Fun ride with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
On a drizzly September night inside the Havana Social Club in the heart of Seattle's hipster Capitol Hill neighborhood, two musicians from Detroit are setting up an all-American motif inspired by a fun-loving and hugely popular NASCAR driver.
Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott are Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., the populist spawn of auto racing and catchy, egalitarian pop music. Their relation to the driver is reflected in the two U.S. flags, a third U.S. flag made of lights, and one checkered flag that decorate their small setup in the corner of the night club. All that was missing were a pair of Wranglers.
"There were a lot of things right about the name, you know. From Dale Earnhardt being a pretty cool dude [and] NASCAR being massive in America," Zott, 27, said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.'s hometown is, of course, the home to Chevrolet, the American-made car that Earnhardt races. Plus, Michigan International Speedway was the site of Dale Jr.'s last Sprint Cup victory (June 15, 2008) and of a 2000 race with Dale Earnhardt and half-brother Kerry Earnhardt that was just the second time a father raced against two sons.
Epstein and Zott came up with the band's name to represent a welcoming, danceable sound with no boundaries in their debut EP, "Horse Power" (iTunes | Amazon | MySpace). Since then, their appreciation and respect for Earnhardt and NASCAR has grown as they investigated further.
"Yeah, we really respect him," said the genial Epstein. "He sounds like a really neat guy, just from what we read about him -- obviously we've never met him. And also we think that music is one of the last segregated fronts."
Epstein explained that he sees a parallel between NASCAR and its underappreciated popularity and music genres. So he and Zott set out to create a sound they call hip-hop folk (listen to "Simple Girl" in the box at right, "Nothing But Our Love" in the player on the Music section, and watch them perform "Vocal Chords" in the video at the bottom of this story).
"People are so stuck in what they like," Epstein, 29, said. "You hear this all the time, 'I like everything but rap, or I like everything but country.' And the kind of music that we make, we kind of feel like it's a culture that kind of breeds contempt. And we just wanted to open it up for everyone and we wanted a name that was inviting and to let everyone know that we didn't take ourselves too seriously, that this is fun, this is for anyone who wants to hear it."
That invitation certainly extends to Earnhardt, who is known to have a broad taste in music. So if the driver is looking to book an all-American band for the saloon on his Cleveland, N.C., property or his Whisky River night club in Charlotte, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is ready with songs such as Garth Brooks' "Friends In Low Places" already part of their repertoire and a willingness to learn a whole set of country covers.
"Not a lot of indie bands are cool with going to Dale Jr.'s bar and playing country songs," Zott said. "But it's like, we'll do anything because music is supposed to be fun, it's supposed to bring people together, and everyone should be able to enjoy it. So that's the idea behind it."
Motor City Sports Mad Men
Before adopting the racing theme as Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Daniel Zott and Joshua Epstein were (and are) big sports fans. They follow all the Detroit professional teams, but Zott said he's most passionate about the University of Michigan Wolverines.
"I didn't really play sports but I love sports. I was really good in the back yard, 10 years old as a running back," Zott said. "I didn't play high school sports, but I love Michigan football.
Epstein's primary allegiance is Michigan State University's basketball team and confidently predicted a national championship for the Spartans this season.
Epstein lettered in soccer as a freshman and sophomore in 1999 and 2000 at Division I University of North Carolina-Asheville before retiring. After transferring to Michigan State, he contracted meningitis. But from a potentially life-threatening condition came a life-changing experience because he rediscovered playing music after years of not touching an instrument.
"I think playing college sports it was really nice but all my focus was on that. And taking a step back and doing something creative was really good for me," Epstein said.
Zott, whom Epstein said plays a mean game of pickup basketball to which Zott modestly replied "Yeah, whatever," had a similar detour from sports to music at an earlier age.
"I was pumped to play seventh grade basketball, I know this wasn't on the same level, but I hurt my knee that summer. And so my dad bought my guitar so I could have a hobby because I wasn't going to be able to play basketball. And it just like took off," Zott said. "It's kinda funny how that works out. It turned out to be good."
With guitar, bass, drum machines and samplers, the duo produce a full sound that melds rock, Motown, soul and electronic beats (though for live shows they enlist the help of a drummer). The eclectic musical flavors jump out in the rousing "Almost Lost Detroit." Epstein said he'd ideally like to make the kind of music that people do karaoke with.
"I mean, people do Frank Sinatra. Frank Sinatra is popular music, but it's great popular music," Epstein said. "And that's the kind of song that I would aspire to make, a song that is good and stands the test of time, but that, like, at the end of the day someone really wants to get up there and sing."
Being popular can be a pretty sweet gig. Just ask Dale Earnhardt Jr., who's made a nice living out of it. Dale Jr. is still NASCAR's most popular driver despite having no Sprint Cup victories in the past two seasons. If Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. can tap into a fraction of that fan base, the band could break out beyond the indie scene.
"We're definitely not trying to use his name to get popular, we're not trying to make fun of NASCAR in any way," Epstein said.
Racing fans should appreciate the band's debut video for "Nothing But Our Love," which features about as many wrecks, rubbing and racin' as there will be this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway. The ending made it a little touchy to embed on this Disney-owned site, but DEJJ insisted the playful sleepover scene was meant to capture childish innocence.
"We looked at it more like, you know, everybody has peed on someone when they were younger when they slept over at a house," said Zott, who resembles a fitter Judah Friedlander with his thick-frame glasses, beard, curly hair and laid-back demeanor.
As they do in the video, Zott wears an authentic yellow Cheerios NASCAR racing uniform and Epstein dons a white and blue Lysol firesuit in concert. The two don't seem to be in competition to front DEJJ, though, as they share guitar, bass, percussion and vocal duties while Epstein plays keyboards.
"It's a different dynamic. Two people who have the ability to create a song on their own, coming together and be willing to do it together, I think is kind of a unique thing," Epstein said.
Zott said their main bands, The Great Fiction (Zott) and The Silent Years (Epstein), have "decent followings" in Detroit. You can also hear and see Zott featured prominently in the new Freecreditscore.com commercial, a spot which his other band The American Secrets won in a national competition.
A year and a half later, DEJJ hopes to have its first full-length album out early next year. Time will tell whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. will graduate from the equivalent of the Nationwide circuit. But like their namesake, they're going to have fun trying and enjoy the ride.
Jim Wilkie is the editor of The Life and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.