Peninsular Place

The Magazine

May 29, 2012

Gaining Speed with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. - Photo by Erin Garcia

Whether you live close enough to hear the bats crack in Comerica Park or you reside in the calmer shadows of the Motor City, you’ve probably referenced Detroit at least once when asked where you’re from. The further you travel, the easier it is to namedrop the troubled city (some people hear Ypsilanti and react as if you said you’re from Oz). But if you do this, you’re immediately expected to have a tough exterior and some interesting stories to report from the battlefield. Common questions hint at common misperceptions. “Didn’t you have that gangster mayor? Have you ever witnessed a shooting?”

Conversations about Detroit have the tendency to start out bleak, or at least progress in that direction. But there’s really a whole lot of good to talk about – more with each day, it seems. Some people need to know that not every building is a windowless coffin, that some still have people living in them. And some of these people are making amazing music. And, for those who don’t want to get close enough to see it for themselves, they’ll at least want to get within an earshot.

Two musicians who have been creating some of Detroit’s best recent melodies are Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott, known by their national following as Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. They specialize in a nameless genre they created while experimenting with electronic sounds and folksy pop, anchored by slick production and a sweet-natured sensibility. Everything about the duo meshes: their joint vocal harmonies, Epstein’s production savvy and Zott’s singer-songwriter instincts, their mutual interest in stage theatrics – even in interviews they seem to finish each other’s thoughts. That’s a lot of chemistry for two dudes who were total strangers three years ago.

Both had been plenty busy within the local music scene for years, Epstein with his atmospheric pop/rock band The Silent Years (who also did extensive touring) and Zott as a solo musician whose bonfire-ready originals and charming covers of hip-hop hits caught some widespread attention, spurred a little by a spot on NBC’s Chuck – not to mention his role in the band The Great Fiction or The Victorious Secrets (who you just might have seen in recent commercials – Zott is the one doing the singing). The two crossed paths with no intention of starting new projects. “We first met in my apartment when Daniel came over to visit my roommate,” recalls Epstein. “I decided to try and make music with him after I’d heard his double LP. I called him out of the blue and we worked on ‘Simple Girl’ the first day we met up.”

Photo by Erin Garcia

That first product of their collaboration laid the cement of their road to national adoration. Since “Simple Girl” caught the delighted ears of NPR, The Guardian and The New York Times, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. has appeared on Conan, the stages of Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, on tour alongside Fitz and the Tantrums, as well as on a headline tour in support of their album “It’s A Corporate World.”

Remarkably confident and complete for a first album, “It’s A Corporate World” draws you in with its playful indie-pop melodies then lets you wander in its dreamy electronic flourishes. While “Simple Girl” is both quietly inventive and endearingly ordinary, the band rolls up their sleeves on “We Almost Lost Detroit,” a boldly-envisioned cover with a shimmery hook and some grindy soul. This is all a result of letting creative impulse take complete precedent over long-term vision: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. was formed not as a tour-hopeful band, but as an easy relief from an aggravating itch to create something different. “We both agreed to try all of the things that we had secretly always wanted to try, whether it be using hip-hop drums behind folk songs or writing songs that were two minutes long,” says Epstein. “The only expectation was that this remained a grounds for experimentation.”

The name itself is an attempt to dodge expectations: while some band names hint at post-punk revivalist rock or reek of emo, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. only brings to mind NASCAR. While they often wear racing suits during their shows, nothing about their music ventures into that world. It should be noted, however, that Dale Earnhardt Jr. himself is a fan, having reached out to the band a while back. “He was the most kind and wonderful person,” recalls Epstein. “He said that he enjoyed our music and was flattered that we would name a project after him. Then he told us to ‘be safe out there.’”

“Out there” is exactly where the two have been. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is making laps around the nation with a creative zeal and an energetic quirkiness that has put them on the pages of Rolling Stone, Esquire, Spin, and even ESPN. But Detroit remains their favorite pit stop, evidenced by their matching jackets embroidered with the classic Detroit “D” as well as through their latest project: an affectionate music video for “We Almost Lost Detroit,” where the get-back-on-your-feet anthem is supported by footage of the city as the band rolls through the streets in a green delivery truck.

It doesn’t deliver the decimated image of Detroit propagated by photo blogs and news headlines. Sun pours in through the windows of offices and studios and small businesses as residents lip sync the rousing words. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. gave some explanation in a recent blog post:

“…We wanted this video to be about people doing things in and around the city of Detroit. People who are on the job. People who have moved past ‘what happened?’ and are spending more time saying ‘lets make things happen.’ These are the people who we feel represent the city of Detroit.”

It’s a simple way to look at things: leave the past in its place and go about creating, never mind how other people are being told to perceive you. As Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. has already proven, the result can be something warm and original, impressive and unexpected.

Don’t miss Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. perform for the Sonic Lunch series on June 14 at Liberty St. Plaza in Ann Arbor. It will be free and amazing. Zott mentioned some of their other summer plans: “We’re writing a new record. Hopefully recording it. I plan to do a lot of swimming. I’m not quite fully evolved.”

About the Author

Paul Kitti
Paul Kitti
Paul is another awesome member of the iSPY team.

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