Before producer Dante Jones and singer Drew Love teamed up to form self-proclaimed "grunge'n'b" duo THEY., the pair were just a couple of Los Angeles transplants who relocated out west in search of their respective Hollywood aspirations. In short order, Jones, who moved to Southern California after attending college in Oklahoma, found himself with a Grammy for his work on Kelly Clarkson's "Mr. Know It All," in addition collaborations with the likes of Chris Brown and work on a number of Nickelodeon projects. Drew, who decamped from Maryland to focus on songwriting and who has worked with Jeremih, had a chance meeting with Dante just days after arriving in LA himself.
The pair clicked immediately, and within six months began working together. Their hybrid sound caught the ears of LA's Mind of a Genius, the label home to elusive electronic multi-hyphenate Zhu (a close friend and collaborator of Dante's), Noisey Next wunderkind Gallant, and rising singer-producer Klangstof. A few months later, the duo landed the smash collaboration "Working For It" with Skrillex and Zhu, and dropped their first project, a three-track EP called Nu Religion, whose Soundcloud and Spotify streams combine to the tens of millions.
"I think we just got to the point where one day we had some songs and we were like okay, let's focus in on these three and then let's just drop it and see what happens," Jones says. "It was kinda spontaneous." Soon, THEY. was gearing up to play the project's first ever live shows—opening for Bryson Tiller on his stadium world tour.
Their upcoming debut, Hyena—due out in February—offers a snapshot of the pair's eclectic tastes: It's all hip-hop and R&B style, girded by rock sensibilities. They cite Taking Back Sunday, John Mayer, and Jodeci equally among their musical influences. Their songwriting, meanwhile, ranges from the anguish of new single, the Nirvana nod "Rather Die" to the lust of "Deep End" to the police brutality anthem "Say When."
"You gotta expect the unexpected," Drew says. "If you get a chance to express messages that you want to express, and to change up every single song and have every song be different, and have the whole project come together and be cohesive, I think that's a feat in and of itself that hasn't been done in a long time. So we're shooting for that."
We spoke with the pair about developing their sound, racial injustice, their love of emo, and more.
Noisey: How did you meet?
Drew Love: I'd just come out of the DMV DC/Maryland area. I came out here [to LA] on a whim because somebody listened to my music and gave me a chance to stay up here and figure it out. One of the first people he introduced me to was Dante. The first few times I met him, I couldn't even remember who he was because I was kinda Hollywood at that time—I thought I was cool, out here in Hollywood and stuff. But when we actually sat down to do a session, we clicked instantly. He decided to show me some of his secret side beats that he had that he didn't want to show anybody else initially. But now it's not an issue because I clicked with him on that level pretty fast.
Meanwhile, Dante earned a Grammy for working with Kelly Clarkson.
Dante Jones: Yeah, I guess that's my origin story in this. When I first started as a producer, I wasn't interested in urban music very much. I just didn't think I was good at it. What I did think I was good at was doing pop-driven stuff, so very early on when I started making music I started focusing on making guitar-driven music. So I moved out to LA, and when I first got to LA I started sending my stuff around, and just through somebody writing on one of my tracks I was able to get something with Kelly Clarkson within about a week of being in LA. It kinda just snowballed from there: Next thing you know it's a single, next thing you know it's out, then it won a Grammy.
How do your tastes in music compare? You've cited Kurt Cobain and Taking Back Sunday as influences.
Love: I think we both share influences, but we both branch off and have our own influences too. Nirvana, Taking Back Sunday, emo type of music we both listen to heavily. But then I also like Ed Sheeran, and I like John Mayer, and my mom and dad listen to a lot of Motown. And I know Dante's a little bit different on that side.
Jones: I was definitely really big into the emo scene back in the day, you know, Taking Back Sunday, Fall Out Boy, Silversteen, Brand New, all that stuff. I was super into that, it was just kinda poppin' at the time and whatever, but I was always one of those people who listen to everything. So I've always been a big fan of Houston rap, New Jack Swing, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis… I've always been kinda all over the place.
How did you link up with Mind of a Genius?
Jones: It's interesting, because Mind of a Genius' first artist was Zhu, and Zhu's always been a close friend of mine, from like two weeks after I moved to LA. So one day I went over there—I'd never played him too much of our early stuff, and I was like, I'm just gonna take it over there to Zhu and see what's up. He was busy that day, but David Dann, head of Mind of a Genius, was there. Zhu was like, "Play it for David, I gotta go pick something up real quick." So I [did]. Probably like a week went by and then David hit me with a bunch of notes and ideas and asked if we wanted to hop on. I just knew it would be a good fit because we don't put any batteries on the way that we approach music, or the way that we put on creatively or aesthetically. And they are very forward thinking as well, in the way that they get the music to the people. In this day and age you gotta kinda think on that next level to break through all the clutter that's out there. So we thought it would be a perfect match.
So then you put a three-track EP online, and Bryson Tiller just hits you up like, "Hey, come on a world tour with me"?
Love: [ Laughs] It was a mutual interest. I was definitely bumping Bryson Tiller like every single day in the whip. And it so happens to coincide with the time when we release the project. And I guess one day when we were working on some of the newer [songs] after the first three, he liked something, he felt it. We were told, "Bryson wants to come holler at you." We say, "Okay, kinda dope," you know what I'm saying? So he came through the studio and we just sat down and talked and had a little conversation or whatever, and he offered for us to do it. It was a no brainer to take it.
Had you two ever performed together before?
Jones: No! [Neither of us had] even performed [on our own] before. It was a learning experience for all of us. [Bryson Tiller] was new to being on stage and performing and stuff like that, so it was definitely a learning experience for all of us. It was good to have all those growing pains together.
How did you like it? How was being in Europe for the first time?
Love: Europe's amazing. It's such a cultural difference, lifestyle difference… Everything's completely different. Especially certain cities like London, for example. They just welcome people with open arms and welcome music in such a different way than what we're used to. We went on stage and it seemed like no matter who was on stage, they were just there to enjoy the music and have a good time. Whereas certain places you go out here, the people are a little different, you know what I mean? People don't welcome you necessarily as much in the United States as other places.
Where does Timbaland fit into all this?
Love: He came…. A little after we dropped the EP?
Jones: No, No, it was actually before the EP.
Love: Oh it was! It was before the EP. It happened before the Bryson thing, I knew that. But it was before the EP, because I remember he had been telling us his opinion on a few of the tracks that we played him, and "Back It Up" happened to be his favorite one off the EP that we dropped.
Jones: I think just like through a mutual friend or something, he had heard the original demo, not even the finished, fully fleshed out version of "Back It Up," and he pinpointed that one as his favorite very early on. So it's kinda dope to see now on Soundcloud that it's one of our biggest songs. He was very early on discovering us.
And you got to spend some studio time with him?
Love: Yeah, we did, and it was amazing. He's somebody who crafted the songs that defined my early musical childhood. He was behind a lot of the stuff that I used to love. So to be sitting in the same room with him and have my own sound and my own thing going, and for us to be able to work together and make music together… it was crazy just to be a part of it.
What's the best piece of advice he gave you?
Jones: He gave us a few pieces of advice. One was, talent can only get you so far. You can be the most talented person, but if you don't have the work ethic, you're not going to be able to sustain. Two, and this is something that he told me on a producer level, was… you know, I'm always tinkering and tinkering with stuff, and one thing he told me was, "Look man, you gotta find that point where you can just take a step back and just let the song breathe." As we've been finishing our next project I'm definitely keeping that in mind.
Your single "Say When" was dropped on Facebook with an apology to your label. What happened there?
Jones: Yeah, it was a surprise drop. I just kinda got to the point where I see the narrative kinda building up and I just was frustrated. That was one of the records that we had that was purely about being frustrated with certain… situations. You can see them going on with what happened to Alton Sterling. But before these things happened, I've always felt like I wanted to say something. So it was kind of a culmination and an extension of the song. I'm frustrated, I'm all about action, and I want to see something happen now.
You tweeted that people were telling you the song's topic was "dated"—can you expand on that?
Love: I think the entire idea of people making songs referencing racial injustice—for example Vic Mensa came out with some stuff talking about the same topic—and people were saying like, rappers have talked about this before, people have talked about this before. But just because people have said it before doesn't mean we don't get a chance to say it in our own way. And it just goes to show you that this stuff is still happening, because right after we dropped it, sure enough, Alton Sterling.
Jones: And you know what, when I was going around and playing the song and people were saying that, it was super frustrating. Just the notion that police brutality is some kind of trendy thing that goes out of style, or that it's out of style to address it? It's mind boggling to me. Look, it's been going on for so long. I think it's a little short-sighted to view it like it's a trendy thing, like it went out of style, like jogger pants or something like that. You know? It's bigger than that stuff. And we're seeing that now.
Follow Haley Potiker on Twitter.