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Interview: PJ Western

16 September 2023

Photo by Aaron Farley

With geography separating the two members of JR JR during the pandemic, Josh Epstein decided to use the time to start a new project, one that was fundamentally different from his full-time gig which relies primarily on computers. The idea of setting aside any preconceived notions was appealing to Epstein and the freedom to write and record as a character took form. PJ Western looks – and sounds – like he could have played the theater circuit in the ‘70s alongside other pop songwriters like Andrew Gold, Harry Nilsson, Joe Walsh and Steely Dan.

In this conversation, we discuss the making of Western’s debut album, Here I Go (New West Records), the access to world-class musicians due to Covid lockdowns, making videos, and the simplicity and mystery of life before social media.

Is JR JR done?

JOSH: No, it’s still active. We both have kids, so we haven’t been touring as much, but we just released a song last week.

Was PJ Western a Covid lockdown project?

JOSH: It was. I wanted to be able to do stuff locally. I don’t live in the same place as Dan anymore. I was feeling like I didn’t have anything to show for all the free time during the pandemic. I felt like I was very unproductive, so I raced to get something done that I could feel like I started and finished, and this project happened to be that.

Are you writing these songs as PJ Western?

JOSH: Yeah. It’s a way for me to separate myself from the art a little bit because I think that when you’re writing as yourself, especially now, it’s almost like everything you say has to represent exactly the person that you are and your beliefs and your values. This was a way for me to step away from that and write some things that don’t necessarily represent me.

Is PJ Western a name you’ve been holding on to for a while and trying to find the right time to use it for something or did you create the music first and then decide you didn’t want to release it under your own name?

JOSH: I figured out I needed a name for this, and my initial idea was to call it PJ Wild because that was my grandma’s name. And then a couple of months before the first song came out, a friend sent me a picture of a Spotify billboard in Times Square for an artist named JJ Wilde. I thought that felt a little bit confusing. There’s a Jesse Malin/Jessie Baylin thing that I still don’t understand. I didn’t want a Bryan Adams/Ryan Adams type thing. Marge Western was my grandma’s friend who would babysit me and she had a depression-era mentality. She would force me to finish all the food on my plate before I could go to bed and stuff like that. So, I combined two things – the grandma who I adored and the villain Marge Western.

With a name like PJ Western, I was expecting something that would be country sounding. It’s definitely not country sounding. One of the things that gives me great satisfaction is flipping through the dollar bin at any record store and pulling out the albums from the ’70s and ’80s with guys with long hair and mustaches on the cover. You just know it’s got to be good. It feels like PJ Western is a remnant of that time period. The music has ’60s, ’70s, even some ’80s elements to it.

JOSH: All the instruments that were used were created before 1980. There’s no computers. It’s all recorded live to tape which I thought would be a way to differentiate it from the other music that I make because I think that’s important. I find that when people have a bunch of projects and they all sound the same, it’s confusing. That was another reason to make it PJ Western. And then eventually, I think with the way the world is working now in terms of marketing and how to get people to become aware of things, the label and the distributor felt like they wanted to be able to tell people that it was me. I’m still trying to figure out what that means. I wanted it to have absolutely no connection to anything I’d ever done. But I understand that there’s like 200,000 songs coming out every week so it’s pretty impossible to get anyone to pay attention to it if people don’t know it’s me.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to be interviewing Josh or PJ.

JOSH: At this point, the cat’s out of the bag. I think it’s important for me to be able to step into this thing. I have this whole special outfit that I wear, and it really does feel different to perform in that in a really nice way.

It’s sort of like Orville Peck who is a punk rock musician who performs Johnny Cash style country music while wearing a frigged mask that covers his face.

JOSH: I’m only familiar with him because my initial idea was to wear a mask and then someone was like, “There’s this guy that’s doing that already.” Before, labels would sign artists and then they would have their marketing department figure out how to sell the artists to audiences. Now, it seems like labels are signing marketing people. There’s a band that I just became aware of that I realized that all of them work for ad agencies. And it makes so much sense.

Is there a PJ Western backstory?

JOSH: Yes. I did spend a lot of time thinking about it and coming up with it. The identity of the artist has become a distraction in a lot of ways. There’s a specific band I’m thinking of called Sunny Day Real Estate that I really got into when I was a teenager. I got the singer’s number by calling information and I would call him when I was like 12 years old. I think I knew what he looked like a little bit but I didn’t know anything about any of them and I liked that. Looking back on it, all I had was the music that they were making and I could project who I believed they were. And now when I go to discover a new artist, if they’re active on social media, I’m getting daily updates from their life which I find to be boring and unnecessary. It makes it harder for me to get into the art actually.

So, part of this was to try and be like this is a character that could have existed in any era. Let’s not take what the songs say too seriously, let’s not take what he may say too seriously just so that we kind of get back to like the mystery and having fun trying to figure out what an artist is, not knowing their entire life story because that’s the thing that people find interesting about the artists, rather than their music.

I feel bad for artists nowadays because you can’t step into a different space and a different idea very easily because people are literally watching you eat breakfast every day, if you let them, which I’ve never felt comfortable doing mostly because I find my regular normal life to be pretty boring. I don’t think anyone else should find it interesting. But I think that the music that I made is the opposite of that and that’s what I want people to know.

I appreciate that you mentioned that the equipment you used to record was all built before 1980 because songs like “Waiting Around” and “Human Machines” make me feel like I’m 12-years-old again. You’ve got a nostalgic sound that doesn’t sound like it’s stuck in one particular decade but, on the other hand, it doesn’t really sound modern and cutting edge for music released in 2023.

JOSH: Yeah. And, I did have another album that was kind of more just singer/songwriter stuff but I wanted to be able to perform live and have it be a fun show. There’s a couple of songs that made it on the album that are from the singer/songwriter crop like “Vast Sea” and “Chasing Me Away.” But, for the most part, I kind of wanted to make it rock and roll in a way that JR JR has never been. It’s never been like straight rock and roll with that band.

While you were creating the songs, did you have an idea in your head of how you’d visual represent them to hold true to the JP Western character?

JOSH: No, I think the visual side came after. I worked with this guy named Julian Gross, who used to be the drummer in the band Liars. He’s a creative director now and we just spent a week or two talking about stuff. The idea of me wearing a wig was his idea, just kind of making the character a more macho man than I really am because, in my mind, Jack White is the last true rock star that we have. There’s something that I miss about it, even though I do know that culturally, we’ve changed a lot in terms of what our values are. I do think that a lot of those changes are very positive for society. I wanted PJ Western to be able to fit into the current landscape, but also kind of have this still have this air of sophistication and *Burt Reynolds*-like machoness.

The song “Long Time Coming” sounds like a semi-truck boogie jam, something you’d hear in a movie like Smokey and the Bandit in a scene with a truck driver high on speed driving through the middle of the night. I’d say it’s a bit of a Black Keys/Jack White-style blues rock song.

JOSH: That was the first song I wrote for this project. My wife and I had just moved into a place in Hollywood Hills that we were renting. It was a very ’70s house, like one of the rooms was all blue – blue tiles, blue walls – and then the kitchen was all green. There was a Mr. Ed door. It was just really, really ’70s. I remember playing the song for Dan and he’s like, “That’s not a JR JR song.” That was the first time where I was like, “Oh, that’s just a different vibe.”

You’ve made some videos for the album. Is it something you enjoy doing?

JOSH: It’s not that I don’t enjoy doing it, it’s just that it’s always a little stressful. But I thought it was cool for this project to set a tone. I wish I would have been able to make more. I wanted to make one for “Long Time Coming” where I was getting off a private jet and tooling around the Hollywood Hills, but it just didn’t work out.

It was cool to see Ultragrrrl (Sarah Lewitinn) in the “Waiting Around” video. I used to read her blog and she introduced me to so many bands in the early-to-mid ‘00s.

JOSH: Oh, she’s a friend. She interviewed JR JR at Lollapalooza in 2013 maybe and then she moved to Los Angeles, and we reconnected and became friends.

What can you tell me about the actual making of the video? Is it a full day of work?

JOSH: This one was easy because my friend Cort’s day job is that he manages a soundstage. We kind of walked through a soundstage and figured out what we could do in every room. So we had everything set up and we went from room to room doing the different actions and then had different people come by for their parts. Basically, we staggered it by 45 minutes, so the first people arrived at 9:45, the next people arrived at 10:30. It was a full day, but it wasn’t that bad.

Taking advantage of things that you had at your disposal for the video, was recording the album the same way?

JOSH: Recording the album I did at Gus Seyferrt’s house. He lives about a mile away from me. It was during the pandemic so we were fortunate that all of these incredible musicians who normally would have been out on tour were home and available to work on the album. We all took Covid tests every day and then we would wear masks in the common space, but he had enough isolation rooms that we could each be in our own room. We recorded live looking at each other through windows basically.

So you didn’t know any of these guys before recording an album with them?

JOSH: Gus is the one that really arranged everything. I had the songs written for the most part. “Waiting Around” I wrote with Gus and “Chasing Me Away” I wrote with a guy named Andrew Horowitz but aside from that, I had all the songs. Josh Adams played drums, he’s on tour with Tim Heidecker right now and has toured with Jenny Lewis and the Fruit Bats. He’s played on a ton of albums. Gus tours with Roger Waters as a bass player. Jake Blanton played guitars and keys and he tours with The Killers playing bass. So, yeah, it was heavy hitters. And then we had Stewart Cole play horns. He’s on tour with Mumford and Sons right now. And this guy Logan Hone played winds, he’s a big-time wind player. We had incredible musicians.

You played SXSW. Was it with these guys?

JOSH: No, I just found players in Austin because it was a more cost-effective way to do it. I hope we can do some touring. I think it sounds the best to play this stuff with a band. I can’t really afford to go out and play to no one, I need to be able to pay the musicians. I’m hoping that people will hear it and like it and then there will be the demand so I can go out and do it. I’m trying to figure out a way to do a set that’s just me so I can be more nimble. I’m doing one of those in September in L.A. to just try it out. Maybe I’ll just loop some stuff or have a drum machine.

Because you were writing during Covid, do you have a backlog of songs? Will PJ Western continue on?

JOSH: I hope so. I have other songs that I want to record. Ultimately, I’m hoping that enough people care about it that it makes sense. I’ll probably make more music either way, but it would be cool to be able to have people like it enough that there’s a demand for another album. I’ve got another JR JR album that’s going to come out within the year. I’ll do that for a little bit and maybe come back to this.

With music being your full-time job, did you have any of those panic moments at the start of Covid where you thought, “What if things don’t open back up soon and I have to figure out what to do next?”

JOSH: Definitely. I still have those moments. I think one of the fallacies of being a musician is that you think you’re going to get to this point where your life is comfortable and the reality is that for 95% of musicians, you never get comfortable. I was reading today, there’s all these people snarkily mentioning the fact that the Grizzly Bear singer became a therapist and I read today that the Wolf Parade guy is a dog walker. The music business has become a thing that makes it hard to have a career that’s long-term because there’s too many bands. There’s still a whole circuit of bands from the 70s and 80s that goes on tour and plays amphitheaters all summer and makes a ton of money. I don’t necessarily know that that’ll be the case for bands from the 2000s.

You moved to California from Michigan. The album to me sounds like a “driving to the beach with the windows down” album. It doesn’t sound like the Beach Boys or something that I’d listen to with my feet in the sand but there’s definitely this happy, feelgood, sunny vibe to the music. Would you say the music is reflective of your move to California and the life you’re currently living or have you always had this positive and bright outlook?

JOSH: I think that was meant to be a Los Angeles album with a Steely Dan influence. The Black Keys are a band people have brought up to me when talking about “Long Time Coming” but I guess I was thinking it was more like a Joe Walsh song. And on “Human Machines,” I was thinking of Joe Walsh on that little riff.

You mentioned earlier that you got Jeremy Enigk from Sunny Day Real Estate’s phone number by calling information. Most people don’t have landlines anymore so you can’t really do that. But, do you have any phone numbers on your phone that would surprise me?

JOSH: I do have a lot of them but the most shocking one would be Aretha Franklin, even though she’s not with us anymore. I used to deliver her flowers so I saved her number.