“With the new name, it kind of feels like we have our voice back a little bit — and we wanted to use it.”
Josh Epstein of JR JR is referring to a recent change in moniker, a less-is-more decision that had his band shifting from the well-established Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. to the sparer JR JR after almost six years together. The original name was something the Detroit duo — Epstein and Daniel Zott — came up with before realizing the project would actually become something serious. “I think that when we first started, it was just a side project or statement project,” Epstein says. “We didn’t have any intentions of doing anything, so the name was an afterthought.”
The original name even exacted an emotional toll, as Epstein and Zott would get last-wish-type messages from folks hoping to get in touch with the real Dale Jr. “We started to feel so bad, because even if you corrected the people messaging us, you’re adding insult to injury, calling them out on not being aware,” says Epstein. “When you read that, you don’t want to add to their pile of problems.”
The earlier appellation had been intended to “free” Epstein and Zott from any preconceived notions of what their music might sound like (indie acts aren’t typically wont to name themselves after NASCAR personalities, after all). But now, after two albums — 2011’s It’s a Corporate World and 2013’s The Speed of Things — the public’s focus on the name rather than the music had become limiting. “People were asking us to do interviews at go-kart tracks, which was cool, but I think around the second record, we had realized the name had almost become like another member of the band,” Epstein explains. “[The name change] is just about us kind of having control of our voice more.”
Toward that end, this past summer saw JR JR release a detailed, emotional statement about the changes via their website. “We recognize that we created this situation and that the name has been a part of getting to where we are now,” the statement reads. “It stirred up some attention for us in the modern internet world of over-stimulation, and we aren’t complaining about any of it — good and bad. The name has become it’s [sic] own personality…. But as time has passed, we have grown into ourselves, both as artists and individuals. Each of our perspectives have gotten stronger, and we’ve found that there is no longer room for a third, ubiquitous member of the project.”
In doing that, JR JR have shifted the public’s attention back to what the duo wanted it to focus on in the first place: the music. While “Gone,” the first single off their third record, JR JR, captures more of a sunny California indie-pop vibe, the album as a whole was more heavily influenced by hip-hop.
According to Epstein, It’s a Corporate World and The Speed of Things were rooted more in electronic music. To show listeners the new direction their sound was taking, JR JR put out a mixtape last year featuring guest rappers such as Asher Roth and Murs as a taste of what was to come. The new name, it seemed, wasn’t the only change afoot.
Epstein and Zott simplified matters as far as the big picture was concerned, too. While they’d been known previously for flashy outfits that may have come off as gimmicky (and, again, a name that could have been taken as a gimmick in its own right), the newly christened JR JR wanted to ensure everything to do with the new record would get back to elemental basics. Indeed, the entire project has evinced a more toned-down aesthetic. “We’ve been using muted color palettes, and the entire project just kind of feels like it’s in that world,” says Epstein of the band’s shift. “There’s a real, distinct, colorful representation of where we’re at right now, and I think it’s [in] these muted colors.”
Another notable difference comes embedded in the new record’s lyrics. While the band’s previous LPs related character-driven stories, this album focuses on subjects more personal to Epstein and Zott. The duo weren’t as comfortable making the music autobiographical in the past; they’re more at ease with the first person these days. It might also be something that comes with age. “When we started the band, we were 27, and now we’re 30,” Epstein says. “[JR JR] is kind of what our lives are now. I think there are a few broader, more political or social-commentary moments on the record than we’ve had before.”
Of course, one pressing question remains: What does their namesake think of all this? “When we named the band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr. reached out to us, and he was so nice, we became fans of his,” says Epstein of the NASCAR racer. “When we changed the name, he [jokingly] tweeted he was mad at us for changing it.”
JR JR play Webster Hall on November 4. For ticket information, click here.