Three years after they won the Univision singing competition La Banda in front of a studio audience in Doral, the five members of reggaeton boy band CNCO are rehearsing in a Wynwood fitness studio. It’s early January, and the group is preparing for its first U.S. headlining tour. The 11-city trek, which includes a March 1 stop at the American Airlines Arena, kicks off in less than a week, and there’s still work to be done. Boy bands aren’t exactly known for winging it during shows.
There’s a tried-and-true formula developed by predecessors such as One Direction, ‘NSync, Backstreet Boys, New Kids on the Block, and Menudo, and CNCO seems to follow it closely. These guys look like a boy band, with their loud and elaborate outfits. They perform like a boy band, staring seductively into the camera in their music videos, a move straight out of Boy Band 101. And damn if their songs aren’t catchy, with “Reggaeton Lento” and “Mamita” the most infectious.
But Christopher Velez, Erick Brian Colón, Joel Pimentel, Richard Camacho, and Zabdiel de Jesus were by no means guaranteed success after being assembled on La Banda. No other boy band had ventured into reggaeton before; they almost always veer toward the safe world of bubblegum pop. That makes CNCO the first to shimmy into the urban Latin-music genre dominated by solo artists and duos. And remember: U.S. singing competitions are good for TV ratings, but in the past decade, they’ve mostly flopped when it comes to launching singers to stardom.
Did this sad fact ever cross CNCO’s minds?
“We looked at what’s happened with other competitions,” says Camacho, wearing a sleeveless jumpsuit and what looks like a fanny pack on his chest. He does most of the talking for the group this afternoon, not that his bandmates seem to mind. “Let’s say me, for example: I auditioned for The X Factor and The Voice, so I was like, ‘How many artists come out of those shows?’ I thank God I didn’t make it [on those shows] and I made it in this band.”
Camacho isn’t the only CNCO member who could be sitting at home right now cramming for exams or waiting tables. Asked if they were reluctant to audition for La Banda, nearly all respond with a nod or “yeah.”
Pimentel says he initially had the wrong idea about the show. “My mom told me about [the auditions]… She also had told me that it was called La Banda,” he recalls. “At that time, I thought La Banda was something like música regional [Mexicana] — not that I don’t like it. I just don’t see myself doing it.” What he saw himself doing was moving to New York to study acting. But he eventually warmed up to auditioning when he learned Ricky Martin and Simon Cowell were behind the show.
De Jesus had his change of heart the night before auditions in Puerto Rico. He had figured they’d be a big waste of time and planned on skipping them. “There are so many artists,” de Jesus says in Spanish, “that you don’t think you’ll make it.”
Those auditions feel like ages (and dozens of hairstyles) ago. The guys have since released two albums, including last year’s multiplatinum CNCO, which they had a hand in writing. “If you check out the name of the album, it’s CNCO because it’s more personal,” Colón says.
They’ve also collaborated on songs with artists such as Wisin, Sean Paul, Meghan Trainor, Prince Royce, and Little Mix and collected Latin American Music Awards, Latin Billboard Awards, and Teen Choice Awards, among others. There’s no need to go into YouTube views and social media followers — you can probably imagine the eye-popping numbers.
Yet the guys can’t help but worry if fans will show up for their U.S. tour. They’ve opened for Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, and Pitbull. Now the pressure is on them as the headliners, and they’re feeling it.
“It’s our first time in the U.S. as a solo headliner, so we’re still kind of nervous,” Camacho admits. “We don’t know what to expect… and we don’t know how many people are going to come.”
The five are part of a well-oiled machine, never more apparent than when they rattle off their tour dates as if they’ve rehearsed them for days. But there’s something still oddly normal about the quintet, even if Camacho is sporting pink hair.
They exude nowhere near the same confidence in person as they do onstage; some even come off as slightly timid. Their hesitation could also be because the interview is conducted mostly in English, which Colón and de Jesus are still mastering. When their two bandmates don’t understand a question, Camacho and Pimentel whisper the translation to them, an endearing display of camaraderie.
There’s no hint of rivalries or prima donnas in the bunch. And if the group has a token bad boy, he’s on good behavior during the interview with New Times. Maybe CNCO has steered away from the boy-band formula after all.
CNCO. 8 p.m. Friday, March 1, at American Airlines Arena; 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 786-777-1000. Tickets cost $29 to $501.50 via ticketmaster.com.