Auspop, 2nd Sept 2014
What was supposed to be the latest in our Throwback Thursday interview series has turned into what is potentially the very last interview Richard (Abz) Breen gave as a member of British boyband 5ive. Just days after Brad chatted to the singer, Abz took to his social media to succinctly declare that his time with the popular '90s boyband was over.
"As of today I am no longer a member of @Official5ive Thank you to all the fans who supported, I love you all..."
In this extensive and no-holds-barred chat, Abz gives us a glimpse into the life of a globally successful pop phenomenon, chatting candidly about being a member of 5ive, adjusting to the life of a pop idol, his solo project... even the whereabouts of Sean’s cardboard cutout.
Richard Breen, nicknamed Abz to avoid being confused with the other Richie in the band, was picked to be a member of 5ive after a Britain-wide search for the male Spice Girls. He was joined by Jason (or 'J'), Sean, Richie and Scott and together the group quickly hit the pop stratosphere with hits including ‘When The Lights Go Out’ and ‘Keep On Movin’.
Unlike many of the other pop groups at the time, 5ive co-wrote the majority of their material.
“We could write anyway, so after the first few tracks were recorded, we were like ‘we want to get involved’ because we knew that’s where you get your money. The songs that we did write turned out to be some of the singles, which was great, and from that point on it was always a 'thing'. No one wrote songs for us. Backing tracks, yeah, and a little guidance here and there, but really we kind of wrote the lyrics to all of our tracks," Abz tells us from his home in the UK.
A quick look at their album credits reveals that Abz mainly co-wrote with J and Sean, whereas Scott and Ritchie would team up to write tracks together. The reasons for that are simple and Abz pulls no punches.
“I think us three just wrote the better music to be honest," he tells us. "The other two guys would write stuff and it would come back and it was like ‘that’s a bit rubbish’, but it got put on the album anyway. That said, we never released any of their songs as singles. It was the stuff Sean, J and I did that really set what 5ive was about. I think if we had gone with the other two’s stuff, 5ive would have been a lesser band."
Interestingly enough, this interview might mark the first time Abz has ever mentioned his feelings about Scott and Ritchie's songs, as he reveals that he never told them how he felt about their songs back in the day.
“I was thinking about it, but it’s that many years ago now. But to bring it up and say, ‘Rich, Scott, I thought the songs that you wrote were shit, so that’s why they’re doing our stuff’. How would you say something like that to somebody?”
As soon as the band started recording material, Abz seemed to get a lot of solos from producers and, as history shows, favouritism by producers usually provides a source of friction.
"There’s been a lot of that ‘why is it always Abz getting shit?’ Who knows man, it would just fall in my lap rather than fighting for it. See I’m a believer in that when you fight for something and you want something so bad, you’re denying that you already have it. To know something and to want something denies that you already have it. I had that mindset that ‘it is what it is’ and that for me to start chasing something is only going to push it away. I didn’t care either way, I was happy to be where I was.”
Whilst many bands and artists are quick to tell of the long, hard journey to success, 5ive seemed to find theirs pretty quickly.
“It kind of happened overnight," Abz tells us. "All of a sudden we were in the paper and on 'The Box'. People are always looking for fresh meat and I think we were there at the right place, right time. Don’t get me wrong, we were good. We definitely rehearsed. But I think there was a bit of luck as well. Plus, when you’ve got someone like Simon Cowell pulling the strings behind the scenes, you’re gonna do alright. He had the contacts.”
We couldn’t help but wonder what 'American Idol'/'X Factor' UK’s 'Mr.Nasty' was like before he found his own success.
“He was a major part of it," Abz reveals. "He was our A&R, but he was almost like our manager. You’d leave his office feeling like god, like 'yes, I can take on the world'."
That said, they didn’t always see eye to eye on Simon’s vision for the band, particularly in their choice of outfits.
“Firstly, we had a stylist and we kind of went along with things but then the outfits started getting stupid, like silver and reflective (such as in the ‘Got The Feeling’ video) and I was all about my neon colours, so if there was a big pair of orange trousers, I would want them.
"That would start war with the stylists, record company and management. They'd get on the phone and it would be an hour before any of us were dressed. When the band split up, there was nothing I could wear! It was all fucking ridiculous bits. I had to buy everything all over again."
And to raise some much needed funds to invest in a new wardrobe - and to clear a little space for it, Abz admits he even took to eBay.
“I tried to! At one point, I had this ‘We Will Rock You’ denim thing with all these studs on it and I tried to sell it on eBay, but no one wanted it. That was probably about three years ago when I was broke and I was going through some of my shit. I nearly sold my BRIT Award”
Thankfully, he came to his senses and the BRIT remains in his home. That said, its purpose in Chez Abz is perhaps a little unorthodox.
“I thought, 'let me hang onto it for a little bit longer’ because its useful to hold the door open at the moment. So I’m keeping it for that!"
There were a lot of myths surrounding 5ive that we couldn’t help but ask about. Like... were they really that difficult to work with?
“If we turned up, and we were having a bad day, you’d know about it because we wouldn’t hide it," Abz admits. "That would spread around the industry, so then journalists would turn up with a preconceived idea that we were going to be hard work. Sometimes we wouldn’t be, we’d be great and they’d love us, and then other times we’d live up to it. That was all it was, just a mishmash of how we were on the day.
"But sometimes, like with 98 Degrees, they were walking around like all Hulk Hogan and shit and we just kind of thought, ‘what’s that about?’, because we considered ourselves very 'from the block'. Anyone that we felt was going on a bit 'superstar', we’d bring him or her back down to earth."
At the height of their fame, 5ive were rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in pop music. Sadly, some of those biggest names ended up rubbing the boys up the wrong way.
“One person that springs into my mind is Britney Spears," Abz reveals. "We were presenting her with an MTV award or something like that. We were walking off the stage and she turned around and she said, ‘hey I really love your guys’ music’ and I was like ‘name one’ to her and she didn’t. I think I said to her, ‘you’re full of shit’. Oh and Christina Aguilera not letting us into a lift is another one. We were at an awards show and the lift opened and she was acting like it was her lift. So I think we spat at the lift and threw a couple of things at it.”
For those whose memories don't quite stretch back that far, 5ive really were everywhere around 1999/2000. They sold out arena tours across the world, including in Australia. Abs tells us that the schedules at the time were utterly gruelling.
“You’d wake up in the morning, your tour manager would tell you to be downstairs, you'd do an interview while you were having breakfast, you’d have ten more interviews, then a show and then you’d be travelling to somewhere else, then you landed. You’d have forgotten your name, you wouldn’t know where you were, what part of the country you were in, who these other band members were, and it ended up getting a bit weird and surreal.
"There are five years of my life that are a complete blur. When I think back on my time in 5ive, I have huge memory pockets that are just blank and void. But that’s just me. I probably was on a little bit of a wild rock and roll ride, and copious amounts of drugs and drink can do that.”
But perhaps the biggest misconception people have about popstars, he tells us, is "that it's easy".
“You see us turn up on stage, sing or mime, do a little routine, then go home a millionaire. It’s not like that. It’s quite gruelling; you get tired beyond tired.“
We couldn’t help but ask if it was really that hard to do television shows, particularly if they were taking the preferred option at the time... miming.
“You turn up way before to do a sound check even though you’re miming. Then you’re hanging about, you’re doing your interviews, you take a few pictures, you go for lunch, and you come back. You’re there all day and all night and then you fly straight after that to do another one. You just get so tired, you start fucking up the lyrics, the routines; you say things you shouldn’t be saying. It wasn't our fault. It’s the work, there was too much work.”
And, Abz admits, at a number of points within the band's lifespan, things would get really tough.
“You’d have highs where you were on top of the world and then lows like ‘forget this band, I don’t need it, I don’t want, I don’t like him, I don’t like her’ and then there’d be times like ‘I love you all’ and that’s almost traumatic. Everything’s magnified. A thousand times more pressure and more stress, but it’s also a thousand times better, because you have the finances to do stuff and you’re recognized and you’re getting spoiled.
"That’s why now, I’m at the middle ground where I don’t get too excited or too depressed about anything. I’m 35 now, you know what I’m saying, I’ve got to slow the fuck down.”
The pressure affected each of the boys differently. But it all got too much for Sean, who took some time out from the band just as they were set to promote 'Let's Dance', the first single off their third album, ‘Kingsize'. Much has been made about the cardboard cutout the band used in Sean’s place in the official video. It's since been reported he'd actually left the band, but the label didn't want the rest of the boys to know.
“I remember the record company telling us that they didn’t want us to call him or have any kind of contact, because he was not in a good place," Abz admits. "It was just 'carry on. Here’s the next show, off you go... and it’s just the four of you now. Three of you when Scott had a kid.' We had an album to promote. You can’t just stop and end it there. We did just carry on with the hope that Sean maybe was coming back."
The interesting thing about ‘cardboard-cutout-gate’ was what it said about the pop scene in general. It didn’t seem to matter that one of the group was missing. As a fellow member of the group, Abz admits that it was a bitter pill to swallow.
"Yeah. I mean it shows it for what it is. It’s a machine and if a part breaks on it, you just replace the part so that it can still churn out whatever it needs to make.”
Bizarrely, someone still has the 'cardboard Sean' somewhere.
“Someone tweeted me two and bit years ago, saying that she had the actual cardboard cutout from the video, asking what she should do with it. There were holes in it too. It’s like ‘what the hells been going on here man... That hole is too big to be a BB gun hole.’’
It’s commonly accepted that 5ive split for a couple of different reasons; Sean had a nervous breakdown and Scott’s fiancÚ gave birth to a premature child, leading to Scott understandably wanting time off to take care of his wife and newborn son.
Abz, however, was keen to keep to band going and to this day still doesn't understand why the others wanted to call it a day.
“I still don’t know why we split up in the first place. Sean came up to me recently and said, ‘you know what Abz, you were right’. It is what it is, it’s cool, let’s just carry on I guess. What are you going to do? Invent a time machine and flag it?"
We argue that, perhaps also for Abz’ sake (based on his struggles with drugs and alcohol), breaking up might, at the time, have been for the greater good. But Abz disagrees.
"If you’re gonna lose it, you might as well fully lose yourself in it, blow your brains and go for it. Why only do it half-heartedly? Why have a break for ten years then decide to do it again? To me, we should have done it once and done it properly then and then have some time off, maybe have a holiday instead of saying ‘I’m not doing this no more’. It was mad to me.”
Instead Abz was suddenly faced with the task of building his own sound as a solo artist. He was the only member of the band to get a solo deal. That, again, caused conflict between he and his (former) band mates.
“I didn’t hear from any of them at all during my solo days. No support, no love. No nothing. I didn’t know what they thought about my solo material.”
While we find 2003’s ‘Abstract Theory’ to be quite a solid debut album, we were surprised to find that we were alone in thinking so.
“To me, the album I recorded was not Abz," he reveals "I did not want to call it ‘Abstract Theory’. I didn't want to release the songs that were released. I didn’t even want to record the songs that I wrote for it!”
And beyond his dislike for the release, a simple spat subsequently caused the entire project to fall apart.
“My manager and Simon Cowell had a little falling out about something so then Simon didn’t want me any more. Then I got picked up by this other guy, but he didn’t understand me at all.
"They didn’t stop to develop me as a solo artist. They didn’t even have to do that... just ‘he was great in 5ive, let’s throw a few more little guitar rock riffs and let him do his thing’. Stick with the formula, because that’s what people know me for, rather than come out and make myself a reggae artist like they did with my first song ‘What You Got’.
"Instead it was my manager saying, ‘I want to control this, I’ve got a vision’. Man, he was high with that vision. It should’ve been me saying, ‘this is Abz now’. Instead it was other people saying, ‘this is Abz’. I didn’t like ‘Stop Sign’ and ‘Miss Perfect’. I liked ‘Roll With Me’... that was alright.
Disappointingly, Abz tells us that there’s a bunch of unreleased material from that period hiding on his computer.
“I was writing some good shit," he says. Some good pop music. I was giving them demos, saying ‘listen to this, this is going to be great’, but they refused, so I’ve got an album that should’ve been the ‘Abstract’ album that never got released and no one’s heard.”
There's nothing stopping him from releasing the album, however. And now that he's left the band indefinitely, there'd be no time like the present for him to pop it out.
“I’d do it in a sense of ‘here, it’s just sitting on my computer not doing anything. Have it and just enjoy it’. I wouldn’t want any kind of notoriety from it though. People would think, ‘oh look he’s trying to have a go at the industry’. I’m not after that and I don’t want to give that impression because that’s not who I am, but I’d do it as a little ‘have it’ kind of thing, for free. You’ve encouraged me a little bit, you’ve given me a bit of faith because I’m quite reserved."
After being dropped from his record label, Abz disappeared into a life of partying. He changed his name to Abz Love and would do the occasional reality show appearance, usually because he was broke (the money he received for appearing on ‘Celebrity Love Island’ in 2006 went straight to his bailiff).
“I was like, ‘oh shit, still not got no money but at least I’m in a penthouse I can’t afford.' No furniture. Just a PS3, a plasma and a projector, that’s all I had. No cutlery,” he laughs.
However, life eventually calmed down and he moved to the English countryside with his partner Vicki.
“I was meditating, I was talking to the chickens, the rabbits and blades of grass," Abz reveals. "I was somewhere else. I was completely broke, but I was the happiest I’ve even been.”
Just as he had finally found some peace within himself, producers of the new TV show 'The Big Reunion' came calling. The show aimed to reunite bands of the past and sought to heal old wounds before relaunching them onto the stages of Britain. Abz tells us he agreed to be part more out of necessity.
“I had to do it really because finances were what they were and I was just short of literally getting a caravan and squatting on a piece of land somewhere, so I went back in."
But the line-up wasn't quite complete.
"J was initially involved in the project,", Abz confirms. "But then in the first couple of weeks, some things got said, things got done and J decided he didn’t want to be a part of it and that for me was the biggest blow. I knew in my heart that if we wanted to come back properly as a proper band again the priority needed to be having all five of us together so that the formula is complete, instead of having one missing ingredient.
"If we were making a cake, J would be the eggs," he muses. "He’s an essential part of the ingredients and so with him missing, the cake never rose. It just kind of stayed flat and not properly cooked. There were a few raisins in it and I don’t like raisins so I had to take them out. You get what I’m trying to say with that analogy? There was no cherry icing on the top. It was just a shitty cake and that’s all it’s been since.
"But I’m grateful, because the last two years have been amazing. The fans all over the world, Australia, UK, Europe... they’ve been so supportive of us for this little two year period and they’ve made it magical for me. It’s been very tough but I think I’ve come through alright.”
Fans of The Big Reunion would be aware of some particular nasty comments Sean and Scott made about J. Abz is quick to defend his mate, and makes some very valid points about how J’s perceived dominance was an asset to the band.
“J is a lovely guy. He had his issues in the band like everyone. He was the father figure because he was older, but if it wasn’t for J, and I said this to the boys, it would have been a lesser band in some ways; the jokes, the antics, the mental state of mind.
"He would say, 'no we’re not going to America after we’ve just come back from wherever'. What J said made us listen up and we’d think, 'yeah, we could do with a week off, let’s do it’, and it was the right decision. Thank J for those days. We’d have been screwed man.
"That’s the truth of it, we were already fucked. Sean had a breakdown, everyone else was falling to pieces and that’s just that ethic of just working 24/7 all the time, not knowing when to stop. We were younger than J and he was thinking, ‘maybe, this isn’t so good’. We should give the guy thanks and at least make peace.
Though the boys for the most part made their peace throughout 'The Big Reunion', the future of 5ive looks less than rosy. As mentioned earlier in the interview, Abz revealed on Twitter less than a week ago that going forward, he's no longer a member of the band.
“You know what, we’re not as close as a lot of people think we are," he says. "I haven’t spoken to them in a month or two, since the last show. It’s not like we’re hanging out going, ‘yay, the boys are back in town.' We don’t work like that anymore. We’ve all got our own lives. We see each other at a show, say hello, do what we have to do and then we split. There’s no tight knit network. I see other bands and think, ‘man they look close, they look like they’re getting along’, but I’m sure every band’s got its little dark corners." A small comment, perhaps, but one that makes much more sense given the recent news.
The remaining three members of the band are about to go on another UK tour. But at what point are there not enough members for the band to convincingly call themselves 5ive?
“From when there are four," Abz exclaims. "5ive was five people. When you’re four, all right, make do with four. Then when it gets down to three and then two... If they had to do the opening rap of ‘Slam Dunk (Da Funk)’, it would be ‘two, what you waiting two, two, one, let's do it’. We’ve kind of got away with four, but it’s not right. Now it’s three. Call yourself 'half', you know what I’m saying? It's ridiculous, it’s getting stupid.”
Last year when the boys toured Australia, we pointed out that many of Abz’ vocals had been distributed amongst the band. He explains the reasons.
"Like I said, a lot of the singles was Sean, J and I. J’s not there, so that leaves me with the raps and I’ve also got a lot of verses on a lot of the singles, so it would be a bit of an 'Abz show'. Besides that, I aint got the fucking energy or the oxygen in my lungs to do the verse, bridge chorus and then rap," he laughs.
As our time with Abz comes to an end and as Abz' own time with 5ive also comes to an end, he looks back on what's been an incredible ride. Yes, there have been some desperately low moments throughout his career - and his life. But they've been more than counter-balanced by the number of giddying highs.
"In five years of my life, I did more than most people did in a lifetime. But now I look back on it and it’s just a memory. As hard as it was, the best time that it was, whatever it was, now it’s just a memory. And what I’m trying to do every day now is simply to create good memories, meet beautiful people and put out good vibes.”