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All Clear (Rolling Stone, 5/17/01)

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Rolling Stone
May 17, 2001
Page 56

They were sidelined for a year, but now they're back. Five By Five rockets out of the station,
full-speed ahead.

By Bridget Cornell
Photos by Greg Ryan

ORLANDO BLOOM IS DANGLING 50 FEET IN THE AIR, and on the ground, a dozen people are having quiet, contained nervous breakdowns.

A laughing Bloom tips his lean body forward, tumbling on the wires holding him suspended above the stage where international pop group Five By Five is rehearsing for their upcoming tour, and fellow Fiver Dom Monaghan buries his face in one palm so he doesn't have to watch. Sean Astin glares fixedly at the fly-rig mechanism, as if keeping Bloom airborne by sheer will. One of the bodyguards standing around shifts from foot to foot, crossing his arms over his chest, visibly uncomfortable, and EJ Wood is chewing his way through his fingernails so fast he practically has his entire hand in his mouth.

No one is comfortable with this first flight, a test of equipment and mettle, except Bloom himself - the one guy who should be the most nervous about it. The last time he was suspended on wires above the flashing lights of a stage, the group's madcap luck ran out and he came crashing down, ending up in the hospital with a broken back and the threat of a ruined career.

"There was this snap, and when I looked over, one of the wires was gone," Wood says, scrubbing his hands through his wild mop of dark hair as he relates the events of the 1999 concert when Bloom's gear gave way and dropped him to the stage below in front of thousands of horrified fans. "He was trying to get his hands up and grab the other one, but his weight pulled it loose and he just ... went down. Bam."

Doctors said he'd never walk again, and the group was dropped from its contract with BMG when they refused to replace him. They fought a bitter legal battle with their management and disappeared from the music charts for a year - an eternity in the fast-moving world of teen-focused pop.

Now, Five By Five is trying to make the same kind of comeback Bloom has.

"This is fantastic!" Bloom is mic'd, and his excited voice echoes through the empty Lakeland, Fla., coliseum where rehearsals for the summer's tour are being held. "How high can I go?"

FIVE BY FIVE already has made it to the top of the album chart, debuting at number one in March with sophomore effort Mind The Gap amid a media blitz focused mainly on Bloom's recovery and the group's determination to stay together and continue its career. Along with a hit-single cover of Queen's "We Will Rock You," the buzz helped them sell 1.1 million records in the first week - not record-breaking, but more than respectable for most music acts.

Signed to a European distribution deal with BMG in late 1996, the group was a clear next step along the pop path for music industry executives. Following in the footsteps of the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, Five By Five was the scrappy younger brother in music mogul Lou Pearlman's boyband stable at TransContinental Records, targeting the teen-girl demographic and intended for trans-Atlantic appeal with its lineup of two Americans (Astin and Wood), two Brits (Bloom and Monaghan) and a Scot (Billy Boyd). They were not just the baby of the TransCon family, they were the brat. Cultivating the image of the badboy boyband, they turned out rock-influenced pop, dressed down in jeans and T-shirts in cleaned-up thug style, complained vocally about the drinking age when they made it across the pond to the United States and postured like the guys from the wrong side of the tracks.

Riding the upward curve of the pop bubble, they managed an American distribution deal in late 1998, releasing a domestic version of their eponymous debut that gave them three hot singles - "Tearin' Up My Heart," "When The Lights Go Out" and "Show Me The Meaning (Of Being Lonely)" - and set them off on the first leg of an American tour before Bloom's fall in October 1999.

In the early days, Five By Five and the other boybands coming out of Europe were much of a muchness, Wood admits. It's with Mind The Gap that the group has been able to stretch musically, spending their unexpected hiatus maturing not only personally but professionally. Like other pretty pop boys, they're struggling to define themselves now that they have some creative freedom, trying to differentiate themselves from the pack. They play off the idea with the album's title, taken from signs common in London tube stations that warn riders to pay attention to the space between solid ground and their train.

"We really wanted Mind The Gap to reflect where we are on the journey," Astin says. "We've had a lot of time to change and grow between the last album and this one, and that's one of the reasons for the album title - we wanted to warn people that not only are we different from other music that's out there, we're different from the group we were three years ago, before we went through everything that's happened. We've had a lot of different personal and musical influences since then, and we wanted to be up-front about that. There were a lot of expectations with this album, but it was a high risk, too, so it was a gamble. We didn't know if it would pay off. We didn't know if we'd get back in the studio and things would be too different to work, or if it would all click back into place. And on the one hand, it was like a whole new experience. On the other hand, it was like we never left."

The new album is mildly successful at distinguishing itself from other recent pop offerings, mixing formula pop with more of the rock-edged sound, heavy on bass and drums, that's flavored Five By Five's work from the beginning of the group's career. The "We Will Rock You" cover is already proven, and other standout tracks include the funky "Last Chance (To Dance)" - not just about vertical grooving - and "Standoff," a nasty-edged song not far from pop-punk. "Gravity," a haunting, layered melody bolstered by wordless voices instead of instruments in some spots, is arguably the most innovative - and intensely personal - track on the album, but it's unlikely to be released as a single. Written by Astin and Bloom, with input from the other group members, the song isn't considered radio-friendly. But overall, Mind The Gap is stadium rock you can dance to, pop-rock without the crooning, the bastard child of emo and techno.

Wood grins at the description. He's wearing his Smashing Pumpkins concert T-shirt defiantly, blaring the Stone Roses during Five By Five's brief pause for lunch during tour rehearsal. He's about to speak when he gets hit in the head with a paper cup.

"Don't start," Monaghan yells from the other end of the table. "You pretentious bastard!"

Wood's response is good-naturedly unprintable, and he's soon at the bottom of a pile of Monaghan and Boyd, who sit on him firmly before Boyd asks in his pronounced Scottish accent, "Now, what was the question?"

IF BILLY BOYD had his way, the break he takes while their stage manager is working out wires and flight paths would be a break on the seashore, warm sand under his feet and the curl of good surf beckoning. An unlikely beach boy from Glasgow, Boyd fell in love with Florida almost a decade ago on a spin around the United States, before he entered drama school at home in Scotland.

Boyd's always had performing in his blood - both his parents sang in clubs, although they also held down more respectable jobs as a brewery worker and a car rental clerk. Growing up in a "housing scheme" - a working-class community - in 1970s Glasgow, a young Billy found himself early encouraged in his talents, singing and performing at gatherings and parties. At 10, he played the Artful Dodger in school, then joined an amateur theater group.

One-on-one, Boyd is reticent, almost quiet, and he doesn't talk much about his parents' deaths or the grandmother who raised him from the time he was 14. He calls her "old school," saying her strictness kept him out of trouble growing up in a tough part of his hometown, and his background adds to Five By Five's working-class cred - advised to "get a trade, then perform," he worked for four years as a bookbinder's apprentice before a girlfriend convinced him to apply and audition for drama school. He still maintains a residence in Glasgow, and he eschewed the Disneyfied surroundings of boyband capital Orlando when he moved to the United States, settling instead in the Florida Keys where he can be on the beach, surrounded by sea lovers who don't give him a second glance.

Arriving early for rehearsal on his motorcycle, he shrugs off a battered leather jacket in the growing humid heat and heads into the coliseum carrying his helmet, greeting Astin, who's the only one to beat him to the venue. He's a morning person, he says. He's staying with Monaghan during Five By Five's rehearsals in Orlando, and he tells of dragging his groupmate out of bed and leaving him cursing on the floor, wrapped in his sheet, before leaving the house. They'll have switched roles by the end of the 16-hour day, and Monaghan will pack Boyd and his bike into a Jeep to take him home, already dozing.

Boyd is small but wiry strong as he walks himself through the steps for the group's opening number, the unreleased "Everyone," alone on stage as Bloom, then Wood, then finally Monaghan come staggering into the venue in various states of awareness. Bloom appears with a surprise Mohawk, having shaved off most of his curls sometime during the night, and Wood whoops when he sees it, pronouncing it "fantastic!" Boyd tilts his head to one side, sparrow-like, examining Bloom with clear green eyes before grinning and warning him that he's going to give their publicists a series of heart attacks.

Despite being the architect of the group, Boyd downplays his efforts, seeming almost embarrassed by his fame. But he's utterly charming and gracious when he sets his mind to it, suddenly a grownup away from the influence of younger mates Monaghan and Wood. He's not the one who gets the most screams, but he's the one who makes the most profound impression on many of the fans who meet him. Although his reticence extends to his lovelife, Monaghan calls him a "stealth playboy."

"People come up to you and want to tell you about how your work has changed their lives, and you're just left saying to yourself, 'Wow!' " Boyd says, throwing his arms wide. "It's odd, you know, that people would be that interested in you. But it's quite nice, as well, that they'd care that much."

He'd only been in America for two months of a planned year abroad when he got the acceptance call from drama school - but he'd already seen Detroit and the Florida Keys, and he'd met Sean Astin, a fellow drama buff with a clear tenor voice who was doing studio session work and happened to be in Florida doing production on a demo for a boy named EJ.

"That kid," Boyd scoffs. "He's a jerk, isn't he?"

"Little snot," agrees Monaghan, who's wandered over, an apple in hand, the first of many he'll pull from his backpack through the day. "I was speaking to him earlier, and he was just being a real ... Oh, hey, EJ! What's up?"

"Craig wants to see you, something about that last section," says Wood, who's wandered over to inform Monaghan that his presence is required by the choreographers.

"Remind me later, I've something for you," Boyd tells Wood absently as Monaghan walks off.

"Hmm? OK ..." Wood's eyes track the departing figure before he turns to Boyd. "Oh my God, he is a prick."

"Next time, I'm going to just punch him, right in the ..."

"I already did that, yesterday," Wood says. "And he was just crying ..."

"Hey, mate," says Monaghan's voice, and both Wood and Boyd perk up, offering hearty greetings as Monaghan taps Boyd on the head and jerks his thumb back the way he came.

"You, mate, not me," he says, and Boyd's hardly out of earshot before they've started.

"Fuck me, he's being a prick ..." Wood begins.

"Jabbering all the time," Monaghan says, nodding. "I was trying to run through a sequence earlier, and he just kept on, jabber, jabber, jabber."

"Constantly." Wood says. "You can't concentrate ... Hey!"

Boyd's back, and Monaghan offers him an apple. The three of them snicker at their role-playing and punch at each other.

"Ass," Wood says affectionately, smacking out as Monaghan ruffles his hair.

EJ WOOD is a scrapper with a touch of British in his accent, an affectation left from teenage years spent in a London walkup where he lived with the four other members of Five By Five in their earliest days, before starting a murderous touring schedule in Europe and Asia. It wasn't the first time he'd picked up and moved in pursuit of his career - a child star, Wood moved from Iowa to Los Angeles with his family when he was 7 years old. He'd appeared in music videos and movies - including Barry Levinson's critically acclaimed Avalon - by the time he was 10 (Levinson would call on him again several years later, casting him in an episode of the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street). But the promise of his early career never seemed to come to fruition, and Wood knocked around Hollywood for another couple of years, taking supporting roles, before his agent mentioned the word "television" and suggested the kid brush up his comedy chops. That led to a gig on the new Mickey Mouse Club, a veritable breeding ground for teen talent, where his co-stars included future pop princesses Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and 'N Sync members JC Chasez and Justin Timberlake.

The show happened at the right time for him, he thinks, now - his schedule and his career had kept him out of school, being tutored on sets and home-schooled, and he was beginning to feel the lack of companionship. The camaraderie in a group of kids who also focused on performing was good for him, he says, laying out his feelings with a mixture of breeziness and an almost clinical detachment.

"It wasn't going to a regular school that I missed," he says. "Who needs that kind of hassle and bullshit, with the cliques and the stupid popularity games? It was just that I didn't have any friends. I didn't know anyone who wasn't an adult. It might have made me a bit odd, I think. I didn't really know how to make friends at that point, because I'd had no practice at it. And I'm not sure when I would have had any, otherwise. People look at us back then, and they think that's all bullshit, being nice for the camera and smiling and sugar to keep up the image, but they can't understand how fantastic it is to finally find some other people your age who care about the same things you do. We were all fucking freaks underneath those pretty, popular images. We still are, even if I'm the only one willing to admit it."

He still has contact with some of his former castmates - his path has criss-crossed with Timberlake and Chasez since the days Five By Five and 'N Sync both spent touring Europe, and he talks occasionally to Aguilera, who he's been linked to romantically in fan gossip and teen magazines. He denies the rumors.

"People want another shiny little adorable true love story, like Justin and Britney, and we're just not it," he says. "Sorry."

He's single these days, he says, although he admits to being in love in the past. He pauses, reconsiders, observes that maybe he was just young and stupid and only thought it was love.

Wood went into MMC as an actor, but his career path took a sharp left when he started singing on the show. And it was during his stint on MMC that he was first brought to the attention of Astin, himself a former child star who thought the small, dark-haired boy with the Precious Moments blue eyes looked familiar.

"A friend of mine mentioned there was this kid who'd done a few movies on the Mickey Mouse Club, wondered if I'd met him in Hollywood," says Astin, who was mainly doing production work at the time. "So I was flipping around one day and there he was. I thought, 'Huh. Oh yeah, that kid.' I remembered him from Avalon, thought he had some decent talent. But I didn't think anything more about it until I heard from him a couple of years later, looking for someone to take an ex-actor seriously as a singer. I knew what that was like."

When MMC ended, Astin found himself picking up the telephone to a call from Wood, who was looking for help with a demo. Later, when Boyd called his old friend in the U.S. about putting together a singing group, Astin immediately thought of Wood.

"The problem with singing is that once people know you can do it, they expect you to," Wood says now, standing outside the coliseum and taking a drag on his illicit cigarette. He's only recently turned 20, he's finally firming out of the fine-boned prettiness that's made him look like a choirboy for most of Five By Five's run, and he's not supposed to be smoking - there's an unspoken but palpable concern among the ranks about his ability to hit some of his highest notes as his voice continues to mature, and some of the arrangements of the group's earliest songs already have been changed. The cigarettes won't help matters.

"Not like Orlando, whose voice gets all rough and sexy," Wood says, mock-swooning as Bloom sticks his head out the door to check the lay of the land and slides into the alley. Wood slaps a hand over his own mouth. "Ooops! Can't let anyone know the golden boy smokes, can we?"

"Piss off," Bloom responds, "and give me a light, you little wanker."

Wood giggles - an honest-to-God giggle. He's the self-appointed cynic of the bunch, but his work with Five By Five has done what his mother hoped when she started him in his acting career: channeled the enormous amounts of energy he has while allowing him the kind of jumpstart on his career that few teenagers get.

"Everybody always tried to look out for him, but he'd just give you this ... this look," Boyd says, mugging in demonstration. "He'll only let you take care of him on his own terms."

"Tiny little thing," Monaghan remembers. "Had to feed him up, didn't we?"

"He's always acted a lot older than he actually is," Boyd concludes.

Maybe not always. Back inside, Wood joins the rest of the group who - restless and bored as techs work out some details under the stage - are playing Cup.

"Cup," Boyd explains, pausing in play and brandishing the item in question, "is where you take a paper cup ..."

"... or a Dixie cup," says Astin, who makes a grab for it ...

"... or a Dixie cup, if you're American," says Boyd, who ducks away as Astin grins at him ...

"... or a paper cup, if you speak English," says Monaghan, who sidles toward Boyd, hand reaching out ...

"You take a paper cup and you keep it bouncing from person to person without letting it hit the ground. It's boring, but when you're stuck on a bus for four days ..."

Boyd's lecture ends in a squawk as Bloom barrels into him, lifting him off his feet and over one shoulder. A scuffle ensues as Wood, Monaghan and Astin all dive for the dropped cup, tussling on the floor before Monaghan rolls away with it, climbs to his feet and flees, ending atop the table that will soon hold lunch. Those who want an official Cup cup can order them from his Website, he proclaims, moving to scrawl an address for the imaginary site on a listener's palm, to match the cryptic notes he's got scrawled in blue ballpoint on his own hands, front and back. His mates are already off on another tangent, arguing the rules of "Tig," a complex in-joke that mainly seems to involve making up new rules to baffle Wood.

"Oh my God ..." Wood breaks in. "You are not going to tell them this."

"Oh, we're going to tell them this. We can't not tell them this," Astin replies, and Wood tries to tackle him. Astin staggers but stays upright against the arm slung around his neck.

He gets his own arm around Wood's neck and upends him, hauling the slighter man over his shoulder in a wrestling move as the others try to explain the chaos of a game made up to mess with Wood's head during recording - a modified form of Tag that had Monaghan and Boyd tagging each other with exhortations of "tig-tag" and "tig-tog" and creating off-the-cuff and increasingly complex rules about when tigs and togs and tags were allowed.

"For like, three weeks, he was saying how much he enjoyed playing Tig," Monaghan says.

"He wanted to get the rule book," Astin puts in, then yelps as Wood makes another attempt to bring him down.

"My whole world came shattering down on me when they told me that was a lie," Wood says with injured innocence, after he's been dumped on the floor. "For a whole year, I believed it was a real game, and then they told me."

"Sorry, EJ," Monaghan says. Then he snickers.

"And then, what else was not true?" Wood says. "That's what I was asking."

"It undermines the integrity of the entire relationship," Astin says, nodding sagely.

"That's what I think." Bloom says. He manages to keep a straight face just long enough to get the words out.

ORLANDO BLOOM is in the midst of a love affair with his body, one so unselfconscious and natural, it's hard to believe he was once told he'd be paralyzed for the rest of his life.

"The doctors told me I'd never walk again," he says absently from the edge of the stage, running through a section of choreography for "Get Another Boyfriend," Five By Five's second hit single since its - and his - comeback. Like many of the songs on Mind The Gap, "Boyfriend" has pushed Bloom more front and center, increasingly capitalizing on his warm voice and heartthrob image and spreading more lead vocal work beyond Astin and Boyd. Sinuous and well-muscled, Bloom moves with focused intensity and potentially deadly grace, a legacy of the martial arts he started when he picked up dance training again after he was back on his feet.

"I was quite lucky, to be able to still do all those things," he says, pausing for a reflective moment and to wipe his face with his T-shirt, exposing a flash of tanned, well-toned stomach. "After surgery, I walked out of the hospital two weeks later, on crutches. So I shouldn't waste the chance, you know? It's kind of like a parallel to this musical journey we've been on. The more you struggle in life, the more you grow. And we've certainly struggled.

"D'you want to see the scar?" he suddenly asks with a grin, flipping up the back of his T-shirt to expose the long incision line, healed but still prominent, down the center of his back.

He's got a list of things he's not supposed to do, given to him by management after Jive Records agreed to add the band to its lineup and give them a chance at a comeback album. He treats it as a checklist.

"No, really," he says, gleeful. "It's an actual list that's, like, printed up on a piece of paper and everything. They gave it to me when we went into the studio to do this album. I was like, 'You're kidding, right? So sorry, but there's just too much fun to be had ...' "

Two days before they started learning the choreography for the upcoming tour, he dragged Monaghan off to go bungee-jumping.

"I've got a fear of heights, and what happened to Orlando didn't help a bit, so I was quite proud of that," Monaghan says.

By all indications, Bloom's injury should have meant the end of his career, if not the end of Five By Five. With his model's lines, mop of dark curls and puppy-dog eyes, Bloom quickly emerged as a fan favorite during the group's stint in Europe. But with an eye to domestic success, U.S. record executives felt he wasn't as well-known and could be replaced easily after the accident. Facing pressure to audition new singers, Five By Five members refused and were dropped by BMG mere weeks after Bloom's injury. There's no anger when they talk about the record company's decision, only acceptance and the same steely core of determination that kept them together then.

"They took us away from the hospital and sat us down around a table in a conference room and told us we had to find a replacement," Wood says. "So I cried." He smirks then launches himself at Bloom, crawling on his back and demanding a piggyback ride.

"We told them, 'We're doin' what we have to do. You do what you have to do.' And everybody did," Boyd says, stretching to scrub his hand over Bloom's newly shortened brush of hair. "These guys, we've been through a lot together. You don't just leave your brothers behind."

They touch him, a lot, a hand on the shoulder, a bear hug from behind, a pinch of the cheek with Boyd incongruously tiny against Bloom's lanky frame. At not quite six feet, he's a half-foot taller than the rest of the diminutive group, and he's not even the youngest, but two years later, the other Five By Five members are still protective of Bloom.

"All of a sudden, I wasn't the baby anymore," Wood says.

At the time, their refusal to replace him seemed like career suicide. Three weeks later, when Bloom walked through the front doors of Jive Records' New York offices, it seemed like the greatest coup in the industry.

"Who's not going to sign these guys, at that point?" says their manager, Andy Serkis. "You've got the biggest comeback story in modern music, waiting to happen. Girls were still lighting candles for the guy in Europe, and he's talking about touring. The publicity people had spontaneous orgasms all 'round."

Bloom continues to be a publicist's dream - handsome and charming, he also retains a sense of fun, is always solicitous to fans, cameras and interviewers and is arguably the most popular member of the group, both professionally and socially. He's the one most likely to turn up at events with actresses like Mena Suvari and Rachel Leigh Cook on his arm, although the girl he's seen with most often is singer Liv Tyler, who took Bloom under her wing [Cont. on 144]

[Cont. from 58] when she and her sister, Mia, toured with Five By Five before the 1999 accident. They've remained close, and although both insist they're simply friends, more than one tabloid and teen magazine has speculated on how Bloom fits into the equation between Liv Tyler and her boyfriend Royston Langdon of rock band Spacehog - questions that Tyler's recent engagement to Langdon haven't quelled.

"I'm having a mad affair with both of them," Bloom says, rolling his eyes. "No, seriously, Liv's a total sweetheart, and we get on really well, and she and Roy make a beautiful couple. People shouldn't try to start trouble like that. It's just not cool, man."

Tyler, he says, was a support for everyone in Five By Five as they struggled not only to make a comeback, but to cut ties with Pearlman and TransContinental Records after they were dropped by BMG. Pearlman responded to the group's demand for freedom with a $100 million breach of contract suit. Five By Five countersued, alleging reckless endangerment of their health and safety, citing Bloom's injury as a primary example, along with supporting tales of exhausting work schedules when they went weeks without a day off during touring in Europe. Both suits eventually were dropped.

"Orlando wasn't the first guy to end up in the hospital," Astin says now. "You do the math."

When pressed, he only shakes his head angrily. But Brian Littrell of the Backstreet Boys, who visited Bloom in the hospital, has said he postponed open-heart surgery twice because of his group's touring schedule, only undergoing the operation after his group sued Pearlman in 1997 to be released from their contract. Pearlman's second musical brainchild, 'N Sync, also alleged a flagrant disregard for members' health and safety - including a 1999 incident in which Lance Bass collapsed from exhaustion and was hospitalized in the middle of touring - in documents filed during that group's legal battle to leave Pearlman, shortly before Bloom's accident.

"We knew what was going on," Astin says. "We just didn't move fast enough."

SEAN ASTIN still carries around a weight of guilt from 1999. One of the oldest members of the group - both he and Boyd turn 30 this year - he usually took it upon himself to check their gear and the stage before a concert, to make sure everything was running smoothly.

"We were rushed that night," he says, flipping switches on the soundboard where he's taken refuge as tempers fray during the twelfth hour of rehearsal. The choreographers aren't happy, Wood isn't happy, Serkis isn't happy, and Astin walked off stage 10 minutes ago to hunker down with the sound guys as a distraction. ("We know when someone needs their space," Boyd will say later. "We've been together and we know each other well enough to know when to shut up and back off.")

"I trusted the wrong people to make sure that things were done right," Astin continues, still remembering the moment 18 months ago when he looked around to find Bloom in a heap on-stage and himself suspended helplessly in midair. "We did that one too many times, back then. It's not something that will happen again."

He runs his hand through short sandy hair and rubs his neck before rolling his head on his shoulders. Stocky and buff, Astin comes to the role of protector for the group naturally. A family man, he's been married since shortly after Five By Five's European debut - a heart-breaking move for some fans - and during their unexpected hiatus last year, he and his wife, Christine, had their first child. With a lead tenor voice and washboard abs, he was aggressively marketed as heartthrob material from the beginning of the group's career. The scruffy jeans and T-shirt he wears for rehearsal cover a body that still benefits from regular workouts at the gym along with dancing, but with Bloom and Wood now old enough to help carry Five By Five in sex appeal, he's more laid-back these days. Fans continue to lavish love on him, turning up at promotional appearances for the new album bearing "I [heart] Sean" signs, although it remains to be seen how much his new status as "daddy" affects his standing in what the group calls the Posterboard Wars - the friendly competition over who has more fan-made signs devoted to them at any given performance.

"I love the guy," says Wood. "He's more than my best friend, more than my brother. He took care of me over in Europe, even when I didn't want him to, even when I didn't realize he was doing it. You don't want to admit it when you're 15, but it was hard, being away from my mom. She had to take care of my younger sister. Even if they'd moved to London we couldn't have dragged Hannah all over Europe on tour. So these guys, they became my family."

Astin is used to life in the spotlight - the son of actors John Astin and Patty Duke, he appeared in movies and on TV before music lured him away from acting in high school. He still gets shouts of "Mikey!" on the street - the boyfriends of his female fans are more likely to admit knowing him from his big-screen appearance in Richard Donner's popular 1985 movie The Goonies than from his present work with Five By Five. But if Boyd provides the group with working-class credibility, Astin gives it its creative credibility. He wrote or co-wrote several of the songs on Mind The Gap, and he's helped produce the group's work from the beginning. He's no newcomer to the studio - he was drawn, early on, to the producer's chair and was part of a production team that received a Grammy nomination in 1995 for an indie folk-rock disc from his younger brother, Mackenzie Astin, who followed Sean's footsteps into music.

Only a week after receiving that first Grammy nomination, Astin got a call from Boyd, who said he'd met two likely lads on the London theater circuit and was interested in starting up a group. Five By Five was cast in the boyband mold after signing with Pearlman, but they insist it's a stereotype they want to break out of. As evidence, they offer the steadily increasing amount of material they create and produce for themselves and the work Monaghan and Boyd are doing with Astin on new material for the next album. Besides, they say, they're just not nice enough to be a boyband. Wood says the word "nice" with a sneer. So it's perhaps ironic that a group trying to emphasize its rock influences has received the most critical notice for a heartfelt ballad, "Show Me The Meaning (Of Being Lonely)," which earned their debut album a second look from most people after the song was nominated for a Grammy.

The nomination - for a single put out only weeks before Bloom's fall - bolstered the group's visibility, and only a few months later they were back in the studio to record their cover of "We Will Rock You" with members of Queen - an unattached single that allowed Jive to test the waters for a Five By Five return and that ultimately was included on Mind The Gap, after it proved the group was still coming through - as its name promises - "loud and clear" to fans.

"I like it," Astin says of "Show Me The Meaning," with a small smile, and Monaghan - who's just stuck his head around the equipment - scoffs and tells him that his wife likes it. He also informs Astin that he's got appalling taste in music.

"Patsy Cline!" Monaghan says, rolling his eyes, and darts off as Astin makes a grab for him.

DOMINIC MONAGHAN has spent a good part of his day trying to prove the truth of his T-shirt, which has the word "IRRITANT" emblazoned across the chest. In the early hours of the morning, halfway through what will be the day's last run-through of the show, he's amusing himself and Wood by doing painfully accurate impressions of their groupmates, the crew, the choreographers and anyone else who's come within 50 feet of his wit and who has any sort of personality from which to pull an idiosyncracy. Monaghan freely admits he's an attention-seeker - and an indefatigable one, at that.

"He's like a two-year old," Astin says from the side of the stage where he's got his head down on his arms, leaning on a piece of equipment to conserve energy. "Or a puppy. He absolutely will not stop until he falls over." Astin lifts his head. "Or does that make him the Terminator?"

What it makes him, at a point when everyone else in the coliseum would rather be elsewhere - preferably somewhere with a pillow - is a nervous bundle of energy, even while he looks as tired as his mates. Wood has the choirboy beauty and Bloom has the soulful prettiness, but Monaghan may be the closest thing Five By Five has to an actual good boy gone bad, a Catholic school veteran who'll regale you with tales of drunkenly urinating in town square fountains in Hamburg and Madrid. With shocks of peroxided pale hair falling into his face and the assortment of silver jewelry and leather bands he's got collected on hands, wrists and arms, he looks like he'd be more at home playing a guitar in some smoky hole-in-the-wall dive in his home city of Manchester than dancing under bright lights.

"And I'm single," he says. "Quite the catch. Be sure you put that in there!"

Monaghan, like Boyd, early succumbed to the lure of the stage. He discovered his love of performing while playing the Artful Dodger, then fell into the theater scene in his late teens. He spent his nights in pubs, his days auditioning, working in youth theater groups and knocking around at odd jobs such as stock boy, mail sorter and even saute chef. He was in London when he hooked up with Boyd, buying him a drink one night after seeing him in a performance of Henry V. Monaghan was determined to break through Boyd's traditional Scottish solitude and plied him with alcohol while mining for acting advice.

Boyd calls him "completely mad" but notes the strength of the bond the pair developed in the early days, before they found Bloom or joined up with Astin and Wood. They met up with Bloom - a drama student who came to London from his native Canterbury to pursue his dreams of performing - while they were out one night and heard him singing pub songs with some of his fellow students.

"Lured me away to a life of debauchery, didn't they?" Bloom says, grinning.

"We weren't anything fancy," says Monaghan, whose deep voice provides the anchor for Five By Five's sound. "Just a few guys who liked to sing together. Bill and I started by accident, he was humming some drinking song, and I came in under him. Orlando - we heard him singing one night at a pub, and all the girls were just falling around him, but Bill just sat there with his head on his fist, listening, before he turned to me and said, 'We've got to get him over here.' I never expected anything to come of it. And look what's happened."

Monaghan, despite his rough exterior, may be the Fiver who's the most taken with the props and accouterments that go along with the popstar career. While Wood looks to be in actual, physical pain when he talks about some of the group's music from its Europop days, Monaghan starts in with the air guitar on the opening riff to "Everybody Get Up," lifted from "I Love Rock 'n Roll." Instead of continuing into the Five By Five song, though, he segues into the Joan Jett classic, dancing up on Wood as he sings about knowing he must have been about 17. Wood flips him off but can't help laughing.

A British Army brat who spent his early years in Germany before moving back to England with his family, Monaghan also revels in the traveling and touring that's part of Five By Five's career. And he's fascinated by the pyrotechnics and the flashing lights of the stage, even as he eschews flash in his personal life and in most of the music he listens to. He's the one who introduced Wood to the Stone Roses, but he also grins and stretches his arms wide as the stage crew tests the lights.

"It's like Starlight Express, without the roller skates," he says.

That theater vernacular is a common language to the British portion of Five By Five, who grew up treading the boards while Hollywood nurtured their American counterparts. Astin knows the acting background is a mixed blessing for the group - too many people expect them to be too good at taking direction. People think they don't do any more than hit their marks and perform what they're given on cue, he says. They've struggled to take an active role in their career and to prove they can do so.

But the theatrical background also imparts an outlook that makes Boyd philosophical and leaves him unperturbed when asked if he worries the pop market is too flooded to bear the weight of another group of guys doing five-part harmony.

"Eh," he says, waving a hand. "That's like saying you don't want to go see Rent because you've already seen Phantom of the Opera. Or that there's no need to see Oklahoma now that you've seen Chicago. They're all musicals, aren't they?"

AT THE END OF THE DAY, Boyd is less upbeat and more dragged out as he levers himself down beside Monaghan and sprawls out on the stage with a "Sweet Jesus" and a dramatic moan that dies off into a yawn. He's pale under the remnants of his wind-swept saltburn tan and, like all of them, grubby with the accumulated sweat of a 16-hour day of rehearsing. Monaghan pats his stomach before turning attention back to Wood, who's slowly slumping on his other side.

"Alright, then?" Monaghan asks, and Wood finally puts his head on the proffered shoulder and closes his eyes.

Monaghan's humming under his breath, a low comforting burr of sound, and from the sidelines, Astin picks up the melody, threading his voice through his groupmate's. Wood almost unconsciously drops in as Boyd adds a soft counter-melody. From his resting sprawl in the middle of the stage, Bloom finally adds his voice to the refrain, and Five By Five is singing all together, complete once again. As Bloom leans forward to rest his forearms on his knees, his T-shirt pulls up to reveal part of the tattoo on the small of his back. They all have them, a stylized "5," inked into their skins as soon as Bloom was recovered enough to go to a tattoo parlor with his mates. His lies just below the end of the scar running along his spine, where surgeons operated on his back. Wood's is on his hip, Monaghan's on his right biceps, Boyd and Astin have theirs on an ankle.

"We're all incredible friends," Monaghan says. "I've almost grown up with them - I've spent seven years with them, from 17 to 24, we supported each other every day and helped each other out. So we're all brothers, and we're all incredibly close. I know I'll be a part of them for the rest of our lives."