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The two frontmen work well together, with Shockness, who grew up listening to Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, taking more of a soulful R&B approach, while Thomas lays down fluid raps. After working together in the hip-hop collective A-Club while at the Denver School of the Arts, Thomas started Air Dubai as a solo project in late 2007 and later brought Shockness on board.
The name of the group was inspired by a trip to Twist & Shout, where Thomas was looking at vinyl by the French electronic group Air. "I was really inspired by that," he remembers. "I wanted to blend that with an Of Montreal kind of thing or Telephone Tel Aviv. I thought Dubai was a cool city, so I just put them together."
After putting out the jazz-meets-hip-hop disc Early October in 2008, Thomas and Shockness had a lot of electronic songs they planned to release on an EP. Shockness recommended switching things up a bit and suggested bringing in Nick Spreigl, a drummer he'd been playing with in another band at the time. While Thomas was on a three-week vacation in Puerto Rico, Shockness sent him text messages about recruiting members for a full band. Although Thomas was skeptical, he gave Shockness the green light.
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"When I came back to Jon's garage," says Thomas, "he had a full band in a garage playing our songs. At first it sounded awful. After we practiced a bunch, it started sounding really good.
"What we started off doing was that they would reinterpret the Early October songs," he continues. "It wasn't until we started writing tunes all together that it became something cool."
The group began as a quintet and eventually expanded into a seven-piece consisting of Ray, Grivich, Spreigl, bassist Taylor Tait (all of whom went to high school together in Parker) and trumpeter Wesley Watkins, whom Shockness knew from the School of the Arts. After playing their first gig together in April last year, they bandmembers started writing material over the summer, pulling from their disparate influences.
For his part, Shockness grew up on hip-hop and soul and remembers singing the Jackson 5's Third Album at the top of his lungs when he was three years old. Thomas cops to being a major Phoenix fan, while Grivich and Rey lean more toward indie bands, and Watkins and Spreigl are both steeped in jazz. The result is a sound that often gets compared to the Roots or acts like Gym Class Heroes.
"If you say 'rap rock' or something like that — which is kind of what we are — that kind of puts us in there with Linkin Park or Gym Class Heroes," concedes Grivich. "It's really hard to put it in a genre, because we have seven people coming from pretty diverse backgrounds."
"The Flobots were too political, and 3OH!3 was too party," Shockness recalls a fan once saying, "and we were right in the middle."
Considering the acclaim of those two outfits, Air Dubai could certainly be in worse company.
"Obviously, the goal is to get somewhere with our music. We want to get signed," Shockness confesses. "Personally, though, I just want to play music. And as long as people are enjoying the shit that we do.... A lot of people will tell us, 'I see you guys going somewhere, and I hope that happens.' I never saw Air Dubai as a tool to get there. I just saw it as, 'I love playing music with these people.'"