying literally from when he was a child up until the day he died. It’s the magnitude and how many lies he would tell to the point where it’s hard for people to recount what actually happened back then because so many people at different so many different recollections of things because Lou had been lying to them and it had tainted how they even remembered the same situation.
Lance Bass: I mean he lied so much. He would double-down, triple-down on lies that so many people would just believe it because when you hear those lies that many times—you hear today like so many people just repeat a lie, repeat a lie, and then all of sudden people believe it. He was the master of that.