The trendy obsession with subgenre may be achingly lame, but the music inspiring the excess labeling often isn't. Case in point: chillwave, which to me sounds like some neon elixir you'd order on a cruise — or a sadistic amusement park ride or some new sex-prank slang: "Bro, a chillwave is when you're having sex with someone and take an ice cube and just when ..."
Alas, chillwave is an actual term used (at least for summer 2010) to describe a hybrid electro-pop with distinct guitars, loops, synths and broken beats. It teeters on downtempo, and if you substituted '90s R&B for ethereal '60s pop, you'd be damn close.
The only reason I'm mentioning it is because a few national critics have implicated new Detroit darlings Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. (yup, that's a band name) as the first to lend sonic integrity to "chillwave." Whereas the future sounds of Neon Indian and Sleigh Bells are easy to forecast, DEJJ's are not. Sure, the band's sound is a little "washed out," faraway as much as far-out in all the right instances, but this chillwave tag is a cheap disservice to what is just an incredible pop band. The band proves its worth in its four-song debut EP Horse Power, released just a few weeks back on Ann Arbor imprint Quite Scientific (the label that launched the career of the band featured in this week's cover story, Frontier Ruckus).
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is a duo of Detroit frontmen: Daniel Zott of the Great Fiction, and Joshua Epstein of the Silent Years. Both bands are well-regarded for their lush compositions and musicianship; both singers boast particularly sweet pipes and harmonize effortlessly. This recording represents the duo's ability to play — and play well together — within the vast sandbox of pop. Synthetic swells are cut keenly by bright African-sounding electric guitar plucking, and the 808 bass hits create a sneakily hidden sense of hip hop.
Save for the wistful and minimalist cover of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows," the three original tracks on Horse Power are all single-worthy: "Vocal Chords" is summer anthem that celebrates selflessness to a fault and "Nothing But Our Love" is a neck-knockin' love jam that feels different under the sun and moon. The music video is almost as good. On "Simple Girl," we hear the tale of a lovely lady who "won't ever let you meet her family, but she'll show you pictures." Picked up on West Coast radio waves the likes of KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic, this ditty is rich in organic whistles and bells, carefully fingered acoustic and electric guitar and, once again, notable vocals.
We chased down Quite Scientific's sound scientists Brian Peters and Justin Spindler to find out what makes them tick, what makes Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. work, and why indie rock is dead.
Metro Times: What did you hear in early Frontier Ruckus and what it is that you hear with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.?
Brian Peters: There are certain qualities that seem to make the ears perk and head turn when you're listening to a new band — be they lyricism, creativity, technique or simply persona. Frontier Ruckus had a starry-eyed quality about them when we first started working with them, which I think lends itself to the band's brutal yet beautiful honesty. They've not lost that. With DEJJ, it was much more about how unique the whole idea was. Josh and Daniel have a very clear and exciting vision for the band. This immediately drew me in.
Justin Spindler: There are these three tiers I adhere to: Am I excited? Are you, the artist, excited? Are complete strangers I've never met before excited? The first time I saw Frontier Ruckus play there were easily less than 30 people watching the performance, but you could feel that every person in the room was 100 percent into what was going on.
MT: Where does DEJJ fit in the modern musical landscape?
Peters: They live in a quaint prairie style house, next to neighbors Phoenix and Girls, in a town called Sheslikethewind.
Spindler: They're somewhere between ideal indie and fully realized pop. The term "indie rock" can be stifling. In no way do I want to see more Ke$ha or Godsmack bullshit out there, but limiting yourself to avant noise is no way to really rally against that. Here we have DEJJ, with songs we truly believe anyone can enjoy. Whether you're 60 years old or 16 or 6. And yet, it's not boring, overproduced mainstream radio fanfare. It has melody, emotion and soul — and was recorded in a basement.
MT: What are your thoughts on the name?
Peters: Some people out there are giving them some flack for the name, saying it's "creatively bankrupt" or that they're out to leech off the fame of Dale Jr. the racer. Couldn't be further from the truth. Pretty much every band name is essentially one or a grouping of words or phrases that on their own are meaningless. It's the music behind that name that matters.
Spindler: I'd be lying if I said we didn't discuss changing it numerous times. But there's a real ethos behind it that ties into that idea of not being shackled to indie rock. I know "indie rock" means different things to different people, but the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. seems to smack against most peoples' concept of it. I completely support the idea of self-produced, independently released and honestly promoted music. To me, that is indie rock. But at some point indie rock became a sound — a limiting sound. "That sounds like indie rock": What the fuck does that even mean? I can say, "I was rappin'," and you understand what that means. But if I say, "I'm hip-hopping," it sounds like a quote from a movie where some out-of-touch elder statesmen doesn't know what's going on. Indie rock should be in that same category as hip hop. I can't indie-rock. I can't say, "I spent the afternoon indie-rocking." That tells me it should never be considered a music genre.
MT: Why is it that DEJJ's getting heavy love from the West Coast?
Spindler: DEJJ did a remix for Moby that a station in Los Angeles, KCRW, took a modest liking to. When the EP was done, we sent it the station, and they almost immediately started trying out songs on-air. KCRW is the station in Los Angeles to get new music played, especially if you are a bit left of center. They just reach a lot of ears. And, hey, it's kinda breezy, West Coast music that fits the whole vibe out there.
MT: Some critics have slapped the "chillwave" label on this band. What's with the trend in extreme sub-categorization?
Peters: DEJJ is pop music — plain and simple. People are scared of the word "pop" 'cause Britney Spears and shows like American Idol make it seem like you're "doin' it for the man" if you label your music as "pop." Stop worrying about "indie cred" — pop music is fun and enjoyable, and that's OK!
Spindler: We sent the record to iTunes, and they chose to put it in their dance section, of all places. We labeled it electronic but they chose dance. So now we show up on their dance albums chart alongside Lady Gaga and Tiësto. DEJJ is currently tapped to do a remix for Freddie Gibbs, who is widely considered to be gangsta rap, but they already did a remix for Moby, who is pretty far off from Freddie Gibbs' world. Couple that with the Pitchfork and Stereogum attention, and I think the band's venturing into really exciting territory of not being limited to any genre. Labels shoving artists in one direction or another has ruined the music biz.Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org