“Cake by the Ocean,” the debut single from L.A.-based four-piece DNCE, came to life thanks to some brilliant use of serendipity.
“We were at the studio, and I overheard the producers saying that they wanted to get cake by the ocean,” recalls the band’s frontman Joe Jonas. Once he realized that his Swedish collaborators Mattman & Robin had misspoken the name of a tropical cocktail — what they were really after was Sex on the Beach — Jonas began crafting a new song around the cake-by-the-ocean concept. The result: a silky, swaggering piece of groove-heavy pop built on disco-jangly riffs but saturated with plenty of pure emotion and undeniable soul. “That song was a total breakthrough,” Jonas says. “Once we came up with ‘Cake by the Ocean,’ everything was electric.”
Formed in the summer of 2015, DNCE, which also features guitarist JinJoo Lee, bassist/keyboardist Cole Whittle, and drummer Jack Lawless, was born from Jonas’s long-brewing plan to launch an offbeat pop project inspired by the melodic R&B of Earth, Wind & Fire and Hall & Oates. “I had this vision for about five or six years, but I took some time to hit the reset button and figure out what I wanted to do next,” says Jonas, whose former group the Jonas Brothers started in 2005, went on to sell more than 17 million albums worldwide, and parted ways in 2013. “Once we got going on making this new music,” he continues, “it all just fell together so perfectly.”
In assembling DNCE, Jonas first rounded up some old friends from the road. Born and bred in South Korea, Lee met Jonas while playing lead guitar for Jordin Sparks (the opening act for the Jonas Brothers’ 2009 world tour) and later joined him on a tour supporting his 2011 solo album Fastlife. Also a former touring guitarist for artists like Charli XCX and CeeLo Green, Lee taught herself to play at age 12 in order to join in her older siblings’ band, POS. “I was the youngest and grew up watching them make music and put out albums, which seemed so cool to me,” she says. “At one point they didn’t have a guitarist, so I learned all their songs and they let me in. That was my whole teenage life.”
Another former tourmate of Jonas, Lawless grew up in New Jersey, played in bands in the Asbury Park area throughout high school, and dropped out of college his first semester to replace the drummer who’d quit in the middle of the Jonas Brothers’ fall 2006 tour. “I’d never rehearsed or anything — I just got on the tour bus, and my first time playing with them was at sound check the next day,” he remembers. Lawless then became the band’s full-time drummer, and later toured with indie-pop acts like Night Terrors of 1927 and Soft Swells.
A founding member of Semi Precious Weapons, Whittle started playing piano at six and took up bass at 12. “As soon as I picked up the bass I was addicted,” says Whittle, who hails from Richmond, Virginia. “At school I wouldn’t eat lunch; I’d just sneak into the janitor’s closet and practice bass the whole time.” After graduating from Berklee College of Music, moving to Brooklyn, and playing in the Big Apple Circus band for several years, Whittle joined his freshman-year roommate Tranter in forming Semi Precious Weapons. Initially an underground party band known for their outrageous live show, Semi Precious Weapons had a twist of fate when their longtime fan Lady Gaga invited them out on her worldwide Monster Ball tour. Whittle and his band then spent two years straight on the road with Gaga, later toured with Ke$ha, and broke up in late 2014.
Almost as soon as they started playing together, DNCE had a palpable chemistry and easy camaraderie that they hope to carry over into their audience. “We really want this to feel like a party,” Jonas says. “We want everyone to feel like they’re in on this little world that we’ve created for ourselves.” (Asked to describe DNCE’s live show, he adds: “It’s like going to some club in Europe at 4 a.m. and everybody’s all sweaty and looks like they’re in the Village People. We’re all from different worlds, but we’re all here together.”) And though the band name has its own wacky origin — it’s the next best thing for “when you’re too drunk to spell ‘dance,’” says Jonas — there’s also a deeper meaning that’s got to do with the shedding of self-consciousness. “It’s incomplete, it’s imperfect, but it’s still all right,” says Lee of DNCE’s name and guiding philosophy. “You don’t have to be a great dancer to dance — you can dance however you want to, and still have so much fun. That’s really the beauty of this whole thing.”