The Big Time Rush boys called it. Sitting backstage at New York’s Madison Square Garden – where, in a few hours, they’d perform for the first time, in front of a sold-out crowd – Carlos PenaVega, James Maslow, Kendall Schmidt and Logan Henderson squeeze together on one sofa and chuckle that, in spite of all the time-tested, ultra catchy pop songs they plan on playing that night, it’ll be one called “The Giant Turd Song” that gets their audience the most excited.
“Just like any artist who’s had massive hits, you always have to play that hit song,” says 32-year-old James.
“And ours is about the turd!” Kendall, 31, chimes in with a grin.
It is indeed. Cut to the midway point of their two-hour show – the sixth so far of their summer Forever Tour – when they start singing over Carlos’ ukulele: “Oh you’re such a turd, oh yeah, a giant turd.” The crowd, a gender-mixed group of mostly twenty-somethings, are suddenly pre-teens again, cheering like it’s The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.
Like most of the songs on BTR’s setlist tonight, “Turd Song” was released as part of Nickelodeon’s Big Time Rush TV show, on which the guys got their start in 2009 playing four Minnesotan teenagers who serendipitously score a record deal, move to Hollywood and form a world famous boy band. Their real life success quickly echoed that of their characters; between 2009 and 2014, they released three Billboard 200 top 20 albums, landed four singles in the Hot 100, embarked on five headlining tours and filmed four seasons of Big Time Rush before everyone involved agreed to end the show.
From their flirty, highest-charting hit “Boyfriend” to their old show’s instantly recognizable theme song, the guys are strictly playing oldie after oldie. The only exceptions are four new tracks all released in the past year, and one unreleased Spanglish project titled “Dale Pa Ya” – during which they bring out its producer Maffio, a three-time Latin Grammy winning producer who’s worked with Latin music superstars Farruko and Nicky Jam.
For their fan-favorite “Worldwide,” in which the boys lament the struggles of rock star life on the road keeping them away from their sweethearts, they bring four swooning girls from the audience onstage and serenade them directly. During the encore, they each take off their shirts and drink in the subsequent applause. Reminiscent of the pop music machine that once marketed Justin Bieber or One Direction with similar tactics to swarms of teenagers, the Garden is ablaze with nearly painful shrieks from start to finish.
But while tonight’s show may feel like it never stopped being 2012, almost a decade has passed since Big Time Rush last toured through arena stages like this one. This time, though, it wasn’t a major record label or a mammoth TV network that put them here.
Now, they’re here on their terms – and they’re aiming bigger than ever before. “We are outrageously exceeding every bar that we set for ourselves – and any expectations that anyone else might have,” Kendall says with bittersweet triumph.
“We’re blowing them all away.”
A week after the MSG show, Logan, James, Carlos and Kendall are delighted to hear that one girl came wearing a bald cap, painted-on facial hair and yellow-tinted sunglasses to cosplay Gustavo Rocque, the boys’ 40-ish, chronically infuriated manager played by Stephen Kramer Glickman on the TV show. Carlos, 32, jokes that, “If I had my helmet with me – it’s at home,” he’d gladly put on his old character’s trademark accessory and laugh about it onstage with fans.
They are painstakingly self-aware — even between all of the slapstick gimmicks and pubescent humor forever part of their early branding — that they wouldn’t have the same Madison Square-sized doors currently open to them had they not long ago been handpicked from a nationwide casting call in the late 2000s for roles wanted by thousands of other aspiring young entertainers.
It took about two years for Nickelodeon to cast James as the vapid but loveable James Diamond, Carlos as the hyper adventurous, intellectually-lacking Carlos Garcia and Logan as the group’s brains, Logan Mitchell. Kendall was the last to be added; in fact, the other three filmed an entire pilot episode with a completely different actor playing their team leader.
At the last minute – in an effort to get the lineup for their The Monkees-reminiscent show, which would inevitably run in unspoken competition with similarly-premised programs like Disney’s blockbuster Hannah Montana and Jonas, exactly perfect – the network swapped in the Kansas native to create Kendall Knight. With their roster set, the foursome set the standard for groups of young male heartthrobs in pop-rock at the turn of the ’10s, a couple years before One Direction and The Wanted started topping the Billboard charts.
“That show, in my opinion, brought back the boy band,” Carlos says. “We were so fortunate to be able to do that. I’m so thankful to Nickelodeon for the opportunity, because we would not be here without them.”
If there was a time when Big Time Rush did resent their roots, it was toward the end of their first run as a band. They’d spent every weekday for years filming and pumping out songs written by other people; meanwhile, their weekends were devoted to performing live. The schedule became so unsustainable, all four were ultimately ready to set the band aside indefinitely after finishing one last round of North and South American tour shows in early 2014, a few months after the TV show’s fourth and final season ended.
“We didn’t have a day off for years,” James reveals.
“We were burnt out,” Carlos agrees. “It was brutal.”
Before that, though, they’d never performed onstage as their characters: They were only ever themselves. Moments from their real lives then started popping up in their show scripts — “Maybe [the writers] were running out of ideas,” quips Kendall – and gradually, the boys were allowed to help write some of their songs.
“They couldn’t really stop us,” Logan, also 32, shrugs. “At a certain point, they knew that the music we were turning in was – .”
“Better,” Kendall cuts in.
“Sometimes they would let us come in and like our music and writing,” clarifies James. “Other times they were like, ‘That’s adorable, no thanks.’”
As the show’s four seasons progressed – each bringing more success and more overlap between their fictional personas and their real, 22-year-old selves – the guys began envisioning a much broader potential for themselves than the showrunners did. “We didn’t just want to be hired actors,” Carlos says. “We became Big Time Rush… and obviously, tensions will arise.”
Without getting into specifics, the four of them laugh about “that one time” they were almost fired over such tensions, while Kendall reveals he was nearly axed “several times.”
“Every time there was something important, good or bad, we usually had dinner with Sony at Quality Meats,” he laughs, presumably referencing the famously pricey steakhouse in New York City. “We knew if we were going to Quality Meats, it was either really good or really bad. But the meal was always good.”
“Which, by the way, I guarantee they added to our bill,” throws out James. “I guarantee we were paying for it.”
Their relationship with Nick and Sony could definitely be complicated – “Isn’t that all of the music industry, though?” Logan points out – but hindsight has allowed the guys to realize that not even two of the world’s biggest entertainment companies could have prepared for the band’s level of real world success.
“It became such a monster of a brand and a company that I think they started to get a little scared at a point,” says James. “Without saying anything disparaging, [Nickelodeon] definitely did some things that were less than appreciated to threaten us to keep us in line.” (Nickelodeon did not respond to Billboard‘s requests for comment.)
“We’ve also always had such big dreams for this band,” Logan adds. “We really saw this as a legacy band and wanted to keep it going, so I think they didn’t even know how to handle it.”
Kendall just shrugs. “To be fair, they also spent a lot of money on it.”
“Hey,” Carlos counters. “We also made them a ton of money.”
The endurance of “Turd Song” wasn’t the only thing about their comeback that Big Time Rush predicted correctly.
The group felt certain in 2020 that their fans were all still out there waiting for them to make their return – which they’d always planned on doing, once all four agreed it was the right time. When they tested the waters with a remotely recorded acoustic performance of “Worldwide,” their catalog streams surged upwards of 10 million just that year.
They also bet on their ability to finally write their own music and independently release four songs – 2021’s “Call It Like I See It” and 2022’s “Not Giving You Up,” “Fall” and “Honey.” All were received so well by fans, the band is now working on finishing up two EPs, one of which will be fully bilingual and also produced by Maffio.
And when it came time to try performing again, they didn’t listen when an agent they used to work with (emphasis on “used to”) advised them not to book their two comeback shows in December 2021 because not enough people were predicted to buy tickets. “Guess what?” boasts James. “They sold out in three minutes.”
“We’ve always been really good at following our instincts and doing what feels natural to us,” Logan explains. “That’s always served us really well.”
“There were definitely a couple handfuls of people who didn’t believe in us,” adds Carlos. “It’s so cool to be on this side, selling out all these venues left and right – we were right!”
It was that same confidence that benefitted them during two years of negotiations with Nickelodeon and their former label, Sony, when they initiated their comeback about two years ago. In an industry famous for rigid contracts often used strategically to give artists the short end of the stick, Big Time Rush was able to walk away from the table with very little opposition from either company.
“You don’t know if you don’t ask,” Kendall says of the process. “Basically there wasn’t really any pushback. Almost none.”
The specifics of their deal with the entertainment behemoths is cloaked in confidentiality agreements, but clearly, the band is allowed to continue making music under the name Big Time Rush, while also performing old songs at concerts. Manager Jared Paul, who led the negotiations process, says there are some built in “checks and balances” to ensure the band will “do right by the brand,” but that Nick hasn’t stopped them from doing anything they’ve wanted to do so far.
“We had a very frank conversation – ‘Does everybody believe we can do this without Nickelodeon, without Sony, without help?’” James recalls. “We all said ‘Yeah, absolutely. Then we said, ‘Do we think it would be more powerful and more productive if we could use the name and the brand?’ The consensus again was, ‘Yeah of course – but we don’t need it.’”
“There was no option, we were going to move forward,” he continues, confirming that their former network accepted their request to take over the brand and declined any further involvement. “It’s very powerful when you believe in yourself that much.”
The band stresses they have a friendly, supportive working partnership with their old bosses — but they also think even Nick was curious to see how it would play out if one of their creations tried to find success without their backing.
“We got very lucky,” Carlos says. “I don’t think [Nickelodeon] will ever do that again – only because, look at the success we’ve had [since going solo]. How could anybody know?”
With no Sony and no Nickelodeon, Big Time Rush is its own creative director, merch team and everything in between. In place of a label, their music can be traced back to an LLC cleverly named Bought the Rights, and as a nod to the pressures of their old nonstop schedule, their self-owned touring company is lovingly called Day Off Touring.
They coordinate almost everything amongst themselves, in group chats dedicated to each branch of the BTR business, and joke about how they must annoy their team with their attention to detail and insistence on getting everything exactly perfect. It’s the unadulterated creative control they’ve always craved – and they’re enjoying every wonderful, stressful part of it.
“I don’t think any of us are capable of not being 100% involved,” says Kendall. “We were also doing that before, it just wasn’t interpreted the same way. Now we can see our impact on it.”
“It was one of the blessings of taking several years off – everybody got the chance to develop their own skills and life experiences,” James adds. “We’re coming back this time around a little bit older but I like to think a little bit wiser.”
“And still damn good looking,” cracks Logan.
With “Dale Pa Ya” out Aug. 19, two EPs in the works, and an album somewhere on the horizon, the band is pushing out new music so fast, they’re constantly playing catchup with themselves. And after the Forever Tour concludes Aug. 20, they have their eyes set on even more expansive projects, which will find them back in the negotiation room with Nick and/or Sony.
But whatever it is they do next, Carlos, James, Kendall and Logan plan to continue beating the odds while doing everything their way – and always laughing at themselves in the process.
“Obviously we had two big machines behind us, but even then, Big Time Rush was always sort of an underdog band in the music industry,” Kendall muses. “I think that was probably because of the TV show – people were confused as to whether or not we were a band, our characters, whatever. But now I think we’ve established ourselves as the artists we always knew we were.”
Then, he dives headfirst into a big time pun: “You could say we’re always in a big time rush!”
“You don’t have to write that,” groans Logan.
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