INTERVIEW | The Shadowboxers step out of Justin Timberlake's shadow with debut EP
The pop group slips between pop, R&B, and funk on long-awaited debut.
The pop group comes out swinging with their debut EP.
There is nothing guaranteed in this business. You can have the talent, the daring, the resolve never to compromise artistic integrity. But unless the stars align, the blood, sweat, and tears fall upon parched, deserted earth. Just ask The Shadowboxers. They toiled for years through dirty dive bars and long stretches of blacktop before pop titan Justin Timberlake discovered the pop trio on Twitter. December 5, 2013 is forever etched on their minds, marking the day their lives changed forever. Their long-awaited debut EP, Apollo, sees the group ⎯⎯ fronted by Scott Tyler, Matt Lipkins, and Adam Hoffman ⎯⎯ flexing the full extent of their potential, swinging for the big leagues like their lives depend on it.
The six-track project is boiled and steeped in classic R&B-meets-pop tea, later dried and shaded to funk perfection. "Hot Damn!" fuses big band horns with a distinctly 2018 hue, while "Brakes" vibes hard to a Britney Spears-level grind (see: "Toxic"). Their eponymous tune, "Shadowboxer," is the apex of the set, glistening with a sensual touch, sliding up the spin to the back of the neck. "You gonna give me a heart attack," they promise, thrusting electric guitar and spacey synths into the forefront. It's certainly a moment that will have you thirsty for more, and if it reminds you of something, well, there's a reason for that.
"We had always wanted to write an eponymous song. We were out with [producer] K-Kov in LA, and I came in with the little verse idea," Hoffman tells Popdust over a recent phone call, taking a time-out from their opening gig on Justin Timberlake's Man of the Woods tour. "There was a loose melody but nothing concrete. Everyone grabbed onto it and latched on. An hour later, we had the full structure of the song. I finished singing the verse for the first time, and Scott picked up the chorus right away. We're big '90s Michael [Jackson] fans, and it has this total 'Dangerous' vibe to it with the snare in it. This song is probably our favorite to perform live. The chorus groove could just go on forever. It has a little bit of the Neptunes in there, we hope."
Under the watchful eye of Timberlake, the band toyed with new sounds, venturing to pushing to the limits, ultimately arriving on a sound that is bigger and bolder than they could have imagined. Now, as major tour openers, Hoffman, Tyler and Lipkins have set the stage for what will surely be another turning point. Below, the trio discuss how they've grown in five years, their approach to the Timberlake tour and how the Apollo EP took shape.
You've toured for the better part of a decade. Did you prepare for the TImberlake opening slot any differently?
Hoffman: For the better part of our touring career, it's been playing clubs all around the country. Playing arenas is a completely different animal. The way the stage is set up, we are actually in-the-round, which we had never done before. It was a lot of figuring out the blocking of the stage and how to connect with as many people in that arena as we can. When you're in-the-round, you're inevitably not facing somebody. We figured out a way to set up in a circle and move around the stage. It's been pretty liberating.
Have you been making adjustments to staging/blocking as the tour moves along?
Lipkins: That's been the biggest adjustment, aside from sound adjustments and getting used to the new environment. We've been figuring out how best to take advantage of the space and reach the most amount of people and really be able to rock it. It's an ongoing learning experience.
Tyler: It was by the third show we felt we were really able to get out of our brains a little bit, away from the technical and musical things we have to do. Now, we can focus more on performance. We're going to look back 10 shows from now and think that there are a lot of things we could have been doing that we weren't. That's how we've always been. Whenever we play for a long time, we're always tweaking and evolving the show to include more elements.
This December marks five years since reaching out to Justin Timberlake on Twitter. How would you reflect on your journey so far?
Lipkins: Five years ago, we were finishing up touring with the Indigo Girls and wondering what our next moves were. We were trying to figure out how to reach fans we had gained. We were a few months away from deciding to put covers out on YouTube. We settled on a strategy of releasing one every month. I think it was our fourth one, "Pusher Love Girl," that Justin saw. Right before that tweet happened, we were at a low point of trying to figure out the same question: What is our next move? The night Justin tweeted, we were getting ready for a show, and our bass player asked, "How much longer are we going to be doing this?" We just kind of looked around and said, "Yeah, I don't know…"
We've been lucky to have the momentum in the right direction pretty much our whole career. That was one of the only times it felt like it was slowing. Since that tweet, the bar has been raised on what we felt like we were capable of. It legitimized the craft we'd been working on for so long. We immediately started writing more and harder and figured out new ways to put our voices together. It totally reinvigorated us. Now, here we are.
It's an empowering journey and one that really confirms the smallest action can spark a big change in your lives.
Hoffman: What is so cool about it is that obviously with anything, there's luck involved. But by the time Justin discovered us, we had been a band for a number of years and toured all around the country. We had figured out how to play live. We were ready for that tweet to happen. We were prepared for it in a way I don't think we even recognized at the time. But he did. He took us out to dinner when we first met him. He was like, "It's going to be easy. You already know how to play. That's so rare to find in a new artist." We had probably played 300-400 hundred shows by the time we met him. So, yeah, there was luck involved, but the key for us was that we stayed at it. We were persistent and stayed true to what we did. That has never changed. I think that's what Justin saw.
In what ways has Timberlake helped mold your sound and direction?
Tyler: Musicianship was never the concern. It was mostly finding a way to put our flag in the ground and be bold and confident about who we are and what we do.
Lipkins: I think this is a consensus among musicians that the hardest part is the last five percent. You get it almost there, and then, it's really hard to feel like something's done. Justin is very good at getting that last five percent done. He was very hands on and would come to the studio and help us put the finishing touches on a lot of these songs. If a song felt a little too in the box or too shiny and inorganic, he would add some human elements to it, like vocal percussion. And if it didn't feel modern enough, he'd help with that, too. Watching him work was a once in a lifetime experience.
What jump-started the Apollo EP?
Hoffman: It started about three and a half years ago. With Justin reaching out and that relationship forming, we knew we had to and really wanted to step up our game and not cut any corners for the next release. We wanted this EP to be our debut, and it feels like that. We had written about 150 songs for this and demoed all of them, some more than once. We sent them to Justin, and he'd send back feedback.
Over the course of the years, we distilled those into our favorites. Another real turning point for this EP was meeting co-producer K-Kov out in LA. We wrote all the songs except "Runaway" and "Wolves" front to back with him. There are a lot of fringe genres we can tap into as writers. He helped bring all that together and make it sound like something cohesive. When we started writing with him, it all fell together.
Check out The Shadowboxers' remaining tour dates:
- April 24 - San Jose, CA - SAP Center
- April 25 - San Jose, CA - SAP Center
- April 28 - Los Angeles, CA - The Forum
- April 29 - Los Angeles, CA - The Forum
- May 2 - Phoenix, AZ - Talking Stick Resort Arena
- May 5 - Tulsa, OK - BOK Center
- May 7 - Columbus, OH - Nationwide Arena
- May 9 - Nashville, TN - Bridgestone Arena
- May 11 - Atlanta, GA - Infinite Energy Arena
- May 14 - Orlando, FL - Amway Center
- May 15 - Tampa, FL - Amalie Arena
- May 18 - Miami, FL - American Airlines Arena
- May 19 - Fort Lauderdale, FL - BB&T Center
- May 23 - Houston, TX - Toyota Center
- May 25 - Houston, TX - Toyota Center
- May 27 - Dallas, TX - American Airlines Center
- May 28 - Dallas, TX - American Airlines Center
- May 30 - Memphis, TN - FedEx Forum
- June 1 - Pittsburgh, PA - PPG Paints Arena
- June 2 - Philadelphia, PA Wells Fargo Center
Jason Scott is a freelance music journalist with bylines in Billboard, PopCrush, Ladygunn, Greatist, AXS, Uproxx, Paste and many others. Follow him on Twitter.
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