Busted Is Back: The British Boy Band on 'Nineties' Nostalgia & Growing Up

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Busted is back.

Formed as a boy band in the U.K. in 2000, the trio racked up four No. 1 singles in their native land before disbanding in 2005. But that wasn't the end of their story. They merged with another British group, McFly, and toured as McBusted in 2014-15. The following year, Busted was reactivated with a third studio album, Night Driver. And now there is a fourth Busted studio album, titled Half Way There, a reference to a lyric in their 2003 hit, "Year 3000." The time-traveling tune boasted that "everyone bought our seventh album" in that distant century, and now they really are half way to that mark.

The new album finds Busted teamed with video director/photographer Rankin, who shot the cover photo for Half Way There and directed the music video for the first single, "Nineties," a tribute to that decade that began almost 30 years ago.

Asked about the genesis of their fourth album, Charlie Simpson of Busted tells Billboard, "We started writing songs and experimenting with different styles during the summer of 2017. We did some sessions in Los Angeles and went to ICP studios in Brussels for a couple of weeks, but it was only when we wrote 'Nineties' that we knew we had found the sound for our new album. We got excited about bringing heavy guitars back because all we were hearing on the radio was electronic music." Simpson explains that the album title has a double meaning. There is that reference to the "Year 3000" lyric, "but it's also a play on the fact that we're not spring chickens anymore. There's a lyric on 'All My Friends' that goes, 'we're not old, but we're not as young as we used to be, halfway to obscurity, and I feel fine.'"

Simpson doesn't see the band's current ages (they are all in their 30s) as a negative. "The nice thing about being a bit older and having lots of experience under our belts is that we can make informed decisions about our band and our future. We get to control our careers. Busted in 2019 isn't actually that different from when we started out. We haven't really changed that much. We've grown up, sure, but we still have a lot of fun."

That attitude spilled over into their team-up with Rankin. "Busted is the three of us and we're all quite different characters, so on this album cover we just wanted to focus on our personalities and have some fun with it," Simpson says. "Rankin is someone who can capture an image that speaks a thousand words; his portrait work really is inimitable. We wanted to do both photos and video with him as it's important to have a consistent theme to make the most impact. In terms of the video specifically, we think pop music in general seems to take itself quite seriously at the moment, and we wanted to subvert that. We loved videos that bands like Foo Fighters and Blink-182 used to make that had a really light-hearted nature, and we literally sat in a room together talking about all our favorite TV shows for hours. Rankin is a creative genius, but he also has an incredible team around him that put everything together – the sets, the lighting, etc. – so he can focus on getting the best performances out of us. His team is like an extension of his brain, it's amazing to watch."

Billboard caught up with Rankin to inquire about his opinion on the band. "The first time I shot the guys from Busted was in 2004 for Band Aid 20. It was part of a huge charity project with Comic Relief to raise money for Sudan's troubled Darfur region. In 2004, Busted were really at the peak of their fame, dominating the pop-rock music scene in the U.K., but the lads were down to earth and easy to shoot. They were young but didn't take themselves too seriously." And what did Rankin think of Busted when they got together in 2018? "They have energy, they're full of ideas and they came to me wanting to make fun of themselves. The whole shoot was a really good laugh. It was my favorite two days on set for ages.

"We were doing a back-to-basics shoot, where everything was wide angle. It was going really well, then at the end of the day I was inspired. I've been playing around with the box concept for a few years now. Shooting people in these white boxes, it's such a great way to really explore people's personalities. Without a set or props to play around with, the subject really has to bring everything to the images. It felt like such a natural choice for the Half Way There cover as James [Bourne], Matt [Willis] and Charlie have no problem pulling faces."

As for the band's '90s nostalgia, Simpson says there's good reason to miss the decade. "The '90s was the last time it felt the world was united," Simpson explains. "When you look back at your teenage years you always remember them through rose-tinted glasses, but it genuinely feels like the '90s were a good time to be alive, before 9/11, before the Iraq war, before the financial crisis. In the U.K., the Spice Girls and Oasis were hanging out with the prime minister and Brit pop was huge. Before social media, before YouTube and Netflix, everyone used to watch the same TV shows at the same time and talk about it in school the next day. Good times! We wanted to capture that spirit in the song."

Rankin also feels nostalgic for the decade. "I started my career properly in the '90s with [the magazine] Dazed and Confused. It feels so recent to me but it's definitely enough time to feel nostalgic about something. The music, the fashion, the films and the TV of the '90s were great and deserve a comeback. The world is getting more and more corporate, and as the 'Nineties' video hopefully proves, sometimes it's nice to remember a less serious time."

And as for the "Nineties" video, Rankin says, "I really wanted this film to get back to the style of Joseph Kahn videos of the late '90s/early '00s, something fun where you don't over analyze what it's about or how it's been made. You can spot so many references in it, from Fresh Prince to Blind Date, Gladiators and even Nirvana. Ultimately the aim was to be fun, to make something that makes you feel good, in the same way the song makes you feel good. Hopefully it's memorable and you want to watch it again and again to take it all in."

"The new album is going to make people feel that they can just be themselves and forget any bullshit that's bothering them for a few precious moments," Simpson predicts. "Right at the beginning of the process we sat down with our producer Gil Norton and all agreed on the same goal – that the album had to have heart. It had to hit our fans in the chest. And we've definitely accomplished that. While 'Nineties' really sets the tone for the record, there's a song called 'Radio' which is one of the best, purest songs we've ever produced. 'All My Friends' probably has the most honest lyrics we've ever written, and 'It Happens' sums up our entire career in three minutes and is super-optimistic and emotional. If this amazing, crazy adventure can happen to us, it can happen to anyone."

Busted have an arena tour of the U.K. coming up in March. "Arenas can be a lot of fun because you get to put on a big show," Simpson tells Billboard. "You can get carried away with pyrotechnics and set designs and crazy light shows and video walls. It really adds a new dimension to a live performance. But smaller, intimate shows are all about the music, getting a vibe in the room and seeing your fans up close and personal – turning the temperature up so the whole place is hot and sweaty! We loved playing the 100 Club [in London]. We got a couple of fans on stage to sing a song, but before we knew it there was a mad stage invasion and all our equipment got trashed. There were 50 fans on stage shouting into the microphone with us and crowd surfing; it was insane! That would never happen in an arena."