As the annual best-of lists start rolling in, the debut from Detroit's Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is continually appearing near the tops. (This author's included.) Bringing melody and songwriting back into conjunction with something you want to bounce to, It's a Corporate World is a refreshing taste of how the original pop-rock paradigm can cohabitate with modern sound. Beaming with a stead-fast pride for their hometown, an honest love for covering 80's Winwood hits, and a conjunctive knack for crafting great songs, Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott most likely haven't changed much in the past year. Back then they were in the same place they are now, a basement studio, except this time they own the house upstairs. I talked with Josh about where these songs come from and where they're going, and found an inspiring passion for their craft which only foretells that their best is still yet to come.
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Adam King: Both Daniel and you have played in a lot of bands. I don't believe any of them have had the success of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. -- how does it feel to play music for a long time and then have a new endeavor take off?
Joshua Epstein: I think it's no accident. They say that luck is the point where hard work meets opportunity, I think that's true. We're just happy that… you know, someone asked me one time, "Are you mad that people like this project more than your other one?" And to me it doesn't really matter what people like as long as they like something. And I stand by that.
Now that you have a bigger audience, are you approaching writing with the thought that you're doing it for a more massive ear?
No, I think we're just approaching it the same way we would approach anything -- just trying to grow and make something that we think sounds good.
I mean, yeah, there's definitely that pressure from other people where "we need you to write songs that people like" just as much or more. But I think when you live like that, you're writing from a fearful place. And I just don't think that ever works for people. I think the sophomore slump comes from people's heads. Daniel and I have to keep on thinking about that -- this isn't our second record. For both of us it's like… number eleven. [Laughs] It's not like we've never had to follow up an album before. Maybe not as many people listened to our other albums, but we've always tried to make one better than the last one.
Tell me about how you write the songs -- how's the process work with both of you? Do you come together with things and then feed off one another?
Well, for example, right now we're working on a song that I recorded a version into my iPhone and sent it to Daniel and he's downstairs making it better. I'll go back down there and I bet it will be a lot better than when I sent it to him. [Laughs]
It differs song to song -- they don't all work that way. A lot of times he'll have ones that are almost completely perfect and I'll just give him my opinion. We both write together a lot and we both write separately.
What do you think is more important these days when you're writing a song -- to get a good groove and find that tasty pocket or is it to find a good hook?
It's interesting; Daniel and I were just talking about this. You take any song that's a full song, and you could play it a different way. And the songs that are really based on groove end up being harder songs to transform into different feels. For me, it's always easiest to write a song on piano or guitar and get the song where it needs to be, because you can always change the feel of things. Sometimes it makes your songs way better. You've been playing it a certain way and then you put down the guitar and start programming drums and the whole thing feels better. But it's really important to have the song before you start tweaking everything so much. With our last record, Daniel was always saying that you should be able to take your song and play it on acoustic guitar for people and they should be able to like it. That's something we concentrate on. That said, there's definitely some songs that originally blew my mind that had nothing to them in terms of structure... but that's just how we work.
When you're writing these songs are they about one specific girl in your life or are you making...
No, no, it's always an amalgamation of people. Non-gender specific [Laughter].
Non-gender specific, but... still reality based to some extent?
Yeah, probably. Inspired by a true story.
My go-to track on the album is "If It Wasn't You..."
Oh, really? Wow, I don't hear that often.
I dig it. I like the idea that if there wasn't the call and response background vocals, it would be a completely different song. Did you write it that way or did that idea come out later?
We wrote it that way, yeah. Actually, I just listened to our iPhone recording of it the other day.