For many artists, going solo is a daunting career move — a massive shift from collaborating with close partners to bearing the brunt of the creative and logistical weight.
For Ari Epstein, the process of moving from Tigerface to I, the Tiger has been akin to some Old Testament journey of profound struggle and self-discovery.
Tigerface existed for roughly a decade, carving out a sizable niche in the Valley with a blend of emo and electronic. But in 2016, Epstein says he became frustrated with the lack of sustained momentum.
“Every time we’re on the verge of awesome things happening with the band, shit happened,” he says. “I’d gotten us into Alternative Press. We were starting to get scouted by labels. We were playing bigger shows. Then you lose a drummer and no one can fill in. It was so disheartening.”
Epstein says one of the final straws came in spring 2016 when he’d spent 18 months working with a new guitarist only for them to exit abruptly. But creative disillusionment was only the start of Epstein’s issues. Just as the band “fizzled out,” he experienced a string of profound losses across early 2016: his beloved dog died, followed days later by his grandmother, and then his marriage dissolved shortly thereafter.
Feeling burdened, Epstein walked away from music, embarking on a two-year journey of self-discovery.
“I was trying to find myself right after that divorce,” he says. “Like, who am I? I’m obviously not happy anymore, and I’m the happiest person I know.”
After trying antidepressants (“they made me feel like I was a drone”), Epstein says his well-being journey led him toward practices like purposeful living and meditation. But it was another kind of exploration that brought him back to music in mid-2018.
"I took mushrooms down in Mexico with a bunch of friends,” he says. “I had what I would consider a bad trip. It was just making me look at how sad I really was and just embrace it for what it was. I was looking for myself only to be, like, ‘You’re the same person you’ve always been. You love making and playing music.’”
Further inspired by a short-term relationship that went belly-up, Epstein began reworking songs from his archives — 30 of them.
“I could have made a double album,” he says. “But I said, let’s make 12 really awesome [songs] and put the time into it and it ended up helping me realize this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Epstein calls recording the 12-track LP “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Much of that was vanquishing heaps of self-doubt.
“It was like, ‘You’re not good enough at guitars,’ or ‘You can’t handle programming drums,’” he says. “But it was just me [talking]. It’s just, again, about getting out of your own way.” When he did just that, he found himself working “in a flow state because you’re doing what you’re supposed to be.”
One moment in particular proved especially telling. What could’ve been a massive waste of time and money turned into an opportunity,
“I spent money to have it mastered by Troy Glessner, who has done albums for everybody [including Death Cab for Cutie, Devin Townsend, and Pedro the Lion],” Epstein says. “When I got it back, I didn’t like it, and I thought I could do better. So I did.”
The resulting album, August’s Black Clouds, feels like a natural next step for Epstein. There are clear callbacks to Tigerface in the emo vibes and penchant for the theatrical and dramatic. Mostly, though, the album is rich with human emotion, be it past heartaches (“You My Mistake”), self-doubt (“Lost”), or life’s splendor amid the chaos (“Wolves Disguise”). It’s a sonic encapsulation of Epstein’s journey back to what he loves most.
“I didn’t really hold anything back,” Epstein says. “I’d always been so obsessed with my image as an artist, but then I was like, ‘What are these songs bringing out in me?’ There’s this song ‘Intersection,’ and I would cry as I was listening to it because of just how emotional it was for me. I have an obligation to pour my soul into this music."
Part of I, the Tiger’s emergence is Epstein coming to terms with Tigerface’s legacy. He says the new project’s name isn’t to trivialize past bandmates but rather a self-affirmation of sorts.
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“It’s not as some ‘fuck you’ to my bandmates, but I am Tigerface,” he says. “It will go on with me if I want it to go on, and it will die with me because I was the face of that band. I’m one person, and I’m meaningless. But I want to help make people’s lives better through music.”
Epstein had hoped to perform these songs with a new band, but COVID has put any plans on the back burner. Luckily, he’s got plenty to keep him busy and grounded.
“I own an aquarium service company,” he says. “I just finished writing this book for a life coaching business that I’ve started. I’m putting out life coaching videos. I have a cannabis strain review and I put out videos for that every other day. I need to do all these different things so that when I am doing music I am just there. I’m present with it.”
Epstein treats most of life in just such a zen-like fashion, and he’s learned to “not take anything for granted anymore. These are just moments. It’s never going to happen again like this.”