THEY. on Working With Timbaland & Skrillex, What Makes Them the 'New-Age OutKast'
Grunge&B duo THEY. first captivated fans with their genre mash-ups on the 2015 EP Nü Religion. But the twosome's ethereal soundscapes have since taken them on a nationwide tour with Bryson Tiller, brought the debut LP Nü Religion: HYENA, and swaggered onstage beside 2018's finest at Coachella.
Comprised of singer-songwriter Drew Love and producer Dante Jones, the pair went from entering the Twitter Emerging Artists chart to scoring their first No. 1 on the Hot Dance/Electronic Songs Chart alongside ZHU and Skrillex with the tune "Working for It." Still, it's all gas and no breaks this year, as their eclectic singles consecutively accumulate millions of listeners on streaming services. And with the breakup anthem "Ain't the Same" buzzing, the group expanded their reach by assisting The Chainsmokers on "Somebody."
Billboard caught up with THEY. to discuss their new viral lullabies, thriving in circumstances positioned to block blessings, and the difference between working with pop and hip-hop legends. Become better acquainted with the self-proclaimed “new-aged OutKast.”
You went from opening Bryson Tiller's national TrapSoul Tour to owning a set at Coachella. How was that experience?
Drew Love: It is all apart of the journey. We were new to the game when we did the TrapSoul Tour. That was our first time performing, and we’ve done over 200 shows since then. For us, we’ve always wanted to be good at everything. So, to master our work, we continued to perform. And, to be able to play at Coachella, was a great moment. Life can only continue to go up from here.
Dante Jones: Coachella shows you, not only how far you’ve come, but the difference in the crowd [size]. Also, how much further we need to go. We were blown away [by the talent], and [went back] to the drawing board to make sure we keep up with the competition. It is definitely an enriching experience.
You've collaborated with heavyweight producers such as Skrillex and Timbaland. What was it like to work with a pop producer versus a hip-hop producer?
DL: There is always going to be the slight differences, but they each had their unique flavor. Obviously, Timbaland is a legend. Skrillex is a legend in the making. [They're gifted] in their respective fields. At the end of the day, music is music!
We never hold back what a song means, regardless of who we are working with -- we are just focused on making the best song possible. That is why we can make a song like our new single, “Thrive.” That song has an OutKast [B.O.B.] “Bombs over Baghdad” feel. Then, there is a song like “Donte’s Creek,” which is a straight-up pop song. Our collaboration with Skrillex was “Working For It.” It was a really dope moment [careerwise]. Still, both producers are talented.
Your debut EP Nü Religion achieved viral success before the release of your debut studio album, Nü Religion: Hyena. What changed sonically throughout this evolution?
DJ: We expanded more. We toured off of the EP's first three songs ["Motley Crew," "Back It Up," and "Bad Habits"] before we ended up putting out that studio album. It was more about us getting representation, and getting our time in. We needed to get the chemistry down packed. The full-length album allowed us to flesh out the ideas that we started musically fully. We saw how the fans reacted to it and got a nice little cult fanbase with its release. We are going to grow that with the next album that we are working on.
The song "Ain't the Same" is about a complicated relationship. Do you ordinarily pen songs about your personal experiences?
DJ: We are definitely trying to pen them more. On the first album, we covered a lot of topics, and the writing was solid. But, we want to be even more specific from song-to-song. You know, “Ain’t the Same,” is about relationships. Coming up, you know we wrote a song that is about each of our fathers, respectively. Not a lot of artists write songs about their fathers. Some rappers talk about their mother or their girlfriend. So, we think in this second album we want to talk about specific [obstacles] that hit home.
DL: One thing that we want to make sure we accomplish with our music going forward is to connect with people. We want to make people feel something, as opposed to sounding good. There are always those few records that speak to you. So, that indeed is the next step with us.
So in regards to your focus on a song’s message, can you elaborate on your recent release “Thrive”?
DJ: If anything, “Thrive” is an expression of a lot of frustration. Right now, we are kind of in a crazy time [globally]. There is anger, and [grievance], which are equally as important to pen about as a relationship or a family song. “Thrive” is us venting, since we have a place that we are reaching towards, and there are always roadblocks. So, the song is our response to the bumps we have been hitting.
The song has that old OutKast vibe to it. So, we do not think anybody would have ever expected a song like that, from us. We had never necessarily allowed people in on that side of our character before. It was really dope to see the fans reactions to it.
DL: Also, with any field of work there is always somewhere you are trying to go and things you are trying to accomplish. There are still going to be things that are standing in the way or people that are trying to block you. There are going to be things that you feel like you regret or situations that you think you [shouldn't have been involved with]. “Thrive,” reflects a point and time we came together and felt we regret [prior undertakings], but you should not regret any of it. There was a frustration with our current position, our thought process, and status. That upset is gone now.
DJ: Even while touring, this became a [mindset] like no matter what hits us, no matter what was going on, we are thriving onward. It went from just being a word to [feeling] like, “Ain’t nothing about to stop us.” A lot of people can identify with that, too. Whatever you are going through, you throw that song on -- it is like a fucking [anthem].
David Dann is a millennial CEO, and you are signed to his imprint, Mind of a Genius Records. What is it like working within a musical collective for such a young entrepreneur?
DL: David is a great boss, we owe a lot to him, as far as giving us a chance. If it was not for him, we were going to do all we could, to do this ourselves. We aren't sure how successful we would have really been. [Laughs] He was riding with us early on and still does. David is someone that we keep in contact with and talk to all the time. The fact that he is closer to our age versus a lot of the other label heads.
I would imagine that is helpful as far as relatability.
DL: It definitely is! It's beneficial in terms of relatability. He can get where we are coming from and who we are at this point in our lives. It is easier for us. You know? A lot of people do not even talk to their label heads on a daily basis. To be able to have that contact and reliability makes a huge difference.
What’s been his most significant piece of advice thus far?
DJ: When we first connected, we were trying out a lot of sounds in hip-hop. We remember the moment we played him something that was guitar driven. He opened our eyes to that fact that the music was different. He said, “I think if you can take that and run with it, you can really have an impact.”
It is almost three years later, and we see the fruits of that labor. We see a lot of artists that are incorporating live instruments along with their urban drums. David had the foresight to see how music was going. We are grateful for the insight. He gave us the torch. We ran, and the music kind of moved along with it.
Drew, you're featured on The Chainsmokers' new song "Somebody." How did that song collaboration come about?
DJ: The Chainsmokers, in general, used to play probably our biggest single, "U-Rite." They used to play it at the end of their sets all the time. When we saw that, it felt [exciting to watch]. Fans used to send us videos. That was crazy that they were playing our song at the end of their set. We appreciate the love.
So, we reached out to them on social media. Eventually, we met up and just started hanging out. That song came the first day we began taking a crack at making music. [Dante] started on the keys, and you know we really like to write a lot of songs by beginning with the piano or the guitar. So, I, Emily Warren and Andrew [Taggart] wrote that song the first day. It took about two weeks for them to finish, but once they got finished, we knew [it was special].
DL: The song has been out for a week or so, and it is doing really well. We are so excited that we were able to put that record out and they trusted [us with]. The song speaks to how it feels to be in LA. You come out to LA, and you think it is about to be one thing, and it is not what anybody thinks it is.
You are always chasing this dream of being someone that you feel you need to be. It turns out you do not need to be that person at all. It turns out you end up losing yourself trying to be the person who you think you need to be.
A few of your singles have accumulated millions of streams, and you've been featured in a handful of famed publications. Are you satisfied with your recognition thus far?
DJ: Every artist spends time thinking about whether or not they are where they should be. They think about whether they are satisfied, or if they are happy. But, when you sit down and think about it, and consider everything -- we are so glad.
If you had asked us three or four years ago whether or not we would be on the stage at Coachella, performing on Jimmy Kimmel [Live!], or having Billboard interviews, we’d tell you; you were crazy. [Laughs]
DL: God blessed us with an opportunity to use our gifts every day. We do this for a living. So, anytime, you get to do what you love, and people react to something you worked so hard for, it is definitely a great feeling. Most of all, we are grateful. So, are we satisfied? No, not necessarily. We still have a lot of ground to cover. We are excited to continue to put out music and add to the culture as much as we can.
THEY. is comprised of a producer/singer tandem. There are other collaborative duos such as Majid Jordan. Where do you see yourself within this realm of talent?
DL: With all due respect, they are not doing what we are doing. We have the capability to bring new sounds every single time we make a record. We do not see that in a musical pair, anywhere else. We are huge Majid Jordan fans, and a lot of the other duos that are out, but we are blazing a trail that hopefully other people will follow. We like to think of ourselves as a Nirvana meets OutKast or the new-age OutKast, in a way.
That is the attitude that we have been trying to take on. The past few weeks, we have been really honing in on it. The way that we met was unorthodox, but we can come together and make music.
Well, I was merely referencing them. It was not meant to be a you versus them dynamic...
DJ: [Laughs] Well, for us, there are no clearly defined roles. Whatever the song takes is what we do. There are times we have to switch positions. Now, fans are seeing a lot more artists that are producing their stuff. It is a good thing. This serves as clarity to the vision of what they are doing. It helps to make a cohesive sound.
[Production] is something we take a lot of pride in, too. We do everything ourselves, down to the writing. It is not a bunch of producers or outside people coming in. We are really paying attention to the details. That is why the voice and the vision of our project is so clear.
DL: There is a certain authenticity that comes when you are able to write and produce your music. That is why you see more groups like Majid Jordan, even Rae Sremmurd. Artists like that can speak to their sounds. They ink authenticity to their music.
What new work are you preparing for your fans?
DJ: We just wrapped Coachella, and we are finishing our next project. It will be out this year. The exact date is still up in the air. However, hopefully, it will release by back to school time. In a broader sense, we pride ourselves on not really having too many expectations.
We are going to continue to push the envelope, whether that be sonically or songwriting-wise. We are training ourselves to be the best artists that we can be. The fans come to expect our unpredictability and musical twists. Listeners never really know what is on the way. We are going to be headlining a tour in the fall. We have a few festival dates coming up, too -- expect the unexpected.
So who is THEY.?
DL: THEY. is interesting, we are people from opposite parts of the country that met one another with the same goal. I am a guy from Montgomery County, MD. And, Dante is from Denver, CO. We moved out to LA with dreams of becoming artists, and we did not know if it would happen. Then we met each other.
In most ways, our personalities are opposite, but we come together to make music that is revolutionary. We are always trying to prove ourselves, and we speak to a generation that also has something to prove. We both have been outcast for most of our lives. Music was our outlet to connect to people who share those sentiments.
Our music kind of rewrites rules. The elements of our music may not make sense on paper, but when you hear the music, it has a clear vision to it. That is what THEY. is -- two minds coming together to make an impact and fuck shit up.