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Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. brings electro-pop to Cincinnati

By Zach Rogers
Photo: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. will visit the 20th Century Theatre in Cincinnati Feb. 14; photo: Frank Maddocks

When you name your band after one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, you’re bound to get a few confused looks. But Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. have overcome that distinction by making delightfully infectious electro-indie pop songs that have nothing to do with either racecar driving or left-hand turns.Since forming in 2009, the duo, which consists of Daniel Zott and Joshua Epstein, has released two full-length studio albums and a handful of EPs, and now it’s making its way across the U.S. on a 2014 headlining tour.On Friday, Feb. 14, the band will stop through Cincinnati’s 20th Century Theatre in support of its latest album, The Speed of Things.

“It’s been like a year and a half since we’ve done a major headlining tour,” Zott said. “We’ve done a few shows here and there to keep the ball rolling, but we’re excited to get back out and do a longer tour. It’s going to be a crazy party at every show.”

The tour isn’t the only thing on the group’s mind these days. They also recently released a video for their song “Run,” and it’s filled with wild imagery: everything from Elvis to eggs to balloons and gold, all flashing before your eyes from one scene to the next. But underneath all the strangeness lies a common theme tying everything together.

“The song’s about excess and materialism and sexual deviance and taking everything to the extreme, so we knew we wanted to have a bunch of over-the-top shots that depicted excess in some way,” Zott said. “We’d never really done a sort of free-form video, where instead of being story-based it’s more like a bunch of little ideas all squeezed together. We spent a whole day shooting whatever we wanted. We brought all these props and things to the shoot, and any idea we had we just did it. It was pretty fun.”

The video premiered on BuzzFeed, proof of its ties to the Internet age. “I think it’s something people enjoy watching,” Zott said. “The song is very immediate. It’s short and to the point. It’s not even three minutes long, so as a pop song I think it works really well. But it’s still a little quirky, which I love.”

“Run” is a highlight off the excellent The Speed of Things, released on Warner Bros. Records. Their second full-length, it marks a distinct shift for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. from mere basement project to fulltime gig.

“We knew there would be a little more pressure this time around, and more people would be watching,” Zott said. “I think it made us work even harder, and take it a little more seriously. With the first record, it was basically just Josh and I making songs, and before we knew it we had enough for an album. This time, we had a different kind of mentality. We planned a couple weeks away in a barn in Michigan, and slept and recorded there for two weeks.”

The Speed of Things finds Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. developing their craft further, and it was also the first time they looked elsewhere for ideas and opinions.

“We tried to get our live drummer Mike [Higgins] involved with a few songs, as well as open our ears more and get different opinions from people we trust, which made a big difference. I think you can sense a lot of that growth, a lot of that trust, a lot of us fitting into our roles better and finding our strengths on the new album.”

There’s certainly been a lot of growth for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. since starting in Zott’s basement in Michigan. The two met and began making songs that mixed electronic and indie rock with pop harmonies, a la the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Their debut effort, 2010’s Horse Power EP, even included a cover of “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys, a slick nod to their older influences.

“I think the biggest influences on us would probably be Motown and the Beatles,” acknowledged Zott. “Josh and I both grew up in Detroit, so it’s hard to escape that Motown influence. And with the Beatles, I think they proved that you can write a great pop song but still have it cloaked in weirdness, and that was huge for us.”

In addition to their headlining tour, the group also has plans to release its first ever mixtape featuring outside collaborators on a number of tracks produced by the band.

“Josh always had this dream to work with a couple different R&B artists, so we started reaching out to people, kind of dreaming big, in a sense,” said Zott. “Eventually it just snowballed from there and we ended up getting a bunch of different singers and rappers to come work with us, which was really cool.”

Between mixtapes and touring, 2014 is shaping up to be a fine year for the group. After their stop in Cincinnati, they’ll head south and then out west before winding back east, finishing in New York at the end of March.

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. will perform on Friday, Feb. 14 at the 20th Century Theatre, 3021 Madison Road in Cincinnati. Also on the bill is Chad Valley. Tickets are $15. Show starts at 8 p.m. For more information, please visit daleearnhardtjrjr.com.

 

Reach DCP freelance writer Zach Rogers at ZachRogers@DaytonCityPaper.com

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