We're bringing pop back!
Want to feel old? It's been 20 years since Steps released their disco-tastic debut - and now they're back to celebrate. And despite the two decades in between, Joe Nerssessian discovers not much has really changed
Hit nineties pop group Steps are playing a game. Lisa Scott-Lee and Claire Richards are trying to work out who the Chancellor of the Exchequer was when they formed, almost 20 years ago, in May 1997.
As they confer, a giggling Ian 'H' Watkins, sat behind the pair, slyly tickles their backs. Swatting him away, Richards correctly answers "Gordon Brown" to the delight of her bandmates, who fall about laughing after Watkins' antics are revealed.
It's just one sign of the affinity and energy retained by the group, who split so acrimoniously at the turn of the millennium, when Richards and H decided they wanted to form a duo.
Since then, of course, things have been patched up, and the band reformed in 2011 for a Sky Living series and a string of concerts. Now, more than five years on, with the exception of 39-year-old Richards, they have all celebrated their 40th birthdays, but that does little to deter their energy and positive affront.
Hauling suitcases and carrying Pret takeaway bags, they bundle into the studio where they're set to have a photo shoot. The five, completed by Lee Latchford-Evans and Faye Tozer, start swapping make-up and hairbrushes and finding plug sockets to charge their phones, giggling and breaking into song before finally taking their seats.
I catch up with them 24 hours later, after the release of Scared Of The Dark, the lead track from their first album proper in 17 years (they released a Christmas record of largely covers in 2012), and the fivesome have somehow grown even more excitable.
Taking over the corner of a restaurant in a London hotel, their manager, Adam, looking at his laptop, exclaims, "We're on Vice". The comment is greeted with startled yelps - along with an inquisitive query: "Is that good?!"
The Vice article declares Scared Of The Dark a "bombastic, ABBA-referencing pop beast that will most certainly soundtrack someone's post-divorce drinking this year", declaring it "banger of the month".
This reaction has come as a complete surprise, says Latchford-Evans, flanked by mum-of-two Richards, who arrives a little later than her band mates after completing the school run.
"We didn't know how people were going to take it," confesses Latchford-Evans. "We know fans love the old stuff, it's been proven. But the new material, we thought, 'Oh God, we're from 20 years ago, the charts have changed, how they buy it has changed, how it charts...'."
But all that doesn't seem to have mattered. The group recall leaving the BBC in Salford after an interview a day or two before, when staff members lined the glass corridors to catch a glimpse of Steps passing through.
Richards recalls: "There were loads of people asking for photos and autographs, and security told us they had never seen anything like it. They've had Bradley Cooper, Will.i.am and all these really amazing famous people in there, and they said this never happens.
"I don't actually know what is going on!" she adds, laughing.
Although they still aren't quite sure how the charts work (they repeatedly ask about the difference between streaming and buying), they take great delight in following Scared Of The Dark's climb on the iTunes Store, and admit they've been sharing positions and updates via their WhatsApp group.
They listened to the song's first play on the radio in the car together - almost 20 years to the day after they gathered to hear their debut release, the now iconic 5, 6, 7, 8.
"It felt like we had started all over again," reflects Watkins. "There were tears, and shivers and camaraderie and love, and it was so amazing. We were together for 5, 6, 7, 8 listening in a van. It feels like deja vu."
Their WhatsApp group is also what supported the band's relaunch. With all five scattered around the globe now, it meant they could all receive instructions to post the same updates from their social media accounts at the same time.
"I was in Dubai, Faye was in Mexico, H was in Wales, the other two were in London. We were all over the world waiting, pouncing with our phones pressing send," explains Scott-Lee.
"It was like, 'Thunderbirds are go!'" Watkins chips in. "It was so exciting."
Probed on why now was right for the band's third coming, the five are adamant it isn't purely a gimmicky return to mark 20 years, but that they want to "inject pop back into pop music".
"New music the key for us to have a new energy with Steps," says Tozer, "because we couldn't have asked the fans to come and see us again with just the old songs. We were so ready to give them something and I think it has breathed new life into us."
They promise the new record, Tears On The Dancefloor, despite its name, will add some colour and light relief to a "grey world".
"I think the world needs a bit of light-hearted fun," says Latchford-Evans, "Steps always brought that. We've got upbeat music, we like having a great time, we just want the audience to join in with us, forget their worries for a while and just have a bit fun, and that's what we want to bring back."
And the album wasn't thrown together, he insists, but was two years in the making, and the band listened to around 50 tracks before settling on the final tracklist.
"We are really protective of us," explains Richards. "Protective of Steps.
"It is ours, it is our legacy and we're always very cautious about doing something that might damage that."
It's clear, behind all the jokes and buoyancy, this is a group who really want this comeback to succeed.
"Do you not think though that music, and fashion, have a 20-year cycle," Tozer reasons.
After a pause, an unsure Watkins asks: "Does that mean we'll do this again when we're 60?"
"Oh God, that scares me!" Tozer replies - but perhaps don't bet against it.
:: Tears On The Dancefloor is out on April 21 while tickets to the Steps UK tour, Party On The Dancefloor, are on sale now. Visit www.stepsofficial.co.uk