Electrical Energy: An Interview with JR JR
With a name change and renewed sense of pop purpose, Josh Epstein of dynamic pop duo JR JR talks with PopMatters about the band's eponymous new album and so much more.
JR JR is the effervescent new moniker for the latest musical collaboration between Detroit-area natives Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott. Formerly known as Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., the duo recently decided to re-title themselves, to reclaim a collaborative musical identity forged independently of the NASCAR superstar for whom they had no affiliation or ties.
Among the newer faces of indie pop, alongside acts like Phantogram, tUnE-yArDs, and Kishi Bashi, JR JR are part of the latest electronica-tinged wave to break ashore. JR JR scored a Billboard Heatseekers chart position with The Speed of Things in 2013, plus a six week residency on the chart. The duo's latest, eponymous album is the introspective successor to that disc, well poised to bring the band greater exposure.
Prior to JR JR, both core bandmembers were prolific and successful enough to have garnered record label attention and critical acclaim. Epstein was lead vocalist for the Silent Years, an indie rock project which had enough of a supportive fanbase to land his band at least one cross-country full American tour. Zott enjoyed success as part of no fewer then three "vanity" projects prior to going solo. One of his projects, The Victorious Secrets, was featured in a commercial for free credit reports, which brought him to national attention.
In 2007, the duo met, and took the next fateful step: combining their creative efforts. Epstein and Zott picked a name that would attach no apparent musical expectations and ran with it. With no pre-existing or self-imposed limitations as to what any finished music would sound like, the duo set out to record some "smarter" pop. Amalgamating genres was no longer out of the question, so if an idea sounded like it fit, it stayed, regardless of it's original niche.
The pair wrote and recorded all the time, releasing mixtapes for a circle of trusted friends, with very little intention of having the material publicly consumed. Somehow, Epstein and Zott's first finished song, "Simple Girl", found its way from a dying MySpace page to the ears and desks of Warner Bros., a fortuitous connection which quickly propelled the band into the stratosphere. What began as a fun way to collaborate and create mixtapes for compatriots quickly blossomed into a professional, viable, enjoyable band effort with an international fanbase. What started in Zott's basement studio quickly shifted to encompass a "the whole world's a stage" ethos.
Freshly into a new album cycle, Epstein spoke to PopMatters about JR JR's formation, its newest album, just what's in a name or label, and the duo's approach to both songwriting and prosody.
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Could you elaborate a little bit about how JR JR came together? How did it happen? It seems like it was sort of a whirlwind.
Yeah. It pretty much was. We were both in Detroit bands. I think both of our bands were decently popular on a local level. We both had a little bit of success. Neither one of us had really gotten outside of Detroit. I mean, I had been on tours and stuff, but they never really went that well. Daniel's band had a publishing deal, so they'd had some songs placed in movies and stuff.
(Oh, cool!) He's the hookup.
Well, kind of. I think we were both in the same boat. Then, I heard a solo album that he did. We were both in this band format: playing in these bands where you have a keyboard player, and a bass player, and a guitar player, and everyone gets together and does their thing.
You had a collaborative, full band type situation.
Right. I think we were both kind of yearning for a situation where both of us could play a little bit of everything, and produce. So, we tried to write stuff together. The first song was "Simple Girl". I guess Warner Brothers heard "Simple Girl", and also I think they had heard an EP we'd put out, on Quite Scientific, which is a local label. At first, I got a call from a call from a lady named Kate, who had found our MySpace page. That seems like a bygone generation.
Back in 2009, it was still hanging on by a thread.
Right. So, she had seen our MySpace page, and she was from Warner Brothers. Then, when we played at CMJ, this other A&R guy from Warner Brothers, completely separate of Kate, jumped on the stage. His name is Steve McDonald. That was right after we had played a set, and I guess we didn't think that it would be that meaningful; we didn't really believe that they were serious about it. They made us an offer, and we thought about it a lot. We've been there ever since. So, it was kinda like right away.
That is really cool. Since Daniel already had the publishing deal, you were used to having the record label attention.
Well, I think that at that point, Daniel's deal was kind of on it's way to expiring. His deal had happened a little bit before that. So his band was a little less active then it had been. As was mine. So it was good timing. JR JR kind of started out like a side project, and then became the thing that was occupying most of our time.
What was the initial spark? Was that you wanting to write songs with him?
Yeah. I just heard him, his solo album, and it was so good. I was very impressed by how he could, by himself, write, record, and execute stuff that I thought sounded so good. I just figured that if we streamlined the process of just having two people, who both kinda did that, that it might be an interesting thing. Back at the time, I was remembering, thinking a lot about the bands I grew up listening to, and liking. Thinking about the recording technology, too. Bands like The Beatles. I like The Beatles, because there's four really capable songwriters in there.
They're all very strong songwriters.
I don't think that happens as much anymore. If you're a songwriter now, why wouldn't you just make your own songs in your bedroom, because you can? You don't have to go to a studio, you don't have to have a band.
Exactly. You can work it out with ProTools, and GarageBand, and stuff like that.
That's not a slight against anyone that I've been playing with before, because everyone that I've been playing with was always really talented, and a great songwriter. I just felt like if you took two people who were kind of the primary songwriters in a band, and put them together, maybe it would be an interesting combination. Then it just ended up working. You know, for whatever reason, we just kind of fit together. Our personalities ... it just was comfortable.
Did you do any demoing before you formally started up the band? As in, had you met Daniel before, and did you guys kind of jam out a little while before you actually started up? Or did you just jump in?
No. Neither one of us is good at jamming. We don't demo; we just kind of write and record the whole time. Then we just kinda build the songs that way. So, we were never really demoing, then taking it to a studio to record. We were always just kind of writing, and recording, as we went.
There's a difference between a good songwriter, and somebody who's talented playing music. Songwriting is a completely different skill, it seems.
Yeah, that's true. I think we're both kind of "jack of all trades, master of none." I think we can both play a little bit. I mean, we're both functional. Dan's better at drums and piano then I am. I'm a pretty good guitar player. We can both play bass pretty well. We can both sing, and we're both pretty good at writing songs. I think that when we get together in a room, we really push each other further, too.
There's the spark! You work collaboratively off each other.
How did you end up with Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr? That, to me, as a metal fan, that says that you sound like a metalcore band. Or a redneck rock band.
[laughs] Yeah, I mean ... I think, because we weren't thinking of this as "a thing"; it wasn't something we really spent too much time thinking about. Honestly, our first record wasn't something that we spent that much time thinking about in general. I would go to Daniel's house. (At the time, he was living at his grandma's house, actually.) He would show me a song, and we'd write the song. Then, he would maybe work on it a little bit more, and then I'd come back the next week, and we'd finish it. So, it was no more then two times of getting together that we spent, working on any of those songs. Until we realized that the album was going to come out, then we went through and finished it. It wasn't something that we thought that much about.
So, you kind of got stuck with (the name).
Yeah. We were also in these bands. My band took ourselves very seriously. I don't think that's a bad thing.
Not at all.
Daniel and I were having so much fun making music though, that we were like "You know, we don't want to get stuck in the rut of having to take ourselves seriously." We take our music seriously, we take our art seriously, but it's exhausting! Being this artist all the time, that has to be constantly making statements. I mean, it's wonderful to be able to use your imagination and convey ideas whenever you want. But, being a musician, unfortunately, you have to exist "as that" most of your life.
Right. You get stuck as that persona.
Yeah, all the time!
You get the public face, and the private face.
Yeah. So I think we just both wanted to be more "ourselves." The name was just kind of goofy. "We'll call it this, and no one will know what to expect. We can make whatever we want." Then, I guess we got stuck with it.
Well, luckily he thought it was cool, and all that happened nicely. It all ended up positively.
Yeah. Yeah, it went better then it could have.
Way better then it could have. So, now that you've changed it to JR JR, that sort of challenges us with a contrast of "What we expect the music to sound like" versus "What the music actually sounds like."
I think, that at this point, we have this catalog of work. We feel more comfortable that we kind of know what we want the voice to be. At first, when we met each other, we didn't really know what our voice sounded like, collectively. Now, I think the reason that we're using the name JR JR, is that we're both stronger personalities collectively. It's almost like we had this third band member, who was like ... a raging alcoholic, and didn't contribute creatively.
A raging alcoholic?! Oh jeez ...
The name was like a bandmember, who was out front, fielding all of the attention, and it just felt like we needed to kick that guy out.
Now that you've changed it, it's just JR JR, so it's like you've almost gone back in time, age wise.
So now you're like back to this happy, carefree time, when you can sort of reassign yourselves.
Definitely. I feel like our music is reflecting that, too.
So you've got more of a fun, carefree type thing going on now?
I think we made a really conscious decision to just enjoy the process of making this album. Right before we started making this album, Dan, and Ben West, who co-produces, were talking about the making of the second album. What we wanted to do differently. They both brought to my attention the fact that it didn't seem like I was enjoying making the last album. Then, I thought about it, and they were right. Really, I didn't. So, we consciously decided "Let's try and enjoy this, and have fun."
So you were sort of able to rebuild the band ethos? Now it's fun again, and it's not work?
Yeah. I think it started back when we were making the mixtape. We just knocked it out in two weeks, and it was what it was. We listened back, and lived with it for a little while, and realized that there's something that comes across. Something that comes across very viscerally, when you allow yourself to kind of go with your gut and not overthink things, as much as we may have before. We're trying to have fun. We're trying to allow ourselves to feel good about what we're creating, as we create it, as opposed to letting self-doubt creep in.
When you're writing lyrics, do you go through that sometimes-painful degree of intellectualization and self-actualization? Or, do you just sort of let it flow?
Yeah, lyrics are definitely different. I mean, we are definitely very analytical with them, and more calculated. I think that's a little bit different (of an) art form, then making music.
Yeah, because that sort of combines poetry and prose.
Yeah, and it's so communicative, in a language that everyone speaks. So, you know, it's different then music. Music is communicative in a different way.
Music is more universal. You don't have to understand a certain language to listen to it and let it move you. Like art.
Right. If you hear a song, and the lyrics are something that you just can't stand, like can't stand the fact that someone said that. For example, the song "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy". I can't listen to that song. Because I don't care about tractors, or any of it, you know?
Right. If you can't relate to it ...
If you write the lyrics to something that meant something more to me, consciously, then I might be more okay with listening to that song. And music has nothing to do with it.
"Hypothetical" and "Electrical Energy" are interesting titles. How did you develop those, and what spurred the titles?
"Hypothetical" is kind of a strange one for us. It feels like it's kinda sitting in the middle of all these genres of music. It's like a little bit R&B, and a little bit slow jam. It was an interesting one.
That's cool, because it sounds unusual, like you were outside of your comfort zone.
Yeah, definitely. "Hypothetical" was one that happened while we were writing with Ben, actually. The melody happened before the lyric. We were all playing and singing, humming along with the melody that we were thinking of. I think that I wanted the title to be one word, as opposed to a bunch of words. The opening line "I don't follow every law; It doesn't matter what you saw, but you'll be fine" was already there. So ...
You built it up around that.
Built it up around that, yeah. The idea being "What if someone's saying that: what are they saying?" Then it just so happened that the story kind of fit around this character. Someone who can't commit to anything, and so he or she acts, and then says "Well, that was hypothetical." It just fit in every way. It had the right amount of syllables in it, and it felt like it sung well. It felt like it shouldn't have sung well, but it did. It sung better then it should have.
It seems like the more astute songwriters go through lyrics, paying attention to the number of syllables, and how well the rhyme works. You don't really get that in genres like metal. They don't really do a lot of that hyper-critical stuff with the lyrics. And it's really interesting to hear.
Well, I have a poetry background. I studied poetry in college. All of my poetry professors always said that song lyrics are like a bastardized version of poetry. So I know that it cannot be expected to be held to the same standards as poetry or whatever, just because there are more constraints. You kind of have to accept that. But it is important.
So, "Electrical Energy" went like this: Daniel and I went to Ben's house, and Ben had been messing with this beat, and some of the chord progressions. Ben went to close it, and start working on one of our songs. We said, "No, no, keep that open, let's go with that." We were really in more of an open-minded space when it came to making this album. Like "Let's just create all the time, no matter what." We focused more on allowing other people to enter our creative space. We were comfortable with that, and so we ended up writing, and having other people write with us. Like being in rooms with people. Instead of saying "This band is Daniel and I, and we need to go and do this on our own," it was more like "Whatever. Let's just make something. Let's have fun. Let's enjoy it."
I think "Electrical Energy" is a really good example of that. Ben was playing around with this thing, then we all started going with it. Lyrically, it was meant to be a series of vignettes, that were meant to convey a tone. "Country clubs and old bassinets": that's just meant to elicit some sort of tone. Some sort of response. Then, completely unrelated, "Magnets reading me like cassettes". Which is completely different, but meant to make you feel something. The whole point of that song was to try and do that every half verse.
Is it sort of a "trial and error" process to figure out what vocal line fits over songs like these, or do you compose the vocal melodies along with the songs? Do they "grow up together"?
Sometimes. Sometimes not. You know, the best ones kind of come all at once, but sometimes it takes more work then that. You can't be afraid to treat it like work.
Because you've got that public face now. People are starting to expect you to release music. They're going to start to be disappointed if you don't release music.
More then that, I think I go stir crazy if I don't. I start to feel unproductive, and self-esteem goes down, you know. If it's important to you [then] yeah, it's a lot of pressure.
Is this a beginning of a new trend in modern pop music, to meld electronic elements like the synth bass, or the synth drums, with traditional instrumentation, like a guitar, or electric bass, or vocals? Because really, it's different. It doesn't sound like pure radio pop, and it doesn't sound like old rock and roll.
Honestly, I think we're just making music with the tools that we have. I think if you put us in the studio, and there was completely different stuff in there, it would probably sound a little bit different. But because we have similar taste in sounds, we've kind of collected the gear that we have. We don't use the same things all the time, and it is a stylistic choice. We both are on the cusp of the Internet age. I grew up with not having a cellphone until I was like 12. I learned how to play (organic) instruments, and so did Daniel. We were young enough, that when all the technology was getting good, and was coming along so fast, that we learned how to use it. We're fluent in all of the recording technologies, and electronic instruments, and electronic music. At the same time, there's a certain character, and heart, that comes through in playing an organic instrument. I don't know. I think our music has always involved the juxtaposition of the looseness of human error, and the rigidity of machines.
I was wondering about the new trend in modern pop, because I was wondering how much of your core sound as JR JR grew from your previous bands, how your past sound influenced your present direction, and how much history you're pulling from those experiences.
I don't think it's actually influenced JR JR all that much. I think that JR JR is the stuff that we wanted to do in our other bands, that we kinda couldn't do. I mean, I guess you're always learning from what you've done in the past, and drawing from those experiences. I guess it's very hard to quantify, though.
So this is sort of an alternative outlet for you.
Yeah. But then it became the primary outlet, so, who knows.
How did you get in to music in the first place? What were your first bands like?
My first bands were, I guess, for lack of a better word, emo. Before emo got appropriated by a different group of people, that weren't a part of the way that got started. Those were kind of my roots. I also always loved hip-hop, and I never wanted to rap, but I always messed around with beats, and trying to work on music that's founded like that. So I guess JR JR's a combination of all of that.
So you're bringing in some of that hip-hop experience, some of that emo experience, some contemporary pop, to that.
Yeah. I would say so. I don't think that music should have to sound like anything.
Right. Because if you try to make it sound like something, it's probably going to fail.
What was your learning experience back then? You must have done some crazy touring, where you played to three people, or something like that.
Yeah. I played in a bar in Tempe, Arizona, and it was just the bartender and the sound guy. At one point, both of them left.
So it was like a glorified band practice.
Yeah. I literally played to no-one.
So that's your "growing up in the music scene" tale, earning your stripes.
Yeah. Oh yeah, I did plenty of that.
Last November, you guys toured with a band that I interviewed, called Mini Mansions.
Oh, yeah. They're great!
How was the tour itself?
Oh, it was great. It went really well. They've been opening for like ... everyone. They've been on huge tours.
Royal Blood and Arctic Monkeys.
Yeah. Exactly. I think they came from the Arctic Monkeys tour, to on tour with us, so I feel like it's probably like going into smaller-ville for them. It was really cool to have a band playing with you every night, that you like, and want to see, and respect. They were really nice guys. So it was great. I don't know what they think about it. But I think it went really well, and it was good. [laughs] There were a lot of people there, and everyone liked playing. I watched them every night. It seemed like everyone was into them every night. So, it was cool.
I wanted to ask you about your live set, and your other band members, because nobody ever asks you about them! Every time I've seen videos of your live performances, you have a backing band: other members. Does JR JR get a new backing band for each album, or have you stuck with the same guys for a while?
No. It's the kind of thing where having a band that's four people gets pretty impossible, because there's just more logistics, and people's schedules to figure out. Ideally, we would like to keep the same band together, all the time, but sometimes, for whatever reason, someone can't do something, and you kinda can't. We learned early on. We had a drummer, and he decided that he had to go to China. We didn't want to not play shows.
You have to replace him then.
Yeah. It's not necessarily replacing. It's more of just finding people to play when they can. We're lucky that our drummer, Mike Higgins, has been with us for a few years, and he's really great. We've been working more with him, and doing a little bit more creative stuff with him, and welcoming him. Mike's collaborating with us a little bit more in the future too. Our bass player slash multi-instrumentalist is Bryan Pope. This is going to be his second time touring with us, this upcoming tour. He's incredible. He's like the best musician that I've ever seen, so it's really fun having him play with us. He can do everything: he can sing really well. With us, with our other musicians, they have to be able to play everything. It's hard to find someone that can do that.
Right. There's a lot of people that can just play guitar, or just play bass.
Right. I mean, we're lucky. They're really great.
They seem to be vital to the live show. That's why I wanted to make sure to ask about them.
Oh, definitely, yeah, they are.
You guys have an entertaining set, too, with the bubble machine, and stuff like that. Before you go on tour, do you do a lot of rehearsal, and pre-planning, and things like that?
Yeah, we do. This time, less so. Everyone was responsible for learning everything on their own. Then we came together, and went through it, in like a week of really long days. Before the last tour, we did a lot.
You have to keep the bubble machine, because that is totally cool.
We'll see. I still don't fully know what the live set's going to look like, this time.
Right now, what's your current favorite JR JR tune to play live?
That's a really good question. I like playing "James Dean". It's pretty chilled out, and it's just fun to play, for some reason.
How much creative input does Ben West have, with all your tracks? He seems to be like the third Beatle.
Yeah. Kinda. He has a lot of [it]. He's co-written a lot of the songs on the new record, and he's responsible for a lot of the way that it sounds, sonically. We trust him a lot. We bounce everything off of him.
When you're writing your songs, do you start with a certain instrument's "sound", first?
I think it happens differently every time.
So it's a per-song thing?
Yeah, definitely. Sometimes it's music first, and then lyrics. Sometimes it's a lyric, and then we write a song around it. However an idea hits you, you just kind of have to be receptive to it, and try to go with it, you know?
Are you aiming for a retro to modern juxtaposition? You're often given that Pet Sounds comparison, because of your vocal harmonies.
We're always listening to modern things, but I think that the things that resonate the most with you, are the things that you grew up with. For us, that's like The Beatles, and The Beach Boys, and even Boyz II Men. We do appreciate the retro notion of popular music. How pop music could be a little bit smarter, and a little bit more interesting, and unique sounding. I don't think that we're necessarily going for a retro sound or anything.
Yeah, because when I listened to some of it, it sounds very very modern, to me. It's very contemporary.
Yeah. I think we definitely wanted to fit in with like the rest of the modern music.
Are you guys still able to tap into the wellspring or inspirations from the last disc? It seems like there's a continuum going on.
Yeah, definitely. It seems like the third part in a series. Yeah, I think there definitely is a continuum there. There's elements of both of the previous records in this album.
You've got a clean, pretty well-defined sound, especially with the vocal melody and harmony sections.
How are you pushing yourselves, comfort zone wise?
I think we're trying to do everything differently, every time. Like trying to not follow the same patterns. You know, trying to not start writing a song on the piano every time, or trying to not start writing with a guitar. Trying to go to different places, and find different inspirations. I think each time it makes things sound a little bit different. And then, the way that we work, kinda makes it sound like us.
From what you said earlier, it sounds like you're incorporating the ideas from outside writers, the songwriting team, or others. Like that is expanding your palette as well.
Yeah, definitely. I think, every time you work with another person, it's just another idea in the room. Another variable, that you kind of can't control. Then, that makes things change.
When can fans catch you live, and what can we expect from the band in the future?
We're definitely going to be touring a lot. We're working on a new mixtape. So, hopefully, we'll put out a mixtape soon.