Sometimes a business will have a sale and they will hype it up by calling it “Christmas in July.” For the members of pop-soul band 98°, that actually ended up being closer to the truth, since their newest album, a holiday-themed album called “Let it Snow,” had to be recorded this past summer in order to be ready for release in October.
Band member Justin Jeffre said in an October interview from his home in Cincinnati that it wasn’t hard for he and his bandmates to get into the holiday spirit.
“To be honest with you, I’m usually the Grinch of the group, but I really thought this was fun, and I’m really proud of the recording,” Jeffre said. “We listened to a lot of songs to decide what we wanted to do, and I think it’s got a timeless feel to it.”
Now, Jeffre and his three fellow 98° members are undertaking a holiday-style tour to promote the record. They will be playing on Nov. 18 at Silver Legacy. Jeffre said the band is going into the tour with a lot of enthusiasm as a chance to try something different.
“Our first Christmas album (“This Christmas” from 1999) was really successful and we liked recording it, so we thought it was just time to start a new Christmas project,” he said. “Now we have a lot of Christmas material where we can do an entire show. We still do play our hits, but this tour is definitely on the Christmas side of things for the most part.
“I also think it had a lot to do with the 20th anniversary happening this past summer. We were feeling a bit nostalgic almost for when we record that first Christmas album, and I know that collectively that was one of our favorites from back then. We also have some fans, including older men who aren’t really part of our demographic, who’ll say to us, ‘I’m not a fan of you guys, my daughter is, but we listen to that record every year.’”
Finding the right mix
Jeffre said one of the biggest challenges with “Let it Snow” was the material itself. They didn’t want to repeat any songs from that first big seller, so some research had to be done.
“Most of our favorites were on the first one, so we had to do some songs I wasn’t as familiar with, like Joni Mitchell’s ‘River.’ But, that’s just a beautiful song,” Jeffre said. “And then we remembered seeing Stevie Wonder do ‘What Christmas Means to Me,’ and we did that one Beach Boys song, “Little Saint Nick.’ So, they may have been songs that weren’t on our radar like the first record, but we were just wanting a good mix of songs, including some happy and uptempo ones. We didn’t just want to have a CD that was flat. We wanted to put you on a journey and we feel that we’re successful with that.”
The group’s journey began and continues with the same four members: Jeffre, brothers Nick and Drew Lachey, and Jeff Timmons. Despite their Los Angeles home base, the beginnings of 98° have a definite Ohio state twinge to them.
Timmons had moved from Ohio to L.A. in the mid-’90s to start a singing career. After several attempts to start a vocal group, he found Nick Lachey through a mutual friend. Nick Lachey, a native of Cincinnati, was still friends with a former college pal in that state, Justin Jeffre. Once Jeffre moved to L.A., the group found its final missing piece in Nick’s younger brother, Drew Lachey, an excellent singer in his own right. Drew Lachey left his work as an EMT in New York City to switch coasts for a chance to start 98°.
From there, the group started to play its own shows and try to get a break with a national artist or producer. This happened when they hired a manager connected with Boyz II Men, who placed 98° on a tour with R&B singer Montell Jordan at the height of his career. Acclaim from their opening stint on the tour lead to a record deal with Motown Records in 1997.
The old-school way
Here’s where it’s clear that 98° did things differently than some of their vocal pop peers. Throughout their career they’ve been involved in the writing and production of some of their songs, plus they were fully formed as a band before a producer or company brought them together.
“I think there’s something to be said for the old-school way of doing things,” Jeffre said. “We went through a lot and struggled hard just to get signed. I’ve never been in a group that was put together for you, so I don’t know what that’s like, but for us it just gave us more confidence. A lot of times you would hear, ‘Oh, you just dance around and you’re a manufactured band,’ but really that was not the case for us. And we’re not really good dancers, truthfully.”
Great dancing or not — and truth be told, Drew Lachey did eventually win a season of “Dancing With the Stars” — the group found its audience quickly. “Invisible Man” was the group’s first single, followed by a self-titled debut album in 1997. It reached No. 12 on the pop charts, and 98° earned their first gold record as a result. The group’s second album, “98° and Rising,” was the group’s commercial peak a year later. It featured the top 10 hits “Because of You,” “The Hardest Thing” and “I Do Cherish You,” while the album itself sold four million copies.
Following that big success, 98° released “This Christmas,” which sold a million copies upon its release in 1999. In 2000, 98° completed their fourth album “Revelation,” in which the song “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche)” went to No. 2 while a trio record with Mariah Carey and Joe, “Thank God I Found You,” made it to No. 1.
In 2003, the group took a hiatus. After a one-off show at the Mixtape Festival in 2012, the members of 98° decided to stage a comeback and released an album called “2.0” a year later. Jeffre said that the band now sings and performs better than it ever has.
“I think that we have better perspective now,” he said. “We’re able to have more fun this time around, and there’s not as much pressure. We have our catalog and we’ve built a brand that people generally know and we’ve been successful. This summer, the tour we went on was the most fun I’ve ever had, and part of that is because we’ve just grown.”