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Made in Detroit 

The Motor City provided Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. with influences and a safe place to grow

The formula for the kaleidoscopic indie-pop of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. lies in the space where Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott find creative common ground.

"We're really different people in a lot of ways, but we're kind of like a Venn diagram," Epstein says. "We overlap in certain places and musically it just works. If we both like something, it turns out it's decent. We've always had a really good chemistry."

The Detroit duo—admirers of each other from afar until a chance encounter—began collaborating in 2009, uncertain it would lead anywhere beyond Zott's basement.

"We played a couple shows together when we were in different bands. One evening he came over to my apartment looking for my roommate, who wasn't there. He sat down and started playing some songs on guitar and I thought, 'Wow, this kid could be better than me.' I'd never been in a room in Detroit with someone who I thought was more talented that I was," Epstein says.

He tracked down a solo album and then Zott's phone number and proposed a collaboration.

"We worked on a song and finished it in a day and that ended up being our first single. From there, we just kept working on stuff and eventually became a band," Epstein says.

The result became an ever-shifting blend of different musical ideas—from the Motown melodies they absorbed as kids to expressive dance-pop—and a band name chosen specifically because it attached to the music no limitations or preconceived notions.

"Our whole mission statement, if we were to have one, is to let the song be what it needs to be. You sometimes do yourself a disservice if you're trying to fit every song into a certain style," he says. "Sometimes lyrics happen first, sometimes you start with some music, sometimes it's just acoustic guitar and vocal. Eventually, they all kind of end up in a place that has cohesion with our other material, but we always just try to do what's best for the song."

Epstein says growing up in Detroit and being part of a varied musical scene helped the band form a solid core as well as an open-minded identity.

"I grew up listening to Motown; my parents grew up going to the Motown revues and I heard stories of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye around town. Most importantly, that shaped our melodic sense, which forms at an early age. Dan and I were both influenced by the Motown melodies and that influences our music in a very broad way," he says. "The cool thing about Detroit is you get to exist in your own space and there's no pressure to exist in a particular scene or style, and I feel that happens in the bigger musical cities."

Epstein and Zott are both songwriters and multi-instrumentalists and no matter where a song starts, it doesn't get finished without each one playing different roles in a natural give-and-take.

"We have the luxury of having just two of us and we both play everything. It's really even. If Dan's playing bass, I pick something else," Epstein says. "We're both jacks of all trades and masters of some. We both are heavily invested and a part of every aspect of it all. Sometimes a song starts with me, sometime a song starts with Dan, but (there's) always something that one of us will point out that the other hasn't thought of that helps. We have a really great creative relationship."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.'s early basement recordings became the Horse Power EP, which drew acclaim from NPR, The Guardian, The New York Times and taste-making radio stations KCRW and KEXP. The band's debut full-length, It's a Corporate World, was released in 2011. The Speed of Things followed in the fall of 2013.

"The first record was a piecemeal thing. We'd get together and write songs whenever we could and had the time. We did that 13 times and had 13 songs and that was the end of the process," Epstein says. "For the second one, we finally realized we had this opportunity to make an album and had people who cared to listen to it."

The duo's growth from debut to follow-up shows in a more cohesive, well-planned album that Epstein describes as a portrait of the lives they've led since forming Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

"We wanted to almost leave a time capsule cataloging our experiences and thoughts at the time. We thought that would be the most honest thing we could do and what we'd be most proud of," he says.

The eclectic album features songs like "Run," "If You Didn't See Me (Then You Weren't on the Dancefloor)" and "Dark Water," each of which found additional creative life in music videos.

Epstein describes "Run" as "a song about people and vices," like "sexual deviance and hyperconsumerism.

"That song started out as a little guitar song. We actually weren't sure how we were going to do it when it came time for recording. We started adding things and all of a sudden it had this vibrancy and it felt like this really energetic song," he says. "The chorus was the first thing we'd written for it lyrically and I was trying to think about what that meant and what sort of context it would have. It started taking the shape of people who were searching for things and weren't quite attaining them.

"When I was first thinking about the chorus ("They run, they run from your love"), it was interesting to me in this general broad way that you could be looking at it as almost like a prayer, speaking to a higher power and asking why everyone is running, or you could look at it as one of the characters in the song," Epstein says. "It just started going and everything happened fast with that one."

The band toured heavily after It's a Corporate World, but is making its first Tucson stop in support of The Speed of Things. Drummer Mike Higgins and keyboardist Jon Visger round out the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. touring version.

"There are some things you can't do without and we were really lucky that we found other people who are able to do all the things we do, and it really makes for a dynamic performance," Epstein says.

More by Eric Swedlund

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