Back in 2011, as a lowly Baeble intern, I experienced the most intense sonic saturation of my life. My brain was flooded with so many new bands that it was difficult to even near surface. Throughout those six months, one album stuck to my bones as almost a source of comfort. The little duo from Detroit with a wacky name Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. released their debut record It's A Corporate World came at the perfect time. As a longtime fan of everything melancholic that Omaha, Nebraska had to offer, their stimulating, yet palatable brand of synth melody and whistled harmony opened my eyes to an entirely new musical world.
Jump ahead two years and I'm back at Baeble with a big boy title, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. are right there with a new EP (Patterns) that has a nostalgic glare helping to clarify my increasingly cynical views. Yesterday, I hopped B-train up to Warner to sit down and finally meet Daniel Zott and Joshua Epstein before seeing them live tomorrow night (4/26) at Music Hall of Williamsburg. Locked away in a Warner back room, the guys sunk into a magenta love seat and we discussed everything from Robocop and Hardcore Pawn to Solange, Tame Impala and the progressive state of pop.
You guys released Patterns last week. How's it going, how do you guys feel about it?
Daniel Zott: Really excited that it's out there. 'Cause we've been sitting on those songs, so it's fun to share it with everybody else and get their reaction.
Joshua Epstein: Yeah, we played our first show Saturday and it was really nice to see that people were more enthusiastic about the new songs than the old songs. People were really boisterous when we played the new ones and that's really exciting cause it feels like everything is living - like a living organism - as opposed to when you go and see a band and you just want hear their songs from four albums ago.
And, do you guys remember go-karting with us?
J: Yeah! That was the best day ever.
I have a few random questions for you. I'm not very familiar with Detroit, I've never been there, so I just started writing pop culture references. What are some of your favorite Detroit pop references?
D: I don't know. I mean is Motown a pop culture reference? Probably not.
J:It used to be. I think it still is!
I wrote down Beverly Hills Cop, Madonna, Detroit Rock City, Freaks and Geeks, Hardcore Pawn...
J:Hardcore Pawn. I actually know the guys on that show. I played on a soccer team with that kid Seth growing up. He used to have birthday parties and they would have all this stuff because they own a pawn shop, and their basement was so awesome for kids. One of the Chuck E Cheese's closed and they had all the shit from there in their basement like skee ball, popcorn machines, cotton candy machines, it was so awesome.
D: Did they have the puppets? Those creepy guys..
J: Did they? I can't remember.
On a more relevant note, Midwest music is showing like a big uprising. What's behind the great new music coming out of your home region?
D: It's cheap to live there. You can do whatever you want, and not work 50 hours to make rent, so I think people are more inclined to take a risk and do something crazy or work on a craft for years because you can. It's more free there.
J: I think that also when you're in a bigger city, there are scenes that develop. For example, in New York, there tends to be groups of bands that kind of sound similar, maybe even have similar vibes that happen at the same time. In Detroit, we're all a little more spread out and there's not as much pressure to be part of a scene. It's almost like everyone tries to do something different than the next band and because of that, it's a really diverse musical community and I think people are doing their own things. In human nature you tend to imitate, and for some reason, because there's not a scene, people aren't imitating as much, they're starting their own paths.
There's a very refreshing spring feel to your sound. That's not something you necessarily associate with Detroit, a very refreshing and colorful sound to it, where did you guys draw your inspiration for your unique sound?
D: We kind of have interesting personalities. I like to dress up, I think that's part of it, too. Maybe Detroit is just gloomy. It seems natural to do something colorful and fun to get through the winter.
J: We spent a lot of time traveling. And I think you learn so much about the way people experience music and the world when you're in other places. I think that it finally started to feel like a fun, creative challenge and an art project to make an album that was maybe contrary to your inclinations as an artist. We want to turn inward and make something that expresses certain moments: whether it's sadness, or questioning of everything. I think it's really challenging to write a song that can be uplifting, and that was a fun project to do.
And, what else have you guys been up to in the meantime since the last release. What's it been, two years?
D: Yeah. I think in July it'll be two years. Wow. I mean we toured a lot for It's a Corporate World.
J: We did two years of touring basically.
D: We've kind of been off for about eight months and we recorded a new record coming out later this year, and this EP, which is part of that, with additional songs. So we did a lot of recording, a lot of learning new gear and new techniques, more studio stuff than touring.
J: I've been trying to teach my dog who's six years old new tricks. And they say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. I don't think that's true but it's definitely more difficult. But you know, if you have food you can get a dog to do pretty much anything.
So what was your 'food' in learning all these new techniques?
J: The desire to want to make something better. I make something I always listen to it and think, "I wanna do better than that." And I think if that ever stopped, I don't know how I would ever grow.
And you mention how you like to dress up, what can we expect on Friday night? What's the get up situation?
D: We're going with the theme of the EP, so we're doing a lot of pattern-type stuff, that's just kind of wild. So it's a lot of patterns and we have some new outfits that we bring out later in the show. I don't wanna ruin all the surprises
J: We made everything a little more cohesive this time around. We wanted every piece of art that came out with all of the music, whether it's a single an EP or an album, to be cohesive, and we want our outfits and our music to kind of fit into that, and all of our videos. It really feels like one giant art project to me, which is really fun.
Listening to It's A Corporate World and the new material on the EP, it's hard to find anyone around with similar sound and style. Where do you draw inspiration from?
J: I'm so all over the map. I listen to world music a lot. I listen to a lot of hip hop lately. Sadly, I think I know every lyric to Bone Thugs N Harmony "Crossroads", which sucks.
D: We literally are all over the map. I love classical music. We were listening to some jazz on the way here. And I like good pop music, for more of the production quality with that kind of stuff. But I feel like we resort to old 60s and 70s music the most.
J: I think it seems like both of our senses of melody were probably most shaped by Motown, that's just what I grew up hearing the most - our parents are from Detroit. You know, my parents grew up being able to go see those people do the Motown review every Sunday.
You said, 'good pop music', that seems to be something people tend to argue about. What do you consider to be good pop music?
J: My problem with it is that it's changed. People are still able to digest a good song but this is why we always listen to a lot of 60s and 70s pop music, because you can have a song we covered like "God Only Knows" that is so intricate and complex, yet everyone knew that song. It was a hit. People could sing that song. I feel like if that song came out now, it would be heard as more of an abstract tune, although it's very singable.
D: Conversely, there's a commercialization of a certain sound. Like Tame Impala's "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" should be a huge hit. Everyone should know that song. It's produced with a different aesthetic than you typically find on the radio right now. It's probably not on the radio as much as it should be.
They're starting to use a lot of their songs in commercials.
D: Right, and that's sort of the side platform for a lot of them. Everyone hears it, and it sounds great, and I think that shows that it could take off, but I think that shows you're fighting against all these other songs that are in a certain format and sound a certain way and it would be an odd-man out type of song. I wished it could be a little more diverse. People may consider them an "indie band" but that's a good pop song to me. That's a pop record to me.
J: Well, the line between indie and pop is clearly being blurred. I mean you have Solange, who is an indie artist all of a sudden.
My aunt bought her last record.
J: [Laughs.] Yeah! I don't think what she's doing is too far removed from what she was doing.
D: The landscape's changed a little. It seems a bit narrower, but hopefully it can get back to where you can have a folky type song as a top hit.
J It is! That Lumineers song
D: Yeah, we're getting some of that now, which is great, I hope it keeps going in that direction where that can be seen comfortably next to a Robyn song.
It seems like that would be the opposite of what the listener wants, since indie music listeners tend to be a bit selfish.
J: I think that it was probably a lot easier for people to feel like they had an ownership of something, when they were actually owning the music. And I don't mean that as a knock for people who are stealing music. But at the same time, you used to be able to be a band with a cult following and have a career. I don't necessarily see that happening for bands as easily now. Like you said, Tame Impala has all of their stuff in commercials. That tells me that corporations are supporting artists more than fans. If people want to be able to have their bands, either it's going turn into a crowd sourcing model, or people are going to have to be willing to spend as much money on their music as their Starbucks.
Random question I wrote down: are there any other athletes you considered naming yourselves after?
J: Oh man. I can't necessarily speak to you on our band name, but I can say I've done a lot of thinking and when I have a child, I will name my first son Michael Jordan Epstein.
Another random question: what's the strangest thing you've ever seen in Brooklyn?
J: Jew parade. I can say that, because I'm Jewish! We were walking and we turned around a corner and they had just finished writing a Torah, so there was a giant bus with a PA system just playing Hebrew music and there were people going nuts, like bringing the Torah into the congregation. They stopped traffic and there were people dancing on cars.
D: It was quite the accomplishment. To copy the Torah, that much writing, it's awesome. Now I'm let down every time I go to Brooklyn! I just want the Hasidic Jews to break out into song and dance and they never do anymore.
Speaking of Brooklyn, you guys have that DJ set scheduled at Brooklyn Bowl this Saturday. Can you describe that?
D: I think it's like our name. You don't really know what's coming, anything can happen. You could get some early 90s hip hop and some newer disco or techno music. We try to do a big range. We try to keep the ladies dancing. That's the key, you know what I'm sayin'? If they're dancing we're fine.
J: We walk the pop line without playing Michael Jackson the whole time.
On your website, it doesn't have anything listed past May. Do you guys have any other dates?
D: No, we're breaking up after May.
J: [Laughs.] Nothing's official yet.
And you mentioned the full album? Any details?
J: I don't think we're allowed to tell you for some reason. There's not any official date. That's later on, but there's definitely an album that's coming out!
J: That's only because there's probably a camera in here! You know how creepy they are here...
Maybe say no to the latte today, and use those funds to buy Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.'s new EP Patterns. While you're at it, get your hands on It's A Corporate World.