Abhi//Dijon

I think we should begin with Whitney. In March of 1991, Whitney Houston played Norfolk Naval Station, in Virginia, for about 3,000 people. The First Persian Gulf War had ended a month earlier, so deployments were ending. There is no more abjectly emotional place than a dock when a ship comes back home. You wake up really early and you try to look nice. It’s always irritatingly cold by the water. You make your way to the slip with hundreds of people who are on the precipice of seeing their man, or their little brother, or their granddaughter for the first time in six months. When my mother and her three kids were doing this with my father, there was no such thing as FaceTime or Gchat or email. When I was doing this with my brother, it didn’t fucking matter. If somebody’s child was born while they were away, that’s who walks down the ramp first. You and those hundreds of gaping wide open people watch this man meet his baby for the first time. You watch a toddler not quite recognize her dad and then startle, figure it out and scream with joy, almost lose her balance in it. You watch couples, high school sweetheart types, make out sweatily and awkwardly and under pressure. You lose weight you cry so much. This is the swamp of feeling into which Whitney descended in March of 1991.

We’re Simple People

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I thought of it talking to Dijon Duenas and Abhi Raju, because Dijon was talking about how he grew up military and because Abhi says things like this: “Me and Dijon always come back to the basics — The Neptunes and Timbaland.” They make a kind of R&B that Whitney was born too early for, birthed off a loop, more of a conversation between maker and listener than the issuance of a deity. I think that, however different these two sound from her, they’re trafficking in emotions that weigh as much. I’ve seen the word nostalgia thrown around in their vicinity, nearby mention of ‘90s R&B. But that's not enough.

"I always had, I think, R&B tendencies. I grew up on R&B,” says Dijon. “I was always with cousins who were older. The first memories I have of music were Soul For Real, BET videos and things like that, that people who were babysitting me would watch.”

But Abhi doesn’t have that base. “I didn’t start listening to American music until like 5th or 6th grade. All my upbringing was Bollywood music, Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi. The first thing I remember listening to that wasn’t was Eminem, The Eminem Show. And then Blink-182. Those were my branches into the American world.”

And it’s not how they met.

“I saw him with some other kids I knew at a Target in like 9th grade. I remember the kid that we were with was like, ‘That kid sucks.’” This is Abhi. “I remember being kind of mean to him. And he was kind of mean to me. And then we met again a year later."

"I hated him,” says Dijon. Abhi had been in the Maryland suburbs for a while, though he was born in India. Dijon was there in the summers, visiting his mom. After they got over their initial distaste for each other, they found common cause, which still was not R&B.

Dijon: “We were listening to Fleet Foxes heavy. Bon Iver heavy. We were 16.”

And Abhi: “He showed me Sufjan Stevens. And I showed him Andrew Bird.”

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Back to Whitney. There’s video of this performance I’m talking about. It’s leveling. There’s everything about her: how you thought of her back then, what you know is going to happen, the truth of her voice and her read of a phrase, your heart swelling at the tact and the capitulations of her outfits and her movements. And then there’s the audience, the for once guileless men crowded at the front, just in thrall, everybody doing that thing we used to do, imitating the dog pound, you know. These people are boiled down. Nobody cares they’re on TV. They are deregulated and defenseless and involuntary, wrung out by Whitney’s supremacy and by the absolute emotions of homecoming.

I think this is what we’re nostalgic for. I think we want to feel the most and I think we pin our hopes for that next rush on R&B musicians. We do front: we gird ourselves against the wildest pendulum swings of feeling all day. It’s why everybody has their special secret spot they go to when they have to cry at work, why even tones and a muted palate are substitutes for “management potential.” But our achy breaky hearts are yearning for recognition. We need a way back to Whitney welcoming the returning heroes. We need to feel like it’s an option, at least.

And I think that Abhi and Dijon might be the plug.

“I think a thing that R&B has over a lot of genres — yo, the way they sang, they were pouring it out, every song. There was some tangible emotion happening. Sometimes it was super cheesy, sometimes it was way over the top, but there was something really heavy in a lot of those songs, I think. Like there’s that song ‘Too Close’ by Next? Talking about getting a boner? It’s so over the top, but there are times in that song where I — like, I still get chills.” Dijon is serious. “You just want to go into everything with your gut. You don't want to phone shit in. If a guy can sing about getting a boner at a dance, 100%, then you should be able to put that into everything. The way we approach stuff takes from that.”

I think this is what we’re nostalgic for. I think we want to feel the most and I think we pin our hopes for that next rush on R&B musicians. We do front: we gird ourselves against the wildest pendulum swings of feeling all day.

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I asked Abhi if he worries that people will call him soft. “People can say it all they want, doesn’t affect me,” he says. “I don’t think about that at all. That’s not how we gauge music.” And the thought had never crossed Dijon’s mind. “I saw an interview with D’Angelo and they mentioned his falsetto as a breach of his masculinity, and I had never thought about it. I was like, ‘That’s kind of interesting. I guess he is a big guy, doing that.’”

To be sure, I asked Abhi and Dijon if they agree that what can be called R&B. “We named a song ‘Jon B,’” says Dijon. OK, fair point, then how's that designation working for them?

“Online it’s usually pretty intense, the stuff that people say,” Dijon again. “I think people feel like they’re a little bit more a part of it. Cause it’s not super avant garde or anything like that. It’s pretty accessible, pretty simple. I think it opens up a wider — I think they feel more comfortable being like, ‘Fuck yeah.’”

Their songs are not interpreted accurately every time — just cause it’s a falsetto doesn’t mean it’s a love song. “Because of the package that it’s in, that’s the default for people,” says Dijon. “I’d say most of the lyrics probably can be interpreted as relationship-based, but they’re usually not. Some of them are just phrases over and over. ‘Let You Know’ is a self-help mantra kind of thing. So is ‘ECS.’”

What people are reacting to is a certain consideration in their sound — the horn stabs on “One” like finding a note somebody left in your lunch — and these melodies that teeter from throat raw wounded to ain’t to proud to beg back in the roughneck heyday banter. It’s unforgivably familiar.

And what we’re feeling when we listen to their most recently released songs from Stay Up, and even their cover of Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird,” might be because of the nerviness of the whole Abhi//Dijon enterprise, that proceeding without a map. “A lot of our stuff is subliminal," says Dijon, talking about how he and Abhi might match their process to somebody else’s. “Like, ‘We really want you guys to fuck with it.’ I think the end product is, ‘We fuck with this a lot. Please fuck with it.’" I’m no scientist, but I’d bet good money that the chemical components of what you feel when you say I love you for the first time are close relatives of the chemical components of what you feel when you say I’m out. As Dijon says, “You can only articulate only so much, throwing files on the Internet.” For Abhi and Dijon to do what they want to do, which is write for other people, place their production, learn from and be pushed by other musicians, they gotta go.

“I have freak outs all the time. I freaked out last night pretty heavily about it,” Dijon will admit. “‘Are we doing the right thing? Are we good enough to do it?’”

I’m no scientist, but I’d bet good money that the chemical components of what you feel when you say I love you for the first time are close relatives of the chemical components of what you feel when you say I’m out.

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Abhi less so. “It’s kind of opposite for me, cause I think the chaos of it is kind of cool. I just go with the flow, really. Less freak outs. But there’s always a little anxiety, like, ‘This is kinda crazy.’”

Is it though? They graduated from college last year. People like what they’re doing. They’re playing out — which is it’s own form of terror for Dijon: “I’m usually miserable before the shows. Sometimes I think, ‘I’m onstage, so what can I do?’ You know what I mean? I’m already up there. I try to make the best of it.” Maybe what’s happening is that it’s crazy when you’re coming straight out the suburbs.

“There isn’t much hustle here,” says Dijon, talking about Ellicott City, Maryland, the downtown of which features a very high tchotchke to person ratio. “This is the kind of place that people go to when they’re finished doing something. Or when you want to settle down. I mean, that’s most of the people we grew up around. That middle class, pretty well-to-do background, doing OK. And it’s not necessarily conducive to taking a bunch of risks. You’re not around a bunch of kids who are on the cutting edge."

And so there’s a fracture between Dijon and Abhi and their current milieu. “It’s not a sob story,” says Dijon. “But we drop something and people are like, ‘This is super dope.’ And then I go wait tables. People are like, ‘Get me bread.’” Abhi’s at Starbucks, both of them forestalling for the moment. “We both can go get a job anytime,” says Abhi. “But I feel like us getting a 40-hour a week job would just take away from what we’re trying to do right now, would take the momentum away.”

It’s been pointed out that there are restaurants, even Starbucks, in cities where collaboration and songwriting jobs and TBD opportunities don’t require a flight, or four-hour drive, or an email abyss. But it's been asserted that there’s no drop dead.

“I don’t think we’re necessarily slated for the top of the charts, us two, being the faces of something,” says Dijon. “I don't think we ever wanted that. But I think working internally, that could be something that I think is the most realistic for us. I think it’s the most interesting for us, too. Like, writing for ourselves is fun, but it gets boring after a while. We’re simple people. We don’t really have much to say. I think we have a lot, sonically, to say. But I think working with other people is how we will, hopefully, make some sort of statement.”

We’ll be here.

R&B Tendencies

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Directed by Nathan R Smith, Edited by Andrew Sales, Interviews Conducted by Frannie Kelley and Andrew Sales