Catchiness. It’s the pop song writer’s holy grail. But what is it about a song that gets it lodged in hipsters’ heads? Is it a combination of the perfect melody and a poetic hook? The right balance of whistling and “woo-woos”? Perhaps a horn-driven chorus? Cowbell anyone?
Whatever the formula, Detroit-based Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is blessed with two songwriters that have a knack for finding it, even though instrument swapping frontmen Josh Epstein and Danny Zott say its not their aim.
“Sometimes you write a song, and it’s stuck in your own head,” Epstein told C-VILLE Weekly in a recent phone interview. “But you can’t really be objective about it. I’m sure we could try to write catchy songs, but that’s not what we’re setting out to do. We are not trying to make hit songs.”
Like a lot of bands from Detroit, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. claims some influence from Motown, which according to Epstein has a “sense of melody that is really catchy.” Still, the multi-instrumentalist is reluctant to say his band is devoted to any one style of music.
That sentiment seems truer than ever on the band’s latest LP, The Speed of Things. When the four-piece, rounded out by drummer Mike Higgins and keyboardist Jon Visger, motors through The Jefferson Theater on March 23, listeners will be treated to a sound that draws on a sweeping range of influences.
The Speed of Things opens with what sounds like a Fleet Foxes number, all soft vocal harmonies and soaring melodies, while placing a touch more emphasis on electronic elements than the Seattle-based rockers. In later songs, the album finds Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. sounding more like mainstream crossover kings Passion Pit (oozing with effervescent chanting and staccato choruses), the controlled chaos of Portland’s Menomena (another band with two songwriters who frequently swap instruments), or the Cold War Kids (with matter-of-fact, mid-range vocals).
“I don’t think about genre. I think we both like all different types of stuff, and it seeps into it,” Epstein said. “We just try to do what’s best for the song in any given situation. Sometimes it feels folky to me, sometimes hip-hoppy, sometimes poppy.”
It’s an easygoing process for a band formed via the path of least resistance—two self-taught music-scene knockabouts plying their trade in a city steeped with sonic tradition happen upon each other and find they click. Both are jacks-of-all-trades, according to Epstein, the two front men split everything “50/50,” from the songwriting to the singing to the instrumentation.
“We just both wanted to be in a band, or in a project, with someone else who could do everything—writing and producing and recording,” Epstein said. “Whoever has the idea, we just go with it. Sometimes ideas are more complete, and sometimes we end up writing together. We approach it from the song’s perspective and do whatever is best for the song.”
Epstein said he tends to throw out a lot of ideas while the band is developing songs, and that Zott is more capable of bringing ideas to fruition. The result on The Speed of Things is a somewhat mixed-up record that comes off as less focused than Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s previous recordings. Epstein would disagree with that assessment, though.
“We wanted to make a really focused album that kind of captured where we were at, and I think it does, lyrically and sonically,” he said.
If The Speed of Things is focused, one has to wonder where Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is headed next. The goofy name may offer some indication: Epstein said the idea behind it was to be so off-the-wall and nonsensical that it would allow the band to do whatever it wanted without being pigeonholed, to render the cover of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. book completely unrelated to the content, as it were.
By the end of March, Epstein expects that he and Zott will be back in the studio crafting the band’s next chapter. The two songwriters have been working on the content; now it’s just a matter of finding the time to pull everything together, record, and produce the album—“as quickly as we can,” Epstein said. The timeline will be influenced by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s record label, though, as Epstein admits there’s a part of the music business he still doesn’t understand, like when an EP might be pushed out.
When the album does eventually drop, Epstein said it will be different from anything he and Zott have done before, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s “musical vocabulary is always growing.” And while he said it was too early to say what the LP would sound like on the whole, it’s fair to expect there will be even more influences spewing forth.
For now, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. will try its hand once again at focus, finishing a tour that includes two more dates after the Charlottesville stop.
“The live show is really fun and high energy, and I’ll talk a lot about Dave Matthews,” Epstein said.
Presumably, he was joking. But Epstein, like his band, can be difficult to pin down.