Kevin Richardson — Interview With A Backstreet Boy

Circa 2004

Actors of television and film, recording artists, sports figures, stars of reality television, all are thrust into the limelight. For some it is a fleeting 15 minutes, for others a lifetime. The ways they respond to the public’s attention are as varied as the performers themselves. It is no secret that America places a very high value on celebrity, and when such a person begins to speak we tend to listen. Invariably, all who have achieved highprofile status find the opportunity to use their voices, or their images, to make a difference. For some, the causes and organizations drawing them to dedicate their time relate to very personal experiences or deeply-held passions.

Kevin Richardson, best known as the bass vocalist of the Backstreet Boys, has long been concerned about issues affecting the environment. Now he has also taken the opportunity to turn the very personal loss of his father into a chance to raise public awareness of colon cancer and the need for regular testing. ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper recently sat down with Richardson in his Los Angeles home. Together they discussed his career, his father, the importance of screening for colon cancer and the foundation he’s started to help save the environment.

Chet Cooper: Is it true you grew up in a log cabin?

Kevin Richardson: Yes. It was like one of those Lincoln Log homes that come in a kit for you to put together. In fact, our bedroom floor and a bar in the entertainment room were made from refurbished barn lumber. We had a barn that was falling down, so we tore it down the rest of the way and reused the wood. Once you plane it and put linseed oil on it, it comes right back. There is nothing like old-growth wood.

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My father worked for the Diocese of Lexington, an Episcopal church—although we weren’t Episcopalians—and he ran a summer camp in Eastern Kentucky. The camp was in the Appalachian Mountains, in the Daniel Boone National Forest. I was a hike leader and camp counselor, and my brothers and I mowed the grass, cleaned the toilets, helped out in the mess hall and participated in the camps.

It was a church camp, but all types of groups would use the facilities—children’s community groups and different religious sects. A group from Iran of the Bahai faith came there one time. They all had to leave their country because Iran was systematically killing the Bahai. There was a huge sect of them here and they came up to the camp. We had the Boy Scouts. Anybody could rent the camp, so we hosted a lot of people from all over the world.

CC: Did you have running water in the cabin?

KR: Oh yeah, absolutely. It was from a natural spring, though. My grandparents still have it. It’s the best tasting water, so sweet and full of minerals.

CC: Do you ever go back?

KR: I haven’t been to the camp since my father passed away in 1991, but I go back to Kentucky all the time. I want to live there eventually. In fact, I was just there for my brother’s 40th surprise birthday party.

CC: He didn’t know he was 40?

 KR: (laughs)

CC: How did you make the transition from living in the woods to where you are today?

KR: I just moved to Florida to seek out opportunities.

CC: Why Florida?

KR: I figured it would be a good place to start instead of New York or Los Angeles, and I wanted to get my feet wet. Florida has tons of entertainment opportunities because Walt Disney World and Universal Studios are there. There is also a lot of production that goes on. Quite a few movies are starting to film in Florida.

CC: Before moving to Florida, had you been involved in highschool theater?

KR: I did theater. I also played in bands and played football.

CC: So you already knew you had some burgeoning talent?

KR: I had been singing all my life, but I started acting in high school. I wasn’t originally taking drama, but the drama teacher asked me to audition for Bye, Bye Birdie. I did and got the lead role. Initially I was kind of scared, but once I did it I got bitten by the bug and loved it. I did Chicago on Broadway the year before last. That was a great opportunity and I had a blast.

CC: You’ve been singing your entire life; do others in your family sing?

KR: My grandfather was in a barbershop quartet and my grandmother was in a gospel quartet with her sisters. My mom sang in high school choir and so did my father. I sang in church choir all my life, through elementary school, junior high and high school. I started playing in the band and learned to play piano by ear.

CC: By ear? Did that hurt?

KR: Yeah. Sometimes it did. (laughs) At Christmas our house is like a Donnie and Marie Christmas Special.

CC: Have you seen Donnie and Marie in concert?

KR: It was the first concert I ever went to. At the time my cousin was the only one who could drive and he took me and my brothers. From where we were standing in the nosebleeds you could hardly see them on the stage. Actually, my first concert was Ike and Tina Turner when my mom was nine-months pregnant with me. I felt the vibrations! It’s been in my bones ever since.

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CC: Did watching the Osmonds make you think, “That’s what I want to be doing?”

KR: I’ve always loved music, not necessarily just the Osmonds. I remember lying on the floor of the living room with headphones on when I was four or five years old, listening to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Chuck Barry, Fats Domino, Ike and Tina Turner, Donnie and Marie, Elvis Presley, Dean Martin…

CC: No kidding, Dean Martin?

KR: Yes, I loved Dean Martin. He was one of my father’s favorite singers. He was so smooth. I like him better than Frank Sinatra. But I would lie on the floor and analyze everything. I’d listen to all the strings and the background vocals on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and try to pick out the different instruments. I was fascinated. At night I would fall asleep with the radio on. Music was always a part of my life.

CC: Do you have a desire to pursue television or film?

KR: I would like to when the right opportunity presents itself. I have been taking classes and I’m familiar with stage, but I’m not as familiar with acting on camera. In musical theater you have to be very big and very animated, while film and television are more toned down. I have been reading scripts, going to auditions and looking for the right opportunities.

CC: Have there been offers?

KR: I’ve had offers, but I want to [choose a project] because I am passionate about the script or project, not for the money.

CC: What types of movies have you been pitched?

KR: They wanted to do a movie about the Backstreet Boys. I actually auditioned for Josie and the Pussycats , but I decided not to do it because I want my first film not to be connected with music, so people can see me in a different light.

Eventually, I’d also like to produce. My wife Kristin and I are developing quite a few ideas. Kristin is an actor as well and has performed on Broadway.

CC: Was your father the private type?

KR: Our father was old-school. He had a very high pain threshold, and he was a southern man who didn’t complain a lot. He was an outdoorsman, a construction worker, a fireman. His last job was as a manager of The Cathedral Domain a camp in eastern Kentucky. He was the kind of guy who would cut his hand to the point he should have stitches, but just get one of those butterfly band-aids and use Neosporin and alcohol to treat it himself. He rarely went to the doctor’s office. There are a lot of people out there like him.

CC: We often become experts on an illness when it affects a close family member. How educated have you become?

KR: Working with the CC Alliance I have learned a lot of interesting facts about colon cancer. For example, colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Every four minutes someone is diagnosed, and every nine minutes someone dies. Cancer is just a horrible disease.

Seeing my father, a big, strong, burly man of 6’2” and 215 lbs., just deteriorate in a hospital bed—it was sad and unfortunate, and I don’t want anybody to have to go through that. So if people will pay attention to what I say because of our success as a group, I am going to use that.

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CC: And how are the Backstreet Boys doing?

KR: Good, thanks. We are in the studio working on our fifth studio album. The single [will be out shortly], and the album the first of the year, in January or February.

CC: I’ve heard this album will be a bit different from what the group has done in the past.

KR: We are all older. Our last release, Black and Blue, was in 2000, and we came off the road November 2001. We haven’t toured or recorded since then. At this point, we are just experimenting and exploring, trying to make music the way we always have—music that we love and we think our fans will love. We are not intentionally pushing the music one direction or another. We just want to make music that is fun to sing and perform, and if we love it then our fans will love it.

CC: Have you considered a solo career?

KR: Possibly. Brian [Littrell], who is my first cousin, is going to do a gospel album after we finish this one. He has wanted to do that for a while. I may do an album. I would like to do some more acting, on stage and on television. I really enjoy it; it is a lot of fun to take on someone else’s persona.

CC: I understand you are also passionate about the environment.

KR: Definitely. I was in a press conference when we were asked, “If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?” Because of where I was brought up, I feel I have a close connection with nature and the outdoors. I believe as human beings we are out of balance, out of synch with the earth. We can have technology, prosperity, nice homes and cars, but at the same time we must be conscious of what we are dumping into the water, the air and our food.

I truly believe the reason cancer rates and stress levels are rising is all the toxins we are absorbing through our food, air and water. We need to change soon. We need to make it a priority to just be more aware. I am not a treehugger and I don’t think mine is an extreme point of view. I feel it is logical. If you take care of your home and you take care of your car, why wouldn’t you take care of the planet? The ocean is in bad shape. I wanted to help raise awareness, so I created an environmental foundation called Just Within Reach.

CC: What is the focus of the foundation?

KR: We have been concentrating on educating the young. If we can get kids talking about conservation and doing it, they can have a great influence on their parents by lecturing them and pointing the finger. If a kid says, “Well, Mom, why aren’t we recycling?” that will have a positive effect.

We also give out scholarships and have been doing small fund raisers. It’s been a tough year because of where the economy has been since 9/11, and the current administration is not very focused on the environment.

CC: Have you been working with the schools?

KR: I did an educational video with National Geographic a year and a half ago, and it will be distributed to a few thousand schools around the country. Prior to that I testified before the Senate subcommittee addressing mountaintop removal.

CC: Mountaintop removal?

KR: In Michigan, Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia and Pennsylvania, instead of digging tunnels and mining coal through the mountains, they get about 15 heavy-machine operators and some demolitions experts, and they take down the top of the mountain and dump it into a valley. It’s called mountaintopping. All the rubble goes directly into the streams, rivers and natural springs from which thousands of people get their water. The only way to stop some of this from happening is to use the Clean Water Act, which says you can’t put pollutants into a river or stream. The current Bush administration was trying to circumvent the Clean Water Act by having the Army Corp of Engineers change the definition of valley fill.

CC: How widespread is this practice of mountaintopping?

KR: They’re ripping down the Appalachian mountain range, destroying thousands and thousands of acres. I took Bobby Kennedy Jr.—he is the head legal council for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)— on a flight over Eastern Kentucky, and when he saw it he said, “If the American people knew about this, there would be an outrage.”

I am working with a few local groups in Kentucky— Commonwealth, NRDC and the Riverkeepers—and we are trying to raise awareness about what is going on, because it’s devastating.

CC: I’m surprised we haven’t heard more about it.

KR: Coal companies have a lot of power in the media, and unfortunately a lot of information doesn’t get out. After they remove the coal, they wash off arsenic, ammonia and tons of toxins into a huge pond, which they call a slurry pond. It is actually not a pond, but rather a 20-acre lake of this sludge. One slurry pond was located over an abandoned mine, and the bottom burst and it flooded an entire community, ruining a few hundred miles of river and streams. It was twice the size of the Exxon Valdez spill, nearly 250 million gallons of sludge and slurry. People came out of their front doors and it was waist deep! That never got to major news media outlets because the energy companies shut it down. They were standing in front of the road with trucks and not letting the media in to investigate. The energy companies are very powerful.

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The coal mining industry is very destructive and it doesn’t have to be. Of course we need coal right now, and although there are plenty of alternative fuel methods to investigate, we haven’t come up with one yet. We’re not saying that you don’t need coal, but when you do mine the coal there are responsibilities to it. It may cost a little more, but it is the right thing to do.

CC: Has anybody done a documentary on this problem?

KR: I am working on that right now with the foundation. A couple of directors I’m talking to are really interested.

These are the things I think about when I am lying in bed at night. It is our responsibility to take care of what we have for future generations. This blatant disregard for future generations is just…

CC: Hard to swallow?

KR: Exactly. My truck uses compressed natural gas. I’ve driven trucks all my life—something about us Kentucky boys, we like to drive our trucks—but I haven’t owned one in a while because I didn’t want to get a big gas-guzzling SUV. There is a company called Evo, a chauffeur limousine service, and I saw the back of one of their SUVs that said, Powered by Clean Fuel. I asked, “Could I get a truck and have you guys convert it for me?” We chatted, and about a year and a half later I’ve got my own compressed natural gas truck. It is hooked to my gas line here at the house, and I fuel it right in my own driveway. My wife just got a Toyota Prius Hybrid.

CC: What is the cost of fueling your truck?

KR: Right now, because gas prices are so high, it is cheaper than gas, but as they drop it will be about the same.

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CC: So your motivation is obviously the environmental benefit as opposed to cost.

KR: Yes, because compressed natural gas is almost 98 percent clean.

CC: Unfortunately there just aren’t many vehicles on the market with the natural gas feature.

KR: Right, you have to go through special companies. I bought a GMC Yukon, which is not a very expensive automobile, and had a conversion kit put on it that cost approximately $11,000. That price tag will keep a lot of people from doing it. But if you are one of those people in the market for a Range Rover or a Hummer, buy a GMC Yukon and have it converted to natural gas. We’ve also got solar panels on the back of the house.

CC: You’re obviously passionate both about the environment and raising awareness about colon cancer. Are you working with any other causes or organizations?

KR: We recently did a concert on the Queen Mary for the Children’s Charity Foundation, and the band members help each other out with our individual causes. Howie’s sister passed away from lupus. Also, Brian had open heart surgery and he’s started the Healthy Hearts Club for Kids. AJ and I just played in a golf tournament that he had. We expect next year is going to be a good year for the entire country and the entire planet.

Kevin Richardson


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