Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., The TVD Interview

When Detroit natives Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott met in 2009, they began what Epstein says was merely “a recording project,” two guys with equally diverse tastes in music messing around in a basement studio, with little intention of going public with their music.

What started as an artistic project became Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., the quirky albeit brilliant duo with a knack for layering atmospherics and breezy melodies for a sound at times indie pop in nature, at times hip-hop or folk, a sound both organic and synthesized, both peculiar and, somehow, relatable.

It’s the sound of Generation YouTube: a product of the millennial generation’s ready access to the internet and the realm of artistic possibility that lies within it.

Since their basement studio days, Epstein and Zott have garnered national and international attention and released two LPs, the latest of which came out last year via Warner Bros. Records. Both records exhibit the band’s obscure, cross-genre stylings, backed by dance-worthy beats but ultimately fortified by solid songwriting and thoughtful harmonies.

While on tour promoting The Speed of Things, the band recently produced a hip-hop mixtape featuring Slim, Biggie, Asher Roth, and King Chip, among others. Some may look at what is easy to consider an “indie pop” duo and label the move experimental, adventurous even. But for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., a band who refuses to confine itself to any singular category, it’s just what they do.

Before their show in Dallas this Thursday, we had a chance to chat with band about their recent mixtape project and what’s next for the pair. In this TVD Interview, Josh Epstein tells us about the music inspiring their sound, the art of collaboration, and the “indie pop” box two artists refuse to limit themselves to.

So, you guys released your hip-hop mixtape “Produce” on DatPiff last week. It’s very different from the records you’ve produced. So how did this project come about?

Well Dan and I are both part of a generation of musicians who grew up with the internet, so I think that as a result of that we had more access to different kinds of music—and also just the ability to go discover music. I was around when Napster was here and I just remember finding so much stuff. And not just popular stuff, but really obscure stuff that people would send my way, and just being able to listen to all of that and research who the people were and learn all about it.

So, I think that as a result of that, for us, the lines between genres are sort of blurred. I grew up listening to hip-hop and indie rock and, I guess, oldies and grunge and all the things that were out there, and it never really was weird. It never really seemed like anything was anything other than music, and it’s all kind of been a part of my musical vocabulary and the stuff that I listen to.

I think for Dan and I, we both love the sound of hip-hop. Neither of us ever wanted to be a rapper, but we both were making rap beats and giving them to rappers for a while. We never necessarily got super into it in the sense that it was never our only thing, but it’s been a part of what we’ve done. And so being on tour together, it’s a little bit difficult to write songs in a conventional way because it’s crammed and it’s loud and when you’re writing songs with a guitar or a piano you kind of have to be alone or in a quiet space. So it’s easier to put on headphones and open up a laptop and just kind of mess around with sampling stuff or artists making beats, and after a while we had so much of that, and we really wanted to do this project.

Did people ever doubt what you guys were trying to do?

I think we originally ran into a lot of people questioning it. I think a lot of people were nervous that we’d be perceived as musical tourists, as people who were trying to go somewhere as an adventure or something like that. But we both feel like it’s just where we live. We both exist in the world of hip-hop. It’s like a part of what we do. And I think that, you know, the modern music fan can accept that because everyone is listening to everything now. It’s kind of the old establishment that wants to really affirm boundaries and figure out how to market things and how to sell things, but that’s just not a part of the musical reality anymore.

We just kind of made things we wanted to make and had a fun time doing it with some really talented collaborators. That was really just the project. It was just for fun and just to show different sides of what we’re interested in. Obviously we make our albums, but we do a whole bunch of other things too. I have noise projects that I do where it’s just noise, and we make folk albums and all sorts of things. And I think that part of the beauty of being a modern musician is that you have the ability to access all that stuff—and to be fluent in it and not just sort of dabble.

Speaking of that, you guys DJ too right? So is this mixtape an indication of what your set might sound like?

No, we do more new age disco, house, a little bit of pop—maybe like older ‘80s pop—but we don’t really DJ much hip-hop.

Interesting. So you guys have a very diverse sound. It’s distinct and of its own, but sort of all-encompassing of genres.

Yeah, the feedback that we’ve been getting from people is that this mixtape is a hip-hop album, but it sounds like us. I feel like we have our filter, and any music that we come out with is filtered through that, and that’s what makes it sounds like us. That doesn’t mean that it has to be any one particular style or genre—so it makes me really happy to hear people say that.

I heard that you wrote one of the mixtape’s tracks, “Rush Into Love,” for Slim of 112. Are you a big 112 fan?

Oh yeah, totally. Biggie is still my favorite rapper, and obviously Slim is all over those songs. I remember being so enamored by his voice. When I was a kid and I was learning how to play guitar, one of the first songs I learned how to play was the 112 song “Cupid.” When I was like 15 I would play it to try to impress girls [laughs]. You know, that kind of music was just always a part of my life. So I really wanted to try to write a song for his voice.

It just so happened that a guy who had mastered The Speed of Things was working with him and he had heard the interview where I said that, so he called the studio and asked if Slim could get a sample of our music. Then I heard back from him and he was like yeah, Slim is down to do something with you, send him the song. So, we hurried up and finished it and sent it to him and he spent some studio time singing on it and then sent it back the next day with his voice on it. It was the coolest experience I’ve ever had.

That’s awesome. I admit “Peaches and Cream” is still my guilty pleasure.

It’s amazing.

Exactly. So you guys also released a new music video recently for “Run.” It’s weird. l like it. Your videos have a distinct quirkiness about them. Do you and Dan have a hand in envisioning them?

Yeah, so the video concept for “Run” came from our friend Claire. We really wanted a video that set the tone for the song, which is this weird song about vices and hyper-consumerism and sexual deviance. We wanted something that was as weird as the song but that also looked interesting and fit the tone. So she came to us with the concept and did a fantastic job. We obviously have our opinions and ideas, but I think that the best way to collaborate is to find someone you trust and who you admire, and then let them do their thing and try not to get in their way. I think if you get too crazy with trying to control every little part of things, it can diminish the vision of the person you’re working with.

The tone sort of reminds me of Passion Pit’s video for “I’ll Be Alright.”

I don’t think I’ve seen that one. The reference we gave her was actually Soundgarten’s “Black Hole Sun” video, which I just remember from being a kid it was on MTV and was really weird.

[Laughs] I’ll have to revisit that one. Speaking of collaborating, what does the writing process usually look like for the band? Do you and Dan typically both write your music?

Oh yeah, everything goes through both of us, all of the time. It’s like a 100 percent 50-50 collaboration—and it really works. I don’t think that works for a lot of people, but it really does for us.

You guys have been producing music together for a while now, but when you met you were both doing your own thing, right?

Yeah I think that when you have your own band, like I was looking for someone who was a confident enough singer to sing with me or someone who was going to be opinionated about my ideas and have their own ideas, and sometimes when you’re in a band you can’t help but fall into these roles where someone’s the leader, and someone’s drummer, and someone’s the bass player. I think that sometimes that can get in the way of the song.

So with Dan, both of us approach it as if we’re writing the songs and we’re singing the songs. And then whoever has the best ideas for singing sings it and whoever has the best idea for playing the guitar plays the guitar. It’s never a competitive thing, it’s just what’s best for the song. That’s how we do it.

When you two started playing together, did you both have the same vision for what Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. would be?

You know I don’t think any of us really thought about it too much at the time. We were just about making music. And it was always really unusual how much people reacted to it. I remember coming home after the first time we made something together. My roommate and a bunch of friends were over and they asked me what I had done that day, so I played it for them—and it was the first time that I had that kind of response for something I had made. So I remember thinking like, gosh, there’s something here because it’s really affecting people. But I don’t think we were aware of the fact that we were a band until we were already a band.

Ok, so the name…?

I think that when we started this thing, we weren’t really a band; we were more of a recording project. So we thought about coming up with a name that would defy people being able to put us in a box. I think that a lot of times a name can kind of shape your sound. And we just wanted to go wherever the song wanted us to go or wherever we wanted to go and kind of stop having expectations. So we thought that having a name that defied having expectations, or set up expectations that then were immediately proven wrong, would be helpful because you’d have to listen to the music and accept the fact that we could go wherever we wanted to go—if we want to make an indie album or a mixtape. I think we’ve done that musically.

You know I think that to a certain extent the name has probably turned some people off, or made some people think of the project as being silly because it’s a silly stupid name, but underneath it all we’re serious musicians and producers and artists. But it wasn’t necessarily a calculated thing. It happened in the span of 15 minutes, like “Hey, we need a name. What should we call it? This is it.”

Do you know if Dale himself is a fan?

He is. We’ve had correspondence with him and he’s the sweetest guy, honestly. He’s so nice. Actually we’ve watched interviews where he’s mentioned us and he’s so kind about it.

You guys came out with Speed of Things last year. In the past you’ve produced remixes of your songs, so any plans to remix your latest album?

We’ve done a little bit of that, but right now we’re in the process of making a new album. We always want to move forward. Sometimes it feels like remixing our music is dwelling in the past a little bit, as much as there are some songs you want to drastically change. So for the most part we’re just making new stuff right now.


Speaking again about your recent album, you guys produced a few copies on vinyl for Record Store Day last year, I remember. Naturally, we wouldn’t be TVD without asking about your vinyl collection. Do you collect?

I do, but not as much as I used to because I’m seldom in one spot to take them with me. But I have a lot of vinyl that I’ve inherited. My mom had some really cool records. And I buy stuff when I see it, but I typically don’t get anything new. I don’t know why? I don’t usually buy new releases; I find really old stuff, stuff that was maybe only produced on vinyl.

Your best find?

My favorite record that I have is this Motown box set. It’s like a Motown anthology, like seven records. Not necessarily all their number one hits, it’s just a bunch of Motown songs. It’s so good, like such a perfect thing. All seven records.

Coming from a true Detroit native.


So, moving forward, what’s next for you guys? Any “Produce” Vol. 2 on the horizon?

Yeah, definitely. We’re writing for a new LP and we’ll probably do another mixtape. We’ve got a bunch of new dancier stuff that we’re trying to figure out what to do with. And Daniel and I both have folky stuff that we want to do something with, so we’re just working out a lot of different things. We’re lucky that we’re inspired. Some people that we work with are worried that we’re trying to take on too much, but I think they would be more worried if we didn’t have any ideas at all.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is currently on tour across North America. The pair will perform in Dallas this Thursday, February 20, at Trees.

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