Josh Epstein, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott have gotten a good amount of ribbing (and worse) in the music press for naming their band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.  But how is it that while Epstein and Zott get ribbed, plenty of indie rock darlings get a pass for their names?  We have bands named after racquet sports, punctuation marks, makeup, and primates who live on the North Pole. There are artists named after zoo animals. I mean, I'm a huge Echo and the Bunnymen fan, but come on!

All band names have meaning in their own way.  There's an element of absurdity in many of them, but there's also creativity in that absurdity. Which was kind of the point when Epstein and Zott named their band. And if you miss this point, then you've missed the very reason why they named the band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. in the first place.

According to the band's biography, the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is "a title that was immediately jarring but paid homage to their philosophy of mixing together different ideas. If a listener could accept a band with the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., then there were no limitations or preconceived notions as to where the project was meant to go next." What impresses me about Epstein's creative process is how workmanlike he is.  His lyrics go through three or four drafts.  He takes walks with his dog to spur his creativity. And he says that putting himself in uncomfortable environments often yields the best writing.

Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr's new album It's a Corporate World comes out June 7 on Quite Scientific Records. They are touring, so be sure to check them out.  But for now, read my interview with Josh Epstein after the video.

Do you have any other creative endeavors besides songwriting?

I started off writing poetry, but at this point I think our band itself is a creative endeavor that goes beyond songwriting.  We're constantly trying to think of interesting things to do, whether it's something like a video or our artwork.  I've also been writing a screenplay, or trying to write one.  It's an idea I've been kicking around for a while.

Do you still write poetry?

Not as much anymore.  I think that as I got more into songwriting, it became obvious that songwriting is just really bad poetry.  And once you get ingrained in one, the other is harder to maintain.  I like to think of my lyrics as poetic, but if you read any lyrics as poetry, they just don't hold up.

How has writing poetry influenced your songwriting?

I try and make it so that I don't write about anything specific. I'll tend to personify things or use poetic techniques to be more abstract.  This helped me realize how important the lyrics are.  Of course, music is important.  I listen to Sigur Ros and don't understand what they are talking about, but I still enjoy the music. So while there's something to be said for the fact that lyrics don't have to mean anything, I choose to believe that they still have great value.  It's almost not worth writing a song if there aren't worthwhile lyrics. 

Talk to me about your songwriting process.

It actually changes from song to song.  Most of the time I start with a melody, but the lyrics happen quickly.  Sometimes the whole idea for a song comes from a moment of inspiration.  Other times I'll be playing and something sticks out that makes sense.  Other times I'll hum and think about what I'm feeling and how I can sum that up in lyrics or in a story.

When I start with the words, I'll have working lyrics where I know the general phrasing, and I'll do maybe four drafts. I tend to mix up the craft, because the most inspiring ideas for me come when the process is new and the ideas come in some moment of inspiration.  I've heard Ryan Adams say that if you are a musician and you don't sit down from 9-5 every day and try to write songs, you aren't doing your job.  I respect that work ethic and try to work that hard.  But I tend to believe that the moments of inspiration guide the art; otherwise your music ends up sounding labored and not as pure.

Most songwriters rarely start with an idea or a topic.  They don't know what a song is going to be about until they hear the melody.

Sometimes I just like to get wacky.  I just wrote a song about a couple at the apocalypse, a relatively new couple, and what would be going through their minds.  When you think about interesting situations like that, lyrics tend to flow.  Sometimes it's personal, like what you would say to that person in that situation.  But it's a different context.  It's really fun to do that.

There's the tension between looking at songwriting as work and looking at it as something coming from the muse.  To some people, those things don't always go well together.

What I try to do is take that moment of inspiration, then take the time to flesh it out. If a melody comes to me that I think is strong, I might spend a week working on it.  I think there can be a good balance between the head and the heart.  For me, the lyrics are way more of a head thing, and music comes from the heart.  When I sit down and say, "I'm going to write a song today, because that's what I do," I never get anything good.  I'm always documenting those moments of inspiration.  I've always got a notepad and tape recorder and hundreds of little ideas.  If I need something to work on, I always have something.

photo by Catie Laffoon

photo by Catie Laffoon

Are you disciplined when it comes to the inspiration process?

I'm active, always watching or reading something.  Those moments sometimes come when I least expect them.  Sometimes I'm working on a song, then I'll take a break to walk the dog. And on that walk, I get inspired.  I've started just writing songs in my head; I don't really use a guitar or piano anymore.  And that has made it easier to just pick up and move, just walk around and observe things. The ideas come easily that way.

The hardest part of writing in my head is that the discipline and work comes in making it sound exactly the way it should.  Sometimes the song in my head sounds good, but then in practice it doesn't.  You have to willing to try new things and experiment to see in what form that music comes across the best. 

If you're an artist, the creative process never stops.

Absolutely. Sometimes you need to just hang out with people and be social.  Without the experience, your knowledge base and inspiration gets depleted. 

How often does a line just pop into your head where you know it has to be in a song?

Fairly often.  I have a notebook full of stuff like that. And when I'm stuck, I go back and use those lines, and sometimes they become a full song. I don't get writer's block too often because of that, since I save ideas for when I'm struggling.  I'll bring something out, and that way I feel like I wrote something. It's easier to revise than create; there's less pressure.

Do you have a place or a time that you tend to get the best writing done?  

I'm pretty flexible.  Being in places where I'm uncomfortable makes me the most excited to create.

Why?

Because it's a control thing.  I feel like I have more control over what I'm making.   

What's your revision process like?

I go through lyrics 4 or 5 times after singing them.  If there's a line that doesn't excite me when I sing it, I rework it. Ideally, every word should mean something.  Musically, the first idea is the best, but lyrically I don't believe that the first idea is always the best.  I am a big believer in rewrites.

Is it important to start and finish a song in the same time period so that you maintain the emotional state you were in when you began writing?

Not always. Sometimes the best thing for me is to start writing something, then come back to it much later, maybe a year later.  With the experience I gain, I can do the song better with more perspective or with new instrumentation.  It's helpful to sleep on things.  And a song should be universal, so you should be excited about a song in any emotional state, since you have to perform it regardless of how you feel.

What's the hardest part of the writing process for you?

The hardest part is knowing when it's done.  I tend to overcomplicate things, and that's why it's good that I work with Daniel.  He is a producer.  Sometimes he'll just delete half the stuff I do.  It's great to have an editor you can trust. I just love to create.  It's what we were put on this earth to do, and I can't see myself doing any job where I wasn't creating. 

Do you have an ideal emotional state when you're the most productive?

It's always changing.  We have happy songs and sad songs.  I don't believe you need to be a tortured soul to make good art.  I think you can be a well-adjusted person and still make things that you care deeply about.  

How do you compose your lyrics?

With pen and paper.  I don't enjoy writing lyrics on a computer.  I like to scratch things out.  I like the feeling of progress when I can look at that sheet and see that the majority of the words are crossed out and replaced with better words. It's easier to keep track of what my original idea was.  That way, it's less like a game of telephone. 

What are you reading now?

I typically don't read a lot of fiction.  I read lots of biographies and about other artists.  Right now I'm reading The People's History of the United States