Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott take you through some of the creative elements that inspire their band Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr and their new album, The Speed Of Things in this extended interview with the duo when they swung by Baeblemusic for a sunny, rooftop session.
- I think that there can be a balance between fun and meaning. I mean, I think that we all are, walk that line everyday, you know? Like, you could have the happiest morning and the saddest night. To try and make something that's one or the other is almost inauthentic and we feel like it's possible to make something that communicates any number of things at the same time. And I think that that's what, I mean, my favorite albums do, you know? Like, if you listen to a lot of Beatle's records, there's a lot of songs that, you know, on first listen, they're fun and then you get into it more and you realize that there's some weight there, there's some intensity and, I don't know, I just, I've always kind of gravitated towards music like that. I think that it's possible to exist in that space because that's kind of how we walk around every day. - I'm not gonna add anything to that. - Toning down the songs when we play them this way is actually, we've been enjoying it a lot this, this time around. I think that there's certain songs on the record that we haven't necessarily figured out how to fit into our live set yet because they're, because it's just kind of a different vibe than what, doing them, but then making a new record and, and having more of like a fully realized production on all the songs, when you take them back to the original guitar or piano or whatever it was, it's been feeling like a really more intimate connection to the song in a lot of ways, so it's been really fun for us. - To me, it's sort of takes it back to like when Josh would originally show me a song or I would show him a song and it's sort of like back in that creative space. You know? By just having it stripped down, which is a lot of fun. - The difference between the last record and this record is that 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, who worked on the last record, but mostly just kind of mastered it, 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. - But what's funny is, it wasn't just, there was a million things. - Yeah, there was a million things. - And the fact that he, like, thought through it and listened through it, it was just amazing. - Uh, we were doing the National Anthem. We were standing on the pitcher's mound and they announced all the teams and the teams are lined up on the base lines and then they said, ladies and gentlemen, your manager of the Detroit Tigers, Jim Leeland and he starts running out, like right towards us. Just, you know, pshh... And, uh, I got, I got kind of emotional because it's like this cool grandpa running towards me and I thought that he was going to come give me a hug and then like right before us, he just like veers off and gives the A's manager a hug and then went and lined up. I was like so disappointed and heartbroken. It's like the grandpa I always wanted. - When you think of Detroit music, in my head, I still think of like Motown, even Bob Seger, although every time I think of him, I just think of his butt cheeks, because I've seen them, because he used to come to this recording studio without wearing underwear and he had like holes in his jeans all the time. - Somehow it turned into that. - Yeah, sorry. I digress. What, what do you think about that, 'cuz I'd like to hear your take. - If, if we can even be in a conversation, I feel like Jack White was like the 2000's of Detroit and if we're in that conversation between 2010 and 2020, I'll be super happy. We don't have to be, like, the dudes but yeah, it's hard for me to detach it too, because I think Detroit, it's always Motown. You know? One of the things, coming from Detroit, is that confidence but I think it sort of seeps into the music where, when you're being creative and you're being artistic, I guess it could be music or anything else, but 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 sorts of Detroit stuff going on at the same time. Like Danny Brown making really a really sick hip hop record. All sort of, 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 love Eminem, I think that he seems like a cool dude. - He's one of those guys you just have to respect, though, because he can do like a Lipton Ice Tea commercial and still come off as like a bad ass and I don't understand how that works. You know? Like, they asked me to do this commercial but then I'm just going to like yell at everyone during the whole commercial. It was like a Super Bowl commercial and he looks cartoony or claymation or something. I'm like how does this guy do this? You know? Like, everything he does, he's looked at like so hard, you know, and like cool. But he just did a Lipton Ice Tea commercial. I wanna do that. - Yeah. I think it's a very pop record. Definitely blurs sonic elements and like really straightforward song writing, and I think that's possibly what we meant by blending indie and pop. - Yeah. And not to like, 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 could 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 and so, you know, I guess making a record, you make it and then it's up to everyone else. It's not yours anymore once it gets released. So, it's up to everyone else in the world to determine whether we successfully, you know, helped that or 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, you know, in the future. - Yeah. - Hey, I'm Daniel. - And I'm Josh. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. - And you're watching Baeble Music.
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."