Donnie Wahlberg Says Stepping Away from NKOTB 'Was Scary' but 'Time Apart Was Good for Us' (Exclusive)

New Kids on the Block took a 14-year break before reuniting for comeback album 'The Block' in 2008

<p>Austin Hargrave</p> New Kids on the Block

Austin Hargrave

New Kids on the Block's Donnie Wahlberg, Joey McIntyre, Jonathan Knight, Jordan Knight and Danny Wood
  • The New Kids on the Block went their separate ways in 1994, with all five members pursuing individual projects

  • In 2008, the band reunited and released their comeback album The Block, their first collection of new music in 14 years

  • NKOTB released Still Kids on May 17, their first full studio album in 11 years

There has always been an invisible string tying the members of New Kids on the Block together.

It wove around the then-teenagers — Danny Wood, Donnie Wahlberg, Joey McIntyre and brothers Jordan and Jonathan Knight — when they first sang together in the living room of an old brick house in 1985, and it's kept them connected as their paths diverged and intersected over the nearly 40 years since.

“We always knew that wherever we went in our lives, personally or professionally, we would always have each other,” Joey, 51, reveals to PEOPLE in the new issue, on newsstands beginning Friday. “We went through something extraordinary together, and that bonds you for life.”

Their story is one of underdog legend: five White boys from working-class Boston neighborhoods singing R&B-infused pop songs to anyone who would listen, before eventually breaking out in the late ’80s with hits like “Hangin’ Tough” and “You Got It (The Right Stuff).” They quickly became the biggest musical phenomenon in the world, selling millions of records, concert tickets and countless forms of branded merchandise — from buttons and posters to dolls and bed sheets — to their army of devoted teenage fans.

<p>John Nordell/Getty</p> New Kids on the Block's Joey McIntyre, Jordan Knight, Donnie Wahlberg, Danny Wood and Jordan Knight performing in Boston in July 1985

John Nordell/Getty

New Kids on the Block's Joey McIntyre, Jordan Knight, Donnie Wahlberg, Danny Wood and Jordan Knight performing in Boston in July 1985

Related: NKOTB's First New Album in 11 Years 'Captures the Spirit of Being a Kid,' Says Joey McIntyre (Exclusive)

“We couldn’t believe it. When we were first starting out, our dream was only to make a good song and hopefully someone would play it on the radio,” says Jonathan, 55. “Flash forward to having 50 kids in front of my house pulling grass out of my lawn.”

New Kids mania hit its zenith in 1990 as they embarked on their Magic Summer Tour, but tensions that had been quietly simmering within the band began bubbling to the surface, as they each grappled with fame, independence and growing up in the public eye.

“Things just got too big,” says Danny, 55. “We had started the band as young guys, and we were drifting apart as we were trying to find out who we were outside of the New Kids. The craziness of [fame] affected each guy differently, but I think we all felt a disconnect between the five of us.”

As their popularity and the money-making NKOTB machine grew, their lives appeared to shrink. “We were so famous that we were hiding in hotels and trying to just have a moment of peace,” says Donnie, 54. “It's hard to be a support system when you're struggling to stay afloat yourself. If we could do it all over again, I think we would turn to each other rather than away from each other.”

<p>Craig Sjodin /Disney/Getty Images</p> New Kids on the Block performing on the American Music Awards, Shrine Auditorium on Jan. 22, 1990

Craig Sjodin /Disney/Getty Images

New Kids on the Block performing on the American Music Awards, Shrine Auditorium on Jan. 22, 1990

Related: NKOTB Announce Magic Summer 2024 Tour with Paula Abdul and DJ Jazzy Jeff — See All the Dates!

By 1994, as record and ticket sales dropped and the musical landscape evolved, it was clear they were approaching a career crossroad. Jonathan had exited the band first, while the remaining four had to make a decision about their future.

"We had a meeting after the Face the Music Tour in the back of the bus. I think we all would've kept going, but we just couldn't agree on what that looked like, what the next steps for the band were," says Donnie. "I said, 'If we're not going to serve the band first, we should just step away.' And then, we voted and just agreed to step away."

Although Donnie admits "it was scary and daunting" to move on from the band where they had grown up and that made them famous, the time away turned out to be a gift. It gave them the space to pursue their own interests, start families of their own and take risks without the fear of their missteps making headlines. “I can see now that the time apart was really good for us,” he says. “We needed to find our own paths, and that rejuvenated us.”

Those paths included solo music projects for Jordan and Joey (who also appeared in Broadway productions of Wicked and Waitress), a home renovation business for Jonathan (who currently hosts HGTV's Farmhouse Fixer), an acting career for Donnie (who appeared in films like The Sixth Sense and now stars on CBS' Blue Bloods) and the launch of breast cancer charity Remember Better for Danny (who named the organization after his mother, who died from the disease in 1999).

<p>HEIDI GUTMAN/ABC/Getty Images</p> New Kids on the Block on "Good Morning America" on May 17, 2024


New Kids on the Block on "Good Morning America" on May 17, 2024

Related: NKOTB Drops '80s Nostalgia Music Video — See the Behind-the-Scenes Pics!

Despite their breakup, the friends say they were never far from each others’ minds.

“I remember I was filming a mini-series called The Path to 9/11 in Morocco, and I was sitting in a military helicopter with my feet dangling out the doorway. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen — it was just desert and mountains and it was spectacular — and I thought about the guys,” says Donnie. “I wished that they could share this moment with me. This is the type of thing we didn’t get to do. I got a little teary-eyed thinking about them, and I wished we could feel these kinds of highs together again. And then, we did.”

In 2008, New Kids reunited to record their first new music in 14 years with the comeback album The Block and, they say, it felt like the good old days again. “The magic came right back, that chemistry was right there. We didn’t even have to try,” says Jordan, 54. “It’s even better now because we’re bringing our different perspectives as fathers, husbands, businessmen and as people who have more experiences to share than living on a tour bus.”

Adds Jonathan: "When we all started talking about getting back together, all of us sat down and talked through scenarios of how this is going to work, and how we were feeling about doing this all over again. That's just a sign of maturity and how much we had grown up since the last time around. We are able to talk about and share our fears now, something we never did when we were younger." 

Those strong lines of communication were evident as they recorded their newest album, Still Kids, the band's first full studio album in 11 years. Its theme is one of joy, connection and recapturing the “fun energy of being kids again,” says Danny. “Because we really do feel like that, like we’re still those young guys giving it our all.”

Says Donnie, "When we got back together, I believed with every ounce in my being that we were going to feel [these] moments together again, that we were going to go to heights and appreciate them. It's been phenomenal, and I love that I get to experience it all with them again."

For more about the New Kids on the Block, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

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