Author Malcolm Gladwell defines an outlier as “a person who is seen as ‘markedly different’ from everyone else, either in terms of extraordinary talent, success, or both.” Los Angeles duo THEY. open their full-length introduction ‘Nü Religion: HYENA’ with a voiceover that describes them as “outliers in the natural order” who have come together from opposite ends of America and found common ground in “their brash defiance of any and all classification."
The pair first established themselves in 2015 with their Timbaland co-signed ‘Nü Religion’ EP and particularly the single ‘Motley Crew’, in a lane of R&B that’s viewed through the lens of Indie-Rock, with guitar-infused production and a grungy aesthetic. Their music sits on the right side of cool, but without alienating pop ambitions, and has had them touring the world with the likes of Bryson Tiller, Jeremih and PARTYNEXTDOOR.
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“From the beginning, we’ve always viewed ourselves as lone wolves,” admits singer Drew Love, as he soaks in the a breathtaking view of Kensington from their label office’s gigantic glass windows. “Being on the outside and always doing our own thing is something we’ve been able to come together and bring into a musical perspective to make music that’s completely different."
Producer and vocalist, Dante Jones grew up in Denver, Colorado where the town’s musical exports include One Republic and The Fray. “The only hip-hop was ‘Whoomp, There It Is’ by Tag Team,” he laughs. “But I think that gave me a good perspective on what a pop song sounds like.” The knowledge would prove useful. When Jones initially moved out to L.A. in pursuit of his music career dreams, he found that producing pop music was one of his strengths.
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Anything has its ups and downs…
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Before finishing college Jones had his first experience of the City Of Angels, spending a Summer working with producer Brian Kennedy. During his first week there he attended a writing camp for Rihanna, and met the likes of Katy Perry, Frank Ocean and James Fauntleroy. “I was so inspired by that trip,” he recalls. “I moved back out the first week [after I’d finished college].” He received a call from Kennedy to say that he’d had to fly out to Nashville because Kelly Clarkson wanted to record one of their songs. Within his first week of living in Los Angeles Jones would have a huge single under his belt, ‘Mr. Know It All’, which would go on to win a Grammy.
During his stint under Kennedy, Dante produced for everyone from Will.I.Am and Chris Brown to Nickelodeon; but pitching songs for others never never allowed his inner hyena to run wild. “I told myself I'm going to take this opportunity to become the best producer I can be,” he admits. “I went through that situation, anything has its ups and downs, and eventually I wanted go off to my own thing.”
THEY.’s outlier perspective is etched into their story from the very beginning. While Dante describes his school days in Denver, Colorado as spent table hopping around the cafeteria soaking up an eclectic taste from kids of all races and backgrounds (“I tried to put my black friends on Taking Back Sunday and they were like, "turn the shit off, I don't wanna hear that,” he laughs), Drew’s school years were spent mostly as a music-obsessed loner who was into everything from John Mayer to his mother’s Motown and father’s funk records (“I’d go in the cafeteria and not have anywhere to sit.” he confesses.)
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It took some time for me to accept that I was supposed to do something different…
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Drew spent his teens in Maryland DC, and looked to the neighbouring Virginia Beach area for inspiration from the likes of Chris Brown, Mario, Missy Elliott and Timbaland for inspiration. “It really influenced me a lot because I started to see all of the different styles of music [coming out of the area],” he recalls. “But I saw the people that actually came out of there had to leave to really succeed. I took the chance to come to L.A. and met this guy.”
The pair met at a time when they’d become disillusioned by where life in Hollywood was taking them. Dante caught up in the repetition of pitching his productions out to pop stars, while Drew – who had completed his college degree – felt like he was lacking purpose and was trying to get as many writing sessions as possible, working with the likes of Chris Brown and Jeremih. When fate – or rather Drew’s manager, also named Drew – brought the pair together for a writing session, they’d realise that they no longer needed to put up with the business of crafting songs for others. “When we started working we hit it off really fast,” says Drew. “It was like ‘I don’t need to be doing this placement stuff anymore’. We’d figured out what we’d came [to L.A.] for.”
THEY. are free of entertaining the industry’s pack mentality, and have crafted an alternative to the Hollywood scene they’d dived head first into. “Still to this day I don’t love being in that scene,” admits Dante. “A lot of people get wrapped up into finding their identity through industry accolades, like ‘How many artists can I list in my Instagram bio?’ I never got my validation from that. It took some time for me to accept that I was supposed to do something different rather than sitting around microwaving songs.”
“Especially because nowadays when a lot of those placements happen, the artist isn’t in the room,” says Drew. “Being by yourself and creating a song then hoping somebody is going to take it; the chance is getting narrower and narrower. I’m glad that we were able to stray away from that.”
Locking themselves away in the studio, free of outside contributors, allows THEY. to avoid falling back into the eb and flow of the song-writing machine. Initially, the main concern was to maintain a balance between their rebellious tendencies and pop foundations, to avoid their music becoming too insular. “I’ve always really liked a lot of weird music, I love Animal Collective for example, but there was always a little bit of me like ‘What if you kinda brought this down to earth a little?’” says Dante. “I think the magic happens where somebody is being progressive, but you’re not even aware that they are. You’re just caught up in it.”
Drew chalks the balance up to their contrasting influences, “I bring the mainstream appeal and [Dante] brings a lot of the left-field side. You bring those together and you’re able to make music that’s different, but still palatable to the public.”
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In an early interview Kurt Cobain described Nirvana’s fusion of metal and punk with pop appeal: “Our songs have the standard pop format: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, bad solo. All in all, we sound like the Knack and the Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath.” In the same way, THEY. songs retain all the standard elements of contemporary R&B: pre-hooks, hooks, verse, rap verse. And they could be described as sounding like Trey Songz and The-Dream getting intimate with Pearl Jam and Metro Boomin.
Thanks to a fusion of the guitar-driven music and the R&B that Dante had been creating over the years, the duo’s sound has been coined Grunge&B, a label that they aren’t mad at. “It’s not like we’re sitting there like ‘Oh, we have to put grunge elements in.’ I’ve always been putting rock guitars on R&B drums,” he explains. “But grunge represented a big shift in the music scene at the time. You went from hair metal, this big theatrical thing, to this more organic, grass roots uprising. Maybe I’m naïve but I'm kinda hoping that [we can inspire] an uprising of artists that are going to come out and do something that's true to them.”
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For me the success is being able to continue to do what I love…
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Going back to Gladwell’s definition, it’s clear that THEY. are outliers in terms of talent, and how ‘markedly different’ they are from the rest of the pack. Yet success isn’t something that they feel like they’ve attained just yet, despite an impressive set of accolades. “I just want the next album to be even better than this one,” says Dante. “I just want to be able to look back and know I’m constantly improving and writing things that keep me inspired. For me the success is being able to continue to do what I love, which is make music and still feel proud of what I’m doing.”
Drew agrees: “For me success is successive, I want to spread the Nü Religion. I want people to be able to look to us for an alternative.”
As our interview draws to a close, Dante concludes with a reflection on pride. It feels as though the last two years has been hurtling along at such a speed that he’s only now been afforded the time to make the realisation. “Something I’m really proud of, is just the fact that we really started just two random people on a studio in Hollywood. And, from that to doing Radio City Music Hall, to performing here in London, to going on world tours, is crazy. We knew where we wanted to be, we knew we wanted to put out this album. [I’m proud of] our ability to execute and make mistakes and keep going.”
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Words: Grant Brydon
‘Nü Religion: HYENA’ is out today via Mind Of A Genius.