The Popdose Interview: Daniel Zott of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
Like everyone else in the free world, we here at Popdose were caught up in the excitement about the return of Arrested Development for a fourth season, but when it’s reached the point where record labels are taking advantage of the internet’s obsession with any and every reference to the series by using the saga of the Bluth family as a way to spread the word about one their up-and-coming artists…well, honestly, isn’t that taking it a little too far?
Well, we might’ve said so if we didn’t already like the artist in question, but since we do like ‘em, we’ll instead offer a smirk and a golf clap to Warner Brothers for making sure no one missed out on the chance to spot Daniel Zott—who, along with Joshua Epstein, is better known in indie-pop circles as part of the band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.—in Episode 4.13 of the series.
In truth, we were really more interested in discussing the band and their music (they’ve got a new album coming out later this year, but if you haven’t heard their latest EP, Patterns, then there’s no time like the present to remedy that problem), but, hey, we’re not stupid: we know the value of unabashed click-bait. Plus, we really do dig Arrested Development, so it’s not like it was a hardship to sit around talking about it for a couple of minutes before digging into the real meat of the conversation, y’know?
Okay, so how did you end up in one of the new episodes of Arrested Development? Who was the big fan?
[Laughs] Well, I was a big fan! I had watched every episode, and I knew that they were kind of doing some stuff, but I just got a call from my manager at the time from a different band. They just liked my look, I guess. I don’t know! When they saw me, I had glasses and shorter hair, like a preppie college look. But what’s funny is that, when I showed up, I’d grown out my hair, I was wearing contacts, and they didn’t even recognize me, so they tried to doll me up to look exactly like I used to look, which was really weird.
So to answer your question, I, uh, don’t know, man. It was just a random call. Which is kind of awesome. But it felt really, like, not true until I showed up and they actually had a hotel room for me. I was, like, “Wow, this is really happening!” But it was weird, because I also kind of didn’t believe it was going to happen. It’s, like, you were hearing that they’re making more episodes of the show, but then you’re, like, “Oh, they’re probably not really going to end up making more. It’s probably not gonna happen.” So then as a fan, to be, like, “Oh, wow, they’re actually gonna be doing this…and I’m gonna be a part of it”? It was just so much fun.
No doubt you were on lockdown on the set until you signed some sort of nondisclosure agreement.
Yeah. In fact, it’s funny: I chatted with Michael Cera for a little bit and took a picture with him, but I wasn’t even allowed to share that, because people would know that I was on it. So that was really weird. Also, every script that everyone got, it had your name printed all over it, so if somehow scripts got out, they would know who leaked it, because your name would literally be plastered all over the script. So it was very secretive. They wouldn’t let me take pictures of the wardrobe, even. But it worked for them. It was very secretive, and then all of a sudden everyone knew it was coming out, and then it was, uh, super overhyped. [Laughs] I mean, it’s good. But there’s no way it could’ve lived up to that level of hype, y’know what I mean? It got so hyped up that I feel like, no matter what people think, even if people really, really enjoy it and think it’s awesome, that hype was out of control.
All right, enough Arrested Development talk. Let’s talk about the band. Living in Virginia, I’m well familiar with the man who inspired your name, but were ya’ll actually racing fans? Or did you just think that the “Jr. Jr.” thing was a funny gag, so you ran with it?
Y’know, we really weren’t big NASCAR fans. Y’know, I know about the sport, I know a couple of names in the sport, but it’s just not all that big in Michigan. Basically, we didn’t really think we were going to be a band. We were just kind of making some songs. But we had to come up with a name, because we wanted to play a show. You can’t play a show and not have a name. Or that’s what they tell you. [Laughs]
So Joshua started throwing out all these weird names, and one of them was Counting Crows Pt. 2. And he told his buddy that, and his buddy was, like, “Man, that’s so bad, you might as well name it Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.!” And then he called me up and was, like, “How’s that sound?” I said, “That sounds weird. And interesting. Let’s just go for it!” But the thing is, if we knew that we were gonna be a legit band, we probably would’ve thought too hard about it, like a lot of bands do.
So the fact that we didn’t really think we were doing much, we didn’t really consider ourselves a band, we just decided it’d be kind of a fun thing to talk about. It’s always weirding people out, and that’s fun. It’s fun to kind of break people out of their normal perceptions of what a band should be named or what a band should sound like if they’re named Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. So it’s been kind of a blessing.
With the caveat that I really like the music, I have to tell you that, whenever I hear the name of your band, I always think of the episode of The Simpsons about Homer’s barbershop quartet, where one of the guys says, “We need a name that’s witty at first, but that seems less funny every time you hear it.” “How about the Be Sharps?” “Perfect!”
Yeah! And that’s what funny about it. Now when I say it, I don’t even think of it as…anything, really. You know, it’s funny how names will just become like that. The Beatles were like that for me when I first heard that as a kid. I just thought that was the worst name. Even the fact that it’s misspelling the name of the insect so that it’s “beat,” like “the beat of the drummer.” I just thought, “That’s so cheesy and horrible!” But now when people say “The Beatles,” you don’t even think about it. I’m not comparing us to them, by the way! It’s just that, in general, with names, when you say it so much, you just get so used to it that…well, to me, it’s not referring to NASCAR or the gentleman’s name or anything like that. My brain’s totally turned it into something different now. It’s just fun.
If Wikipedia can be trusted, you sent Dale Earnhardt, Jr. some of your songs just so he’d know that you weren’t just taking the piss by naming yourself after him.
Yeah! Yeah, he was cool about it, too. He wrote back to us, and he was really nice. And supportive. He talked about how Jimmy Johnson would tease him that someone would have a band name like that. It’s fun to be able to hear those little stories.
As far as the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. sound, it’s probably not a precise 50/50 split between electronic and organic music, but how did you devise the blend of instrumentation? Did it just evolve naturally?
Well, I think Josh and I have… Before Jr. Jr., we’ve played in other bands that mostly focused on the organic side: rock music, not a lot of electronic beats or stuff like that. But on the side, I’ve always had some solo projects where I messed around with hip-hop beats and electronic beats. So when we joined forces, it just was a natural progression to say, “Hey, let’s include some of the beats and stuff like that!” So I think that’s what happened: we kind of took our organic side that we’d already been working with, and then we just meshed it with some experimental solo stuff that we were doing, and that’s how it kind of became a mixture of both. But I’ve always loved making hip-hop beats and stuff like that, so…it’s fun to have a band now where I can do that and then go play it live and have that feel of the big beat. You don’t get that when you’re in a rock band. It’s totally different. It’s a totally different feel.
To sidestep the awful favorite-influences question slightly by using different phrasing, from what other artists do you draw your sonic template?
I mean, I listen to a lot of modern stuff for the sonic qualities, and I listen to a lot of old music for the melodic qualities. But I think when it comes down to, like, influencing us, I think moreso what influences the sonics of it is just getting the instruments. I’m very into finding weird keyboards or whatever the newest synth is. We got this Swedish synth called the OP-1, from Teenage Engineering, and you can actually see us using it in our lyric video for “If You Didn’t See Me (Then You Weren’t on the Dancefloor).” That was all over the record. The drum sounds, the keyboard sounds, some the looping you can do on it, because there’s a tape feature on it. So I feel like a lot of just new equipment is more influential with the sonic qualities of the music and how it turns out to be.
Speaking of that song, it’s nice that you guys can have a track called “If You Didn’t See Me (Then You Weren’t on the Dancefloor)” and still be able to play it acoustically. That’s another one of those perception-changers.
Yeah! Well, it’s a big deal to us. We feel like we’re, in a lot of ways, just a two-man folk group when it comes to the songs we write, so we always try to make sure that the song is the most important thing, that it’s not just about the sounds or the feel or the rhythm. All that stuff is important, but to us, when you strip it back, we want there to still be a good singer/songwriter song with great harmonies that anyone can listen to. So I appreciate you making that comment, ‘cause that’s really what we’re trying to go for.
Who was responsible for the animation, or Claymation, in the “Dark Water” video?
Joe Baughman is the guy who made the video. I don’t know if he actually made the Claymation or if one of his friends who worked on it with him did, because he had a bunch of his friends on it, too. But I think if you just look on YouTube, it might say. I haven’t looked at those credits, but I assume that Joe, the director, did it, ‘cause he’s done a lot of stop-action stuff. (Writer’s note: It turns out that the credits are on YouTube – they’re just buried way beneath the lyrics for the song – and, yes, it was animated by Joe and his cohorts Daniel Jeter and Michael Baughman, with the sculpting by Joe, Michael, and Rachel Phipps.) But that was my favorite part. It’s so weird to see yourself in Claymation. [Laughs] It’s really funny. It felt like watching MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch. Do you remember that?
Yeah! I could just picture…I wanted to see Josh and I start fighting or something. [Laughs] That’s my attachment to Claymation: I wanted us to start walloping each other. It’s so much fun to see yourself like that, so we’ll see if maybe we’ll…it kind of got me excited, so maybe we’ll do a song in the future where literally the whole video is Claymation. That’d be so cool.
I like the fact that you guys seem to take as much pride in making the videos as you do in the live performances as you do in the studio. A lot of artists might give one or more of those areas short shrift, but it seems like you care equally about each of them.
We do. In the studio, a lot of our introvert comes out, but when we go on the road, we force the extrovert in us to come out, and we really believe in being showmen and giving people their money’s worth, and not just getting up there any playing the songs. If people just wanted to hear the songs, they’d buy the record. We really feel like it’s about putting on a show, so, yeah, we do take that very seriously.
What can you say about the forthcoming album, as far as the sound of it goes? Is it kind of building from where the EP wraps up, or is just kind of more of the same?
DZ: Well, you know, the EP starts off pretty dance-y and fun, loud and boisterous, and it ends very abstract and more quiet, and…I think that’s a good representation of the full scope of the record, because we definitely have songs that are similar to “If You Didn’t See Me” and similar to “Hiding,” where they’re just a lot of fun and the beats are really great are just feel-good summertime dance. But it gets darker. There’s a lot of songs that take a lot longer to develop, there’s stuff that’s really more stripped back, there’s acoustic stuff, stuff that’s more reminiscent of, like, “Skeletons” or “If I Wasn’t You…” from the first record (2011’s It’s a Corporate World). So I think it’s an interesting mix, one that we’re always conscious to show, because…we feel like we can do a lot of things, so we want to make sure that we showcase as many of these different types of styles and different perspectives.
Lastly, you guys have picked up quite a few listeners via social media. Have you discovered any famous fans who’ve surprised you?
Yeah, do you know Ginnifer Goodwin?
She really likes our music. She was one of the first kind of big names who, like, really reached out and said, “I really like your stuff.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr’s “Morning Thought” is free on iTunes today and I’m obsessed.
— Ginnifer Goodwin (@ginnygoodwin) June 8, 2011
And there’s actually another girl, someone who’s interested in working with us, and…I can’t think of her name! [Laughs] But she was in…oh, man, now I can’t think of that, either! It’s the movie about breaking out of Iran in the ‘70s.
Yeah! She was one of the girls in Argo, the one with the big glasses, and she reached out to us. Clea DuVall! Sorry, man, I’m really tired. But, yeah, it’s fun when someone like that comes out and says they like what you doing, and she really liked one of the songs on the new record and just wanted to see what we were thinking about doing with it, and shit like that. So we’ll see if we can get her involved. That’s kind of interesting, though, when you suddenly find yourself talking to someone who was in an Academy Award-winning film. It’s just cool to get those kinds of responses.
Well, thanks for taking some time to talk today, man. So you guys have got a few festival dates this summer, right?
Yeah, we’re doing a few random things here and there, but we’re gonna gear up for a big tour in the fall with the album, so that’ll be the big push. But I appreciate you wanting to talk. Thanks for getting us out there!