By Noah Hubbell
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You can draw a couple of likely conclusions upon hearing the band name Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. First, that it's a group of 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 the music probably includes elements of irreverence and humor.
These notions, however, don't come close to pinpointing the Detroit act's adroit mix of strong melodies, heavy folk influences and lush harmonies, or its incorporation of beats, loops and samples — a factor prevalent enough that there's actually more of a hip-hop connection than a folk or a punk one.
It makes for an interesting juxtaposition — which is by design, it turns out. "It messes with people's preconceived notions, and we like that," says Daniel Zott, one half of the Dale Earnhardt duo. "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 because of its quirky name are quickly pulled 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 the adoption of his name. "We actually wrote him a letter, and a couple of weeks ago he wrote back," Zott says. "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 act's ability to skillfully straddle that line between goofiness and seriousness that has helped it craft a visually interesting stage show — one that doesn't come at the detriment of its live sound. Despite recording as a two-piece, the band uses a touring drummer, triggered samples, live loops and several instrument changes in its sets to achieve sounds as big and compelling as those on 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."