Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
As it stands, the greatest majority of people listening to The Silent Years' fine, fine, super-terrific self-titled debut record are wolves. They are werewolves, timberwolves, gray wolves, snow wolves and on and on -- in order to cover all breeds of carnivorous proclivity. They've cased out the record using their naturally inbred skills of finding things they want for free on the Internet and taking them before anyone can come along and make that impossible. They sharpened those mouse-grabbin' fingers over the Napster years when Lars Ulrich was barking up a storm about the atrocities of all that ransacking of rights and blatant thievery. Napster was changed - deadened for a spell, but in the process, along came hundreds of other outlets to get the same things obtained just as easily - and always for nothing with an artist's basic need to pay water bills and rent be damned.
Detroit's The Silent Years recently discovered that the album that they created and have sold 1,000 copies of since it was released last year, has been stolen over 15,000 times through BitTorrent and peer-to-peer sites - a total number of records that make it a legitimate phenomenon. Hell, it's practically fashionable to be a possessor of a copy of this record. And yet, they inexplicably struggle to get by - even with an album that piques more interest in it with each listen and is so widely listened to. Numbers like those would have most indie labels salivating, if only they were all numbers sold and not just the numbers of a five-fingered discount.
That said, Silent Years lead singer Josh Epstein wants to be buddies with these wolves. He'd prefer they were on speaking terms - if they could shake hands at a show and know that the next record that the band put out, whenever that might be, they'd support with their $10 and the band would be able to continue making the things. You shouldn't blame him for wanting to engage these people who've taken an illicit shine to his hard work. It would be nice to know that these songs of astral dust and optimism shrouded in passing shadows, but filled with future mirth could continue to be grown into their fingertips and given to us as offerings and tidings. This would be the best situation for everyone. The win-win situation exists and it's what everyone truly - all deep down - wants out of this.
There was a moment at a Subway restaurant a month ago - if I'm allowed to inject myself into this piece for a second - when the John Tesh radio program was playing over the empty store's sound system. The way the girl with the nose ring making my turkey sandwich smirked made it obvious that the station choice wasn't an option even if the store was vacant of all customers but one. I believe I sarcastically said, "Tesh rocks." Neither of us felt that and yet I've heard some of his broadcasts when I've taken the car without the CD player or iPod adaptor in it. He's positive to a fault borderline disgustingly positive, dispensing reassuring advice that he finds in self help books (example from a transcript: "So, here are some happiness boosters from Dr. Bernie S. Siegel, a retired surgeon and author of the book 101 Exercises for the Soul: A Divine Workout Plan For Body, Mind and Spirit.") and people find this comforting.
We'd never compare The Silent Years to the Tesh, but some of that positivity - that good, calm ocean noise that you can hear from the deck of a cruise ship pulling through dark night waters - is in there in the right kind of doses. It symbolizes that even with the werewolves undercutting their livelihood, Epstein will refrain from taking a grim look at the world around him and the outlook of an industry that begs for grimness. Stopping anyone from being cynical for all moments isn't possible - even Pope Benedict XVI probably rolls out of bed on certain mornings and thinks to himself over a warm bowl of oatmeal or papal Cheerios, "The people are fucked! Really, the people - my people - are fucking fucked!" - but it should be noted when optimism's preferred.
Epstein says below that pessimism's so easy to write these days and it's really a wonder that it's not all that's written - the polar bears are dying, we're all going to be underwater and drowning in 20 years, we've made a war that will never end and people think guns are answers - but he likes the challenge of being optimistic. We like that he takes this challenge head-on and makes songs like this band does that fall somewhere between when John Davis was writing Superdrag songs about cigarettes and drugs and when he turned to the goody optimism of his born-again present. It keeps us warm and we don't have to gag on the spoonful of sugar.
The Daytrotter interview:
*So, you've been writing a lot? This has been a good thing, I'd imagine. What have you to write about right now?*
Josh Epstein: There is a lot to write about these days, Sean. There are a lot of new responsibilities to be excited and afraid about. Some days are just boring as hell, but there is always the world of the imagination to draw from.
*Tell everyone about your two new members and the need for them.*
JE: Ahh YES! Cassandra "Cassie" Verras and Mike "Juice" Majewski. They were formerly the pianist/violinist and guitarist, respectively, for my favorite Detroit band Rescue. The Silent Years had been looking for a multi-instrumentalist/keyboardist for some time and Pat (our original bass player) was no longer able to tour full time due to work schedules. Sadly, Rescue broke up and in the same week I saw Juice playing bass in his other project (Bird Plus Magic). I was blown away. Cassie and Juice are two of the most talented people I've ever met. They are the nicest, most endearing people, and are both incredible writers. I can't believe how lucky we were to be able to work with them. It is a real blessing.
*Are you still letting your friend practice her hair styling on you? Are the red streaks still in-place? And your mullet -- a progress report, including an inch-length would be good? Why the mullet now? Why not, maybe?*
JE: I haven't been back yet and the red has faded to a coppery diarrhea color. It is awful. The mullet is about seven inches now, but it is curly. I am starting to think that the mullet is a bit classier than I'd hoped it would be. I think I'll go for a rat tail soon. I try to dress and look like an idiot because when you look at yourself in the mirror and see yourself with a mullet, it's IMPOSSIBLE to take yourself too seriously.
*The way you found out about us was pretty serendipitous, wasn't it?*
JE: Yeah, we had been touring with Paleo far a few weeks and we were having separation anxiety. I called him to say hi and he told me all about the most amazing website and the wonderful people who run it. That same day in Greenville, N.C., the owner of an art gallery we were playing at told me about this amazing site called Daytrotter.com " I was curious, to say the least. I checked it out and was so impressed by how positive the site is. Nobody is slamming anyone, and it is a creative entity in and of itself.
*How was the Spin magazine battle of the bands contest for you? Did that amount to more good than you thought or did it not do anything? There were some unsettling parts about it, weren't there? What did the voting tell you about what the kids want?*
JE: The Spin contest was great for getting the band some exposure and it was flattering to be recognized as the "Underground Artist Of The Year." There were a lot of really amazing bands involved. Ultimately, a band from the "all ages" category won. The all ages category was the scream section, and all of those bands were getting 40,000 plays a day on MySpace. That was new to me. I didn't know that new-emo had replaced traditional pop music as the big selling new rage. The thing with young kids much of the time is that no matter how recycled I may think something is, it's new to them. That's not a knock on the kids buying the music or the bands making it either. There's always somebody who hasn't been exposed to something. Elvis made a killing exposing white suburban kids to "black" music. Ultimately, I don't think there's anything wrong with that.
*Why do all the kids (again with the kids) only want to steal your records by the tens of thousands instead of buying them from you? What's with them?*
JE: People hearing our music is a huge reason we make it. From that perspective it's really flattering that people are downloading it. I think that for many young kids, downloading music was the way they learned to get new music. It's been going on since 98ish or something, right? It's a double-edged sword because on the one hand maybe thousands of people who wouldn't spend $10 on something they were unfamiliar with would be more likely to listen to a new band if it's free. As a young independent artist, however, it's frightening to think about how you're ever going to pay your rent when what has been a huge income stream for artists for years ceases to exist. Hopefully, if a band is good enough, people will be more likely to buy their next record once they are familiar with the band.
*Everyone else will say Jack or Meg, but who's your favorite Detroit/hometown musician?*
JE: Stevie Wonder. That dude played every instrument and fucking ruled at all of them.
* If you had an entire weekend to spend watching an entire season of a television show, which would it be and why?*
JE: I am a huge Seinfeld fan. I can watch those episodes over and over. That and Becker.
*Say the band has time and finds a decent little restaurant, what do you all individually order -- hypothetically?*
JE: Jeremy and Jon will order whatever is on special. They are very thrifty. Pat's a ribs and fries guy. Juice and Cassie are wild cards. There is no pattern or method to their madness. I order eggs every time.
* Have you had a chance to talk to a no longer Song Diarying Paleo yet? You miss that man, don't you?*
JE: I have been exchanging text messages and e-mails regularly with Daleo. What an incredible undertaking. I respect him as much as I respect my parents. I am excited for him to be able to enjoy his leisure time, and we are talking about him helping produce some new songs for the band.
*What do you know the most about?*
JE: I always wished that I knew a ton of shit about computers. And literature too. I mean, I went to college and read a lot, but I had a teacher in high school who had read 20,000 books. He counted and it was a huge ego thing for him. I always admired him -- until he got his ass handed to him in the faculty Jeopardy game. It was a huge letdown for me. I know a lot about music -- from a fan's perspective -- although I'd never claim to know that much. No man is an encyclopedia, Sean.
*Have you ever been in a body of water with dangerous living things (like sharks)?*
JE: I have always been afraid of the water. As a little kid I would hold on to the side of the pool and cry during swim classes because I was convinced that a shark could swim up a river and come through the pool's drain. In lakes I am always afraid of snapping turtles. I don't know why this is, but swimming in most anything is more stress than it's worth most of the time.
* I can sense a lot of optimism in your lyrics. Or maybe it's just wishful hope/thinking? Maybe it's false hope. Which is it?*
JE: I've had many a false hope, but I think that there is an optimism that comes through in the end. Sometimes writing a song can be a focused exercise where you're writing about something and there's just so much that you'd like to say about it. Other times, writing is an exercise in self discovery. I often find that I learn the most about myself from my own writing because things just come out and upon reflection I might notice, "Shit, I was really holding onto that and it's a relief to be rid of it." Overall though, I think that there's plenty of pessimism out there, and being optimistic is much, much more challenging.
*Are you guys going to have to make it in Europe first?*
JE: That's really hard to say because I hate being a pessimist. I think that we've had some really wonderful fans support us in many amazing and caring ways over the past year in the States, and so to some extent I feel that we've made it. I do, however, feel like gaining exposure in Europe could only help us attract a larger audience here, and I really hope that people in the UK enjoy our music. I am continually reminding myself that we've really only released one record. We're all proud of it and happy with it, but we all feel that we have a lot of room to grow. Hopefully, we can grow with our audience, and as we keep striving to make better and better records we hope that our audience grows naturally.
*What's the one story from your real life that if you told someone, they'd say, "Bullshit!"?*
JE: I took mushrooms in Amsterdam and communicated with Elliott Smith and John Lennon. I know that it seems narcissistic, but it wasn't like I was on the Rock and Roll Mt Rushmore or anything. I was getting yelled at for not practicing enough. I cried.