What ingredients are required to create a dynamic and memorable musical duo? The past has shown us that profound vocal harmony can always serve this purpose, as can the perfect pairing of two brilliant musicians. But one shared quality that few of history's finest partnerships have flaunted is charismatic creativity. This was, until the musical minds of Detroit's Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. expelled their enigmatic panache on the world through their debut LP It's A Corporate World back in 2011. Beneath their kaleidoscopic dinner jackets Josh and Daniel brandished their own unique interpretations of pop music. And their explorations dove to even further depths on their latest gift to listeners, The Speed of Things, released in October.
Shortly after releasing the new record, Daniel and Josh swung by the Baeble HQ to give us a special taste and discuss its making. According to Zott, this boundless creativity we're so fond of is a byproduct of the Detroit music community. "There's a sense confidence that seeps into the music," he described. "You don't care what anyone else thinks because there's no cool scene to fit into. You can exist in your own little world in Detroit."
We invite you to take a step inside Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.'s little musical world, on a New York City rooftop in our latest session video.
- I'm Josh. - And I'm Daniel. This song's called... - Awesome. - G-L-O-R-I-A. - Gloria. - I don't know where you go when you're sitting there all alone, staring out the window like you're waiting for somebody else. I was a fool to be afraid of love. I was a fool to be ashamed of love, my love. Of love, love. I don't feel anything. I'm as fake as a pop-up ad, dear, certainly almost as empty in feeling. I was a fool to be afraid of love. I was a fool to be ashamed of love, my love. Of love, love. I was a fool to be ashamed of love. I was a fool to be afraid of love. I don't try anymore. I'm as cold as your old Uncle Joe, coming drunk to the party and shit talking everyone. I was a fool to be afraid of love. I was a fool to be ashamed of love, my love. - You know, not to, not to, like, sound like we're standing on a soap box or anything, but I mean, there's a lot of really exciting stuff in the pop world right now, but there's also a lot of like really fabricated stuff and I think it's always been that way but there used to be more space for stuff that maybe had a little bit more weight or maybe was a little bit less standard and I think that if we would be part of a movement towards bringing songs that have a little bit more meaning back into the pop lexicon, that would have been probably the best that we could have ever hoped for out of our career. - The difference between the last record and this record, I feel like sonically we were just sort of grown up and part of that is because we got new gear and part of it is because our friend Ben West, he worked with us more in the beginning and so I think it shows on this one. I think we also, song-wise, just became a little bit more focused. - And I think that we were a little bit more open to hearing outside perspective, which I think is actually really healthy as long as you can feel like you have ownership over your ideas. It's nice to actually hear perspective from people that you trust, so we actually got like a bunch of production notes from Paul Simon on the song War Zone, which was crazy. And actually, the funniest part about that is, he, the first comment was you could use more African percussion, which I thought was just amazing. - I just started laughing. - Yeah, so Paul Simon of him to say that. - This is called Knock Louder. - When all the rain is pouring down and there is no one else around, don't believe that I will ever share my world with anyone but you. If there is water leaking in and all the cracks are wearing thin, don't believe that I will ever share my world with anyone but you. And if they don't hear the door, just knock louder and if they still don't, we'll scream at the top of our lungs. Woo-hoo. We'll scream at the top of our lungs and I will never share my world with anyone but you. But you. Oh. If you should be first to pass on, even if I am still quite young, don't believe that I will ever give my heart to anyone but you. Sometimes a moment comes along, you've heard about it in a song. Don't believe that I will ever give my heart to anyone but you. And if And if they don't hear the door, just knock louder and if they still don't, we'll scream at the top of our lungs. Woo-hoo. We'll scream at the top of our lungs and I will never give my heart to anyone but you. But you. Yeah, I will never share my world with anyone but you. Oh. - One of the things coming from Detroit is that confidence. I think it sort of seeps into the music where, when you're being creative and you're being artistic, there's sort of like a, you don't really care what anyone else thinks because there's not quite, like, a cool scene to sort of fit into and so you can exist in your own little world in Detroit and do your own little thing. And I think that's sort of evident in our music and part of the reason why it maybe doesn't sound like other Detroit stuff is because there's all sort of Detroit stuff going on at the same time. Like we have rap, we have a lot of great techno, so, you know, I think the confidence is just that, I can do whatever I want. It's not going to be sort of judged by like a scene collective, you know? - I don't want it to end badly. I don't want you to be like all the ones before. I don't want it to get back to your sisters and your friends back home. But if you'd came back and haunt me, I would swear I heard you talking through the walls again. All night I'd keep pretending every noise I heard was just your ghost. I don't want it to get ugly. I don't want you to be like all the ones before. I don't want it to get back to all the thugs and all your crew back home. But if you'd come back and haunt me, I could see you stand before me like a hooligan. I could hear you with an understanding unlike any that I've known. I just wanna feel somebody. I just want my body to be overcome for once. I just wanna be possessed by all the spirit that I still don't know. But if you'd come back and haunt me, I could feel you running through me like I never did. I could finally know you just the way you've always needed to be known. - Oh, I, I just wanna feel somebody. I just want my body to be overcome for once. I just wanna be possessed by all the spirit that I still don't know. And if you'd come back and haunt me, I would swear I heard you talking through the walls again. All night I'd keep pretending every noise I heard was just your ghost. - I guess making a record, you make it and then it's not yours anymore once it gets released. So, it's up to everyone else in the world to determine whether we successfully did what we tried to do, but, you know, I feel pretty good about, about what we did. - Yeah, I think it's very clear we didn't try to go off the deep end and get weirder than, it's a corporate world. We really wanted to focus and try to write just really good pop songs. At least to our ears. - But we're weirder than... - Right. It's kind of hard to not be, it's hard to not be yourself, you know, so it's us but , at the same time, it's, you know, I think it is pop. Hopefully that, we can just talk about good music in the future. - Yeah.
You could certainly call it a "Turning point" or a "New chapter," but Detroit's JR JR have been working towards this moment since first forming in 2009. Their self-titled third full-length album, JR JR [Warner Bros. Records], represents a complete realization of the creative union between members Daniel Zott and Joshua Epstein.
"To me, this album is like the third part in a series," explains Epstein. "When we first started the band, we were trying to make pop music in the way we remembered and learned it. You can feel that on our first album, It's A Corporate World. The second, The Speed of Things, took everything a step further, but it was a little more polished and professional-sounding. JR JR has a little bit of both worlds. We've gotten better at recording, and we've grown togetherand separately. It's the culmination of the series so far."
Zott puts it succinctly, "It feels like we found our voice."
Under their original moniker Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., the group built a rather rich history, eventually setting the stage for JR JR. From famously getting signed by a Warner Bros. A&R exec who jumped on stage at CMJ, at which point Zott remembers asking, "Who is this asshole?" to snagging their own Ice Cream flavor back in Michigan, JR JR Mint, and even being invited to practice by the Milwaukee Bucks, their indefinable and inimitable charm continually proves magnetic. Along the way, they've sold out countless shows, given TV performances on the likes of Conan, and cultivated a rabid fan base. 2014 saw them step outside the box, creating music for the hip-hop mixtape, Produce, which featured the likes of Murs, Asher Roth, Chuck Inglish, and more. It creatively galvanized them and sparked the process behind their third offering.
"Produce gave us the chance to step back and look at production in a different way," says Zott. "We realized we were adding too many things and layering too much. We became more straightforward and minimal, as a result. It taught us a lesson, and we started to embrace that process when we make our music. We find what the songs need, do that, and don't keep piling on bells and whistles."
With that mindset, JR JR began recording in Detroit and Los Angeles over a period of six months between tour. The sessions yielded "James Dean," during which a booming synth and R&B-style beat gives way to a resounding harmony. In late 2014, it became their fastest growing song on Spotify and an immediate live favorite.
"Lyrically, it felt like a snapshot of a night in my life," admits Epstein. "All of it's true. It happened in the moment, and I just started singing."
"It's not always about trying to be cool and staying relevant," continues Zott. "The pressures of being an 'indie band' trying to be cool seem like bullshit when you get older. You should just write the music you want. We've realized that."
Meanwhile, the first official single "Gone" tempers a dreamy acoustic guitar pluck and sunny whistling synth with an infectious refrain that's definitely as Epstein puts it, "Karaoke worthy."
"We took a different approach," Zott goes on. "We didn't touch a computer until we could sing the song together. It challenged us to write a song with the strength to be sung alongside just a guitar or piano. There weren't any tricks."
"I fell asleep and had this dream," recalls Epstein. "We were in the car, and a song came on the radio. I woke up and sang the hook into my phone. A lot of the lyrics were really personal. It was where we were. It was this beautiful moment of chaos."
Elsewhere, "In The Middle" shimmies between a simmering hip-hop beat and a hyper charged hypnotic chant. Epstein remarks, "I'm good at making quick decisions, but terrible at making decisions that feel important. I was going through some big life changes, and I didn't know which way to go. I spent a lot of my life feeling stuck in the middle of things and not being able to move. It's about that."
Kicking off this next phase, they addressed the name change in a personal statement, but one tweet perfectly summed it up, "Diddy changed his name 3 times. It's really not a big deal."
It's the impact that matters. Their influence became clearest when they launched their #5YRSOFJRJR social media campaign in 2015. JR JR encouraged their audience to share their favorite moments and memories of the group thus far. The overwhelming response reaffirmed their place in pop culture.
"We try to be a band who's thankful for that," concludes Zott. "We're celebrating what we've done, so we can begin something new. That's this album."
"We're moving towards the next series now," Epstein leaves off. "This is a beginning."