Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.: Making Light in a Corporate World

Music Features

The first words associated with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. aren’t lyrics, but sponsors. Cheerios, Lysol, Hamburger Helper, Mac Tools, Ford, Good Year—these corporate names decorate the band’s signature attire, like a gimmick employed by a buzz band using cheap tricks to gain attention.

Detroit-based musicians Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott know this. They know their name—like their second choice, Counting Crows Part Two—is a misdirection from their thoughtful lyrics and carefully crafted melodies. Their lighthearted schtick and goofy aesthetic are distraction by design; the Michigan duo wanted to say everything with their music. “I think it’s cool that people can hear our name and then be forced to just judge us on our music because it doesn’t sound anything like what we thought it was going to sound like.” Epstein says.

The project arose from a chance encounter of two veteran musicians, both of whom had settled into a steady groove as established local artists. Zott fronted The Great Fiction, while Epstein led a band called silent Silent Years. “I think between the two of us, we’ve probably put out like 15 albums before putting out Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. stuff,” Epstein says.

But when Zott and Epstein decided to work together, it was the first time either had operated with an equal creative partner—a relationship which became the backbone of their debut record It’s A Corporate World. “[The album is] about two people in their mid-to-late twenties who are set doing a certain thing, and we decided to take a chance and trust someone else,” Epstein says. “The recording of that record was very much the process of us getting to know each other and getting to be comfortable with allowing other people to do things and to contribute.”

In that light, it’s easy to see why the two talented songwriters were able to put together such an impressive debut album. With many artists riding the Bandcamp bandwagon, hoping to post a few songs in hopes of meteorically rising through the ranks of the blogosphere, it’s easy to chalk up many acts as new, young, inexperienced and often flashes in the plan. Zott and Epstein couldn’t be farther away from that, instead sharing a message of “going through our personal growth separately while as a result of working with each other,” Epstein explains.

They also decided to clothe their sincerity in humor, as in the the video for “Nothing But Our Love,” which conjures up an elaborate dream of NASCAR fantasies. The two drivers don their respective racing suits and speed around in their cardboard cutout racecars, celebrating with champagne and fireworks in the winner’s circle. As whimsical as the video is, the lyrics are a sweet appreciation of life and finding fulfillment.

Originally conceived as Zott’s seven-minute techno jam, the two revisited the song after forming Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., pulling out the key musical elements of the original, adding a succinct mantra backed by heartfelt harmonies. “The best part about that song to me is ‘don’t try so hard, my love is easy.’ I just think that’s a great lyric,” says Epstein of his partner’s line. “I think that’s really celebratory and I think that’s Daniel realizing that he’s got a lot to be thankful for, and there’s never really anything to be upset about.”

The album’s title track is a satire of corporate life and its attached idiosyncrasies. With lyrics like “I got a guy in my pocket to vouch for your character” and “Are you an upstart still on your way? Are you allocating?,” the track stems from Epstein’s feeling of utter helplessness in the face of corporations’ increasing power.

“The Supreme Court ruled that corporations would have the same rights as people in terms of political campaigns and that day I just started writing that,” he says. “I think that it came from a really dark place because I just felt so helpless. I felt like the only thing I could really do was to make a joke out of it.”

But all the direct heartfelt moments and sardonic societal observations come from the same place. Their humor serves their earnestness, instead of detracting from it. Ultimately, Epstein and Zott tread the rare middle ground of writing serious music without always having a serious attitude. They remind us that it’s all right to be loose in an uptight existence, to remain cool in a corporate world.

“I think just in the content of the lyrics, it definitely gets a little bit more serious to perform sometimes,” Epstein says. “There are things that you sing about that are kind of intense. It’s nice to be able to create a fun atmosphere for everyone and for yourself and to be able to just kind of have a good time.”

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