Justin Timberlake's name may have spangled marquees across the nation this past spring, but for 30 minutes each night of his Man of the Woods Tour, a Nashville trio called the Shadowboxers owned the arena. Decked in brightly colored streetwear and backed by a ripping rhythm section, keyboardist Matt Lipkins and guitarists Scott Tyler and Adam Hoffman would stomp, step and thrust in sync, belt three-part harmonies, stoke call-and-response and hold hands with women in the crowd while pumping out future-funked soul-pop. Openers though they were, they played like a megastar boy band, with an emphasis on "band"—if the group didn't have such chemistry and chops, you'd guess some industry Svengali assembled and trained them for this moment.
We catch up with the Shadowboxers in late April on what should be their day off. Instead, they're capping back-to-back nights at the Los Angeles-adjacent Forum arena with a headlining show at West Hollywood's glitzy but cozy Peppermint Club. In fact, the place is so cozy that the warmup act's soundcheck drives the interview into the backstage bathroom. To the venue's credit, it's an impressively luxe latrine, but not the most appropriate representation of how far these men have come in a decade. Timberlake not only personally invited them on tour. He also signed them to his artist development company, Villa 40; often plays mentor to them; and coproduced their new EP, Apollo. Dig the noisy backbeat propelling their smoldering, horn-blaring single "Hot Damn!"?
"With every song we wrote, we were like, 'This is going to be the one to force everybody to stop what they're doing,'" says Tyler, "and we got so many emails back from Justin or the team like, 'This is another good one. You're getting close.'" They kept at it, booking sessions with different producers, writing, adding touring bassist Carlos Enamorado and drummer Cole McSween to the mix, writing, building a studio (The Shad Pad), writing, then learning to produce themselves and writing more. "In the moment, it was extremely hard to be patient," says Hoffman. "But the process forced us to figure out our identity. This was our 10,000 hours of being in the studio. We thought we were ready, but if we had jumped right in, we wouldn't have made the best stuff."
Justin Timberlake threw his hat and started running around the room, screaming, 'You did it! You did it!'
Good luck finding their early releases now: a self-titled 2011 EP and their 2013 debut album, Red Room. A Kickstarter for the latter still exists (they raised $32,059, almost twice their goal), but the music was pulled from streaming services. Tyler says they'll reissue the LP in time, but they don't want to confuse their Timberlake-begat fans: "We were more like a Crosby, Stills & Nash band than some boy-band-pop band." Perhaps the best way to grasp that shift is to know that in June of 2011, days after graduation, the Shadowboxers left for two years of touring with Indigo Girls—first opening for them, and soon as their backing band, too. The opportunity was random—Tyler met Emily Saliers at a friend's Passover Seder—but it might as well have been grad school.
The studio breakthrough came last year when Shadowboxers teamed with Israeli producer K-KOV. In three days in L.A., they wrote three songs that wound up on Apollo. Timberlake was in town working on Man of the Woods, so he invited them over for a listening session. They put on the '80s-indebted, Weeknd-channeling "Timezone," and, Hoffman says, "Justin threw his hat and started running around the room, screaming, 'You did it! You did it!'" Despite that victory and all of the hard-won progress along the way, they had one lesson left to learn from JT. One gets the feeling it's something they're still working on. Lipkins explains: "Justin was like, 'You guys have to be badasses, you have to believe in that: We are Big Pop Musicians, and we belong here.'"