BY TONY ABRAHAM Following the release of their debut album It’s a Corporate World this past June, Detroit natives Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. have been gradually gaining momentum in the industry despite a band name that frontman Daniel Zott considers both a curse and a blessing. Conceived in songwriter Josh Epstein’s basement, the band creates catchy electronic folk-pop tunes with melodies that replay like a scratched 45 in your head, including Earnhardt Jr. himself who is a fan. To the uninitiated, I would describe them thusly: Pitch-controlled Neil Diamond circa Tap Root Manuscript, backed by a flanged-out 808 and ten harmonizing Paul Simons singing through a modified CB radio. That sort of thing. The band released the first of their two EPs, Horse Power, in the summer of 2010. “Vocal Chords,” the standout track from the EP, is a feel-good summer song boasting sun-shiny guitar fiddlings, intricately layered harmonies bedazzled with homemade effects, and glitchy electronic drums that make you wanna get up and do a happy dance. It’s a Corporate World serves as a continuation of the two EPs. “Morning Thought” is driven by a static beat that could have been a feature on Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The track is padded by an airy chorus of “la la’s” while static bells and waves of bit-crushed sound drizzle down on the Jonny Greenwood-esque guitar track. Watching the “Simple Girl” music video, it’s hard not to smile – not just because of the absolutely bangin’ chick in the floral dress, but because these two dudes seem so awesome, you know they must be like that in real life. Well, you’re right. Go see for yourself! Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. play Johnny Brendas tonight.
PHAWKER: How did you guys come up with the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.?
DANIEL ZOTT: Well, we had some songs and we were like, “I guess we have to call it something.” We didn’t plan on being a band, we just liked making music together. We had a show coming up and we were chillin’ with some friends and everyone was talking how we were working together and everyone was real excited so we were like, “Well, let’s go play the songs and see how they go live.” Then we thought, “Well, we need a name.” At first it was gonna be something really stupid like Counting Crows Part II or something. I think Josh told that to his buddy and his buddy said, “Listen man, that’s horrible, you might as well name it Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.” Josh was like, “Actually, that’s pretty brilliant. Let’s do that.”
PHAWKER: I hear that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a fan of the band, and that you actually contacted him to let him know your band name wasn’t a parody of his name. Is that true?
DANIEL ZOTT: Yeah, well here’s the deal. We’re on a label called Quite Scientific. When you’re very small you don’t worry about these types of things. We figured at some point we’ll probably have to change it. Josh was like, “Why don’t I just write him?” This is the way Josh thinks, he calls me out of the blue and says, “Let’s get together and write a song.” He doesn’t have a filter in a lot of ways, which is beautiful. He’s like, “Why don’t I just write him and ask him instead of avoiding it or waiting until it’s more of a legal thing? I’ll just write him a personal note. We’ll see what he thinks. I’ll tell him we’re not making fun of him or anything, we just happened to use part of his name.” So Josh wrote him and he wrote back and he was nice. It seemed like a personal letter because it wasn’t super professional, it wasn’t cold, it was actually a very heartfelt letter. He was totally cool with it. He was like, “I like the music, I checked it out.” He said Jimmy Johnson had been teasing him about the fact that there’s a band named after him. He was super cool for being so rich and famous. Usually those two things don’t create a beautiful person – people aren’t usually that nice when they have that type of lifestyle. He’s a cool guy.
PHAWKER: Can you tell me about this modified 1970s telephone instrument you use?
DANIEL ZOTT: Josh made that. There’s a microphone in a telephone obviously where you talk, so he uses that mic and the earpiece, which is the output, he converted it so that he could take the signal out with a ¼ inch normal guitar cable and plug it into an amp. I don’t know, he’s always got some weird ideas, man. He’s such an idea man. What he does a lot is he plugs a phone into a bunch of different pedals then he can route vocal stuff and do freeze things with the vocals that add a different element that you can’t get when you’re running through a house vocal mic. Even when you have a sound guy, it’s a lot of work to do that. We’re kinda hands on with a lot of things like that. Our light show we control from the stage. Josh does weird things like that, I don’t know much more about it than that, I know he made it himself.
PHAWKER: What was the last record you listened to that blew your mind?
DANIEL ZOTT: I’ll tell you what, so we’re making all these year-end lists and I tend to gravitate towards old records, 60s-70s, I listen to newer stuff for the production but I really feel like the songwriting doesn’t get to me as much. I know this sounds so cliché but I had an experience listening to Radiohead’s King of Limbs. It’s funny, most people are listening and say, “I don’t like it.” They think Radiohead could crap something out, wrap it in tin foil and people would call it art. I think part of that is true, but I also think people are way too critical and hard on them. I don’t know what it was, but I was in a new phase of my life, it came out in early January or something like that, but I just remember listening to it with headphones in the dark, all by myself and I don’t know, it did something for me. So that really, I don’t know if it changed my life, but it had an impact on me.
PHAWKER: What’s the best part of being in Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. and what’s the worst?
DANIEL ZOTT: The best part of Jr. Jr. is that I’ve gained a new friend in the later stages of life. I think I’m lucky. It’s sort of rare for someone to meet another good dude friend in your mid to late 20s, that’s kind of cool. I think it’s also the idea that we can kind of just do anything because of the name and the way we’ve approached this from the beginning. Anything goes, I think that’s a beautiful perspective to have when you’re trying to be creative, that you don’t put any limitations on yourself. Those are some of the beautiful things. Some of the worst things about Jr. Jr.? I think what the name and what the whole persona does for me, it actually kind of works the opposite way for a lot of people and I think that’s probably the worst thing because I feel like they’re missing out on what I feel is really beautiful music, it’s great songwriting with really interesting lyrics and people get attached too much to judging it by its cover. That’s probably the worst thing, there aren’t that many bad things about it right now. I can’t complain. Maybe in 10 years I’ll have a laundry list but right now it’s working pretty well.