Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. Driven by Desire; Not '60s Pop, Not Indie Pop, Definitely Not NASCAR
Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott had a strategy when they adopted the band name Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. The friends meant only to dispel any expectations that their listeners might have, hoping such a peculiar name suggested no genres or influences (except possibly NASCAR racing).
And of course, neither had any expectation of success.
Now approaching the release of its second album, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. thanks good fortune that it stuck with that moniker (versus other option "Counting Crows Part 2"), and that its namesake didn't take offense.
"We got an e-mail from [Earnhardt], and he said 'Good luck on the road.' Basically 'I'm not gonna come after you,'" Zott explains. "Later he was asked on some show and he said he thought it was cool."
What kind of music does a band named after one of NASCAR's biggest names make? Two of the group's recordings, single "If You Didn't See Me (Then You Weren't On The Dancefloor)" and Beach Boys cover "God Only Knows," give a pretty good idea.
Classic purveyors of pop such as the Beach Boys and The Beatles were influences, Zott acknowledges, but he declares pointedly that he isn't a fan of the word "retro." He and Epstein admire those groups for crafting beautiful melodies around their best work without sacrificing the depth of the content, but Jr. Jr. finds new technology and modern music trends too appealing to abandon.
"If You Didn't See Me" features overlapping melodies that would make Brian Wilson proud, laid out like a synthpop orchestra relative to the symphonies of "God Only Knows." Keyboards invite listeners to join the song's hosting vocalists on the dance floor, and a simple drum rhythm lets shy listeners ease into the shallow end of the dance floor. The lyrics double as a how-to ("You're supposed to roll your hips in time") and a sermon to the unconverted ("You're supposed to see your age rewind").
The pair intended this sermon for more than a theoretical protagonist. Epstein spoke about the songwriting process for the band's EP "Patterns" and its second LP "The Speed of Things" as "more honest and less anecdotal." Zott explained that he and Epstein found themselves relating to the characters in their songs more and more, versus calling out other individuals. Understanding the song's relationship to himself allowed Zott to go for the deeper meanings he praised The Beatles touching on, but he aimed to balance the introspect with raw, emotional energy.
He references N.W.A's "F--- Tha Police" as the opposite extreme to his songwriting Tao, but he admires how the rap group's blunt approach grabs attention.
"It's raw, they just spit it out. That's what those guys were dealing with at the time," he explained. "We want to find a middle ground, different than just calling it out like 'You're this way.' That's shallow and kind of boring."
"If You Didn't See Me" serves as a reminder to Zott just as much as to anyone else.
"I got some rhythm, but I haven't had time to work on my choreography yet," he admits.
The song definitely plays into the group's unofficial theme of having fun. The music video, sponsored by Funny or Die, features Zott and Epstein hiding out around Los Angeles, bodies and suits painted to match various murals and landmarks, all while comedy cops John Ennis and Jay Johnston chase after. The video culminates with a dance-off at a local club. The one-day shoot summed up the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. experience, with Zott describing it as "colorful, crazy, fun."
Zott attributes the band's figurative color and crazy to the lack of an indie pop "scene" in Detroit, a city that's built its musical name around genre trends such as Motown.
"It's sprawled in Detroit," he explains. "There are pockets, but not quite a scene. Bands do whatever the hell they want because they don't feel the pressure of a scene."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. proved its lack of band-brand loyalty when it had rapper Danny Brown open for the group during the release party for its first LP, It's A Corporate World.
Brown has attracted more spotlight during the two years since, and his forthcoming record Old has become one of the year's most anticipated rap releases. Recently revealed album art features Brown seated, painted portrait-style, and framed in the center of the sleeve. It's A Corporate World features Zott sitting and Epstein standing, painted portrait-style, and framed in the center of the sleeve.
Zott takes a second to compare the products.
"Yeah, I guess so. I'll send him a text," he says after a moment of contemplation. Another second passes and he chuckles. "Nah. He don't give a s---."