The Jonas Brothers don’t know where to sit. We’re standing in a cordoned-off area in the sort of central London bar that resembles the results of a greenhouse and fancy department store’s brief fling. The three siblings eye up four identical green, lip-shaped couches in each corner of the room. “Maybe we should take one each and just shout at each other,” Joe says with a grin.
I laugh nervously, hoping he’s not serious, before suggesting that he and his older brother, Kevin, plop themselves on one sofa, while Nick, wearing a very noisy jacket made of plastic, makes himself comfortable on a red stool. Kevin settles in first, but not before moving four slightly lukewarm coffees onto a low table.
Joe seems buoyant; the other two not so much. “I got some good rest last night, so I'm doing pretty good,” he says, picking up a cup and taking a sip. “I don't know if they got the most amount of sleep. But I had a massage at the hotel and it just put me in a deep, deep sleep.” When I glance at Nick, his face is blank. He doesn’t seem as impressed with his brother’s gentle gloating.
Still, six years ago you might’ve thought that the Jonas Brothers wouldn’t ever trade brotherly jibes with each other in front of a music journalist again. But here they are, promoting their first album in ten years, Happiness Begins. In the US, its lead single, “Sucker” became not only their first Billboard Hot 100 number 1, but the first from a boyband in the US since B2K's "Bump, Bump, Bump" in 2003 ("Sucker" peaked at 4 on the UK charts). They’ve also announced a world tour, done the requisite carpool karaoke – they’re back back.
A newer band might be climbing the walls with excitement at such success. The JoBros, however, have been through this rigmarole of travel, promo, album, tour before. Not that they’re fully jaded – they tell me how happy they are that people still give shit about them – but, rather, they’re reserved. And given what they’ve been through over the past decade, I get it. Happiness might now be beginning, but it’s been difficult to find. A little hesitation is natural.
Now, for the story every super-fan already knows. After starting small, as a teen pop punk act in 2005, the band signed to Disney’s Hollywood Records in 2006 and immediately blew up. In the US, they were the teen pop phenomenon of the late 00s, starring in sitcoms, movies and selling millions of records. But slogging it as poster boys for Disney purity for seven years can leave you in pop purgatory, unable to evolve. In 2013, when they released “Pom Poms”, it was clear that the band had failed to mature with their fans. The song stalled at number 60 on the Hot 100, while its follow up, “First Time”, failed to chart in the UK overall.
Not that they seemed that bothered by that commercial plummet. What they had was broken and when I ask if they were disappointed that the rest of that material never got released, Joe and Kevin both give off something between a huff and a grim laugh. “Truth is, we weren't really happy with the material and didn't feel like we were artistically in sync,” Nick says quickly, his jacket crinkling as he sits forward on his stool. “It’s one of the reasons the group ended. And we were isolating ourselves and limiting our creative potential because we didn't know if we could really progress.”
"I think we were all in such different places,” Joe adds. “Kevin was starting his life with [his wife] Danielle. Nick and I were in and out of relationships. We'd get in the studio and we couldn't land on anything lyrically. I wasn't as inspired to be in there. It kind of felt like I was just going through the motions and I knew that the music would be created” no matter what, with or without passion. “So I'd come in when I was needed. I just wasn't connecting with what we were creating.”
Why not get new writers, you might ask? Well, the Jonas Brothers’ involvement in the writing process felt, to them, fundamental. Sure, their breakthrough hit was a cover of a Busted song, but “Burning Up”, “SOS”, “Love Bug” and “A Little Bit Longer” were legitimately strong pop songs, and their own. Anyway, their lack of musical progression had incubated a fear of rejection. “Knowing that things were on the decline,” Nick says, “I was afraid that we would ask to work with someone and they would say no.” Panicked, he called a meeting and in 2013, mid-way through recording a new record, he broke up the band.
The next bit is well-trodden. Nick buffed up, posed in his underwear and released one of the greatest post-boyband pop songs of all time, “Jealous”. Joe joined dance pop group DNCE. Kevin retreated into family life. He had two children, Alena in 2014 and Valentina two years later. It wasn’t that simple, though. “I didn't even know if I wanted to do music again,” Joe says now. The air isn’t tense but sombre and Nick’s eyes are cast to the floor. “I had to find my own place. I went on and worked on different projects, but it took time to get inspired. Nick had that all figured out. I just didn’t.”
Meanwhile, Kevin says that he was hurt. Joe and Nick had performed as the Jonas Brothers at a final gig without him and, after the birth of his first child, he felt like he didn’t have his best friends. “It's not that I said that I didn't want to do music anymore, but I think, looking back at it, there was some pain there. So I wanted to look at some other passions of my own and see what else was out there.”
As they talk, each brother is careful to allow the other to share their piece. Nick especially is quiet, often faced away from his brothers examining something off in another corner of the room. They’re respectful, almost detached, as if they’ve plodded through that murky period with the wounds, scars and wariness to prove it. The last six years, the brothers tell me, was about rediscovering their relationships as a family. Once Kevin's kids brought them together, “We made time where we could just rebuild as friends," Joe says," not even bring up anything music-related. We didn't really dive into that stuff. We just said, 'Let's just move on.'” Moving on, in this case, involved making 90-minute documentary, Chasing Happiness.
“It seems like a jump,” Joe agrees when I put it to him, before Nick cuts him off for the first time.
“We were made aware of some offers that were coming in for a Jonas Brothers reunion,” he says, carefully. “There was one at that point which could have made sense. Kevin flew out to LA and we talked through it but not everyone was on board.” He eyes Joe. “But it opened up a dialogue about what we could do together, to touch on that period of our lives.” Nick and Kevin flew to go and meet Joe while he was acting as a coach on The Voice Australia. Aside from a dinner in London a year prior, that meeting was the first chunk of time the three brothers had together, just as a trio. Nick, though, hankered after a reunion. And so, like any responsible adults, they decided a play a game where they got drunk and aired out their grievances to figure out their shit. It worked.
After ironing out the details, the Jonas Brothers were soon recording music as a group again, pulling in pop producer and writer names with the weight of a few tonnes: Max Martin, Shellback, Justin Tranter, Greg Kurstin and Ryan Tedder (Tedder executive produced the album). For Kevin, though, it was a learning curve. In the six years he’d been out of the game, a lot had changed. Session writing, streaming and the way that digital communication has opened up the songwriting process has altered not only how people make music, but how they consume it. “There's been so many times where I've asked them, 'Is this a good metric to look at?'” he says, almost sheepishly, “Streaming wasn't really a thing. The way, dynamically, you work with your label, to pretty much all of it has changed.”
Thankfully, the music on Happiness Begins is really good. “I Believe”, which Nick wrote with Kurstin, sits between “Jealous” and the slick romance of “Hold On We’re Going Home”, while “Every Single Time”, a reggae-lite bop produced by Tedder, could easily have belonged to DNCE. And unlike a lot of current pop, you really can’t imagine anyone else singing a song like “Only Human”, a wonky horn-filled track that, when pushed, could be described as baby’s first foray into ska, or lead single “Sucker”, that grabs those Jonas power chords and drags them into 2019. It’s the Jonas Brothers on a molecular level.
I catch their publicist waving at me to wrap things up. The band have a photoshoot next and then they’re playing an intimate gig for fans. But as we all stand up and exchange pleasantries, I tell them I’m glad that they’ll finally be able to spend a holiday like Thanksgiving together as friends. They all pause and look at each other awkwardly. “We do have a day off and we'll be in the New Jersey area,” Kevin says. “We could go to your house?” Nick asks. I turn to Joe. “Oh, we have no idea,” he shrugs. “We're still bandmates at the end of the day. We're just trying to figure it all out.” And with that they file out of the room.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.