2015 was a year that welcomed experimentation with open arms. Artists, both underground and mainstream, pushed against genre boundaries more than ever before, and their innovation expanded the palettes of even casual listeners. Los Angeles-based duo THEY. were newcomers this year, but they embodied this approach. Their music was forward-thinking but still accessible, masterfully blending aspects of rock, hip-hop, pop, and R&B.
Their big ZHU and Skrillex collaboration is what they’ve become most known for so far—it has over five million streams on Spotify—but their featureless Nu Religion EP promises so much more.
We caught up with Dante and Drew to discuss their sound, linking up with ZHU and Skrillex, their unique influences (Taking Back Sunday and New Edition are a few), and today’s insatiable hunger for new visionaries.
Let’s start by getting into your background. How did you guys get into music? Were you long-time friends and if not, how did you meet?
Dante: I grew up in Denver but I moved out to L.A. a few years ago to start doing production. I initially came out to do a lot of pop stuff like Kelly Clarkson, Chris Brown, and even some random Nickelodeon stuff. When I was doing all that it was cool and I had some success with it, but eventually I got to a point where I didn’t really want to do that anymore. I had different aspirations for my career. So I kind of checked out of the industry a little bit.
Then one of my best friends who I grew up with in Denver introduced me to Drew, he had just moved out to L.A. from D.C. We were both still working on separate stuff and then eventually I showed him some of my more out-there lyrics. He heard them and instantly thought they were dope. He switched some things around and then it kind of organically turned into a project. The connection and energy were there. That was about a year ago, and from there we just kept grinding and working, to eventually drop the EP last month.
Drew: I started off songwriting too, with artists like Jeremih. I was more R&B and he was doing his pop stuff. Then when we were introduced, he started showing me some of his weirder ideas telling me like, “This is probably not that good but listen to it.” I listened to it and thought it was insane. So we made it a project.
You recently signed to Mind Of A Genius, home to artists like Gallant and ZHU. Can you tell us about how that deal came about?
Dante: I had been friends with ZHU for a minute. He was one of the first people I met out in L.A. because we were both just two dudes getting started. We started working on our own things but we still remained friends. I played him the project for probably the first seven or eight months we had been working on it.
One day, I randomly asked him if I could come by and play some new things for him. He said he was busy but was with David Dann—head of Mind Of A Genius label—so I rushed over just off some random shit. I played him like three songs and I think he was feeling it but he was kind of distracted, he was off to watch the Warriors game or something. Then 10 days later all of a sudden I started getting hit up by David and everyone telling me they wanted to be a part of it. Once we met everyone and we got connected, and the fact that I already had that relationship with ZHU, it just seemed like a really good fit. We connected on a really creative level.
It was crazy because the name Skrillex didn’t really click to me at first. Honestly I was more just trying to help ZHU out and get his stuff done.
Speaking of ZHU, you collaborated with him and Skrillex on “Working For It,” which Zane Lowe premiered. How did that collaboration happen? Was ZHU the link?
Drew: ZHU was definitely the link between everyone. We were working on finishing up the first EP and Dante called me up and told me, “We got a new song to work on. ZHU is on it, Skrillex is on it, and if we can make something cool to add to it he might keep it.” It was crazy because the name Skrillex didn’t really click to me at first. Honestly I was more just trying to help ZHU out and get his stuff done. It only really clicked to me when it became a song altogether. I was like, “Wow, this is ZHU, Skrillex, and us together. And it’s a dope track.”
I read that you cite Taking Back Sunday, Kurt Cobain, and New Edition as your influences. Which on paper sounds all over the place, but when you listen through Nu Religion it’s like, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” Tell us about how you guys crafted this unique sound?
Drew: We have a lot of different musical influences for sure, and honestly I think those are just the ones that kind of stuck when we get asked what our influences are. I know Dante listens to a whole lot more, and I do too. Like I love Ed Sheeran and present day stuff, but I think TBS and New Edition make the most sense with the music we’re making now. They continue to find their way into our music.
Dante: The thing with influences is that it’s not going to be like, nor should it be, an apparent thing. It shouldn’t be like, “Oh that sounds like New Edition,” but it’s more the undercurrent. It’s not going to be immediate but once people listen to the whole project they’ll see things that tie all the songs together and at that point the influences make a little more sense.
I think at the end of the day the commonality of all those things is melody and Drew and I are very, very focused on melody. To me, the thing that connects those influences is that they all have a great sense of melody and we want to have the same in our project.
Drew: I think melody is the thing me and Dante have the most arguments over, but that’s how you know it’s going to be a good track.
It made me realize I need to stop sitting back and wishing someone else would make it because maybe I’m the one that’s supposed to do it. You can’t look to other people forever, eventually someone else has to step up.
I was peeping your socials recently and I saw this tweet you guys wrote a few weeks ago which said, “our idols are aging… this generation is hungry for new visionaries…” and I love that statement because I think it’s so important for musicians today to look at themselves as more than just artists and really do something impactful with their platform.
Drew: I think the difference between the musicians that people continue to talk about and connect with, versus the musicians who are here today and gone tomorrow is how the musicians use their influence. As an artist, you want to use your position to impact people in the right way. I think people respond to that, people need that and people want that. Sometimes you can forget that your career is an opportunity for you as a musician.
Dante: Maybe it’s just me, but I always feel like I have a greater calling to make an impact culturally, whether it is with music or whatever. Drew and I both just have high aspirations in regards to the impact we could make socially. I’ve been in the industry for a min and I’ve seen what happened to people who get caught in the cycle and are too busy emulating what they see.
Even with this project, I used to sit back and wish someone would make something that was really hard and melodic, basically something that sounded like what we did. And it made me realize I need to stop sitting back and wishing someone else would make it because maybe I’m the one that’s supposed to do it. You can’t look to other people forever, eventually someone else has to step up. That could be us, or it could even be someone we inspire.
The idea you bring up of replication vs. innovation is one that I think is particularly interesting in a year like 2015 which saw so much genre-blurring. If you weren’t innovative with what you were creating, you weren’t thinking about your music right. Which is what I think makes Nu Religion so special because your sound is a risk but the payoff is huge.
Dante: Yeah, and we appreciate that. There’s a lot of people who do a lot of very original things, but at the same time I think there’s a certain skill set you need that can make your art accessible to normal people. You need to have something that’s not only forward-thinking, but also has that pop sensibility.
You have two other EPs to release in this EP series. Are they already done and recorded? What can we expect from them?
Drew: We’re still piecing things together. We wanted to make sure our first EP was really, really different but still palpable to people’s ears. We want to expand on that in the next two. We have records just sitting around and now we’re deciding where to put what and what songs to add finishing touches to. That’s kind of the method to the madness right now but it works.
Dante: We have enough material to put out the three EPs right now if we wanted to, but we still have a lot of ground to cover. We’re constantly evolving. It’s that competitive thing, we just constantly want to beat what we already did.
Any plans for an album right now?
Drew: We definitely are piecing together something special musically for the album. It’s something Dante and I are highly particular about . We want each EP to push the boundary a bit more and the album to break the wall down completely. At the end of the day great music speaks volumes and there’s no shortage of ideas so it’s all about channeling all those ideas into a masterpiece we can be proud of for years.
Last question: what was the first CD or tape you ever bought?
Dante: The first one I ever bought was (Puff Daddy’s) No Way Out. Oh wait, no, my mom bought that for me. The first one I ever bought myself was Juvenile’s 400 Degreez. I bought that when I was 10 years old.
Drew: Mine was Hanson’s Middle Of Nowhere