Kids today … with their memes, vapes and disdain for all things old. Don’t they know what they’re missing, like the satisfaction that comes with learning how to play and eventually master an actual instrument that isn’t a laptop? You’d be forgiven for ascribing such a sentiment to a local boomer or aging music critic, but when articulated by DOMi (22, keyboards) and JD BECK (19, drums), it carries a little more weight.
That’s because the two musical prodigies are making it cool again to be a virtuoso and aren’t shy about saying so — an attribute at the heart of their long-awaited debut album, NOT TiGHT. The pair met in 2018 at the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) convention in Anaheim, Calif., and have been making music ever since, dropping jaws with their instrumental panache and intuitive mastery of groove and dynamics. Their talents brought them to the attention of Thundercat, who mentored and utilized them as a backing band, and Anderson. Paak, who signed them to his APESHIT label in partnership with Blue Note and encouraged them to write for his Silk Sonic project with Bruno Mars.
The French-born DOMi and Dallas-reared Beck are deadly serious about their craft but highly irreverent about the hype machine that surrounds it (their meme-heavy website describes DOMi as “a 12-year-old saxophone prodigy” and “the only living theoretical physicist,” while Beck is said to be “a six-year-old sheep investigator from Texas” who “has since devoted his life to smooth jazz and wishes to be taken seriously in the music industry”). Indeed, they just want to play, and play they do on NOT TiGHT, a dazzling amalgam of brainy jazz and satisfying instrumental hip-hop further enhanced by guest spots from A-listers such as Herbie Hancock (“MOON”) and Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes (“PiLOT”), plus, of course, both Thundercat and Paak (whom DOMi and Beck call “Andy”). The album has already topped Billboard‘s Contemporary Jazz Albums chart.
The artists jumped on Zoom with SPIN, often finishing each other’s sentences as they discussed their unique approach to recording, translating the complicated NOT TiGHT material for live performance and the benefits of being anti-social.
Are there any pitfalls to being so good at your instrument at such a young age?
DOMi: I don’t think it’s age that’s a downside at all. In music nowadays, fewer people play instruments, so a lot of the time, we got looked at like, oh, you play an instrument? It’s surprising.
JD Beck: The downsides are that you can’t go a lot of places or play in certain venues. A lot of people don’t take you seriously, but that’s not unexpected.
What about other kids, or your friend group? Could they comprehend why you were so serious about music?
DOMi: We didn’t know any kids!
JD: We’re both homeschooled and we’re both anti-social, so we had no friends anyways. I literally don’t think I know a person my age.
DOMi: Same. We’ve never grown up with people our age. We couldn’t care less about the stereotypes of, you should be doing this when you’re 10 years old.
JD: We’re both assholes. We’re kind of stubborn too.
DOMi: When I was 10, all of my friends were 20. I liked it. We’ll see in five years. Maybe we’ll all be murderers.
Were the two of you in the same room when you were recording?
JD: Yeah, but none of it was recorded together. We did it all separately. We don’t write on our instruments. — we write all of our music just singing notes and chords and melodies together.
DOMi: We’ve never been to a proper studio. Everything was at home in a little room with a coffee table and a drum set. The whole album was recorded on a 49-key MIDI keyboard.
JD: All one mic on the drums too. I’m glad we recorded separately, because it has given us a different result, and that’s exactly what we wanted. We didn’t want to make an album that was the same thing as what we do live. We’re already limited when we play our music. We wanted to remove all those limitations when we could.
How did you round up such a crazy roster of special guests?
DOMi: We already had Thundercat, Mac DeMarco and Kurt Rosenwinkel before we signed. When we signed with Andy in November 2020, he asked us, who do you want? and wrote them down on a whiteboard.
JD: Herbie and Snoop were on that list. “PiLOT” kind of came together on Andy’s behalf. We sent him that beat a long time ago — it was a little loop we made for fun. He ended up getting Busta on it, and when we decided to turn it into a real song, we were like, let’s get Snoop. We went to his compound in Inglewood and recorded it there. That was really cool. With “MOON,” Andy’s manager somehow had a connection to Herbie. I guess Herbie had been watching us on YouTube, and when they hit him up, he was down to do a song. We wrote that song in a week. It was the craziest thing ever.
DOMi: We were there for his session. We went to a nice studio in L.A. and met him, and he had his grand piano and his vocoder. He recorded for like two hours right in front us, and we were behind the glass door staring at him, like, holy fuck, it’s Herbie! [Laughs.].
On “ROB ME,” you mention a “Stephen” whose bass got broken. I presume you’re referring to Thundercat?
Both: Yep [Laughing].
JD: We almost did a few times, but he deserves it, so it’s fine. And he has like 50 basses, so it’s OK.
DOMi: It was his favorite one. He asked us to carry it somewhere and it was in the trunk of a car. We were like, holy shit. Imagine if someone steals it and we have to say to him, sorry, we don’t have your bass anymore.
Has enough time passed since you finished the album for you to have any perspective on it?
JD: Fuck no! I don’t think so at all. It’s really hard to take that stuff in. Our brains don’t let us, because that prevents the drive, you know? In our brains, it kind of feels like, ok, we have nothing to show for ourselves and we’re awful at music. That’s the number one thought going through our heads at all times. Now we’re just eager to…
DOMi: … do better. We just want to push ourselves into things we haven’t explored yet and surprise ourselves. We didn’t think about it before, but now that it’s done, if we have to reflect on it, we just wanted to surprise ourselves with things we never thought we’d write, do or play.
JD: We also just needed a starting point. It was so weird that people started coming to our shows and paying attention to us before we even had any music out at all, even on Bandcamp. Most people at least have music, but we never did. Now we’re just desperate to make a better album.
I presume you’d be pleased if this music helps young people discover cool, older jazz or fusion music?
JD: That’s great if that’s the case. Our only goal it to make kids realize that practicing and being good at something is cool. The number one most promoted thing right now is achieving results with no work or zero effort.
DOMi: Or getting a team to ghost-write for you.
JD: Even in TV, art and fashion, like, oh, I’m going to put zero effort in and become a millionaire the next day and I want everyone to love me.
DOMi: That’s why shit don’t last.
JD: That’s why shit sucks and doesn’t last.
DOMi: We had to do a video for something and we were setting up our instruments. The producer was like, oh, wow, you’re really going to play those?
JD: And I was like, I want to stab you in the face.
DOMi: If there’s one thing that could come out of this record, it would be that we bring back instruments. Instruments are cool again.
JD: We want people to realize that you don’t have to listen to the most dumbed-down shit ever. Our music is crazy, but it’s not hard to listen to. When people hear things that are different, they get scared.
DOMi: Everything sounds the same and the standards are so low, so when you hear something different, people don’t have the courage to really listen and give it a second chance. It has to hit in 30 seconds or otherwise you swipe. That’s not really what it’s about. Let’s bring back patience and real craft. If we can get younger people to think it’s cool to actually work 10,000 hours on your instrument and play live, it would be amazing.
Are the trolling, memes and weird song title capitalizations a necessary part of drawing attention to an art form that’s pretty rigid and far removed from TikTok sound bites?
JD: It’s us growing up and being around all that stuff. We’re just used to making memes and we like stupid videos. But we try to not do anything to attract people to us outside of the music. I think you should like my music, and if you like me, that’s cool.
DOMi: There’d be nothing worse than people listening to us because they think they’re cool because it’s trendy to listen to us. We’d fucking hate that. But if you come and you genuinely love it, cool. Fuck yeah. It has to be only about the music.
JD: That’s why we’re kind of anti-everything right now.
DOMi: To go full circle with your question about our age, we have to deal with two extremes in music: young people not giving a fuck about practicing and doing things correctly, and older generations who just want to shit on the younger generations.
JD: Jazz purists. That’s the hard part — that balance.
DOMi: That’s why we stay in our room and don’t go out [Laughs.].