INTERVIEW: Overnight R&B success THEY. discuss their debut EP "Nu Religion," life on tour with Bryson Tiller, and what they have in store next...
L.A. based songwriters Dante and Drew -- together known as THEY. -- delivered one of the most pleasant surprises of 2015 when they released Nu Religion, their debut EP and "soundtrack to not giving a fuck.” The 3-track project featured a refreshing, raw blend of R&B, rock, pop, & and hip-hop and earned THEY. a spot opening for Bryson Tiller on the “Trapsoul” tour.
Neither Drew nor Dante (avowed studioheads both) had ever performed prior to hitting the road with Tiller. But tour life has treated them well. The duo visited HNHH HQ during the “Trapsoul” tour’s stop in NYC to discuss Nu Religion and their upcoming 7-track project. Dante was rocking the Iverson Answers -- a bold choice in today’s sneaker landscape. “I only brought Iversons for the whole tour,” he explained. “I’m trying to push that agenda. There’s enough dudes running around in Jordans. You gotta do something different.”
What were you doing before you got into music?
Dante: I grew up a kid who was into sports. That was always my focus. I didn’t really grow up in like a musical family but my older brother went out and bought a keyboard, so I started around on that. But yeah, the most part, if you would have asked me “Who’s Dante 10 years ago?" I would have told you I was the troublemaker. I got expelled from school three times. I was always the smart kid but could never really [get my shit together]. I’d get my work done, then I’d just start causing trouble.
Drew: Definitely parallel on that front. Did the same thing – I was a smart kid with a nice GPA or whatever and I would cut up in class. I was always being the troublemaker, getting suspended or expelled.
What’s the craziest thing you did?
Dante: There was actually a 7/11 within the school. I was like, “what if I was just on the ultimate funny shit. What if pretended to rob the store??” So I walked in there and I had my fingers like this *makes finger gun pose*. Bandana, all that shit. Went up, robbed the store. Everybody got flipped out. Next thing I know, I’m in jail for like the next two months.
That is wild.
Dante: Yep, well I’m from Colorado. They don’t play with that shit.
Who were your biggest musical heroes and influences growing up that shaped your musical identity?
Drew: For me, I was a huge, huge fan of Missy Elliott and Pharrell. The knack for rhythm and just always catchy, always good pockets and things like that. I love John Mayer and Ed Sheeran on that front. And then I’m also a really big fan of James Brown from back in the day.
Dante: For me, it’s like two different things. Writing-wise, I think Max Martin and ‘90s pop stuff is really dope. And then like Kurt Cobain as a writer. Production-wise, I’m a really big fan of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. And then I love Vampire Weekend and Tame Impala. I always really loved the textures that Vampire Weekend was able to hone in on. Timbaland is definitely one of my biggest influences. Rhythmically, he’s one my favorites. So I would say I’m a little all over the place.
How old were you when you started making music?
Drew: I put my first songs out about three years ago. It was under Drew Love at the time. I actually got covered by HotNewHipHop a few times. So started there cutting songs and then moved out to LA when I got the opportunity. I was writing for Chris [Brown] and Jeremih and a few people.
Dante: Initially I wanted to be a rapper. And then I got really interested in producing. [I was] 16, 17 was when I wanted to be a rapper. Then once I started figuring out production, that was when I was like 19. Then I was really like, “Okay, I’m going to try and figure this out.” So yeah, I started off like my strength was just doing pop music. I kind of figured. At first I tried to do something like Jeezy and Rick Ross but it just didn’t take. I found my strength was doing pop stuff so once I did that, which was about a year and a half, I had stuff with Kelly Clarkson, Will.I.Am, stuff on Nickelodeon.
Drew: He won a Grammy but he’s not going to tell you.
Dante: For the Kelly Clarkson song “Mr. Know It All.” But yeah, I got some stuff with Chris Brown. Just a whole bunch of random people. Eventually, I kind of got to the point where I was like, “You know what? I’m tired of this system.” Because I had the desire to do something different, I just didn’t have the platform to do it. Just because I was trying to force like, “Let me send something different to Kelly Clarkson.” It just didn’t work, just the political world. Once [Drew and I] linked up, I started showing him some of the weirder stuff I was working on. It was like “Boom, aight cool. Let’s make a run at it.”
Do you guys work from home or the studio? What’s your setup?
Dante: The main thing I use is a lot of analog synths and stuff so I have a Juno-106 but I always try to give out sound just a little bit more like an analog twist. I think probably like 90% of the sounds on our records come from that or like guitars, recordings, or plugins.
Do either of you play guitar?
Drew: We’re both learning.
Were either of you playing guitar on the EP? There is a lot of guitar.
Dante: We have a few different guys. We outsource guitar. We’re both like trying to figure it out right now so we can do it.
How did you guys link up initially.
Drew: My manager at the time happened to be [Dante’s] best childhood friend. So he introduced me to him and was like, “Yo, here’s this producer or whatever. You should go with him and try to make some more stuff.”
We went in there just to do the same thing – get placements and stuff like that. And then he showed me some of his other stuff. He’s like, “It’s probably not that good.” I was like, “Nah, just show it to me.” And then I was like, “Yo, this is something.” Then I did the first song, second song, then by like the third song I called him up, “Let’s make this a group. Let’s make this a thing.”
Dante: It was like October of 2014. At the time I was kind of breaking out on my own ‘cause I [had been] working underneath another producer. And I was just like, “Cool, let’s just take this chance and see what happens with it.”
What was your first impression of Drew?
Dante: I met him three times before he actually remembered me.
Drew: I was real Hollywood. I was on my Hollywood shit.
Dante: He would wear shades everywhere. Shades on every single day, inside and indoors. I was like, “Man, who is this guy?” Eventually I called him out like “What’s up man? Drew – I met you three times already.” But the first time we really got to kick it, we’re both pretty goofy guys so we got to joke around. We clicked on that level. From there I was like, “Yeah, this is like a little brother.”
How did you come up with the name ‘THEY.’? It’s a very striking name.
Drew: It was just a session file name for “Back It Up.” He just called it THEY. to just call it something random. But I saw it and I was like, “Yo, let’s call it that until we think of something better.” Then we couldn’t think of anything better and ended up sticking and we just ran with it.
How would you characterize your musical chemistry? Do you prefer to work in the studio or go back and forth by email?
Drew: Nah, we’re always in the studio together. As far as coming up with the idea itself, we’re always in there together. And we just go in there, just like we were going in there to just chill, get some drinks going. Then as soon as he starts the skeleton, then I’ll start humming some stuff. We’ll start humming stuff back and forth, then start the lyrics and go from there. Sometimes we’ll have an idea of something we want to talk about, sometimes we won’t. Sometimes we’ll have a goofy-ass conversation, watch a goofy show and they’ll say a line or we’ll say a line and be like – (CLAP) “Start there.”
So it’s pretty organic.
Dante: Yeah, it’s super organic. We like to tinker with songs over time. It’s not like we knock out a song in one day. I like to build up a song over the course of weeks or sometimes months. “Back It Up” is one of the first things that we did, but that whole outro part wasn’t added until probably two weeks before the song was released. Just because I was continuing to tweak and tweak and tweak it. We like to analyze and make sure everything is right and switch out melodies and switch out verses.
How many songs did you make for ‘Nu Religion’?
Drew: We had a good nine to ten before the three came out. And now I’m thinking the next 7 are coming out. We have at least 15-20 but obviously less than half of those are going out. So it’s always been at least 2 or 3 times the amount of the songs we’ve put out are already done.
Dante: We don’t spend a lot of time on ideas we don’t believe in.
Drew: But a lot of times, we took ideas from those songs we didn’t use.
‘Nu Religion’ has a lot of rock elements. Was that a conscious decision you were going for? Or was it more like a sum of your influences and just sort of how it came out?
Dante: I’m a very big indie rock guy. I always have been and I always wanted that to be a part of my music. So it was organic. Like I said, my first placement was with Kelly Clarkson. I’ve been making guitar-driven music for a long time. I think we both are heavily influenced by a lot of that stuff, whether it’s the like emo era or the grunge era. Whatever it is, we just try to incorporate as many of those elements into it as we can and just go from there. Just whatever feels natural at the time, you know? It’s a trial and error process.
Drew, you have an unusual vocal style. How have you trained your voice over time? Do you practice?
Drew: To be honest, no (laughs). It’s really just a thing where when I was younger, I used to sing all over the house and my parents and especially my brother used to tell me to shut up. So I always sing in different ways. And when I really started thinking about doing music, I was singing and I was like, “Alright, this is kind of boring.” I was influenced a lot by Jeremih. I like Jeremih’s voice a lot, I like The-Dream a lot. So in that time, I started adapting people’s vocal styles to my own.
And when I met Dante, I was singing different stuff in my normal voice and then when I tried to switch it up he’s like, “I like that one. Why don’t you use that little different vocal techniques you do?” He called it the Ralph voice. Cause it’s like Ralph from New Edition. So I started switching that up a little bit and just tried to use as many different voices as I could to help the overall texture of the song.
Dante: When you’re in there pitching to the industry, you hear a lot of songs. There’s something unique about just having a different vocal texture that takes it from just being a song to being like, “OH” that piques people’s ears and raises eyebrows. We’re trying to make sure we do that in all the elements, like musically and vocally we try to have things that raise eyebrows.
What’s it like touring and performing for the first time? How have you grown as an artist and honed your act?
Drew: It’s been very enlightening, very humbling to be in front of sold-out shows every single night. On stage the first time, I was definitely a little nervous but the crowd received us real well. After that first show, the crowd loved us. We instantly fell in love with performing. Since then, we’ve just been getting better every single day.
Dante: Yeah, it’s tight. I think my favorite thing is just being on stage and just seeing people’s reactions. Particularly like the stuff that’s out, you know how they react to it. And then the ones that aren’t out, the ones that they have no idea what the song is. You can still get a dope reaction from people.
How do you make real-time adjustments when you’re performing? Are you in the back DJing, or do you get to the front of the stage with Drew?
Drew: It’s actually interesting because you usually would think that a producer would sit in the back, but he’s actually getting up there and getting all hype, dancing around, and singing. I think it helps your craft to get out there and do stuff so we try to make sure that we are equally involved in almost everything.
How did Timbaland reach out to you? Who else has shown love?
Drew: Timbaland had heard a couple of the songs or whatever and he flew us out to Atlanta and Miami to work a little bit. So we worked on a few things for his stuff. He helped us do our own thing. He was just so receiving and he was humble about everything, just loved what we were doing. To have someone we admire that much love our music and know the words to our songs when we got there, we were like, “Wow.” It was crazy.
Dante: Honestly, one of the first people that reached out and showed love was Bryson. And his stuff is taking off so much. That was a really tight moment too when we were able to sit down and really meet him. He’s just a real humble dude and he was really a fan.
Drew: Yeah, I was already bumping his stuff so heavy at the time and then saw the reachout like, “Wow, this dope. Sick.”
Timbaland has such an incredible ear. Did you guys learn anything from him working in the studio?
Drew: Yeah, definitely. He has a different way of approaching things.
How would you characterize that difference?
Drew: I would say that I learned from him to be more laid back and not as anxious and eager about my stuff. Having the confidence that you know what you put out is going to be good. Obviously his track record speaks for itself. But he had just this laidback approach to things. I used to be super stressed over what we do, and we obviously still stress about it, but we have this little relaxation to it now.
Dante: He’s always calls himself Uncle.
Drew: Yeah, he was like, “You made Uncle proud right there. You made Uncle real proud of this track right here.”
“Nu Religion” was such like a polished project. Where do you go from there? How will the follow-up project compare?
Drew: Just like an expansion of what you’ve heard. I want to continue the trend of not being put into a box at all.
Will there be guitar?
Drew: Yeah there’s more guitar. We love guitar.
Dante: We definitely are hitting some marks that we didn’t necessarily get to hit with the first one’s songs. You know, different lanes, different topics and textures. So yeah, there’s a common thread that’s going to go between the two EPs. But at the same time you’re going to see an evolution of what’s next and where our heads are at.