Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.’s Daniel Zott Explains How Paul Simon + Modern Society Informed the New Album ‘The Speed of Things’
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. checked in recently with Diffuser.fm, they were on their way to Toronto, touring in support the new album ‘The Speed of Things,’ which dropped Oct. 8 on Warner Bros. Daniel Zott, one-half of the electro-pop duo, was at home in Detroit for the day, hanging out with friends and family before returning to a packed schedule of gigs, DJ sets, press calls and more.
In 2011, Zott and bandmate Joshua Epstein released the widely touted ‘It’s a Corporate World,’ an impressive debut full of hook-filled synthy goodness. Zott maintains that Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. didn’t feel the stereotypical pressure that is often associated with sophomore efforts. As he revealed in our chat, he drew on the spirit of his hometown and the hectic pace of modern life — as well as some helpful advice from Paul Simon — to co-create the group’s deeper yet still danceable second effort.
Let’s talk Detroit. I went there for the first time a few months ago, and I’m down with the Motor City. How much has the city influenced your music?
There’s multiple ways. I think one is just the rich history of that music that has come from here with Motown and the hip-hop scene and electronic music scene and the punk scene. There are so many great starts and origins of music that come from Detroit that gives you a pride when you’re a musician here and a sense of respect for your craft to take it seriously as a job and as something that you’re part of its history. So I think in that way it’s influenced us. But also, I think Detroit is very cheap to live, and so you’re able to do a lot of things and take a lot of creative risks because you’re not worrying about keeping up your apartment or a high rent. You can work like half the amount of time you’d have to in New York or L.A. or Seattle or Chicago, really any other city that has a good music scene. So that’s really helpful. We record all of our own music in my basement, and we have a lot of freedom with it because Detroit is just incredibly easy to live in.
In your amazing Buzzfeed video, you take pride in the fact that Motown and techno — two extremely diffrent sounds — both originated in your city. Listening to ‘The Speed of Things,’ you can hear those influences — sometimes in the same song! What influencd this record?
I don’t know if there were specific artists that influenced us the most on this record, but I think it’s impossible for us to escape the Motown greats that we grew up listening to, like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 and Marvin Gaye and the Marvelettes and the Vandellas. All those bands had incredible melodies. Their songs seem to be eternal. They’re just songs that have always existed. They always will. They’re just magical, and I just think that spirit is something we want to have in our music. Their songs are really fun. You always get in a really good mood when you hear Motown music, but they’re also very technical and very musical, and they have depth to them. I think that’s something that we really aspire to make — music that not only is catchy and poppy and can be on the radio and be listened to by people who consider themselves music snobs, but just like good music. So we want them to like it, but also people who maybe want to dig a little bit deeper and hear more technicalities in it and really good sonic features. I think that’s because that’s what we like. We like music that has both of those things going on. So that’s more of the influence. I don’t know if it’s more of an album or anything like that. When you have something like Motown or the Beatles, the music we grew up listening to the most, it’s such a high bar that I don’t know if there’s much more than that.
What about the concept behind the record? ‘The Speed of Things’ is about, well, the speed of the world today, right? Does this have #millennial all over it?
Yeah, I think that’s a lot of it. I think that’s a major influence on making this record, not only because we were flying around — well not in the sense of actually flying. Well sort of, actually. We always feel like we’re doing a million things at once. As soon as you start something, you want to move on to the next thing. People are hanging out at one place, and they’re checking their Twitter to find out what’s going on somewhere else. It’s just kind of how we live now. I think there’s a lot of that going on on the record. One of the songs has the line, “the speed of things” in it, the song’s called ‘The Haunting.’ The end of the line is, “I’m so inundated by the speed of things.” I just remember being on a flight and listening to the record after we had it mastered and just listen through and see what I thought, and I just remember crying on the plane because I was moving around the country, and I was missing my family and thinking about how I can be in Detroit and in the same day I can be in California and then I can do this and that. The speed at which we live life now is so fast that you don’t take anything really slowly, and you don’t enjoy anything really at a pace that is normal. Everything is so sped up. I think that’s what the record is about. I was just overwhelmed with [the feeling] that this song is my life right now. I feel like I just need to slow down and maybe that speaks to a lot of people. I think it will.
At the same time, I do enjoy a lot of the newer things that come, so I think there’s a little bit of that. There’s a lot of fun. But there’s a lot of stuff that will make you want to just listen with your headphones in the dark and have a different experience. Some stuff is communal and some is on your own.
What do you do to slow down in the midst of all of this?
I think that’s part of touring with people and being in a band with people that you really love. You get a lot of joy from other things than just playing music with them. They can make you laugh and you can do crazy stuff together that helps you escape and just enjoy the time with each other instead of feeling like you’re working all the time.
I also try to plan times to hang out with family. You have to plan for that stuff, otherwise you look back and realize, “I’ve been gone for two years and we haven’t even had a week together.” That can happen to people, you know? I try to keep a good balance. But being crazy sometimes can help you write a really good song. It’s part of embracing it. It’s just how it is being an artist. In a lot of ways, it’s hard to escape that.
You guys are on tour now, and you’ve been throwing in some DJ sets among your normal gigs. What are some of the challenges or benefits in playing these different types of shows?
The big difference is the gear and preparation. When I DJ, I just have a backpack with all my stuff in it, and that’s all we need, so it’s sort of nice to just have everything in a backpack and not have a full trailer of gear that takes an hour to load in. We bring seven keyboards — it gets out of control! So that’s a nice feature of DJing. But they’re different vibes. DJ sets a usually a lot later, and you job is strictly to keep everyone dancing. With our shows, we kind of have that mentality that we want to keep everyone dancing, but there’s also a lot of breaks where people just want to hear a song that’s slower or quieter. I like them both for what they offer.
What else should we know about ‘The Speed of Things?’
Well I think an interesting little story I could share about ‘The Speed of Things’ is that we actually got some mix notes from Paul Simon, and it kind of blew our minds. One of my favorite records is ’Graceland.’ Actually, we have the same A&R guy as Paul Simon did for ‘Graceland,’ and a lot of his records and Randy Newman records, so we really trusted him. But he actually got a chance to share this album with Paul Simon, and Paul Simon had some ideas for a song and was really into it. It’s the song ‘War Zone,’ which is the last song on the record. That, to me, was just a great moment, because I grew up listening to him, and I love pretty much everything that he makes. If he tells you to do something, it’s probably a good idea.
Dude. That’s amazing!
Yeah! It was a lot of fun. And he was right, too, you know? We tried some things out and we were like, “Wow. He knows what he’s doing.” It was really cool.