Until recently, you might’ve received some sidelong glances if you said, “I’m going to see Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Jr. play a concert.” Sorry, NASCAR fans: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. isn’t the famed driver’s DJ name—although we’re intrigued by that concept, too—it is (well, was) the indie pop duo Joshua Epstein and Daniel Zott. These days, Zott and Epstein have dropped the moniker they used since 2009 and simply go by JR JR.
The duo reemerged with their third album, a self-titled offering of bright tracks, tight harmonies, and pleasant, Coachella-tent-ready earworms—particularly songs like “In the Middle,” “James Dean,” and lead single “Gone.” We sat down with Epstein and Zott in the green room at Sonos Studios, a showroom and art space in the La Brea Arts District. The green room itself is modeled after one of mega-producer Rick Rubin’s residential listening rooms, with each book and trinket positioned intentionally to optimize the room’s acoustics.
At Sonos Studio, JR JR recorded a session and interview for KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, which you can watch here (or below). We chatted with JR JR about the racing fans in cowboy hats who’d show up at their gigs, freeing themselves from those associations to focus on music, and, of course, the best brunch in L.A.
Are fewer Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans showing up to the shows these days since the name change?
Daniel Zott: Yeah, we haven’t had to explain much. It’s been pretty smooth, the transition.
Josh Epstein: I think it’s cleared up all the confusion that was abounding.
When people showed up asking “Where’s Dale?” how did you talk them through it?
JE: The time I can remember it specifically happening, we were playing in Costa Mesa at Detroit Bar, and there were these two guys in NASCAR jackets that were waiting outside.
DZ: They walked up to our bus!
JE: It was an RV at that time…
DZ: That’s right, it was like an RV. They were almost knocking on it. It was weird.
JE: “Is Dale in there? We came all the way up!”
DZ: These are dudes, like 40-year-old men in cowboy hats.
JE: They were so mad when they found out. They had obviously driven something like two hours from somewhere. Honestly, it didn’t happen all that often. It was more the Facebook people, ages 55-70, from anywhere from Alabama to South Carolina, sending messages like “My son is sick. The only thing that would make him feel better is if you send him a message.” And we just would feel so bad. That happened fairly often. And if you sent a message to them, you’re adding insult to injury and you’re risking making them feel like shit. There was no good way to do that and that really started to take a toll and made us feel really bad, honestly.
Having a name all your own has to be freeing.
JE: I think at first when we started the band, the name felt freeing because it felt like we wouldn’t have any expectations, but then the name became an expectation. Some people might not have been willing to listen to the band because they expected it to be a joke, like Tenacious D or something. Now, it feels freeing to not have the burden of the association with something. I think there’s a lot of people that thought [the original name] was a more calculated thing than it was. We just didn’t think we were going to be a band! By the time we realized it was happening, we already had the name.
Thanks to the Internet, so many band names are taken. You almost have to just go with it if you find one.
JE: Well, we wanted to be the Beach Boys (laughs).
DZ: From here on out it’s just about the music. People don’t have these weird associations with goofiness. It’s like, “No, we’re really making music and we really love it.” We have something to say and hopefully this is the start of people seeing that a little bit more.
What kind of influences did you bring to this new record?
DZ: Some of our childhood interests in music, like R&B, really crept in more on this latest album in terms of it being stripped back and just being about a good vocal and a drumbeat. A couple of other songs having this more singable chorus, a more singable lyric that is harking back to some of the Motown stuff that I loved as a kid, but with a lot more of a Boyz II Men vibe.
JE: Things are cyclical for me. After we made the second record, I kind of had a childhood-reliving year where I was listening to all the music that I grew up listening to, like old, cool Whitney Houston and Madonna stuff, but even All 4 One, Jodeci, KC & JoJo, En Vogue, and SWV. When I was really young that’s what was on the radio. “Waterfalls” was like the biggest song in the world. Some people don’t realize that some of those songs are so complicated and beautiful.
What do you want people to know about JR JR?
JE: Sometimes people don’t necessarily understand that earnestness is a risk with the amount of pretense and facade that exists in a lot of music styles and genres. I think that we’ve made a real attempt to break free from that and just make something that is earnest and heart-on-your-sleeve. I feel like that’s a risk. I hope people would approach it as two people who have made an art project that hopefully is accessible and enough people can relate to. I think it’s a serious project. Hopefully there’s something in it for whatever you are looking for.
Who are some of your dream collaborations?
JE: I would really want to work with Drake right now. I would love to work with Diplo. Aaron Neville has been a dream forever.
DZ: Carole King would be kind of dope. She can write a song.
What are some spots in L.A. you like to frequent after shows?
JE: We went to Sugarfish before. [After this session], I’ll probably go to La Cita downtown. I live in Downtown L.A. My favorite spot is the Dresden. I know it’s played out, but I love it. I like Nickel Diner downtown for brunch. But, obviously, Sqirl is the best for brunch. Eggslut is not bad. Millie’s is awesome on Sunset.