“Cheers!” Raising a mayo-dunked French fry in the air, a young singer leads his three bandmates in a greasy toast before playing for 50 or so people at a basement bar in Manhattan. It could be any new group playing one of its very first shows, except for one thing: The singer is Joe Jonas. Not too long ago he and siblings Kevin and Nick were playing for stadiums of screaming tweens as the Jonas Brothers, one of the world’s biggest boy bands, who landed two No. 1 Billboard 200 albums, 13 Billboard Hot 100 hits and several blockbuster Disney channel shows and movies before splitting in 2013. Two years later, Joe is starting over, and starting small, as frontman of a new group named DNCE. “It would be easy to come into this from something like the Jonas Brothers with an ego,” says Joe, 26, sitting with his new bandmates hours before the third show of an invite-only four-night run, “but I’ve got my head on straight. I’m ready to get out there and build a fan base.”
Along with guitarist JinJoo Lee, bassist Cole Whittle and former Jonas Brothers drummer Jack Lawless, Jonas is testing the waters with DNCE’s debut single, “Cake by the Ocean,” a dance-rock earworm released on Republic Records. Early buzz is promising: The band’s basement shows brought out Leonardo DiCaprio, Ciara and models in town for Fashion Week, including Jonas’ girlfriend, Sports Illustrated star Gigi Hadid. And DNCE made its TV debut on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Sept. 29 — being fronted by a Jonas does have its advantages, after all. Then again, Jonas’ 2011 solo debut, Fastlife, went nowhere, selling 44,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music. Will DNCE be another failed start? “It’s a big risk,” he admits. “It’s easy to be judgmental if you’re a fan of a band for years and somebody steps off and does their own thing.”
He doesn’t feel pressured by comparisons to younger brother Nick’s transition to solo sex symbol — he actually thinks it’ll help him. “He went out to battle first,” says Jonas, wearing an Opening Ceremony tee emblazoned with another former child star’s mug, Drew Barrymore. “He set the mold to show people we have our own lives and careers, which makes it easier walking into it now.”
Indeed, Joe’s new sound is notably different from Nick’s. While the latter went solo with a sensual R&B/alt-pop blend, Joe formed a party-hard disco-rock group whose name (pronounced like an acronym, D-N-C-E) came from a lyric he wrote “about being too tipsy to spell ‘dance.’ ” It has been a long journey to reach this point, though. Finding his voice took a few tries, and a few years. When Joe started work on Fastlife, back when the Jonases were still together, his songs had a “Hall & Oates meets disco-funk” vibe, but he claims Disney’s Hollywood Records pushed him toward R&B: “The label wanted Justin Timberlake, and our ideas clashed.” (Ironically, Nick’s solo music is R&B-inflected, and has drawn comparisons to Timberlake’s.)
There were similar creative conflicts happening within the Jonas Brothers, as well. After four years without an album, the group split in 2013, with a spokesman citing “a deep rift” over their music’s direction. Joe linked up with Frank Ocean producer Malay in hopes of finally finding his own vision, but the results were too “moody” for his liking. “I don’t want to be sad,” Jonas says now. “I was like, ‘I like these songs, but — I’m happy!’ ”
Enter Swedish producers Mattman & Robin and Justin Tranter of rock band Semi Precious Weapons. After a few days of “hanging out and having a few drinks,” says Jonas, everything fell into place with “Cake by the Ocean,” inspired by the Swedes fumbling the name for the cocktail sex on the beach. “It was the launchpad; we scrapped everything we’d written before that.”
He could have easily ventured out alone with the resulting batch of feel-good jams (set for a February release). Instead, after his years in a literal band of brothers, Jonas sought out a new family. “Getting up onstage with friends of mine is so much better than being up there by myself,” he says.
DNCE formed organically: Tranter introduced Jonas to Whittle, his Semi Precious Weapons bandmate; like Lawless (whom Jonas calls “my brother” and likens to shaggy Muppets drummer Animal), Lee played with the Jonases in the past, before gigs with Charli XCX. “I called them up, like, ‘Quit the other bands and come hang!’ ” says Jonas. Adds Lawless: “No matter the situation, Joe’s always searching for fun. What’s the point of being alive if you can’t have as much fun as possible all the time?”
But DNCE’s four-night basement-bar stint wasn’t just a “nonstop party,” as Lee calls it; it served as rehearsal for the group’s high-stakes live debut days later at the iHeartRadio festival in Las Vegas. Along with a cover of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” DNCE played three originals: “Cake by the Ocean,” potential single “Pay My Rent” and “Toothbrush,” a sexy romp that mirrors where Jonas is in his personal life outside the band. “It’s about taking that next step in a relationship — sometimes you have a drawer at somebody’s place or you leave a toothbrush,” says Jonas, who has been dating Hadid since June. Just as she attended DNCE’s late-night basement romps despite early call times for Fashion Week, he took time out to catch her on the runway at Tommy Hilfiger’s show: “Watching her walk is incredible,” he gushes. “It’s like she has this extra-diva version of herself.” While Jonas lives on his own in Los Angeles, he “bounces back and forth” between coasts and does indeed keep a toothbrush at Hadid’s place in New York — “a singing Kiss one,” he says with a laugh.
As for his childhood housemates, Jonas insists his brothers are also encouraging of his solo career. Older sibling Kevin, who has gone into reality TV and the house-contracting business, stopped by Jonas’ Billboard photo shoot for moral support; Nick and Joe regularly trade creative feedback. “I love playing Nick music,” says Joe. “We’ve found that’s better than being competitive. If you’re that way, it’s easy to take things to a dark place.”
But for Jonas’ new beginning with DNCE, winning over skeptical Jonas Brothers fans may prove more important. “People have been supportive so far,” he says. “I saw a tweet: ‘Thank God — you’re not just following your girlfriend around!’”
Listen to DNCE and other artists featured in this week’s issue of Billboard below.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of Billboard.