Cover Story: DNCE talks inspiration, travel and Prince
September 1, 2017
We meet DNCE – the band consists of frontman Joe Jonas, drummer Jack Lawless, bassist and keyboardist Cole Whittle and guitarist JinJoo Lee, at the Hyatt Regency Hong Kong hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, two hours before they’re about to go on stage. When #legend last spoke to Jonas, in May last year, DNCE was still riding on the success of their 2015 debut single and platinum-selling biggest hit Cake by the Ocean, one of the most played songs of that year. They followed up with Toothbrush, Body Moves and a self-titled album. Along the way, the dynamic, globally savvy quartet have cemented their credentials with industry accolades, including Best New Artist at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards.
Read our 2016 interview with Joe Jonas here.
Most recently, in May, the band released Kissing Strangers featuring superstar and 10-time Grammy nominee Nicki Minaj and a wild house party-style video directed by American luminary Marc Klasfeld. The band’s trajectory is full-on and fast. DNCE are relaxed, contemplative, yet playful and fun – a lot of fun – before they go on stage. They’re inspired by the prospect of how a Hong Kong audience will react to hearing their music. Excited? Hell yeah!
How was the lion dance last night in the Tazmania Ballroom at the #legend party?
Jonas: Unbelievable. This was an experience that, for us, I think we’d only dreamt of. I loved it. It was awesome.
There are eclectic influences in your music such as Sly and the Family Stone, the Eagles, Electric Light Orchestra – but Prince looms large. How does he influence what you do?
Jonas: I feel like we all have different answers for this, but we could go on forever, so I’m just going to say a little bit. He, kind of, could do anything. And there’s only a few musicians in that iconic genre that can do that. Whether it was beautiful ballads, to funk, to pop, to dance hits, to movies, he’s also one of the biggest silent writers in the world. He’s just so talented. His craft, for what he did, was really on point – and also his fashion. When you listen to his music and then you see him live… you couldn’t say no to Prince, and that was the beauty about him. We’ve covered his songs here and there, some of his music. He’s definitely one of our heroes, and the biggest inspiration. He’s top of the list.
Whittle: We’re attracted to heroes, not only in music, but in art. There are people who have their own universes, and Prince is someone like David Bowie or Grace Jones or Miles Davis or Dolly Parton. That is a universe. They’re not a musician, they’re not an actor, they’re not a designer, they’re a world – and you witness their world for an hour, it can change your whole life. You spend any time with them in their world… I can’t even imagine. That’s something we really appreciate. From aesthetic to social presence, to art and music and fashion, it’s all one thing. That’s just Prince. That’s just Bowie. So that’s what we appreciate about him, and them.
Lawless: Well, back in the Jonas days, we actually used to play with a couple of guys who were in the New Power Generation. So they, kind of, made me really appreciate just the musicianship of it all – like Sonny Thompson, who was the bass player for the New Power Generation – also, like, a genius guitar player.
Whittle: Out of his mind.
Lawless: Out of his mind. And Michael Bland was, like, an ace drummer. I just look up to him so much. He is the most solid drummer I think I’ve ever seen. Total rocker and he’s great.
Lee: As a guitarist, he’s like a hero to me. Not just his skill or technique, but it felt like he chose a unique sound I’d never really heard before and it’s, like, all the writing, the clothes changes, the performance – just unforgettable. He is a big part of our career.
Are there any other artists that have influenced you? I know Cole played with Semi Precious Weapons. There’s a certain overlap, certain style similarities. How much of that influences what you guys do as DNCE?
Whittle: I think – on a simple level, you know – we love funk music, we love soul music. But we all grew up in bad garage bands, and we love rock ’n’ roll. And we love that we are musicians because we get to hang out with people of the opposite sex, or to be social, or party. And, you know, it truly is a lifestyle. And I think, almost to a fault, we’re just born to do that. So that is, I think, the one thing that carries over from all of our bands. And even if he [indicates Jonas] was a bit younger than most rock stars, this guy was in the highest-level touring rock band, or whatever you want to call it, and I got to experience that as well. It’s just a life. You can’t have one foot in, one foot out. It’s 100 miles an hour forever, and that’s, kind of, what we are.
What kind of world would you want to create that’s different from everyone else’s? How would you describe what you want people to feel?
Jonas: We want people to feel, like, it’s a safe place to come to our concerts. They can feel free, whatever version that is for them. They can dress, or put on whatever outfit they feel proudest about, and they can come dance and smile and have fun. There’s a lot of negativity in the world, and we hopefully want to make some people happy and bring some love to this universe.
Jack, you were a golf caddy once, right? Did you have any other odd jobs along the way?
Lawless: I was a caddy for about a month. After, I got a job at the beach as a lifeguard. I decided the beach was better than being a caddy and went full-time beach guy. That was the only other job I had before I started touring.
Cole, you were at Berkeley, right? Which one?
Whittle: There’s a Berkeley in California that’s for smart people and there’s a Berklee College of Music in Boston, for which you didn’t necessarily need to be smart, but it’s for people who are devoted to music. I went there and studied weird jazz and avant-garde classical music.
Is that where you started Semi Precious Weapons?
Whittle: Yes, my freshman roommate at Berklee was a guy named Justin Tranter and we became best friends and experienced music school together and moved to New York together and stuff.
JinJoo, do you listen to a lot of K-pop. Do you hang with the likes of CL?
Lee: Yeah, she’s really famous in Korea. She’s really famous. She started her career in the US, and I think she’s doing really cool things.
Would you guys collaborate with CL at any point, do you think?
Whittle: We’d love to. She’s super-fashion-forward, too. She’s done some stuff with Diplo, yeah. Hell, yeah, we’d love to collaborate.
Her younger sister’s cool, too – Lee Harin – making a name for herself.
Lee: I think Harin’s more like a model. I met her one time, and she was, like, so passionate: let’s do something together.
Who else catches your eye in Korea?
Lee: I really like IU. I like G-Dragon. He’s doing a great job. BTS just won some awards.
And what about Kiko Mizuhara?
Lee: Yes, she’s a great friend.
Jonas: Kiko, yeah, we were in a Diesel campaign with her. She’s a homey, a friend of ours.
When did you last see her?
Whittle: About a year ago.
Jonas: I saw Kiko a few months ago. We met at the Met Gala in New York. She’s really sweet and, again, super-fashion-forward and funky.
Joe, you’re an art guy with an art Instagram handle. How would you define what you like and who you like and why you like them?
Jonas: I guess it’s, kind of, like music in a way. I didn’t go to school for it but I love it. I think a lot of contemporary artists, the beauty of Instagram is being able just to find so many artists and build relationships through galleries. The Opera Gallery is actually just across the street, and that’s a buddy of mine’s gallery. And he has one in New York and London. I could name names. But what I find it really comes down to is some sad pieces and some really beautiful, like, bright-coloured wild-and-crazy pieces. I also collect toys, and now there’s a lot of artists doing toys. I’ve started collecting mini-sculptures, which is cool. It’s like Popaganda. Ron English has a bunch of toys now, and I’m obsessed with his stuff. In fact, a fan gave me one today. But that’s, kind of, the cool thing – that now, with Instagram, I’m actually able to meet these artists and, whether it’s a cool platform for them, to be spot-lit in a way they probably wouldn’t be otherwise, when it’s, kind of, here and there. I think my taste is all over the map.
Whittle: Not to toot his horn, but I do visual art as well – since I was a kid. And the playing field is so level, with these little computers we carry around in our hands. But if the whole world was like Joe… Joe will buy a piece from a 13-year-old girl if he likes it, the same way he would buy a piece from Diego Hernandez or Chris Burden – from legends to just kids – because art is art, and something hanging on a wall in the Guggenheim can be the same thing that’s hanging in a kindergarten classroom six blocks away, and Joe truly supports it. He buys it and he hangs it. He doesn’t just talk about it and look at it on his phone.
Cole, you’re wearing six watches. Is that your daily look?
Whittle: All the time. This is one of my things. I don’t like time. It’s something – from calendars to clocks to age… not to get too deep, but time is something that someone’s brain made up to keep track of shi*t. I don’t know why. But the soul and the heart, we don’t know that stuff. I wear broken watches. None of them work. None of them tick or do anything. But I collect them around the world. I got this one in Berlin. I got this one in Hong Kong. I got this today, actually, this morning: this, this and this here. It’s a conceptual-garbage way to say I don’t like time or believe in it.
I like the dysfunction in that. It’s like a microcosm for your name, DNCE. Why DNCE? Was it a typo early on and you went with it?
Jonas: The simple answer is that it was literally a typo that we liked. And the bigger picture was that we were creating something new – and a new word. It’s, like, you can Google it and it’s out there now. Siri’s fu*ked because every time you type in “ ‘dance”,’ she corrects it to “DNCE”. It’s our little stance in the universe. There’s not another word like it – and it’s ours.
It would become a verb in your ideal universe, right?
Jonas: Yeah, the same with Cake by the Ocean. When we came out with that song. It made no sense to anyone. Now it’s a casual conversation. We want to continue that, so our grandchildren are used to misspellings.
When you guys play new material live how tricky is that?
Jonas: We are a little bit, I’d say, like wrestlers, where you feel you have to win over the crowd. We actually get off on that energy. We have to win them over, so, like, it’s a new city. We don’t know what to expect, so the crowd could be singing every lyric or standing there, like, “Make us like you.” And we like both approaches because it keeps us on our toes and keeps us excited. And when we’re playing material for a crowd that’s familiar with our music, it’s an interesting feeling, because they’re sitting and watching and it’s, kind of, cool. You sometimes miss that when there’s a lot of cell phones – which is the day and age we live in. But when it’s new material and they can just soak up the lyrics and let that affect them, it feels like a special experience.
On the subject of filling up a set, I remember there was a concert where you got two dads to dance?
Jonas: Oh, yeah in the Bahamas. We were really short and we finished way too early. We had to play for, like, 90 minutes. We just invited two dads to come and have a dance-off on stage.
Whittle: And whomever won, won US$10.
Kissing Strangers was directed by Marc Klasfeld. He’s worked with Katy Perry, Jay-Z – quite a lot of famous people. How is it working with him? Do you guys have a lot of say in how it looks? What’s the dynamic like?
Jonas: I think it’s different every time with Marc. Individually, it was really collaborative. We came to him with this concept and we and somebody else in our team, John Taylor, we all worked on inspiration from Dazed and Confused. That was the vibe: hippy, free love, Seventies-ed out. We wanted to go for it but to also make it something different. Marc understood the concept and Nicki Minaj came in, and she did such a great job in the short amount of time we had.
Everyone always asks: did you kiss?
Jonas: I don’t kiss and tell.
Who made the dog pink in that video?
Jonas: The dog came like that. It was nothing to do with us. We love dogs. We can never get enough of them. We had a lyric video before that and I think we ended up travelling too much to make a video – which, typically now, everyone starts to do. So the team just got a bunch of famous Instagram dogs together and made it.
Only two dogs. Why did you stop at two?
Whittle: Yes, that was modest – which is not our strong suit.
JinJoo, how do you feel about being one of the few Asian musicians who have gained popularity in the US?
Lee: I feel honoured to be one of many people to bring the Asian culture to the US. I feel loved and welcome.
How does it feel to be a role model?
Lee: It is humbling. I’m happy to be part of someone’s life in a positive way.
Which guitarists did you look up to?
Lee: Stevie Ray Vaughn is my favourite. I also love Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, George Benson, Prince… so many great guitarists. I could keep going.
A lot of talented young Asians and Asian-Americans give up their dream because of familial pressures and fears that Asians can’t make it in American media. What do you have to say to them?
Lee: Don’t give up on your dreams. Think of it as an adventure. Live a little, baby.
How do you describe your look or style?
Lee: My look is different every day because I think fashion comes from your attitude every day. If you wake up and you feel girly, then bring that to the max. If you wake up and you feel you want to be boyish, do that. If you’re grouchy, do that, too. So I think the fashion thing shouldn’t have rules. It doesn’t have to be anything like that.
You’re a Sailor Moon fan, aren’t you?
Lee: Yes, she’s full of attitude, a cute girl. But the way she changed to Hero Moon from head to toe, with nail colour and all, I love that about her.
Which are you most often? Girly, boyish or grouchy?
Lee: I’m boy-girl sexy. That’s my look most often.
Your sister’s a gospel singer in Korea.
Lee: She used to be but she’s now crossed over to being a regular singer.
Favourite pop song: Lorde said Talking Heads, “Road to Nowhere”. What’s yours?
Jonas: Right now, I’ll go with – this has always been a huge inspiration, along with the band itself – but Mr Blue Sky by ELO. The harmonies, the guitars, the length: there’s a kind of no-rule mentality that’s inspiring, especially for the creation of DNCE, which was about not having any rules and being free. That’s my answer, for today.
Whittle: I could listen to – and I think it’s the exact way it fades in and out which makes me feel like I could listen to it forever if it’s not, like, repeating – is If You Want Me To Stay by Sly and the Family Stone. I could let that weave around me for the rest of this trip, very happily.
Lawless: Right now, I’ll pick Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s an exotic, crazy song. It’s amazing. But I wondered what it was like when Brian May must have said: “Hey, check out this new song.”
Lee: I have to go with MJ, Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
How is your relationship with technology as a band?
Jonas: We were having exactly that conversation this morning. We are annoyed with it, but we also love it, as well. I think, for musicians, it’s such an essential way to connect with your fans now. And we can share what we’re doing right away. We’ve been doing this new thing where we livestream our show. You know, we performed in Incheon, South Korea, for, 30,000 or 40,000 people – and 70,000 people watched it online. That includes so many people who could, maybe, never see a concert from where they live [because] they can’t travel, or we wouldn’t be there for another year or two. They get to watch in their living room. So, for us, we love it. But I also think, for a lot of artists it can get annoying. Like, it’s super-fast-paced. But as long as you can keep up with it, it can be really beneficial. With vinyl, cassettes, CDs, there’s a certain order to how songs are put together. But now we lose that in some way. There’s no journey any more.
Whittle: I think the new way of that, though, is that you have to take your hands off the wheel as artists. The new way of that is you have this thing, and every song, pretty much of all time – unless you’re in the real underground – is right in front of you. Instead of us architecting your experience, you get to do it yourself. You have every song ever made right in front of you, and so you make your big picture album.
But do you remember the days of giving a mix tape to a girl?
Whittle: Well, you can give her your Spotify playlist and look at photos of any other person in the world, write a message and meet them in 20 minutes. Technology’s pretty cool, sometimes.
Yes, but it’s a lot of delegation – too many choices to make.
Jonas: Eventually we’ll all get that calendar and hit restart. That’s our hope.
Whittle: I’m with you on that. And vinyl sales have been really good in the last two or three years.
Jonas: Yes, there’s hope out there, and I think it all comes back. We just put out our album as a vinyl as well in certain countries because we love it. We released vinyl in Britain and it did well.
Whittle: If you’re a super-fan of a band and they tell you to listen from tracks one to 10 to get the whole meaning of what we were going through, so be it. We all like albums we want to hear from front to back, but, we can’t control it anymore. But as long as there’s still sound out there, we’re cool.
Jack, what is DNCE’s dream collaboration for next year?
Lawless: Oh, man, how can we top this year with Nicki Minaj? Maybe Paul McCartney or Jeff Lynne?
And your dream venue to play, Jack?
Lawless: I’ve always wanted to play Red Rocks and I would love to see DNCE playing Madison Square Garden because I’m from the East Coast.
Photography / Dennis Leupold
Creative Director / Stylist Paris Libby
Grooming / Marissa Maccado at Art Department
Hair / Ryan Randall at The Only AgencyMake-up / Dusty Starks at The Only Agency
Styling Assistant / Janelle Miller Photography Assistants / Josef Perez and Jason Schexnayder
Location / Studio 61, Los Angeles