Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s Josh Epstein on Touring, Motown and New Material

Music Features Motown

Indie rockers Daniel Zott and Joshua Epstein, better known collectively as Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., have hit the road again to perform new material (their mix tape is online here), following their sophomore album, 2013’s The Speed of Things. (Epstein claims it’s “the weirdest stuff we’ve ever written.”) Playing at cozier venues across the U.S. until the end of November, the duo will harness a new wave of energy that explores life changes wrapped up in catchy melodies and shimmering layers. Paste spoke with Epstein shortly before he embarked on tour, wherein he opened up about his OCD, his love of Motown music and the creepiest fan encounter he’s ever had.

Paste: What’s the overall idea with this tour?
Josh Epstein: It’s a little darker. It’s the weirdest stuff we’ve ever written, but it’s the most catchy stuff we’ve written, too…We’ve got some really weird stuff, but there are also these really memorable songs.

Paste: How long has it taken you guys to pull this new material together?
Epstein: We’ve been going for a couple months now. We’re always writing, and especially after we released the last record, we decided we should just not stop writing after those sessions. So some of the songs—like the song that we just put out, “James Dean”—I started working on that one during the last tour we were on.

Paste: You guys seem to be playing at smaller, intimate venues on this tour. Is that what you prefer?
Epstein: We’re going to be playing some new stuff that we’ve never tried before, so I think doing those kinds of things at intimate venues is actually really fun and interesting, and [we’re] able to see people’s faces and how they respond. The tours have consistently grown. When it came to booking our Detroit show, we had the choice of booking the biggest venue we’ve ever played at, or booking a few shows at smaller places. We chose the smaller shows, because we can do so many things with it. We can have our old bands come up and play songs with us…It seems weird to treat every town as a victory lap while trying to see how many people you can try to cram in there. We wanted to do something creatively challenging and have fun with it before everything starts to get bigger again.

Paste: Do you get to interact with the fans a lot and hang out and explore cities, or is there more of a distance?
Epstein: We’re totally down for hanging out with people as long as we can. We definitely have a policy that we don’t accept drinks from people, but we’re totally down to hang out. There’s been a few times over the past few years where things have gotten weird, and when we sat down and talked about it, we realized it all came from people buying us drinks, so we appreciate it [laughs], but we no longer will drink a drink that’s been purchased for us.

Paste: Seems like a safe decision. What’s the weirdest thing that happened?
Epstein: This one guy came up behind me while I was having another conversation with another musician who was from the town we were in, and it was a guy I didn’t know, and he started rubbing my earlobes. Which probably wouldn’t be a big deal for other people, but I actually have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and I don’t like people touching me. I also don’t like people surprising me—surprise touching—and he did this all at once. Also, just the grossness of how tenderly he was touching my earlobes. I woke up the next morning and I could still feel the spot where he touched them, and I washed them like, 70 times.

Paste: Wow, that’s creepy. Have you thought about incorporating that experience into a song?
Epstein: [Laughs] No. Nothing that I want to say rhymes with “earlobes.”

Paste: Do you get nervous before going on stage? Any pregame rituals before you go on stage?
Epstein: I don’t have a pre-show ritual. I’m not nervous about how we’re going to play, but I’m always nervous. It’s not something I’m comfortable with…I’m not one of those people who wants to get up in front of the whole room and get attention. I like getting attention, but there’s a ton of performers I know who love getting attention, and they’re such hams up there, and sometimes I’m jealous of that shamelessness that they have—and I mean shamelessness in a great way. I sometimes have trouble removing the shame, probably because I’m Jewish and full of guilt.

Paste: Who are your current musical influences?
Epstein: I’ve been listening to the Perfume Genius record a lot. I’ve been listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar—I really like his stuff. I’ve been listening to an old friend who goes by the name of Paleo. He named his project that in like, 2005, and then the diet fad happened, so it’s hard to Google. I always listen to a lot of Talking Heads and Beatles. I’ve also recently been listening to ‘90s R&B girl groups, like SWV and Aaliyah.

Paste: So you grew up in Detroit, which seems to have a lot of pride as well as a big arts scene. How does it influence what you’re doing now?
Epstein: I went to the Motown Museum the other day. We took the guided tour. They have Michael Jackson’s glove, and all these crazy things happened there. And as I was walking through, I was very emotional. I wasn’t really trained as a musician, but I grew up listening to Motown…I think the way I grew up, and my whole musical identity…It’s the fabric of my musical everything, my musical belief system. My ears, where I hear things naturally going. I realized Motown is the biggest influence I’ve ever had, and it continues to be.

Paste: Can you walk me through the process of writing a song?
Epstein: It’s always super different…The best way to do it would be a specific song. All of them are written differently. Sometimes the words come first, sometimes the music comes first.

Paste: How about the song “James Dean”?
Epstein: I was messing around with a new plug-in that I’d gotten in my recording system and—this is really dorky—I got this VoiceLive Touch thing. You can use it live and use a crude auto-tune, and there are all kinds of effects you can use. I was messing around with it, and I came up with a setting that had an auto-tune and these harmonies and this beat going, and I started singing this melody, and the melody that came out was the melody that came out for “James Dean.” So we were on tour and I had the VoiceLive Touch set up, and every time I would test the microphone I would sing it, and after four or five shows, everyone in the band would come up to me and say, “Everything you’re doing is really cool!” The tour ended so Dan and I went home, and we had the song mapped out, so we just played the things we’d come up with. I finalized the lyrics and that was it. It happened very organically and was very natural.

Paste: You mentioned that these recordings are darker. Why is that?
Epstein: In my personal life, things have changed a little bit. So part of processing stuff has always been through music. A lot of times you write something and realize that’s what you’re feeling, and it helps you be self-aware.

Paste: Like therapy.
Epstein: Yeah, totally. If things are going good, you have the tendency to write stuff that’s more reflective of that, but when you’re encountering change, the music starts to reflect that. It’s not necessarily super dark. We’re always very melodic. It sounds like us. We also aren’t pushing tempos.

The second record we made was more of a reaction to what we had after touring for a long time. I read this David Byrne book where he talks about writing music, about where you’re playing or what fits with what you’re playing. I was subconsciously writing music that would work in a lot of places we were playing, so a lot of that was more uptempo stuff. We were playing songs and we could feel the energy coming back to us, and I was just inspired to write more of those things. Now we’re writing more for a studio [recording], so there’s not a ton of up-tempo stuff. It’s not all down-tempo, but it’s just more chill.

Paste: Do you get recognized a lot?
Epstein: When Dan and I are together, people tend to notice more than when we’re apart.

Paste: What did you think you were going to be doing if you didn’t do music?
Epstein: I probably would have gone into politics. I’ve always wanted to try and be a part of effecting change. I have a lot of impulses over wanting to take control of things, and the one aspect of all of our lives where we’re so helplessly out of control is how our society works and how we’re structured and how we’re governed. I could see myself trying to get in there and find some way to steer the ship. I’m sure I’d feel like such a failure and dejected all the time, though.

Paste: What are some of the causes you would be involved in in a hypothetical—or maybe real—situation?
Epstein: This may be self-serving, but I think our country could support the arts better, in all ways, whether it’s art education programs—not cutting them so much—or even helping artists via some sort of tax-relief on money that they make as an artist. If you’re an oil company you get tax breaks, and yet if you’re a musician you pay the full tax rate. It’s obviously a lot harder to earn any money as a musician, and most musicians don’t earn any money. Hey, everyone should pay taxes, but it would be cool if there were some program that supports the arts and encourages people to support the arts. I think it’s very important for culture and society.

Paste: Do you and Dan hang out all the time?
Epstein: We hang out a lot. We have a lot of stuff in common but we are opposites in a lot of ways; we care about opposite things and because of this, it tends to work out. He wants to have control over a certain side of stuff, and that’s the side I don’t care as much about controlling. We really don’t have any conflict and it’s a really healthy relationship, and we go to a lot of basketball games and we go to dinner a lot. We both like food, and I finally got Dan into whiskey. So many things that we do together.

Paste: What else do you want your fans to know?
Epstein: We’re really excited, and I can’t wait to keep sharing stuff with everyone.

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