How the West was won

On the road to L.A. (and stardom) with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

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It happened fast.

It took one year, four songs, and 13 minutes.

It continues to grow.

Last summer, out of the blue one afternoon, two Detroit-area musicians spoke on the phone. Joshua Epstein initiated the call. On the other end of the line was Daniel Zott. At the time, the guys barely knew each other. It was like cold-calling a hard crush when Epstein made a proposition. Between records with Zott's main band, he thought maybe they could get together and jam — no strings attached.

Zott was into it. What musician wouldn't be? Throughout the UK and as far as Japan, Epstein has earned a killer rep for his lyrics and voice — and live show — with his band the Silent Years. Throwing stones at the glass ceiling separating international headliners from chronic home-openers for the past five years, and cracking it more than once, he's a pro through and through. He understands that life is unfair and one must get over it. See, for the Silent Years, a string of critically revered albums were tied into a knot of tough breaks. Meanwhile, their latest, and best, Spider Season (recorded last year), is collecting dust on a shelf. Long story.

Zott is one of Detroit's most modest musicians, but he boasts a prolific solo career and fronts the Great Fiction, a way above average rock band that makes infrequent appearances. This year, for kicks, Zott and some pals from church (he sings original indie folk gospels on his solo records) formed the Victorious Secrets. They have some original songs, but are known mostly as a TV contest band. A huge TV contest band — you know what they say, sure as heck beats working. (Quick backstory: Last spring, Victorious Secrets entered and won the chance to play the theme for Fox Sports' annual "April in the D" promotion. This summer, the Secrets beat out bands from around the country to be the new faces — and real musicians — for a national credit score website. If you watch TV, you've seen 'em, maybe even walking the red carpet at the MTV Music Video Awards. Zott gets recognized on the street and shit.)

Professionally, these guys weren't perfect strangers, but they'd shared fewer stages than most of their songs have chords. That would change after invited Epstein dropped by Zott's place for the aforementioned jamming. Zott, by the way, has managed to assemble a pretty sweet home studio over the years.

Epstein brought his gear and a skeleton for a potential tune. Three hours in, they'd written and recorded "Simple Girl," a throwback stomper with a four-to-the-floor thump and a Hollies melodic twist. Musically, the song is like what would happen if you popped an upper and a downer, like a speedball. So the song has some psych-folk — adorned with whistles and a xylophone. Lyrically, it's about the weirdly quixotic quest to get to know someone when you really can't get to know someone: "She's a simple girl/ She's governed by simple pleasures/ She won't ever let you meet her family/ But she'll show ya pictures/ Da da da ..." It's a fucking great song. They had a jam on their hands and they knew it.

Something had clicked. Hard. More songs were born. Trading off instruments, the two musicians, each inspired by what the other was able to bring to the table, hid away in Zott's basement, melding tracks with crack-shot melodies, tenor harmonies, and hooks galore. With a shared love of hip hop, the duo backed songs with programmed 808 drum beats. They stumbled upon a signature sound — something in-between Donovan and Dr. Dre ("Mellow Yellow" meets "No Diggity").

What started as a casual collaboration morphed into something absolutely life-changing. The music that rose from these sessions would be heard; it was only a matter of time.

First, this side-project, or whatever this burgeoning beast was or is, needed a name. To find one, Epstein and Zott invented a formula: pop-culture reference + sequel = a perfect band name. First it was Counting Crows Part 2, then Use Your Illusion 4, and Sister Act Six. ... And so on. At some point, they arrived at Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

Sequelizing the famed NASCAR family, whose patriarch died on the track racing against his son at the Daytona 500, was absurd. That was the point. But if Epstein and Zott were to use their new music as a vessel to exploit the ridiculousness of appearance and labels in modern music, the songs had to be great. Not cute, lovable. Perfect pop in an ironic shell.

To gauge interest, DEJJ leaked demos to friends and industry contacts, including local labels, promoters, writers and musicians. Despite a musical style that's hard to frame and a name that does nothing to reflect the pair's sound, the buzz hit quickly around Detroit.

The collaboration worked because the duo's tastes and talents connect like some kind of hummable double helix. Ears familiar with the boys' other bands can hear the smooth intersections (big beats, catchy vocal phrasing) and collisions (Epstein's genteel whistle contrasted by Zott's medium-grit guitar flourishes).

Both guys are multi-instrumentalists who produce songs with layers and textures, and they like to drop in and pull out song elements much like a techno producer would. And while each strives to create new sounds with new music technologies, they also work well in pop music's classic rulebook, able to tap into magic that can make a melody immortal.

For their first show — and almost every show since — DEJJ hit the stage dressed in professional NASCAR driver suits they found on eBay — Epstein in Lysol and Zott in Cheerios. Both sport trucker caps, except for the rare occasions Zott wears a straw hat. The stage itself gets a patriotic treatment, with multiple American flags, including one that lights up, hanging here and there. Sometimes they tap a drummer for gigs, and when they do he's dressed in a navy blue mechanic's jumpsuit, a kick-drum wrapped in the stars and bars.

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 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.

Monday: Seattle

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 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."

The band drinks wine and smoothies at Pike Place Market, and watches amazed as some savant street musicians create an opus on the fly. There's time to scarf some awesome Mexican food at a place with no name that looks like it used to be a Pizza Hut. The band talks God and taco trucks. The half-hour at a record store is the one place nobody talks about music. The band members step to different corners of the shop to place calls and finger alphabetized bins. It strikes me how these guys are really just getting to know one another — they're figuring out how they're going to figure out their quickly rising careers in rock music. It's still only a months-long union.

DEJJ later sets up on the floor of the Havana, house-party style. The sound guy makes 'em sound like they're on a proper rock stage. During sound check, a dude in his late 40s, walking under umbrella, pauses by the window, walks in and buys some DEJJ merch: a CD. It was a decision he made in less than 15 seconds. The EP is $5. He hands Zott a $10 and splits. Transplanted friends arrive for the show, including former Child Bite guitarist Zack Norton. Also in the crowd is Jim Wilkie, music and lifestyle editor at, there to interview the band for a feature. It's a chilly Monday night, but it's surprising to count only 40 other people at the show. Just as astounding, however, is how many in the small crowd know the words to "Nothing But Our Love" and "Simple Girl."

For a band's first time in town, is it better to play in front of 100 people there to take the temperature of hype, or 40 sing-along fans? In the morning, we're up early and in-studio for a KEXP session. (The band needs a road manager; it seems having to juggle all the whens and wheres can wear on Epstein).

In a few weeks, there'll be Web videos from the session circulating, but Twitter trends take off almost immediately following the awkward radio interview with Hannah in the Morning. DEJJ plays sort of stripped-down versions, and Zott gets guttural.

Seattle is a whirlwind. The ball is rolling.

Tuesday: Portland

The four hours between Seattle and Portland show some of the most beautiful driving terrain in America. Inside the van, conversation rages one minute — particularly when it involves music — and yields to silence and highway doldrums the next. Drummer Clancy reads and texts with his girlfriend. Epstein drives — he always drives — and sometimes philosophizes aloud and to himself on all manner of pop culture. He'll shit-talk one subject and unexpectedly shift to praise another that's entirely unrelated, as if to find balance. Zott is a discourse instigator. He'll gaze out the window and then suddenly disclose what's on his brain.

We pull into Portland and the fog is incredibly thick. Set in an industrial mall, Holocene is a nonprofit venue that could be a converted mini-airbase hangar. Half of it looks like a bottle-service lounge full of those who don't attend such clubs, the other feels like a gallery-turned-indie-rock-space. The walls are stark white, the ceilings are tall, the benches hard, and girls with intentional mullets who share clothes with guys with iron deficiencies stroll in and out. Sound check sounds like shit, and the sound man thinks bass is the answer to everything. What's he thinking?

It's clear here that Portland's alt-weekly (Portland Mercury), public radio stations and local music bloggers are way up on DEJJ. One writes: "Our love for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. knows no bounds, as this Detroit-based duo are crafting infectious blessed-out psych-folk rock coupled with thumping drum beats. DEJJ are all over the place right now." Remember, DEJJ has never played Oregon — or anywhere near Oregon — before.

When Epstein and Zott aren't fielding calls — some of Zott's pertain to his American Secrets band, which is set to walk to the red carpet at the MTV Music Video Awards — they sing together, mainly '90s R&B, critique their most recent set, and talk about ways they can improve the show. They also talk sports, the finer points of long-term relationships, and musical discographies — from Wu-Tang to Talking Heads. A simple friendship has formed, but there's a stronger, or perhaps more complex one evolving by the hour.

Dale Earndhardt Jr. Jr. is performing between two local bands, a roots-rocking quintet Norman, and a one-man electro-synth act called Onuinu, who's a less-engaging version of Deastro. Onuinu cites J Dilla and Boards of Canada as sonic reference points.

During backstage preparation, Epstein and Zott kinda kibitz while getting their "gear" on. Forget that the sound check was shit and stress the importance of having fun. That's why DEJJ started. They step on stage in front of more than 70 people, and complete strangers move up and say hello. Though the band members don't know a soul in the crowd, there's one they're aware of: star producer Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton. Now that Danger Mouse collaborates with Portland-based Shins leader James Mercer as Broken Bells, he's known in these parts. The trio receives a half-minute round of enthusiastic applause before playing Note 1, and when they launch their set they sound crisp — the boomy bass is gone. But, not that anyone here would notice, the band is less energized than in Seattle.

Portland folk don't know what to make of "It's a Corporate World, I'm a Corporation," DEJJ's political punk-pop jam, in which Epstein makes a quick costume change, throwing off his trucker hat, pulling on suit pants and jacket over his NASCAR gear.

"God Only Knows" and "Nothing But Our Love" induce yelps, claps and shouts of "fuck, yeah!" People shoot mobile phone vids and pics. Overheard more than once: "this is the song I was telling you about."

The band wraps on a blustering version of "Vocal Chords." People soon line up at the band's merch table and offer unsolicited info: "I read about you on Stereogum," "I heard your live session on Daytrotter," "I saw your video on Pitchfork," "I came to see another band tonight, but you guys blew me away." After purchasing an EP and a T, one girl, perhaps a new fan, offers the band cash for gas money: "If you want, I can give you enough to get you, like, 25 miles, but that's all I got."

The van is loaded up and Epstein drives a few hours south before pulling into a Super 8; it's a long haul to San Francisco. We have time for a few hours' sleep. Epstein pays for a hotel with tour dough from Quite Scientific and what's made from shows that doesn't go immediately into the gas tank, then he chooses to sleep in the van. Old Silent Years tour habits die hard. Zott and Epstein spent much of the drive out of Portland organizing the next two days' schedule, and there's been a recent purge of press requests. Word of DEJJ is traveling at an insane clip.

Tuesday: San Francisco

Milk Bar is situated in Haight-Ashbury, a scenic and gentrified Haight, directly across the street from the very necessary Amoeba Music record store. Milk, as I gather, wears a different hat each night of the week. You can find Americana one night, indie rock another, and hip hop on another. Tonight, patrons get all three.

My Google DEJJ notifier has blown up. San Franciscans are notoriously Web savvy and our buzz band du jour is an exemplary subject. How is it that DEJJ are Silicon Valley's soundtrack of the week?

Portland to San Francisco was long. The best stop was filling up on gas in a town called Weed. One side of the station shows the beautiful Mount Shasta, the other, the most amazing taco truck ever.

"You know this is Weed, Calif.," the taco truck cook says, his eyes meeting the shaggy-headed Zott, "and there actually is weed everywhere." We laugh, partly because of his intensity, but also because Zott's definitely the one guy in the van who's not interested.

We drive beyond the soaked orchards north of San Francisco and Epstein and Zott sing Neil Young, talk Leonard Cohen, Outkast, and Lady Gaga compared to Nick Cave and Elvis Costello.

As the band loads, I take a quick walk through a corner of Golden Gate Park and stumble upon a police sting. Back at Milk, a homeless dude verbally accosts Clancy because he didn't get a free cigarette. "You're from Detroit? Figures. You assholes never give me cigarettes."

The band is set to play with two local acts, Taxes and Oona, which is composed of a hot Euro chick (Oona) backed by a hackneyed collection of musicians gleaned from Craigslist ads. By the time DEJJ plays, the bar is at capacity, with more than 200 people — there's hardly room to move. The band delivers what will be the tour's best show. Post-show, another new fan talks of how he found the band via a Twitter post. He says he hated the name, but that's what got him to want to hear what they sounded like. Then he insists that he and his pals roadie the band's gear into the van.

Later, the band crashes at the apartment of Detroit expat photographer Joshua Band.

I sleep in the van because Band's a cat man. Cats kill me. In the early morning, maybe 6 a.m., I awake to see some dude tagging the side of the van — with his finger. This crazy mofo is using his forefinger to "paint" while making a sound that I can only assume is what he thinks a can of paint sounds like when sprayed. I think I scare him as much as he did me. When I hook back up with the guys, they're both exhausted and excited. Last night went very well. Next stop: L.A.

Somewhere between S.F. and L.A., the tone in the van shifts for the first time. It becomes all serious. The guys talk of the city's ups and downs, how it's both necessary and trivial, a fickle fantasyland and a factory of arts. People, important music weasel people, will be at the DEJJ's show tonight. Every night matters on this tour, but none more so than Los Angeles.

Tuesday: Los Angeles

Destination: Three Clubs is a cement box turned Hollywood dive-lounge at Vine and Santa Monica Boulevard; it's like you're in a Lakota sweat lodge designed by the Burroughs, Bukowski & Lynch architectural firm. The vision becomes even more ironic when clans of analytically posed hipsters sit on the floor in front of the venue's modest stage, Indian-style. They sit, sweat and sip. The back of the room is filled with old-school black leather booths, the kind with pleats and buttons, where candles in red votives illuminate people with perfect gene pools. Still, the darker the bar, the heavier the pour? There's some truth there, at least.

If there's been Jr. Jr. buzz anywhere in 2010, it's been in Los Angeles. And it's all been building toward this show. All the spins on KCRW, all the hundreds virtual blow jobs from doe-eyed area music bloggers, all of the tweets and retweets, "OMG!"s and silly Facebook posts that originated in L.A. will be measured.

Showtime: Cram more than 200 bodies into a bar built to hold half that, and it gets hot — fast. Some appear ready for a rock show while others work their phones. Some engage that practiced stare of bored indifference that's handy on nights like this one, when some hyped-up band that everyone's talking about but nobody has ever seen is on the bill. Whether they love to hate (or hate to love?) music isn't exactly clear.

You can tell when a place hits capacity. Three Clubs calls it. Throw one of America's newest and most buzzed-about bands on stage, a band with no big record label — never mind a musical genre — but one that gets radio play anyway, and temperatures increase again.

Such heat is a test of will: A girl breaks from conversation to grab the bartender's attention. "I asked for it on the rocks," she says, sliding it back across. The bartender takes a cocktail straw and uses it to submerge a translucent shard of what was, just moments ago, a fully mature ice cube. "Take a sip, it's cold. Anymore ice and you'll say I watered it down," he shouts, handing it back. But nobody in the room is sweating harder than Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. — mainly because nobody else in the room showed up wearing fire-retardant NASCAR jumpsuits.

The man-boys of DEJJ dress in the van and float in through the back door, where loads of L.A.-based friends have gathered. When the trio takes the stage, the crowd barely reacts: It's so L.A.: Eyes roll, lips smirk, cell phones snap. But, as if some switch flipped, halfway through the first song, most of the vacant-faced tweet-set have forgotten they weren't supposed to let anyone else know they're having a good time — that bored indifference becomes movement, mirth and folly.

The band absolutely kills.

The show is raucous but intact. They tear through the set. They make eye contact. They play every song they know, all of 50 minutes, give or take, so there's no encore, to the crowd's dismay. Standing outside, even in L.A., you can see the steam rise from their heads when they remove their meshed trucker hats. Some guys from Fox Sports interview them. Some chick from MTV's The Hills just tweeted about them. And music industry major players, such as Peter Asher — the guy who headed A&R for Apple in the '60s, who basically discovered James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, was named President of Sony Music in the mid '90s, won a producer's Grammy as recently as 2002, inspired the Austin Powers character, and remains one of Paul McCartney's best friends — mill about the crowd singing the praises of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. Lunch dates are set. The buzz is up a notch, post-show, which is a sight to see.

Outside, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. sweats. The van is loaded in record time and the guys are swept away to the mod-posh W Hotel for cocktails at the bar on the roof.

There's no time for costume changes, let alone showers. When we arrive, the band is outfitted for its shows, and I have my camera, none of which is allowed inside, where runny-nosed celebutantes drink martinis and gossip. The dress code is strict and does not allow for NASCAR jumpsuits. But someone from KCRW comes down and drops the right name and we're on our way, camera-free, to the top of the hotel. If the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. guys are on top of their game, this is the metaphor. Exotic women in lingerie dance slow to ambiguous electronica on white blocks between the private cabanas and the swimmerless swimming pool. So, this is the rockstar treatment? Drinks are gratis and the band mainly consumes ice water. All eyes are on these guys. It's surreal. Back home, they're just another two talented dudes. Tonight, they are the darlings of Los Angeles. Epstein is introduced to another industry person every other minute. Behind some bush, I see Danny unzipping his jumpsuit. A cloud of steam escapes from underneath. He unzips it some more, peels it back further. He kicks his shoes off. He's wearing boxers.

Joshua Epstein is holding a glass of something that looks like Champagne. He raises it to clink a cheers, and when the glasses chimes, Daniel Zott dives into the pool. He's the only one in. The dancers jerk and the boys and girls in the cabanas turn to stare. The lights of L.A. twinkle below.

They've made a splash; they're swimming on top of the world.

Since the September 2010 "Rumble" tour, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. played eight shows in five days at the CMJ (and was unanimously hailed as the band of that festival), released a second EP, this one featuring remixes from local (Prussia, Deastro) and national (Diego & the Dissidents, Kasper Bjorke) music acts dubbed "Our Love Is Easy," signed on to a February tour of the East Coast with Tapes 'N Tapes (a band critics love to love), is set to play one of the summer's blockbuster music festivals (sorry, not allowed to tell you which one), and is in the midst of something like a bidding war between premier indie and major labels (first-class flights, the whole shebang).

Travis R. Wright is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to [email protected].

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