Josh Epstein, clockwise from bottom left, Mike Higgins, Jonathan Visger and Daniel Zott make up Detroit pop band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. (Bryan Mitchell / Special to The Detroit News)
Five years after recording their first tracks in a Royal Oak basement, the members of indie-pop band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. are still new to the national music festival circuit and loving it.
Josh Epstein, who co-fronts the group with Daniel Zott, says festivals have quickly become the “most fun” environment for the group to perform.
“When you’re doing your own tour, you don’t overtly and consciously worry about it, but in the back of your mind you hope you sell enough tickets to make it a good tour,” Epstein says. “With festivals, it’s more laid-back. You just kind of show up and play to whoever’s there.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. will perform July 12 at Lansing’s Common Ground Music Festival, which opens Tuesday. It’s one of only two dates they have left this summer (both festivals), marking the end of a busy touring period that’s seen them play major events, including Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo.
Zott and Epstein originally met in 2009 through separate projects on the Detroit music scene. The band’s full-length Warner Bros. debut, “It’s a Corporate World,” drew considerable buzz from industry tastemakers upon its arrival in 2011.
Epstein says last year’s follow-up, “The Speed of Things,” may have generated less interest among “hyper-aware” music fans, but the number of “regular people” in the audience has increased dramatically.
“To be honest, I would rather have a normal music fan because the people who are, like, super-hip consumers are really — they’re fair-weather,” Epstein says. “They’re more fair-weather than anything, and it’s not necessarily the kind of fan that I want.”
The group, which has grown to include drummer Mike Higgins and keyboard player Jon Visger, is about to get down to the business of making its third full-length. Epstein says the band is currently working with a formidable stack of 34 songs, from which they’ll cull around 10 for the final record.
“We’ve written way more this time than we ever have,” Epstein says.
The creative direction for the new record will follow the model the group adopted for its mixtape “Produce,” released online in February. The mix adds a lot of rap elements to the band’s usual sunny space-pop, featuring guest rappers Murs and Asher Roth (plus a dialogue sample of “My Dinner With Andre” and a cover of Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” for good measure). Epstein says the new record is likely to incorporate more rap and R&B influences with a collaborative songwriting approach.
“After the first record, it felt like we needed to do what we did, but do it more intensely,” he says. “Now it just kind of feels like we’ve explored that a lot, and we’re ready to explore anything.”
Epstein is ready for new frontiers in more ways than one, as he recently left the third coast for the West Coast. He now lives in Los Angeles but still returns to Detroit at least monthly — as his three band mates still live in Metro Detroit. Epstein says it felt like a good time to try something new.
“If I get too comfortable, my writing suffers,” he says. “I get less imaginative. I need to be kind of shaken up.”
Common Ground Music Festival
300 N. Grand River, Lansing
Adults $34.50-$99.50, ages 6-10 $10-$35
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.