Off to the Races

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s whimsical Indie Pop aims for long-term viability


aniel Zott and Joshua Epstein knew each other for years and years before ever writing a thing together. More along the lines of acquaintances than friends, the two musicians were familiar through the Detroit music scene and maintained respect for the other’s output, but nothing ever clicked.

Then 2009 came along, and their dynamic was totally revamped.

One day, Epstein called Zott with the goal of collaborating with him — a move Zott thinks was sparked by Epstein being impressed by Zott recording, producing, mixing and mastering his own solo record. They made plans to work on something in tandem. During their first meeting in a creative capacity, the pair collaborated on a song called “Simple Girl.” While they never explicitly discussed what they wanted it to sound like, the chemistry must have been there, as the track appears on the just released It’s a Corporate World, the debut full-length from Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. (a.k.a. Epstein and Zott’s Folky Indie Pop project). Going from being total unknowns to a nationally touring band getting piles of press and headlining shows is always impressive; it’s even more so when you pull off that process within a couple of years.

So far, melody and uncomplicated charm are the most crucial elements to the band’s aesthetic. With its breezy hook and stripped-down feel, “Simple Girl” demonstrates this well. The winsome number could totally pass for a Simon & Garfunkel rarity, while others in the DEJJ’s thin discography are closer to peers like Vampire Weekend and The Morning Benders.

“We have both done the more self-indulgent-type music where only you understand it,” Zott says. “I love what I’ve done before, but this is a new approach where I can do something challenging, but at the same time, the emphasis is on the song being memorable — maybe being a song people can sing 30 years later at a karaoke bar.”

This mentality explains why the duo (who often turns into a trio for live shows) covered The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” for Horse Power, their 2010 EP. To Zott, that track defines a certain style of how Pop used to be and is relatable on a basic level yet has enough challenging elements to satisfy him as a musician.

“People that don’t even understand music can sing along to ‘God Only Knows,’ but if you do understand music, there’s so many things underneath that surface,” he says. “I think that’s what we’re really trying to work toward.”

With the right push, it’s likely that DEJJ’s facile but pleasurable approach could land them a much big audience.

Still, let’s face it — writing and covering attractive melodies is a fine base for a band’s persona, but adding extra je nais se quoi goes miles in establishing a distinct entity. In the case of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., that oomph comes in the form of their name (which was later approved by the real Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and half-explicable predilection for auto racing motifs. In two examples, Zott and Epstein typically hit the stage wearing NASCAR-authentic, fire-retardant jumpsuits, which they eventually trade for business suits. Their lighthearted video for “Nothing But Our Love” focuses on a mock auto racing-filled sequence.

The theme’s pretty beguiling, as there doesn’t seem to be any subtext to it. DEJJ aren’t skewering this subculture — they’re too earnest for that — but the mix of NASCAR and Indie Pop is so odd that you feel that it has to be saying something. Also, while the duo can drop some decent knowledge about Dale Jr. (a FOX Sports trivia challenge proved this), the racing stuff has no actual impact on their music or lyrical imagery. They could easily drop the name and put in references to basketball or bowling or whatever and it wouldn’t make a difference. To this extent, the name and auto racing shout-outs feel extraneous, revealing nothing about the sport or DEJJ’s music. But the group at least deserves props for introducing some weird bedfellows.

Zott regards the name — which the band intends on preserving for the long run — as a way of retaining youthfulness and not limiting themselves to a certain niche. The name and related trimmings don’t overshadow the band’s music or threaten to make them a gimmick, he contends, because they wouldn’t have made it this far if the music wasn’t any good.

“Josh and I like to dress up. We like to do things that maybe are considered childish and we would like to continue to do that because children are very creative,” Zott says. “I don’t want to be an adult in a lot of ways.”

DALE EARNHARDT JR. JR. play The Mad Hatter Saturday with Phantasmagoria and The Seedy Seeds. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.

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