Danny Zott is one half of the Detroit indie pop/rock group Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. The two Motor City natives released their second studio album on October 8 entitled The Speed of Things.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s following has exploded not only in Detroit, but throughout the United States, as the duo have become known for their catchy lyrics, complex harmonies, and timeless melodies.
Zott spoke with Detroit Music Magazine while on break from the band’s current tour.
How is the tour coming along?
Good. I’m actually home this week because my brother got married, so we all took a break from the tour and came home. So I’m just chillin’.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. started at home here in a basement, right?
Yeah. I live in Ferndale now, which is 9 Mile [Road] and Woodward [Avenue]. So yeah, we did it there. We did a lot of it in my basement, and we did some with my buddy in a pole barn at this studio called The Aashrum. My buddy Ben West kind of co-produced the record with us.
Well being that you have such strong Detroit roots… How ’bout them Tigers?
Oh, man. That was such a let down for a lot of us. [Laughs] Yeah, but I think it’s interesting that they have a lot of positions coming up, obviously Leland is stepping down from being the manager, and Prince being paid a ridiculous amount of money and not delivering. I think there’s going to be some big decisions. At least we’re good every year. We’re competitive, and I think the Red Sox are probably going to win the World Series. So, we lost to the champions. So, it’s not that bad. Yeah man, it’s been a bummer. I was at a game this year singing the national anthem… We looked horrible. I went to game four of the World Series last year in Detroit where we lost, so I saw San Francisco rush the field. [Laughs] It’s been pretty heartbreaking the last few years, because we should win. We have the most talent and we have incredible pitching, but something always goes wrong — like we couldn’t hit the ball.
Well at least we look good doing it. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. have some serious style as well. I’ve seen you and your bandmate Josh [Epstein] wearing a lot of Tigers gear. Is there a specific place you go for vintage Tigers memorabilia?
I do a lot of thrift store shopping. My buddy owns a vintage store called Lost and Found Vintage. It’s in Royal Oak. So, just over the years knowing him and wanting to support I always go there. He’s got tons of great Tigers and Pistons T-shirts and old hats. Stuff like that. Plus there’s like a trend now: Mitchell and Ness [Nostalgia Co.] are reprinting all these old logos like that. Josh goes to a place in Birmingham. I can’t think of the name, but it’s pretty popular for throwback hats.
Well you two definitely seem to have some style sense. How do you decide what to wear on stage? It seems pretty coordinated.
I think we definitely think about it, but Josh and I are a little bit different. He’s a little bit more slick, and sort of — groomed, in a way. And I’m a little crazier and wilder, and I like goofier things. I make more of a statement, you know? Because I just like being ‘that guy.’ This sounds so lame, but one of my favorite shows, and I don’t watch a lot of TV, but when I started watching a little bit of TV after having cable for the first time… There’s this show called What Not to Wear. I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be horrible.’ And it ended up being really intriguing to me. All the psychology that’s involved in it. Basically, they take people who don’t know how to dress, or all they wear is frog stuff — you know, their friends volunteer them because their wardrobe sucks… And what happens is people have all these emotional or psychological attachments to things in the past, and that’s why they dress a certain way. That’s why they dress the way they do, whether it’s slutty, or they stayed in the ’70s, or whatever it is. So, after watching that show I realized more and more that it’s really important what you wear, and how you present yourself, because you don’t want to give off the wrong impression. We try to give off the impression of being artistic and sort of creative and wild. Interesting to look at. You know, because we think our music is interesting, and we’re interesting as people.
Well your live show is also pretty interesting and wild. You have the big ‘Jr.’ lights, bubbles coming down, playing cartoons in the background, confetti. Does that come from the same attitude?
I think when we started off we realized one of the ways to separate us from other shows that we’d gone to see was that we should make it a little more interactive. You know, a little bit more special for people. So they’re not just coming out and watching us play. The downside of it is that sometimes it can take some of the focus off the music. So I think we’re in the mix of trying to figure out a good balance. You know, I think we’re always trying to find that good balance. A lot of time people pay good money to come see us. We don’t want to just play what they could hear at their house by putting in a CD or iPod or something. We want to give them a special experience. That’s why we bring out all of these crazy things, because it’s really about the people coming out to see us. It’s their show. It’s not for us. I play for myself all the time. I make music for myself all the time. But when we go out and play shows, it’s for those people.
As far as your live shows, it seems like you two are pretty selective with your equipment. I see a lot of Fender gear. Fender amps. You specifically seem to use a lot of semi-hollow body Telecasters. On the other hand, I have seen old shows where you play a Rickenbacher. Your bandmate has played a classical guitar in the past with nylon strings, and less than two weeks ago you two had a rooftop jam where you both played matching, black acoustic-electrics. What kind of influence does your equipment have on the sound of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.?
Yeah. I think that’s a great question… I don’t think we’ve ever been asked that before. I think it’s always important to start with the instrument that’s interesting to you. And maybe even something that’s got some character to it. Like my Telecaster is a 1974. Actually, a 1973 Fender Thinline — that semi-hollow body that you were talking about. That has a certain sound. I’ve played that on all sorts of records, whether it was Jr. Jr., or stuff I did before. But if I played that, and that only, it could only say so much. So, I think when you see us with all sorts of different instruments, it’s just us trying to find other tools to create songs. You can’t create every song with one instrument. At least for me, I’ve found I’m able to create all kinds of different songs that I didn’t think were possible by just picking up something that’s different, or foreign. Just something I’m not familiar with, so it works differently in my brain when I’m creating. Even playing a classical guitar and maybe capo-ing it up will sound different from playing an electric guitar with an amp with distortion on it. It will make you write differently.
It seems like you have found each other’s harmony soulmate, vocally. We hear a lot of that on your new album. What is the songwriting process like for two strong vocalists?
[Laughs] Yeah. Someone always has the lead on it. But sometimes Josh will have a song and be like, ‘Maybe it would sound better if you would sing lead.’ So we’ll switch. I feel like once we’ve determined who’s actually going to sing it, then the other person’s job is to sort of add all the harmonies and add all the fun stuff that gives it that harmonic sound that we’re sort of known for. But rarely do we sing together to create a song on the spot. Usually someone brings the song and the other person fills it out. I think that’s one of the interesting things of our band. We sort of have dual lead singers.
Well it seems like your new album, The Speed of Things, came out during a hot Detroit album season. Boldy James, Danny Brown, Black Milk… Eminem is coming out with his album soon. In fact, I think I read a tweet from you saying that you’ve been listening to a lot of Danny Brown on the tour.
We have, we have. It’s an incredibly good record. I always liked Danny Brown as a rapper, but I never thought his production was that great. But then he dropped Old. Now it’s like, not only did he diversify his rap skills, by rapping lower and not so high-pitched, which I think is great — he’s so complex, man. But then he comes out with some of the best production I’ve heard on a rap album in a long time. It’s a deadly combination. It’s a really strong record. Definitely in my top five of the year.
Your album title is said to be about a “generation of false starts.” Does being from Detroit have any influence on this description?
Yeah, I think we’re part of that. It’s an interesting time. Especially when you think about what’s going on in Detroit with the government jobs. We’re a generation that gets pegged as lazy. And I do think there are false starts because everything is changing so fast. I think it’s interesting that we’re actually really smart. We have really incredible degrees, and there’s no place for us to work because we’re overqualified. I think that’s how you end up with people that are trying to do all sorts of things, and then they have to stop, and they’re trying to do something else. So they might not be at a job for 30 years like their parents or grandparents and then get pensions for the rest of their life. That seems like a fairy tale to us, you know? But that doesn’t mean that we’re not hardworking. I think we’re incredibly smart. We just have to find a way in the market to display all these different skills. It’s like a bunch of Renaissance Men and Women. Yeah, man. I think it’s an interesting time to be alive.
Please tell me you kept the outfits from your Funny or Die-sponsored music video.
[Laughs] Oh, man. Those were some of the funniest guys I’ve ever met in my life. After the day of filming we did a wrap party, you know? We had like a vegan potluck. It was incredible. The director was vegan. It was the best vegan food I’ve had ever in my life. So, they showed on a projector screen, while we were there hanging out and eating — just all the outtakes. It was like an hour long of guys just goofing around all day. It was incredible. So there was plenty that didn’t even get into the behind-the-scenes stuff.
As far as sophomore albums go, they seem to bring a lot of pressure. They’re tough for a lot of bands. Would you say this album is a reinforcement of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. or an evolution?
You know, I don’t know. I think we’ve definitely changed. We’ve grown up obviously. Gotten some new gear. And we have some different things to say. I know what you’re saying. I think in a lot of ways we are just trying to legitimize, like — we’re actually here. We’re here to stay. We’re not a fluke. We feel like we’re very strong songwriters, and we want to be here to stay. Maybe this record is just to say, ‘Hey, we’re here to stay.’ It’s sort of a way to solidify what we’re doing.
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