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DNCE: As if no one's watching

Los Angeles Times
Interview: Pop star @joejonas bringing brother-less band @DNCE to @AAarena in Miami.

In his days as a Jonas Brother, Joe Jonas enjoyed many of the spoils of tween idolhood. He played arena concerts packed with shrieking fans. He sold untold numbers of branded lunchboxes. He even starred in a Disney Channel series built around the squeaky-clean trio that also included his siblings Nick and Kevin.

For all their success, though, the Jonas Brothers lacked one element crucial to any grownup career in pop: an unavoidable radio hit. The problem continued through Joe Jonas' coolly received solo debut, "Fastlife," which came out in 2011, then quickly faded from view.

"I just never had that radio love," the singer says in a recent interview, describing a condition not uncommon among acts with very young followings.

He has it now. "Cake by the Ocean," the first single by Jonas' new band, DNCE, made it to No. 9 on Billboard's Hot 100, driven largely by frequent spins on Top 40 stations. Yet in a reminder of pop music's unpredictability, "Cake by the Ocean" doesn't feel like the streamlined product of some Hollywood focus group. Indeed, it might be the strangest song in which Jonas has been involved, with a creeping funk bass line, chanted gang vocals and a cheeky, F-bomb-filled lyric inspired by its Swedish producers' misunderstanding of the phrase "sex on the beach." DNCE will open for Selena Gomez June 11 at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami.

"To be honest, I thought it would be a popular novelty and then go away," John Ivey, program director of Los Angeles' influential KIIS-FM, says of the tune, which has racked up nearly 300 million plays on Spotify and YouTube since its release last fall. "But it actually did the opposite. It kept building and became this massive hit that really established the band, so they can come back and do what they want to do."

For Jonas, 26, it was important to introduce DNCE with a splash. The singer formed the band last year, after spending time away from music following the breakup of the Jonas Brothers in 2013. The idea was creating something fun and left-field, with lots of color and more of an adult edge.

"Basically just a little off somehow," Jonas says with a laugh as he sits with his bandmates in a Burbank rehearsal studio. His accomplices came from close at hand: Drummer Jack Lawless had toured with the Jonas Brothers, while guitarist JinJoo Lee had been a friend for years. And Jonas met Cole Whittle, DNCE's Mohawked bassist, through Justin Tranter, with whom the frontman had already written "Cake by the Ocean."

Together, the four resemble a rather motley crew, which is just how Jonas says he likes it, even if the singer is clearly the driving force in DNCE. Working with Tranter and members of the super-producer Max Martin's team, Jonas co-wrote the material on the group's debut EP, "Swaay," and its upcoming album, due later this year.

And during our chat, Lawless, Lee and Whittle defer to Jonas even on questions regarding their own backgrounds. More than once, the frontman says, "I," then corrects himself to say, "we."

But DNCE is taking pains to present itself as a real band, in part because that's the setup in which Jonas says he's most comfortable. (The failure of "Fastlife" would seem to bear that out.) There's also the matter of differentiating Jonas from his brother Nick, who over the past few years has scored a number of heavy-breathing pop-soul hits, including "Chains" and "Jealous."

Charlie Walk, president of DNCE's label, Republic Records, says he saw an opening on Top 40 radio, which is dominated by solo artists such as Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber, for a group with a bold sound and a strong visual identity. The way Walk sees it, Joe Jonas' stint with the Jonas Brothers was like "professional rock star training."

To help put across the band vibe, DNCE's handlers are complementing the foursome's radio presence with all manner of live performances: festivals, awards shows, even a spring-break gig at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, where DNCE was booked to play for 90 minutes.

"We played every song we know and did, like, 20 covers," Jonas recalls. "Then, they told us we still had 20 more minutes. I was like, 'All right, I want two dads up here for a dance battle!'"

One benefit of this branding effort is that DNCE, unlike some of its Top 40 peers, has become a pretty convincing live act. In Burbank, where the band was rehearsing for its opening slot on Gomez's tour, the musicians powered through "Cake by the Ocean" and several catchy unreleased cuts with surprising muscle, like an old-school R&B band disguised as a shiny pop group.

"They can really play," says Tranter, who adds that it's the connections DNCE is making in concert (rather than the heavy radio play) that will sustain the band over the long run. "The fans that fall in love with you at the show are always the most passionate."

Which doesn't mean Jonas and his bandmates didn't think hard about their next single.

An effervescent disco jam titled "Toothbrush," it shares some DNA with "Cake by the Ocean" in the form of another strong bass line and another sexually charged lyric (this time about a woman "standing there in your underwear"). It's also goofier than it needed to be.

"We could've made it about how you left your T-shirt at someone's house, or your car keys," Jonas says with a touch of pride. "But a toothbrush? That just seemed kind of wacky."

DNCE will open for Selena Gomez 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 11, at AmericanAirlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. Call 786-777-1000 or go to AAArena.com.

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