Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.: Interview
“We just don’t think that you need to take yourself too seriously in order to make good work.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. brazenly provoke scoffs, from a range of uptights and cynics, that they’re pros at shrugging it off, even just two years and only one album into their run as a band. You see, not only are they presenting themselves as straight-up pop; they’re also extolling the virtues of having fun (eye-roll, right?). But perhaps that’s just the nature of the new internet beast as it rears its un-self-conscious head on a new decade and leaves behind hipster hangups.
This Detroit duo didn’t really even know each other before whimsically setting down to write the songs that would become their gleaming electro-pop debut, It’s a Corporate World, and now they’re on tour, not just as band-mates, but as bunk-mates (it can be quite economical). But this is a friendship whose blossoming came just from working on songs together; Joshua Epstein (The Silent Years) and Daniel Zott (The Great Fiction) have been separately honing their respective crafts — songwriting for the former, frontman-ship for the latter — for a dozen years, so it’s made for an expectedly imposing presentation when they finally aligned. With Dale Earnhardt Jr. — the person/Nascar-driver — recently giving them carte blanche to the band name (and thus freedom to sell records without fear of lawsuit) and a new contract with Warner Bros., they’re not looking back.
DEJJ talk to Tiny Mix Tapes about the virtues of putting yourself into a scenario where, ya know, it’s okay to dance, it’s okay not to worry about yourself, and it’s okay to have fun.
I don’t wanna say you guys necessarily have ‘a message,’ but the band seems to tacitly suggest: people, either in bands or just as listeners, take certain things too seriously, whether it’s hangups over the name or hangups over genre compartmentalization. Do you feel or see those kinds of perceptual walls falling?
Daniel Zott: We’ve been very conscious of that from the beginning. We had this belief that you can make something that’s very serious and dear to you, and sacred, in a way, which a lot of artists would claim their music is. I would argue that even sometimes. But even if we say that it’s sacred and serious, we don’t necessarily have to then have the live show and the way we present the music to be a serious thing. We like the idea of having the contrast.
When we work on a song, it’s very serious and dear, it means something. But when we perform, it’s not for us, it’s for the crowd. Josh and I have been part of two bands that have played a lot of shows, written a lot of music, taken ourselves very seriously. Not that that’s horrible, but this project is so not gonna be that. It was just for fun at first, then when we started having a lot of fun playing the shows, we realized maybe there’s something to this. With the name and people knowing that we dress up, it’s easy to put on a good show and do crazy things that we probably couldn’t do as easily with other bands. I’m not saying every band has to be that way; maybe for when it’s just me playing my songs with my acoustic and people watching, then it’s more introspective. But our show is not that, and people seem to need that, especially wherever we’re in this country. With how people are feeling, it’s a good release and a way to dance and to escape.
“We’ve both been feeling that the world is changing, for better or for worse — the mom-and-pop shop, in every sense, is dying and corporations are stepping in and increasing their foothold, spreading like a giant amoeba.”
Can you talk about the progression of your collaboration? And also, touch on the curiously modest act of ornamenting your remarkable voices in seas of synth fuzz and intricate blends of percussions — whereas other voices like a Robin Pecknold get put right up front, while your serenading is seeped in a bit more subtly along with the computers and keyboards.
Joshua Epstein: We both approached this differently than other projects. It was almost like: ‘That sounded great. Great, let’s leave it. Everything was very first-take; there were rarely times where we recorded anything more than once. It was loose, if we both liked it, we just kept it. Our tastes intersect at this place where we both have a love for melody and a love for pop-song formats. Our voices do really work well together. It was something we wanted to feature. We both really love hip-hop, so we wanted to work with those sounds. I guess we don’t really think about the fact that we’re mixing so many genres, and everything was just kinda turning into a mishmash, but when we finished our first song, we said, ‘This is really working.” We have ideas for what we’ll do next. It’s not gonna sound exactly the same, but it’s just exciting to be able to sing with someone.
DZ: I think we do feature [our vocals], but a lot of other bands throw the vocals in as another instrument. I think we like using all the weird sounds and electronic elements, but if there’s not a good melody and if you’re not feeling that vocal and the harmonies aren’t there, that’s a loss.
Why do you think you’ve been somewhat beguiling to the online music media, or the blogs, or the what-have-yous… Again, it could hopefully open up a useful dialogue on hangups over little things or how blogs have deluded us into jumping-to-conclusions. What’s it like being a songwriter in this climate?
DZ: I think it’s a great challenge. I would call our stuff straight-up pop music, and that offends a lot of people or makes them uncomfortable or makes them think that we don’t care about the songs or that they’re not sacred to us, or that our stuff is rubbish. There’s all sorts of things people gravitate to when you say pop music. I’m just excited to be part of something that can maybe bring some change the way pop music is looked at. We covered “God Only Knows” because I was busy learning it to sing at a wedding; we just happened to do it. Whenever you do anything, people are gonna turn it into something that had to have had more thought into it. But we didn’t do it because it was a gutsy move. We just liked it, so we did it. I think people do that with names…
I took a lot of sociology classes and was turned off by the fact that you’re looking at a human being, trying to label them, to say they’re like everyone else. You’re doing a disservice in that case, and you’re doing a disservice in the music world if you’re restricted to labeling something. If you’re a shoegaze-whatever band, how are you ever supposed to get out of that and for it to be a positive thing? I wanna be part of a scene that makes new pop music that’s diverse, but still sing-along-type music where people can sing it 20 years from now at a karaoke bar. You gotta be able to do both.
“I wanna be part of a scene that makes new pop music that’s diverse, but still sing-along-type music where people can sing it 20 years from now at a karaoke bar.”
Can you talk about, again, “perceptions,” and how it looks like such a leap, sometimes, when a band gets to Warner Bros.?
JE: There’s this perception of what success in the music world is, and I had those ideas, too. The entire time I’ve been in The Silent Years, that was my world for a while, and maybe those perceptions are all wrong. It is what you take from it. I think the reasonable goal is to try and not have a day job and do music full time. People will have this impression that things are easier, but it never fully gets easy. But for Daniel and I, we’ve been in bands for 15 years and have been working at this, working at our craft. It just feels like we’ve slowly gotten better at it, as opposed to things drastically changing. Quite Scientific did an amazing job getting our music out to people, and our management’s really great — that has a lot to do with it. It doesn’t feel like we’re in a different room, [we’re] just in this long hallway that we’ve been walking down.
DZ: Your presumptions are blown apart. Warner had this very personal quality. We came in and said, “Here’s our album, it’s completely finished, I made it in my basement,” and for them to be like, “Cool! No changes! Let’s put it out.” We’re in a time where plenty of people are making albums in their basement and releasing them, but on a major scale like that, it’s a bit more rare. We’re really excited about that. They’re teaming up with Qui Sci; we couldn’t ask for a better relationship. We’d be nothing if we didn’t have the team with us.
JE: The best of every world. If someone at Warner thinks that something we made in the basement can fit into the scope of what they do, then I think that’s a huge victory for DIY recording and for Detroit music. Look at their roster: Flaming Lips, Built to Spill, Neil Young; it’s not the same as walking into Universal and seeing Katy Perry on the wall. Any initial awkwardness we may have felt was how we were nervous about how our peers [around Detroit] would perceive it. But Jack White’s on Warner.
Can you elaborate on It’s a Corporate World, as a tongue-and-cheek theme, or the aesthetic of switching from your NASCAR suits into business suits?
JE: It wasn’t the same as sitting down and trying to make a concept album. We tended to write lyrics autonomously. But I think we’ve both been feeling that the world is changing, for better or for worse — the mom-and-pop shop, in every sense, is dying and corporations are stepping in and increasing their foothold, spreading like a giant amoeba. It’s weighing on our minds. Songs like “Skeletons” are about opportunities and taking them, or not taking them. [The songs] are mostly about what happens or doesn’t happen in your life, and that came through working with Dan.
And now, Dale, the man, the driver, recently wrote you to give his blessing?
JE: And it was real nice. He’s the most humble, decent guy. And we realized, the whole attitude that we approached this was: we take our craft really seriously and the art-form and the music. We just don’t think that you need to take yourself too seriously in order to make good work. It keeps us in check, a little, to have the name… because with the attitude we started this project with, it’s hard to take yourself too seriously when you’re called DEJJ. That’s a good thing; we wanted this to be fun.