How the West was won
On the road to L.A. (and stardom) with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
Published: December 1, 2010
Everything about DEJJ is shtick — that is, until the music begins. After that, it's as if everything — the name, the outfits, the flags — vanishes. It's an incredible trick.
Turning corners and heads
Before ever catching Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. live — and with serious reservations regarding the band name — Quite Scientific record label co-founders Justin Spindler and Brian Peters took a shot on Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. and signed them.
"They're somewhere between ideal indie and fully realized pop," Spindler says. "They have songs we truly believe anyone can enjoy. Whether you're 60 years old or 16 or 6. And yet, it's not boring, overproduced mainstream radio fanfare."
Peters concurs: "They make pop music, plain and simple; they've stopped worrying about indie cred. Pop music is fun and enjoyable, and that's OK."
Whether it's about indie cred or not, they have it. Just as LCD Soundsystem and Grizzly Bear did before, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is able to maintain a rep while appealing to those who've never heard of Pitchfork.com. Realizing the potential for a huge and disparate listenership — the kind that loves music but doesn't give a shit about defining it — QuiSci wasted zero time getting DEJJ's name out.
Two months before their debut was to be released, pop star Moby heard Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. songs through Justin Spindler, a promotions man at Mute Records in New York. Moby asked if they'd contribute a track for his Wait for Me Remixes record, a collection of takes on the song of the same name. Of all the remixes, Los Angeles' KCRW picked up on DEJJ's and added it to their rotation.
On July 13 this year, Quite Scientific released DEJJ's brilliant Horse Power EP, a 13-and-a-half-minute teaser. What the four-song assemblage lacks in duration, it makes up for in caliber. The record includes "Simple Girl," the mesmeric vacation jam "Vocal Chords," a sparse take on the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows," which is worthy (yes, worthy, and some things are downright sacred), and their breakbeat ballad "Nothing But Our Love," which was accompanied by a music video, making it their de facto single.
Over the next four months, each Horse Power tune made the leap from Web noise to West Coast radio waves, then ultimately, back to the blogosphere. This is the new spin cycle. From Las Vegas to Seattle, music lovers were tuning in, streaming, downloading — all of that. Sirius satellite radio's so-called "taste-making" station, XMU, followed. Yahoo Sports did a feature, but so did the Guardian U.K. and a bunch of other big print publications. Stereogum named them one of the year's best new bands. Placed awkwardly on the dance chart, the Horse Power EP popped into iTunes' Top 10 most downloaded albums. Four months later, it was still in the first 50.
Press meant demand for live shows. They were to play eight shows in five days at the band-breaking CMJ Music Marathon and Film Festival in New York City, but first priority was to get out to the West Coast, where they were more or less indie's coastal summer soundtrack. The blog, record label and artist management firm, Future Sounds booked them for their monthly week-long Rumble, a tour from Seattle to San Diego that usually features West Coast bands. The Pacific Rim had adopted Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
Back in Detroit, the band packed the Crofoot Ballroom for its record release, after which WDET 101.9's Jon Moshier began spinning DEJJ songs regularly on his Friday night show. During the tail end of the baseball season, you'd even hear Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. on the loudspeakers at Tigers games.
Web traffic surged during the weeks leading up to their West Coast tour. By the day, sometimes by the minute, the buzz spread. An overnight sensation in the works.
And if you hate the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., you're not alone.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. are three shows deep on their first tour. The duo began in Chicago, at the Subterranean. When Ur Chicago Magazine reviews the show a week later they'll write, "You couldn't have asked for a better-sounding band. The result of a lot of logged practice hours was evident as they pogoed around on stage ... impressively pitch-perfect." Minnesota is next. The day is spent at a NASCAR bar called Lee's Liquor Lounge, where the band films a live session for the culture blog mpls.tv. That night, it's the 400 Bar, where, following the announcement that the band was scheduled to play shows at New York City's CMJ Music and Film Marathon, an agent from big league talent agency Paradigm (MGMT, Cold Play, Snoop Dog) makes the trip in to look under Jr. Jr's hood. Epstein's convinced the band sounded like shit that night, despite the agent's adoration.
Today is their first day on "The Rumble," a tour of the West Coast sponsored by the music magnet Future Sounds.
DEJJ is KEXP's band of the day. Seattle's alternative weekly, The Stranger, highlights the show, writing the band, "... overcomes their ridiculous name with an endearing, chilled strain of country-tinged rock. But, thankfully, they're no My Morning Jacket/ Band of Horses retreads." Urging listeners with one of those "likely won't be playing a small venue like Havana next time through" kickers. It's audible enough.
Seattle's Capitol Hill area hosts the discrete Havana Social Club, which is a pre-prohibition era Cuban hothouse; for Detroiters, it's a bastard child of the Bronx Bar and Cliff Bell's.
When I arrive, the band — joined on tour by the Silent Years' drummer Ryan Clancy to fill out the live sound — is at the Seattle Art Museum. It's the last day of Kurt, a multimedia exhibit inspired by local legend Cobain, and love fear pleasure lust pain glamour death, a survey of works by Warhol. On the train in from the Port of Seattle airport, I note impossible connections between Cobain, Warhol and DEJJ: "mocks, and ultimately embraces commercial appeal, like Warhol." And Cobain? "When tone and lyrics contrast."
> Email Travis R. Wright