In The Shawshank Redemption, one of the characters famously states: “The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.” Daniel Zott, one half of the Detroit-based indie-pop duo Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., would certainly agree with this sentiment. The focus of their sophomore full-length album, The Speed of Things—released in 2013—is a meditation on the breakneck pace of 21st-century life.
“There’s a song [on the album] called ‘A Haunting,’ and the opening line is, ‘Light a candle/ I’m so unromantic/ I’m inundated by the speed of things,’ ” says Zott, who plays keys and bass, in addition to providing background vocals. “It’s this image of not simply turning on a light, but taking the time to light a candle and watch it move and flicker—it’s a totally different pace—and then feel overwhelmed a bit.”
For Zott and guitarist/lead singer Joshua Epstein, these lines underscore the entire reason for creating the album. More than just a series of intriguing lyrics, the lines hit Zott like a ton of bricks as he listened to the songs some months before the album was released.
“I was on a plane, and I remember listening to those opening lines and just crying because it was so perfect,” Zott says. “I was like, ‘Look at me. This is how it is now, where you can be in two cities in one day and talk to several people in the same day from all over the world. It’s beautiful and it’s great. But at the same time, it makes it harder to slow down and burn a candle.’ ”
The Speed of Things itself is not a slow album, so Zott’s musings on the subject are more lyric-related than music-related. If you look beneath the glossy electro and ’80s-era pop that pervades the album, it’s not a light record. Despite the upbeat pop signatures on “Run,” for example, the track is juxtaposed against heavy material about the prevalence of sexual abuse and deviance in America. Similarly, the groovy dance single “If You Didn’t See Me (Then You Weren’t on the Dance Floor),” is not just about having a good time at a club.
“That song, which to a lot of people might be sort of surface-level, is very deep and personal,” Zott says. “It’s about leaving and being gone on tour and losing yourself in all that, and sort of becoming numb to everything else. It’s an interesting mix of social commentary and our own personal lives.”
After becoming critical darlings with the success of their 2011 debut record, It’s a Corporate World, the duo intentionally took a left turn by changing up their lyrical undertones and musical sensibilities for The Speed of Things. Zott acknowledges that the record is not for everybody and that, to some people, it might even be a bit weird, but that’s part of the band’s M.O.
“I think that’s the beauty of this project,” he says. “We feel we can do anything and it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.”
For Zott, the album’s title also applies to himself and his appetite for music, so he is always trying to be aware of how much time he spends working on songs. He doesn’t want to go so full-bore into the music world that he loses himself in the process.
“If I’m doing music, I forget to eat, to talk to people, and it can become scarily obsessive,” Zott says. “But at the same time, it’s something I don’t know how not to do. It’s my way of communicating things to the world, and so if I don’t do it, I’ll probably go mad. So in a lot of ways, it’s probably a way to keep my sanity, too.”