The Detroit band talks Wayne Coyne, hip-hop beats, pop radio and Pitchfork.
The three best shows I saw at this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival were two obvious choices (Kanye West, Arcade Fire) and one dark horse I’d pinned a lot of hope on. That band is Detroit’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., and the duo’s Sunday-afternoon set showed off their flair for garish styles, fun-loving melodies, twinkling electronic textures, falsetto harmonizing, bubble machines and straight-up rock ’n’ roll. Also, they tossed Popsicles to a thankful crowd, heat-exhausted by three days of loud music in the Texas sun.
With those antics – the names, the games, the showmanship, these press photos – it’s hard to tell whether or not Daniel Zott and Joshua Epstein have their tongues wriggling in their cheeks. Luckily, I had the chance to chat with them the day before their set, and the guys seem as genuine as the homegrown, preservative-free cheese I bought at Forward Foods during my lunch break yesterday.
My verdict: They’re ambitious, quirky guys who record weirdly lovable music and are nostalgic for a time when physical media was more important and radio stations crackled with music that was beautiful and challenging. But I’m rambling now. On to the chatting:
Zott: So what’s up with Wayne Coyne? He gets to do whatever he wants on a major label, and everyone loves him. It’s weird.
Epstein: He has like, three houses, right? Right in a row?
OKS: It’s actually four. He’s expanded. I think they’re all back-to-back, and connected by the backyard. It’s just a gigantic compound.
Epstein: That’s so weird.
OKS: It’s in the shady side of Oklahoma City, so the houses are probably pretty cheap. He’s spent a lot of money remodeling and redecorating them.
“Nothing but Our Love” at ACL 2011
Epstein: That’s awesome. Is he part of the community?
OKS: I see him at concerts all the time. There’s a venue in Norman called Opolis, where a lot of the smaller-name indie acts come through, and he’s there with friends and family at a lot of the shows I go to. He just walks right up to the stage, pulls out his phone and tweets photos. He’s checking out new bands and hanging around.
But on to you guys. One of the things I like so much about your music is that a lot of it’s textured with electronica — the little fizzly sounds that keep things going. How is that coming out of Detroit? It seems very different to me, from most of the music that comes out of there.
Music video for “Simple Girl”
Zott: You’re talking about the garage-rock scene.
OKS: Yeah, that’s usually what I think about when I hear about Detroit.
Zott: There’s that element, and we do have a rock element to our sound, but Detroit does have an electronic scene that’s really huge. It kinda started there.
Epstein: Yeah, techno music came from Detroit.
Zott: There’s a lot of bands doing that kinda stuff right now, and the roots are there for it. A lot of bands we like are electronic-type bands. It’s more natural than you think, there’s a lot of electronic tinkering going on up there.
Epstein: There’s a huge, underground hip-hop scene that’s getting notoriety also. I think hip-hop’s actually a big part of our music, too.
Zott: I’d say more so than electronica is a hip-hop type vibe. It’s a little bit warmer. There’s a groovier beat than a stale, 4-4 beat.
OKS: I definitely feel like – listening to you guys’ music – it’s more intimate and warm-sounding.
Zott: Yeah, there’s definitely some of that electronic texturing, but it’s Detroit to us.
Epstein: Well, the songs had to have “Summer” in the title, but I’ve always been a huge Pavement fan, so it seemed to be a pretty obvious choice.
Zott: And I hadn’t listened to them much. Usually when we do a cover or a remix or something like that, one of us has heard the song and the other hasn’t, so it makes it more fun because you can’t quite put as much of a spin on the song if you know it in and out. That’s really hard to do. I think we were able to get away from it because I wasn’t familiar. Josh kept the things that we needed to keep, but we also made it fresh.
OKS: Let me ask you guys about your album, particularly the Gil Scott-Heron cover, “We Almost Lost Detroit.” Did you guys pick that one out because you’re big fans of Gil Scott-Heron, or because of the hometown mention, or kind of a mix of both, or what?
“We Almost Lost Detroit” live on KEXP
Epstein: I think initially it was because of Detroit. We really liked the version we did. It felt updated, in comparison to the original. But also we really liked the sentiment in it. It sums up so much about our record, especially the name “It’s a Coporate World,” so it felt like we had to include it. It was just kinda meant to be.
OKS: Do you guys’ songs start out with words, or do you go melody first or what?
Zott: It’s different every time. I think the key is to keep it inspired and to avoid forcing anything. Sometimes Josh’ll have an idea and we’ll work it out, sometimes I’ll have an idea and we’ll work it out, sometimes we push something together, or sometimes we write a whole song and there’s no lyrics. Sometimes you need to make lyrics sound good. It’s different every time, I think.
OKS: If you guys had to record a pop album or a folk album, which one would you choose?
Zott: That’s where we’re kind of a mix. We want to be a pop band. We hate the idea that a pop band has to be dumbed-down — lyrically, sonically, chord structure-wise. It used to not be like that. “God Only Knows” was a massive hit worldwide, and that song has the weirdest chords in it, it has time-signature changes, a key change. It’s weird: It would never fly right now on pop-radio format.
God Only Knows:
OKS: It’s morbid, too.
Zott: Yeah! It was considered a beautiful love song, and it is. But it’s got these funky lyrics that aren’t typical love-song lyrics. But we think people can still digest that stuff, and people do. I’d like to write a pop album that breaks that rule. We’re just making music we love, that we think could be pop music and doesn’t necessarily have to be Top-40 radio. It can be complex. I think we’d do a pop record.
Epstein: To me, they both exist within me, and I don’t think I can separate them. I’ll still feel the need to write lyrics that are meaningful and challenging. You can do it. People just aren’t doing it in the Top 40 anymore. The system’s a bit broken. People at the radio stations want to keep their jobs. Radio plays a huge role to make bands visible to people who aren’t on blogs, who don’t seek out new things.
People who read Pitchfork fail to realize that most people in the world don’t read Pitchfork. I was working with this band, recording a song, and they were like, “Pitchfork’s gonna love this.” And I told them they were idiots. Do it because you love, not because Pitchfork’s gonna like it. They’re just one opinion, anyways. Somehow they’ve managed to make people think they’re the authority.
I just think that, ultimately, if it were DJs playing the songs they wanted to play, like it was in the ‘60s, then we’d have a much more diverse popular music scene. People are hungry for good stuff. That’s how Phoenix became a Top-40 band. I think mostly probably because it was so different when it played on those stations. People were like, “Holy crap! What is this? It’s not Nickelback!” y’know?
OKS: So are you guys going to get to go around at the fest at all? Who are you going to see?
Zott: If we have time, we’d love to see Stevie Wonder.
Epstein: As a musician, it’s really hard for me to go to a show and just be entertained. And when bands can do that, I’m always so blown away. Like going to a Flaming Lips show: You feel like a little kid and you just want to cry. I learn a lot from them.
Zott: I don’t go to concerts, which is kind of a weird thing. I guess I’m going to have to make up for it now.
Epstein: I go to too many. I played with OK Go one time, and they said something along the lines of, “Everything we do, we try to be like The Flaming Lips.”