Flashback – JLS: ‘X Factor was a crash course in this industry. Zero to hero in 10 weeks’

·8 min read
From left: Marvin Humes, Oritsé Williams, Aston Merrygold and JB Gill in 2008 and 2021

Finalists on 2008’s X Factor, JLS – short for Jack the Lad Swing – are one of the show’s most successful acts. Celebrated for their R&B-infused pop and slick dance routines, the band reached No 1 with their first single, Beat Again, while their debut album won multiple Brit and Mobo awards, and went quadruple platinum. They released three more albums and a condom range, before splitting in 2013. Oritsé Williams and Aston Merrygold went on to pursue solo careers in music, Marvin Humes is thriving as a TV and radio host, while JB Gill pivoted to turkey farming in Kent. Their new album, JLS 2.0, came out on 3 December, and they complete their comeback tour on 12 December at Capital’s Jingle Bell Ball at London’s O2.

Aston Merrygold
It was Marvin’s idea to wear pastel polo shirts. We vibed it out in shorts, Converse and pulled-up socks. That first X Factor audition opened a lot of doors for JLS, fashion-wise, as it was quite forward-thinking at the time. The same thing happened later down the line with the deep V T-shirts. We were always happy to set boyband trends.

I wasn’t nervous when we auditioned. I had the mentality of: right, the door’s open, let’s run through it. When we sang our cover of If I Ever Fall in Love, I didn’t really think we’d nailed it. Is any performance ever 100% perfect? No, but we did the job.

I’m from Peterborough, but moved to London after school. I was a presenter for the CITV show the Fun Song Factory, then was going from job to job, trying to pay the bills. When Oritsé set up auditions for his new group, it looked like an incredible opportunity.

When you’re on a 30-date tour at 33, doing the same moves you did at 18, you can’t be smashing McDonald’s every day

After X Factor finished, we worked hard; if there was any gig, we were playing it. We did loads of club performances, which meant there was lots of alcohol around. At one show, I went to do a backflip and on the way down slipped on a drink someone from the audience had knocked over. I styled it out and picked up the routine, but I could have really hurt my coccyx.

In those days, I felt invincible. Now I eat clean, I stretch, I meditate. That goes for all of us – we have to make sure we are in the right space physically and mentally. When you’re on a 30-date tour at 33 years old, doing the same moves you were doing at 18, you can’t be smashing McDonald’s every day.

I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in, but it’s our friendship that makes our career so long-lasting. After 15 years, I’m pretty sure we’re a lot closer than most of the greatest bands in pop history.

Marvin Humes
We had been together for a year before this audition. X Factor was the last roll of the dice – we’d tried to make it ourselves, but nobody was interested. Doors were shut in our faces. Of course we were nervous, in front of the judges, but we knew we’d put on a good show.

When we started, Oritsé was the frontman, but the dynamics of JLS changed over the course of the show. In week four, Simon Cowell pointed at Aston and said: “This is great, but you need to be doing more as the frontman.” Some bands wouldn’t be able to handle that, some would get pissed off, but we were completely fine.

It was the era of the stereotypical boyband, very clean and sparkly. Beyond having a hit record, looks were the key thing

We all play our roles. You probably think of Aston as the frontman, but what people don’t see is that Oritsé is the founding member, and always has the great creative ideas. I’m the one who deals with management and PR reps, and JB is the legal guy, looking after the contracts and accounts. It’s not very exciting, but it makes JLS work.

As a band, we’ve matured, but the music industry has changed, too. When we first came out it was the era of the stereotypical boyband – Backstreet Boys, Boyzone, Westlife. Very clean and sparkly. Beyond having a hit record, looks were the most important thing. That doesn’t apply so much any more.

These days, we are a lot more patient and understanding of each other’s schedules, especially as parents. We’ve gone from bandmates and business partners to family. I’m sure in another 15 years nothing will have changed, but maybe our kids will be running the show. We’ll just be the dad taxis.

JB Gill
I knew people over the years who’d done X Factor, incredible singers who had only got through the early stages, so we didn’t know which way it was going to go. We weren’t dressed in the smartest outfits, but we looked identifiable as a band, and while we weren’t the best singers technically, the energy we brought was unique.

X Factor was a crash course in this industry. Zero to hero in 10 weeks. During that time we did everything that a pop star has to do. It really gave us an insight into what work was necessary and how we needed to do it.

Going into the finals, we had everything to play for, the tension was high. Then we did our homecoming gig in Croydon, which is where my family are from. It was the first time I realised just how loved we were. We shut Croydon down! I was thinking, OK, there are thousands of people blocking the roads – something is going on here.

As well as JLS, I’ve got my turkey farm. It’s a different discipline for sure – with animals you’ve always got to be there, on Christmas morning and every day in between. There’s no break. Being in JLS can be intense, too: if I go out as an individual, I always get, “Oh, that’s JB from JLS.” It can be difficult to wind down when you’re always on that assignment. But it’s never not been fun. We’ve got a genuine relationship with each other, and what you see is real.

Oritsé Williams
Before the audition, I had the flu. I tried to do my verse and all that came out was this croaky sound. I said: “Boys, I can’t sing. I’ve got no voice.” I was upset and scared, but the rest of the band said: “You can do this.” On the day, my voice came back to me. So to get singled out by Simon afterwards was a beautiful moment. My boys believed in me and I didn’t let them down.

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I threw my life into putting this band together. JLS were a manifestation of the energy I was putting into wanting to look after my mother, who has multiple sclerosis, and who I was a carer for. When I was 12, me and my brother came up with an idea: I’d become a successful musician and he would become a doctor, and we would use the money to find a cure for Mum. He graduated as a biomedical scientist, and I formed a band, but we’ve realised the best way we can support her is through love.

On X Factor, I was willing to do anything to get to the final – dressing, or having my hair done, in a certain way. I was focused. When it came to the fame side of things, though, the boys adjusted to it a lot better than I did. I struggled. From the first audition to the time I exited X Factor, I watched my mum go from walking with crutches to using a wheelchair. It was impossible for me to get lost in the fame bubble, so I felt very different from the guys.

They are still so supportive, and always have been. I’ve lived a lot in a very short space of time, and had some serious character-building experiences. But none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for my unfortunate circumstances. There are 8 billion people in this world, so it’s a miracle I found these guys. I was obsessed with making it work – and it did.

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