In the streaming era, it can be difficult to define what is and isn’t a hit, but DNCE’s debut single ‘Cake By The Ocean’ definitely makes the grade. After a low-key release in September 2015, the band’s naggingly catchy pop-funk nugget gained momentum and smashed through the following spring, spending 42 weeks on the UK charts and racking up over 700m Spotify streams. That May, when NME asked frontman Joe Jonas what the song was actually about, he replied playfully: “It could mean the actual act of having sex by the ocean, or it could mean eating pastries by the boardwalk. It’s whatever you want it to be. We think of it as a party anthem for any occasion.”
The LA-based band – Jonas, guitarist JinJoo Lee, drummer Jack Lawless and bassist-keyboardist Cole Whittle – have yet to drop another song with the same impact, but when I catch up with them at their publicist’s London office, they don’t seem too bothered about it.
“We’re so grateful for that song’s success,” Jonas says earnestly. “It really set the mould for us being able to do whatever the hell we want. But there was also an opposite side to it, and it showed us we still had a lot of learning to do. We released our second single ‘Toothbrush’ about six or seven months after ‘Cake By the Ocean’ had been Number One [on the airplay charts] here. But ‘Cake By The Ocean’ was still carrying, still going, which meant the the new song didn’t get the life that we felt it should have.”
‘Cake By The Ocean’ could easily have consumed DNCE. One producer sent them a demo for a new song which replicated its distinctive guitar riff with a single note changed. But Jonas says they’ve now managed to process its success and move on. “I feel like we’ve come to a place of not trying to beat that song,” he explains. “I think for a while it was like, ‘Let’s try to find the next ‘Cake By The Ocean’,’ so we released songs that had a similar kind of vibe. But then we realised we had to go back to the drawing board. We realised we should be creating music that feels real in terms of where we’re at now. We wrote that song almost three-and-a-half years ago and we’ve grown so much as a band since then, so in a way, it wouldn’t make sense to release anything like that ever again.”
“We’re about everyone being welcome. And a general love for music and being alive. It’s nothing more complicated than that.” – Cole Whittle
Jonas reckons the band’s latest release, four-track EP ‘People To People’, shows a “more mature” side to the band. The soulful glide of ‘TV In The Morning’ and reggae-flecked ballad ‘Still Good’ definitely prove DNCE are no one (funky) trick ponies. But musical growth aside, the band’s basic remit remains the same. “We’re about everyone being welcome,” Whittle explains. “And a general love for music and being alive. It’s nothing more complicated than that. Obviously we have different moods and shades and aesthetics if you really get into the band. But basically we’re a big sign that says fun and everyone can come join in.”
Though Jonas talks more than his bandmates, especially Lee and Lawless, who remain pretty quiet throughout the interview, this doesn’t feel dominating. It just makes sense for him to take the lead because he’s DNCE’s singer and had been famous for a decade before the band formed in 2015. Alongside siblings Kevin and Nick, he enjoyed mega-success as one third of the Jonas Brothers, the super-wholesome pop-rock group who starred in the Disney Channel movie Camp Rock. Everyone remembers the Jonas Brothers for the purity rings they wore to underscore their virginity, but Jonas’s chaste days are long now. Last year he posed in his pants for GUESS, and in 2013 he told Vulture: “I lost my virginity when I was 20. I did other stuff before then, but I was sexually active at 20.”
Today he’s scrupulously polite, insisting I take a packet of crisps from the band’s snack stash when I leave, and seems remarkably well-adjusted. But he admits he found the teen pin-up thing difficult to get his head around. “Sometimes it’s a hard mentality to break,” he says. “But I think it even goes back further than that – to working with Disney for years and, like, feeling like you’re a role model when you didn’t ask to be one. But you’re so young and you’re put in that box. It was similar when I was being looked at as a heartthrob. So it was freeing for me, actually, to be with these guys. Because we could let loose and just have fun. I used to feel like I had to be perfect and would beat myself if little things went wrong in the live show – if I flubbed a lyric or someone messed up a solo. Now, we laugh about it and just roll with the punches. If I forget a lyric now, the front row will sing it for me, you know? Being in this band has definitely made me chill out.”
Though less well-known than Jonas, his bandmates are no novices. Lee, who grew up in South Korea before moving to LA when she was 19, has played with Charli XCX and CeeLo Green. New Jersey-born Lawless drummed on tour for the Jonas Brothers. Whittle was a member of Semi Precious Weapons, a New York City glam band who supported Lady Gaga on tour in 2009. Their frontman Justin Tranter has gone on to become an enormously successful songwriter who’s worked with Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani and Selena Gomez. He also co-wrote ‘Cake By The Ocean’ with Jonas.
Perhaps because of their fun-loving image and colourful aesthetic, which kind of suggests a millennial No Doubt, Jonas says DNCE were initially mistaken for an elaborate joke. “Honestly, I should have screen-shotted some of the comments on Instagram when we first posted a teaser saying ‘new band, coming soon, debut single ‘Cake By The Ocean’,” he says with a smile. “People were like, ‘What the fuck is this? Is this really the name of the song?’ It took about a month before people were like, ‘Oh, you guys are serious. This isn’t a joke. This isn’t some SNL skit. You guys are actually a real band.’ But we understood that and knew we’d have to build a fanbase from grassroots. We did a lot of gigs in New York City. We took over a bar there and were supposed to play a showcase once a night. We ended up playing like eight or nine times a night. It became a party, and we got a spillover from the nightclub next door. We were playing to a really fun, entertaining crowd with a lot of club kids, and that’s kind of how our fanbase started.”
“It took about a month before people were like, ‘Oh, you guys are serious. This isn’t a joke. This isn’t some SNL skit. You guys are actually a real band.'” – Joe Jonas
Since those first shows, DNCE have opened for artists as varied as Bruno Mars, Selena Gomez and Sister Sledge. Last year they performed ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’ with Rod Stewart at the VMAs and – rather more surreally – joined Bonnie Tyler to belt out ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’ on a cruise ship.
“We’ve been in front of some interesting crowds,” Jonas says today. “Sometimes we’ve walked out and seen people thinking ‘this band is not for me’. But we definitely pride ourselves in winning over crowds. Look, we’ve been lucky enough to open up for some iconic people, and I think they get what we’re about. Rod Stewart and Bonnie Tyler, they’re old rockers, so they kind of get our vibe. And it seems like so far, we’ve done pretty good. The other day there was a guy in the crowd who didn’t seem into it, so I kind of called him out. I didn’t do it in a mean way, I just said, ‘Hey, you’re not screaming! You’re part of the right side of the crowd, and they need your scream.’ But he just wouldn’t scream. By the end he and I were laughing about it!”
“Being in this band has definitely made me chill out” – Joe Jonas
The band are still stoked to have collaborated with Stewart, who also joined them for a studio version of ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’. “He’s the 1 percent,” Whittle says excitedly. “He kicks down the door, then comes in wearing all-white and says, ‘Let’s do it.’ He’s fucking Rod Stewart, you know?”
Jonas chats just as affectionately about working with Boy George on the Australian version of The Voice. “Of course there was a nervous energy at first, because he’s Boy George and we didn’t know each other,” he recalls. “But by the end of the show we knew how to pick on each other and not take it seriously. He’s someone I respect a lot because he’s always working hard, always looking fabulous, and believe me, the guy can still sing. And he’s one of the quickest people I’ve ever met. Someone was talking about being from Queenstown, and quick as a shot, he was like, ‘Oh that’s wonderful – you know I’m the real Queen of England.’ He’s my hero.”
“People like Rod Stewart and Boy George, they’re not just a musician or a singer,” Whittle adds. “They have an entire aesthetic and cultural universe around them, and when you meet them, you feel that. That’s what we wanna be for young kids. We wanna create that kind of universe.”
With this in mind, the band try to engage freely with fans on social media, but Jonas adds, “I think it’s important to keep the things that mean most to you private.” It’s an understandable philosophy given that he’s engaged to Sophie Turner, a cast member on TV’s most feverishly-consumed show, Game of Thrones.
DNCE’s fans can be pretty intense, too. A few weeks ago Jonas woke up to find a complete stranger waiting outside his house in a car filled with belongings. “Someone I work with went up to her and said, ‘Are you OK?’ She was like, ‘I’m waiting for Joe. I’m moving in with him today.’ I felt bad, and I didn’t know whether she was deluded or had been catfished.”
But Whittle has a fan story that trumps even this one. “I got a very clear message from this person,” he says, clearing his throat for an anecdote. “She’d broken into my tour bus and was just sitting in the front lounge area. When I walked in, she got up, didn’t say a word, and handed me an envelope – almost like a top-secret envelope. So I opened it and found a stack of about 30 studio-quality, like, glamour photographs of her pet skunk. She looked me in the eye, shook her head and walked out. And I never saw her again.”
Has she messaged him since? “Not once. In some ways, she’s ruined my life. Because I’ll never know why she did it. I’m mentioning it now in this interview in case she contacts me and explains what the fuck it was all about. If you’re out there, get in touch!”