Listening to Detroit psych-pop ensemble the Silent Years is like the childhood experience of being trapped under a rubber raft in a swimming pool: you're joyful and carefree one minute — your senses embracing the sun, the splashing, and the intoxicating smell of chlorine — then, suddenly, you find your small, child body trapped and fighting for air in the shadows beneath the raft. Unable to breathe, you are flooded with a sense of mortality and vulnerability as the adrenaline pounds a path to your brain. Once you surface, still high from the rush, relief fills you like a glorious wine. The sting in your nose keeps the moment fresh in your mind only for an hour or so. But your heart will remember it always.
"I think everyone's body is their primary experience with the world," says Josh Epstein, 27-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist for the Silent Years. "All of your senses, desires and needs are filtered through your body. In Eastern religions, when people become more enlightened, they're able to transcend their bodies. The fact that I talk about my body so much probably means that I'm not there yet. Not even close."
Epstein's visceral and emotional take on the world seems inextricably intertwined with his body, which he refers to with some frequency in his lyrics. Physically nondescript by rock star standards — the gaunt, fashionable young audience that assembled for a recent Silent Years show at Pontiac's Crofoot looked more the part than the hardy, modestly attired singer — Epstein, nonetheless, has a presence that radiates star power. His gentle smile, always ready, is what keeps the lid on the cauldron.
"I'm not manic, but I know what it is to be sad," he says. "I think people have all the emotions and know how to feel everything."
It's not surprising that Epstein, a metro Detroit native, launched his national touring career at 15 (with locals Call it in the Air) or that he signed a development deal with Atlantic Records while in his early 20s. It's not surprising, even, that the Silent Years was SPIN magazine's "Underground Artist of the Year" in 2007. These things are not surprising simply because Epstein, and the Silent Years, really are that good. What is surprising is that the band — which has two excellent releases under its belt (the 2005 EP Stand Still Like the Hummingbird and a 2006 self-titled full-length) and six full U.S. tours and an extensive European tour to its credit — is still relatively unknown in Detroit.
"That's good and bad," Epstein says. "The good part is that, since we never even felt close to being a part of any 'scene,' we were never swayed by any of that. The bad part is that we played shows for three years in Detroit before anyone ever came to see us. It was weird to play to a full house in New York City and then come home and play to no one. Even now it's hit or miss. But these days, there are a lot of cool people around who are into being friends and playing shows together and are really supportive. It's very cool."
Born in Detroit and reared in Southfield, Epstein — according to his family — started singing before he could walk. Picking up the guitar at 13, he started composing songs in middle school — careful to keep his creations close to the vest. "Writing was something that I always hid from people," he says, "it was kind of my private thing."
By the time he started making his "private thing" public, new challenges arose.
"The stage is a little intimidating to me," he says. "Music has always been a very necessary outlet for me — so it can be a little embarrassing to be up there and to be so vulnerable when most people just want to hang out and drink some beers. Sometimes we ruin the party — we're not the kind of band that people are going to drink and dance and have a 'good time' to."
It's true. A Silent Years show is not a beer-soaked throw-down. This is "thinking people's" entertainment, to be sure. But it's far from dull. Epstein, along with the band's core members — multi-instrumentalist Pat Michalak, drummer Ryan Clancy, bassist Michael Majewski and keyboardist-violinist Cassandra Verras — are, among other things, extremely capable musicians. To watch the attractive, young ensemble throttle down on the dizzying arrangements of songs like "Climb on My Back" — the third track off the new, as yet untitled, album — is a majestic thing to behold. And while the architecture of Epstein's songs, which often features gorgeous pop melodies over cacophonous drums and layers of altered guitar and keyboard tracks, is complex, the music's reach never exceeds its grasp. He knows just how hard to push this thing before it will break.
"This is what we want to do," he says. "It's what we love."
Soaring above it all is Epstein's gorgeous, unapologetic falsetto. To hear that melodic sweetness come out of this husky, 5-o'clock-shadow-prone Midwesterner is incongruous to the point of awe-inspiring. On record, it mesmerizes. Onstage, it's downright transcendent.
"I don't know that I've gotten to a point where I'm able to fully appreciate being onstage, because I'm always focused on doing it right," says Epstein, who claims Sunny Day Real Estate, Archers of Loaf and the Beatles ("the best band ever") among his influences. "I feel like, if I stop to pat myself on the back, I'll fuck up."
More important than personae to this crew is the big picture — both aurally and philosophically. "Our new record is kind of a concept album," he says. "Essentially, the themes are based on general human experiences: loneliness, disconnection, grief. But this record connects them in terms of personifying them as natural things — things that occur in nature. There's a song about the inevitability of things that is personified by a black hole. When you think about things in terms of them being universal, it makes it much easier to go through them."
On the subject of "going through" things, Epstein and company have already been bounced around hard enough by the music industry to be wise to its appalling pimpitude.
"Every label we talked to, and, believe me, we talked to tons, wanted a portion of our touring revenue, our merchandise, any future sponsorships or book and movie deals — everything," says the singer. "From our perspective, what do you need a label for other than to take money from you for things they're not even involved in? So fuck 'em. They know they're obsolete. What that experience tells me is that there's still money to be made there somehow — and we don't need them to make it."
The band has elected, instead, to put out the new album by itself this summer.
"There's never going to be another U2," Epstein says. "There's never again going to be a band that makes so much money that they can have a personal phone conversation with the Pope. But that's not going to stop us. Really, just being able to play for people is gratifying. Sometimes you can lose sight of that when you start to want more. But the idea that anybody would want to come and hear us play is a huge compliment.
"Right now, I'm just trying to appreciate the things in my life while they're happening."
The Silent Years play the Blowout! festival pre-party on Wednesday, March 5, at the Majestic Theatre, 4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7272.Wendy Case is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]