By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
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You can draw a couple of conclusions upon hearing the band name Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. Firstly, that they are probably punk rockers, as punk bands like Abe Vigoda, Burgess Meredith, Ronald Raygun and The Fabulous St. Knicholas Cage have been re-purposing celebrity monikers for years. Also, that their music very likely mixes in elements of irreverence and humor.
These preconceived ideas, however, don't come close to pinpointing the Detroit act's adroit mix of strong melodies, heavy folk influences, lush harmonies or their incorporation of beats, loops and samples—a factor prevalent enough in the band's music that there's probably more of a hip-hop connection with this band than a folk or a punk one.
It makes for an interesting juxtaposition. And that's by design, turns out.
"It messes with people's preconceived notions, and we like that," says Daniel Zott, half of the duo behind the name. "We like the contrast. I don't think it really affects how people view the music; I think the music affects more how they view the name."
So far, the gambit has been paying off. Audiences who are drawn to check out the band due to its quirky name, though typically caught off guard initially, are quick to get sucked in by the seriousness, earnestness and just plain prettiness of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.'s brand of electro-pop.
The biggest payoff, though, is that the group's namesake, the race car-driving Dale Earnhardt Jr. was keen on their adoption of his name.
"We actually wrote him a letter, and a couple of weeks ago he wrote back," Zott says. "[He said] he was all about the name. He was flattered that a band would use his name. He thought it was funny. He's a fan of our music. He wished us luck and told us that he's not going to come after us. It was a great letter, and it really motivated us even more to keep the name, to keep the goofiness, but have the music be a serious part of it."
It's precisely the band's ability to skillfully straddle that line of goofiness and seriousness that has helped them craft a visually interesting stage show—one that doesn't come at the detriment of the band's live sound. Despite recording as a two-piece, the band employs the use of a touring drummer, triggered samples, live loops and several instrument changes throughout their sets to achieve sounds just as big and compelling as their recorded counterparts.
"In a lot of ways, people walk away thinking it was better than the recording—and that's the goal," Zott says. "We want the show to be different than the recordings—not because we can't do the songs as well, but more because we want a big show. The show is about the audience members, not about us, so we try do things to make it more engaging with the crowd."
This idea provides the driving motivation behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.'s philosophy as a touring band. The live show is regarded as a completely separate entity from the record—not because it can't be faithfully reproduced, but because the entire goal of the performance is to be as entertaining as possible to the audience.
"We do a thing in the beginning where we come out in the NASCAR outfits and then strip down and we have business suits on underneath," Zott says. "With things like that, we try to make it more of a performance. Anyone can just listen to the record in their house. But if they're going to pay money and drive out somewhere and take time out of their day, we want to present it in a more entertaining form."