Before Jr. Jr. was unmistakably on the musical radar, multi-instrumentalist Daniel Zott was still living in grandmother’s basement, where the duo actually recorded 2010’s reinterpretation of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” off their first EP, Horsepower.
Along with musical partner Josh Epstein, Zott established the original incarnation of the group, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. in 2009. The Beach Boys have always been a big influence on the Detroit natives.
“I think they do this particular thing the best that we always aspired to do, which is write something that feels complicated and complex, but simple enough to sing along with,” Epstein explains.
It took awhile for them to realize they were on to something special, but within a year of forming, publications like Rolling Stone, SPIN and Under the Radar were paying attention. Epstein, however, took a little more convincing. He initially chalked it up to “dumb luck,” but the truth was the music they were making was strikingly good.
“The first moment when I noticed something special was happening was when I brought some songs home Daniel and I had worked,” he explains. “I got this reaction I’d never gotten. They were over-the-top positive about it. It dawned on me they had been lying to me that everything else I had done before had been good [laughs].”
After Horsepower, the duo followed with a second EP that same year, My Love Is Easy: Remixes Pt.1 and a third in 2011 titled We Almost Lost Detroit. Shortly after, they secured a deal with Warner Bros. Records and released their first full length album, It’s A Corporate World. It was full of eclectic pop songs bursting with unbridled creativity.
The most alluring aspect of Jr. Jr. is their rebellious nature and refusal to stick to any particular formula. Each album is like an evolution of their artistry.The Speed of Things followed in 2013, which featured the single, “War Zone.” The legendary Paul Simon had a hand in the fine-tuning.
“Our A&R guy knew Paul Simon,” Epstein explains. “He sent him the song and Paul sent us back his production notes. It’s just an honor to know that he’s even heard our music.”
In 2015, the duo released its third full-length, Jr. Jr., and also announced they were formally dropping “Dale Earnhardt” from the band’s name.
“When we first started, we wanted the name to just be crazy so we could make the music we wanted to make and feel like we had this freedom to be outlandish,” he explains. “The name just became the focal point of everything. We felt it was getting in the way of us connecting with people and felt more like a distraction. It became like another member people were always asking us about, so we decided to drop it.”
Jr. Jr. released the first single off the new album in July 2015 to critical acclaim. Titled “Gone,” it was polished and sonically courageous, making it seem like Zott and Epstein have finally found their niche. Epstein’s hope is to reach people all over the world, not just in their hometown of Detroit.
“Having Motown be a part of our fabric has informed our musical, melodic sensibilities,” he says. “Both Daniel and I try to look at music more as a universal tool. As much as we love Detroit, being from Detroit and all that Detroit has to offer, we always wanted out music to be able to reach people elsewhere, like Barcelona and Lichtenstein. I don’t even know where that is, but I hope we can reach someone there [laughs].”
At this point, Jr. Jr. is having fun exploring the possibilities music brings them. They don’t have to worry about sticking to any type of formulaic sound—they can create whatever they want. In fact, Epstein was on his way to a warehouse in Detroit to record somebody who knows how to play the marimbas for their fourth full-length album, which they’ve already started working on. While he wasn’t too sure about the release date, it should be out sometime early next year. Whatever they create, it’s genuine, pure and something they feel they need to produce.
“I don’t think our fans expect anything from us and we change things up all the time,” he says. “It might be a little confusing for people at times, but I think that’s the beauty of it.”