With their most ambitious album yet, the JoBros are going for rock credibility. But what happens when the little girls stop screaming?
In a sterile, grey-carpeted rehearsal studio in Los Angeles, Nick Jonas is struck by a flash of inspiration: a musical interlude for the Jonas Brothers' 10-person backing band to play while he, singer Joe and guitarist Kevin make their exit at the end of their set. The 16-year-old improvises a soul vamp to the four-man horn section, then quickly builds the idea into an increasingly orchestrated number, instructing each of the four session players when to join in. Dressed in a white V-neck T-shirt, slim-fitting pinstriped pants and Converse low-tops, Nick stalks back and forth in the studio, holding a microphone in one hand and a black whiffle-ball bat like a conductor's baton in the other.
"It's gotta have more power than that," he tells drummer Jack Lawless. He turns to the Jonas Brothers' Berklee College of Music-educated musical director and guitarist, John Taylor. "You should do a solo there," he instructs. They practice the vamp over and over again, Nick correcting and refining each take, his smile broadening, his brow unfurrowing. "It works! It's alive!" he says. "I'm gonna let you guys work on that. Thank you for bearing with us." While the band continues to practice, Nick throws his Prada bag over his shoulder and heads off to a meeting with execs at the Jonas Brothers' label, Disney-owned Hollywood Records.
"See, he's a genius," says his 19-year-old brother, Joe, only half-kidding. Says keyboard player Ryan Liestman, "If Nick's sure about something, he's sure about it, and that's the way it's going to go. But you tend to trust his judgment, because it's worked so many times in the past."
Nick's brothers call him "Mr. President," and though he is the youngest member of the group, he is the de facto leader. Nick is also the architect of the band's latest, crucial growth phase: its attempt to move beyond its teen-pop roots into the world of grown-up rock & roll. "Someone at the record label told me, 'I've learned not to bet against Nick Jonas,'" says his father, Kevin Jonas Sr., a former Pentecostal minister.
The JoBros' new album, Lines, Vines and Trying Times, is their fourth LP in four years. Their previous two, last year's A Little Bit Longer and 2007's Jonas Brothers, sold 1.5 million and 1.8 million copies, respectively, and Hollywood Records believes this one will do even better, shipping a million copies to stores for its June 16th release. The title of the new disc is based on metaphors that keep popping up in the songs — "lines," as in "something someone feeds you," Nick has said; "vines," as in "something that gets in the way of the path you're on"; and "trying times," as in "where we're at in the world today." There is a sense of striving to the title, and to the album as a whole; it's the group's most adventurous work yet. Working with longtime producer John Fields (he also produced Miley Cyrus and Christian-rock band Switchfoot), the JoBros experimented with ska-tinged horns that evoke Weezer and No Doubt, funk-rock tempos you'd hear from Fall Out Boy, a collaboration with rapper Common and forays into pop country. They also scaled back some of the gooier pop elements, keeping the focus on the abundantly singable melodies in songs like "Don't Speak" and Nick's minor-key ballad "Black Keys." "It's the first song I ever wrote on the black keys of the piano," Nick says. "I thought it was a cool metaphor for how sometimes in life it's better to keep things black and white instead of screwing things up with color."
The Jonas Brothers currently occupy an enormous gray area between teen-pop predecessors like 'NSync and the Backstreet Boys and contemporary young rock bands like the Fray and Switchfoot, who appeal equally to teens and their moms. They have never been a blockbuster on the scale of 'NSync, but in the U.S. alone they've got a couple million hardcore fans — mainly nine-to-17-year-old girls who follow the Jonas Brothers on Twitter, tune in to all of their Web chats and buy all of their CDs. Those fans purchased close to a million tickets in one weekend for the JoBros' new tour, which started June 20th in the group's hometown, Dallas. But there are also signs that Jonasmania is flagging among the band's younger demographic. The Jonases' big-screen debut, the G-rated Jonas Brothers 3-D Concert Experience, grossed a disappointing $19.2 million during its theatrical release earlier this year. Ratings for their Monkees-style sitcom, JONAS, were unimpressive enough when the show debuted in May that the Disney Channel moved the series out of its Saturday-night lineup. Everyone in the Jonas Brothers operation — the boys themselves, their management and label — seems unsure exactly how to position the band so it can hold on to the loyal kiddie fans and at the same time move closer to achieving what it craves the most: musical credibility. "I think we are working to make that trade without having to give anything up," says Kevin. "But I think it will take time, because of where we came from. I would honestly say to anybody, if you were in a band like us, you would take advantage of those platforms too. It's easy for people to say, 'No, I'm a real rock & roller,' but I think you do what you've got to do." The boys say their ultimate dream is to win a Grammy, because it reflects the approval of their artist peers. But they also insist they're perfectly happy with the fans they've already got. "Personally, I'm not in the band to say, 'Hey, you need to respect us, take us seriously,' because that's kind of stupid," says Joe, sounding defensive. "We're doing it because we love it, and we don't care what age group we attract. If they like our music, they like our music, and if they don't, fine. We don't need you to like our music."
Nick says he's confident the music will win over a new audience. "You know, that saying that perception is everything is not entirely true," he says. "But there's a side of it that is, and we just hope that if someone comes to a show, they'll see that we play our instruments and come away with a better understanding of what we do. But we're also not afraid of where we come from, and who knows if we'd be where we are today if that perception wasn't there."
Nick Jonas started trying to understand classic-pop songcraft at an early age: Starting with Stevie Wonder when he was 11, he also studied the catalogs of Elvis Costello, Prince, Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. When he picks me up in his new black Dodge Challenger one morning, he brings along a stack of vinyl LPs he brought from home, as a gift. "I tried to stay away from greatest-hits albums," he says of the selection: Chicago's Transit Authority, his spare copy of Costello's My Aim Is True, the Bee Gees' Spirits Having Flown and Diamond's His 12 Greatest Hits. "Music, for me, comes in seasons," he says. "I'll listen to one artist, then move on to the next one and try to learn as much as I can. I enjoy being inspired by other artists, taking what they've done and trying to do something with it." At home, the boys share a vinyl collection — 100 new and used LPs their co-manager Phil McIntyre gave them last Christmas, along with a turntable. Nick admits he's still a ways off from his Dylan phase. "I'm saving it," he says dryly.
Nick started singing when he was three years old, standing on the coffee table at his grandparents' house holding a turkey baster like a microphone. "He knew when he was three years old that he was going to be making music in his life, and he'd better prepare," says his father. "We had tapes of all these big Broadway shows like Peter Pan and Les Misérables. He would act out the parts and sing the songs. Then it was the drums, then the guitar and the piano."
"From the time I can remember, I was into the idea of performing," Nick says. "Broadway seemed like the ideal place for that. I don't actually remember seeing a Broadway show until I was in one. My parents saw Les Miz when I was six, and they came back and were like, 'You can do this.'" He landed parts in A Christmas Carol and Annie Get Your Gun, but it didn't take long before he sensed the end of that career looming. "There's this unspoken rule among the kids that you have to be small to be on Broadway a long time," he says with a grin. "There's usually a competition between the kids, like, 'Who's the smallest?' I mean, you'd literally walk in the room, they'd be like, 'How tall are you?' And 48 inches was the cap. Once I got to about 47, I was in Beauty and the Beast, and it was like, All right, it's almost over.' I did Les Miz after that, but I had already started thinking about what to do next."
All three brothers contribute to the songwriting process, but Nick does most of the heavy lifting. "For a very long time, I was frustrated with songwriting formulas," he says, explaining that when he signed his first solo deal with Columbia in 2004, he tried teaming up with various pop songwriters. "All the people that I wrote with were really cool, but sometimes someone would say, 'If you have an idea, let me know, but I'm going to do this.' And it was like, 'Oh, man! I have ideas!' It was better once I could write with my brothers, because we were all still unaware of our ability to write a song. We were writing so much that if one song wasn't good enough, hopefully the next one would be better."
As soon as Nick, Kevin and Joe wrote their first hit, "Mandy," in 2004, their dad sat them down to school them about song-writing splits, publishing, residual income and other details of the business. He says he wanted them to understand they were about to get into a business, one where talented people aren't guaranteed a shot at the big time. "It was important to me that the choices not be dictated to them," says Kevin Sr., who is also a former aspiring musician himself, and the founder of the music division of Christ for the Nations, an organization designed to train gospel artists. Kevin Sr. says he's always been straight with the boys, even including them in complicated financial decisions. "I wanted them not only to be equipped to dream, but to feel empowered to dream," he says, speaking gently but emphatically, with his minister's drawl. "If they say, 'We want this, this and this,' it really then comes down to money. And then we have the money discussion with the boys: 'Here's a long-term choice and a short-term choice, and it's your choice. You have to know what you're getting.' You know, they own the businesses. We all work for them."
The Jonas Brothers' summer tour had already sold more than a million tickets worldwide when the brothers returned home to Dallas following a string of promotional dates in South America. The family, who had been living in Wyckoff, New Jersey, recently moved into a $2.8 million house overlooking the sixth and seventh fairways of their gated community's lavish golf course. Though the JoBros' backing band and crew will travel in a fleet of 13 buses trailed by 19 trucks of gear, the boys will fly from city to city with their parents and management on a leased 767, making frequent overnight trips back to Dallas. The 53-date outing features their most elaborate and expensive production yet — a multimillion-dollar traveling theater-in-the-round, conceived in large part by the trio's hyperactive 21-year-old guitarist, Kevin. Last December, Kevin flipped over a circular couch in their dressing room in Mexico to demonstrate his vision for a round stage with pieces that raise and lower like pizza slices. "We started sending him drawings of the stage after that conversation," says their tour director, Rob Brenner, who's produced tours for the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. "He would ask me every day, 'Any new drawings?' Turns out he was building a 3-D scale model of the entire stage." Kevin says it took him only a couple of days to construct the model out of foam board and glue.
Kevin's image-mindedness is matched by his obsessive attention to business strategy and the financial bottom line. One morning in L.A., while he's getting his curls fluffed for a video shoot, he says he read online that the guy who patented the first-ever cardboard coffee collar makes a penny on each one. "And did you know that Americans buy 40 million cups of coffee a day?" he says. He is perennially crunching numbers, doing the math in his head, even remembering to hide one of his brothers' iPhones during a Facebook video chat, so as not to anger Verizon, which is co-sponsoring the JoBros' tour.
It takes a team of 180 people — 80 who travel with the tour, 100 local technicians in each city the group visits — up to 10 hours to build the massive circular stage, which has two runways leading to smaller stages jutting out on opposite sides. On the main one, concentric circles rotate in opposite directions, so that while Nick and his white baby grand spin counterclockwise, Joe and Kevin move clockwise around him. Kevin explains that he got inspired watching a concert film by British boy band Take That. "I wanted there to be lots of moving parts, so that we're not the only thing moving onstage," he says, describing a 30-foot crane that rises out of one of the runways and swoops over the crowd while the JoBros spray fans with white, soapy foam. There are also a bunch of hydraulic lifts and three tiers of lights and LED panels and a device called a "water screen." "We said, 'We want it, make it happen,'" Kevin says. "We have an operation around us that we run. It's not run for us, or dictated to us. Everything that we do, we sign off on."
Backstage at Dallas' American Airlines Center, where the tour's production team has erected the massive stage for two weeks of rehearsals, Kevin obsesses about whether he and his brothers should use free-standing microphones instead of the wireless headsets they've been using to practice. "It's such a small thing," he says, "but all of a sudden, our publicist will get phone calls for days from people wanting to ask about how we've become the next boy band. That's what it will turn into no matter what we do — it always goes to the extreme."
The Jonas Brothers may be America's most famous virgins — lampooned everywhere from Russell Brand's 2008 VMA jokes to South Park for the purity rings they say they'll wear until they get married. But virginity can be useful: Hanging around the Jonas Brothers reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George abstains from sex and morphs into a multitasking genius because he's freed up all this brain space. Their hustle is constant and intense, and in the face of it all, they are poised, professional and polite, hardly ever moping or grousing or doing any of "he normal stuff three guys their ages would do in the face of such ongoing stress. But when asked to comment on the most notorious aspect of their fame, Nick turns into a nervous politician. "When it conies to decisions we've made that some people may not necessarily think are great," he says, "it's a personal thing, and that's all." He then changes the subject to something suitably noncontroversial: "And the other main misconception would be that we really don't spend time on our hair. That's the one thing I'd like to clear up."
Kevin has a girlfriend, Danielle Deleasa, from back home in Jersey, but his brothers are publicly unattached. Nick dated teenpop star Selena Gomez last year, and Miley Cyrus the year before that, but the most intense JoBros relationship so far was Joe's romance with country singer Taylor Swift. She wrote "Forever and Always" after Joe broke up with her in a 27-second phone call, and, on LV&TT, he fires back with a tune he co-wrote called "Much Better," where he sings, "I'm done with superstars and all the tears on her guitar." (Swift has a song called "Tears on My Guitar.")
"Relationships give you ideas of what to write about," Joe says, "but sometimes it's hard to be honest. I mean, you have to be, but it's like, I don't really want to say anything bad about this person, but I'm just going to write it.' That's just how it goes."
Maybe it's middle-kid syndrome, but Joe is often the odd Jonas out, left to gab with the backing band or play with his iPhone while his brothers run the show. He's a guileless, Ashton Kutcher-style goofball with a knack for self-deprecation and physical comedy. In early June, after giving fans a chance to choose among three potentially humiliating scenarios to have him act out on film, Joe donned a black unitard and stilettos and improvised Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" dance in a video that got 5 million views in a week. When Joe pulls stunts like these, Papa Jonas says, "Where did this come from? He has a reckless abandon that very few people have."
Joe wasn't always an extrovert. "We were touring high schools and middle schools when Nick got diagnosed with diabetes," says bass player Greg Garbowski, who co-wrote the JoBros' hit "Tonight" and two songs on Lines, Vines and Trying Times. "Joe actually was just a keyboard player, and Nick was the frontman. They said, 'Nick needs to sit at the piano, he has to rest.' That's when I saw Joe come out of his shell. He was a quiet kid before that, but he had to step it up when his brother got sick. Within two weeks, Joe was climbing on speakers and being a crazy frontman."
When the band first started, Joe admits he felt embarrassed that he wasn't as competent a musician as his brothers were. "I was preoccupied with trying to play instruments so much, because we wanted people to know that we were a real band," says the singer. "[My brothers] can just pick up an instrument and play." And then, sounding like a guy who landed on the moon before he got his pilot's license, he adds, "But over time, I realized, look at Mick Jagger, look at Bono: They play instruments here and there, but it's their thing to run around onstage. For a while, I was still trying to figure put, 'How do you make it look cool?' I know it sounds so cliché to say 'Be yourself,' but it is true."
Several hours into a long day of tour rehearsals, Nick rallies six band and crew members to take a break for a whiffle-ball game in the parking lot outside the American Airlines Center. He grabs four white rubber bases from a cardboard box of sports gear the Jonas Brothers bring everywhere, careful to count out a dozen or so steps between each one as he places them in a diamond formation. Several fans who heard the boys announce their whereabouts during the previous day's Facebook chat are hanging over the railing of a concrete overpass, hollering, "We want a pitcher, not a belly-itcher" as co-manager McIntyre sweats through his blue button-down while lobbing the balls in Nick's direction.
The boys squeeze in sports whenever they can; during tour rehearsals they rush through lunch to go play basketball on the Dallas Mavericks' warm-up court. All three are competitive, but Nick takes the prize; his ambitious intensity can turn even a friendly whiffle-ball game into a battle for supreme dominance. When someone from the production team comes to the parking lot to drag them back to work, they keep playing until Nick's team wins with a tie-breaking home run by saxophone player Randy Ellis.
The brothers don't have time for a social life, but they make do, blowing off steam with their backing band, crew, managers, assistants and, of course, each other. "We try to surround them with really good friends," Kevin Sr. says. "And you know what? If they want to date, they date. If they want to go out with somebody and get to know them, they get to know them regardless of what kind of pop reaction that might create. And on the other side, their inner circle is safe. Here, you're Kevin, Joe, Nick, and even if you make a mistake, we love you. You're not perfect. Join the club. The pressure isn't here from me or my co-managers that they be flawless, or appear flawless. That's something the world tries to put on them."
Still, Dad does worry about the pressure his sons put on themselves. "My greatest concern for them is that they make it through this whole," he says. "I want them to enjoy life and be able to live the life they want to."
Tonight in Dallas, however, Kevin is concerned with a more short-term goal: beating McIntyre at pingpong. Twice. "That was double-or-nothing, right?" he says, as he wins the second match. After losing a hundred bucks to Kevin on a round of golf this morning, McIntyre just lost another $200 to him. Kevin is still glowing when I sit down with all three brothers in their dressing room at the end of another 12-hour day. We talk about how they'd all like to learn to cook ("A good omelet is the key to life," Nick says) and whether any of them plan to go to college. Joe shrugs. Kevin says probably not. Nick thinks he might someday study English literature, though he says, "I'm not big on reading . . . I love writing, but when I try to keep a journal, I'll write a couple of things on a page and be like, 'That was pointless; I should just write a song about it.'"
Right now, they're just trying to keep perspective, and they're not averse to criticism. "I think people don't realize that when they're making fun of us, we're laughing too," says Joe, who's slouched down in his chair backstage, wearing a red soccer jersey and tight black jeans. "Every South Park or whatever, it's like, 'That's hilarious.'"
"And we've heard it all," Kevin continues. "You know, I heard it all going through high school. So it's like, whatever, throw your shots. At the end of the day, I know who I am as a person. And I think people forget because of what we do that we grow up, too, and that we change. We have a life journey to go on ourselves."
"When it comes to changing," Nick adds firmly, "music may change, our lives may change, but who we are as people will not. I believe that the people that we were before we started the band are the same people we are today. We've just grown up in height." Then, the corner of his mouth curls in a mischievous smirk. "I mean, I'm the tallest, but . . . "
"There's a very competitive side to us, as you can tell," Kevin says. "Like, I'm just going to say it: I've started beating everybody at golf."
"Well, yeah," Nick responds. "But I haven't been playing."
"The world puts pressure on them, but their inner circle is safe," says Kevin Sr. "Here, even if you make a mistake, we love you."
"I used to be pre-occupied with playing instruments," says Joe. "But look at Bono or Jagger. It's their thing to run around onstage."
This story is from the July 9th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.