by Michele Zipkin
Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott are at the heart of the Michigan-born electro-pop band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. Their second full-length record, The Speed of Things, hit shelves, so to speak, in October of 2013. The duo broadened their musical perspectives a bit more and in February they put out a mixtape, Produce, which features collaborations with Murs, Chuck Inglish, Asher Roth and others. Catch them at Union Transfer on Monday, March 24th as part of their US tour supporting their sophomore effort.
When making music, Epstein and Zott employ a blend of writing and production styles, and create fictional characters that at times mirror personal stories. In terms of style, Epstein believes that each song has its own personality- that it should naturally flower into being. “We try to let the song be what it wants to be as much as it can,” he says. When they create, he and Zott follow their gut.
But let’s rewind to how Epstein and Zott first came to collaborate with each other. The two musicians seemed to have started the band purely by chance, when roughly in 2009 Zott came to Epstein’s house looking for his roommate, but found him instead. The two got to talking, and after hearing one of Zott’s songs, and later his self-produced record, Epstein proposed that they write a song together. That first song they wrote and recorded turned out to be the first single on their first record, “Simple Girl” from It’s a Corporate World.
The band initially made ears prick up when they released their first two EPs, Horsepower and My Love is Easy: Remixes Pt. 1. (2010) The former was comprised of three originals and the infamous Beach Boys’ cover, “God Only Knows.” Their latest release results in part from working with producer Ben West, “…the most incredible producer and musician we had ever met,” Epstein says.
Epstein and Zott made this record in much the same way as their first one, in a basement studio, only this time West was in the mix. “We had a little more resources, so we got some better gear,” Epstein says. “It was a fun process and it was so much spending time together and getting to know each other.”
Stylistically, the songs on The Speed of Things are multidimensional. Conceptually, they boast character-driven stories that do not necessarily contain autobiographical elements, but that are fictional manifestations of the two artists’ beliefs. The songs on this album are personal, but are not firsthand accounts of the experiences of the songwriters themselves.
“As we were writing about these fictional characters, we started to realize that there were little parts of us creeping into them,” Epstein says. For instance, the song “A Haunting”, according to Epstein, is about a person who’s constantly distracted by different elements of technology, so much so that they struggle to make any substantial human connection.
“So it’s about hoping that the person you’re sharing your space with will die and come back and haunt you so you can intuitively feel them and know what it was like to know someone,” Epstein says. Interestingly enough, in writing these songs, Zott and Epstein have found insight in the outward manifestation of their inner convictions. “After a while, feelings become crystallized and you can actually learn something about yourself.”
One of the songs from this new record that will get stuck in your head in a good way is “If You Didn’t See Me (Then You Weren’t on the Dance Floor)”. Through this very dance-worthy tune, the two artists make some interesting insights into what you’re “supposed to do” in certain situations, like dancing at a club, for instance. In the album commentary, Epstein explains:
“I think that lyrically [this song] kind of became a reaction to the fact that no matter what happens in life, there’s always someone who wants to attach a set of rules to it. So even like, raves and things that should be wild, and… anarchy… end up having these sets of mores that you’re supposed to follow. That was our reaction against that.”
In addition to their own music, Epstein and Zott are known for their creative and dynamic covers. They have a pretty impressive arsenal of pop tunes under their belt in terms of song reproductions. On the art of covering other artists’ songs, Epstein insights, “I think it’s fun to play a song that someone else made because you objectively know that it’s a great song. Often times you hear a song and hear how you can do it your way. I remember hearing “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston, and thinking- oh, I know how we can do that. I think doing something honestly and authentically is the best way to approach it.”
But making music, like all art, is a never-ending process. Not long after Epstein and Zott finished The Speed of Things, they started concocting something new. “For this record, we wanted to make something that was memorable to us so we would want to play the songs for a long period of time. And then immediately following that, we decided to make something that would be impossible to play live, and that’s what we’ve been working on since.”