Daniel Zott and Josh Epstein are not NASCAR junkies.They care more about baseball, specifically the Detroit Tigers, their hometown team, than they do about car racing, but they consider themselves appreciators of the sport. “It’s very popular,” Zott says. “you have to respect it.” The casual level of their fandom may come as a surprise, considering that Zott and Epstein named their band, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., after a NASCAR driver and they have willingly worn bulky, non-breathable racing suits, purchased online, at their live shows. “It’s not quite flattering for our bodies, but we don’t really care that much about it,” says Zott. “We’re not in the business of making ladies swoon,” Epstein says.
But the guys are in the business of making perky, playful indie pop that is equal parts simple, two-man vocal harmonies and layered electronic-based melodies. And with this profession come the elements of performance and showmanship—and outfits. “Think about sports,” Zott says. “They don’t play in jeans. They put on their uniform. There’s a sense of pride.” The band members choose to wear the NASCAR suits as opposed to jeans and T-shirts when on stage to help them and their audiences get into the show-time headspace. “When people come out to see us, we want to perform, we want it to be like a theater show or whatever else you would take two hours out of your day and pay money to and set time aside for,” Zott says. The theatrics don’t end with the suits: Shows with Team Earnhardt also involve bubble machines, an exchange of zingers between the frontmen and the band’s name in bright lights—at least the “Jr. Jr.” part.
Zott and Epstein grew up in Michigan and now live in the suburbs of Detroit with their wives. They only met in the last couple of years, but they act like platonic life partners, finishing each others sentences and offering unsolicited compliments of each others work. Epstein, sitting on a bar stool in Brooklyn, New York’s Rock Shop, explains that, prior to forming Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Zott had already “done a ton of stuff,” releasing albums as a solo artist and as a member of the band Great Fiction. Zott says that Epstein also had a fruitful pre-Dale career in a band called Silent Years. “Josh has toured a lot,” Zott says. “I have not. I’m more of a hermit.” But the guys found common ground in a love of being in the studio—and a hesitation of sharing their work with other people. “It’s hard to trust other people, and I’ve liked working by myself and controlling the whole atmosphere,” says Zott. That mentality changed when Zott and Epstein first met. “He was someone that came in and immediately there was a sense of trust.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – Skeletons by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
The two were aware of each others existence prior to meeting because they both circulated in the Detroit music community, but the spread-out, non-competitive, stylistically varied scene kept them from interacting. They finally met face to face when Zott came over to Epstein’s apartment to pick up a DVD from Epstein’s roommate. Epstein recalls Zott playing him a Great Fiction song called “Pale Ego” (“It’s an awesome song,” says Epstein. “Thank you,” says Zott.) but they only started collaborating after that initial meet-up because of a follow-up phone call. Epstein rang Zott “out of the blue, like a true gentleman,” Zott says, “and said he wanted to get together and maybe make some music.” Epstein dropped in on Zott and played him what would become the song “Simple Girl,” which turned up on the debut Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. EP, Horse Power, released last July on the Michigan label Quite Scientific. Epstein says that while he may have hesitated sharing his songs with others in the past, he already knew Zott’s writing and production styles going into that first session, so he was OK with letting him into his world. “I was confident going into it that I was going to let him change my music.”
Zott and Esptein kept meeting after that, working on music from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day so that they could hang out with their wives at night. The hours were the most regimented thing about the partnership, which the guys viewed as a fun, collaborative experiment. Before they knew it, they had recorded enough material in Zott’s basement to make an EP, which they shared with friends. “I remember the first four people I played it for were like, ‘Holy crap, this is really good.’ And I hadn’t ever really considered it,” Epstein says. Inspired by the positive feedback, the band, dubbed Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. in an effort to keep things light and offer no clues as to the sound of the music, released the Horse Power EP and started playing live.
The group began touring the EP, which only consisted of three original songs and a cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” But Epstein and Zott had kept writing and recording in Zott’s basement since the release, so they were able to play about six or seven songs live in half-hour sets. Some of these shows caught the eyes of scouts for Warner Bros., who signed the band in May. “They saw us at CMJ,” Epstein says. “So CMJ, take some credit,” adds Zott.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. released its debut album, It’s A Corporate World, on June 7. The album features the three original songs from the EP, a cover of the late Gil Scott-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit,” plus eight more originals. The group members did have a chance to go back and rerecord some vocals from the EP tracks before putting them on the LP, though they did not want to tinker with it too much. “You could keep changing songs for 20 years,” Zott says. “The point is, don’t do it. That was a moment. Let it happen. Let people heart it, and then move on because you’ve got to be able to create something new.”
Aside from the minor tweaks, the album, which Zott calls “A score for DIY,” reflects those basement recordings. “It’s different from my other projects because they were very serious,” Zott says. Not that the guys don’t take this Dale Earhardt Jr. Jr. stuff seriously. “I think we both believe that you don’t have to be really serious all the time to make serious art,” says Epstein. Hours later, Zott and Epstein strip out of their NASCAR outfits on the Rock Shop stage to reveal more formal suits and ties—the guys’ new onstage uniform—underneath. But by the time they get to their encore of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” you’ve learned that these guys could dress like the Grim Reaper and still show you a good time.