Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Quest to Defend Pop Punk
A talk with the retired NASCAR driver about how discovering The Dangerous Summer shifted his musical gears.
Image by Na Yon Cho
Everyone finds their way to the scene in their own time. Maybe an older sibling passes you down a record, or a group of friends invites you to a show, and there’s no looking back. Maybe you’re a two-time Daytona 500 winner, one of the most famous and richest drivers in the country, and you stumble across a defunct Hopeless Records band on your Pandora station, and a switch flips. Here’s the music you’ve been waiting for your whole life.
That’s what happened for Dale Earnhardt Jr., son of the legendary driver, the late Dale Earnhardt, champion in his own right, and now Certified Defender of Pop Punk. A few years ago Earnhardt was putting together a station on his streaming app, based off the Stone Temple Pilots, the type of alternative rock he had long favored since he grew up in the 90s, and he heard a track from Maryland’s The Dangerous Summer. It was a revelation. Sadly, by the time he’d been turned onto them, the band had broken up. Nonetheless, he reached out to the band’s AJ Perdomo, and a friendship developed that ultimately led in part to the band reforming this year. Earnhardt, who recently retired from driving, worked with the band on their video, “Ghosts,” produced by his film production company Hammerhead.
I talked to Jr. about his scene epiphany, being a fan of music, meeting Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and asked him to come to Emo Night. Plus, watch exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of the making of The Dangerous Summer's "Ghosts" video with Earnhardt below.
Noisey: Tell me about how working with The Dangerous Summer came about.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: I’m a big fan of music. I need to be listening to music most of the time during the day. I’d be curating stations on my streaming apps, Pandora and Spotify and so forth, and I liked alternative music mainly in the 90s when I was young and graduating high school. That alternative scene kind of faded off, and there’s really been nothing similar to it until this version of punk came along. It has a lot of sounds and themes and gives you the same feelings as some of the old alternative does. I started off with Stone Temple Pilots and Lord Huron and a couple other bands, and they just popped up on my Pandora station, probably about four, five years ago. I kept hearing more of their songs as I started liking more on my apps. Then I started reading about the band. I was disappointed because they weren’t together, they had broken up. So I was reading about all that drama.
How’d you get to know the band from there?
I started following AJ on Twitter and we started communicating. We’d talk about music, or maybe similarities about what was going on in our lives. He wasn’t quite sure what his plans were or what his future was. And I was out of the car with a concussion for about half the season, so I wasn’t sure what I going to be able to do. We both had a lot of time on our hands. We started conversating a lot. He ended up coming to a couple races and had a lot of fun and we just became friends, really. At some point through all this he began to feel creative again and like he wanted to get back to music. I think it’s been great to see him put himself back together, and to hang out with the guys and get to know them personally. Sometimes you meet people you admire or appreciate their craft, and you might not always walk away happy. You’ll be disappointed meeting your heroes, they always say. But getting to know these guys on a personal level, they're great, really down to earth, easy to approach and talk to kind of guys. It’s been a lot of fun for me.
And then you helped them make a music video?
Absolutely. I went to where they were recording an album and got to see how they do that. When they were getting ready to put a video together for the second single of the album, I had just got done shooting something with a buddy of mine, a director, who I think is very good. We have a production company here in North Carolina and we’ve shot a lot of commercials, music videos. We’ve got quite a bit of a reputation in this area, at least of being able to do good work. I know their budgets aren’t very big, but I did see the video for “Fire,” the first single, and I thought it was incredible as far as cinematically, the way it was shot, it looked like it far exceeded the budget. That was kind of the standard—to do something as good as that video.
So they came here, and they brought some of their instruments, and played a little acoustic set in the basement which was pretty badass, so all my friends and family could see who these guys were. We had a great time. My friend, Chris Standford, who directed it and wrote it, and my production company pitched in to find actors and space. Me and AJ and the guys got down in there and we were grips and pushed things around and did the lighting.
You’ve been on a lot of other videos before, Jay-Z, Nickelback, Sheryl Crow. Which one of those was the most memorable?
Probably the Jay-Z one was the most memorable because of the location. I couldn’t believe it, it still sounds crazy to this day. We were racing in New Hampshire that weekend and my manager was like, “Do you want to be in a Jay-Z video?” I said, “Of course, who wouldn’t want to do that?” “Well, you gotta be in Monaco tomorrow.” I was super nervous, like, I gotta do it, I can’t turn this down, scared to death. So we fly to Monaco overnight, get there, it’s about eight in the morning. I’m walking up to the location we’re gonna shoot in. Jay-Z’s sitting on this wall on the side of the street, just hanging out, so we talk, and Beyoncé walks up. She must have been shopping, she had a couple bags in her hands, looked like she was having a great time. So we got introduced to her as soon as I got off the plane, pretty much. I worked with Jay-Z all day long, and we ended up going to dinner with him and Beyoncé that night. It was just an incredible 24 hours. Then we went back home.
You said the thing about not meeting your heroes. It’s probably something average people don’t think about too often. You’re this very famous athlete in your own right, and yet you were probably still nervous meeting Beyoncé am I right?
Heck yeah. I’ve watched them and admired them from the same distance as everyone else. I would think about how incredible would it be to have a conversation with them, or that they would know who I was! And for that to be a reality is incredible. Today I think about it and I still can’t believe it happened. But they were completely approachable, comfortable, normal, conversational, a lot of fun.
Does being a fan of music affect how you might interact with fans of your own? I’m not sure if you have a reputation for being a nice guy or not, I assume you do, but do you give fans time when they come up to you?
My approach is to always be pretty interactive. Try to be accommodating to pretty much any request, really, at any time. It drives my wife crazy a little bit. I’m pretty easy going with that. I just retired this past year from driving, and once you get to that point in your career and you’re going to wrap that up, you do a lot of reflecting and you realize how much that fanbase has been able to present opportunities for you, to drive the best cars, to be with the best team, financial opportunities. That fanbase fuels that. You do a lot of reflecting and learn a whole new appreciation for fans who support what you do. The guys who don’t have that fan support, there’s not as much outside or corporate interest. Corporations want to link onto that fan base and utilize it and tap into it. So those fans have given me opportunities that I never imagined would happen even when they were happening.
You did a video with Kid Rock as well. Are you friendly with him still? What did you think of him teasing that he was going to run for office?
Yeah, I talk to him once or twice a year. I didn’t think to take it seriously! He doesn’t strike me as the political type as far as the guy that’s going to get in there and get things done.
What about you?
Well, it’s flattering if anyone would even think about it or to be asked about it, but to be quite honest I don’t know that I would vote for myself. I don’t know that I would be someone who could be on task like you would need to be every single day for that type of job. It takes so much responsibility and you need to be dedicated to it and have a passion for making a difference in that position. I don’t know that I would be that guy.
Do you remember your first concert?
Yeah, um, my first concert was Chicago and Moody Blues, I was 15 years old.
Alright, that’s pretty cool though.
Yeah, my sister and her boyfriend took me. I wasn’t a big concert fan then, but now as I’m older I’m trying to go to more and more concerts, especially bands I’m trying to discover today. I don’t know what that’s about but I’m more into concerts now than I’ve ever been.
One thing that made me want to talk to you, I saw a while ago you were tweeting about a lot of Hopeless Records bands, The Wonder Years and Have Mercy and stuff like that. For some reason that struck me as interesting. Maybe I’m stereotyping but I don’t think of a racing-type of guy being into pop punk and emo. Is that out of the ordinary?
Yeah, I think it might be. A lot of our drivers, I think, listen to country or current pop. Nothing that’s really too much behind that first layer. I’ve always needed a little bit more than that. I’ve always enjoyed the search for something different or something a little more substantial. I always thought if I wasn’t racing one of my dream jobs would be as a scout, going town to town and trying to find bands in all these little dive bars. That would be so much fun, discovering music that way as opposed to from your phone.
If you ever want to trade jobs from music writer to champion driver, we can try that out for a while. There’s a real earnestness to some of these bands, very emotional, particularly a band like The Wonder Years. Is there something about that that appeals to you?
[Laughs] Sure! I think so, but I think it’s more about the structure of the songs, something Nirvana made famous, that quiet-to-loud, real simple build to the songs. Soupy [Campbell] has a great voice, and there’s a lot of talented musicians in that band that create this great sound together. It takes a certain style of guitars, drummer, and singer for me to like what I’m hearing. I’ve searched through a lot of the Hopeless catalog, and it seems to be that I like a lot of the bands on that record label more so than others. It really comes down the style of vocals and the way the guy sings, and that build up throughout the song.
Well, if you ever make it up to Boston, come to Emo Night. You’ll love all the music we play. You can guest DJ.
Yeah, I’ve heard about those Emo Nights! AJ’s been telling me about them, it sounds like a lot of fun. I want to get to one for sure. I appreciate the invitation.
Are you talented musically yourself?
I would say that answer to that is no. I used to play the drums, but I haven’t played in like 12 years. I used to be able to play a little bit, easy stuff like CCR or Mellencamp, Southern rock was what I always practiced to because it was the most doable. But I never really took it further than that.
These bands you’ve shared with your fans, have you heard from them that it’s helped them out? Some of these bands are pretty well known in their scene, but a lot aren’t. Does it help to expose them to your audience?
Yeah, I think any time I share music or anybody else shares music, it’s like, “Hey man, I really like this I want other people to hear it.” It’s just sharing. That was the thing with AJ and the guys. They’ve got this new record, it’s awesome and I love it, and I had the opportunity to hear it before it was released. It was like, man, they’re getting back together, this is a real pivotal moment that they need to capture, and I would love to do anything I can to help them maximize this opportunity and help people get back on the train. I don’t want anything in return, it’s just fun to share good music with people and let them decide if they like it or not. There’s a big of a mission to help AJ and those guys get this thing out there but I think it will take care of itself.
Luke O'Neil hosts Emo Night Boston and is on Twitter.
[Editor's note to Mr. Earnhardt: If you're delving into the Hopeless catalog, sir, might I humbly suggest the two Dillinger Four albums. Thank you for your time.]