Part of JR JR's novelty lies in the fact that its name bears no indication of what its sound might be. With a glittering new album out this past September, JR JR (formerly Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.) brings its brand of eye-opening, bouncy music back to the fore. But what does the abbreviation — or even the reference to the famous race car driver — have to do with power-pop? Not much, apparently. And that's part of the fun of the whole arrangement.
"It’s funny because it’s been a long – it’s been coming for a while," says singer Daniel Zott of the band's recent name change. "We’ve already called ourselves that for a long time, JR JR. A lot of our merch, a lot of the lights whenever we play shows says JR JR, so in a lot of ways that’s what it already was. So it was a natural progression. JR JR is the memorable name for us. We started making mixtapes and just saying JR JR so it felt like the right time to do it, to change."
Primary band members Daniel Zott and Joshua Epstein met while playing in other bands and started making recordings in Zott's basement in 2009. Hailing from Detroit, a city that's been all but crumpled up and thrown away over the past decade, the band's uplifting mish-mash of music is a startling juxtaposition. Perhaps it's a new sign in the road for the Motor City, a marker that things are pointing up.
"I can live very minimally because it’s pretty cheap there," Zott says, explaining Detroit's influence on the band. "I’m not a person who likes being in a place that feels very competitive or if it’s super expensive. That would stress me out. Detroit feels like a place where you can take risks and it trickles over into the music. With it being cheap you can spend times working on your hobbies, whether that’s a small business or art. That’s what’s kind of amazing about Detroit. It’s attracting a lot of creative people. You can spend more time working on what your passion is without working 40, 50 hours a week to pay rent."
The band's new self-titled record is a whistle-disco orchestra with sounds reminiscent of whale sonar, Taylor Swift anthems, Dr. Dog falsettos, '80s 808 hip-hop, and something else from the future. The subtlest thread woven throughout, though, is a blues sensibility. It's not the first thing you might think of when listening to JR JR's music, but consider this: Put on the opening track of the new record, "As Time Goes," and then think about what a Black Keys song might sound like sped up twice as fast. The synths are powerful strands infiltrating and wiggling into your brain like an earwig. "Caroline," on JR JR, rolls and triumphs. The record's first single, "Gone," shines and marches and could easily be the backing track to the next Apple Watch commercial.
"Man, this song means so much to me," says Zott of "Gone." "We’ve been overwhelmed by being expected to have these songs. You have to write a song for this. It’s about getting our voice back and being us. Being ourselves. I think that’s what this album is. Us coming into our own, being who we are and singing about what we want to sing about. Getting over that pressure of staying on a label and it being work."
The single's accompanying music video also serves to reinforce themes in "Gone" and JR JRas a whole. They had an open call for ideas and eventually came across one that "made a lot of sense."
"Visually, it looked really great and seemed like it would convey some emotion with those people that were sort of worn out or bored out of their minds," says Zott. "So they are these characters that dancing takes them away from those moments. In a way, it gives them release."
The juxtaposition of JR JR's uplifting sound with some of their more serious lyrical themes is part of what makes their music so interesting. Like their hometown of Detroit, there's an underlying, driving sense of both anxiety and hope, with emotion at the core of everything they make.
"Part of the reason the video translates so well and is so cool to me – “Gone” more so than any of these songs – you feel this emotion that’s so obvious," says Zott. "Not only do our fans start reacting to that, but the people making the videos, everyone feels that same emotion. So I think that helps make a better video; The guts of the song had a lot of emotion."
After the release of 2010's Horsepower EP garnered them attention from a myriad of respected outlets like Stereogum and Spin, JR JR followed that up with releases on Warner Bros. Records. With its latest shining release and a (sort of) new name, JR JR is diving headfirst into a two-month tour with stops in Minnesota to San Francisco and back to its Midwestern roots of Detroit and Chicago.
JR JR With Brother Tiger. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 28, at the Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $47 plus fees. Call 954-564-1074, or visit box-officetickets.com.
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