The night before I began documenting an oral history of The Epoch, I was at one of the final shows of the recent Bellows/eskimeaux tour. I was talking to Gabrielle Smith, aka eskimeaux, while she was selling merch in a tiny, dusty cellar at my college. Another fan approached Smith and gushed to her something close to “Of course I came to the show, The Epoch changed my life!” While flattered, Smith was not terribly surprised, and neither was I; this is the sort of reaction The Epoch receives regularly.
Searching The Epoch tag on tumblr directs one towards a seemingly infinite number of posts citing the group’s influence, pictures from shows, and even handmade cross-stitches. But gaining Internet fandom is not terribly difficult. Over the past three years, The Epoch bands has transformed from being their own biggest fans to having an incredibly devoted and wide spread fan base. For example, the other night I attended a Told Slant concert. The audience screamed every lyric and many people were crying. While the band’s emotional outpour is overwhelming in itself, it was even more powerful to see how cathartic their music is for their fans. But perhaps the most admirable part about The Epoch is that they have found success completely by their own means. Starting a band with your best friends is a dream many have, but being in three or four bands with your friends, touring together, living together, and being genuinely kind people is actually an accomplishment. This is obviously a group worth examining.
Most of the members met through attending the same schools or the same shows in the New York City area. While the details of their friendship foundations would require a much longer piece, the core Epoch members orated a brief timeline of the group, from their repressed high schools bands to now, when most of the members lived together in Brooklyn. The Epoch has transformed and will transform still. Because, as the collective says, “We were grown together, and are growing still.”
Seriously repressed first bands aside, the first unofficial Epoch band was The Mighty Handful. The self-described super group of relative unknowns would hand everyone in the audience instruments and shred paper from their parents’ offices for confetti; the concept was very much 2007-DIY party. But even back in 2008, there are glimmers of The Epoch as it is today. A majority of The Epoch members were involved in the band, even on the periphery: Henry Crawford, Jack Greenleaf, and Felix Walworth played in the band, Oliver Kalb may have made an appearance once, and Smith cites the shows as the beginning of her friendship with her future bandmates. But while the grandiose showmanship of The Mighty Handful may barely resemble the performances of its members now, Crawford said the “grains of the language and the attitude” would influence The Epoch. Specifically, the importance of mantras. The group’s future collective would be called The Epoch, but this title would always be accompanied with “The Epoch Is now.”
The collective had no trouble finding members; they were already there. But one large struggle was the creation of a logo. Walworth remembers the group considering an E with a crown (“that’s Basquiat”), an ant (“the Anticon logo”), and and E in a shield (“the K records logo”). There was also a silly idea to give Beagle puppies to Epoch friends (in particular, Lincoln Halloran of Hello Shark and Mike Rheinheimer of Attic Abasement). Finally, they agreed on the birds of flight because they felt the image best represented a group that may not sound similar, but love each other completely.
Around the time of its conception, the Epoch members were spread across the country, attending school. High school projects had simmered away, and each member had began independently writing music. Crawford was attending college in Chicago when he began Small Wonder. The project initially had a “weird post-punk” sound, but when Crawford returned to New York, he said it combined “the things he [liked] about playing in a rock band but while doing something that is truer to a quite sound.” In January, Crawford released Wendy, a weighty, emotional record filled with soaring melodies. Greenleaf, like Crawford, also relocated to Chicago. It was there that he rediscovered his teenage love of J-Pop and K-Pop. Ideally, he wanted to make “a dark Rihanna pop song with a bumpin’ beat but with dark lyrics like ‘let’s forget the people we miss’.” The result became Sharpless, whose sophomore album The One I Wanted To Be was released in May.
Back on the east coast, roommates Kalb and Walworth created Bellows and Told Slant, respectively, while attending Bard College. In 2011, Kalb released As If To Say I Hate Daylight, Bellows’ first album. After touring extensively with Bellows and Told Slant, graduating college, and returning to New York City, Kalb released his sophomore record, Blue Breath. In 2012, Walworth released the debut Told Slant LP Still Water. Now, two years later, the album has been re-released on vinyl. Kalb and Walworth, roommates, enlisted a variety of friends to play in their bands, but each has been a mainstay in each other’s bands, along with Gabrielle Smith. Smith describes herself as “a pretty late bloomer with music.” After attending many shows with a sense of wonderment, she began to make her own music. One of her first bands, Legs, was composed mostly of members found on Craigslist. Smith describes her former stage presence as “someone trying to perform exactly like Mick Jagger” or Iggy Pop. This image is hilarious, considering the solo demos of Smith’s current project, eskimeaux, are the complete opposite of spastic self-destruction. Now, with a solid four piece live band, eskimeaux will be following up several EPs with a new album.
Emily Sprague grew up in upstate New York. After performing for years in the Woodstock area under her own name, she moved to Albany. It was there that she met the Epoch gang. The love was mutual and immediate. About a year ago, she adopted the name Florist, and has released several EPs of shivery honesty. Susannah Cutler is an artist and a musician. Cutler has been around The Epoch since its birth, but she was “primarily represented as a visual artist up until recently.” She credits The Epoch as giving her the confidence to give her music a name and take her musical desires more seriously. Her project is called Yours Are the Only Ears.
Richard Gin has been photographing The Epoch gang since 2008; he is the Epoch photographer, and is also a member of the collective. Gin describes his role as “photographer/videographer/hypeman-at-large” but also as the “professional naysayer and realist.” Gin explains this role as “the one who remembers to bring toilet paper to meetings and is committed to the slow, tedious and unsexy act of turning one Epoch fan into two Epoch fans.”
He said, “being older than the others in the group and having a profession in the entertainment field means I have a closet full of gear and equipment that is super useful and can bring a level of polish to the work of DIY artist-types.”
While that is a basic understanding of The Epoch, further explanation is best suited for a roundtable discussion. I sat down with Crawford, Kalb, Walworth, Sprague, Greenleaf, and Smith one climatically volatile afternoon in upstate New York to discuss the collective’s origins and general thoughts regarding ideas of community, emotional sustainability, and respect.
On Epoch Origins
Crawford: Emily is pretty much is the only person we haven’t known since we were 16 or 17. We had a very tight group of bands we listened to or were in and when we all went off to school, we split up. I was in Chicago and feeling very depressed about not having a community surrounding my music. I got the idea in my head that we should start a label, but since a label costs money, that we should start a collective. It was an idea of trying to create something, the name The Epoch felt more important than the Elephant Six, some random word, or naming it after something. The Epoch is a mission statement in a word. The Epoch and “The Epoch is now” are things I believed in and thought all my friends believed in. As our bands stopped being bands that only we listened to, it became more serious and people began to see us as a community on a larger scale, whereas at first, we were just a support system for each other.
Kalb: I think that in 2011 when it started, it was really hard for us to get shows around the city. NYC was this impenetrable zone where bands that sound like our bands weren’t really appreciated and that’s really changed in a big way lately.
Crawford: I think a lot of the NYC bands were trying to create a feeling of being untouchable. Most of our bands don’t sound similar but a uniting quality is that we all want to create music that people can feel like they are a part of rather then feel like they are just watching.
Smith: It was interesting at the beginning of The Epoch how amorphous it was. We would talk about it and not really be sure about how we were going to do it and then stop talking about it, but then someone would release something or make a small run of their album and throw The Epoch logo on it. There was that tour I did in 2012 where I just hand-wrote on the inside of every single CD that I was selling, “If you like this band and this album you should check out these 10 bands.” Doing that made me feel more solidified in my role and we all started doing that for each other and then Bandcamp started the recommendations thing and we were able to do it publicly.
Kalb: The Internet, especially Bandcamp, Twitter, and Facebook has made it really easy to do the networking that was the original idea behind The Epoch. The way these websites work almost sends you to the other bands, almost automatically, just by virtue of shared listeners.
Crawford: I don’t think I’ve read a review of any Epoch band’s album that hasn’t mentioned “They are part of The Epoch, these are some other bands that they sound like.”
Smith: Which was the point entirely.
Crawford: Right, I think at first there was an idea that we needed to do it by force, like, “We don’t sound like this band from the 70s, we sound like this band who I’m also in the band of and they live across the street from me and I’ve known them since I was this old and you have to say that about me.” Now it’s just become this thing where if I told them not to say that, they wouldn’t know what to say.
Greenleaf: It wasn’t even a strategic thing, it was something totally for us.
Smith: It was about us aggregating each other’s stuff, it was about Henry releasing something and every single person putting it on their Facebook.
Greenleaf: Now when someone gets press, everyone gets press, it’s insane.
Walworth: There are two ways of thinking about The Epoch: one being that it was created as it was named, at a moment when we all felt a need to band together under something more tangible than our high school/pre-2011 projects, and the other idea is that we had been a collective this whole time.
Sprague: I think people are inspired by the togetherness of everybody and the friendship we have. It goes beyond someone just liking a band that they hear for the first time, and maybe it started with Told Slant or Bellows or Sharpless or whatever, but it gives somebody who wants to find music that they like to listen to a place, not only to find that, but a chance to see a group of people that has a positive message. Nobody should think that music is a solitary thing because it doesn’t work that way and if somebody is trying to start playing music or starting to write songs and wants to be in a band or going to college and wants to have friends, it’s cool that we might serve as a place that someone could look and see a real life example of that community.
Crawford: I feel like even by implying that you could join The Epoch, it implies that there are people who are “in it” and people who are “out of it.” If you’re listening to the music and believe in the things we’re doing, then you’re already a member.
Walworth: One thing that is interesting about The Epoch is that there is a visual representation of the community we have every time one of our bands play because you’ll see the front person for one band taking a more of a backseat role in someone else’s project. I think that actually offers up a counter-narrative to the way a lot of people watch and understand live music in the first place. There’s almost an ingrained hierarchy with which people consume live music, like there’s the songwriter, or the singer, maybe they are the same person, then there is drummer, bassist, synth player, other guitarist, all these lackey characters who are disposable or aren’t important. Realizing that all these people have their own projects and they all back each other up is a way of training people to look at live music differently. There is no reason to assume anyone onstage is not instrumental to the creation of the art.
On Respect, Emotionally Sustainable Touring, and Personal Boundaries
Kalb: We spent a lot of years touring in a way that wasn’t very emotionally sustainable in that we would go to places where we knew no one and really have to convince a big crowd of people to first of all, see and like the band, and then maybe let us stay the night with them. It was emotionally exhausting to have to do that every day, to be so friendly and accessible, just talk to every single person in the room. I still like doing that and I like talking to people at shows but there’s a certain point when you start to feel like you’re not respecting yourself when you have to be emotionally stretched every single day of the tour and you end it being exhausted. I feel like the Told Slant/Crying tour was the first time it felt like there was more flexibility in terms of what was expected of us as a band, in terms of emotional labor, of having to be extra nice to everybody and what you’re actually there to do, which is to play music. Not that you should be unfriendly by any means! But it’s nice to have a choice.
Walworth: In regards to what you were saying about touring in an emotionally exhausting way where you don’t know anyone and you make all these connections in order to not be broke at the end of the night, having somewhere to stay, and maybe being able to play there again: I feel like there’s something lost when people presume that your band is worth seeing regardless of what you’ve done in the first place and that you don’t have to actually make these lasting connections that has made touring possible for us in the past. We’ve made some of our favorite and best tour friends through these shot in the dark tours, where we would show up somewhere and just talk to everyone because we had no idea where we were. That’s how we met people in Baltimore, D.C., and Pittsburgh, in particular. I feel like it’s harder to make connections with people when you’re playing at bigger spaces when people are more reserved.
Kalb: You’re right, that it’s totally two sided. It depends on how much energy you have for what Felix is describing, which is going into a place and trying to make best friends that you can call the next times you come to Pittsburgh or wherever.
Smith: Both of those things are crushing, emotionally, like it’s really hard to lie to somebody that you don’t want to talk to and then to put on a different mask for somebody who thinks you’re amazing. Like, you’re playing a show and they’re afraid to talk to you. That happened on the Told Slant tour for the first time, and it was really ridiculous and it made me feel kinda sad but it was also nice to play shows and not feel like you were there as background.
Sprague: I think what’s especially interesting about the kind of mega-friendliness that we had to do with the cold-calling tour, was that once we went on the Told Slant tour, the most recent one, we then had to decide whether or not we wanted to continue that openness. For example, now people want to do things like give us hugs, or take pictures with us in ways that involve physical contact. A lot of small boundaries that feel really compromising of your personal space if you allow it to be.
Richard Gin has photographed The Epoch since The Mighty Handful days. We asked him how, through photographing The Epoch, have you noticed its members’ development?
Gin: Photographically speaking, it’s been funny to see the different paths that people have taken. Henry used to be a real terror as a performer, but he’s become more refined and almost meditative; Oliver used to be very quiet and bolted to the floor but since those early Bellows tours he’s moves like a scarecrow in a hurricane; all arms and legs. People have also become more comfortable in their skins and the audience sees that.
One thing I’ve noticed—and I think this is important for people who are interested in The Epoch as a capital-M-Music Collective or label-in-training—is that it has become an arts collective. All of us would suffocate in an office. Felix would be a poet; Oliver would be a writer; Jack would make worlds in, like, video games or something. Henry would be a painter—Susannah already is a painter and a musician. Emily and Gabby would be doing something with their hands—pottery or sculpture; things like that.
I think that willingness to engage the outside world on its terms while viewing it through our lenses and our curiosity and interest in developing skills is what makes The Epoch compelling for people—our art isn’t bound by our head-spaces, it’s informed by experiences and the honesty of describing that experience is what draws people in. I guess in the growth and changes of the people in the Epoch are the same for anyone in their 20’s. The Epoch has just chosen a very public way of exploring those changes.
An additional question for Gin was, “The Epoch musicians commented on how you would photograph moments that were less “angsty folk boy with guitar” and more like “rocking out/jumping/screaming/etc.” They attributed this decision with their more serious image. Could you comment on how you have chosen to depict The Epoch?
I want to think I’m an Epoch fan first—if I wasn’t shooting I would be in a pit and sweating alongside everyone else. That my camera is there with me is not the point. I get frustrated when I see a photographer slink to the side of the stage where it’s “safe.” I’ve started feeling sad when people act like they have to protect their camera from a rowdy crowd or keep their lenses beer and sweat-free. Your camera is just a hammer and you should treat it that way.
Bringing it back to The Epoch bands—I didn’t decide how to depict them, they showed me. Visually, the members of the group are who they are and they look how they look and it’s their confidence in their choices that shows. As an artist working among artists it’s my good fortune to have these people as my friends—the personal relationships I have with them make me want to work harder to show them as I see them, and knowing them on that intimate level helps me know how they’re feeling at a given show and what kind of a performance I’m likely to get. Or if we’re doing personal pictures I know how to read what they want to present.