Dante Jones and Drew Love navigate the maze of hallways leading to our conference room with a certain rockstar aplomb, which inevitably draws the occasional double take from curious strangers. You can see a question, brief and uncertain, flash across their face: "should I know who they are?" Dressed in customized Atlanta Braves jerseys emblazoned with THEY., the two might as well be alt-R&B's answer to Rae Sremmurd's self-appointed black Beatles title. Though to be fair, given a choice both would certainly identify more on the grunge or alternative scale. "Kurt Cobain is a huge influence for me," Jones immediately pipes up when we work our way to the standard but necessary, 'tell me about your influences' line of questioning.
Long Island-bred alt-rock band Taking Back Sunday also makes it onto their list of musical heroes alongside Vampire Weekend and The 1975. The soulful, rhythm and blues-based output of crooners like Babyface, New Edition and James Brown are a juxtaposition to their rock-skewed preferences, but under the careful hand of Jones and Love a new hybrid genre emerges, one that is purely about sound rather than genre category.
"We basically grew up listening to a little bit of everything. So '90s and '80s soul and R&B feel really natural," shares Love. The two are something like Dr. Frankenstein and Igor in their approach. In the same way Frankenstein's creature was born from a patchwork of mismatched parts, the two have managed to seamlessly join dissimilar sounds into something they've coined "Grunge n' B."
In the last few years an up-cropping of darkly atmospheric, trap-infused R&B has changed the landscape of contemporary music. Artists like The Weeknd, Bryson Tiller, PARTYNEXTDOOR, and Majid Jordan have all forged new, generationally specific alternatives for presenting timeless tales of love, obsession and heartbreak. Jones and Love manifest their difference from others of the new guard primarily through nuanced production, but in many ways they fit just as neatly into the category of their peers. There was certainly enough crossover to secure them a spot opening for Bryson Tiller's Trapsoul tour last year. Interestingly enough, it was also the duo's first time performing together as THEY., but as they say, 'pressure forms diamonds.'
THEY.'s most recent release, a 14-track opus titled Nu Religion: HYENA, is the culmination of their joint efforts; it's also an indication that Jones and Love have a staying potential on par with that of their mentor, Timbaland.
"We met - well it's kind of confusing but it's not...So basically my manager knew Dante from back in the day," explains Love, who was born in San Antonio, Texas but soon after relocated to Washington D.C. because of his family's military ties. Jones on the other hand hails from Denver, Colorado, and grew up with Andrew Grant (Big Drew), the record A&R who would eventually introduce him to Love.
Before the two crossed paths they were already making in-roads in the music industry. Jones' past repertoire includes production and composition credits on the albums of pop stars like Kelly Clarkson - his work on her 2011 album, Stronger, even won him a Grammy - specifically for the single "Mr. Know It All." He also spent time working with one-time boy band Big Time Rush, whose four-year stint on Nickelodeon made them a household name for pre-teens.
But pop is a niche that is deceptively challenging; writing relatable, catchy lyrics that don't feel too obvious or cheesy requires a level of subtly and songwriting expertise that Jones showed an early aptitude for. "I actually really like pop music. I've written a lot of pop songs," he says with a noncommittal shrug.
Love was also enjoying a fair quota of success prior to THEY.. As a solo artist he released projects like Sexcapades, which garnered fairly positive critiques from indie music publications. When he wasn't plying the microphone with his own voice, Love established himself as a sought-after songwriter, and even managed to sign a publishing deal a little over six months after he made his first writing foray. Since then, he's written for K. Michelle, Jason Derulo, deceased New York rapper Chinx (or Chinx Drugz), Jeremih and more.
Distilling their collective talents into a group was more than just an attempt at an industry power move. Much of Jones and Love's decision to become THEY. was anchored in having cultivated a genuine friendship. The two operate with a tangibly heightened sense of comfort and understanding - it's even apparent in the way they field interview questions. They never talk over each other and seem to telepathically know who is best suited to answer what without ever discussing it aloud. "The first time we ended up in the studio together we like hung out for the whole day. After that we kind of just kept kicking it and making music and we just finally decided to make it an actual group," Love explains.
As a unit, what truly makes THEY. different is their refreshing lack of regard for pre-existing songwriting and production conventions. They see no reason why a guitar riff straight from a punk song can't exist beside smoky R&B vocals, or why those very same vocals can't be re-appropriated into a pop song. "We really don't care what people think about our music, shares Love. "We want people to like it, but is also something we love and we're doing for ourselves." "I've literally been in the studio with people and been like, 'that's nice but I'm not doing that,'" says Jones with a laugh.
On Nu Religion: HYENA specifically tracks like "Dante's Creek," a cleverly titled re-appropriation of Dawson's Creek that also borrows the show's theme song, illustrate this stubborn streak. Similarly, "Motley Crew" serves as half ode to '80s metal music and half R&B study on reckless, Hollywood lifestyles. Yet it's exactly these kind of double entendres and layers of disparate influence that have become part of THEY.'s fascinating appeal. Keep your eyes on these two, they're heading upwards fast.
For more of our interview features, check out our Fast Facts Q&A with G.O.O.D. Music protege Kacy Hill right here.