People who know Emily Rose Epstein know her as the propulsive drummer in Ty Segall’s band. From 2009 to 2015, Epstein toured and recorded with the guitar wizard and his crew of talented friends. She and Segall met at the University of San Francisco. They were both media studies majors. During Epstein’s first few years drumming with Segall, she continued pursuing her interests in journalism and editing. She interned at Thrasher magazine, San Francisco Weekly, Razorcake, Jello Baifra’s record label Alternative Tentacles, and she DJ’d and booked guests at the legendary student radio station, KUSF. Like her work history, her musical influences range widely, from Subhumans to Bob Wills to The Byrds. Naturally, her musical interests come through in her writing.
She wrote her graduating thesis on Patti Smith’s gender identity. She wrote an earlier paper about Led Zeppelin and the occult, and for SF Weekly, she wrote about her local Bay Area music scene. Rock musicians don’t get enough credit for their intellect or literary interests. I mean, Queen’s guitarist Brian May is a damn astrophysicist! Epstein shatters rock stereotypes. She proves that just because you thrash a Gretsch doesn’t mean you can’t curl up with books and string together beautiful sentences. You can, to be cliché¸ do things yourself. That’s what punk is: not dressing a certain way, but dictating the terms of your existence. Epstein took a break from touring in 2015 to work in LA, where she grew up, and plays in the country band, Blue Rose Rounder. She was kind enough to speak with me about her other life as a writer and reader.
Aaron Gilbreath: You started playing drums in a punk band at age 13 with a bunch of older guys from UCLA, and you were so young lots of venues made you sit outside before the gig. When did you get interested in writing and journalism?
Emily Rose Epstein: It was instilled in me from a young age that I would be a writer. My grandparents were both writers, and my uncle. My grandfather, Robert Epstein, was the Executive Arts Editor and a writer for the LA Times and the Herald Examiner, and he nurtured my creativity from a young age. We wrote poetry together all the time. He would share his work and make sure I was always making something new myself. He was a really inspiring person to be around ─ my first muse! I think more than anything I always thought I would be a poet, but journalism became something I could do more rigorously in an academic environment and potentially as a career. I always felt that it was more fun to make art than to cover it though, so that’s what dislodged the idea of being a career writer.
I was very into zines, punk journalism, and archives when I was younger, but I don’t think I became personally interested in journalism until I went to college. I never took it seriously until then. At that point I got deep into it ─ audio, print ─ just because it seemed like the right move for someone who was into the arts and writing.
AG: So it wasn’t the shrinking of newspapers or writers’ shaky financial prospects that dislodged the idea of a writing career? That is a tough decision for many writers and editors, though: do you take the risky road of making your own stuff, or do you pursue a hopefully more stable career editing, producing, or publicizing others’ work.
ERE: Yeah, thankfully I wasn’t faced with that. Music kind of took over my life and I lacked the time and drive to do anything but creative writing while I was playing music professionally, or whatever you want to call it, ha ha. It’s hard to say what path I would have taken had I not been whisked away by Ty.
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AG: Just to clarify, your grandfather shared his arts journalism with you, or his poetry? Or both?
ERE: Both! But mostly the poetry. Writing, brainstorming, working was central to his existence, and I think he knew I was really excited by that stuff, so we wrote every day and read every day. Writing was like magic, and he could always summon the spirits in both of us that were moved to make things. I was young when he passed, so I don’t think I was fully aware of, or able to grasp, what he was working on professionally.
AG: So poetry and prose? Have you continued writing poetry, or does it inform your other writing?
ERE: Oh of course, yeah. I’ve always written poetry, always will. I think I write less now than ever before, but now I’m writing differently. It’s interesting being in a country band: you almost have to learn a new way to write, and I’ve really been enjoying the simplicity of that. It’s satisfying to get back to the basics, to learn how to say something with fewer words, to get down to basic emotions that everyone can relate to but to figure out a way to do that in the most meaningful way.
The biggest gift the teachers gave me was telling me to get out into the city, the world.
AG: Muses are so essential to refining our interests and building confidence, so it sounds like you were fortunate to have a few in the family. Did your family history lead you to pursuing your media studies degree at USF? And did your time at USF help you refine your professional and artistic pursuits?
ERE: Perhaps, yes. Many members of my family work in the arts or are artists in some capacity, or writers, or work in the media, so I suppose it was always something I was around and in tune with. But honestly I didn’t know what I needed from school while I was there. (It’s true that “Youth is wasted on the young!”) I just knew that I needed to commit to getting a degree, and I wanted to major in something that could help me figure out what my path would be. USF’s Media Department was interesting. It certainly connected me with some fascinating people and lifelong friends, but the biggest gift the teachers gave me was telling me to get out into the city, the world, to look for real opportunities to work and create and consume media, so that’s what I did. I devoted myself to independent print, music, and film in the Bay Area in every way that I could, as a creator, consumer, lover, fighter.
AG: That is a gift, and you made incredible use of your time. Between Thrasher, Razorcake, KUSF, and Alternative Tentacles, is it safe to say you were considering editing or journalism as a career?
ERE: Oh yeah, I never had any grand ideas that any of the music I would make would be popular or could support me, so I always assumed that I would work for an independent publisher or publication and do creative writing and music on the side.
AG: What was it about independent publishers that attracted you? You didn’t consider working for New York book publishers like FSG or interning at The New Yorker?
ERE: I considered working at several larger publications. I had an option to be a part of a program in London for writers that would have positioned me to intern for Rolling Stone London, but I decided to do a tour with Ty instead. I don’t know, I guess I never got far enough in my “career” as a writer or editor to know how that would have panned out, but I am a huge fan of small publishing houses where you can really sink your teeth into what you’re doing, where you can be a part of every process of publishing if you want to. I love the informality and the intimacy of that kind of environment. I’ve never been more inspired, really, as when I was working for RE/Search Publishing a few days a week, editing, transcribing, brainstorming, conducting interviews, working on layouts for books, fact-checking. I would come home and my young brain would never turn off: I had Schwaller de Lubicz and Timothy Leary and Philip Lamantia and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Andre Breton and Lydia Lunch and Leonora Carrington and Throbbing Gristle dancing through my thoughts all day and night, peppering every aspect of my life with rich new ideas. I assumed you’re not going to get that full-on immersive experience at a large publishing house, but I guess I don’t really know!
AG: Was your interest in both playing music and writing ever a problem or source of confusion for you, or did these different pursuits fit together in your mind?
ERE: It fit together at the time when I was writing for publications like SF Weekly. I was able to showcase bands in my columns that weren’t otherwise getting attention in the Bay Area, like the Baths (later the Royal Baths), Sic Alps, CCR Headcleaner, Rank/Xerox. That was exciting to me. But I do wish I had figured out ways to fit them together in my brain and body sooner; it took me a long time to feel confident with the songwriting process and letting my words collide with melodies. I think until quite recently I was self-conscious about sharing personal writing. I could write about other people’s music all day, but I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to fuse those two passions into one form, without collaborators steering me along the path or validating my work.
AG: So does that mean you’re currently writing your own music and also doing more personal writing? I was curious whether you were drawn to first-person narratives or memoir as well as journalism. As for being self-conscious about sharing, what changed for you?
ERE: Yes, I am writing a ton of music these days and have been for the past few years. That’s the bulk of the writing I do now. I still feel quite uncomfortable with the nakedness of writing memoirs or first-person narratives for anyone but myself. My songs are pretty bare, but I feel comfortable doing that because the writing is caressed by melody and rhythm. I’m an open book in a lot of ways, certainly emotionally, but I am pretty private too, so I think it would be a difficult transition to write and share in that way.
As far as being self conscious about sharing, I overcame that after getting out of a really difficult period in my life. I think for a year or two I really struggled when I left Ty’s band with understanding who I was, what I needed from life. I knew I needed to get out on my own in so many ways, but I didn’t know how, didn’t know what the goal was, didn’t know what I was capable of. I had a lot of difficult things happen in my personal life during that time, and I think when you learn really tough life lessons that force you to sort of wake up in a way you’ve never had to before, you also begin to realize how short life is, how universal pain is, how incredible people are around you. As those changes were happening within me. I really learned to love and forgive myself in a way I never had been able to before, and with that, I kind of also learned to learn to not give a fuck. There was just something in me that got lighter in the face of the heaviness. So now when I sing and write, I sing and write with a confidence I never was able to have before. I just really don’t care if people don’t like what I’m doing, and I’m even more grateful than ever when people connect with what I’m doing in a positive way, because I’m really living to create again, and I do hope that my music connects with people and is comforting in the ways that country music can be and has been for me.
I would come home and my young brain would never turn off.
AG: One of the interesting things about your writing is that you were an active part of the musical world you covered for SF Weekly. Playing music then, you were surrounded by so many incredible bands and personalities. Did profiling buddies like Sic Alps or John Dwyer present any challenges or tensions?
ERE: There’s always a strangeness to writing about your friends’ bands; you are biased in so many ways. It’s also difficult to get your friends to remember that they need to communicate with you as though you don’t know all the facts when you’re interviewing them. That stuff can be tricky. I think I spent more time editing my CCR Headcleaner interview than anything else I’ve written, just because there was so much in there that no average reader would be able to understand. Other than that, I never really experienced any challenges. All of the writing I was doing for the Weekly or my interviews for KUSF were so informal and basically fluff pieces, so the bands were just happy to be featured, and I was happy to be able to give them the attention I felt they deserved. I suppose if I had been doing longform journalism at the time, it would have been more difficult to be totally truthful or give the reader everything they think they want.
AG: On tours, did you bring along books and hit bookstores in different towns, or was that kind of literary life too difficult on the road?
ERE: I read incessantly on the road. I would go through tons of books on tour. I would finish my books and then finish Mikal’s books and then have to pick something up on the road sometimes! I loved hitting up bookstores and thrifting for books around America and the world, though. I really miss having that much time to devote to reading. It was great being on the road too, planning out what to read depending on where you were going. There was a tour where we spent a lot of time in France, so I made sure to bring Celine. Huysmans, Vonnegut, Brautigan, and Didion were always favorites of ours for traipsing through America.
AG: When you quit touring with Ty, was that an indefinite hiatus, or do you intend to drum with Ty again?
ERE: I never say never, but there’s no sign of that happening anytime in the near future. I’m not really playing drums these days, and Ty and I are on different creative wavelengths. I love him and think he’s doing great things always. He’s one of those people who has endless creative energy and I really admire that, but I know I needed to get out on my own and explore the things I wanted to do, and his creative needs are forever changing, too, so he and I are both thriving creatively but separately at this time!