24 Sep 2011: Bowery Ballroom New York
Listening to Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s studio recordings, their songs are carefully crafted pop tunes full of traditional harmonies but with quirky electronics and fuzzy guitars thrown in for fun. In live performance however, the band puts the emphasis on the fun as those elements rise to the forefront along with classic concert experiences like multiple lighting cues, costume changes and bubble machines. This duo from Detroit, Daniel Zott and Josh Epstein, provide all this without losing site of who they are—two wacky musical dudes from Motor City. At the Bowery Ballroom September 24, they shared lead vocals, instruments and commanding positions on stage to bring their music to life for their fans. As their lyrics pronounce, “Life’s too short to play it safe”. When Zott calls out “Come on, let’s dance”, he doesn’t exclude himself as he leaped around the stage, shaking his hips and playing guitar. And Epstein could still sing out while hopping along with the crowd without missing a beat. Drummer Michael Higgins provided the high-energy backbone required throughout the night.
Epstein and Zott entered proudly wearing baseball jackets of the first place Detroit Tigers, not the NASCAR jumpsuits the band has been sporting onstage during previous gigs. Motioning to their fans to get their hands up and smiling to each other, they began with the steadfast melody of “Morning Thought”. By the third song the jackets were off, revealing matching short-sleeved shirts with bowties. “Hello NYC”, Epstein said, introducing the band. He then launched a discussion of things Detroit shares with New York, which mainly included basketball stars such as Isiah Thomas, Allan Houston and Chauncey Billups. The band then offered “When I Open My Eyes”, with Epstein banging on a big drum downstage along with other surfaces found nearby. Later, he began the opening lines of LCD Soundsystem’s “New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down”, to huge cheers. This heartfelt rendition was a nice nod to the city.
The band then continued their own compositions, including a new song “Don’t Tell Me” which was written during a week-long break at home. The ending of their single, “Simple Girl”, became a full-blown explosion of sound, disintegrating to a halt. Another cover, “We Almost Lost Detroit”, by Gil Scott-Heron, became an impassioned plea for their hometown while rocking out the chorus. For the encore, the pair returned sporting their neon checked jackets from the album artwork to bring the ‘80s hit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” back to life as the venue became one big dance party. The night ended past midnight with the more-measured “Nothing But Our Love”, and the lyrics “I get more then I deserve”. This band is getting everything they deserve and more. Ending a week that began at the Austin City Limits festival with stops in Charlottesville, Virginia, D.C. and Philly, Josh Epstein also had time for a quick chat with PopMatters.
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. came together after you picked up the phone to connect with Daniel (Zott) since you knew him already from the Detroit music scene. What kind of music projects were you working on at the time?
Well I have another band called The Silent Years and I’ve done a couple of solo shows. Daniel’s played with a lot of bands—he has a band called The Great Fiction that he is the primary songwriter for and he also has solo material that he puts out under the name Daniel Zott. We actually played together filling in for other guitar players in bands so I’d known him a little bit. The Detroit music scene is interesting because the city is so spread out with all these suburbs. There are bands that pop up in each suburb and a lot of time there’s like separate little scenes almost. Daniel and I have never been a part of the Detroit scenes—we’ve both kind of done our own things. There are a lot of local shows and we’ve always been a part of those but we’ve never been involved in the drama.
Just two years later you two are headlining a national tour—how’s that going?
It’s going really well! So far, so good. Yeah, we’re really lucky. We’re still enjoying each other and playing the songs. He’s the greatest guy I know.
Your first song you released together, “Simple Girl”, puts a quirky spin on a retro sound labeled as indie pop. It’s also been described as psych-retro pop and minimalist alterna-pop. How do you like to describe it?
I think pop in the good, purest sense of the word. You know, we would love for everyone to find something in our music. That’s ultimately what pop means—it means that it is popular and widely accessible. That would be really cool to us. In the past ten years especially, pop has gotten such a negative connotation because of the gross commercialization of pop music. Hopefully it can get back to where I’m comfortable with what I’m hearing on the radio. That’d be great.
Well the title of the full release (and a song on it) is It’s A Corporate World. Is that playing into the same notion or is it something else?
Yeah whether we like it or not, it is a corporate world at this point. I think it was on our minds when we were writing, definitely.
Your cover of “God Only Knows” takes the Beach Boys song and puts it over an upbeat groove. How did you arrive at this musical treatment for the song?
Daniel and I don’t really make any decisions. We have similar tastes, so when we arrive at a moment that we both like we just keep doing it. I don’t think that we ever set out to make something that’s calculated. It’s always spur of the moment kind of thing. With “Got Only Knows”, Daniel was playing the song in his basement because he was trying to figure out all the chords since he was interested in it. I started singing with him and harmonizing. At the time, his cousin was standing at the top of the stairs eavesdropping. He yelled down, “You guys should record that, it sounds great”. So we did. That’s how we work—we just do things and if we like something then we put them up.
You also do a cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” in honor of your hometown. Were you both raised in the suburbs or in the urban part of the city?
We both grew up in metro Detroit and we have lived all over the city. As metro Detroiters, we all feel like we’re part of the city. At this point, Daniel lives a half-mile north from Detroit city proper so we feel like we’re always from Detroit. But the lyrics from that song voice the sentiment behind our album title and some of the content of that album better than we could have. We started working on that actually as a project for a covers show about Detroit. We felt like it was still so applicable so it was worth including on our album.
The single “Morning Thought” has a glistening electronic intro before the song blasts open—such a big sound for a trio. How did that come together?
Actually we had just bought a new sampler so we were trying it out. It’s a BOSS Dr. Sample. We record everything so when something comes together like that, we keep it. Some of the samples that we put in there were pretty accidental but it felt like they moved the song along really well.
During the video “Nothing But Our Love” has you in cardboard racecars with fireworks and everything. How did the concept for that develop?
Actually, one of our friends came to us with this idea that we would be having a sleepover party and before we go to bed we’re racing around the living room. It kind of went from there, you know like what if we went to bed and dreamed that we were racing on a road. So it all just went on and on from that idea.
Well it certainly fits in with your name and the whole NASCAR theme. Did you contact the Earnhardt family about the name before you used it for the band?
We didn’t really think we would be a band, so we had used it a few times as a joke. When we realized that we were going to be playing more concerts and stuff, I sent Dale Earnhardt Jr. a letter to explain that we weren’t making fun of him and everything. We just accidentally got to a point where wanted to keep the name and he was really gracious about it. He’s a really decent person—for such a mega star he’s a nice, humble guy. In a note back he basically said who wouldn’t be honored to have a band named after them and I want you guys to be safe out there, take care.
// Notes from the Road
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