How the West was won
On the road to L.A. (and stardom) with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
Published: December 1, 2010
It happened fast.
It took one year, four songs, and 13 minutes.
It continues to grow.
Last summer, out of the blue one afternoon, two Detroit-area musicians spoke on the phone. Joshua Epstein initiated the call. On the other end of the line was Daniel Zott. At the time, the guys barely knew each other. It was like cold-calling a hard crush when Epstein made a proposition. Between records with Zott's main band, he thought maybe they could get together and jam — no strings attached.
Zott was into it. What musician wouldn't be? Throughout the UK and as far as Japan, Epstein has earned a killer rep for his lyrics and voice — and live show — with his band the Silent Years. Throwing stones at the glass ceiling separating international headliners from chronic home-openers for the past five years, and cracking it more than once, he's a pro through and through. He understands that life is unfair and one must get over it. See, for the Silent Years, a string of critically revered albums were tied into a knot of tough breaks. Meanwhile, their latest, and best, Spider Season (recorded last year), is collecting dust on a shelf. Long story.
Zott is one of Detroit's most modest musicians, but he boasts a prolific solo career and fronts the Great Fiction, a way above average rock band that makes infrequent appearances. This year, for kicks, Zott and some pals from church (he sings original indie folk gospels on his solo records) formed the Victorious Secrets. They have some original songs, but are known mostly as a TV contest band. A huge TV contest band — you know what they say, sure as heck beats working. (Quick backstory: Last spring, Victorious Secrets entered and won the chance to play the theme for Fox Sports' annual "April in the D" promotion. This summer, the Secrets beat out bands from around the country to be the new faces — and real musicians — for a national credit score website. If you watch TV, you've seen 'em, maybe even walking the red carpet at the MTV Music Video Awards. Zott gets recognized on the street and shit.)
Professionally, these guys weren't perfect strangers, but they'd shared fewer stages than most of their songs have chords. That would change after invited Epstein dropped by Zott's place for the aforementioned jamming. Zott, by the way, has managed to assemble a pretty sweet home studio over the years.
Epstein brought his gear and a skeleton for a potential tune. Three hours in, they'd written and recorded "Simple Girl," a throwback stomper with a four-to-the-floor thump and a Hollies melodic twist. Musically, the song is like what would happen if you popped an upper and a downer, like a speedball. So the song has some psych-folk — adorned with whistles and a xylophone. Lyrically, it's about the weirdly quixotic quest to get to know someone when you really can't get to know someone: "She's a simple girl/ She's governed by simple pleasures/ She won't ever let you meet her family/ But she'll show ya pictures/ Da da da ..." It's a fucking great song. They had a jam on their hands and they knew it.
Something had clicked. Hard. More songs were born. Trading off instruments, the two musicians, each inspired by what the other was able to bring to the table, hid away in Zott's basement, melding tracks with crack-shot melodies, tenor harmonies, and hooks galore. With a shared love of hip hop, the duo backed songs with programmed 808 drum beats. They stumbled upon a signature sound — something in-between Donovan and Dr. Dre ("Mellow Yellow" meets "No Diggity").
What started as a casual collaboration morphed into something absolutely life-changing. The music that rose from these sessions would be heard; it was only a matter of time.
First, this side-project, or whatever this burgeoning beast was or is, needed a name. To find one, Epstein and Zott invented a formula: pop-culture reference + sequel = a perfect band name. First it was Counting Crows Part 2, then Use Your Illusion 4, and Sister Act Six. ... And so on. At some point, they arrived at Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
Sequelizing the famed NASCAR family, whose patriarch died on the track racing against his son at the Daytona 500, was absurd. That was the point. But if Epstein and Zott were to use their new music as a vessel to exploit the ridiculousness of appearance and labels in modern music, the songs had to be great. Not cute, lovable. Perfect pop in an ironic shell.
To gauge interest, DEJJ leaked demos to friends and industry contacts, including local labels, promoters, writers and musicians. Despite a musical style that's hard to frame and a name that does nothing to reflect the pair's sound, the buzz hit quickly around Detroit.
The collaboration worked because the duo's tastes and talents connect like some kind of hummable double helix. Ears familiar with the boys' other bands can hear the smooth intersections (big beats, catchy vocal phrasing) and collisions (Epstein's genteel whistle contrasted by Zott's medium-grit guitar flourishes).
Both guys are multi-instrumentalists who produce songs with layers and textures, and they like to drop in and pull out song elements much like a techno producer would. And while each strives to create new sounds with new music technologies, they also work well in pop music's classic rulebook, able to tap into magic that can make a melody immortal.
For their first show — and almost every show since — DEJJ hit the stage dressed in professional NASCAR driver suits they found on eBay — Epstein in Lysol and Zott in Cheerios. Both sport trucker caps, except for the rare occasions Zott wears a straw hat. The stage itself gets a patriotic treatment, with multiple American flags, including one that lights up, hanging here and there. Sometimes they tap a drummer for gigs, and when they do he's dressed in a navy blue mechanic's jumpsuit, a kick-drum wrapped in the stars and bars.
> Email Travis R. Wright