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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. -- silly name, serious music

of the Oakland Press

Posted: Monday, June 6, 2011

» See more SOUND CHECK

Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott are trying hard to remain unaware that their group, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., is one of the hippest rock bands on the planet these days.

“I try not to read blogs or too much about us,” says Epstein, who along with Zott has been keeping a steady touring schedule this year — they’re in Texas driving from Austin to Dallas as he speaks — in preparation for the release of their debut album, “It’s a Corporate World,” on Tuesday, June 7.

“We keep, like, a narrow field of focus, just being on the road, playing a bunch of towns for the first time. We generally don’t have a sense of what else is going on because we’re just kind of busy. I hope it’s going well.”

That, of course, would be an understatement.

Formed by the Detroit duo in 2009, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. has been a hot commodity since the summer 2010 release of its “Horse Power” EP. The four-song set, which includes a cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” reached the Top 10 of the iTunes Dance Albums Chart, and has been embraced by tastemaking outlets such as NPR and affiliates KCRW and KEXP, Stereogum and even mainstream media such as the New York Times and Spin magazine. At this year’s South By Southwest Music + Media Conference in March, the duo, which also includes live percussionist David Vaughn, was considered a must-see at its several shows.

Epstein and Zott, meanwhile, have at least some sense that things are indeed on the ascent.

“It’s amazing how well people are responding to the music, and it’s really fun to just be able to play for people,” Epstein, 30, acknowledges. “People know a lot of the songs when they come to the concerts, which is great. We’ve had a lot of high-energy crowds.”

It was an abundance of creative energy that led Epstein and Zott, 27, to form Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. in the first place. Both were already involved in other musical endeavors: Epstein — a graduate of Cranbrook Academy who attended the University of North Carolina-Asheville on a soccer scholarship and finished at Oakland University — was a member of the Detroit band the Silent Years; Zott recorded both on his own and with the band the Great Fiction.

Their initial intent was “just a little recording project,” according to Epstein. “I was looking to record with someone else. I thought it would be an interesting experiment,” he explains. “When I heard Daniel’s music, I thought he was so talented that maybe I’d call him and see if he wants to record some songs. It was that simple.”

The two started working together, recording their songs in the basement of Zott’s grandmother’s house in Royal Oak, where he was living at the time. Their first finished song was “Simple Girl,” a loping, melodic, feel-good tune that showcases the duo’s lush vocal harmonies — and whistling abilities. It appears on both “Horse Power” and “It’s a Corporate World.”

The Ann Arbor-based independent label Quite Scientific caught wind of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s early material, which led to a deal. Though the duo “basically had a whole record done,” according to Epstein, Quite Scientific opted for a gradual rollout, starting with “Horse Power” and moving on to a “Remixes” EP, while Epstein and Zott also remixed the song “Wait For Me” for Moby.

Explaining their musical approach, Epstein says that, “Daniel and I both had a love of pop music before ‘pop’ became a bad word. People are always asking us why we chose to cover ‘God Only Knows;’ if you listen to ‘God Only Knows’ ... it’s the most complex chords, a difficult song to learn. Yet it became this popular song. Everyone knows it.

“To us, that’s what’s interesting. There’s nothing wrong with a song that appeals to a wide audience. That’s what the Beatles were, and no one would argue that they weren’t one of the most creative bands of all time. So I think our tastes overlap in this world of popular music that’s really interesting — Paul Simon, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and then some of the newer stuff, like Grizzly Bear does that to some extent.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s band name — dubbed “stupidity” by the Hollywood Reporter — has also become its own story. Epstein says he and Zott, who performing in racing pit suits and baseball caps with a few checkered flags as part of the stage set, were initially thinking of calling themselves Counting Crows Part 2 until a friend suggested the current moniker. “There’s so much it represents,” Epstein notes, among them a parallel between NASCAR and pop music.

“NASCAR is the second most popular sport in America,” Epstein explains, “and yet in most parts of the country you don’t hear anything about it. In a way, music is really compartmentalized like that. We like all these different kinds of music and wanted to do something that’s a little less designed and more like what naturally came out of us.”

The name also relates to the duo’s independent spirit. “In a way we kind of wanted to push the limits of what people would expect from an ‘indie’ band, from a band that was making records out of their basement,” Epstein says.

There were some thoughts about changing the band name, particularly after Quite Scientific signed a distribution deal with Warner Bros. Records for “It’s a Corporate World.”

“There was some talk that maybe in the long run the name would serve as a deterrent because people wouldn’t take us as seriously even though we’ve created some pretty serious music,” Epstein says. There were also concerns that Dale Earnhardt Jr. might object, but those were allayed after Epstein sent him a letter explaining the group’s intent.

“He wrote back saying he was a fan of ours and was flattered we had taken the name,” says Epstein, who still hasn’t met the famed racing progeny. “He was really nice about it.

“Then Daniel and I decided that the very core of what this project started out as was to be a fun outlet for us. We take the craft very seriously and the work very seriously, but when you’re traveling around the country playing shows, it’s way easier to do if you’re able to have a little bit of fun. We felt like if we changed the name, it would change the spirit of the group, so we decided to keep it in the end.”

The name — and the music — is certainly becoming more well-known each week. As the release date approaches, the group is still on the road, with a local show planned for June 25 at Detroit’s St. Andrew’s Hall. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is also on the bills of Lollapalooza in Chicago and the Austin City Limits festival in Texas, and Epstein says that “we have some other really exciting things that aren’t quite there yet, but hopefully will be soon.”

“We really want to be able to keep making records,” he adds, “but right now we’re excited about being able to go out and play, and we’re having a great time. I don’t think either of us really intended to tour with this, so it’s been a great time.

“It’s weird, man. I always told myself that by the time I was 30, if I hadn’t gotten to a place that I felt like I had made progress, I’d find something else to do. Then we signed our deal with Warner Brothers four months before I turned 30. So it feels like this was meant to happen.”

Other Detroit-related national albums coming out this month

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s “It’s a Corporate World” is the first of several Detroit-related national albums coming out this month. Others on the list include:

* Detroit modern rockers Almost Free release a four-song EP, “In/Out,” on June 7, which the trio recorded at Rock City Studio in Ann Arbor.

* The big buzz, of course, is for Eminem and Royce Da 5’9” ’s Bad Meets Evil reunion EP, “Hell The Sequel,” which comes out June 14 on Eminem’s Shady Records imprint and features collaborations with D12’s Denaun Porter, Mobb Deep’s Havoc, Bangladesh and DJ Khalil, among others. Look for Royce to guest at some of Eminem’s festival appearances during the summer.

* Death metalists Black Dahlia Murder release their fifth studio album, “Ritual,” on June 21. The semi-conceptual album was recorded in the Detroit area and Florida and marks the first time the group has recorded with a strong section.

* Ann Arbor’s Tally Hall has stepped out of its major label relationship with Atlantic Records and releases its sophomore album, “Good & Evil,” via Ann Arbor’s Quack!Media. The album was produced by Tony Hoffer, who’s worked wtih Beck, Depeche Mode and Belle & Sebastian. Continued...

* Rapper and Mike Posner cohort Big Sean (real name Sean Anderson) drops his debut full-length, “Finally Famous,” on June 28. Executive produced by Kanye West, it features guest appearances by Wiz Khalifa, Lupe Fiasco, Nas, Chris Brown, Pharrell Williams, Kid Cudi and more.

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