The group's debut album was heavily influenced by the sites and sounds of New Jersey, Chicago, and Compton

By Sydney Bucksbaum
August 15, 2019 at 09:45 AM EDT
Gary Gershoff/Getty Images; Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage; Rachel Murray/Getty Images

Root Down is a recurring column that explores how artists’ hometowns influenced their music.

The trio Red Hearse may be a new discovery for music fans, but this group has been jamming together for longer than most listeners know. Made up of pop producer/singer/songwriter Jack Antonoff (Bleachers, fun., Steel Train), singer/songwriter Sam Dew (co-writer of Taylor Swift and Zayn’s “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever), and hip-hop producer Sounwave (aka Mark Spears from the Top Dawg Entertainment family), the new group’s self-titled debut album is a delightfully smooth synth-pop explosion that’s full of soul and unlike anything these guys have created before.

Antonoff, Dew, and Sounwave all traveled in the same music circles for years, which eventually led to collaborating in the studio together. “I met Jack three or four years ago, I met Wave seven years ago,” Dew tells EW. “We made a bunch of tracks that just resonated and realized we had an album.” What started out as something for fun turned into something real when they made the emotional ballad “Everybody Wants You.”

“When we nailed that, I thought to myself, ‘This is a feeling I haven’t had ever in the music biz,'” Sounwave tells EW. Best known for his collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q, Sounwave has to “get to know the people first” before producing their tracks. “But coming into Red Hearse I already knew them for five-plus years so it didn’t even feel like we were working on an album,” he says. “It just felt like friends hanging out and we turned around, it was like, oh snap, we created an album and we didn’t even know it. Me and Kendrick are very intense people in the studio. We want everything to be perfect. But with this, it just flowed smooth.”

Antonoff, who appears to be vying for the most in-demand pop producer of the year, working with Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, and the Dixie Chicks, has learned an “endless” amount from his work with Dew and Sounwave. “They were the only people that gave me life when I’m in the room with the two of them,” Antonoff says. “In a totally non-cynical way I usually feel the opposite, like the light’s getting sucked out of me. This album was made because an album was made and, not to sound silly, but you could have a million songs and not have an album. We were three people in a room with our engineer Laura Sisk and that was it; we just started making songs and they started making sense as a whole. It was a documentary of a period of time and a group of people. It means a lot to me that this album is the sound of three friends.”

But the way in which Red Hearse came about goes much deeper and further back than the trio’s time meeting and working together in the studio. The new project is hugely inspired by each of the member’s hometowns: Antonoff grew up in New Jersey, Dew in the suburbs of Chicago, and Sounwave in Compton. “I actually just found out that all the guys, we all grew up on dead-end streets,” Dew says with a laugh.

Courtesy Red Hearse

For Antonoff, living in New Jersey just outside of the excitement of New York was “inspiring” even if he didn’t appreciate it at the time. “I thought I was growing up in the most boring place on earth,” he says with a wry laugh. “The greatest energy in the world is right outside of something great because it pushes you, and to live right outside of New York City, like right there, everyone in New Jersey, all they want to do is get out, which you’ll hear in the music.”

Because “no one growing up in New Jersey has big plans to stay there,” Antonoff always knew he had to “just get the f— out.”

“What I realized later in life is that that feeling is so much more inspiring than being in it,” Antonoff explains. “That feeling is in the sound — New Jersey music is one of serious melancholy and serious hope connected. It’s music for highways, it’s music for putting things in your rear view, it’s music for hoping to get out of somewhere. ‘This can’t be it. There has to be something bigger and we have to find it.'”

That’s always been ingrained in Antonoff’s music, but never more so than with Red Hearse. “Everything is really bold and really sad,” he says. “It’s just in my fingers and every time I play something it sounds like someone trying to get out of themselves which is the story of New Jersey to me.”

Dew always knew that he’d be a musician because Chicago practically trained him to be one from when he was just a baby. “I feel like it’s cheating to be in music and come from Chicago,” he says with a laugh. “At a young age, you get involved in arts so I’ve always felt like it was second nature to me to do something regarding music.”

He was 10 years old when he went to his first concert put on by Sinbad featuring Earth, Wind & Fire. “That was my first big memory of what music is supposed to feel like for the masses, like what brings people together,” Dew says. “It was summer time in Chicago and that was a great memory watching people chill and kick it like that; everybody knew the words. I knew I just wanted people to feel good [with my music] and that’s the feedback we’ve been getting so far with Red Hearse.”

Sounwave credits growing up in Compton with finding his sound as a producer. “It’s basically a big gumbo pot of different sounds because everybody is just trying to figure out what felt the best to them,” he says. “You had the NWAs at an earlier age and then you grew up and you start getting the DJ Quiks and it all had this hard grittiness to it, no matter what we did. That hard grit has stuck with me through my whole career no matter what I’m doing, there’s always going to be a hard story behind it. It’s real and hard and raw, and that’s in everything I do.”

When Sounwave was in high school, he remembers how producing wasn’t popular just yet; everyone wanted to be a rapper. “I was the only producer in the whole school,” he says. “Because of that everybody, like 100 people, always used to try to come to my house and make original songs. I remember always building with different people and having their perspective change my perspective and that’s what’s happening with Red Hearse.”

All three musicians are combining their hometown-honed sounds into one mixture with a “whole new sound that’s intriguing and inspiring each other’s thoughts,” Sounwave says. “Things I would never do, Jack would do, and vice versa. If I do something and it sparks Jack’s idea and that sparks Sam to do a crazy harmony.” Sounwave’s Compton background is what brings the “dirtier” aspects to Red Hearse’s music. “The fact that there’s a few moments that are extremely beautiful and pretty, I’m the guy who comes in and makes it more dangerous,” he says with a laugh. “That’s my signature. There are moments in some songs that feel like a big, beautiful flower and I want to pick petals off that flower.”

Along with Sounwave’s harder sound, what each member brings to Red Hearse is wildly different, with Antonoff and his signature indie-pop influence and Dew with his soulful melodies. It may not be what each musician’s fans may be expecting, and that’s exactly what excited the guys about actually releasing the album.

“Amongst the three of us there is this weird magnet in our triangle that’s pushing and pulling on each other,” Antonoff says. “There’s a lot of sandpaper because of our sonic differences and different sensibilities. The idea that we come from different musical backgrounds is probably the only reason why this thing works.”

Red Hearse comes out Aug. 16.

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