Ross and Rocky Lynch have been singing, dancing, acting — and being told how to do it — since they were tweens. The brothers spent their high school years in a family dance-pop band R5 alongside two of their siblings, being molded by Hollywood Records into a radio-friendly, generic pop act. Ross also moonlighted as Disney kid, starring on the channel's Austin & Ally sitcom and in Teen Beach Movie. Now, at 23 and 24, a year out from launching their first independent project, The Driver Era, Ross and Rocky are in love with how it feels to finally call the shots
Bleach-blonde and hoodied, the brothers swagger with the slight air of a young Chainsmokers. But they have a lot to swagger about. They were writing and producing nearly all of R5's music when they decided to break from their siblings to form The Driver Era. They've been able to record, release and now tour, all without a label, ensuring the ownership over their sound they once lacked, because of the massive cult following they've built over the years (6 million between the pair on Instagram alone), with special help from Ross's fandom via his recent roles as Harvey Kinkle on Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch and the titular character in My Friend Dahmer.
The Driver Era is the sound of them flexing their newfound freedom. Each of their singles so far has borne little resemblance to the last: "Preacher Man" is a boot-stomping pop-rock redemption song, "Low" is melancholic, woozy electro-pop, "Afterglow" is a tropical morning-after anthem, and their most most recent release "Feel You Now," is a jammy alt-rock, with a euphoric, hand-clapped chorus preaching love. Each song is different, but their calling card has already become ebullient, brooding rockstar energy matched with soulful simplicity of pop-craft that doesn't overthink itself. Their sticky melodies recall Maroon 5, while their epic swells evoke Hozier. But who knows what the next single will sound like. Right now, unpredictable is their thing.
PAPER caught up Ross and Rocky while they were in town for an NYC gig to talk fandom, social media and finally being in control.
How old were you guys when you first started playing and touring?
Ross: About 12.
Rocky: Yeah, I think I first picked up a guitar around 11 or 12-ish.
Because of R5?
Rocky: No, it was just to please my mom because she wouldn't let me play RuneScape. Straight up.
Ross: Essentially, we got into music — at that age, at like, 12. I don't think we actively decided to do it, we were just going with the flow and doing what we were told. I guess initially we started because my older brothers were doing it, Rocky was doing it, obviously. We just followed suit.
What growing up in Hollywood and entertainment like?
Ross: I mean I've worked a lot of my life. I've been working since I was like, 10, which was my first gig. We were homeschooled most of the time because we were also acting and other sorts of opportunities in entertainment. I was actually originally a dancer.
Rocky: What kind of dancer?
Ross: Stripper, bro, 10-year-old stripper. [laughs]
You were a dancer?
Ross: Yeah, that was my first profession, being a dancer. Him too. We grew up huge fans of Michael Jackson, Elvis and Grease, we would watch all the videos and mimic their dance choreography and perform it in our basement. We were just obsessed. Then that sort of trickled into becoming musicians and actually taking music on as an art form. Then, with all of that — we were taking dance classes and stuff as kids, and that became our first profession, doing ballet and tap and hip-hop. So even at a really young age, we were constantly around music, all sorts of different music. We heard classical music in ballet, hip-hop music in hip-hop, listening to all sorts, frickin' Tupac...
Do you guys ever wish you had a more normal childhood?
Ross: I don't think so.
Rocky: Everyone says prom sucks. Did it suck?
So you guys are still in awe.
Rocky: You kind of go in and out of it, where you put together the past couple of weeks and you're like, "Holy shit, this is crazy."
It doesn't feel normal, even though you've been touring forever?
Rocky: It feels... It kind of feels like a while ago, there were a lot more pieces to the puzzle. You had a label, you're working with other writers and producers, and now it's like, we're just selling out shows with songs we wrote and produced.
Ross: No, honestly, there's a moment almost every day on this tour where we've looked at each other and been like, "This is so funny. Our circumstances are hilarious."
When you were with R5, you mean?
Rocky: Yeah, as R5. We were signed to Hollywood Records. Obviously, we learned a lot from all of those experiences, but there were lot of other people who are trying to put their print on what they think the band should be. Now there's no one else deciding that.
Why did start The Driver Era?
Ross: Well, we both did all the writing and producing for R5.
Rocky: Yeah, so it was a really natural progression. We just thought it was the right move to start a blank slate instead of having to deal with all those things that people at the label tried to establish. Now, we have a blank page to try and do what we want to do.
I read that you once scrapped a whole R5 album because it felt contrived.
Ross: Yeah, Hollywood had a whole record lined up for us. We went in and we were like, "This is not what we want to do, we're not pop stars. Don't give us songs like this, that's not what we want." That got us into a bit of trouble, actually, but from that point on as R5, that was when Rocky and I started producing and writing all the music. Now, there's no one telling us what to do. It's just our own opinions, and obviously, our knowledge of being known in the music industry for ten years.
How would you characterize the The Driver Era's sound? The first few tracks are really all over the place.
Ross: There's not really a through line, yet. I think because of all those different genres of music that we love so much, I don't think we're going to have a very specific sound. We'll always be eclectic because we have so many influences. We got some punk songs coming, we got dance tracks coming, probably rap songs, you know what I'm saying?
Rocky: There's a song called "Welcome to the End of Your Life."
"There were lot of other people who are trying to put their print on what they think the band should be. Now there's no one else deciding that."
Sounds like a pop-punk song.
Rock: Nah, it's like punk/hip-hop.
It feels like your music based in rock, which is rare on the charts these days. " It's just not in vogue right now, so I wanted to ask what it's like to make rock music in 2019, but it sounds like that's not how you see it.
Ross: Whenever we're making music, we're not trying to make any genre. We're following whatever the vibe is at the time — whatever feels right, whatever key or whatever Rocky's playing, a drum loop or playing a bass line. Whatever it may be we always follow music rather than a prior conception of what The Driver Era should be. It's more about creating something in the spur of the moment and letting the feeling come through.
What is your working relationship like?
Ross: We like to think of it as two very independent artists just working together on a project. For instance, like Diplo and Sia.
Ross, do you favor favored either music or acting?
Ross: Throughout my life it's changed. Whatever one I'm kind of working on is the passion at the moment. For right now, it's music. But there have been times where I'm all about acting. I did this film called My Friend Dahmer, a little while ago, and when were doing that I was like, "Yo, I'm about it." Obviously, I'm about to start filming Sabrina, to do parts three and four. I'm sure when I get up there I'm going to be all about it, and get obsessed with the process and the craft of acting.
In a recent interview, you guys talked about how important authenticity is to you. But I feel like there's a lot of melodrama and myth to your songs, like "Preacher Man" has this epic classic fable about a guy who keeps making mistakes. How do you negotiate writing about personal experiences, with pop melodrama?
Ross: I think pop songs are always the melody. You can make a pop song with the craziest lyrics you've ever heard, but you need a pop melody for it to work. With lyrics, it's whatever that day reflects how we're feeling.
Rocky: If he's writing lyrics to something while I'm producing, it's whatever is going on, that's it, and visa versa. Like, "Low" is exactly what I was experiencing at the time.
Ross: Music doesn't have to be literal to be honest, it's about the feeling that it gives you. That's what we're trying to support.
You guys probably have fans that have been your fans since R5 and followed you along your career. What is your relationship like to your fans?
Rocky: We know a lot of our fans really well.
Ross: What's funny is, often than not, in our meet and greets we'll be saying "good to see you" rather than "nice to meet you." It's fun to see familiar faces in the crowd and everyone knows the songs. I love when people follow us on the road. It's so fun.
Rocky: If we don't have that, then we're not doing our jobs right. You know what I'm saying? Like if people aren't pulling up like "yo I love your music," if they're not coming up to you at the bar to take a pic, then the music ain't good. Straight up.
What is your relationship like to social media?
Ross: Love hate. It feels like a necessary tool to connect people to our music. Especially when I'm on Sabrina, a lot of people are either fans of the TV and movies or music so it's nice to have social media to cross pollinate fans. That's one of the better things about it. But we like being on our phones very much. People love their phones or can't stand them. We're more along the lines of like can't really stand them. I don't feel very present on my phone, forget where I'm at. We're about to go to our cabin in Colorado where there's no service for a few days, which will be great. Also if you're trying to be an artist, get off your phone. I hate when we're trying to be in a session and people are like on their phone. You can't do it because it completely takes your brain.
But it's also kind of crucial for you guys.
Rocky: Yeah, I mean it has allowed us to do what we're doing without a label. It literally like, probably, we actually met with a couple of labels while we're here. But the odds of signing to a label––
You guys are self-releasing everything right now?
Rocky: Yeah. Right now, we're unsigned, doing everything independently and it's better than ever. Alternative radio is playing us like crazy.
Ross: And that's because of social media. So we're definitely grateful for the platform and we do appreciate being able to communicate with the fans so closely, it's honestly a great thing. But in general, I try not to get on there too much.
Who are are your fans?
Rocky: We were just at Instagram headquarters and the average age was girls, 18-24. Literally the perfect, that's exactly what you want because girls are the most active and apparently guys don't like photos. Like, in general dudes tend to scroll but they don't like or interact as much but girls are very interactive, especially between the age of 18-24 so it's like perfect.
Ross: But when you look out into our crowd there's every age, every race. Last night there was girls and guys of all ages and all races it was great I loved it, it was exactly how it should be.
"Music doesn't have to be literal to be honest, it's about the feeling that it gives you."
It sounds like touring is your favorite part.
Ross: I love it all. I'm really just trying to be here as much as possible.
Where is here?
Ross: In the present. Those two months we had leading up to the tour where we were in the studio everyday I loved — so much fun. Occasionally you get stir-crazy because you're in one room all the time and you're just sitting down listening to really loud anything. But there's great moments there, there great moments here. After every show we've been dancing and having fun with everybody. Everyday it's great and it's too quick to not enjoy.
Rocky: This is honestly this tour has been the most fun tour of our whole lives.
Ross: I think it will just keep getting better.
Rocky: We're slowly getting better at just having fun and enjoying everyday, like enjoying the fact that we've gotten in seven Ubers today with suitcases and shit because we didn't have a hotel room. Or like I was like we should have filmed this it would have been hilarious. We're like pulling up to this interview with suitcases, you know what I mean, it's part of the charm of it, it's fun.
Ross: Also, when you've been doing it as long as we have it's like the second time around you can appreciate a little better. So it's like the 11th or 12th time around, I think the 12th tour. You realize how quick everything goes. At one point in time you might be like oh I have a press date in New York where I gotta like blah blah blah but like it's one day of your life. You just try to appreciate it as much as possible.
Photography: Maggie Einstein